As I wake and slowly bring myself up onto one elbow and then the other, I suddenly realize that all of my teeth are missing. I look left to my rumpled sheets and right towards the window as I sit up wondering if I should call the nurse. I touch the tender flesh where the teeth once were, gliding a finger cleanly through from side to side. I am like a newborn waiting for a pacifier, but I am not newly born. I am old. I have often considered myself a young old woman, but not young enough to have no teeth.
A skinny redheaded nurse approaches me while chatting. She wastes no breath for a friendly “Good Morning” or “How did you sleep?” or “I trust you’re well.” Instead she’s chatting about the weather. The weather. As I sit baffled, running my tongue up and down and all around the wet cave of my mouth.
“How lovely are these first few days of spring? I have to tell you, I just love it,” she continues without pause, but if she had paused I would have told her, not so lovely. I would have replied, the first few days of spring are not so lovely at all without your teeth, your chompers, your chewers. Not an incisor, molar, or measly canine to speak of.
She removes with two pinching fingers a fake set of teeth from a glass placed next to my bed and shakes them as she smiles at me mockingly with her own beautiful set. Before I know it she clasps my face with the other hand as if this is some dance I should recognize and take part in. I bite at her hand with my naked gums.
“Mrs. Benson!” she chirps, jumping back and clutching her scrubs at the chest. Then, with some twist of sympathy, she looks at me pitifully as if she’s starting to realize the problem. “Wouldn’t you like me to put in your teeth, Miss Benson? They’ve made bacon with breakfast. Your favorite.”
“What I would like to know, Mary—” I pause then. When had I remembered she was Mary? I shake the pesky question loose. “What I would like to know is what you have done with my teeth.”
“Well I suppose you’ve lost some along the way, dear. Maybe from the smoking. But these are your teeth. You’ve been wearing them for two years. They’re a quite nice set actually.” She looks at them closely, nodding, as if they’ve just whispered some sweet nothing to her, as if they are in some sort of cahoots. “Would you give them a try?
I use my tongue to feel the slimy ridges where my beautiful teeth had once been. There is, I suppose, something familiar in the feeling of the gums on my tongue, but not from recently, from long ago. I reach out for that thought, of losing the first tooth, but it grows wings and flies towards the window.
“Damn,” I say, grasping toward it and the girl sighs, as I keep wriggling away from the grotesque-looking set of fake teeth, which she is still maneuvering towards my face.
Jerking my head to the side I argue, “I never even smoked! Cigarettes are horrible for you.” Aren’t they? Yes, they are! See there? I know some things. My cousin or perhaps an uncle lost his life due to cigarettes. I’m becoming quite tired trying to picture him again. Or was it a her? These questions hang down like long-dried laundry in my mind these days, too high to reach, shake out, and tuck away.
“Mrs. Benson, today is a special day, and you may want to look your best when your family arrives.”
“Well, maybe they will be able to tell me what’s happened to my teeth. For now I’ll get along just the same without them,” I say through clenched jaw, afraid she’ll slip the imposters in when I sound out a rounded vowel. I spit out a fine spray in the process of lisping in this manner, and Mary wipes it from her hand with a handkerchief like a flag of surrender. I relax a bit, seeming to have won the fight.
With her help I slide into my wheelchair, this move far more familiar to me. A dance I do know how to do. There is a sweet little chicken sticker next to my right hand. “Chickie,” I say as we slide down the hall.
“That’s right,” Mary says from above. “That’s you.”
I am rolled up to a table of others who all greet me with their own teeth intact.
“Hello, Chickie.” They cluck together.
“Morning, Chick.” A grumpy looking man adds as if they’ve rehearsed and he is the downbeat to the chorus.
As Mary locks me in place, I look around at the flapping heads spotted throughout the dining room. Their mouths open freely at the jaw with laughter and chatter like aggressive crows fighting over dropped bread.
Fine, I think, folding my arms, so I have no teeth. But how did I lose that first tooth? What happened to the very first one? Or did they all fly off together? When you’ve lost something the best thing to do is go back and retrace your steps.
“Do you all remember losing any teeth?” I interrupt everyone from their gorgeous smelling breakfasts.
“Lost one in a tuna fish sandwich as a child. Another in a taffy. Always in food, actually. Isn’t that something?” A cheery looking woman I quite like to look at says first. She winks at me, and I remember then that it’s only Margaret. Sweet Margaret.
“The doctor says that some people lose their teeth in old age due to a build up of pressure over all of those years. Isn’t that interesting?” Mary interjects, returning with some beverage with a bear holding balloons on the outside label.
I ignore this, thinking of Margaret’s food theory. But, I don’t remember losing any that way. None at all. Not recently or long ago.
I do remember once, just after my mother died, something that my father said. He said that she “fell apart.” As if she’d cracked up like a fragile vase and there was simply no glue that could put her back together. As if all he could do was stand back and say, “Well that’s that. It was a lovely vase.” But what had broken off first? What was the lose screw that caused it to all collapse around her like a little house made of sticks?
Perhaps everyone falls apart. Some rather slowly and some all at once like my mother. Maybe for her there was no first piece, just one big push or a gust and she disappeared like that. I wonder if for some it’s more literal though, like the boy who lived across the street in our cul-de-sac. He’d gone to Korea and when he returned he had lost a leg. Not long after this he too died, and it was all very sad. Maybe the leg was his first piece, a warning that he would soon bust up and turn to dust.
“I think I’ve begun to lose pieces,” I say then, accidentally aloud.
“It seems you’ve started with your mind,” the grumpy man adds quietly and Margaret smacks him with the back of her hand.
“No, no. It’s just my teeth is all. Mary!” She comes shuffling up quickly. “Mary, I need to think. Could you take me out for a walk?”
“Of course, dear.”
Mary rolls me out onto the grass and we hammer along at our own thoughts silently. I think first of lemonade and how nice that might be. And then I think of life’s little irritants and what their role really is anyhow. Why must we itch? Why must we shiver? This is how they come, my thoughts. Though people often look at me sadly if I share them so I’ve learned to think of them on my own, in my head.
In a rather bleak moment I pick up an earlier thought like I sometimes do. Like a friendly little whisper to myself from earlier on. The one-legged boy. Was he still alive? Perhaps I should call him to find out. Though he would hardly be a boy anymore.
The sun is bright today, and I close my eyes to let the orange glow of it dance around on my eyelids like it likes to. I watch little white dots form into teeth falling like snow around me and I’m left with a shiver. It’s happening. I’m falling apart. Maybe I’m falling quickly now, or maybe I’ve been falling apart all along. The only way to be sure is to find out when the first piece went. The inaugural tooth.
“The ignorant really are the most at peace aren’t they, Mary?”
“Hm,” she adds without question or affirmation, just a little coo to let me know she’s there.
“Do you believe you are falling apart?”
One of those breathy sighs of hers floats down to my lap and I hold it gently between my fingers. “Sometimes, Mrs. Benson,” Mary says. “Sometimes.”
After I’ve been dressed and fed the vile beverage with the bear on the label through a straw, Mary sits next to my bed and asks what I would like to read. I ask her if she would sing to me instead, remembering that she likes to sing and is quite good, though she always blushes through it with a fire burning under her pale cheeks.
I wait patiently with my hands folded in my lap as she looks up, searching the song index in her brain. The sound of her clearing her throat is pleasing and exciting like the gentle placement of a needle to a record.
Soon she is Doris Day with the pin curls and the blue eyes and everything. I shut my eyes, drifting, and I am there with Doris under the sycamore trees. We spin and spin until we’re sick with motion and delight, and I fall back onto the piano that Doris has begun to play.
I lie there on the grand’s lid like beautiful women look so comfortable doing, until I remember that Doris never did learn to play the keys, despite her father’s wishes. Just like me and my own father. I sit up to ask her how it is she learned to play so well so quickly. But when she smiles I see that she is missing her glossy teeth behind her red lips. Instead her mouth is dark like the color of clotted blood. The keys she is tinkling on are not spruce or basswood or ivory but her very own teeth smiling up in a curl. As she hits them they break off of the piano and drop far into some unfathomable darkness. Down, down, down and she jumps in after them, the glittering trail of her gown following after. I grab for it, trying to pull her back up, racing her for the teeth. We fight with fist and nail falling through the darkness and she begins to yell at me. “Mrs Benson!” she yells in a curious tone, deep and worried. “Mrs. Benson!”
Doris is gone when I open my eyes with quite a start. Mary is standing now behind her chair, looking frazzled, her pretty red hair tousled. The doctor is calling to me still, “Mrs. Benson, dear. You’ve had another difficult dream. Try to sit back and calm yourself down. How about counting for me?”
“One,” I say trying instead to calm Mary down, as I feel perfectly fine, “two,” I look to the sheets and see a few strands of hair lying there, bright red hairs. I’m dizzy then with a sense of disappointment. “Mary? Have I hurt you? It was for the teeth is all. I became confused.” I become smaller and further away as I talk. “I believe I may be falling apart,” I whisper.
Mary smiles at me with closed lips, and I’m grateful for it, for her acceptance of my apology and for her decency to cover her mouth.
The doctor says my family is here to see me, and I am glad to know that I can ask my father what has happened to my teeth, or perhaps it will be my mother who will explain what falling apart is really like anyway, or maybe it will be the neighbors who lost their boy without a leg. I’m not quite sure whom to expect really but they must be able to help.
The doctor moves me to my chair and though Mary has left I know she’ll be back. I have a feeling she won’t let me fall to bits alone. I’m wheeled back to the dining room and there is a cake with little yellow frosting chickens dancing around it. Behind the lit candles is a woman I love with a face just like mine. I touch my own to be sure I haven’t lost that, too.
They sing the Happy Birthday song to Chickie, and I can’t help but smile a big, pink smile. Everyone laughs at this with their own teeth shining. Then I see the little one that’s come with the woman with my face. The one who calls me Great Gram Chickie, and the memory presents itself to me all at once, scrolls before me bright and clear and certain like they so seldom do now.
“I’m the best tooth puller this side of the Mississippi.” Yes, that was her line. The one she called out aggressively as she dove her meaty paw into my mouth. She searched around with two pinching fingers when I was just the size of this little grand girl. The tooth puller was my teacher, and she seemed much larger than any woman could possibly be. Hovering above, she clasped down without hesitation onto the wiggling suspect as the rest of the kindergarten class threw their hands up wildly and flapped their own mouths open as if connected to their jaws with faulty hinges. They yelped strangely at the gruesome operation. Some waiting in the wings for their own turn, others anxious to get a glimpse of our teacher’s self-proclaimed talent.
The tooth came out clean. Only a slight snap to my nerves and it was out. My shoulders shuddered from this sensation, my spine tingled, and my mouth started to water as if hungry or about to vomit.
My peers cheered at my teacher who’d begun to pick me apart as if she would section me off piecemeal and this sticky, shining baby tooth was the first piece to go.
As she called over her next victim I returned to my chair, the one with the desk attached, the one with precious notebooks hung secretly from the cubby shelf above my boney knees, where I’d placed my thoughts, my secrets, my memories. I imagine that they are still there, tucked away and I’m glad that maybe some other little girl is looking after them.
I remember now what it was like to poke my tongue into that metallic tasting socket where I once had something. That was it. The taste I had now all around my mouth. The taste I remember with a period not a question mark.
It is a victory to remember such a thing, the day you began to lose your parts, and to remember it wasn’t so bad at all. As gentle as slowly fading youth. Not even so worrisome as losing a hairbrush. These things are only misplaced, out there waiting to be remembered, rediscovered.
I swipe at the top of the cake and lick the sweet cream from the tip of my finger. I let the intensity of the sugar fill the reaches of my mouth, shooting out all the way to where my ears meet my face. I rub at that spot, delighted by the tickle.
“Any luck figuring out what happened to your teeth?” Mary comes to ask me as I slip another finger full of frosting into my mouth. I chomp onto the finger softly with two rows of naked gums.
“Yes,” I say curiously, “What has happened to my teeth?” What a grand mystery life can be. A delicate, mysterious thing.
[Refer: This story refers to Mary-Jo Balistreri’s essay “What Was Never Lost.”]
Image by Kevin Dooley
Sammi LaBue is a fiction writer based out of Brooklyn, NY. Some of her other fiction can be found on [PANK] Magazine, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and Body Parts Magazine. She is currently working toward an MFA in fiction writing with the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Vermont College of Fine Arts.