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).
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