Brin mixed cumulous clumps of concrete in the backyard with a shovel, and his mother watched him from the kitchen, sipping coffee, swishing the liquid around her soft teeth, teeth soft and pliable as wet cement. As Brin’s bulges of concrete paste rose on the grass like lumpy ends of toothpaste, the evening shadows passing over him in the yard made him look ten again. Brin’s mother said to herself, “Leave him,” and wiped the milky drip of her teeth from her chin.
At ten, Brin found his teeth turning soft like his mom’s.
He wrapped himself in the front window curtains. Through the front window to the porch, to the driveway and beyond—brittle cold. Imagine someone out there in the cold, the mouth sucking in cold air. And imagine the mouth stops, frozen.
Brin put on his coat and hat, hugged a blanket, and walked outside. Against the porch, in the car, or on the hillside, Brin leaned over a dark form, and the puffs of breath surrounding them were white sky. Brin spread the blanket, tucking the corners awkwardly.
Brin began sneaking out of bed late at night, sliding his teeth out one by one, and left homecoming messages for his dad on the kitchen counter: “Smile!” or, “What’s up, Doc?” in gooey-whitish globs. In the morning, his mother made him rinse and stuff them back in his mouth immediately.
At fourteen, Brin got a job washing dishes at a diner, stacking firm, round plates. Brin insisted on getting braces once he’d saved the money, based upon a stubborn belief that his teeth would not slide through the wires, as the balking dentist warned. In fact, they did not. Brin’s teeth stiffened.
And then, as soon as he could get two days off in a row, Brin spent them working in the backyard, sculpting cement as his mother looked on. He worked twenty hours, brown back tinged a sunset pink, skinny limbs bending in concentration. At the end of the second day, a miniature, wrinkled cement igloo stood. Brin came inside the house and drank a full glass of milk. “Do you like my igloo?” he asked.
Brin’s mother nodded and smiled, close-mouthed, because at the moment her teeth were stuck shut from clenching. The next day Brin laid bricks in the backyard, and within a few weeks finished a border around its entire perimeter. Their neighbor wanted one, and soon others admired his work, so Brin quit his job at the diner and turned sixteen laying brick—for pathways, borders, dog houses, bomb shelters, tool sheds. When he turned seventeen, he bought a truck and two magnetic signs to slap on the truck’s doors advertising, “Bricklaying by Brin” and his phone number. By the time he was twenty, Brin had married his high school sweetheart, and was laying brick full-time.
At night, Brin’s wife stood at the kitchen window looking out over the few acres of their yard. She watched Brin in the distance, bricklaying, a six-pack at his side. Jenny tongued her back molar: had it come loose? Outside, Brin layered bricks like teeth. He wouldn’t come in at night: when Jenny went to bed, she left Brin laying brick, and when she awoke, he’d already gone to work.
Their yard grew borders and pathways like mossy molars and began to look odd to passersby. Jenny noticed her toothbrush left marks on her teeth, then found that she had to shape her teeth each morning to look normal, and that nevertheless they would slip around when her tongue touched them. Terrified, she stopped speaking so her teeth wouldn’t show, or move to lump beneath her gums.
One midnight Jenny awoke alone again and got up. The kitchen window framed Brin in the yard, asleep by a half-finished brick shed, wheelbarrow full of empties beside him. Jenny walked outside and shook his shoulder, but he slept like the hardening shed. She found her teeth stuck together from clenching them in her sleep, and she couldn’t speak. She shook him until he swiped her leg and she fell against the shovel, cutting her lip and pushing her teeth back.
When Brin heard her, he woke up. Her back pressed the grass, her eyes to the stars, her insides floated darkly within her so that when Brin’s face appeared in place of the night sky and his fingers touched her lips and worked her mouth open, she watched as if hovering cloud-like over the moon, or inside a tiny moon placed behind his eyes. The world grew distant, with garden walks glowing in everyone’s yards, drunkards sleeping it off in the hills, and then the world grew close-up, smaller than the white underbelly of a thought. Brin’s fingers were inside her mouth, shaping her teeth and pressing them into her gums. His fingers smelled and tasted of sweat. Jenny didn’t gag. She said, “No,” and her ears flooded.
Brin interrupted, “You can’t wake me—” but she moaned and he stopped, tucking his lips in as if they were needed to hold his own teeth inside. He said, somewhat slurred, “Sorry.”
They stared at each other. She relaxed against the grass as he tried to mold her teeth back into place. “I’ll stay here,” he said. “I’ll wait.”
● ● ●