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Baby Teeth by Bridget Apfeld

Baby Teeth by Bridget Apfeld

Fiction, Vol. 7.4, Dec. 2013

The call was not really a surprise to Laurie, in the end. She was not expecting it, but when it did come, the ease at which she slipped into practicality—officiousness thinning her speech, clipping it into something terse and straight—made her suspect something tired and hidden in herself had been prepared for a very long time.

“Todd?” she’d said, recognizing the number.

“She’s leaving the hairdryer in the mailbox again,” Todd said.

“Well, that’s something,” she said.

“I think you know it’s time,” he said then. She could hear high-pitched voices in the background, one of his grandchildren, maybe.

Laurie said nothing, needing Todd to ask it of her, to tell her what was necessary.

“You hear me? You ought to come back out here soon.”

“I’ll be there late tonight,” she said.

And so she packed a duffel and hid the key in the downspout, and left a note for the neighbors, should they nose up onto her porch in curiosity. Gone to La Crosse, it said. Be back soon? Laurie put her cell in her closest pocket, but didn’t plan on answering if it rang. She could check for messages when she picked up food at Viroqua or, easier, wait until the turnoff at Shelby. The sun was still hot though the river, meters away in Laurie’s yard, ran cool and swift, and the pavement burned her feet as she slid into the Ford and slammed the door: she drove barefoot, always. And when she pulled out onto the road and blinked into the swell of corn-colored dust, the cicadas thrummed louder than she’d ever heard.

The Coon Valley 7-11 was out of apple juice, so Laurie took cranberry.

“Smokes?” the cashier asked, not looking up.

“No, the fill-up and these,” she said, shoving the juice toward him and grabbing a bag of chips from the nearest rack. She stared at the men’s magazines while the cashier worked the scanner, and thought about how sad they all looked, the girls pooching out their lips and sucking in their stomachs on the covers. How desperate.

“It’s $21.74,” the cashier said, and Laurie counted singles carefully onto the counter before accepting the handful of sticky change. She turned to leave.

“Going to La Crosse?” the cashier asked behind her. Laurie paused.

“Maybe,” she said, “I think so.” He nodded.

“River’s up,” he said. “Take I-14…35’s out, places.”

“I’m not going north. I’m staying south.” she said, and walked out.

Outside near the pumps Laurie stood at her car door and watched as a truck pulled into the station: millworkers, from the river land. Men who rolled washed-pine and crewed the barges, who slicked grease from the manic pumps and pistons, churning in the steamed engine holds, roiled, unceasing. She would trust them with everything, and with nothing, these men who lived quietly and angrily; she knew them, haunting the rills and bends of the marshland because there was nowhere left to see the headwaters dance. They stank and belched and pissed on walls and Laurie knew she could love them for it. She reached up and let her hair down as they passed by her, into the station, and cocked her hip, to show in the arch of her back that she too felt the dry riverbed dust between her toes and could smell the thick stench of paper cooking in the vats.

“Hey.” The cashier stuck his head out the door and Laurie could see how young he was, suddenly, how slight. She shrugged at him and waited.

“South’s going under,” he said, and Laurie slipped into the driver’s seat and did not look at the boy in her mirror, still standing in the door, when she left.

*

When Laurie was nine, her mother had forgotten her in the grocery store. It was late at night, as her mother refused to shop unless the aisles were empty and she could let the cart drift ahead in front of her, bumping gently into the shelves, while she rooted in her woven purse for the list habitually left on the kitchen counter. The fluorescent lights made her mother’s face green when she told Laurie to go get cereal, any kind she liked, she didn’t care which, and she didn’t look behind her when Laurie trotted down the shelves to search out the long wall of colorful boxes. Laurie spent considerable time deciding between the cartoon characters on the packages—toucan, or tiger?—and by the time she grabbed two boxes and returned to where she’d left her mother, both the cart and her mother were gone. Laurie was not a child to panic easily and so it took her three laps around the store, up and down each aisle, peering over the boxes of browning bananas and musty snap-peas, to begin to feel that she should worry.

She waited outside the sliding doors for her mother; the night was still heavy with August heat and her thighs stuck to the pavement, her jelly sandals rubbing her heels raw as she swung her feet against the curb.

“Where did you go?” her mother asked when she pulled up in front of Laurie and leaned over to unlock the passenger door.

“You left me,” Laurie said, climbing in, and her mother shook her head.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I got distracted. It won’t happen again.”

When they got home and Laurie looked at the food spread on the counter, neatly arranged by color and size, her mother put a hand to her forehead and leaned back against the fridge.

“You didn’t get the cereal,” she’d said to Laurie, and she had looked at her daughter with puzzlement, and disappointment, too, like she saw something faintly unusual that, while not strictly unpleasant, held a different kind of interest than what she’d been looking for.

*

No one had been cruel enough to tell Laurie outright that her mother was strange; they had saved that revelation for overheard whispers and insinuations that gave Laurie just enough information to cultivate a small space of fear, in which she learned that, while not dangerous, her mother was a woman who nevertheless was not safe, and she, Laurie, was to be pitied. It took Laurie both decades and a few hours’ drive of separation to understand just how much misunderstanding had been imparted through this coy avoidance of the truth of things, which in the end was much simpler and therefore much worse: her mother had not been interested in being a mother in the way that other people’s were.

Instead, Laurie had lived in the sagging house on a slow bend in the Mississippi, alone with her mother, and learned to fear the days her mother waded into the shallows of the river and stood for hours in the sun, kicking her feet out from under her to float downstream a few yards before hauling herself back upstream to repeat it again and again; she became afraid to open her lunch box at school, in case someone should see that it contained nothing but stale crackers and inedible tins of ham salad. She heard other adults whisper when they saw her mother step too close to touch the arm of a friend’s father and let her fingers brush casually up to his shoulder, and Laurie understood it was not a compliment when she overheard the schoolyard chaperones debating whether she might become like her mother, too.

Sometimes Laurie went to stay with her mother’s parents for a few days. There, at her grandparents’ shingled cottage, she sat on the damp porch steps and watched her grandfather, tall and shadowed against the sun, clear sumac and honeysuckle during the day, and at night she watched him burn the brush in popping piles. On evenings with her grandfather, she tracked the sparks drifting up into the mothwing blackness, the air sour and full with the river smell, and she felt the weight of her mother’s strangeness ease away from her.

The trips stopped when she was eleven, when her mother said that she didn’t think Laurie needed to be sheltered anymore, that it was silly to raise her to be protected from reality, silly to cater to other people’s rules.

“You’re old enough to understand this, Laurie,” her mother said, smiling thinly to encourage her. “Adults can stay over at each other’s homes, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s no reason for me to be embarrassed, no reason for you to be uncomfortable.”

So Laurie ate breakfast alone in the kitchen and would wait for her mother’s bedroom door to open and the strangers to leave, patient and silent while she chewed her cereal, and she eventually came to ignore the rotation of men’s boots that marked their front door, different from the bootless doors of her friends.

Laurie learned early where among the teachers, neighbors, strangers, to expect kindness, and where not. She learned what it meant when her cousins went easy on her during games of kickball and soccer, or when the school librarian began keeping her late in the afternoons to help shelve books that seemed always to be in the same disarray the next day. Laurie learned to live without her mother, all the while watching her through the dirty screens while she climbed in and out of trucks at the end of their driveway. As she grew older, she no longer looked for her mother’s brusque attentions (“You know I’m useless with that,” when Laurie presented her with homework; or, returning home after a week away, gone without notice, and seeing Laurie’s resentment, “Stop being such a teenager”) and left her to herself, something that she knew, painfully, was what her mother had wanted all along.

*

Night blushed purple and deep across the sky when Laurie arrived at her mother’s house, and so the hazy glow of the white boards only trickled through the willows when she drove up the dirt toward the porch. The dust on the path was still and did not rise with the spin of her tires, and the gravel sounded rich and soft, so she knew the rains had been through. Laurie put the car in park and sat for a moment in the thick air in the car, listening to the heavy sound of the leaves and the trilling whine from the crickets. Bullfrogs sang melodious as monks in the distance of the riverbanks, and she imagined the smooth swell of their throats beneath smug grins and popping eyes, warty-cowled and supple in their spastic leaps. The house was quiet and without light, and Laurie wondered if her mother were there at all. She could break in if she had to, smash a window with her elbow wrapped in a shirt, as her cousins had once taught her, but Laurie decided she preferred permission for these things. So she cracked the car windows and climbed the porch steps.

“Mom?” she called. She rapped on the screen door.

The outward swing of the door nearly caught Laurie in its path, and she had to jerk backward. A hand gripped the mantle, veined and white, whiter than the stripped paint on the siding. Her mother’s eyes reflected out of the darkness, pinpricks of light, and when she stepped onto the porch and smiled with yellowing teeth, Laurie swallowed down her disgust.

“My brother said you’d come,” her mother said, “so I made a casserole. How did Todd know?” she asked, following her daughter into the shadowed house. Laurie let her memory lead her to the desktop lamp down the hallway, and flicked the switch. It remained unlit.

“He called me this morning,” Laurie said. “Why won’t this work?” Her mother frowned and brushed at her shoulders impatiently.

“It works fine, Laurie,” she said, and Laurie felt the skin on her arms tighten when she looked down through the cone of the shade and saw an apple, indecently red, screwed down tight onto the socket. Her mother peered over her shoulder at it, and Laurie stood perfectly still, listening to her mother’s heavy breathing, hot with a sickening floral smell, near her neck.

“Your father loves apples,” her mother said.

“You don’t know him,” Laurie said, and her mother nodded.

“Don’t tell Dad,” her mother said and, smiling, walked away into the darkened hallway, long dark hair swinging in ropes down her back.

“Food’s in the kitchen, Laurie,” she said. “Don’t make me say it again.”

*

Though her mother’s sixty-seventh birthday was neatly marked on her calendar—red ink to stand out—and she herself was nearing forty-three, Laurie found it hard to think of her mother as an old woman. Harder still to place the action of more than twenty years out of that house, years that dripped slowly into each other so that she still saw herself as a teenager ripping open a Velcro wallet and paying for the one-way bus ticket with bills dusty from where they’d been hidden under a floorboard, and not as a middle-aged woman who lived alone in a double-wide and admired pictures of other people’s children. She had not been over the threshold of her mother’s front door for those two decades, and while she returned once a year to the backroads and hill paths where uncles and aunts lived, to show them she still belonged, to prove that classes at a distant community college had not, as they’d said it would, made her too big for them, Laurie had not before felt the need to go back up that drive and sit on her mother’s porch.

They saw one another, yes, those times when Laurie did come to spend weekends sitting in folding chairs in the front yards of her grown cousins, and her mother pulled up in strange cars—in the beginning always driven by some different man, dazed-looking and sullen, and then later it was the same few, and her mother the dazed and sullen one—and the air would flatten out until she strode toward the beer cooler and broke the unease with her braying laugh. But as adults she and Laurie regarded one another as something closer than strangers, and farther than friends—and certainly not kin. No, her mother had uprooted that from the first, and Laurie was not near forgiveness of the casual way in which her mother had so easily determined to live as though she wasn’t there, the innocent and hurt stares she gave her child when Laurie, exhausted, began to refuse to leave her bedroom at midnight to look at the stars, or asked not to be taken from school for long car trips across the flood plains. The romance of it wore off, and quick. They could exist cordially, politely, Laurie having determined that attempting to make her mother repent was pointless, and her mother merely continuing her chosen strategy of inattention. But Laurie laughed whenever people asked if she missed living near her mother, or if she wanted to be closer.

“Closer to what?” she’d ask. “We both like it this way.” And it was true, to a point. There were no calls from her mother asking her to move back home, after she left, and the year Laurie forgot to send a Christmas card, she felt no guilt.

*

In her room, staring up from her bed at the ceiling, Laurie examined the water stains spreading fungal out from the corners, blossoming refulgent into pestilential nebulas. The house was rotting—the light bulb at her side buzzing in premonition of its forthcoming demise, the mattress springs grating under her weight—and Laurie regretted not sleeping at the Super 8 in town, and arriving in the morning. It would have been easier, and she did not enjoy the feeling of her feet just barely draping over the edge of her childhood bed, her legs sticking to the sheets as the humidity slowly swelled into the room, beating in gently from the open window. The cicadas shrilled outside and hit the screen with scrabbling flumps, and she breathed shallow in the heat.

Laurie had asked Todd, in the beginning, when her mother began to wait by the side of the road for cars that never stopped, or wander through the library without shoes, whether someone else could do this: she did not want to help this stranger, her mother, who had forever shunned help from all those around her. It was a duty she did not want, the responsibility of old age. Not for this woman.

There had been a man, once. One she’d cared about more than most of the others. They’d met at the roadside café where Laurie ate on Fridays; he’d asked to buy her coffee, and she was interested enough that she choked down the drink and told him it was good. They met again, and then again. He took her bowling, and she let herself get hopeful when he wasn’t upset that she won, both rounds. And when he sat at her kitchen table and asked would she mind if he left some clothes at her house to make it easier, she found that she didn’t mind at all.

He spoke on the phone to his father, often, sometimes when he was with her. And when he finished these conversations he always told Laurie she would have to meet him, that she would like him. Or that after his mother died his father had needed someone to talk to, and he was glad to do it; it came so easy now. That they went ice fishing together, and had a deer stand up northeast some ways. Laurie would ignore these comments and pour more coffee, touching his arm to let him know she was done listening. Then one day he began to ask why Laurie did not call her mother more.

“It’s something you should do,” he said. And with that Laurie knew this was the end, and within a month she had discovered reasons he could not stay, reasons he needed to leave.

The floorboards beneath the bed swelled with gunshot snaps as rain gathered in the clouds outside, and Laurie could smell, through the window, the river and the deep, soft mud. She shut her eyes and listened to the cicadas whir through the willows, while the Mississippi sped and rose.

She was not prepared for the teeth, though. The morning sun was strong and hurt Laurie’s eyes when she woke, cramped and tired, and she did not want to leave the dimness in the shadowed upstairs hallway, so she slipped sockless into a pair of shoes and pushed open the door to her mother’s room. She did not know exactly why she entered—she had not even gone in as a child—but she must have been there before, for everything seemed to her unchanged, as if it were in exactly the right spot in a memory of it. No photos on the walls, no books on the bookshelf (the repository of feathers and beads, instead), just the bleached quilt on the bed and an overstuffed chair in the corner. The dresser, too—drawers perpetually cracked open, something cotton or lace draped out and dead-looking. Laurie walked to it and opened a drawer, curious, plunging her hand into the mess of fabric to feel around. And when she found the box tucked away in the back corner she did not hesitate—hesitation would imply guilt, and Laurie knew herself beyond that sort of shame—but pulled it out and removed the lid, and saw the teeth. Tiny and yellowed, smooth as the inside of a clamshell. Some dotted with a bit of blood, dried crusty and black on the root. Molars, incisors. One chipped badly on the edge. She poured them out into her palm and rolled them around, feeling the strange lightness of them, their slippery movements: they tumbled and danced in her cupped hand. Searching for a memory somewhere in them, she found with a strange puzzlement that she could attach nothing to them. They were teeth, archaeological and utilitarian, as much Australopithecus as alien. She plucked one up and squeezed it, hard, and it left a reddened indent in her thumb and forefinger. And then she dumped the teeth quickly back into the box and shoved it under some socks, and went downstairs.

On the edge of the dock her mother sat, letting the soles of her feet lightly tap the surface of the risen water, and Laurie had to squint into the early glare to stop her shape from shimmering out of focus. The brown water curled around the dock supports where they would eventually rust and crumble, until the boards sank into the riverbed and furrowed deep down into the sediment. The river reclaimed its own, always. Laurie walked through the dry grass down to the water and wondered what to say, how to tell her mother the decision that had already been made, late at night over phone calls with doctors and rest homes and her uncles, and the homes again. There were ways of saying this, Laurie knew, ways that would allow her mother to make the choice herself, or at least think she did—which was the point of the maneuvers, wasn’t it?—but Laurie had decided, with some resentment, that she would spare her mother (and herself) the indignity of evasion and say it plain: they were taking her away.

Yet when she eased herself down beside her mother, careful not to catch her bare feet on the splintered boards, she did not begin straight off, as she had thought she would.

“Out here alone again?” Laurie asked.

“Obviously,” her mother said, sucking in her thin cheeks. Laurie looked away.

“You sleep all right?” her mother asked, and Laurie said, “Fine, I guess. Bed’s still awful.”

“You always did need a new one,” her mother said, looking ahead at the western shore, swinging her legs a little. “But I never got around to getting it.”

“Why was that?” Laurie asked.

“Oh, you know,” her mother said, turning a stalk of wheatgrass over in her long fingers, stroking her cheek with the fine fronds and smiling gently. Laurie looked at her mother’s vein-webbed hands, the cracked nails and mottled age spots, and set her jaw and stared ahead at the far banks.

“That’s not an answer,” she said.

“River’s up today, you notice?” her mother asked. Laurie said nothing for a moment.

“I did notice,” she said, “but you didn’t answer.” The willows rasped behind the dock as Laurie’s mother picked at the wheatgrass in her hand. Seeds dropped into her lap and she shook them off with a brisk flick of her skirt. When she spoke her voice was light, girlish.

“Things can be difficult, Laurie,” she said. “They cannot be trusted.”

“Who, Mom?” Laurie asked. “What are you talking about?” Frustration rose, and she tried to remain calm, distant, like the pamphlet Todd had sent her advised. Do not get angry or upset, it said. Your loved one is not him/herself. When you are upset, remember how much they cared for you. She had ignored the last bit and skipped to the sections on room size.

“Why did you move away?” her mother said suddenly, petulantly. “They all told you not to. Nothing works now; nothing is safe.” She shifted restlessly and dipped her feet deeper into the river: her patience was thin now, Laurie saw. Care was necessary.

“I told you before,” Laurie said, keeping her voice measured. “I went to school. I work in an office. I’m only a few hours away.”

“But not married,” her mother said, looking away and speaking to herself. “Not good. Maybe never.” Laurie was silent. A heron rose noiselessly downriver, long legs spindly below it, dragging on the surface of the water before it vanished beyond the bend.

“No, I’m not,” Laurie said. “And neither were you,” she added, caring little about the spite she heard in her voice.

“No,” her mother said, flatly, lucid, “and my parents never forgave me for it. Do you think that was easy?” Laurie looked at her and wondered that she had never before bothered to ask her mother, never curious as a child, why she did not deliver Laurie herself to her grandparents’ home, those frequent weekend trips.

“But why didn’t you leave, then?” Laurie asked. “You just did it over and over, nothing was ever different.”

“Where are my shoes?” her mother asked. “Your brother took them, didn’t he?” She shook her head, heavy under still-glossy hair, and turned to Laurie. “You were a nuisance, you know,” she said conversationally. “I’d rather not have had you, but that wasn’t a choice.”

When you are upset, remember how much they cared for you. Laurie wished she had the pamphlet so she could force open her mother’s jaws and make her eat it, swallow it down until she choked on the stiff paper. She stood and let the blood rush to her head, black spots before her eyes, and a stillness in her ears that bottomed out into a flood of sound. She fought the urge to strike at her mother’s head, where she sat before her. Would anyone miss her mother—did anyone notice when those people went missing, the shuffling figures on the edges of crowds, the old women who sat alone on park benches and watched children at the park? She could do it now: plunge her down into the river and wait for the bubbles to pop on the surface, one by one.

“I never had a brother, Mom,” she said, and walked back to the house.

*

Shadows in the kitchen grew long and cool while the breeze lifted the thin curtains into a full swelling of gray light and linen, and the stained floor planks seemed to Laurie, from where she perched in the bay window, as if they were softened by the fading sun, muted and dulled to a smooth clarity. She could see her mother still on the dock, not yet consumed by the falling darkness and just visible, her outline dotted by the occasional flash of a lightning bug looping out of the tall grass. Laurie thought about what her mother had said, things so casually and calmly uttered because she, Laurie, did not entirely exist anymore. She did not think, actually, that she had ever existed for her mother, not in the way she had needed, desperately needed, to exist for her. It was not enough to have been raised by others, even when she knew that was all she would receive. How strange to find the beginning of all things at this cracking, dissolving end: Laurie let out a short bark of a laugh, and did not smile. A box of teeth, yellow, gleaming, glistening in the dark drawer and waiting patiently for a hand to reach out to stroke. Teeth, for spilling blood.

Outside the river rose secretly, in increments, multiplying in hurrying excess and breathing in before the great gush outward: the gasping burst, the flood. Rat snakes and massasaugas writhed in the reeds, gorging on spring peepers and leopard frogs flushed from their holes, and the white cranes did not land—they journeyed south, to the salt deltas and lush green glades, and the river rose and rose.

*

In the morning Laurie’s mother sat small at the kitchen table, peeling an apple. Her hands turned the apple steadily, a sweet celestial body revolving endlessly in her withered hands, and the skin curled in a long skein below the fruit to where it piled on the table. Laurie watched her mother from the doorway and thought about the knife, dull but sharp enough. She stepped into the kitchen and spoke.

“Mom,” she said, “it’s time to leave.” Her mother looked up sharply.

“You can if you want,” she said. “I’ve never kept you.” Laurie opened her mouth to speak, then stopped. The apple continued turning in her mother’s hands.

“Grandma’s coming by to get you tomorrow,” her mother said, “so pack up.”

“Grandma is dead,” Laurie said, angry now, tired of the dizzying steps over holes that appeared from nowhere, layer to layer with no warning.

“Well, what can I do?” her mother asked, and dropped the apple. “They’ve all gone.” She looked at Laurie, puzzled, then reached up and touched her daughter’s face. Laurie started with the coolness of her mother’s fingers.

“Odd thing, you,” her mother said, and stood.

“What are the teeth, Mom?” Laurie asked. She said it quickly, wanting to startle out an answer, something. “What are you doing with a box of teeth?”

“The teeth?” her mother laughed, and left the kitchen on soft-slapping feet. Laurie followed.

Outside the air was low and humid, thick with water, building to a head in the west; the hot wind spat in fits and the dried, reddened sumac rattled in the breeze. Laurie could feel sweat drip down her spine as she trailed her mother out to the low pier, now hardly above the river at all. It would go under, soon. Her mother walked to the edge of the dock—messianic, serene—and sat, folding her legs beneath her with a stiff, quick movement. Laurie knelt beside her and reached down to let her fingers trail in the river.

“Snappers’ll get your fingers,” her mother said. “Be careful.” Nodding, Laurie withdrew her hand: her mother might be senile, but she was not stupid. The two women sat on the dock watching the blackening clouds billow and contract with their rich bellies full of rain, soon to be released into the waterlogged plains. Water into water, overflow of silt and rich earth and blind, pinkish catfish hurled up wriggling onto the banks, porous with sinking, swirling runoff that carved deep into the dripping caves.

“What do I do with you?” Laurie asked her mother. She stared out to the gray-brown banks of the western shore and tried to pick out the tied boats that would be straining against their ropes at the piers. “You can’t stay here anymore.”

“They’re your teeth, of course,” her mother said.

“What?” Laurie said, the compression dizzying. “The teeth?”

“I saved all your baby teeth,” her mother said. “You might have needed them. I couldn’t get rid of my Laurie-Dee’s teeth.”

A childhood name: nights atop the hill, looking out from its star-washed bluff; the smell of cotton and sweat and the sweet taste of black raspberries, still earthy. Sand between toes, and the thrilling, soft pulp of a toothless gum. And the teeth, still bloody, tokens of something unspeakable and strong.

“River’s up,” her mother said.

“I know, Mom,” Laurie said, and they watched the Mississippi current rise in a choppy rhythm, and breathed in the hot, swampy air.

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