I lost a tooth today.
And no, I’m not a six-year-old shedding baby teeth. I’m fifty-three, apparently going on seventy, and losing teeth is a trauma I assumed I’d left behind long, long ago. Now it looks like it’s time again to act like a big boy and not let anyone see me cry.
Even at my age, vanity is stronger than you’d imagine, and I’m lucky it wasn’t a front tooth. The worn old stalactite hung all the way in back, upper right, and out of sight. Useless, really—a wisdom tooth with no mate below it, no twin on the left side. I was sucking my teeth after a ham and Swiss, settling back for a smoke. It cracked off at the root, sounding through my bones like the snap of a Kit Kat bar. Just like that, it clattered free, flint-edged and alien.
I spat it into my palm, horrified that something so ugly could come out of my own mouth. It was slimy, hollow, with sourdough paste slicked into the crevices. Heavy for its size, tobacco-stained, and disgustingly brittle.
I couldn’t stand the look of the thing and tried to clean it up—rinsed it under hot water and scrubbed hard with a toothbrush I threw away afterward. The doughy scum came off with Crest, and I poured peroxide over it, too, hoping to whiten the stains. I don’t know why that mattered, but it didn’t work, anyway. Brown on browner had etched into the enamel too deeply to bubble away. It looked expertly antiqued; distressed. I dried it and put it in the bathroom cabinet, in a small jar with the beads of a broken necklace and a couple of rusted safety pins.
The tooth served no purpose, and it won’t be missed, but I can’t throw it away.
In the white-bread world of my childhood, losing teeth was as close to a public rite of passage as boys were allowed. The experience was a step toward growing up—a low-level, ego-shifting initiation into the tweenage years. Socially, it meant enduring a season of gummy embarrassment, sandwiches picked into bites, and large helpings of sibling ridicule. The pain was diluted with tentative big-boy pride, the ownership of one’s growth, and the graphic lesson that the childish will inexorably fall away, like it or not.
My family took way too much glee in the process. If a stubborn chomper wouldn’t come out of its own accord, it was a test of bravery to grab it and tug, and my big brother would call me “sissy” or “chicken” until I took action. It gives me the willies to remember the feel of a dangling incisor, and the laughter behind torturous threats of strings, doorknobs, and “Somebody get me the pliers!”
The Tooth Fairy offered both motivation and monetary consolation. Not that anyone in my house actually thought some androgynous, sparkling Tinkerbelle fluttered into the bedroom to make the switch. Our family was pragmatic about religion, the Tooth Fairy, Santa, and the Easter Bunny—belief was never an issue, and in all cases, the game involved a willing suspension of disbelief rather than faith in the supernatural. Earning cash for baby teeth was a cooperative effort, like dyeing Easter eggs and waiting for the adults to hide them, or counting packages as Christmas booty accumulated under the tree over time.
The going rate for tooth-pulling trauma was a quarter then, though I remember occasional raises—arbitrary bonuses exchanged for the tiny, bone-white shells of childhood I’d tuck under my pillow. And I don’t recall ever waking up and busting my parents during the mission. I imagine sleeping more soundly those nights, after yawns of relief led to sweet dreams of an ordeal survived.
I played the role of Tooth Fairy myself, briefly, for a couple of stepsons many years ago. That household didn’t revel in intentional psycho-terrorism like my family did, but I made up for benevolent intent with alcoholism and the freak show the addiction carries with it. Memory colors me more neatly than reality would reveal, and a Tooth Fairy visitation was, at heart, another excuse to stay up late and party.
My mother and stepfathers did their share of partying, and I imagine the routine was about the same. My wife and I would sit in the hall by the bedroom door, Amstel Light or highball glasses of Crown on the rocks in hand, and listen for clues of sleep, whispering and giggling until we were certain the coast was clear.
“It’s too early. We’d better wait. I need a refill, anyway.”
“No. He’s asleep by now. Go in.”
“You go in!”
Ice would clink alarmingly loud, and clumsiness was always a danger.
“Shhh! Let’s do this…”
She would man the door, standing lookout in her Betty Boop PJs, her job mainly to snicker and shush. I would do the heavy lifting, creeping thief-like through the toys and jumble of the boys’ room with a dollar bill in hand. (Rates had gone up with inflation and expectations. By now, a five-spot might be the minimum, or an iTunes gift card.) I’d finesse a hand under the pillow, finding and pulling for a second time the magical tooth, and slip folded money in its place.
Back in the hall, the deed done, finally able to breathe, we’d lean against the wall, “Good job, Tooth Fairy!” We believed in something, ourselves as parents maybe, playing house and behaving as if the illusion mattered as much to the boy as to us, as if he believed in something bigger than the playful deceit of his parents. Giggles and sips followed, and we’d run tiptoe back to the grown-up room, as though a deep responsibility had been fulfilled.
I was extracted from that marriage. A mutual decision, she let me believe, reached while I was as insubstantial and undefined as the Tooth Fairy. My roots were beginning to rot from neglect, and I kept the pain well numbed. I didn’t know I was in pain at all.
The boys are grown, and I follow them on Facebook. All their adult teeth are firmly in place. Their mom comments on their posts, gives them thumbs up like dollar bills under their pillows. They are shared, liked, friended, and praised. They are tagged in pics, smiling, their teeth gleaming and strong.
The whitest tooth in my smile is the left incisor, and it’s whitest only because it’s fake. The original tooth is a ground-down nub housed in a crown, outshining its neighbors and resisting coffee, tobacco, and moral stains, too. The crown is a porcelain testament to dental adhesives. Other than one incident with a Slo-Poke caramel bar, it has been solidly in place since 1977, when I experienced my first drug-induced face plant. My running buddy, David, and I were in my parents’ garage huffing solvents—probably Right Guard or Liquid Paper, those were our favorites—and I made the mistake of standing up during the “waah-waah” stage of the rush. The buzzing circles in my head compressed to nothing and the floor spun up to my face. The fall resulted in a bloody nose, a dead tooth as the blackened witness to my stupidity, and eventually a brighter-than-thou addition to my smile.
That lesson in gravity began the honing of a skill set that served well for most of my life. I became adept at staying wasted and surviving without obvious injury, and either minimizing the problem or hiding it from everyone that counted. It worked until alcohol outpaced any standards of skill and face plants were a danger again. After thirty-odd years of drinking, I ended up one of those brown bag guys you see hanging out in the shade of the overpass, and admittedly, I was pretty lax on dental hygiene. Bigger problems prevail when you’re that devoted to chasing the buzz, and a cavity doesn’t mean a rat’s ass if you’re convinced you’ll be dead soon, anyway.
I spent my first season without a roof camped on a vacant lot with Denny and Jan, a meth-head couple that helped me settle into my new lifestyle. They took me under their wing, shared food and beer, dragged me along for petty theft and scavenger runs. One of Jan’s front teeth fell out and Denny used Krazy Glue to put it back. Jan beamed and pointed. “Works like a charm every time!” she said. Denny was so proud. Do normal people lose a tooth with such dispassion, and deal with it so casually? Just glue it back in and smile?
My mother threw hissy fits over the damage intubation and anesthesia did to her teeth in the months before she was too near death to care. Fact is, sometimes damage just happens, especially to an old, brittle mouth. She stopped smiling unless by accident, and eventually stopped smiling altogether.
It was wrong to say this tooth won’t be missed. My tongue misses it already. I feel the broken remnants, and a jagged bit poking over the rim of the socket. When I envision the root left behind, it’s clean and white. A little rough, but white. I know it’s not. It must be as horrible as the tooth that broke off. And there’s a murmur of pain, too, from the molar next to the empty space. The pressure is different when I bite, and either the adjacent tooth is wounded and doomed, or it’s the pain of adjustment. What’s left behind is realigning, adjusting, and it may be painful. It will be painful.
This rite of passage sucks, and Krazy Glue won’t do any good. I wish I believed in the Tooth Fairy and looked forward to the promise of a quarter under my pillow, the onset of a longed-for new maturity. It’s tough not to feel rotted and hollow, brittle, and past my use-by date. My shelf life went from “I’m still sort of young. It’s too soon to worry,” to “Oh shit…it’s started. I’m falling apart.”
I wonder if piecemeal death by apathy is imminent for the rest of me, like for that damned molar. The Tooth Fairy may be near, but Mr. Death is traveling alongside to collect more of my parts as they fall off.
The two of them are in the hall, laughing softly while I toss and turn.
“He’s asleep by now. Go on in.”
Glittering wings rustle, and the scythe scrapes the wall.
The only reward I’m likely to find under my pillow is an open-ended ticket to the wonderland of colonoscopies and slow disintegration, but a return visit from the Tooth Fairy is better than waking to find Mr. Death standing alone at my bedside.
“Good job, Tooth Fairy!” Mr. Death chortles, and they tiptoe away, their responsibilities fulfilled for the night.
Barry Maxwell is a native of Austin, Texas, and a student of Creative Writing at Austin Community College. His work has been published in The Rio Review, and will appear in the forthcoming Northern Colorado Writers 2013 Pooled Ink Anthology.