top of page
  • sanchopanzalit

Family Indenture

Samantha Thuesen


We think our ancestors made a deal with evil spirits: wealth and beauty in exchange for our teeth, our children’s teeth, our great-great-grandchildren’s teeth. Mom had always thought she could stop the curse, but our mouths kept decomposing, and I preferred to rot. It was less painful than her brushing my teeth until they bled, or her grabbing the credit card every time she saw an oral care infomercial. Yet here I am on a Monday afternoon, the day before her funeral, lying in my own enamel coffin—the dentist’s chair. I’m not dead yet, but my gums are receding, so I may as well be.


Dr. Scott strolls into the room, slipping a pair of rubber gloves over his soft, pasty pink hands. A Rolex watch snakes its way around his fat wrist. It’s struggling to stay clasped—the links permanently embedded into his skin. His puffy cheeks lift behind his surgical mask. If it were any tighter, it would rip off his ears.


“Back again? That’s twice in one week.” He sticks the Novocain into my gums, free and easy like a handshake. “What is it today, another gum graft? At this rate you’ll send me into early retirement!”


The dental hygienist laughs, but during my procedure her hand trembles as she sucks the spit pooling under my tongue. She’s been here three months, and I think her name is Alice. Every week when I call to schedule my appointments her voice goes down an octave, and Dr. Scott is always in the background, whistling, eager to see my caller ID. Before her it was Kathleen. Next it will be a Diana or a Bernadette. All of them are fresh out of dental school, still lively enough to straighten their hair every morning. Somehow—walking home alone at night or desperate for opportunity—they cross paths with Dr. Scott, and even though he’s the best dentist money can buy, the work is dishonest, and it breaks them. But most of the time it sends them spiraling into barista careers, at least that was the case with Kathleen.


“So sorry about your mother by the way. She was one hell of a woman,” Dr. Scott says, knuckles-deep in my mouth. “Speaking of, after we’re done I’ll need you to make the payment for her last appointment. I tried to save that last tooth, I really did. It’s a shame.”


Dr. Scott performs every kind of dental procedure: gum surgeries, root canals, bonding, splinting. He does things other dentists won’t. When I was seven years old, I got my first cavity and Mom became rash and manic. That’s when she found Dr. Scott.


“Thcedule her for a filling. Thaturday morning.” After losing her front teeth, she always held a hand close to her face when she spoke, pretending to scratch her nose or tap her chin.


“It’ll fall out soon,” Dr. Scott said. “Are you sure?” He didn’t ask because the filling was unnecessary, but because he couldn’t believe the gold mine that had just stepped into his office. He gave me six fillings that year, and by the time I was eleven, performed root canals on three premolars. Mom loved to take precautions. Her commitment to breaking the curse had started with wanting to keep me beautiful, but then Dr. Scott promised he could restore the beauty she’d lost.


“Let me make those teeth match that pretty face,” he said.


The week after my mother’s apicoectomy he planned a trip to Nantucket, which became a yearly affair for him. There was one summer he’d invited Mom to go with him; I was supposed to stay at Aunt Melba’s for a whole week, but Mom came back early and wouldn’t tell anyone why. After dressing every single one of her bottom teeth with a silver crown, Dr. Scott celebrated with a pair of snakeskin cowboy boots. And after eighteen years of replacing her dental implants, despite her mouth’s refusal to hold them, he invested in some beachfront properties in Florida, where Mom was also invited to stay, but never did—partly because she didn’t care to, but more so because she’s dead now.


I’ve had six connective-tissue grafts in the past month. The fourteen teeth I have left are a muddied yellow. My two top canines have fissure decay. The four bottom incisors have root decay and the central incisors are loose. Half of my first front tooth is gone; the second started wobbling yesterday. One bicuspid is eroding and the other is suffering most from my dentin hypersensitivity. I can only drink and chew on the left. My two molars—one on either side of the bottom row—are receiving the bulk of my gum recession. Mixed into the bag are cracked crowns, canker sores, periodontitis, and really bad breath.


While Alice washes her hands, Dr. Scott peels off his gloves and pushes his swivel chair away from me. “There isn’t much more I can do at this point, Ramona.” He chuckles and pulls down his mask. “I mean Mary. Wow, my apologies, you’re just starting to look so much like her. Same brown eyes, same long hair, same—”


“If you can’t do anything to help me, then I’ll stop coming,” I say, lying.


“Hey now.” He rolls back over and squeezes my shoulder, and it feels like five baby carrots groping me. “I didn’t say there’s nothing I can do. You have three more loose teeth, the two top lateral incisors and now your front tooth. Let’s bring you back and fix them.”


“Because fixing them worked so well last time?”


“We’ll get it right soon enough. You’re a special case. I couldn’t save your mom’s teeth, but we got an early start with you.” He nudges my cheek with his knuckle. “Now give me a smile.”


I roll my eyes, because he does this every time. I don’t hate his attention. It’s more like getting a deep-tissue massage with osteoporosis. It’s enjoyable for a second, but then he digs in more, and I remember I’m chronically brittle. But I already paid for it, so I’m not going to leave.


“How many times have I told you, Mary? You need to get away. Go on vacation. Nantucket maybe,” Dr. Scott says.


“I’ll go to Nantucket the day you fly coach,” I say.


He laughs under his breath. “Sometimes you have to downgrade to get where you want to go, I guess.” He gazes at me for a moment. “Wow. A spitting image. Seriously. I’ll see you next week.”


If he wasn’t a dentist, he’d be a politician, and if I cared enough to go to therapy maybe that would bother me more.


Alice flips through the calendar at the front desk. “How does Tuesday sound? Eight o’clock?”


“Sure, I’ll see you then.”


She pauses before saying, “Yes, see you then.”


I take my appointment card and leave, already forgetting her name.

#

At home I look for Mom’s favorite mourning veil so I can wear it to the funeral. She always looked most alluring with fabric falling over her face. It’s plain, but edged with black satin and not as transparent as mine. I find it buried under a heap of jeggings and Kate Spade handbags and I imagine how ecstatic the local Goodwill shoppers will be when they find them on the shelves. Mom’s taste differed from her sisters’, or else I’d invite them over to browse.


Every woman in my family has at least one mansion or penthouse somewhere in the northern hemisphere. She has Armani at the dry cleaners and Venetian mirrors in every room to admire her high cheekbones, celestial nose, and thick hair. Aunt Denise loaded her Montana ranch exclusively with custom sandalwood furnishings, and Aunt Gloria would never admit to hiring ivory poachers, but we all know the chandelier in her Switzerland palace isn’t faux. Neither are the keys on her grand piano. Aunt Eleanor had bought us all matching coyote fur capes one Thanksgiving, but it hadn’t fit nicely over my mother’s arms, so she used it as a shower mat instead. It doesn’t matter if the luxury is endangered or cruel, because we’re endangered too.


I grew up in a white brick colonial house. Mom had inherited it from her mother because it was too humble for her sisters, and now the deed’s been left to me. Jackson Pollocks still hang on the walls and the doors lock with Tiffany keys. When I was little, we’d planted pink snapdragons in the backyard, but Mom didn’t like the color and paid a man to paint them blue. I’d been homeschooled by Pulitzer Prize winners, dressed in Mulberry silk, and kissed by Harry Winston, but once Dr. Scott came into our lives, plants died, teachers’ credentials didn’t matter, and the rose gold charm bracelets in my Christmas stocking were replaced with bags and bags of twin-clean interdental flossers.


Mom had always sent me off to violin lessons or to parks with babysitters, but after that first cavity, she wouldn’t leave me alone. She’d stand outside my bathroom door while I brushed before bed.


“Thpit! Don’t rinth!” she’d whisper through the crack. “You’ll wath away the good thtuff.”


And then she’d visit me in the middle of the night. She’d pry my mouth open, despite my screaming, and rub a toothbrush back and forth on my raw gums until bloody mint foam ran down my throat.


Pleathe, Mary, you need to bruth better! Ith not working!”


Those were the only times I’d really seen her teeth—twisting and splintering. She always clenched them when she cried. Even after Dr. Scott had taken her on as a client, shaved and pulled the decay from her, she never stopped breaking down.


I sleep better now, though I still keep a light on. Dating will be much easier too. One of Derek Jeter’s summer homes is down the street from us, and a few months ago Mom had gone over with a plate of butter cookies to ask if he had any nephews. No one answered the door. Even in kindergarten she scheduled playdates with all the boys in my class, and the rumors that circulated in the PTA were what eventually lead to my homeschooling. Last year, she hugged a man following our second date like he’d just proposed to me.


“I’m tho exthited you two found eath other,” she said. “Will we thee you again thoon?”

We did not see him again, but relationships never last long in this family. My own father left when he found out Mom was pregnant with me. He had supposedly loved her unconditionally, but insisted they adopt. The thought of her genes in his children made him feel dirty and sacrilegious, according to Mom. I decided if I were to ever meet him, I would tell him I’m a Scientologist.


Last week I had dinner with a man I’d met online, Mateo. I nearly chipped a tooth on the free bread and couldn’t eat anything but soup and cole slaw. I’m smiling with closed lips in my profile picture, so he’d obviously felt catfished enough to ghost me. Before him, I went to see a movie with Jacob, who—after we made out in the dark theater—had to buy another cherry slushie to wash away the taste of me. But most memorably, a man named Kevin discovered his cavity kink before the Applebee’s waitress could even take our order.


“You have how many fillings?” he asked.


He still calls me, but I’ll wait until I’ve exhausted all my options before calling back, as long as we adopt when we get married.

#

The funeral at Saint Anthony’s is open casket. They always are. It’s a small church, appropriate for our remaining family: Mom’s five sisters, my six cousins, four of whom have young daughters, and my Great Aunt Estelle who, nearing ninety, I’m betting is next to go. Her one tooth is hanging on by a strand of gum. My cousins Clara and Margaret are standing outside with Aunt Denise. I know it’s them, despite the veils covering their faces, because their lace dresses match.


“Hi sweet Mary,” Denise says, hugging me with just the tips of her fingers. “What a sad, sad day.”


“I love your veil,” Margaret says.


“It’s your mother’s, isn’t it?” Denise asks.


“Yeah, I thought maybe she’d appreciate it,” I say.


“My sister was so simple.” Denise strokes the sheer. “Too simple sometimes.” She has the most teeth compared to the rest of her sisters. Lisps start around forty, and Denise, about to be fifty, can still enunciate every s sound.


“What does that mean?” I ask.


She smacks her tongue on the roof of her mouth. “I just mean if she lived a little more… lavishly. If she spent less time thinking in a fantasy world, we might not be here.”


“She was so obsessed with that dentist,” Clara says. “He’s probably the reason she lost everything so soon.”


“Did more harm than good. She should’ve let it be and moved you both to the coast with us,” Denise says.


Clara and Margaret nod in agreement, but when we were thirteen, they’d gotten a pair of dentures behind their mother’s back. It happened right after my fifth root canal, and I’d sworn on my life I wouldn’t snitch on them. In the bathroom at our annual Valentine’s Day cocktail dinner they took turns trying them on and smiling in the mirror, but one night Margaret fell asleep in them. The next morning, the plastic smelt so bad she had to throw them out, and she had an infection for weeks. I think they were jealous that my mom was trying to fix me. If Denise knew how they’d felt, she would have knocked all their teeth out herself.


I hold up my veil to be sure we make eye contact. “Sweet Aunt Denise, at least my mother made it to an anniversary before her guy went running. I guess she was better at keeping a man in bed. Must have been all the gums. Don’t worry, you’ll be there soon enough.”


She gasps. “Mary, are those stitches in your mouth?” She lifts my upper lip and stares with wide eyes. “Trying to fix your own gums, I see. I guess your mother did brainwash you. Everyone’s inside. Let’s get this over with.”


She walks up the church steps and Clara and Margaret loiter awkwardly before doing the same. I run my tongue along the back of my loose front tooth, take a deep breath, then follow.


The creaking of the doors entering the main chapel captures everyone’s attention, and necks holding up veiled faces snap to look at me. Their small cluster of bodies splits to reveal my mother’s white casket at the front of the altar. I can just see the knuckles of her hands folded across her chest.


The first funeral I ever went to was for my grandmother. She’d made it to seventy-eight before her last tooth fell out. She was lucky, compared to my mother who only reached fifty-seven. Maybe Dr. Scott’s procedures really did kill her. I was six, and even though I didn’t understand what was happening, I could tell Mom wanted to hide from everyone, which is why we’d sat on the upper balcony. She pressed a finger to her lips and I copied to show my obedience, then watched the people below—the tops of black hats walking up and down the aisle before the service, no faces visible under the strange, dark fabric.


“Mommy,” I whispered. “I want a hat like that.”


“No, you don’t.” She stroked my hair, and I continued to poke at my first loose tooth.


Father Lou stands at the podium. “We are gathered here to say farewell to Ramona Sue Reid and commit her into the hands of God.”


When he looks at me, I make my way to the altar and I can see Mom in her entirety. She’s wearing the violet cape dress I picked out. The last time she wore it was at my high school graduation party. After telling me homeschoolers didn’t get real graduations, she imported white truffles and oysters, anything soft, and hosted our family at our house. Mom had complained all night about how itchy her seams were, but my aunts were so impressed with her menu and decorations, and it was the first time they’d complimented her fashion choices, so the cape dress became her favorite dress.


I position myself at the podium beside her casket, trying not to look down at her face in case she’s looking back at me. I unfold my eulogy and everyone in the pews lifts their veils over their head pieces. No one is crying.


I clear my throat. “My mother had something a lot of us don’t. Hope.”


A few chuckles rise, and I can see Aunt Gloria sucking in her upper lip. Aunt Melba’s nostrils flare and Estelle is sleeping, or dead. Incense burns my eyes. I push against my tooth.


“She lived her life according to what she believed, not whatever misfortune the universe gave her. She believed our family is destined for more than just money.”


My cousins Stephanie and Pamela lower their heads and their shoulders bounce. Aunt Anne nudges them to stop, but I see she’s trying to compose herself by squeezing Aunt Eleanor’s hand. Denise just stares at me, smirking. The sun lights up the stained-glass window at the back of the church, where Jesus is in Heaven opening his arms to angels. Mom hated Jesus. I push harder and put my paper down.


“And maybe if you pulled the pearls out of your asses we could find a way to save ourselves.”


Before I can continue, roaring laughter swallows my voice, and it echoes in my head, the noise worse than chewing tin foil. My tongue squeezes through the gaps of my teeth, and I look out at these women clutching their Prada and stroking their blue-diamond necks. The children don’t understand yet, but they still laugh and point and sneer. I keep pushing until the pain clouds my vision, wishing I’ll pass out, but I can’t see anything but the yellowing and browning teeth, the canker sores, the gingivitis, the plaque, the bacteria, the cavities. The rot. Every single raw, gummy smile laughs at me. When I try to catch my breath, I almost choke and spit my bloody front tooth into my palm.


I look down at Mom’s face. Her mouth is barely open, but it’s enough for me to see she’s empty. Maybe she’s finally laughing with them. I notice Father Lou watching me, and he does nothing to stop my family, not because he’s getting paid off like Dr. Scott, but because he knows God can’t help us. I let the tooth roll off my hand and onto the altar, like a peace offering, to let Mom know I tried. But we failed each other. We aren’t that much different. One day I’ll be empty too.


402 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Desiccation

Eve Henley--Rayve I hold my hand up to the ceiling above me, watching the smoke trail its way outward through the edges of my fingertips. There was no one and nothing in this moment except the twinkle

Free Time 

Iris Berman In my free time, I teach children songs in a language I do not speak for twenty-two an hour. I’ve never met my boss in person, and her face flickers on the screen before me. We’re not look

Apple-Joy

Payal Nagpal If you ask Sheila Gupta-Malone what gets her out of bed in the morning, she might say that it’s her children. They must be ready for school by eight o’clock, and it’s her responsibility t

Comments


bottom of page