by Camille Lebel

The boy’s teeth never had a chance.

Raised by three doting spinster aunts, he suckled grape soda from a baby bottle. Milk teeth burst through gums into sticky sweet decay. They allowed him this indulgence until long after he could walk himself to the corner store, his sweaty fist wrapped tight around the dime in his pocket. He’d pull a bottle from the ice box, popping the top to release the satisfying hiss of steaming cold. His smile shined, silver fillings flashing.

As a young man, finally allowed a shift at the local factory, he pressed pants until the early morning hours. Soon thereafter, he traded silver for composites. Ivory-shaded ceramic resin disguised the wreckage strewn between molars.

And when he graduated pharmacy school, his first paycheck went to build porcelain bridges, creating a welcoming beam from here to there. Knowing the value of that smile, he offered it cautiously at first. To the mailman. To the usher at Sunday morning service. To the customers asking his advice on antibiotics, allergies, and ailments of the heart. To the wide-eyed, shy brunette at his cousin’s dinner party.

Soon, the corners of his mouth found themselves always aching, pulled so often upward to make way for full-throated laughter. Through tears, he smiled while promising forever in front of God and gathered friends. Smiled as he accepted the keys to their first home. Smiled when the soft yellow paint they chose for the nursery dried to a garish gold. Smiled in wonder at every breath from the curly-haired baby girl nestled in his arms.

Decades later, when they found the cancer hiding in his throat—flaking, ulcerated pustules creeping through his cells—he wasn’t surprised that his teeth were the first sacrifice. Radiation would kill the cancer, along with taste buds and salivary glands, and his remaining, battle-weary, teeth would not withstand the onslaught. To mitigate infection, his gums must be stripped bare. Thus, like dying tree stumps wrestled from the ground, teeth were pulled from their foundation, bloody roots twisted and dangling.

High-energy rays left a desiccated, flavorless wasteland. Cheeks folded inward, deflated balloons strung along fragile bones. In a day, he aged 20 years. In a week, he returned to mewling and puking.

His wife delivered mush-meal food, served with matching platitudes. Well wishes printed on floral card stock decorated the wall, the refrigerator, the corner table. Sans teeth and taste, he found himself longing for promised oblivion, an exit from the stage. Day after day, he sat in a plush red recliner, disappearing.

Finally, he was allowed visitors. For them, he tried. Straining, he awakened the atrophied zygomaticus major and minor. Achingly, he levitated the labii superioris. But it was tedious, exhausting work, and he returned to his chair, mouth corners falling in defeat.

But then, the child of his child, all copper curls and endless chatter, climbed onto his lap. Without the slightest respect for boundaries, she placed sticky hands on each of his cheeks and pushed them wide apart, molding a smile with his doughy skin. From a mouth holding perfect, tiny teeth almost as brilliant as her mischievous eyes, she begged him for tricks. He pulled his bottom lip to his nose and became a walrus. He sucked loose skin deep into the empty cavern of his mouth, transforming into a fish, and she squealed in delight.

Much later, with cancer vanquished and gums healed, a set of dentures proved a welcome addition to his act. With a flick of his tongue, he transformed from the mundane into the extraordinary. A mere man who became a zombie, a skeleton, a shark. A man who could remove his perfect smile and hold it out for all to see.

At his funeral, each mourner referenced his bright, easy smile.

Camille Lebel, disorganized mother to seven, lives on a small farm outside of Memphis, TN where she enjoys horse whispering and singing to her chickens. She largely writes poetry in her minivan while waiting in the school pickup line as a way to process special-needs parenting, adoption, evangelical deconstruction, and more; she is recently published in Blackfox Literary Magazine, Rogue Agent, Sledgehammer Lit, Literary Mama, and One Art.
%d bloggers like this: