Milk Teeth

We mark time by his teeth.

            He is five, running out from the front doors of his school to meet us at the end of a cool Friday in April. Before we start the walk home, he slaps a white envelope into my wife’s hands, legal sized, too big for the single incisor it holds. Dried flecks of blood from where it came out at the root, faint as a paint chip.

            “I lost a tooth!” he beams, and my wife and I look at each other like something has ended, something else has started. We walk and he jogs the two blocks home, staying on the far side of the walkway like we’ve told him before. Starts digging in the cabinets for a plastic baggie once we get back.

            “Keep it out of the soil,” my wife says, pointing to the rosemary she’s potting on the kitchen table, “if you want to leave it for the Tooth Fairy.”

            He’s heard of her, this woman who comes in the night, who exchanges discarded things for gifts. Our son reconsiders, puts the baggie on the counter instead for safekeeping. In the morning, he’ll find a Sacagawea dollar and a pack of his very own bubble gum under his pillow.

            While my wife puts him to bed, I drive to the store before it closes for the night. I buy milk and a pack of watermelon gum from the cashier. Points me over to the bored teenager at the customer service desk, tells me I can get a dollar coin there instead. On my way out, half the lights go off in the store, and a manager somewhere starts up an extended version of Roy Rogers’ “Happy Trails” over the PA.

            In the dark at home, I slip the coin and the gum into my son’s fingers while he’s passed out. His hair smells like watermelon from his neon-green shampoo, and I linger while he grabs and holds my finger from somewhere deep in a dream.

*     *     *

The canines follow the incisors.

            He is nine, a fourth-grader now, wriggling out the tooth from his bottom jaw so he can get back to playing video games in the living room. The socket sits open and wet with a jut of white coming up from the carnage, and I tell him it’s just a little while until dinner.

            On the first dry afternoon after a storm in May, I watch as my wife plants coriander and parsley, sage and marjoram all together at one end of the raised flowerbeds, carrots and peas and green beans at the other. In the summer heat, tomatoes will snake up through the stakes in the yard, and we’ll make jars of marinara and arrabiatta each weekend. We’ll wind up giving most of it away. If we don’t pull the plump, red bombs off the stakes, they’ll sit and wither. They’ll stink and fester in the hot sun, and their juice will drip rot into the raised beds. For right now, though, we buy rigatoni and farfalle in bulk, his favorites. Our fingers reek of the thyme and garlic and oregano his mother grows in mason jars in the kitchen.

            She pots the chervil and chives inside, too, in with the bay laurel she nestles onto the bright windowsills. Their leaves creep up and press toward the glass, safe as animals in captivity from the hot sun that might desiccate them.

            “This was mine when I was your age,” she tells him once she comes in to wash her hands. Says this every time he loses a tooth now. My wife holds a purple silk pillow the color of Thai basil in her hands, turns it over now to show him the small pocket on the bottom. “Just put your tooth in here, kiddo.”

            “You’ve said this a thousand times already,” he tell us, and now he’s back at the TV again. It flickers off right as he flops back onto the couch, and the screen dies right along with all the lights in the house. “No!” he yells, and I wondered if he’s saved his game. Outside, a car horn drones on like it’s mourning.

            He steps out with us onto the front stoop. We watch the line of cars piling up behind where the accident’s happened. A Volkswagen beetle the color of a ladybug, one of the reissues, has knocked into a pole down by our son’s school, the power line above it drooping. Driver gets out, hands on the sides of his head now while he yells at God above him. Maybe God’s there because no one’s been hurt. 

            A few blocks away, we hear the town’s fire truck lurch to life. Remind ourselves not to open the fridge until the power comes back. We’ll have Chinese for dinner instead, with candles and flashlights stabbing out from the gloom.

            When the lights flicker back on, he is asleep in his bed, another tooth gone, another coming in. The neighborhood around us quiet, finally, my wife and I undress and move into each other with the covers off. We perspire in the new, clean warmth of May. Once our breathing changes, I reach for the box of condoms in the bedside drawers, but my wife stops my hand.

            “Not tonight,” she tells me. “I want this. I love it. Him, you. I want all of this again.” And I tell her it’s what I want, too. It’s the first time we’ve talked about it, something we’ve felt but not known. 

            Later, the power returns and the lights flare back to life. While my wife sleeps, I flip switches off around our family. Downstairs, the TV has pulsed back to life. Where our son’s avatar once ran and jumped and fought onscreen, it’s all gone now. Nothing but an empty blue light shines out, waiting as if to receive.

*     *     *

The bigger teeth take more force.

            “You’ll need to come pick him up,” the school nurse says. So I do.

            His eyes are red and puffy from where he’s been crying, and that’s okay. 

            “He says he fell on the playground,” the nurse explains, “but I expect there was some roughhousing going on out there.”

            Blood turns the gauze red, and my 10-year old looks like he’s been suckling on used battlefield dressings. His side’s lost the war, and there are casualties.

            “Want to tell me what happened?”

            “No,” he says. I let it go because sometimes I have to.

            We run out through school’s parking lot in the warm June rain, driving away from the direction of home now, right instead of left out the school gates. 

            “Where are we going?” he says.

            “Errands,” I tell him. “Now do you want to tell me what happened?”

            We pass the first of the two antique stores in town, the one that’s never open past noon. We zip by three churches—a Baptist, the Episcopalian, another Baptist—and the drive-through coffee window that’s just been added onto the side of the old Mobil station before he finally says anything.

            “Okay, so it started sprinkling, and Joshua and I were up on the monkey bars,” he starts. “I told him I could flip over while still holding on, and he said I couldn’t, and then I tried to show him, but then he pushed me and I slipped and fell down, and then I hit my jaw on the bar as I fell and bit my tongue, see?”

            When we stop as the light at the intersection turns yellow, and I look over at where he’s removed the bloody gauze, at the red marks on his tongue. Thin slivers of crimson where his incisors have knifed down into the meat. Every millimeter of it looks angry and raw.

            “Ouch,” I say. 

            “And I lost a tooth,” he explains. He digs around in his big pocket of his backpack. Somehow finds it in amid the pencils and the pens and the TI-89. “Careful.”

            The premolar’s come out in two pieces, split right down between the two cusps, and they fall into my hand like charms, one and two, like they’ve been hit with a hammer. The light turns green, and I close my fingers around them. Cusps that were once part of my son, and they’re precious to his mother and me. I don’t want to lose them.

            At home, a small box of varnished cedar sits on my wife’s dresser. Holds the pieces of my son that have been discarded. The incisors, the canines that have fallen out. They’ve been collected, held in a pillow one by one over night, and we’ve snuck into our boy’s room each time with money and candy for the ransom. We retrieve what’s been lost and keep each tooth in the box of cedar. It sits partially hidden in the green leaves of my wife’s pothos, its green vines swirling in loops around her brushes and mirrors. Placed there and allowed to extend and grow and reach after a year’s worth of trying for another baby and failing and failing, and failing again. In some corners of our home, it is as green inside as it is in the garden.

            These two small pieces of our son’s bright smile will join the others tonight. After we’ve stolen them from beneath his head. They’ll make the sound of two coins falling into a pirate’s treasure.

*     *     *

The molars come out at the very end.

            He loses the second-to-last primary on his 11th birthday, July 14th.

            “Happy Bastille Day, beautiful boy!” we tell him each year. He gives us a weird look every time we do.

            It’s from chomping down on ice like we’ve told him not to so many times before. We hear him laughing, then we hear him cry out in pain.

            “I’m okay, I’m okay,” he mumbles at us, waving a hand as we rush up the stairs to him. He and his friends are perched in sagging beanbags scattered around his room. Holds his jaw like he’s been socked in a fight, moves the rest of the ice around in his mouth like he’s searching for something. In go his index finger and thumb to fish through the wreckage.

            And there it is. A white pebble in his hand the weight of an expensive gemstone. Or a piece of sugar-coated gum from the checkout lane. Four cuspids of flat rock we’ve evolved to help us grind food down, to crush, to pulverize. He hands the tooth to us like it’s a piece of food he’s tired of chewing.

            A string of drool gleams in the July sunlight. One of the other boys sees it, says, “Eww.”

            This gets our son revved up like a car engine. He grins, swishes what’s left of the spit and the ice and the blood that’s left in his mouth around. Gargles it now like mouthwash then empties it back into his cup. Blood and mucus and the foam he’s made fall out of his mouth, back into the red Solo cup of Kool-Aid. Streaks of crimson line his lips and in between his adult incisors and canines, and he smiles wide for effect, gets laughs from the other boys who’ve come to the party. 

            Downstairs, my wife returns to the heirloom carrots perched next to the sink. She clips off the small green stems from the yellow and the purple and the gold-orange fingerlings, washes them under the tap. Lays them on an open dish towel to dry as part of her bounty.

            I put our son’s next-to-last molar onto the top of the microwave, and it clinks against the metal. 

            “What are we going to do with that boy?” she asks, smiling bright and big.

            “I don’t know,” I tell her, “but he’s almost out of baby teeth. How are you doing with that?”

            She waits for a moment before answering, fingers still working dirt off the carrots. I grab the bag of chips from the pantry while she chews it over. Down in the back corner is a new bag of tulip bulbs, quiet and waiting in the dark of the kitchen for her to plant them next month.

            “I’ll miss our baby,” she tells me. The water runs under the tap, covering any whisper we might have made about having another child. About trying and trying again. “But I can’t wait to see what kind of young man he’ll become.”

            In August, a truck’s front fender takes the last milk tooth from our son’s sweet skull.

*     *     *

We find the molar on the sidewalk. We’re not supposed to, but we do.

            It’s the end of a long, hot day that shouldn’t exist in September. Nothing so hot and out of place as it is right now. There’s a single scratch in the sidewalk asphalt and a wooden cross in the grass someone else has erected. Nothing else there to mark the occasion. His name etched in black against the white paint. “John 6:39-40” written in a fine, thin script, but without the verse itself.

            We take walks now by ourselves. Past his school because our therapist has told us we have to. Down to the site of the accident and past it if we can.

            The gash the truck left in the turf after flipping on its side and skidding is gone now. Filled in by the rain and the mud from earlier in the month. Glass and metal have been scooped up by the city. If we look hard, we might find a piece from the windshield, but we don’t go digging.

            Instead, we sit on the sidewalk where it happened and sweat. We cry. We don’t look at each other most days, and we mourn. I stare at a spot right above the grate where the rainwater is supposed to sluice in, if there were any rainwater today, and there it is.

            A single molar, brown and black and caked with what looks like dirt. Caught in the lip between the metal of the grate and the concrete opening. If you were looking for it, it’d just be another stone in the road. 

            It can’t be his. It must be his. 

            I cover it with my boot before my wife buries her head in her clasped hands. After she goes to bed tonight, I take it from my knife pocket, hidden, clean it under running water in the sink. In the cedar box it goes with its brothers, safe among the pothos vines.

*     *     *

Weeks later, I look up the verse while my wife naps in a daze.

            And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.

            We forget some days that our alarms are still set for 7:30. Time to get up and make him breakfast. Time to walk him to first period. We yell for him to get up, forget that he’s not there, hold each other as the sunlight streams in.

            Everything hurts in us.

*     *     *

Halloween draws close, and late-night horror movies work to fill in the quiet hours when we can’t sleep.

            The CBS affiliate—the only major channel we get out here in town—starts playing old slasher flicks and creepshows from the ’80s after the news ends. Instead of sitcoms that run in syndication, we watch Night of the Comet. Los Angeles bathed forever in shades of night or sundown red. The Belmont sisters having the time of their lives fending off the creeps.

            Or The Serpent and the Rainbow, Bill Pullman biting off more than he can chew with his field research down in Haiti. An old Tobe Hooper flick, Lifeforce, where an astronaut tries to save what’s left of London. Fringe flicks like The Stuff, which puts me off from eating for a day. John Carpenter classics like The Fog and Prince of Darkness. Movies that creep us out and make us forget, even if it’s just for the length of a jump scare.

            We go to work, rake leaves, and let whatever’s left in the garden wilt in the rain. We take a pill to sleep most nights, together, 1-2-3, like we’re doing shots at the bar. Sometimes we make it all the way through a film before passing out on the sectional.

            “Who directed this one?” my wife asks during the opening credits of Pet Sematary. I catch it because it’s the first thing she’s said out loud that doesn’t have sorrow stapled to it. Mary Lambert’s name pops up, and we watch the family onscreen get settled into their sleepy cabin in Maine. 

            As the picnic scene begins, I touch my wife’s shoulder, and I’m thankful she’s out cold before the boy in the yellow overalls lets go of his kite.

*     *     *

The day after, she’s up before me. I check the kitchen for a new pot of coffee, the bathroom to see if the shower’s been running. I call her name.

            Upstairs, it’s just as empty. Our bedroom door’s open, but the bed is still made. My wife’s dresser is still covered in pothos vines. There is a hairbrush in its furls, a hand mirror. A cedar box is in there, too.

            Out in the hall, the door to our boy’s room is closed. Like it has been for weeks. I slip in, quiet and still as breath. Empty.

            Old pajama pants lie half turned inside-out on the floor undisturbed. Blankets on his bed still pulled back. A pen next to his desk, books turned over so the spines crack. That cross someone’s driven into the ground down the road isn’t a shrine, but his room is. Untouched. Everything still in its place from the day of the accident.

            In the corner, a pair of old slippers sit together. The one neat thing he’s left in his room. Plush and warm, each house shoe shaped like a maraschino-red pickup truck. He’s worn them to breakfast before, his ankles taking root in the dark of the cargo space. I see that one of them is turned over on its side, still nestled in alongside its brother. 

            We’ve made our own horror flick, replayed it on loop every moment he’s not with us. This is just another moment when the reel starts to play.

            In this movie, it’s the weekend. We live near his school, so half of our walks around the neighborhood run that way. 

            If only we would have gone left instead of, I start to think. But no. Don’t turn away from the picture now. The lighting’s already down low.

            We have a game we play now. We imagine that he’s running cross-country at his school. It helps us to talk about these things. He’s average—slow to start, finishes somewhere in the middle of the roster—but he’s getting bigger. Someday he’ll be so much faster than he is now. So when we take walks, we let him run as far as he can down the road as long he’s still in our line of vision, runs back once he’s gone as far on his tether as possible.

            None of this feels like it’s helping.

            The police told us afterward that the driver was changing radio stations. Parents who lived longer in the community told us the man was known for driving while texting. That he’d been cited before for it. 

            It doesn’t matter. What matters is that he was distracted for just a second and veered left, crossed the solid yellow stripe in the road, dialed back right, hard, before an oncoming car could hit him, overcompensated. Jumped the curb. Then—

            In my son’s room, I stoop down and put the slipper back upright. It’s the one thing I will allow myself to change in this altar. Outside, I hear my wife in her garden.

            From my son’s window, I have a perfect vantage of his mother working a trowel in the raised beds. She is burying something. Bulbs. The tulips from the pantry she’s been keeping in the dark so they won’t stem too early. She works dirt around its edges, preps each body to take directly in the soil.

            This is what movement looks like. Not moving forward, not moving on, but moving. Today will be better than the day before it.

*     *     *

We go to therapy when it gets cold outside. We talk. We mourn.

            We string lights on the house because we have them. We go to awkward work parties because we’re invited, and the mood and volume in the room drops each time we enter. We drive up north with old friends to go to restaurants. They thank my wife again for the carrots and peppers and green beans she gave them over summer. They ask her how she managed to get such bright colors in the harvest.

            After the storms in November, the snows come late in the weeks after. My wife’s mother visits for Christmas and stays through New Year’s and a week longer while her siblings and their children stay home and send gifts in their place. The three of us drink wine and open gifts and talk. We talk about the easy things and the hard things, but we say the words regardless. My wife receives heirloom seeds from coworkers and high school friends and family we haven’t seen in years. She makes plans for what she’s going to grow in the raised beds come those first warm days. When she smiles, she shows teeth again. Each day is better than the day before it.

*     *     *

That April, we open the windows again for the fresh air. It’s inhaled through the house, and the walls and rooms suck it up like oxygen. The sun shines. From down the block, children scream and yell and play in the open fields at the K-8, and we can stand to hear their joy again.

            “Did you see them when you got home?” my wife asks.

            We’ve returned to work. Our hours are regular again. Sunset happens later and later now.

            “See what?” I ask.

            “Go check out the garden,” she tells me. She is smiling now, all teeth and hope and excitement. We haven’t talked about it in years, but we might still be young enough to start again. There are treatments, programs, adoption. An afternoon like this lets all kinds of possibilities in to breathe.

            Beneath the patches of grass that have started to come up in the raised beds, the tulips have risen. Straight as spears. Their buds have been closed but have been taking on color in the last week or so. Oranges and yellow-tinted varieties. Parakeet. Forsythia. Mustard. Purples, too, and shades of red. 

            My wife comes up from behind me. She wears cork sandals to keep her toes dry and off the cool ground. 

            “They’ve started to bloom,” she exclaims. “Look.” We step closer, and so they have. 

            At the front of one of the raised beds is a blossoming tulip the color of deep burgundy, and it stretches open toward the road. Its brothers behind it seem to be open just a little less, like they’re taking directions from the bravest one out front. They shudder for just a moment when a whip of wind drives past, and something moves inside the wine-colored sentinel.

            “They’re beautiful,” I tell my wife. I lean forward to see the stamens and the anthers up close. They are the most fragile things in the world right now.

            “No,” she says, letting go of my arm, “you have to look closer.” I turn, but she says nothing. Smiles. I swivel back to the flower. 

            “Closer,” she says.

            There, snug at the bottom of where the pistil juts up from the petals, is a white stone. A small rock, bright and gleaming.

            A single, perfect tooth.

            An incisor.

            “What?” I ask. To her, to no one. “What is this?”

            I clamber forward into the soil. The three tulips behind the first are the same. An opening, a flutter of the stamens, a single tooth nestled in near the flower’s ovary. Orange petals that open and reveal their gift. Yellow petals, red.

            Another incisor, then a canine, then a single primary molar hidden in the stems. Rows and rows of flowering stalks behind them, twenty in all.

            One for each discarded gift our boy left us.

            “This,” my wife says, staring out toward the wind and the schoolyard now, “is the beginning.”


  • Barrett Bowlin's stories and essays appear (or are forthcoming) in places like Ninth Letter, Barrelhouse, The Rumpus, Hobart, Salt Hill, Bayou, and War, Literature, and the Arts. He lives and teaches and throws rocks into the ocean sometimes out in Massachusetts.

  • A selection of woodcuts from an 1882 book compiling facsimiles of 18th-century chapbooks. To see the pictures in context and peruse the full chapbooks see The Public Domain Review.