Grandma’s Bones Live In My Mouth Now

"Teeth," a short story by Debbie Vance

a dental model of teeth

Grandma’s Bones Live In My Mouth Now

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Teeth

When my grandma left me her teeth I had no choice but to take them. They were a bad fit, riddled with cavities, and I was sorry to see my own teeth, white, healthy, plucked loose from my mouth and stored in a glass display case until such time as I might bestow them on someone else. Not that I would. It’s some real fucked up nonsense, inheriting someone else’s teeth, carrying their bones in your mouth, sharp little marbles of memory.

Ever since the transplant I’ve gone mute. My grandma Helen was a dancer. The language inside her body was movement, and now the language inside mine is unrecognizable even to me. I was never an athlete. I was never an artist. There is no way for me to externalize these internal currents, so I don’t.

At night, my dreams are filled with Helen’s memories. It’s a second life for her—her memories reincarnate in my body—but it’s me who’s living it. She’s as dead as she was before the surgeon buried the roots of her teeth into the fresh craters in my mouth.

My mom calls to ask how I’m doing even though she knows I can’t answer. She was sad when her mom skipped her and went straight to me, but she was also relieved, and I can tell she feels guilty that I’m the one carrying this ancestral burden instead of her. Nana was never that nice in the first place.

“Is your mouth sore?” she asks me. “Are you eating?”

Inside my body I feel what it felt like to carry her as a fetus. I feel the deadweight of her girlbody asleep on my chest. I feel insurmountable anger when she calls after months of not calling to say she’s pregnant, not because she’s pregnant, but because I’m the one who’ll have to take care of the baby while she finishes school, builds a life, when all I want to do, all I’ve ever wanted to do, is dance, and this is the second time this girlchild has stolen that from me.

“You sound good,” my mom says, even though I haven’t said anything, and my body is all flex and angles, all hard-lined accusation. “Let me know if you need anything,” she says, because she knows I can’t.

I cook Campbell’s tomato soup on the stove, and while it cooks, I choreograph a dance that perfectly expresses all of my fury and sadness. When I try to enact it in the living room, I am a pre-lingual baby, imitating sounds without understanding their meaning, and it makes me feel like tearing the limbs from my body and replacing them with another, more fluent set. I leave the soup on too long and it burns a thick layer of sludge on the bottom of the pan, which I leave in the sink for someone else to clean.

My mom comes by with Tylenol and coffee. Her eyes roam my untidy apartment and land briefly on the display of teeth that have been extracted from my mouth. I have made an altar for them on the coffee table—votive candles, Hershey’s kisses, peppermints. When I eat, I set aside a little food for them. When I drink coffee, I pour them a small cup and sit with them and tell them what I am feeling without using words or movement and it is no small miracle that they understand me. They offer suggestions. They ask for a refill. These enamel rocks that want what they want and aren’t ashamed to ask for it.  

“Are you having second thoughts?” my mom asks me, nodding towards the teeth which are no longer mine.

All of my thoughts are second thoughts, having been thought once, already, by Helen, but how can I say this? There is a body enacting breath, billowing up and down, up and down, repeated ad nauseum, and for once I try my hand at performing this speech-act in front of another human, in front of my mom, but it comes off spasmodic and weird and I want to grind my fists into my eyes until I see stars. I have a feeling that my teeth are laughing at me from their coffee table shrine, and I want to knock their socks off, metaphorically speaking.

“Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea,” my mom says, as if I had some choice in the matter. “No one would blame you for reversing the procedure.”

The teeth go sharp in my mouth, the roots clinging to my jaw like tentacles. How do I say I’m not alone? How does a body dance haunted? I remember the adrenaline rush of being backstage before a performance, the pulsing dark, the incipient light. I roll my head in a large, slow circle. I hunch my shoulders. My mom backs out of the apartment still holding both coffees, hers and mine.

I dream I’m dancing for an audience of Gaba girls. I dream about sex. The teeth want to keep dreaming, so I stay in bed all day, dozing through the morning, the afternoon, only rising at nightfall to pour some water on my extracted teeth, the poor thirsty darlings, before falling back into my bednest where I’m shaking cocktails for someone named Alfonse. When my mom calls, I send her straight to voicemail. When she calls again, I turn off my phone.

I am lying on a dance floor, watching other women leap over me. I am in a nude leotard on a rooftop slow-stepping in geometric patterns with women whose shoulders I never touch. I am good at this. I am the best.

In the bathroom mirror I meet a stranger with my teeth and someone else’s nose. First there’s fear, then panic, then the numbing sensation of a word repeated too many times, and a face is a face is a face and that’s not what’s important anyway.

In the living room, I move the furniture to the walls to make room for the words my body wants to say, but a full set of teeth, not mine, are shrieking for crusty bread and milk. They are desperate, these teeth, and I don’t truck with desperate. I unwrap a Hershey’s kiss and eat it, watching the teeth vibrate with envy, and then I eat another. When I’m finished with the chocolate, I eat the peppermints, and when I’m finished with the peppermints, I lick my finger and thumb and extinguish the candle’s flame.

I carry the teeth to the window—the night is balmy with spent rain—and I pluck them, one by one, from their setting until all that’s left is thirty-some empty cavities, a glass palate, a speechless tongue.

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