A HOUSEFUL OF CROOKED TEETH
“Yes,” he said. “In fact, it’s your daughter’s skull. Now look how those front teeth angle slightly forward. When the canines squeeze in, the angle will become more pronounced until her face is stretched out of shape and her bite is out of alignment.
My 13-year-old daughter Marie frowned at the X-ray.
“Here’s what I want to do,” said Dr. Lewis. “First I’ll install spacers between those baby canines and the pre-molars. Then I’ll put braces on the front teeth to pull them forward to make room here,” he pointed. “Then we pull out the two remaining baby-teeth, and bingo! The permanent eye-teeth will drop right into place. The whole process ought to take about 18 months and cost $5,000.”
Ooof! I suddenly “got” all those jokes about orthodontal expense I’d been hearing all my life. And they weren’t funny. Especially frustrating is the fact that Marie and I are the only ones in the family whose teeth look straight.
Sally, age 10, has a crammed mouthful that looks like a springtime ice-jam in the Yukon. There is crowding and jostling going on in her mouth that makes a British soccer riot look like synchronized swimming. We’ve been bringing Sally to see Dr. Lewis for years, but he always looks her over and says, “Not yet.” His eyes sparkle when he says it, and who can blame him? He’s looking forward to the challenge of his career, followed by a trip to Hawaii.
Wendy, age 6, is missing half her teeth, and for the past year has been constantly nursing one loose tooth after another. She loves the attention she can get, and is constantly showing her loosest tooth to anyone who’ll look.
My wife, Betsy, is famous in our neighborhood for her jolly eagerness to yank a loose tooth out of the head of any child who’s at least half-willing. (It’s weird, I know. And probably illegal.) So when showing a loose tooth to her mom, Wendy knows she is flirting with danger. She kind of wants the tooth pulled, but at the same time she’s horrified by the idea.
“Look at this!” she’ll say to Betsy, opening wide and moving a tiny tooth with her finger.
“Ooh! Let me wiggle it!” says Betsy, her sporting instincts aroused.
“No! You’ll pull it out!” accuses Wendy.
“No I won’t,” says Betsy, who might.
“You can wiggle it, but only with one finger,” says Wendy. (One time, her trust at low ebb, she duct-taped Betsy’s hand into a fist, leaving only the index finger free.)
“Ooh, let me yank it!” Betsy will say, as she prods the tooth.
Wendy pulls her head back and her jaws snap shut like a mouse trap. “No!” she says and runs away. One night, after a long day of toothplay, Betsy sneaked up on Wendy, who was peacefully drooling on her pillow, and harvested a tooth. But real sportsmen don’t shoot their prey when it’s sleeping, so the contest is generally reserved for Wendy’s waking hours. Neither one of them can leave a loose tooth alone, so this strange little game goes on and on.
Meanwhile, Wendy’s mouth is in chaos. There are empty spaces, isolated pointy baby-teeth, and huge ivory slabs rising out of her gums like crooked monoliths. When she bites a sandwich, it looks like it’s been savaged by a pack of sharks. It’s impossible to guess how her teeth will end up, but I’m expecting the worst.
Nowadays I see a kid’s head as one of those dice cups you use in Parcheesi. It gets a good shake, the teeth come down into place, and the random result makes you a winner or a loser.
To Dr. Lewis, the engineer, a kid’s head is like a log-jam, full of creaking, groaning tensions that only he and lumberjacks understand. He sees things in a time-lapse way as he drags teeth here and there with wires. The teeth shift, strain and finally come around. Someday an incisor will snap into place too soon and pin his hand inside a mouth until help arrives.
You may wonder how a straight-toothed guy like myself got into this fix? My heart led me astray. When I first met my wife, I noticed that her front teeth were a little crooked. It was a cute effect. Blinded by that cuteness and her other charms, I just never thought things through. I’m not saying I should’ve done things differently and that the past 20 years haven’t been one long, sweet song, but it DOES seem ironic that the smile that set my heart to beating, would someday give me a series of financial beatings.
Back in the car, Marie said soberly, “Gee Dad, that’s an awful lot of money.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said, “Dr. Lewis just talked himself out of a job. Now that we know his plan, all we have to do is tell it to Mom and buy some wire!”
* * * Rick Epstein can be reached at email@example.com.