A Pretty Smile
by Bethany Pope
I didn’t have enough money for a full set of dentures and the county dentist only accepted cash in hand (he said on the phone that he’d gotten sick of chasin’ down late payments), so I had to settle for a bridge. Luckily, I still had a couple of eye teeth to hook the new fronts onto.
I’d been fired from my job at Kash’N’Kary last week (after Bobby got through with me) and if you’ve never had to seek employment while your smile shows the gum where there should be incisors you can count yourself lucky. People look at you like you was somethin’ scraped off the bottom of their shoes if your cheeks get hollow.
I think it’s because people think that poverty is contagious, somehow, and not a sickness that you can’t help, either. It’s treated more like the clap than the flu. Something a better person could avoid, or at least treat with enough willpower and effort.
Anyway, there I was with the choice of gettin’ the water turned back on or financing a new smile, and out of things to sell after I stuck the ‘For Sale’ sign in the cracked windshield of my shitty, rusted out Volkswagen. I paid the phone bill, though. Good luck gettin’ a job if the boss can’t call you. One of my neighbours let me draw a plastic gallon jug of water from her garden hose and I gave myself a cat-bath by pouring about two cups of it onto a dish and scrubbing my armpits with salt. It burned, but it worked. Hell, I don’t mind. My granny cleaned herself like this every day of her life, even when she had soap.
When I was dry, I put on my best Goodwill clothes and walked two miles to the bus stop.
According to the sign, a bus came out here once every two hours. When I finally find another job I’m going to have to plan accordingly. It’s going to be one hell of a commute into Palmetto.
If I could live closer without losin’ granny’s house, I would. It’s just four white-painted wood walls standing on cinderblocks, just three rooms with a leaky roof settin’ on a postage-stamp, but it’s all my family ever had. I got to hold onto it for the sake of my blood.
By the time I made it to the bus stop my ratty old pump-tongued Reeboks were stained gray with the dust and so was the bluejean hem of my dress. I stood there for about an hour, leanin’ against the trunk of a Queen Anne palmtree and smellin’ the sweat-stink rising up from my crotch, before the bus finally pulled up. I slid my quarters into the slot by the driver and settled myself down in the near-empty back row.
The ride wasn’t too bad. I’ve always liked looking out of windows and if you’re a good driver you don’t get the chance to do that very often, unless you got someone drivin’ for you and in that case you’ve got to pay attention to him unless you want to make your honey angry.
We passed the orange groves, those long hollow-eyed trailers they keep the migrant workers in, passed the Tropicana orange juice plant, then the Esso gas station that gave away free coffee two years ago, one paper cup per person, per day, the whole first week it was open. I watched the country degrade into township and I felt somethin’ steel slide into me, somethin’ cold and hard settling into my guts the same way it always does when I cross that border.
I could hear my granny, loud as life, talkin’ to me inside of my head. She said, “Such a shame, Norma. When I was a chile we took care of ourselves. We grew cane and tobacco which we traded for supplies at at the Post. My daddy went out huntin’ and brought home braces of opossums and gators, sometimes he’d catch a rafter of turkeys or even a deer. We didn’t have much, but we took care of ourselves. Now you got to go out there and be a shame to the family. I bet you’ve even forgotten how good a hot, fatty biscuit tastes, or how to make a mess of grits into something edible. If it were my day you’d be married to someone steady. You might have been beat some, but you’d have kept your teeth until you’d birthed a baby or two…”
I turned her off then. That’s the nice thing about the dead. If it’s daytime, and you’re in public, you can shut them off like radio.
Anyway, the bus was filling up fast. There were a lot of black people, more Mexicans, and one or two white faces sticking out like the pale grains in a jar of crushed pepper. I didn’t talk to any of them. Weren’t none of them my kind. But lookin’ at them was enough to serve as a distraction.
I got off three stops from the station and walked the mile into the office of the only local dentist who will take a body without any insurance. It was a cinderblock box, painted with a coat of white that glittered in the sun, peppered with specks of mica. There were some purple wanderin’ Jew plants growin’ by the doorway, and a mummified brown lizard stuck in the corner of the door, caught and flattened between the wall and the hinges.
The receptionist was a heavy blond lady with a set of long, purple acrylic fingernails who looked up and glowered at me so hard from behind her linoleum counter that I felt self conscious at myself and smiled at her. The shocked look on her face soothed the embarrassment I felt at forgettin’ again about the state of my mouth.
I filled in the paperwork, laid my greasy stack of cash by her fat, freckled paw, and sat in the single white-plastic lawn chair decoratin’ the waiting room.
Eventually, the dentist called me into his office. I sat down in the brown reclinin’ chair (it was patched with silver strips of duct tape) while he reached in with ungloved hands and measured my mouth. I felt him palpating my eye-teeth (they wouldn’t move, no matter how hard he wiggled them) and then he did the same with my molars and frowned, sayin’, “Miss Nelson, these back ones are going. You sure you can’t scrape up another two-hundred? You’d be better off if I just pulled them right out and fit a plate in there. You’re getting a used bridge anyway, and a lot of people come to this state to die off. I could get you a fine set for a total of seven-hundred dollars.”
Dr Bronson pulled his fingers out of my mouth, wiping my saliva off on the collar of my dress. I answered him, “I already sold my car to get these-uns. I can’t raise no more until I find myself a job.”
The dentist turned away from me, arranging a selection of ivory-coloured teeth onto his rust-speckled tray. He spoke as he tried them, one by one, against the width of my mouth, “All right. I know how that is.”
I felt a click in my mouth, and Dr Bronson smiled, “Yep. That’ll do nicely.” He winked at me, sliding one thick lid over a rheumy brown eye, “The undertaker sold me this one just yesterday. Lucky for you that old man bought it, or you’d be out of luck. All the others were too small. You’ve got a mouth like a man, practically.”
He held up a blue-plastic hand mirror and I saw my face in it. The dentures were huge, and coffee-stained. They looked like they hadn’t been cleaned in a while. But at least they looked natural. I told the dentist, ‘Thanks’ and resolved to give them a good bleach scrubbing as soon as I could get Miss Ginny to lend me a capfull.
Dr Bronson stuck his hand out and I shook it. He said, “Tell you what. You use these teeth for now but don’t damage them. When you’ve got the extra money saved up I’ll take them back and get you some real dentures. I can always resell these to somebody else.”
I thanked him kindly for that, and told him to plan on seeing me again in three or four months. Then I walked back out into the swelterin’ sunlight and started making my round of Dollar Stores and Cost-Cutters. I had about four hours before the last bus back home and I meant to spend as much time as I could filling out applications.
Bethany W. Pope is an award-winning writer. She received her PhD from Aberystwyth University’s Creative Writing program, and her MA from the University of Wales Trinity St David. She has published several collections of poetry: A Radiance (Cultured Llama, 2012) Crown of Thorns,(Oneiros Books, 2013), The Gospel of Flies (Writing Knights Press 2014), and Undisturbed Circles(Lapwing, 2014). Her collection The Rag and Boneyard, shall be published soon by Indigo Dreams and her chapbook Among The White Roots Will be released by Three Drops Press next autumn. Her first novel, Masque, shall be published by Seren in 2016.