The (W)hole Tooth

The other day I was on the phone with someone I haven’t spoken to in quite some time. She’s one of those friends with whom you can instantly pick up right where you left off and act like not even two days have passed, even if a year has. (Let’s just call her “Ellen”.)
Ellen told me that she was finally rid of “Jim”, her husband of who knows how many years.
“I finally got rid of ol’ Number 29,” she said. “Good riddance.”
Jim used to wear some sort of team shirt with the number 29 on it. Constantly. I don’t think there was a time when I didn’t see him lumbering around in that thing.
“Oh my god,” I said, “I completely forgot about that. That thing was absolutely revolting.”
“Tell me about it,” Ellen said with a laugh. “So he, and it, finally left the castle!”
Jim used to come home from work at night and actually demand dinner on the table, like some sort of chauvinistic sitcom jackass. If Ellen didn’t have his dinner ready when he barrelled through the door, he would mumble something about how he was the “king of the castle” and sulk on the sofa sucking down a beer while Ellen scurried around the kitchen like Edith Bunker, getting his “meat and potatoes” ready.
I told her that I was actually quite relieved, because I’d never been able to get over something else about him that just rankled the hell out of me. It was something physical that I focused on whenever I saw him. It was as if he were synonymous with the flaw, the two of them inseparable. Indeed, it was the way I identified him whenever I had to describe him to someone who didn’t know him by name.
You see, Jim — big carnivore Jim — was missing some of his teeth. When he opened his mouth to order Ellen around, which was often, you could see a big black space just beyond his front few teeth (on his right side), a space where teeth had literally fallen out of his head.
And that was the way I always thought of him. All I could think of was when I was about six years old and one of my baby teeth was just dangling by a pulpy thread, waiting to fall out. It kept getting in the way and I just couldn’t stand it anymore. So the dentist pulled it. I was sure I was going to wind up sounding like Buddy Hinton on The Brady Bunch (after Peter punched him in the mouth for making fun of Cindy’s lisp) and that everyone was going to chant, “Baby talk, baby talk, it’s a wonder you can walk!”
But no one made fun of me, because all the other six year olds were missing teeth too. That was OK. We were supposed to be that way. However, one time when I was at the supermarket with my mother, I saw an old man — or one that I thought was old but who was probably only like 30 at the time — and he wasn’t missing just one tooth, like I was, but several. I started to laugh and asked my mother what was wrong with him. She told me not to stare.
Still, it was hard not to keep looking at him because whenever he would look my way, he would grin widely at me and look like he wanted to laugh at my shock.
“That’s why we brush our teeth,” she said in a hushed tone. “That’s why we brush our teeth twice a day. And floss. See? That’s what happens if you don’t.”
All I could think was that he must’ve made a bundle off the tooth fairy. I pictured a tiny plastic treasure chest crammed full of teeth, waiting under this old guy’s pillow, and him waking up the next morning with a big wad of dollar bills, all fanned out in front of his face. And him smiling that big black toothless grin.
“So, anyway,” Ellen continued, “what was it that rankled the hell out of you about Jim?” I mean, other than the crusty 29 shirt and the ‘My Home Is My Castle And I Am The King’ crap. Was it … oh my god … was it … no —”
“Yes,” I interrupted her. “I cannot lie. I must tell you the tooth. The whole tooth and nothing but the tooth.”
She was mortified, and told me that he’d recently had a bridge made and that he actually looked a lot better with it. Now, maybe, he’d take better care of his teeth, she added.
“Great,” Ellen said. “So we both remember him having holes in his head?”
“In more ways than one, of course,” I said.
“I needed him like I needed a hole in MY head,” she said.
“It’s funny,” I said, “the things we remember about people. We’ll always remember Jim as a toothless dirtball. What a legacy.”
“Ain’t it the &#151” Ellen started.
“Don’t even,” I finished.