In a Jar

I’m thinking about rolling my tongue over my rotting tooth. Should I do it? Teeth can be very dangerous. Just like our Native hair, they can be used against us, to curse us.

I went to see my aunt—a dental hygienist on the reservation—to get X-rays. It was September, and the yellow and orange leaves were dry and dying.

“It’s worse than I thought,” she said.

I was horrified. I’d already been told my wisdom teeth needed to be yanked out. “They’ll rot,” the dentist had said. I put it off for years, though, and watched week after week after week in the mirror as my far back tooth rotted, not wanting to get it extracted.

My father has dentures. When I was child, I watched from the window in our blue home on a dead-end street as my father called one of his employees a name. Then—BAM!—the guy punched my father, sending him sprawling backward, and his jeckin (that’s Native for butt) banged into the earth, sending ripples through the smooth summer grass. My father then got partials implanted, which were later punched out. I didn’t witness that punch, though. It had happened some days or weeks or months or years after my mother had taken me away in the night. “We’re going home, gwus,” she’d said to me. Home. The reservation. After that last whack to his face, my father got dentures.

When the court system shipped me off to visit my father during the summer, I watched him fall asleep on his cigarette-burnt couch with his dentures in. Each inhale and exhale, his new set of teeth popped in and out of his mouth. He never used Poligrip, that pink goo that holds teeth in tight and makes a mess.

My mother uses Poligrip. She refuses to go without it, and it has to be zinc-free. She had had healthy teeth—wonderful teeth! In time, however, she lost her teeth to a terrible, terrible curse: lupus. First it was one tooth, the upper right lateral, that faded to a light brown and then to black-ink black. It was yanked out, and she got a flipper that she’d set on her bedroom nightstand at bedtime. “Here,” I’d say in the early morning, holding her tooth in my little tiny hand. “You get up?” She’d smile sleepily, a dark space in her teeth, and she’d take her tooth from my hand. “Woliwoni, gwusis,” she’d say. Thank you, my little tiny boy. Some years or months or weeks or days later my mother’s teeth, one by one, were pulled out. I had sat in the living room in our little yellow house, miles away from the one in our blue house on that dead-end road, and I’d hear my mother in the bathroom gagging and gagging as her mouth got used to wearing dentures. She came out, defeated, and sat at the kitchen table. She didn’t cry silently like some moms do. I went into the bathroom, saw the stiff teeth on the chipped porcelain sink. I picked them up, rinsed them good, and then popped them in my mouth over my own teeth. “Ma,” I’d said, gagging and laughing. She turned to me with wide wet eyes and burst out laughing, her gums red and raw and stitched.

When was my mother cursed? It’s funny that no one had got hold of her teeth—not even a sharp sliver of enamel—before my mother was forced to get them all removed. Of course, someone could have cursed her after that, considering she seemed to be cursed just every other day—from bacterial meningitis, a coma, a spiral break in her leg, being in a wheelchair for eight months, arthritis, a twenty-six-page report of notes on the brain damage—all this in a matter of three years, and still the curse goes on. She’s cursed so bad that, as she said jokingly once, “I don’t even get flowers anymore when I’m in the hospital.”

My mother’s fifty-second birthday fell two days after my appointment with my aunt, and I remember well the strong wind that blew through the night and cut through trees, leaving the woods bare and damp. For her birthday, I bought her a new TV since the last one blew out because of a thunderstorm, and I used what money I had left to buy some Thai noodles—meats don’t go well with her (it’s in the twenty-six-page report).

While I got my mother a TV and clumpy Thai noodles, my sister—“your sister,” Mom calls her—got my mother a gift: a spreading rumor that our mother is a lesbian. Not to be overdramatic, but my sister’s appearances in my life are like my wisdom teeth: rotting, and no good news comes from them. Or perhaps my sister’s appearances are like her own teeth: a week before my appointment with my aunt, my sister had to get all of her top teeth yanked out.

When I was twelve, in our little yellow house on the Reservation, my sister lived with us. She told me the story of her “visit” to the Mohawk Reservation. The trip was meant to be her attending a rehab facility but led to her dating a man named Doo’Dook, lots of peyote, and a curse she’d found next to her as she sat outside on the cold cement steps one chilly morning: a jar full of corn and hair and teeth.

Just as I found funny my mother not being cursed but inflicted with lupus, I find amusing my sister’s problem: Is it a curse? Did the jar contain some gelid black magic that dispersed over her like a bucket of water? Or are my sister’s ailments the beginning contour of her road in life?

I do it. I roll my wet tongue over my rotting wisdom tooth, and in the dark of my mouth the hole in my tooth feels as wide and as deep as a canyon. But there is no canyon, just a yellowed tooth that is rotting from the top of the crown and burrowing on down to my roots.

More from Morgan Talty:

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