“Milk Teeth”

So now she knew and it was done, and as the curves in the road rocked her in and out of the same bad dream she thought of him: of how rough he’d been with the woman at the wedding, of how surprised he’d been to see her, and then less so, and then resigned.

It was dark now, the party over. He drove without speaking to her.

In the beam of headlights the road snaked back and forth in front of them, then disappeared. The truck ate up the road. She turned to look behind her and it was gone; the silhouettes of trees were barely visible by the moonlight breaking through the gauze of clouds. Sometimes on both sides of them were long fields of corn and low fields of tobacco, and sometimes the headlights lit up patches of trees, the dead trunks and branches of oaks and pines, and the gnarly bushes of wildflowers that grew in their roots, and patches of clover which, if left alone, grew into tall and thorny flowers with wild purple faces.

Now she knew everything without seeing or being told, the way you know everything in dreams: by sense, by memory, by intuition.

From time to time they passed a house with darkened windows, sometimes it was a house with a porch light left on. Rusted car in a driveway, rusted car in a yard. A sign made to look like a woman bending over. Statue of a boy holding out a gas lantern. Plaster roosters. Wooden deer arranged so as to look real. There were real deer also: their small eyes glinted at the side of the road. Raccoons knocked over garbage cans, frightening the kids left alone inside. She saw a screened-in porch with a plastic porch swing; there was a tear in the screen that let mosquitoes in, and swarming the porch light were moths as big as her hand. They had a long way to drive. He didn’t speed.

In the passenger seat of the pickup truck she rubbed at her mouth.

The house that they drove to was not like these, not like their own, not familiar at all. This house had two stories, and many rooms. This house had a bathroom with a big round tub, the kind she would have liked to have someday. The house had a room that was called a “bonus”—a gift to whoever lived there. Perfect for a rec room, an office, a nursery.

The house had a driveway, it had a garage, and both were empty. But she had the sensation that the house was expecting them. He pulled the truck into the garage.

The headlights swept over another man who stood alone, in the dark, in the empty garage. Behind him a little ball swung back and forth on a string. The man wore dark blue coveralls stained with white paint and oil. The man smoked cigarettes, one right after the other. The man had grey in the hair of his beard and eyebrows, the hair in his ears was white, his teeth were white and large and straight, and they showed when he smiled, and sometimes when he talked. He wasn’t smiling now. He was waiting.

The driver’s side door opened. She watched him climb out.

The men spoke in low voices, so she couldn’t hear. She wondered if the men were talking about her. That was the only thing she didn’t know. She knew the house was empty. She knew the house was meant for them, and that he was giving it back. She knew that she was meant to stay in the truck.

The men talked for what felt like a very long time and she began to bleed from her tender gums.

With one hand she opened the glove compartment and the other hand she held against her mouth like a basket. This hand was quickly getting sticky, wet, and warm, and she was quiet; with her free hand she rooted for a tissue or a napkin. She would have settled for a parking ticket, or a discarded receipt, but there was nothing soft for her there.

She thought again of the woman at the wedding, and of his hands pulling at the collar of her dress; of the sound of the woman’s thighs pressing down on the piano keys; how in the darkness what she focused on was the drawings by the children, which hung in a neat row over the piano as he fucked another woman in the abandoned classroom. In the room where they had both—it was years ago—gone to Sunday School.

Her gums and each tooth throbbed; the pain seemed to well up from somewhere deep within her before collapsing in waves on her fragile mouth. It’s the pain that will be most memorable in the morning. She will wake with phantom throbbing, and she’ll remember his face. She’ll remember his head turning suddenly to look at her, she’ll remember that the drawings were all of ducks of different colors: blue ducks, yellow ducks, orange ducks, red. She’ll remember the way his face had changed when he saw her, and that in none of these mutations had there been something like regret.

He had always been gentle, and in return she had been delicate, and she had thought that he wanted this, that he liked that about her. But perhaps it was something else entirely that he liked.

She stopped caring what the rules were—she climbed down from his truck wearing her hand like a mask. The men turned to look at her; she watched them regard her swelling face with curiosity. The man in coveralls slowly backed away, away from the light, and then he was gone. Then she watched as the house dissolved, and then they were alone, and the truck was shadow, and they were standing by the trailer she’d kept neat for all these years. He had something for her, and he held it out to her. She didn’t take it—it was one of the good towels. She cupped her hands to her face. She was still, she was calm.

Her teeth were breaking off in pieces—like plaster paint chips, like egg shells, small and white and jagged—and she caught every piece. She held her teeth like seashells in the bowl of her hands.

Again, he extended the towel towards her. She looked past him. She squinted until her eyes could focus in the dark, then she took three shaky steps towards the wooden stairs. Again, he tried to help, but she wouldn’t take anything from him from now on. Instead she held out her hands to show him what she had collected, the parts of her that were broken, and everything she’d lost.

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About A. Nicole Kelly

A. Nicole Kelly is a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow who received an MFA from the Programs In Writing at UC Irvine. She has been published by Matador Network, Selfish, and yr an adult, and her fiction has appeared in Drunken Boat, ZYZZYVA, Ethos, and The Carolina Quarterly. She's also a founder of Summer Commune, a diverse temporary intentional community happening somewhere in North America.