Each kid on the field was just a container for teeth. A big rattling money jar for dentists and orthodontists.
Jan spent the game doing story problems: A dozen kids on a team with thirty-two teeth apiece. If they each needed braces at ten grand a crack …
She should have gone to dental school. That would have meant job security and at least then she could have taken Karen to Bring Your Daughter to Work Day or to the office after hours for treatment.
On Thursday, the dentist said Karen would need braces. But first: extractions, expansions, and various other procedures that made her daughter’s mouth sound like a major construction site.
She’d known this was coming. Years ago a hygienist looked into Karen’s mouth and said, “Wow, she has a lot of teeth!”
“Yeah, all of them,” she’d laughed, assuming Karen had the same teeth everyone had, which she did, but apparently not the space.
“Crowning,” Dr. Lucas called it, and now some of Karen’s teeth had to come out. Permanently.
The thought made Jan queasy. Didn’t we need our adult teeth? All of them? Would this be the kind of thing future dentists didn’t do any more? Like tonsillectomies? No one had those done now. Plus, where would she get the money? Dropping dental insurance had been part of workplace cutbacks. Eliminated. Extracted. Their new medical plan: Don’t get sick.
Each year around enrollment time, Jan put a box of tissues by the computer in preparation for the frustrated tears she would reliably shed. The plan descriptions were so bewildering she might as well have picked at random.
There were no “kitchen table” conversations for her. Not anymore. She used to ask Cathy Cornwall what they chose and pick the same plan. Then the Cornwalls got transferred.
Jan asked the dentist if it was just a cosmetic thing with Karen’s teeth. She didn’t need cheerleader teeth. She wouldn’t be entering beauty pageants.
The dentist pointed to the x-ray, said if it wasn’t done now, later treatment would involve breaking the jaw. Dr. Lucas basically predicted Karen’s adult life would be hell if she didn’t get braces now. And even if Jan discounted half of the jargon, it still sounded like something had to be done. Somehow.
Afterwards, in the car, Karen burst into tears. “I liked the tooth fairy better,” she wailed.
Jan reached across the seat and held her daughter, thinking, “Here we are again, crying about teeth.” Years earlier, Karen’s friend Gracie had lost a tooth and been given five bucks from the tooth fairy, leaving Karen heartbroken because she only got a dollar.
Gracie’s parents had thrown the whole tooth fairy economy out of whack, and Jan didn’t know how to explain the fundamental unfairness. What could she say? The tooth fairy loved Gracie more? Gracie was cuter? They’d negotiated a better deal?
These days, Karen knew who the Tooth Fairy was. The last tooth her little brother lost was from going over the handlebars of his bike. Chuck had come home sobbing, with a bloody mouth, a gap in his smile, and a fist clenched around a fragment of white.
Although Jan calmed him down with French fries and chicken-fried steak, she forgot to put the money under his pillow. Karen ran downstairs the next morning to tell her, and together they wrote a note explaining that the Tooth Fairy had been running late, delayed by traffic over Asia and an unexpected number of children who’d eaten taffy apples.
It was the Easter Bunny, that weirdest of holiday animals, its story so thin and its elements so odd, that led Karen to insist, “It doesn’t make sense, Mommy. Tell me the truth.” Even though Jan hadn’t wanted to, she told her daughter and the toppling of one icon brought the rest crashing down. Karen instantly understood that no Easter Bunny meant no Santa Claus, no leprechauns, and no tooth fairy. She crawled onto her mother’s lap and cried.
Sometimes, when one thing was pulled out, everything came crashing down. One fantasy. One tooth. One job. One member of the family. You had to adjust to a different world. If Jan could, she would crawl into someone’s lap right now and have a comforting cry. That’s all she wanted. Someone to be there for her. Some days, that was the best she could do as a parent. Just be there.
That sounds like enough. But you also need money for the teeth. All those teeth.
Joe Mills is a faculty member at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and holds an endowed chair, the Susan Burress Wall Distinguished Professorship in the Humanities. He has published six collections of poetry with Press 53, most recently Exit, pursued by a bear which consists of poems triggered by stage directions in Shakespeare. He edited the collection of film criticism A Century of the Marx Brothers. With his wife, Danielle Tarmey, he researched and wrote two editions of A Guide to North Carolina’s Wineries, and his essay “On Hearing My Daughter Trying to Sing Dixie” won this year’s Rose Post Creative Nonfiction Competition. More information about his work is available at www.josephrobertmills.com.