By Jenny Belardi
It seemed no accident that Sam drove by many of his childhood haunts on the way to his father’s nursing home. There was the elementary school, where the playground looked more colorful and safer but also less fun than when he’d been a kid. There was the mom and pop grocery store, Mr. Meat, which somehow stayed in business even with the Safeway now down the road. There was the library, where Sam had spent countless hours reading by the fish tank while his father studied for his night classes on his way to being a lawyer.
Sam wasn’t sure if the Sunrise facility where his father now resided had existed back then. Why would he know that? He’d had no interactions with old people as a child except for his one surviving grandmother who lived with him and his family.
He was a mile or two away from Sunrise, near the bar his dad used to frequent Monday nights after tennis, when he felt a strange sensation in his mouth. It was such a strong feeling that he wanted to stop and look, but it was a two-lane road with no good place to pull off. He brought his tongue to the back of his mouth, on the right side. He felt it immediately. He had a loose tooth. He moved his tongue away as quickly as possible, lest he loosen the tooth even more.
As soon as he parked his old metallic gray Outback at Sunrise, he pulled down the driver’s side flap and flipped open the mirror. There was a small light on each side, one of which had gone out years ago, and Sam had never bothered to fix it. No matter, it was one in the afternoon. He opened his mouth as wide as it would go. He couldn’t see anything though, he could only feel it. He brought a finger up inside his mouth and touched the tooth. He could feel it wiggle, but the movement was so slight, he couldn’t see it in the mirror.
He threw the flap back into place.
Sunrise was actually a pretty nice place, not that his father could enjoy it much anymore. But it made Sam feel better, that it didn’t smell like urine as he’d expected a nursing home to, and that the nurses were firm but also polite. The receptionist knew key family members by name. This included Sam, since he was here at least three days a week after his shift at the bank. She waved and gave him a warm smile as he entered.
Sam tried not to look into the other patients’ (or were they residents?) rooms as he passed. He felt they deserved their privacy, and that privacy was a key component of dignity for an eighty-five-year-old, but it was hard. The blaring sounds of Judge Judy drew his eyes and ears, and sometimes he would catch a glimpse of another family member and want to look at them in solidarity. There were a lot of women about Sam’s age here visiting at all hours ― more than the men. Sam was nearly fifty and still single, and sometimes he fantasized about meeting his future wife at Sunrise and creating something happy and miraculous from the dump heap of lives the place housed, the belching and gas and IV lines and blank stares.
Sam’s father was asleep in his chair when Sam arrived. Good. It was better than the bed. Once you were in your bed at one in the afternoon, the end had to be coming for you. His father had a spot of drool on his chin, which was dry now and had crusted over.
Sam looked at his father, but his mind was on his own tooth. He kept bringing his tongue close, then resisting the urge to knock tongue to tooth. If it was falling out, he knew it’d come out on its own sooner or later, but he wanted it to be later if those were his choices.
Sam’s father’s teeth were no longer. Instead, he wore dentures, as Sam guessed everyone at Sunrise did. The too-perfect-looking fake teeth sat now in a cup on his father’s bedside table, next to the tray of lunch his father hadn’t eaten yet. Sam gently lifted the silver top off the dishes, peering inside, trying to be quiet. Overcooked white fish. Overcooked broccoli. Jell-O.
The only chair in the room occupied, Sam stood at the window for an hour and waited for his father to wake up. The window looked over some woods, and he caught glimpses of deer and rabbits.
When Sam’s father woke up, Sam didn’t tell him about the tooth.
The next morning, when Sam awoke, the tooth was on his pillow. His first thought was that he was glad he hadn’t swallowed it while he was sleeping. His second thought was, Oh my gosh, I’m not even fifty and my teeth are falling out. He picked the tooth up and looked at it. There was blood on it, and so there was blood on the pillow. He put the tooth on the bedside table on a tissue and threw his sheets in the washer. Then he picked the tooth back up, very carefully, and brought it into the bathroom.
He rinsed it off, as if he’d leave it for the tooth fairy that night when he went to bed, and put it in a Dixie cup patterned with purple and red swirls on the bathroom counter. He’d picked the Dixie cups up because it seemed like something he should have, but he’d picked this design because he was cheap and the cups were on clearance. He’d barely used them, but now a Dixie cup was just what he needed. He had a pack of thirty-two, and he panicked thinking that maybe he’d need one cup for each tooth, that somewhere his body had known that when he’d purchased the cups.
Sam tried to put the tooth out of his mind, but of course, his mind could think of nothing but the gap his tongue now felt in his mouth. He changed into his running clothes and hopped on the treadmill in his basement. He turned on the Today Show and looked at Savannah Guthrie in her floral dress. He loved Savannah with her smile like a box of candy and her blonde hair and her inviting laugh. Now though, all he could see were her teeth.
He turned the speed up to the fastest he could handle, ran hard, jumped off for water. He jumped on and off the treadmill every minute, running intervals that were so difficult, his mind shut down. All his energy went to his legs. When he was maxed out, he turned the treadmill off and stretched. He was proud that he could still run fast for an old guy. Every time he wanted to skip a workout, he thought of Sunrise.
As he threw water down his throat, his tongue filled the gap again. But this time, it wasn’t just a gap. He felt something poking through. It was another tooth.
He ran to the bathroom. He could feel it more than see it, but another tooth was definitely breaking through, as if he were a seven-year-old.
The next day, the tooth was bigger. The worst part was that Sam had to go to work. How would he hide it, and would the gap or the new tooth be harder to hide? The gap, he thought. Definitely the gap. But what would the new tooth look like? Would it be normal-looking, like other teeth? Or would it be something else altogether? He was in uncharted territory here.
He remembered the first time he saw anyone lose a tooth. He was in Kindergarten, and “S” was the letter of the week. During circle time, the teacher asked each student to name something that began with the designated letter, and so, Sam and his classmates were going around saying “soap” and “snow” and “sun.” Just after he’d contributed “snot,” Sam looked over at his classmate Kelsey. There, in front of everyone, she reached into her mouth and plucked a bottom front tooth and held it up for the class to see, like a trophy. Blood poured from the new hole while she smiled, and the teacher abandoned the giant cardboard “S” she’d been holding to run for a tissue. Even as a child, Sam somehow understood that something oddly personal and inappropriate had taken place, like it wasn’t something he was supposed to see.
And now, as an adult, and with a clandestine tooth! He wasn’t even sure where to start.
In the end, he started the workday with coffee, just like he always did. He had his place where he stopped for a medium black every morning on his drive in. This time, he asked for a straw because he was worried about the coffee dribbling out from the new chasm. The barista at the window glared at him, as if to ask why he needed a straw this time and only this time, when he’d ordered the same thing he’d gotten for years. She was in her late teens, and her red curls flopped over the band of her visor, catching in her eyelashes. She used her elbow to move them out of the way, not her hands. Sam appreciated her attention to cleanliness in food preparation.
When he arrived at the bank, he realized that the barista wasn’t the only one who would think the straw in his coffee was weird. But then, his coworkers might notice he didn’t have a coffee if he abandoned it in the cup holder of his car. Plus, he really wanted the coffee. Didn’t some people use a straw to save their teeth from coffee stains? He’d go with that if someone asked. Of course, as he entered the bank and set the coffee down at his workstation, no one asked anything of him. He wasn’t even supposed to have coffee in here, but no one paid attention to that particular rule until the customers started rolling in around nine. That was around the same time the women placed the required nylons over their tan, hairless summer legs.
As the first customer entered, Sam had an idea. He watched as a harried woman, clearly on her way to work in black patent heels, pushed open one of the double glass doors. He could feel the heat from outside despite the early hour, and then the cool relief of the AC filling the space once the door closed again.
Looking at the door, he thought, that’s how I’ll remove the tooth.
The idea was ridiculous, he knew. The tooth wasn’t even close to all the way through yet. But having this plan in mind made him feel better. By the time the woman approached him, the removal of tooth by doorknob was a goal.
“Good morning,” he said to the woman.
“Good morning,” she replied, not looking up at him. “I’d like a hundred dollars from this account.” She handed him an ATM card.
There was an ATM right by the door she’d just pushed open. There were also withdrawal slips in the bank lobby. Two easy and prescribed ways to take out cash. But at least one in ten customers didn’t want to use the two ways already set out for them.
Sam pulled a withdrawal slip from his drawer and filled it out for the woman. He tried to focus on the paper, on his hand pressing against it with a pen, but his tongue kept finding the gap in his mouth and then the tip of tooth. He felt like he’d heard a scream, and he looked at the woman to see if she’d heard it, too. She hadn’t, but he could tell she was wondering what was taking so long. She pulled her cell phone from her brown leather bag, sent a text.
He finished the transaction and handed the woman her cash, receipt, and ATM card. She threw him a thank you over her shoulder as she hustled away.
He knew what was happening. He only had to look at his father to see it. He’d looked at his father in varying stages of decay for years now, often thinking, is this what we’re meant to become? His father, once someone who had given so much to the world, was now a taker. For a while, in his father’s sixties, his father took. Of course, he did. But he took trips to Europe and classes on Impressionism and book after book about WWII from the library. Now he took fluids and bottles of pills and bowl after bowl of Jell-O.
This is what we were now. We’d evolved to needing a third set of teeth.
Jenny Belardi is currently the Director of Development at Carnegie Mellon University’s top-ranked School of Computer Science. Her work frequently deals with potential futures and our relationship with technology. She has been longlisted for the 2016 Fish Flash Fiction Contest and the 2015 Fish Poetry Prize and was a semi-finalist in Concordia University’s Summer Literary Series contest. Recent work is featured in YARN, Windmill, and Sixfold. She earned my M.Litt. in fiction from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, and my B.A. with honors in English from Villanova University.