30 Pieces

There’s a dream I have where my brow is always furrowed. Something’s gone wrong but I don’t know what yet. I push my tongue against my front teeth and they start to give. They’re loose in pink pockets of gum. A single tooth loses hold and comes out. They all start to fall, hitting the ground with the tinkle of broken glass. I am falling apart. There’s a complete and overwhelming terror in dreams that you never seem to feel when you’re awake. Sheer horror overtakes me and it doesn’t let go until I snap awake, probing to make sure my teeth are firmly in place. 

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Can you remember the feeling of a loose baby tooth? Darting your tongue back and forth to make it wiggle? Pushing it as far forward as it would go until you tasted the blood underneath? Were you always surprised at how sharp its edges were, or how you could fit the tip of your tongue into the gap that had started to form between flesh and bone? There was always a little pain right at the end. The tooth was dangling by a sliver of pink from the top of your mouth. You used your cotton t-shirt to dry its slippery surface. You finally got a good grip on it and pulled. Do you remember the burst of pleasure? That alien artifact sitting in your palm and the warmth of exposed gum it left in its place. It was you once, a part of you that made up your mouth and head and jaw and helped you chew and might have been the key to learning to whistle if you’d just left well enough alone. It used to be you, and now it’s just a white pebble in your hand. It used to be you, and now it’s just a quarter. 

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In the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, Teotihuacan warriors were sacrificed in necklaces made from the teeth of their enemies. The ancient Maori wore necklaces of human teeth that belonged to their deceased relatives. On her Get $leazy Tour, Ke$ha wore a necklace made out of a tooth that a fan sent her. 

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I’ve never had a cavity but I one summer woke up to a screaming pain in my bottom tooth. “It’s dead,” said the dentist. “It’s the result of blunt trauma to the tooth that could have happened anytime. You could have been three years old. You could have been playing hockey.” As I wondered at his choice of examples, he sprayed a Q-tip with liquid nitrogen and pressed it against my dead tooth. I couldn’t feel it. During the operation, they dug a little hole into the back of it. When the drill reached the root, the smell of decay filled the room. This whole time it had been rotting inside my tooth.

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When my sister and I visited our family in Virginia, we were always put in the dusty back bedroom of my grandfather’s, who we never referred to as grandfather but only as ‘Paw-Paw,’ a title that made us feel as though were yelling every time we used it. He fed us pizza rolls for breakfast. We sat on the sticky linoleum tiles while he made grumbling comments that were vaguely directed at us. Then, at the end of every meal, he would expertly work a finger around in the back of his mouth until he dislodged his dentures. They would fly out of his mouth unceremoniously, ribbons of of spit trailing behind. He would then grin broadly at us, lips curled up to reveal what was left after a bullet hit his mouth in Vietnam. I could never eat pizza rolls again. 

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It looked liked a discarded pile of metal shavings, but it was covered by a plexiglass case so I knew it was art. It was sitting on a white pedestal in the corner of the room. I read the title: Thirty Pieces. Thirty pieces was how much it took for Judas to betray Jesus. I always wondered how they landed on that number and if there was any haggling involved. He didn’t even keep the money afterward. No one really knew what to do with the money, how to spend the handful of coins that had killed the Christ. In the end, it bought a field with clay as red as blood. Now it’s used as a burial ground. Thirty pieces bought a place to bury bones and a kiss in the garden. I moved over there slowly, careful to spend time nodding at the blank screen being projected on the wall nearby so the other patrons could tell I was a woman of refined taste. With my nose pressed against the class and museum security glaring, the pile of objects came into focus. Thirty tiny teeth.

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I pulled my sister over. She grimaced as she recognized the shapes, even though I’d been with her when her own baby teeth fell out, usually tied to a string attached to the doorknob I was holding. We couldn’t explain why that still pile of gray teeth, carved from lead, sent a shudder through us both. We saw the milky white of our smiles in the mirror and the red rims of the trophies we’d placed under our pillows at night. But those were ours though. Little parts of us that we still claimed as our own. These lead teeth were abandoned. Unclaimed remnants of something unknown. I saw flashes of broken glass, shiny gums, linoleum tiles, and decay. I don’t know why but I looked away.