by Patricia Russo
After she died, it fell to me to clear out her things. Mostly this
involved dumping armloads of clothes into plastic trash bags.
I kept back a jacket, and an almost-new raincoat, which years later I threw
out, never having worn either of them. Some of the bags went straight
to the dump, more to the thrift shop in her town. Same with her furniture
– trash or thrift shop. Bathroom stuff – into the garbage.
The unopened bottles of gin, brandy, and wine in her closet went to my
brother. The opened ones I upturned over the sink. My brother
wanted the photo albums – he got them. Knickknacks and religious
pictures – garbage. It didn’t take long.
She had a jewelry box. She kept it on her dresser, under a layer
of dust. It had always been on her dresser, this one or other ones,
in this room or other rooms, for as long as I could remember. It
was wooden, and small, about as long and wide as my hand. The lid
was broken; it had been broken forever, the hinges snapped. I remembered
that, before I picked it up. Dust, and dry, cracked wood. Sandpapery,
I sat on the stripped bed, which was going to the curb that night, and
lifted off the lid. Nothing much inside, which I had known before
I looked. A few brooches, some buttons, a couple of letters from
my father, decades old, folded in their envelopes. Her wedding ring,
my father’s name engraved inside, had gone into the coffin with her.
Under the envelopes with their single-digit stamps, I found teeth.
Oh, I thought. I remember this.
She’d saved my baby teeth. She’d wrapped each one in plastic, and
sealed the cling wrap with scotch tape. A dozen or more neat plastic
rectangles lurked beneath the letters. I shook them out into my hand.
Several of the packets were flecked with brown. Blood, ancient, dried.
Many of the teeth were broken, fragmented. Well, they were old, I
thought, they were just….I held one up to the light, then another.
More than flecks of brown, spots of black. The black was not on the
plastic, but on the teeth. And not just spots, but holes.
I got a pair of scissors, snipped off the end of a so-carefully sealed,
so meticulously preserved packet, and gently tapped out one tooth that
looked intact. An incisor. It came out whole, but as soon as I touched
a fingertip to it, it crumbled to fragments and dust, gray and black.
Gray, the remains of the tooth. Black, the decay.
She’d saved my baby teeth, but all of them were rotten. She’d saved
my baby teeth, and all of them were rotten.
Next verse, same as the first, I thought, and all the verses that would
follow. The beer bottles kept dropping off the wall, and the weasel
would keep popping. I let the dust, gray and black, fall on the mattress,
and wiped my hand on memories.