The Impermanence of Deciduous Teeth

The Impermanence of Deciduous Teeth


With the bump of my head and the scent of bourbon, I found the last shard of evidence that my great grandmother had ever been alive at all. Pressed to the centipede-spotted floor of my childhood basement, I was searching a bookshelf for some abandoned photo album before I returned to college the next day. I was crouched under the beam of a floodlight coming in through a window well near the ceiling, using the glow to hunt through a bottom shelf of hoarded memorabilia in my Saint Louis home. I let my hands wander blindly to reach the leather spines I couldn’t see, patting through the splintering wood, knocking over the carcasses of PEZ dispensers, and brushing around the felt of old hats. Frustrated and dazed under the scent of dust, I threw one arm farther into the shelf and smashed my outstretched fingers into a jagged edge, cool and slick. I shrieked and rewound, slamming the top of my head into the slab of wood above me and sending a ringing noise through my skull. Clenching my teeth, I withdrew my arm to examine my hand. The pads of my fingers, though throbbing through a white indent, were not bleeding. 

Sighing, I ducked back under the wood to grab the neck of whatever I’d found and pulled it, knocking over a few angel figurines as I dragged it out. I stared at it for a moment, turning it over in my hands and reading the Knob Creek label across the broken bottle. The bottom had been smashed out, and the disintegrating label smelled dark and wooden, making me gag when I leaned in for too deep of a whiff. My mom’s footsteps cycled down the stairs and she stopped at the bottom, leaning into the doorway over me.

“What’s all that noise, Jill?” she asked, a new tiredness resting over her mouth.

“Nothing,” I said, “But what’s this?” I asked, holding the bottle up into a sliver of light. Her upper lip twitched in recognition before she let out a soft laugh. I watched her take it from me and turn it over and over again in her palms as she did something alarmingly uncharacteristic for her. She lowered herself to the floor to sit next to me and started to talk.

She reminded me of when my great grandmother, Helen, died back in 2001, and how all of my aunts and uncles raided her house in a ravenous free-for-all attempt to loot what few valuables she had.  I assumed that her will existed somewhere, but I came to learn that grandchildren in my family lived by a method that revolved around post-it notes. Even in my own living grandmother’s home, I would open books or turn over antiques to find the names of my one of my eleven cousins scribbled onto sticky notes, hidden away in a sort of dibs method. In all my life, she never seemed to mind finding the notes around.  Her impenetrable spirit convinced her that they were just nurturing tokens of her grandchildren instead of looming reminders of her approaching mortality.

            But when they all traveled to the empty countryside of Missouri and came down on Helen’s house, most people went for her recipe collection and boxes of photographs. My Uncle Cam, however, found her dentures and stowed them away somewhere in his Madison bungalow for years to come. My mom took a different approach, and found herself wandering through the backyard of the home through the weeds and hardening garden beds until she saw the top of a bottle sticking out from the rotting lattice work lining the porch.  Like I had in my basement, she’d dropped to her hands and knees to explore, and found a small mountain of broken glass bottles thrown under the porch.

It wasn’t until that night, fifteen years later, that I found my mother’s share of the spoils from that day. That single, empty bottle of Knob Creek that she’d found hiding under the house had intrigued her then, so she took it.  At the time, everyone thought that Helen had stopped drinking back in the eighties right after the death of her gruff, one-handed husband, Otto. Coincidentally, that was also when she lost all of her teeth. My mom grinned as she showed me, both of us sitting against the red brick wall underneath our own house. For the record, had I been older than six in 2001, I would’ve gone in for the dentures too.

Great Grandma Helen stayed on my mind all the next day as I packed up and caught an early train back to my apartment in Chicago. I figured that her house wasn’t terribly old, likely built sometime in the 1940s. I can’t remember much of it beyond the midday light in each room, blurry in my earliest memories but always a sort of mid-Missouri warm.  There wasn’t much space to fill, as it was small anyways. But after the death of Otto, she filled every corner of the house herself. As I watched the dense suburban trees blur from the window of my train, I imagined her retreating to that yellow house on the end of her boulevard to live the life she never knew she’d always wanted. In fact, I remembered a piece of family lore about when she stopped answering the worried phone calls from her children across town when she was recently widowed. They fell deeper into their concern for her. But one summer afternoon when her oldest daughter, Kathleen, entered her house with a piping plate of cinnamon rolls (her mother’s recipe), she found her sprawled out on the back porch completely naked, basking in the sun. She had an iced tea sweating in her grip, while an old Patsy Cline album boomed from within the house. Her children stopped fussing over her after that. We didn’t know who moved into the tiny home after Helen, but a few years after her death, while reading the Anderson City local newspaper, Uncle Cam discovered that the yellow house had burned to the ground. I wondered then if the bottles had survived under the debris.

That same year, I was reminded of the pillaging again when I was told that I would need all four of my impacted wisdom teeth to be jackhammered out of my mouth. Scheduled neatly over my college spring break, it was supposed to be seamless. It came up when I was complaining about the pain, how the bottom two had started to set roots around a nerve in my jaw. 

“Quit whining. I had six wisdom teeth, just like Grandma Helen. You could’ve had it worse,” my mom said from across our dining table the night before the extraction. 

“Yeah,” I spat, “And I could’ve let all my teeth fall out and get a set of fakes, too.”

            When my mom pulled into the parking lot of a grocery store the next morning, she took the keys from the ignition and got out of the car, leaning in to wag a finger at me. 

            “You’re not coming in with me. Don’t leave the car.  Don’t even think about leaving the car.” She punctuated her warning with the slam of a door that echoed far longer than it should have. 

            I couldn’t respond anyways, as my mouth was rendered completely useless with the Novocain still in my gums. The nitrous gas, which had left me in a lasting haze after two hours of continuous exposure, had been promised to wear off instantly. That was clearly not the case, since my head still rattled with the vibrations of an imaginary drill. As soon as my mom was through the revolving entrance, I unlocked the door, setting off the car alarm. I ignored the noise and began my slow stumble toward a nearby dumpster. When my mom found me five minutes later, I was crouched at the base of a trash heap examining a number of chipping windowpanes that someone had left behind. The glass in them was perfectly in tact and so old that it had begun to melt down over itself in some places. Instead of chastising me, she began to laugh. I’d been running my hand across the white of the frame, feeling the splintering paint, when her voice startled me.

            “What are you doing?” she asked. Unable to speak through the cotton balls stuffed in the far corners of my cheeks, all I could do was shrug. When she reached out a hand and helped me up to guide me toward the waiting car, alarm finally off, I picked up one of the windowpanes by the top of frame and heaved as I lifted it. She glanced down at it once with confusion, a slight tilt of the head, then a second time with complete resignation. She opened the trunk of the car with a roll of her eyes and motioned for me to set it in the back.

I got home and fell asleep instantly, dreaming that I got kicked in the face so hard that every bone in my head shattered to pieces. When I looked in the mirror, all of my features were jumbled and inverted, but still somehow undoubtedly my own. My mouth was the only targeted point of impact, so every time I talked, blood pooled down over my ear, since that had moved to where my chin once was. In my reflection, I stared for so long that I watched all of my teeth come loose and fall to the floor. I dropped to my knees in a panic, trying to collect all the incisors and molars before they collapsed into dust. After I picked each one up, I swallowed them whole to keep them safe. A voice sounding much like my mother’s boomed over me, instructing me to “leave the little burdens behind.” I stood again to look into the mirror and inhaled deeply, and held it. Relieved, I found that the new space in my mouth left me with an incredible capacity to breathe.

            Three hours later, I woke up in my childhood bed at home with a pounding headache and a mouth full of blood. When I rolled over, I saw a windowpane on the floor next to me leaning up against my bedside table. At the time, I had no idea where it had come from or what it was doing there, but I remember reaching down to pick a loose piece of paint from the top of it. I turned it over in my fingers before letting it fall to the carpet below.

            The pain that came that week was unlike anything I’d felt before. I became deeply resentful of my friends who had just two days of swelling, going back to school without a struggle. Of course, the difference came with my wisdom teeth being trapped so far down into my jawbone, there was no hope for a natural eruption. And that’s the deceiving thing about deciduous teeth. Growing up, my baby teeth all came out painlessly two years ahead of schedule, dropping within just days of loosening. When the wisdom teeth came in, I was anything but accustomed to something that demanded dental permanence, so I had them taken out before they even had a chance grow in. In the haze of grey early mornings, I let myself wake up to bruising and the taste of copper on my tongue, and reminded myself that I chose to free up space in my mouth like they were going to fall out anyways, even though I knew they never could have.

            A week later, I moved back into the city to finish my semester and took the windowpane with me to use as a dry-erase board, just to make it useful. It hadn’t occurred to me until then to ask my mom why she’d let me bring it home with me in the first place. 

            “I don’t know,” she said when I called to ask.  “Those drugs make people do weird things, so I didn’t even think to question you. You would’ve been stubborn about it.” 

            It was fair, I suppose, to let me bring home my own keepsake. Between Uncle Cam and the dentures he kept and my own mother and the bottle she’d pulled from under the porch, it’s easy to see where I might’ve gotten the slightest impulse to bring home trash. No one had anything of physical worth in the family, anyways. The only gift we got was an unwavering stubbornness, one that had made my Great Grandma Helen famous in the small corners of Missouri in which she fought to feed her family. She bared her teeth at predators in the serpentine Anderson City climate, keeping to herself as much as possible. Every last one of us inherited that trait. I often wondered what it was like for her to grow old, surrounded by a doting legion of her children’s children after Otto died. Perhaps it was then that she was finally able to let her guard down, alone in her fossilizing house as she filled it with new music and all the rest of her little pleasures. Then, and then only, did the teeth she bore lose their purpose and leave her.

            I let a year pass without a memory of my minor surgery. Three and a half seasons tripped by as I moved in and out of apartments, classes, and friends in the city. Uncle Cam’s daughter, Grace, moved into an apartment just three blocks from my place downtown for college and became a godsend of sorts that winter. She got twenty-four hour access to the work studios at her art institute school, which she would often ask me to keep her company at. All of February through May, we’d plant ourselves in the circular windows of her school’s high rises and work until the sun rose over the lake, her bending over yards of fluorescent fabric, me crooked over a crinkling notebook. Talkative as she often was, those evenings found us quiet, but still exchanging some familial electric current throughout the room. One evening close to midnight, she turned off her sewing machine and walked up to where I sat on the far end of the table she was at, while I was shaking the soreness out of my right hand. When I looked up, she was towering over me and launching an uncorked bottle of cheap merlot right to my face. I caught it by the neck and drank from it, laughing as she sat down next to me.

            “I’m gonna get destroyed at the critique tomorrow.” She said, taking the bottle back and sipping from it. I looked out at her mess, yards of green fabric piled across the table and drooping onto the linoleum floor.

            “Aw, come on. It doesn’t look that bad,” I said, squashing the impulse to ask her what she was supposed to be making.

            “Maybe I’ll just get up there and make it seem like it looks like shit on purpose. Like I was really going for garbage here,” she sighed, descending into laughter. I did too, delirious at the thought of my cousin weaving high grades out of mistakes and junk. I packed up and went to bed early that night, weaving through the yellow lights guiding my way home and still laughing through a mouth that had turned purple with wine.

By the time we both finished that year of school, her first and my second to last, the stress of those evenings had left me with an unbreakable tooth-grinding habit that visited me even when I was helplessly asleep. While I never felt the emotional toll of all-nighters on State Street, I could feel it in the way my mouth creaked first thing in the morning, like swinging open a door on old hinges. But evidently, I wasn’t the only one feeling the fatigue. That summer, Grace’s jaw was surgically broken and reset. She spent July with her mouth wired shut, completely unable to eat solid foods or even speak. When I called, Uncle Cam told me that she’d needed this surgery for a long time, that she’d been born with an offset jaw but for whatever reason, the stress of recent years had made the operation urgent.

An unexpected cosmetic side effect of the procedure was the apparent alignment of Grace’s face. When our downtown roving picked up again that autumn after her recovery, I saw in the backdrop of our common city that she was unfamiliar, that her face had become more symmetrical.

“Can I tell you something?” she asked me one hot September night as we walked west over a bridge on Roosevelt Road, just to get away from our schoolwork for a moment. I said yes.

 “I miss my old face, Jill,” she said. I felt my mouth open, and then close, my lips clenching together, and said nothing. Not once had it occurred to me that she didn’t have a say in the matter.

“I’m sorry,” I said after a moment.

“I miss my old face,” she repeated, “and I think they hit a nerve in my chin because the sensation never came back like the doctor said it would.  I can’t feel anything around my mouth.”

“But hey, no pain right?” I asked, frantic to shift the mood as I felt my throat swell up. A truck whirred by, making the bridge we walked across tremor through our feet.

“No pain, sure. But like, nothing at all. This is so stupid, but I feel like I’m not the same person I was before all this shit.” She said, staring down between the grates in the bridge under us.

We kept walking that night to nowhere in particular, a winding series of wests and norths until the orange clouds of the city night rolled in, settling low over us. We walked back to our respective homes and never talked about it again.

I, too, have learned to bare my teeth in times of trouble. Or rather, grit them like they’re wired shut. As a child, I often thought of those dentures hiding away in Uncle Cam’s home, and what it was like for Great Grandma Helen to take a break from wearing them from time to time. It was in her bones that she held that identity, one that she could pass to my mother, Grace, and even me. And since teeth were the only ones she could expose, I don’t blame her for getting tired. I don’t blame my mother for keeping trash in the form of found empty bottles under the back porch and I don’t blame Grace for trying to keep her faulty jawbone to herself. I don’t blame myself for making my mother drive me around with a discarded windowpane in the back of our car either. I never told her this, but when I moved out of my apartment one spring close to graduation, I left the windowpane out next to the dumpster in an alley, wiping the leftover residue from paint chips off my hands and onto my jeans, easy as can be. I told Grace I did it in hopes that someone else could find it in some raiding escapade, but in truth, I think I was just losing it to make room for the next find. I wasn’t too attached to it anyways, so I cut it loose.

Claire Martin

Claire Martin is a recent graduate of Columbia College Chicago, where she was a managing editor for the award winning literary magazine Hair Trigger, as well as the interview editor for its online counterpart, Hair Trigger 2.0. Her recent fiction can be found in Hair Trigger 40, Longshot Island, and in the upcoming issue release of The Magnolia Review this summer. These days, you can find her holed up with a camera somewhere along Lake Michigan.

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