It began with the bottom right molar. There, in the off-white enamel, a black mark grew from pinprick to sequin-sized. It never hurt, really, and if it did I knew exactly what to do about the pain.
It was the others I started to go for with the pliers. Used for tuning instruments, and once for pulling a long nail out of a stucco wall, the pliers were stainless steel with blue rubber handles and only a little rusted at the joints.
The trick is you pull straight up. Don’t crumble the porcelain. Teeth can snap or disintegrate but they come out pretty easy if it’s the right time. Once they’re dead they slide right out the gum with a satisfying sucking pop.
I thought the missing teeth might alter my sound. An experiment during quarantine. See, the music room’s gone pretty quiet these days. The band can’t play— not that I think they’d want to at this point. Not with me, anyway.
It’s been awhile.
Nothing hurts. I’m being honest. After the tooth slides out there’s some blood, sure, but not enough that I might bleed out. The thought came once or twice, am I losing my mind? With my bleeding gums and my pantry full of sugar snacks? Everyone knows a toothless gal can’t live on sugar alone. Can she? Can she!
An angel delivers groceries. I spend hours compiling the perfect shopping cart on the interwebs. I think a lot about smiling at the angel, making small talk, but they’re usually gone before I open the front door. A single, soggy paper bag full of treats greets me when I peek into the hallway around dawn. The bottom of the bag is soaked through and ripping at the corner. I wonder how long it’s been out there. A day or two? A week?
The front door buzzer started mid-morning. Sometime after the grocery retrieval but before the rain. Time’s gone real slippery seeing as a new favorite pastime is staring into my gaping mouth and counting aloud how many teeth I have left (twenty-seven) until I’m inevitably interrupted by the sound of my neighbor slamming her cabinet doors shut.
I toss two soupy pints of ice cream and tongue the empty space where my molar used to be. My tongue slides across the backs of my remaining teeth. Lately, I’ve been quite interested in what I might sound like minus the right canine. The back of my mouth has, by now, been fully jack o’lanterned. Every other tooth gone. The symmetry is important. Like how a flute is one uniform piece with holes cut out the top. A wind instrument. Isn’t that all a voice is, anyway?
I catch myself gazing, fully hypnotized, at the row of locks along the seam of my front door. When I touch the chain lock it swings from my fingertips and smacks against the doorframe. I whisper, “So dramatic!” before locking myself in for good.
Do you remember that feeling, that squashed bug feeling? Being in a room full of people and flattening yourself against a wall. Some part of you the whole time feeling like they might kill you with their questions.
1) How are you?
2) What’re you working on?
3) How’s the music going?
Now if anyone asked I could say, “I’m pulling my teeth out to experiment with my sound since my voice is my only instrument.” They might laugh, nervous, disturbed by their curiosity, all wanting to take a peek inside. I would say, “I wish I could figure out how to play the keyboard!” And then we’d all have a good laugh and I wouldn’t even be afraid to cackle, really let it out, allow everyone an illicit eyeful of my tantalizing gaps and rosy pink gums. I’d say, “Don’t worry, they were all rotten!” Give the crowd a charming wink. Sashay off into the moonlight.
What rots your teeth? Well, we all know. I’m not about to quit now! Not while I’m all alone with nothing else to do. The deliveries come in so regularly. I Venmo the dealer and he likes the transaction which is very professional of him. I call it “sushi” or “heartache” or “apples.” I punctuate with silly emojis. A cactus. A piece of bread. A red check.
A person can’t be completely alone without a teeny bit of help. Right now, actually, there’s someone buzzing at the door again. But I’ve already gotten my deliveries for the week so I don't even bother calling down to ask, “Who is it?”
The buzzer keeps on, and I try to stick myself far enough out of the front window to scope out who might be at the call box, but there’s this green awning in the way, and besides, it’s raining again in the city. The rain! I secretly hope the water floods all the way up to my floor so I can escape in a canoe through the living room window. Just gotta find a canoe.
I scour the music room for something that might float. Instead I find a plastic metronome. Set it on the living room floor facing the door. Sixty-three beats per minute and the buzzer’s keeping pretty consistent time. The click and bell are soothing. I consider sleep but no! There’s an instrument to tune.
The right canine, I check it again. Decide to spare her today, but not before clamping the pliers around to get a feel of how much she’s really in there. I wiggle a bit. I don’t like that canine. Too sharp and pointy. Vampiric. Her days? Numbered!
I hum a little ditty over the metronome’s beat. Then, a fleeting memory of myself as a child, and the remembered feeling of a calloused finger roughly pulling down my bottom lip.
“At least she’s got good teeth.”
The buzzer’s made its way into my temples now so I turn the tempo up on the metronome. I dance around barefoot, holding the pliers. We’re fully Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Absolutely dazzling in our perfect synchronization! Truly an entertaining duo!
The last live show the band played, I was obsessed with the way my tongue moved in my mouth and the control I had as my lyrics flew across my palate, bounced against my teeth. I was chewing on the sound, syphoning it, letting it explode. The YouTube comments asked, “What’s she on?” But nobody said one bad thing about the sound. My sound, in my humble opinion, was near perfect that night.
I rewatch sometimes, to remember her. In the video her dark hair’s swept down, flat against her forehead, and she wears a little pilgrim tunic with a starched collar. “Greased puritanism,” is what my guitarist said. “Grunge elegance!”
Listen. Being alone hasn’t been so bad because I’ve had oodles of time to reflect on what I can do to be a better, more precise performer. The goal is, has always been! to become the most refined version of this grimy pilgrim lass onscreen.
The buzzing has continued on, and it’s somehow two in the afternoon so I press the call box and ask, “Yes?” In an English accent. A gravelly voice responds, “Will you let me in?” I hang up because I don't recognize the voice. Plus, what kind of maniac sits outside of a high rise on a rainy day for hours buzzing the same box over and over?
I go back to the sofa. The teeth I’ve pulled are set out on the coffee table on top of Diane Keaton’s book of clown paintings. Sometimes I arrange them in a heart. Sometimes I arrange them in a line. Sometimes I go to the dusty Casio keyboard in the corner and pretend I can play, arch my back and start singing while mashing my fingers against the soundless plastic keys. I pretend I’m a saloon organist, a showman, a real Keith Emerson.
The metronome keeps time. The call-box buzzer keeps up its persistent grating ring.
My tongue slides into another empty slot. I panic, briefly, there on the sofa as I stare at my teeth all arranged in a heart. Is this extreme? No no no. This is revolutionary! Funny how the two can sometimes be confused.
The buzzing picks up again through the evening. I wake up around seven, slumped over the keyboard, and in my deeply groggy state, zombie walk over to the call box.
I press the button and ask, “Who is it?”
“I’ve got something for you,” the voice says. It’s androgynous—could belong to anyone.
“No, thank you!” I say, trying to infuse each word with reassuring cheer.
Then I rearrange my teeth again. An arrow this time. Slip one of them, the first rotten molar with her pointy rotten roots, into the pocket of my sweatpants. Pat it. The next-door neighbor bangs against the wall. I tell her to fuck right off.
The buzzer, again.
“Well, fuck, if you want me so bad.” The neighbor will hear, at least, if I get murdered. I buzz in whoever’s down there and sit, legs crossed like a real lady, on the sofa to wait for the knight or the devil or whoever to come a-knockin’. I’ve got a good grip on my pliers and wonder if they’re sharp enough to shank someone.
Three knocks. A jingle jangle of the doorknob.
“Yes?” I ask.
“Unlock the door,” the voice yells. I go to the door, press my eye against the peephole.
“Oh, fuck you,” I say. It’s me on the other side. Standing with my dark hair slicked down, wearing a pilgrim tunic, with a mouthful of gauze. I don’t believe she’s really out there. Not for a second.
I’m not crazy.
I check every single lock.
“Not today,” I say, laughing, and turn back to admire my masterfully arranged teeth.
But when I look back at the door it’s unlocked and ajar. I panic for a second, almost really lose it. I know she’s inside now, somewhere, hiding. I head to the music room first but she’s not there. Then the bedroom, under the tangle of sheets and comforters. No luck. I tip-toe back to the living room. I grip the pliers, and methodically check every shelf and cabinet and crawlspace. Everyone knows there’s only so many places a grown woman can fit.
At midnight I hear a creaking coming from the closet and when I open it, she’s there on the floor. Wild eyed lying belly up like a dead cockroach. Her jaw twitches. I drag her out by the ankle.
“There’s something very wrong with you,” I say. I point the pliers at her face. The steel glitters in the overhead light.
“Yes,” she spits the bloodied gauze out of her mouth. “There’s something very wrong with you.”
“That might be true,” I say.
“Put the pliers down,” she says.
“I’ll put them down when I damn well please!” I say.
“Are you alright?” A new voice. The neighbor stands at my open front door. Her lower face is hidden by a blue surgical mask, and her eyes are underlined in lovely bruise colored circles. The me on the floor and the me with the pliers are both surprised to see another human peering into our world.
“What?” We ask in unison.
“Alice? Are you alright?”
I look down to ask if I’m alright, but I’ve vanished. Like that! I’m gone.
And now, the pliers seem to have melted into my hand. The blue rubber handles have fused with my blotchy skin. The sharp tips grow from my palm like an extra set of bloody steel fingers. The neighbor pulls her phone from her pocket. But! Who do you call? Who do you call?
“I’m calling for help,” she says, voice muffled under her mask.
My mouth feels full of tangy liquid metal, and when I attempt to swallow it, I start to gag. With my free hand I press my t-shirt against my mouth to soak up the blood. I find the source. My canine’s been yanked right out and the hole it’s left is gushing.
I violently try to shake the pliers out of my hand. With each shake they loosen from my grip, until the blue rubber unglues itself from my tingling palms and I’m finally free. The pliers slide across the wooden floor towards my neighbor’s feet. The sound is a pleasant dragging away. Crisp as scissors through wrapping paper.
I check my sweatpants pocket where my tooth’s hidden. The jagged root stabs my palm. I release it before it breaks the skin.