Like Pulling Teeth
In the kitchen, the girl’s parents told gruesome stories: children’s teeth lassoed to door knobs, pick-up trucks, and the tails of family dogs. The removal of baby teeth was an extreme sport. Cheese sounded kind in comparison, until the girl saw its blue-green crevices and sniffed an odor that also suggested crevices.
“Won’t it just fall out on its own?” the girl asked.
“It’s more fun this way,” her father said. He’d voted to tie her tooth to the ceiling fan.
“You said it was bothering you. The quicker you get it out, the better. Like a cactus spine,” her mother said, as though the girl’s tooth were a foreign object.
After, staked in the stinky cheese, her tooth looked as strange as a flag in the cratered surface of the moon.
Her parents said, “This is a big milestone for you. You’re growing up.”
Up, the girl thought. Growing up was a process of coming undone, like a seam slowly unraveling. One tooth down, nineteen to go. In her nightmares, they all fell out at once.
When the girl had learned that kids’ teeth fell out, she’d thought that eyeballs, fingers, and entire limbs were cast off and remade too. That children regenerated themselves piece by piece, like lizards replacing severed tails, until nothing of their child bodies was left: that’s how they became adults.
Her father had laughed and said, “No, no, that’s not how it works.” Then he’d gotten quiet for a moment and said, “Well, actually, maybe growing up is a little like that.”
Her mother had told her about elephant teeth, how they got six sets instead of two. Because they wore them down like pencil erasers. “Now the final set, they’re something! Eight pounds apiece!” her mother had said. “That’s the permanent set?” the girl had asked. “Well, no, not necessarily. They can fall out too, eventually. If the elephant lives long enough.” “Then what?” “Then the elephant starves to death.”
A boy from the girl’s preschool class had died that past year. Choked on a hot dog, there at the lunch table. Their teacher had wrapped her arms around his chest and pumped, but the hot dog hadn’t come out. The girl thought of the boy when she chewed. How death had been in his mouth. How he could have spit it out if only he’d known.
This tooth wasn’t the first part of the girl to die. Skin cells died too—every day, by the millions. Her mother scrubbed them from her feet with a gray stone, and they formed a dusky pile resembling sawdust. And hairs came out in her brush—long, soft hairs that snaked in and out between the bristles. Her father left stubby, gray-black hairs in the bathroom sink. They looked like tiny punctuation marks shaken from a slip of paper.
Always the body was regenerating itself. Always it was dying.
But a tooth: that was something else. Like a button popping off a blouse. There was a gap now. She was incomplete.
Her parents pinched parts of the cheese wedge that held her tooth and put them into their mouths. Their jaws moved up and down like pistons.
They talked about the fairy that was going to purchase her tooth in the night—snatch it from beneath her pillow and leave in its place coins.
“How much does the fairy pay for a tooth?” the girl asked.
“I used to get two dollars,” her mother said.
“Rich girl,” her father said. “I got fifty cents.”
“Fifty cents?!” the girl said.
She imagined the fairy, that cheap creep, dancing around a fire, children’s teeth jangling from his ears and neck.
Now her mother yanked the tooth from the cheese. She held it up to the light, as though inspecting a gemstone. “My baby’s first lost tooth,” she said.
“It isn’t lost,” the girl said. “In fact, I don’t think I’m going to sell it.”
Her parents stared. “What are you going to do with it?”
The girl plucked the tooth from her mother’s fingers. In her palm, it looked like something that might wash up on an ocean shore, and the girl thought now, for the first time, how what she’d collected in her pail that summer were the remains of the dead. How she’d been like the tooth fairy of the beach, skipping along the sand and snatching up carcasses.
This new keepsake was a promise that she would one day die too. That death was in her mouth, all the time, and there was no spitting it out. Perhaps that was why people yanked baby teeth out by wild means, when everyone knew the teeth would fall out on their own anyhow: they wanted to believe that great effort was required to fall apart. That it wasn’t a simple matter of waiting.