He was not one man. He was a double, triple, quadruple exposure soft focus photograph of himself, blurred at the edges and thinned like a ghost. Teacher, musician, bipolar narcissist, abuse victim, abuser, drug addict, husband, father. My father.
His preferred drug was crystal meth. He smoked it for the majority of my life. Ultimately, among other things, it took his teeth.
As a child, I don’t know the effect that smoking meth has on teeth. He is always brushing, flossing, rinsing with the strongest mouthwash. It seems so unfair that his teeth keep failing him. In my mind it is as though they are dissolving, melting in his mouth, going porous as coral and loosening in the socket. I don’t understand it. It hollows out the pit of my stomach with a primal sort of fear. It’s happening more and more and there is a drag of dread in the air. His jumpiness, his anger hotter and more poisonous even than usual, the shame I intuit from hours he spends in the bathroom with the door closed.
The dentist has to keep pulling them, one by one, starting at the molars and moving further and further towards the front of his mouth, until finally dentures are the only option. Dentures –an old ugly word, a humiliating word. We don’t say it. Full mouth extraction is what the loss of his teeth is called, and in my child’s mind I see something vague and horrible, a cavern gaping soft and jawless, smacking. He comes home from the dentist that day and tells my mother and goes straight to bed. We tiptoe around him the way we always do, around his self-fueled misery, his highs and his comedowns, his rages and his suicide rants, but this feels different. The house breathes uneasily around the legitimacy of his pain.
After the full mouth extraction, he has to heal before he can be fitted for dentures. So there is an interminable stretch of sheer toothlessness. I avoid the bedroom where he wallows on the pain meds my mother tries to control until he becomes explosive and then she gives up and throws them at him and the pills in the plastic bottle sound like baby teeth to me. Like bone Tic Tacs, I think. He eats too many and sleeps like the dead in daytime dark and rouses for more in the feverish middle of the night with a bellow of pain like a dying animal. This, in cycles, for what feels like forever.
It takes weeks for the thrall of sickness and recoil inside me to fade to something manageable. The idea of his mouth finally gutted, the foreign swollen softness, thick blood-marbled spit, collapsing emptiness and space where before there was structure. Tongue worming blindly and finding nothing but tender pulp and raw tissue. The absence of teeth changes the framework of a face. In all my life, I never once get used to seeing him without them. I never once get past my initial horror at the idea of it.
I take a few more steps back from him, increasing my involuntary retreat from everything that he is, and never regain them.
I don’t know what to do with my hands. They fret and falter at the hem of my shirt, at my pockets, at each other, until I trap them against my sides under crossed arms. A breeze comes up and shoulders its way through the small corridor in which I stand, between my car and an official white panel van. It is December in Texas, sun cutting down through the clear day like water. There is an unhurried chill to the air that translates into the edges of the dry leaves, the pooled dark banks of shade. My head is cocked and I am listening to the woman standing opposite me. She works for the hospital to which my father donated his body. She strikes me as a former camp counselor, maybe, in her white polo shirt and stout khakis, her flat brown shoes, her short, curly wash-and-go haircut. She is thick and seems rooted to the ground, like a small tree trunk. Her face is a scrubbed-clean palate for the solemnity that is undoubtedly essential in her line of work.
At this point, less than two days after his suicide, I know very little, except that since he was not officially married to my stepmother, I am the legal next of kin. Therefore, I am in charge of everything, which is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it keeps me in constant motion. On the other hand, I have no idea what I am doing, and I never know what to expect.
“We had to discard his clothing,” she says. She speaks with a sort of ceremonial gravity, using the word clothing instead of simply clothes. “It was completely saturated with blood.”
I nod, accepting this information as though it means nothing. On the other side of my mind I am thinking, how interesting, that they assume I would not want my father’s blood.
“Here is an inventory of what was on his person at the time of death,” she says, handing me a typed form. I glance at it and see that, among other things, it includes a laundry list of the discarded clothes. “If you could just sign this form stating that you received his personal effects,” she goes on, and passes me a clipboard and a pen bearing the same hospital name as is stenciled on the side of the white panel van behind her. I sign. Somehow I will have to get used to signing documents verifying my father’s death.
She retrieves the clipboard and the pen and turns away to lean into the front seat of the van. I fold the list into a perfect rectangle. The integrity of the corners is important to me. I match them up with utter precision and slide my pinched fingers along the crease, then again, then again. I am steady as life itself, a constantly beating heart, a metronome. I am steady.
The woman turns back towards me, holding two things. In one hand is the carbon of the form I signed. In the other is a clear plastic bag containing, among other things, the bottom plate of my father’s dentures.
Time is hellishly deliberate at this point, segmented like a millipede, each second isolated from the next. I accept the form without looking at it. Instead my eyes are snared on the hideous incomplete grin standing upright among a mundane jumble of coins and lighters. She holds the bag delicately by its twisted top and there is air trapped inside, ballooning it out. My father’s teeth rest within like a goldfish fresh from the pet store.
I take the scant weight of the bag into my hand and let it hang there at my side, touching nothing. I was not prepared for its contents. I wonder if she is fooled by my wooden calm. I wonder if she does this so often that she has ceased to notice the subtleties of people’s faces, the taxidermy stiffness of their limbs.
As I stand there not looking down she gives a speech I have already heard about the process of donating one’s body to medical science, the sacrifice of it, the confidential nature of the research that will be conducted on my father. Too raw-nerved for subtlety, I split into her words like an axe; I need to know.
“Is there only half of his dentures,” I ask, inside recoiling heavily at the actual word, “because the top part was destroyed?”
She blinks at me, allowing a fissure to open in her veneer of professionalism. She says, quietly, “Yes. The gunshot destroyed it.”
“It took the top of his head off,” I say. My voice is so even.
“Yes,” she says again, and then gestures towards the bag dangling from my hand, although neither of us move our eyes to look down at it. “There was quite a bit of blood. We washed his things three times but there are still traces of it everywhere.”
“Okay. Thank you,” I say, and begin to turn towards my car.
“I wouldn’t let you see his body,” she says abruptly, and I look back at her. Something strikes me about her statement, but I don’t know quite what. “I wouldn’t let you see it even if you wanted to,” she says, and her gaze is steady on mine. I don’t know what to do with that, so I thank her again, and open the car door. I hide the clear bag and its contents under a newspaper the second I am inside and feel an immediate relief. I don’t want anyone to see it–not her, not the people driving home after work towards dinners and disappointments. We join the absentminded flow of their traffic, wordless.
Only later will I rethink the encounter, the woman’s last statement, the word transport stenciled under the name of the hospital, and realize that all along my father’s body was three feet away, toothless and half-headed, in the back of that white panel van.
In the end, all that is left of him are his teeth.
They are in the sealed plastic bag I signed for, jumbled together with the flotsam of his other belongings. The plastic bag is hidden inside a paper one. I go into my mother’s bathroom and kneel on the floor and put the whole thing on the closed toilet. I tip up the end of the paper bag and ease out the meager remainder of my father’s belongings. It is the first time I have seen the teeth since I accepted them from that woman, and I find that I can not look directly at them. I keep my eyes to one side, as though they are a solar eclipse.
When I lay the bag flat the teeth sit towards the middle. Carefully, I slide my fingers under the bag and, through the plastic, grasp against my palm the lighter, the pocket knife, the blood-coated cross earring, the gold chain, the cheap digital watch. I lift my hand so that the teeth slide to the opposite end of the bag and everything else stays in place. Some change that I am not able to secure goes with them. Without touching the teeth I use my fingertips, over the plastic, to slide each coin down to the other end of the bag. It takes an endless aching amount of time, crouching there by the toilet, my knees against the cold porcelain. I am not willing to do it any other way. The teeth were at ground zero of my father’s suicide and I cannot touch them.
When I finally have everything separated I lift the middle of the bag and cut it straight across. I breathe through my mouth. I am terrified of smelling gunpowder or blood or nicotine. As soon as the bag is halved, I scotch-tape closed the part that contained his teeth, pick it up, and drop it back out of sight into the paper bag.
For the first time, I closely examine the rest of what the bag contained. His earring, a long dangling cross with a skull at its center, and his gold chain are both caked with blood, every link and crevice stiff with it. The lighter, pocket knife, and watch are all coated also, as though they had been dipped in paint and then hastily shaken off. Every coin is rimmed in blood.
I stand at my mother’s bathroom sink and rinse everything in water so hot it hurts all the way up to the bones in my wrists. The soap-scummed white porcelain holds the brown tint of his blood as the runoff passes over it, so I stop and scrub it out with toilet paper until it is spotless.
The blood clinging to my father’s belongings is stubborn. Finally I give up. I use paper towels to dry everything and put it all into a Ziploc bag. Only after the bag is sealed do I realize that I am still breathing through my mouth, so I stop and inhale tentatively through my nose. Under the fragrance of soap is the faintest trace of cigarette smoke. I tell myself it is from his watchband, not the teeth, not the teeth, not the teeth. I gather everything up and leave the bathroom to hide it all in a drawer, my hands raw and dry from the hot water.
Later, hours after dark, I retrieve the paper bag and a backpack with everything I need inside it and get into my car.
I park on the tree-sheltered street alongside a deserted playground. I take everything I brought out to the middle of a picnic area, where there is the low cement base of what used to be a streetlight. Quiet is everywhere, physical as a fog. The gravel holds bits of glass like dull jewels. I kneel in front of the base and lay the paper bag in the middle. One part of my mind has refused to think about this aspect of dealing with my father’s death, but another, deeper part refused to let go of it. Once I decided what to do it seemed so simple; it seemed there had never been any other option.
I take a hammer from my backpack. Using both hands I raise it and, through the paper and plastic bags, through the haze of hesitance I feel forming at the edges of my mind, I bring it swiftly and directly down onto the teeth.
I don’t expect it to be easy, and it isn’t. The teeth are not made of glass, or porcelain, or anything so fragile. The first several blows do nothing except tear the paper and plastic bags so that I can see the grin of them, still perfectly intact. And the tear marks are in the shape of his teeth – literally, they are bite marks. The teeth are fighting back, biting into the swing of the hammer, into the force of my will to destroy them. I slam the hammer down harder, right into the top edge of the teeth. Gradually they start to fracture but not in sharp, defined pieces. It is almost as though they are made of very hard wax. The edges of the teeth dull, almost curl; they separate reluctantly from the whole in pieces with curved, smooth edges. The tissue pink of the gums I split with the claw of the hammer, and then I switch to the claw of the hammer entirely, chopping everything into smaller fragments until the scattered pile is unrecognizable.
And the worst part is the smell. Not in the sense of offensiveness, but in the sense of privacy. There are few places more private or intimate than the inside of the human mouth. Standing there in the deserted park with my father’s teeth crushed before me, breathing in the moist sour cigarette and body smell, is closer to him than I ever wanted to be. Not to his death–it is closer to his life than I ever wanted to be. I feel embarrassed for him, and hysterically apologetic, and I know I will cry about it at some point. Crying is something I continue to put off for the time being, though, like ignoring a letter you desperately do not want to read. It may be sealed but it’s still in there, waiting for you.
I set about the task of cleaning up the teeth. Carefully, I sweep the remains to the edge of the cement base and into a cheap plastic dollar store box he once gave me. The fragments clatter like poker chips as they fall in. Like bone Tic Tacs. I use tape like a lint roller to pick up every invisible shard from that cement surface, going over it three or four times. I refuse to leave any part of him behind. Then I wad the tape and the plastic and paper bags that his teeth bit through into the plastic box so that the fragments will not rattle as much. I put the lid on the box and tape it in place, and then tape over the entire box so that the original red surface and poorly rendered flowers are no longer visible.
And it is over. Controlled.
I did it for both of us. For me, I destroyed the teeth so that the last remaining piece of him in this world was not something that horrified me.
For him, I destroyed them because they bore witness. They bore witness to the flower of furious blood and fire that ended his life, and to the shaming loss of his dignity all those years ago, gone uncharacteristically silent and inward behind the closed bathroom door. He went silent and inward at the end too. Despite his threats to kill himself in front of us, publicly, flagrantly so we all tore open with the shrapnel of him, ultimately he sequestered himself in a distant motel room with the gun. And did it alone.
It seemed that after all of his lashing out, he wanted no witnesses. So I laid waste to the final one.
Chelsea Laine Wells has been published in PANK, Hobart, Knee-Jerk, The Butter, Third Point Press, The Other Stories, wigleaf, and Heavy Feather, among others, and has work forthcoming from Paper Darts, Corium, Crack the Spine, and Black Candies. She’s been nominated for Pushcarts and Best of the Nets and subsequently won a 2015 Best of the Net. She is managing and fiction editor for Hypertext Magazine and founding editor of Hypernova Lit, a journal publishing the work of teenagers. Chelsea lives in the Oak Cliff area of Dallas, Texas, and is a high school librarian and creative writing teacher. Find out more about her at www.chelsealainewells.com and follow her on Twitter at @chelsea_l_w.