I grew up in a place of old crones hobbling in the center of dirt streets, of men so thin their Adam's apples were bigger than their knuckles, a place of broken windmills that creaked water for nonexistent cows, but most of all, I grew up in a place of teeth.
My father was the town dentist. The teeth in our family were impregnable. We drank our own iron-rich well water that ministered to the souls of our teeth. We ate apples out of our orchard that burnished our teeth clean. We never brushed. We never set foot in a dentist's office as patients. We never had to open our mouths for any story of our own. And so, Dad felt free to tell the stories of all the other mouths in town.
Most of them were rotten and bleeding. Though Dad did all the routine checking and cleaning that hygienists do these days, it was the teeth that poked slivers of decay into the gums, teeth that festered and pussed and ballooned, that we heard about. Dad spoke of basins draining liquid that made jaws twice their size. He told of teeth that wanted to escape into sinuses and extracted teeth that made grown men faint. And he described the tiny pinprick, the precise lancing that released someone from the misery of pain. No wonder the old man from Poland knelt and kissed my mother's hand over and over. "Thank the doctor, thank the doctor," he said. He would have knelt before Dad except Dad had left the room, and only women could have their hands kissed. But the old aristocrat wanted to kiss Dad's hands. The doctor held all pain in his palms and dismissed it with the tips of his fingers. That was the story the teeth told.
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Originally from Michigan, Mary Slowik received a PhD in English from the University of Iowa in 1975. Currently she works at Pacific Northwest College of Art, where she heads the Liberal Arts department. She writes, "I draw over and over again upon the expertise in literary theory and in close reading and the sheer love of the discipline that my Iowa mentors provided me and am always invigorated by remembering the energy and craziness of those days in Iowa."
"Teeth" appears in the current issue of The Iowa Review (37/1, Spring 2007).