"The Prettiest Teeth" by J. R. Carpenter, Lust for Life: Tales of Sex and Love, eds. Claude Lalumière and Elise Moser, Véhicule Press, Montréal, QC, January 2006.
Beth Wharton sits across the aisle from me. She has the prettiest teeth in the sixth grade. My teeth are a mess. One eyetooth is misshapen, and the other one never came in; one front tooth pokes through my lips if I smile, so I try not to. I try to keep my mouth shut altogether, but it's a losing battle. I can't stop myself. I crack lame joke after lame joke on the off chance that Beth Wharton will crack a smile.
Beth's teeth are as smooth and as perfectly even as my Grandmother Fisk's teeth--the ones she sets to soak in a pop-fizzy glass by her bedside every evening. I fished them out once when I thought no-one was looking. My mother was on me in an instant--she has eyes in the back of her head.
"You put those teeth down!" she hollered from the hallway.
I dropped them, missing the glass; they clattered onto the night table, chattering cartoon-style.
"You'll get those teeth eventually," my mother said. She wiped the dentures off on her T-shirt and plopped them back into the glass. "And don't blame me. Your get your teeth from your father's side, not mine."
I hadn't wanted my grandmother's dentures, not to keep. I only wanted, just for once, to run my tongue along a perfectly smooth set of teeth.
# # #
"Now who remembers: How do plants get their energy?"
Every time I raise my hand in class the other students squirm and groan. Mrs. Stalker should know better than to call on me.
"You water them with coffee?"
Not even funny, I know. I keep a straight face, of course, on account of my crooked front tooth. And I keep an eye on Beth Wharton. Sometimes she smiles, and sometimes she doesn't. I can never tell if a joke has really flopped or not until I've gone too far. One time, coming back from the bathroom, I forgot to close the classroom door behind me--Mrs. Stalker hates that.
"Alex Fisk! Were you born in a barn?"
"No. I was born in a hospital. They had swinging doors."
I got detention for a week that time. In detention Mrs. Stalker makes us write out dictionary pages longhand. So far I've copied up to F. Forsooth: in truth, often used to imply contempt or doubt. The sixth grade is almost over. I'm getting braces this summer. Forsooth, I can't wait for junior high.
# # #
On the last day of school the popular kids shake hands with the teachers and stand around the parking lot like big shots, talking like they're never going to see each other again. Everyone wants to leave but no-one wants to say goodbye.
It takes some doing to time it so Beth Wharton and I happen to walk out of the schoolyard at the same time. We cross King Street together. She turns off onto the Wentworth Road, and I keep pace. The sky is part racing bright and part low dark clouds. Beth is wearing last year's volleyball team T-shirt. I'm wearing an old spring jacket that I'm so sick of I consider flinging it into a passing hedge.
"How'd you do," she asks me part way up the hill. I have no idea what she's talking about. She has no bra on, and for once I'm not looking at her teeth.
"On your report card?" She waves her report card at me like I'm a total spaz.
"Oh. More of a greeting card, really," I say, faux-nonchalant. "'Congratulations on your Promotion!' And all that."
"Very funny," she grins, the tips of her teeth transparent in the sun. "Mine's more sympathy card. You know, like: 'Get well soon.'"
I laugh out loud. I can't believe it. Beth Wharton and I are actually almost sort of hanging out. "C'mon," I say. "Let's cut though the train tracks." It's not really a shortcut, just a different way around. We walk in jerky marionette-unison along the unevenly spaced railroad ties. Wind whips across the Fort Edward Mall parking lot, flinging grit at us. It's cold, for June.
"Here," I say, "Want my jacket?" I drape my crappy windbreaker over Beth's shoulders. She accepts it with a shrug, or maybe she's just adjusting. I search along the side of the train tracks for something more to say. There are no raspberries yet, no loose spikes to pick up. The sun is at our backs. A low bank of dark cloud glowers in the sky ahead; a row of small white clouds stands out bright against them. Don't talk about the weather, I tell myself. For God's sake.
"Look," I say, "those little white clouds look like teeth."
"You don't have to try so hard, you know," she says.
"I like you already. It's okay."
I stop in my tracks. On the tracks. "What did you say?"
"I bet your report card really says: 'Alex Fisk has a smart mouth.'" She steps in front of me, her hair half apple juice golden, her face half in the shadow of my head.
"I bet your report card says--" my mind races through detention vocabulary. Formula: an established form or set of words.
"Stop talking." Beth Wharton reaches her arms up over my shoulders. My jacket slips off her back. I move my hands into the flesh-warm pocket of air at the small of her back. Our hipbones bump briefly. For the first time, I run my tongue along a set of smooth and perfectly even teeth.
© J. R. Carpenter, 2006
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