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The Tooth

Niles Reddick | Michael Ilkiw

My new year was off to a great start. I didn’t make New Year’s resolutions, but I simply made up my mind to make changes in my life. I have been on a “avoid sugar and bread” and “avoid snacking at night while watching television” diet. Seemingly, it was working, little by little. There was extra give in my pants, I didn’t get as frightened when I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, and I didn’t have problems breathing when I bent over to tie my shoes. Even my energy level and enthusiasm for life had returned.

As I was having my early morning coffee and eating some crisp bacon, and while watching the polar vortex on The Weather Channel, I felt the bacon crunch, and I slurped coffee to help wash it down. The crunch was different; it seemed even harder than when one bites down on an overly well done piece of the strip of bacon. Once the bacon was finished and once I finished my coffee, I was swirling my tongue around in my mouth and noticed I’d lost a portion of one of my back molars on the upper jaw.

Panic set in and my heart raced. I emailed my dentist’s office and left a voicemail. I frantically began to do Google searches to see if I could digest a half molar, or if it would be sent to the appendix and would rupture. I tried to see the cracked tooth, but couldn’t, and my wife saw it and said, “That just doesn’t look good.”

I realized this is the molar that was filled forty years ago, when I was a child. Though most of them had been filled, this was the largest filling. The procedure had taken the longest and sent me writhing in the dental chair to the point that I had been restrained by my mother and the red-headed dental assistant while the dentist drilled. Forty years later, I can still smell my molar being ground, the liquid silver being poured into my tooth, filling it and packing it tight. I can hear Dr. Minor, “There, now, it’s gonna be all right. This won’t take but a minute.” His accent was old South, like Jimmy Carter’s, where r’s are not as pronounced and sound like “ah.”

His own teeth, gold and silver, showed when he talked, and my instinct of reaching and searching for truth in his eyes was thwarted by the thick magnifying goggles he wore to get close up in my mouth. Even the candy and dime toys in the treasure chest didn’t seem compensation enough to take away the fear. When I became a teen and my siblings had to get braces, I was silently thankful to Dr. Minor for telling me, “Just push on the back of your teeth at night and they’ll straighten.” The bottom teeth did straighten. There wasn’t much to do about the discoloration because of the tetracycline I’d been given as a child, and through the years, I had to have more teeth filled. Even in college, the fillings began to crack and come out and they were all replaced, which was not all that fun, and even as a grown adult, I gripped the chair when they began to work in my mouth whether medicated or not.

Six months earlier, I’d been for a cleaning, and the dental hygienist didn’t use the ultrasonic water pic to remove the plaque build-up; instead, she’d used the periodontal scaler, and as she approached my mouth, I imagined her to be a serial killer with a pickaxe. I closed my eyes and gripped the leather cushioning on the dental chair and for some unknown reason, my eyes even had tears. She asked if was okay, and I told her my allergies were really bothering me.

Saturday and Sunday, I didn’t receive a call back or a returned email. I didn’t have pain and chewed on one side, fearing the rest of the tooth would break apart, or the filling, which was still in place, would tumble out and fill the appendix if it couldn’t be digested. I attended a children’s basketball game for my son Saturday and was telling my friend Paul about the tooth incident. He looked at me, grinned, and said, “This too shall pass.”

And pass it did. My dental office called first thing Monday morning and arranged for me to see the dentist after lunch. The shot to numb stung, but my hands were already gripping the chair. I eavesdropped on another patient’s conversation in the bay next to mine. I could hear her rambling to the dentist about having these two pulled so her dentures could fit better. She told him she could get the rest of them pulled when she went back home to Dothan, compliments of the state. My mouth was numb and when I smiled into the pull down television, I could see my reflection on screen. I looked as if I had a stroke and my mouth was “drawn up.” I then heard the patient next to me tell the doctor, “If it wasn’t for my daughter, I’d still have all my teeth.” Dr. Christoff said, “How’s that?” “Yep, she sucked all the calcium right out of my teeth.” I found myself laughing, drool landing on my clip-on bib.

A temporary crown followed by a permanent one was just the cure for the situation. I had been concerned about insurance, but it was covered. I certainly didn’t want to pay for it. I wondered how my parents paid for their dental care along with mine and my three siblings, and I wondered how Dr. Minor made it, taking payments on credit from poor folks from all over the county. Life seemed more honest and simple then and while reflections were comforting, I hated what the tooth signified, namely that like Dr. Minor and my tooth, we will one day pass.

About Niles Reddick

Author of over 50 stories, Niles Reddick works for the University of Memphis at Lambuth in Jackson, Tennessee. His new novel, Drifting too far from the Shore, is forthcoming in 2016. His website is

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