Ashley Hutson

My teeth are beyond his help, my regular dentist tells me, and he gives me the name of the finest oral surgeon in town. There are two oral surgeons in town. I already went to the one for poor people, but mine is a complicated case, and the poor-people doctor shook his head and sent me back. I felt sorry for both of us.
I and my holey mouth walk outside. It's the warmest winter in years. No snow. No frenzy at the grocery store, no tire chains. No salt trucks or plows or excited voices on the radio announcing closings. The sky is still white, though, whiter than anything. If I can get these teeth fixed up I'll get it right, I think.
At home my mother asks how it went. I tell her and she's immediately filled with an old, reflexive worry. We're standing in our shabby kitchen and her hair is askew from one chore or another, and at this moment I'm ashamed. I'm 32 and still living at home and I'm damaged. I came out that way, all brittle bones and stunted growth and rough teeth. Most people would never know that to look at me now, however, which makes this life worth it. That is what my mother tells me. To look at me now is to look upon years of medical advances and countless thankless jobs to fund them, and it has all translated into one giant success: Normal. I pass, is what I'm saying.
But the teeth, the teeth. They threaten to give me away.
The oral surgeon for rich people is named Dr. Byebye. His receptionist on the phone says his name without laughing. My appointment is on a Thursday, and when I enter the waiting room I notice a copper-patina fountain, a flatscreen television the size of a freezer door, and several glossy, current magazines. Money. Everything in the room meant to calm incites a quiet panic. I touch nothing.
My name is called. I remain still as a state-of-the-art, panoramic X-ray machine rotates around my head. I am told the machine will save my brain from harmful radiation, and in the picture it takes I can see what I'll look like when I'm dead and rotted through to the skull. Dr. Byebye lays out my options. The results are lovely and glamorous, the route to them barbarous. The clinical term for toothless mammals is edentate. The adjective form is edentulous. Dr. Byebye represses a shudder as he explains these words, pretends he is stretching a sore muscle. We sit in an office wallpapered with framed college degrees and I nod like I understand.
I go home, tell my mother to prepare for another loan. The sky thickens. Have you seen the news? she says. Another shooting. Another bombing. Another injustice. I run my tongue over my gums where teeth used to be. For now I'm wearing a Snap-On Smile, a device commonly worn by child beauty pageant contestants. It hooks over my few remaining teeth and prevents others from guessing at my dental plight. Yes, that's terrible, I reply, and I mean it. It is terrible. I need to get this money together. I have to save face, literally. If I don't, my thin jaw will get even thinner—there is a window of opportunity, Dr. Byebye tells me, that quickly closes if missing teeth are allowed to stay missing. He speaks of my teeth as if they are wayward children that I ruined and chased away; they must be rounded up and severely disciplined. He has a talent for painting vivid portraits of my toothless future, of my jawbone retreating totally until I am irrevocably deformed. And at such a young age! A pity. Forty is young now, he says. He himself is 60. His teeth are very white and wet, much like the rest of him, and I wonder if he is on amphetamines.
To be clear, people like me must trust doctors in order to live.
The weather warms. It's January and it should be snowing. I go to work in short sleeves; everyone chats about how warm it is. And all these shootings. And all these bombings, and dark figures rising to power, and cracks in the country that allow filth, plain filth, to seep in. And how somebody is stealing Ron's Pepsi out of the work fridge. And at home my mother, my wonderful mother, reminds me of how she held my hand in the hospital thirty-some years ago. She sang "You are My Sunshine." There were questions of whether I'd be able to walk. The body is a test. The world's judgment is a test. You will pass, she told me then. I think she believed it. Sometimes I believe it. On Monday I will go to the bank and try to get the money.
The loan officer's name is Clara. She wears a pantsuit and frowns at the papers in front of her; I have a solid feeling that I am not passing this test. I'm nervous. I'm surprised that I'm even here, that anything is done in person anymore. Mostly I am annoyed. My Snap-On Smile is too tight and gives me a daily headache via my jaw, which is not a pleasant thing, but I bear up. Clara is frowning and saying she can't approve the loan. She's sorry and I can see she's sorry. I can also see her trying to surreptitiously get a good look at my alleged horror-show of a mouth. She cannot and does not see the problem and gives up quickly. She looks relieved.
If I were to write this as a story, my weakling body and the quandary of my teeth would be a metaphor for something. The state of a country, perhaps, or how humans vainly triumph over adversity, or how the world at large seeks to fix our wagon—which means permanently injure our wagon. But this is not a story. I walk out of the bank and into another freak January day. It feels like April but this sky is lying. I go back to work. And as for my teeth? Eventually my mother sells her mother's jewelry, the last memory we had. I could once recall my grandmother, now long dead, reaching out to me. She often wore a starched apron—an apron!—and a green bauble that sat fatly in a brooch at her throat on Sundays. She had a sprawling yard just as green as the jewel, and trees, and there were fields that rolled out toward the mountain and changed color with the seasons. All that is fading now. I got porcelain teeth with titanium roots screwed into my vanishing jawbone. The process was bloody and frightening and painful beyond measure. The results were glamorous, as promised. I got a raise at work. I can smile now and sometimes I even chew ice. My mother is a happy woman. Soon I may be able to move out on my own. I got it all.

Ashley Hutson has had work in Fiction International, Split Lip, SmokeLong, McSweeney's, matchbook and others. She lives in rural Maryland.

Read her postcard.

Detail of painting on main page by Amedeo Modigliani (Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne, 1919).

W i g l e a f               04-11-17                                [home]