Home / Issue 33 / Your Father's Teeth

Your Father’s Teeth

By Leah Kuenzi

            My mother used to tell people that I was born with my two front teeth already cutting through the gums. It was a point of pride, recited along with the age I learned to crawl and talk and use the toilet. My teeth were nothing like hers, thank God, which took damn near forever to come in at all, started falling out immediately, and grew back crooked as the cathedral spires in Custer State Park. My mother had seen a photo of that particular landscape in a geography textbook in middle school, deciding then and there that she needed to see it in person one day. There was a postcard photo of it taped to our refrigerator when I was a kid, an unrealized dream taunting her every time she reached for the ketchup bottle.

            Crookedness led to overcrowding, overcrowding to a lifelong battle against cavities that she always seemed to be on the losing end of. There aren’t many photographs of her as a child, because her parents worked long hours on their dairy farm and didn’t have much time to spend with her, much less stage photographs. Plus, she always faked sick for class picture day at school. In the few photos I’ve ever seen, her mouth is a thin, dark line. She learned early how to hide her shame. There’s only one that I still have in my possession – a newspaper clipping from her senior year in high school. “Lynn Schultz Named A 1975 Betty Crocker Homemaker of Tomorrow,” reads the headline. I found it in a desk drawer at my grandma Geraldine’s house just a few months after I moved in with her. I didn’t have a whole lot to remember Mom by, and Grandma Geraldine said I could have it, since it didn’t do much to make her remember who Mom really was, anyway. But that’s exactly what I loved about it as a teenager – the dark irony of it. “This is the 20th year of the Betty Crocker search, initiated…to emphasize the importance of homemaking as a career,” the text reads. I’m surprised that my mother is able to maintain the usual neutrality of her lips in this photograph, a “specially designed silver charm from General Mills” pinned to her white turtleneck sweater. How is she managing to suppress a snarl, given how perfectly her mangled mouth would lend itself to this purpose?

 

            After high school, Mom got a job assembling industrial fans at the Broan factory in downtown Hartford and “had me” a few years after that. That’s as much information as she volunteered about the nature of my existence.

            “I told Mr. Steinbach that my family was going to Germany to visit relatives so I could get a month off from work after I had you,” she told me once, by way of explaining that she’d already used up her excuses for getting time off, so no, she couldn’t come to school in the middle of the day and see me perform as a kidney in the school play about human anatomy.  

            “Hard to believe I work close enough to the house I was born in that I can almost see it from the window in the break room. I always thought I’d move to Madison with my friend Michelle after graduation. But of course that all changed after I had you,” she told me in the car one day, apropos of nothing, while driving me to the dentist to have my teeth cleaned.

            On a good day—like the days she came home from work humming “Walk Like An Egyptian” and opened the kitchen window while cooking dinner so that she could smell the long stalks of lavender that grew in our neighbors’ flower boxes— I got this warm tingling in my chest that made me feel like I was worth whatever she’d given up. She’d wink at me while I sat at the breakfast counter practicing my cursive lettering, all the while Walking Like An Egyptian across the room, carrying a bowl of mashed potatoes on her outstretched palm to the dinner table. Other times, she’d work some version of a “…but that all changed after I had you” statement into the conversation while looking out the tall, smudge-covered living room window in our duplex. Like she was waiting for someone to walk up the driveway and ring the bell, tell her it’d all been a bad dream, and whisk her away to South Dakota. 

 

            I swear she held down that job at Broan just so she’d have a few dollars of every paycheck to spend on the newest brand of whitening product and oral rinses. Once, she spent $9.99 on what amounted to a bright, blue-ish toned light on a keychain that was meant to be shined at the teeth for 10 minutes a day in order to make them whiter. Another time it was $20 for a “one size fits all” orthodontic retainer of sorts that she saw in a catalog and sent away for. When it came in the mail, she ripped the packaging open to reveal two molded strips of hard plastic with soft rubber inserts—one for the top teeth and one for the bottom. When she tried to put the contraption in her mouth, it didn’t fit, so she pushed it a little harder, and one of the pieces snapped. The company blamed her for using the product improperly, and refused to provide a refund. She wore the unbroken bottom part for about six months before it, too, cracked.

            One night, she dragged me out of bed in the middle of a frigid January night and told me to put my snow boots on. She’d been up late watching I Dream of Jeannie reruns and had seen a TV commercial for a new type of toothpaste with a stripe of special blue gel down the middle of the tube. The blue gel mixed with the paste when squeezed out, creating a New, Powerful Scrubbing Technology. She had to have it right away. A fresh layer of snow crunched under my feet as we walked a few blocks to the only drugstore that stayed open late.

            “There’s somebody with a brain working at the Aquafresh company. What a great idea to buy ad time during I Dream of Jeannie. Barbara Eden is a damn poster child for perfect teeth,” she said, picking up the pace. Soft little ice pellets swirled onto my eyelashes.

 

            The only thing Mom liked about working at the factory was a girl she worked with named Christine. Mom brought her over for dinner once in a while after their shifts, mostly because she didn’t think Christine ever ate enough. Christine didn’t eat meat, so Mom skipped the meatloaf and made only the side dishes. Christine liked Tab, so Mom and I both drank a can, too, even though it was so sweet it hurt my teeth. Christine hung her head a little while she laughed and I noticed Mom doing that, too, for days afterwards. We were struck by Christine, the brightest star in our orbit.

            Christine was part-time, so she and Mom only overlapped at the factory on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons. The other time, Christine worked at a truck stop on Route 60. She poured coffee for men with dark circles under their eyes and teeth worse than Mom’s. She charged them two bucks for a lukewarm shower in the little concrete stall behind the building. They told her about their travels around the country – hauling oranges from Florida to Illinois, lumber from Pennsylvania to California, and cattle from Nebraska to North Carolina.

            One afternoon, a few weeks before Christmas 1988, a man named Joe asked Christine if she’d ever seen the redwood forests in California.

            “Sure is hard to drive a rig through those winding roads, but I’d sign up for another route that way if you wanted to come with me,” he said.

            I was at home coloring a giant poster board sign to decorate our classroom at school and designing the circles of the 8s so that they looked like wreaths when Mom opened the front door with such force that it made my red marker jump outside the lines. Christine shared of her adventures at the truck stop with Mom while they worked at the factory, each of them maneuvering one side of the large metal cages that covered the fan blades into place. When Mom got home, Christine’s magical stories enchanted one final listener: me.

            “Can you imagine an adventure like that? Just driving through the mountains of California with a handsome man by your side?” Mom asked me, all the while squirting the living room windows up and down with so much Windex that it dripped onto the carpet before she could wipe it away.

            “How do you know he’s handsome?” I asked. To my knowledge, she’d never met Joe.

            “I just know,” she said. “He’d have to be handsome to have a shot with Christine, anyway.”

            “Is she going to go?” I asked.

            “I don’t know. I would if I were her,” Mom said, dropping the bottle of Windex onto the floor with a thud.

            The last time I saw Mom I cried like a baby, probably for the first time since I’d actually been a baby. I’d been out racing my new bike with some of the kids in the neighborhood when I hit a low-hanging tree branch. I tasted the blood before I saw it, and when I pushed my tongue to the spot where the pain was, I could feel that the tooth had been knocked loose. All the kids scattered; they didn’t want to be blamed for or questioned about my injury.

Mom sat on the couch reading National Geographic when I opened the door. Saturday was her one day off each week, and I’d been unable to pull her away from an article on Faulkner’s Mississippi and all morning. She didn’t look up right away. I stood in the doorway studying her for a few moments: her legs crossed underneath her body, her thick brown hair tossed into a messy bun, her eyes scrolling quickly across the pages. And, of course, the signature part of her Saturday morning look: the bulk of her nose, cheeks and chin covered by two squares of paper towels tucked under her top and bottom lip to prevent the bleach from spilling over the plastic trays and onto her gums.

            When she looked up and saw the state of me, her eyes fell. I couldn’t see her mouth—the second part of the facial emotions equation— to tell if she was worried or mad. I knew it was probably both. She rushed to the bathroom to un-tangle her teeth from the bleach tray contraption in her mouth. When she came back, I had gone from whimpering to sobbing.

            “Alice, what in the world?” she asked, grabbing my hand and leading me to the kitchen. She picked me up by my armpits and set me on the kitchen counter.

            “I wan into a twee bwanch,” I explained, careful not to lift my tongue while I talked.

            “Tell me you didn’t do what I think you did.”

            She pulled my upper lip away from my gums. I felt so small, so miserable in the face of her disappointment. Her eyes landed on my bloody, loose tooth.

            Mom went to the sink and retrieved the first aid kit from the lower cabinet. She unwrapped a strip of gauze and told me to press it to my tooth until the bleeding subsided.

            “You know, I always thought you’d be better off than me and do okay for yourself because, thank God, you got your father’s teeth and not my mess of a mouth. But the problem is that I also see a touch of his recklessness in you, even at this young age. And that’s only bound to get worse over time,” she said, re-packing the gauze strips and plastic tweezers.

            It was more than I’d ever heard about my mystery father. I’d gone almost twelve years knowing absolutely nothing, and all of the sudden I knew two things: he was reckless and had good teeth. Like me.

            But she was reckless too. The night before, I’d overheard her talking on the phone with Grandma Geraldine, using the sugary voice that she always did whenever she came up short on the rent.

            “It was an accident. I didn’t mean to,” I said, because there was no use in arguing.

            Her face softened a little. She walked to the freezer and pulled out two Bomb Pops.

            “Hold this to your gums,” she said, handing one to me. “It’ll help with the pain.”

            When I finished my pop, I read the joke on my stick to break the tension.

            “Hey Mom, what bird has the worst manners?”

            She nodded her head at me for the answer.

            “A mocking bird!”

            We both chuckled in pretend amusement as Mom turned her stick over. Her eyes widened as she read the joke first to herself, then aloud.

            “Hey Alice, what’s the hardest part of riding a bike?” She was laughing so hard she could barely get the words out.

            “The pavement!”

            The remnants of blue and red juice dribbled down our chins and the tears streamed down our cheeks. My tooth throbbed but I didn’t care. When we had both caught our breath, she lifted me off the counter and told me to go finish my book report. As I walked away, she called my name.

            “Alice. If I can teach you only one thing in this life, please take care of those pretty teeth. They are the only set you’ll ever have.”

 

            When I went to live with Grandma Geraldine and Grandpa Al on the dairy farm, they put me to work right away – after they got my front tooth fixed, anyway. It was damaged enough from the accident with the tree branch that it never grew new roots. Eventually, it started to rot.

            “You won’t sell a drop of milk with that ugly thing in your mouth,” Grandma Geraldine said on the way to the dentist for the fitting of my porcelain tooth.

But I was able to take part in the family business with my smile back to normal.

            I could almost see the old duplex I’d lived in with Mom from our booth in the corner of Len’s Dairy Bar, where we went for dinner on Tuesdays after my grandparents’ weekly practice with the Hartford City Band. One such evening, while I enjoyed a milkshake, the owner, Len Phillips, came by our table. Len himself had given up on dairy farming about twenty years prior and opened the Dairy Bar. He and Grandpa Al had gone to grade school together and remained friends their whole lives.

            “And how is the Schultz family on this fine evening?” he asked. I’d just dunked a French fry into my milkshake and had my mouth full so didn’t say anything, but did my best to smile at Len.

            “Len, we are just glad that you are doing the dishes tonight!” said Grandma Geraldine, winking at me.

            “And how’s everything on the farm, Al?” Len asked.

            Grandpa Al just smiled in his usual way and said, “Oh, Len, you know…”

            “Well listen, I heard the other day that the Midwest chapter of the American Dairy Association is getting ready to run some new billboards out on Highway 60, and they’re on the lookout for some handsome kids – about Alice’s age, I bet – to be featured in the ads. Be a good way to earn a little extra money, and I bet she’d be a shoo-in. What do you think?”

            Grandma Geraldine tilted her head in consideration, and tried to meet my eye, but I was lost in thought, staring across the street at the duplex. I wondered who lived there after us, if the windows were still smudgy, if the Myers’ next door still had lavender growing in their window boxes. I missed Mom, but life felt lighter without her. And I hoped she felt lighter without me, without Hartford, without Broan. When I thought of our life in that duplex – from my first memory of smiling at a camera Mom had borrowed from a friend while shoving a piece of cake into my mouth at my fourth birthday party, to the day I came home from school and found a note that read simply, “Alice, I’m sorry, but there are so many things in this world that I haven’t seen”—I saw it from up above. Almost as if I were sitting in the rafters of my high school auditorium and watching a play of my life, with someone else cast in the role of Alice Schultz.

            In my twenties, a therapist would point out that seeing my own life from a “birds-eye-view” was not the gift I thought it to be at the time, how I had obviously used it as a coping mechanism to detach myself from “the wound of abandonment.” But that’s not how it felt then. I was twelve years old—and there were always new zits to cover in baking soda paste, and cute boys to stare at during math class, and the never-ending process of applying, removing, and re-applying winged eyeliner—and I didn’t know the words for my pain.

 

            My advertising gig started with a few billboards around town. The first one stood over the truck stop where Christine used to work. Grandma Geraldine drove me out to see it a few days after they put it up. We stood in the parking lot craning our necks up at my giant mouth, which looked somehow out of proportion with the rest of my face. Had they somehow edited the image to look that way? As we got back into the car, I stared into the windows of the truck stop at the face of a blonde woman who stood at the counter scooping grounds into the coffee maker. Of course, it wasn’t Christine.

--

            I’d been back in Hartford for a few years when I saw Christine’s ghost a second time.

            I didn’t end up in the Schultz family business per se, but I didn’t land all that far away from it, either. Len’s business was booming, and after many years of a single establishment, he’d franchised his company with plans for two new Dairy Bars in three years. He was a dairy guy at heart and didn’t know much about “the other stuff,” as he called it. So when he heard from Grandma Geraldine about my success in business school, he called me up and told me he’d pay me whatever I wanted.

            “I tell you Len, if that’s how you negotiate, I predict that your business will be dead within the year,” I said.

            “Okay, miss big city hot shot. What do you say – do you want the job or not?”

            I didn’t want the job. I wanted to work for a consulting firm in New York, a fashion house in Paris, or a bank in Hong Kong. After almost ten years away – first for undergrad in La Crosse, and then to Baltimore for business school – I’d lost my tolerance for the farm smell that hits the nose as soon as you turn off Highway P onto Resthaven Road, right as the center lines of the road disappear, and the terrain gets really hilly (when I was a kid, I always loved that– I’d put my hands up in the air like I was on a roller coaster ) but now, it was a ride that turned my stomach, the manure smell mixing with the sulfur of the well water, a ride I wanted to get off. But none of that really mattered. Six months prior to Len’s generous offer to pay me whatever I wanted, the doctor found a dark spot on grandpa Al’s right lung. A surgery was performed. The outlook was good, but as always with dark spots on lungs, uncertain. So I took the job.

 

            On the day that Christine showed up at the Dairy Bar, I was doing paperwork. We conducted administrative business out of the storefront on Mondays when the restaurant was closed. Christine walked straight for the front door, and when it didn’t open, she just stood there looking confused. I might have done what I’d done many times in the past when I’d seen someone around town who looked a little like Mom or Christine, which was to shake my head and convince myself I was just seeing things. But when I did a double-take, I saw the little red scar above her lip from a time she and Mom had shown up for their shift at Broan a little hungover and accidentally sent a metal shard from one of the fan casings flying at Christine’s face.

            I almost tripped over one of the barstools as I rushed to unlock the door.

            When she looked up at me, I felt like the ghost. A flash of terror showed in Christine’s eyes.

            “My god. Alice,” she said.

            “Christine. Hi.”

            And we just stood there on the street for a few moments, looking like idiots, looking at each other.

“Well gosh, come in. It’s freezing,” I said.

 

            Christine sat down at the counter and Alice poured her a cup of coffee. From where I’d floated up to the ceiling above the scene, I saw that the floor under one of the back booths had a ketchup smear stuck to it. I saw that the top of the soda machine needed to be dusted. I noted the hunch of Christine’s back as she ripped open three packets of sugar and dumped them all in at once. I could hear the tinkling of the metal spoon against the coffee mug as she stirred and stirred. Why aren’t they talking? I wondered.

            Christine took a long sip of the coffee and finally spoke. “Alice, I didn’t know you’d be here,” she said. “I came here looking for Len because I thought he could tell me where Geraldine and Al are. I drove by the farm but there’s a new sign out front. I knocked on the door of the house but no one answered,” Christine said.

            “They retired. They live about a half mile up the road, toward Filmore, in a little blue house with pink shutters,” Alice said.

            “Oh,” Christine said. She picked up her spoon for a second time and stirred the coffee in a mesmerizing swirl.

            Why in the world isn’t Alice asking about her mother? After all this time! Where is Lynn?

            She stopped stirring and put the spoon down on the counter, almost throwing it. “Alice I don’t know any other way to say this and I think I might pass out if I don’t just tell you. Your mom died last week in a rollover accident just outside of Sioux Falls. She was with a guy she’d been seeing for the past year or so. He nearly missed an exit, and when he turned the wheel at the last second—the road was slick—the cab of the truck, it went one way, and the trailer went another. The police say they didn’t suffer,” Christine said.

            Alice sat down on the other side of the counter and folded her arms over the stack of mail and the calculator she’d been using to calculate the week’s payroll before Christine came inside. It seemed like years had passed since Alice had been sitting alone, crunching the numbers on the shop’s monthly Oreo cookie delivery.

            “Is that what it means when you hear on the radio that the interstate is all backed up because there’s a jackknifed tractor trailer?” Alice asked. “I used to hear that all the time, and I never knew what it meant.”

            “Uh…I guess it is, yeah. I didn’t see the truck so I don’t know for sure.” Christine seemed both relieved and annoyed to be answering questions about the logistics of the accident.

            “Did she…Is she…” Alice tried to form some words in her head but all she could see was the giant Nabisco logo on one of the invoices in front of her. Her mother always hated Oreos. She said the filling was too chalky.

            Christine left a business card for a man named Sargent Miller of the Sioux Falls Police Department. She instructed Alice to call him in order to make arrangements to identify the body, finished her coffee, hugged Alice from the side, apologized, crossed the street back in the direction she’d come from.  

            “For what?” Alice asked, but Christine had already walked out the door.

 

            It took me a few days to understand that the whole thing was real, that business card my only tether to the truth. On the phone, Sargent Miller sounded kind but matter-of-fact. There was no body, he explained, or not enough of one to “make a definitive identification.” He instructed me to bring Mom’s dental records along in order for the medical examiner to confirm her identity.

I was due for a cleaning, anyway. I scheduled the appointment for a cold morning in March. While paying my bill, the receptionist handed me a manila envelope with an x-ray inside.

            “This is the information you requested,” she said, in the same quiet voice that had been directed towards me by countless others in the weeks since Christine delivered the news about my mother.

I tucked the envelope between the center console and the passenger seat of my car so it wouldn’t get bent and drove out of town, out of Wisconsin. Out. Grandma Geraldine had offered to make the drive with me, but she was needed at home to care for grandpa Al—the dark spot wasn’t nothing, after all—and I selfishly couldn’t bear the thought of watching her lose her only child all over again.

            In Sioux Falls, I paid extra for expedited processing of all the necessary paperwork and stayed for three days in a cheap motel a few blocks from the city’s municipal complex. On my last full day in town—the crematory had instructed me to arrive any time after 9am the following morning—it occurred to me how little of the city I’d seen, so I asked the clerk at the front desk for her recommendations.

            “Not much to see around here,” she said, nonetheless handing me a brochure for Falls Park.

            When I arrived after dark, a sign indicated that the park was closed from dusk to dawn, but there was nothing preventing me from going inside. On a bench under a lamp post at the base of the city’s namesake Falls, I listened to the water falling over itself in an endless loop. The incredible roar of it soothed me, reminding me of the little river that ran through the duplex community of my childhood and how I used to sleep with the bedroom window open in the summer, the gentle gurgling of the water mixing with Jeannie and the Captain’s chatter, Mom slapping her leg as she laughed, until my mind filled with cotton and I drifted off. I wondered about all the noises Mom had fallen asleep to in her new life, where had been the last place she’d slept. Was there a TV? Do they even still air reruns of I Dream of Jeannie? I sat on the bench until the sound overwhelmed me—eventually morphing into a low, persistent screaming inside my head—then walked back to the motel.

The next morning, I was handed a plain black urn—it was bigger than I expected—along with the x-ray image of my mother’s teeth in a plastic evidence bag.

 

            The drive to Custer State Park took me five and a half hours in the opposite direction of returning home to Hartford, right through the middle of South Dakota. On the day that Christine came to the Dairy Bar, I think I was trying to put together a question—did she ever make it to see the cathedral spires?—but the words never got from the bottom of my brain to my lips. She made it to South Dakota, so surely, I reasoned, she must have made it all the way to her postcard dream. But just in case.

            The thermometer on the dashboard of my car read 13°F when I parked in the little gravel parking lot at Sylvan Lake. I’d hoped to have the place to myself, but when I realized that I did, loneliness bolted through me. I walked a little way around the loop trail that encircled the lake until I reached a small wooden fishing pier. It creaked and swayed under my weight. I put my arms out to steady myself, but the rocking persisted, and I sat down. At the edge, I crossed my legs underneath me, my knees jutting out just past the ledge, and peered into the mirror below. I never looked much like Mom when I was a kid, or I didn’t think I did, until I found an old photograph of her in an album at my grandparents’ house – grandma Geraldine said it was the summer before her senior year in high school – and I saw the resemblance for the first time. The eyes. Like there’s something we know – something wonderful, something terrible, it’s hard to tell – but we’re not saying.

            Back on the road towards home, my hunger and thirst hit me all at once. I realized that I’d barely tended to my body since arriving in Sioux Falls. Dairy Queen was the first thing I saw from the interstate. After I finished the burger, I pulled the plastic lid off my Coke and chewed the ice—my jaw eventually growing sore with the effort—until every bit of it was gone.

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