When she is drunk, my mother speaks like the teeth are loose in her mouth. Granted, it didn’t take much for my mother to drink or be drunk, and granted, if I’d had have a life like hers I imagine I’d want to be always forgetting too. She of the wrinkled hands and dishwater skin, she of the smell of iron starch and skin translucent in fluorescent overhead lightbulbs, she of diner breakfasts and laundromat afternoons, she of heavy sighs and carefully-clipped want ads, stuck by magnets to the refrigerator. She of the worn-leather handbag filled with cocktail napkins, she of two-dollar white wine marketed mostly to budget-wary, tasteless college students, she of frothy frozen pint glasses with dinner, she of tequila shots from smeared, short glasses on occasions both special and profane. She of longing for older, simpler days, she of the constant fears and sorrows, parenting a headstrong daughter, alone as long as I can remember. I have no father, I say when people ask. Only a mother who, when she is drunk, speaks like the teeth are loose in her mouth.
Our Irish-Catholic neighbors invite her to their annual Christmas party. She comes back tired-eyed and smiling in a loose, unspecific way. “Ma,” I say. “Look at me.” She sinks into her armchair like her blood is crystallized and leaden. She sighs. Her head swivels on her neck.
“Highballs,” she says. “Mr. Moran made highballs.”
“Sure,” I say. I lift my eyebrows, embarrassed. Two drinks and she’s under the table. Her inability to handle her liquor is just one more way in which my mother is a woman of the old world, pretty and polished and useless without a man to care for her, her bad luck ironized to the point of absurdity.
“Tomorrow we should make French toast,” she slurs, and I can almost see the holes in her mouth, dark and ragged-edged and raw.
“Sure, Ma” I say. I imagine that she bends at the waist, wordlessly. I imagine that she not so much spits as gently opens her mouth and allows her wine-stained teeth to fall into my open hand. I imagine the wishes she’d make on them if her teeth started falling out, one by one.
As for me, I keep baby teeth in an empty cigarette pack in the pocket of a long-outgrown jean jacket that hangs in the back of my closet. Occasionally, I pull the pack from the pocket and tip it into my open hand, allowing the teeth to chime and echo as they collide and tumble and land, far too lightly, far too silently. They are small and yellowed and soft. One or two have loose tobacco flakes sunk into their surfaces. One or two have chips or crevices or never-filled cavities. They’re the color of milk, the texture of piano keys. Very rarely, when I am in a particularly ornery mood, I drop a few baby teeth, one by one, into my mouth. They seem to fizz, threaten to dissolve like sugar, when I close my lips around them. Before too long, I spit them out, back into their rumpled foil liner, back into their torn cardboard pack, back into the pocket of the frayed-collar jean jacket in the back of the closet papered with flower-print chintz wallpaper, behind the door covered with stickers I won from arcade games.
I never believed in the Tooth Fairy, not when I was in my lunchbox paper-kite days and certainly not now, because my mother never taught me to believe in fairies, in Easter bunnies, in Santa Clauses, or in elves.
“No use believing in illusions,” she said. “We can make magic ourselves.” Every time a tooth dropped from my mouth into the playground dirt or the toothpaste-spattered sink, she’d hold it to the light like it was a diamond. She’d run it under cool water from the faucet. She’d dry it with an embroidered linen with bleach stains at the frayed hem. She’d place the tiny piece of me within my tiny fist. She’d press her lips to the top of my frizzy-haired head and whisper to me to close my eyes, to make a wish, and when I did she dropped the tooth into the cigarette pack and looked at me with a smile wrapped in secrecy. I didn’t know what illusions were but I believed in wishes, believed in magic, believed in my mother and me.
In the cigarette pack in the pocket of an old jean jacket in the back of my closet there are seventeen baby teeth that still contain in their slowly-eroding enamel my most desperate wishes. There are seventeen because I swallowed my fourth lost baby tooth. My tenth baby tooth got lost in a sandbox. I buried the sixteenth one in the dirt beside the cherry tree in my backyard when I learned about archaeology in school and imagined that one day they’d dig up my yard and find this small piece of me, my mother, the magic we made with no money or men to our name, untouched by weather and time and nuclear annihilation.
Charlotte Freccia is a second-year student of English, Creative Writing, and Women's and Gender Studies at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. She has been published in Zaum Magazine and is a recipient of the Philip Wolcott Timberlake Award. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Freccia is a graduate of the Holderness School in New Hampshire and enjoys reading, writing, feminism, music, and the outdoors.