2018 Colorado Book Awards winner for Anthology
Copyright by Lupe Linares
Number nineteen fell apart unexpectedly when I bit into the world’s softest piece of garlic bread. Biting into that bread felt the way I imagined biting into a cloud might—airy, moist. My mouth seemed empty, but I could taste the hint of garlic and the melted mozzarella all around. When my teeth clamped on the hard chunk of something, I spit it out in shock. The little beige rectangle hit my plate, made a sound like two glasses clinking, skidded across it, off the edge, and onto the red-checkered tablecloth.
I could tell it was a tooth, but I hoped it wasn’t mine. I ran my tongue across my teeth to check, and sure enough, a third of one of my molars was gone, leaving a cavern in which a morsel of garlic bread lay trapped. The break was clean—a deliberate straight line that made it look as though someone or something had been living inside the tooth, sawing at it until it was weak and could be tapped out of place. I picked up the third of my tooth from the table and held it between my fingers while my tongue probed at what remained. Even though the change happened less than a minute before, I couldn’t remember what it felt like not to have that emptiness in my mouth.
Almost a week before my tooth fell apart, my mom called to tell me about my dad’s front tooth, which had been damaged in a car accident years before and had been slowly dying ever since. My mom and I were both in the truck when the accident happened. We were driving down one of the narrow, paved roads that winds through Adams County, Pennsylvania, when a car sped around a curve. The car drifted into the middle of the road, and even though my father swerved, he wasn’t quick enough. The car slid against the entire length of his truck, shattering the driver’s side window and rippling the entire side so that it looked like a crumpled paper bag. I was sitting between my parents holding a can of Dr. Pepper, which didn’t spill at all. Still, my mom took the can from me after we stopped and poured it on the ground. “There might be glass in it now,” she told me.
We were all fine, but the impact of the accident caused my father’s head to jerk forward and his mouth to collide with the steering wheel. There was no visible damage, and if I were him, I would have probably called myself lucky.
Even after the damage started to show years later, he was reluctant to go to the dentist, have the dentist pull the tooth, and then charge him thousands of dollars to construct a new one out of porcelain. He said it would be cheaper in Mexico, and since he needed to visit his mother anyway, he would wait. For years, he tried to avoid biting with the sensitive tooth. When he ate dinner, he would roll up his tortillas and clamp down on them with the right side of his mouth. Neither my mom nor I knew that the tooth was causing him any pain.
The night before my mom called me, she was watching television after dinner. My dad grilled steak that night, and it was tough. After dinner, he went to the bathroom. She thought he was shaving until she heard the scream, and when she made it into the bathroom, my dad stood still with blood dribbling down his chin and landing in heavy drops on the pale, blue sink. He looked into the mirror to inspect the gap in his mouth while still holding the offending tooth between his thumb and index finger. When I asked him why he did it, he said, “It hurt when I ate.”
My mom and I both told him to rinse his mouth out three times a day with warm salt water. We had both been through this before and knew what to do, but my dad didn’t listen. He said that he was okay, that it didn’t hurt anymore.
Had he gone to the dentist, he would have likely been told that the tooth he had been so desperately trying to keep despite the discomfort it caused him wasn’t just a front tooth. It was called number nine, it had a purpose, and it should be missed.
The first time I saw my father without his front tooth was only three days after number nineteen had been reconstructed with silver amalgam. When he smiled at me in the airport, I could see his tongue. My mom told me that he spent the first few days after it was gone holding his hand over his mouth when he talked or smiled. By the time I saw him, he acted like the tooth had never been there in the first place. His mourning period was over. He had accepted his loss and was in no hurry to find a replacement for number nine.
My father has always been a handsome man. In his old driver’s license, which I carry with me in my wallet, he is thirty-one. His skin is the color of tanned leather from working outdoors all year long, and his hair is full and black. His moustache, goatee, and eyes are all black, too. He has always had a moustache, though in this picture it is a thick handlebar connecting to the goatee. Over the years, his moustache transformed into a neatly trimmed border that frames his upper lip, and the beard disappeared, never to be seen again. Like his sideburns, the moustache now has streaks of gray in it sometimes. (Occasionally, he says, “I need to paint it,” and goes out to buy Just For Men moustache and beard dye.) There are wrinkles in the corners of his eyes now, and his hair has been thinning for years. Still, he doesn’t look old yet.
In the driver’s license picture, he might look mysterious if he weren’t smiling so that you could see his teeth. His teeth were perfect—straight and white without any gaps—until number nine started showing signs that something, somewhere, had gone wrong. It looked nicotine-stained while all of its partners were still white and healthy. The discolored tooth did not diminish my father’s good looks, but the gaping hole made him seem incomplete.
My mother is also missing a front tooth, though hers is on the bottom and doesn’t show when she smiles. She went to Georgia to visit my grandparents once and came back without it. I was in high school at the time, and I kept asking her how it happened. The hole haunted me, but she wouldn’t explain. “I fell down” was all she said. She didn’t seem to mind because she had never had nice teeth. She started smoking when she was thirteen, and by the time I came along, they were already beginning to yellow. After a while, I barely noticed the gap. But I did notice how, three years after she lost it, she gained weight and could never get it off.
My mother was thin for only a year of her life. She was twenty-two, and she got that way by eating nothing but canned soup. No breakfast, no lunch. Just soup for dinner. By the time she met my father, she had gained the weight back. She wasn’t fat, exactly, but voluptuous with hair that appeared blonder on the ends than it was around the roots, the result of years spent using home hair-dyeing kits. She had long, red fingernails and wore too much makeup. I don’t know if my father thought she was beautiful. In all of the pictures I have seen of the two of them before I was born, she has a round face, and she looks shocked—at what, I don’t know, but it might be her luck at finding this handsome man who didn’t beat her like the two husbands she had before.
Or perhaps that wasn’t it at all. Maybe she surprised herself with her own courage—the courage that it took for her to say yes when my dad walked into the bar where she was working one night and said to her, “Apple season starts next week. I’m leaving for Pennsylvania tonight. Are you coming?” She had known him only for a few weeks, and she didn’t like him in the beginning. He was cocky, she said. The first night he came to the bar, he had a broken leg. That same night, he got into a fight and won. Later, he asked her for a free beer. She didn’t give it to him that night, but eventually they were friends, and she did. When he asked her to leave with him, she didn’t think. She just said yes and went back to the trailer where she was staying to pack her things and left the South forever with this Mexican man she knew her mother would never accept.
They drove to Pennsylvania in the car that she had stolen from her second husband not long before. She had been afraid he would kill her, and one night when she thought that he might, she managed to get out of the house and into the car. She drove the forty miles from Bainbridge, Georgia, to some town just across the Florida state line where she had a friend who had a trailer. When my parents got to Pennsylvania, my mom drove that car to a junkyard fifteen miles away. She sold the car for scrap metal and hitchhiked home.
When I think of her this way, she is beautiful to me. The missing tooth; the papery skin that looks so much older than its fifty years; the thick, yellow fingernails that are never painted red anymore—all of this is beautiful because this is what is left of the fearless, unpredictable woman who raised me. These are the marks that remind me of what she has lost, what we have both lost, and only in their presence can I remember her completely.
Now, she cries too much. Her kidneys are failing, her arteries are hardening, and she retains so much fluid that her weight can easily fluctuate fifty pounds in one week. She doesn’t drive if she can help it because she doesn’t trust her sight, or her hands, or her lungs. She asks for help to do the simplest things—clip her toenails or take off her socks. I call home almost every day to hear her voice, and when she doesn’t pick up, my body goes cold. I leave a message, and when she calls back, I can breathe. “Hey, baby,” she always says.
Before Dr. Hohlen began to reconstruct number nineteen, he explained that the tooth is a living structure. The pulp contains blood vessels that supply the tooth with nutrients and nerves that allow it to sense hot and cold. The pulp also contains lymph vessels that have the responsibility of carrying white blood cells to the tooth to help it fight off bacteria. Each tooth is independently alive and has its own private system that helps it survive. Unfortunately, each tooth also has to contend with its owner, who has all the power over how it lives or dies.
The acts that can preserve the tooth are so simple and take up an inconsequential portion of the day: brushing carefully so that the bristles of the toothbrush scour the entire surface of each tooth, flossing to dislodge the crumbs that get trapped in between them, and finally rinsing with mouthwash to kill the bacteria. The whole process takes five minutes, but the winding of floss around fingers seems so tedious, and it’s easy to miss the backside of the rear molars. Small mistakes that accumulate over time and add up to a loss that we can never forget.
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