First place winner of our 2022 flash fiction contest.
The dental student tells me I’m clenching my teeth at night. She examines my jaw, notes some muscle enlargement, tooth erosion. She says it could be too much caffeine, alcohol, apnea, dreaming. Other daytime stressors. Stressors. I think of primal urges. Not so much rending and tearing, but holding on for dear life. Like a trapeze artist high above, hanging from a bit in her mouth while she spins and juggles chainsaws, the nets useless. Yet how light she seems up there, how heavily she must sleep. I tell the dental student I’m surprised because I feel nothing in the mornings. No sore jaw or headache or clicking in my ears when I open wide. She asks if my partner or spouse hears my grinding. I don’t have either, I say. She glances at her assistant. The air-conditioning makes me shivery. The instruments are cold, prodding my tender gums. When she taps my molars and tells me to speak up if I feel any sensitivity, I grip the chair arms.
“Yes. Yes. Yes. Yep. Uh-huh.”
Between taps, she says, “I read somewhere that archeologists have found rings inside teeth like trees.” I can’t tell if she’s talking to me or the assistant or us both. “Not a ring for every year, but more like when the body goes through big life changes, upheavals. Illness, war, childbirth, lactation, menopause, incarceration.” I swear there’s a pause before the last one. A swivel in her chair, another glance at the assistant. I go lightheaded, as if I’m inside the hot air balloon in the photo muraled across the ceiling-light panels. My hands must be the giveaway. They used to be so sure of themselves. Pinching a fold of cash from a busy drawer, pocketing it. Now I cross them, curl them on my stomach, slot them under my ass, fidget with the seams of the uniform pants for my job at the county college dining hall. She schedules a nightguard fitting and moves on to her next patient. I’m left staring at the X-rays on the monitor. “So where are my rings?” I ask. The assistant shrugs. “Too faint to pick up, I guess,” she says, handing me a little cup of mouth rinse. I think of future archeologists excavating my remains, the only traces left of me threadbare patches of my uniform and my ground-down molars. I imagine the archeologists postulating reasons for my most pronounced rings, the deepest upheavals. Storing my teeth inside a mini-Ziploc slotted inside an old-style card catalog drawer, no designation but a bunch of numbers on an index card fingerprinted with my dust.
The assistant unclips my bib. “You’re a trooper,” she says. “FYI, the boil-and-bites at Walgreens are seriously just as good as custom.” She says it softly, like a secret.
The night guard at the county lock-up knew how much I loved the tree outside my cell. He’d be finishing his shift at sun-up and find me standing on the toilet, looking out the tiny window into the cramped yard by the interstate. I’d stay planted there till my legs shook. I loved the way the tree teetered and bobbed from the turbulence like a juggler on a high wire, limbs waving, leaves twirling in perpetual ta-da! hands. I loved the way the tree settled back into stasis. That it didn’t stint on its seasonal flair because of where it stood or what sort of people it gave shade to. How its brief autumn orange matched my jumpsuit.
One time, the guard told me the tree had only a few years left. Slow-killed from inside by the Emerald Ash Borer. The tree didn’t look sick, except for some sparseness at the crown. Like my own greying scruff of hair. He told me the best way to save the tree was to pray with him for its salvation. I knew he’d been waiting for a chance to both evangelize me and get some head. I closed my eyes and bowed to the will of his transactional god, the one I wished had bargained with me when I wrote the bad check to my landlord, stole from a house I cleaned, blew it all at Liquor Outlet.
After I got out, I went to the library and Googled the beetle. Read about how its larvae burrow under the ash’s bark, unseen. Saw the pictures of deep, twisty tunnels packed like large intestines. The candy-green, bullet-shaped adults nibbling the leaves, outward sign that a tree is past saving. I read that eventually the entire ash stock in the state would die. That the blight would be starkly obvious, since it costs too much to remove all the dead trees. I wondered if most people wouldn’t even notice.
I run a mile from the dental school to the bus stop. I don’t want to be late for work. My boss won’t fall for it if I appear out of the forest of towering sheet pan carts, looking flushed and mid-effort. As I board the bus, I run my tongue along my teeth and gums, still sore. In my pocket is an appointment card with the dental assistant’s recommended mouth protector brands and Good luck! A kindness. A blow-off. I can’t tell. The bus merges onto the interstate and my eyes grow heavy, my jaw loose. I half-dream that the dental assistant and I are in a hot air balloon rising high above, over the jail, my tree. My poor dying ash still doing time in that yard. Still in leaf somehow, branches reaching. A new ring eked out with another borrowed year. Clenching, holding on, behind closed lips. A thing standing there like a trooper. Like ta-da! Everything’s fine.