Tell-tale Teeth

by Ben Whitnall

Funny how it’s always the teeth.

On the news, I mean. Or CSI, one of the two. After all the hopeful posters and the tearful parents and the trawls of woods and the charred remains. After all is said and done, I suppose. After all of that, there’s still the teeth. And they lift them out of those bust-up bits of ashy jawbone and hold them high and say “hey, we know who she was!” and, well, at least that’s something.

Did you know there’s a mermaid in the British Museum? It’s not actually a mermaid, of course. But plenty of people thought it was. It’s short, like three feet long. Sort of toddler-sized. It’s got a head and arms and a fishtail— a bundle of convincing, petrified anatomy, all joined-up together. And crowds would come and marvel at this carcass.

In the end, it turned out to be half a dead monkey stitched to half a dead fish. A nice taxidermic trick, but still. A shame, a sad realisation. And, apparently, the giveaway was the teeth. DNA testing, probably. Maybe just the wrong shape or age, I can’t remember right now. But that’s how they found out, the teeth.

When I was eight or nine, I went days without food so I could keep a handkerchief wedged in my mouth—a desperate attempt to stop a wobbling tooth from finally dislodging.

These two, the front ones on the bottom—they lost their tops when someone swung a foot into my face. I remember spitting out a mouthful of blood and saliva and seeing a pair of ceramic white cubes go skittering across the concrete pitch, rattling like dice. And then feeling the electric shock of the exposed nerves, a squidgy little pulsing tentacle stranded in the middle of the hard enamel. Whenever I took a breath, the air would whistle over the gap and I would yowl and buckle and grab my temples and clench my eyes and sob. I kept jamming my fingers into my mouth, only to see my hands fill up to bubbling red pools again.

And I think the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life—before today, I mean—was from grinding my teeth in my sleep. I didn’t know that’s what it was at the time; I thought I must have shattered my jaw. My skull felt on fire. I knelt at the sink, hurling cold water into my face, down my throat, frantically trying to douse the burning behind, underneath, inside my molars. I couldn’t even stand up, I was completely at the mercy of this agony.

As you might expect of someone in my position, I am not an especially humble man. I do not like to ask for help. But I would beg a dentist.

“Extraction” is the word. Take it out. The whole thing. Yes, the whole tooth. The whole tooth, the whole truth; get it out, take it! Ha. Strange the little laughs you find right at the end of yourself.

Anyway, that’s what stays in my head as I—with strength and sudden clarity, you understand—make my decision: “funny how it’s always the teeth.” Time to stop prevaricating. Don’t they say there’s a peace that comes with a choice? You can’t just watch your days drift by, passive, uncertainty wobbling indefinitely, trying to dampen fears with a soggy handkerchief. So I choose. I resolve. I decide. I decide to accede.

In the film, some square-jawed suit would warn, with a hushed severity, that “they’ll kill you anyway, it’s not worth it.” In the papers, they’d find a way to denounce me as the worst thing that had ever happened to the whole history of humanity (that day) without having been within 10,000 light years of my circumstances, just like they always do. In the fucking literary novel or whatever, I’d be some high-functioning meth addict’s fever-dream metaphor for the tragic decline of this-that-or-the-other. But I’m not in any of those things. I’m just in a room, on a chair, hands tied but finding a way to grab back my story again regardless. Asserting my choice. Mine, you hear?

So I’m chalking up yet another success. Right now, I’m winning. Right now, as I feel for the foreign gap in my gums, prodding softly with my swollen tongue, pushing around jagged fragments of amalgam and dentin, there is a quiet bliss that settles over the corners of my bloodied mouth.

Ben Whitnall wants to get everything perfect first time, so he hates coming up with bios and hates submitting things. He’s convinced, though, that it’s better to get imperfect things out there than doing nothing, waiting for a day that never comes. Hence this nonsense.
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