My dad pulls his own teeth.

I know, it sounds insane, doesn’t it? What kind of loony do you have to be to pull your own teeth? . . . And maybe it’s a bit of an inaccurate statement. In nature it sounds a little click-bait-y, but it’s mostly the truth. The statement itself used to make me cringe, but I’ve grown to accept it.

Let me just give you the context:

You see, when I was thirteen-years-old or so, my dad had a nasty toothache. He told me it was abscessed. I’m not a dentist, I don’t know enough about dental work to say that he was wrong, but I also don’t know enough to say that he was right. What I do know, though, is that my dad is an old country boy (born in 1951) and that he was a field medic in Vietnam.

Where was I?

Right, the teeth-pulling.

So Dad has a bad toothache.

At the time we didn’t have insurance, and I know this because at that point in my life I hadn’t seen a dentist since I was about eight years old. I knew it too because my brother, who was somewhere around nine, had numerous cavities and there was nothing we could do about them. I also knew that we were poor, even if it didn’t look that way to outsiders. My aunts Julie and Teresa bought all our new school clothes and most of our more frivolous birthday and Christmas gifts. And poor means you don’t get dental insurance if you don’t get it through your union factory job.

Here’s something else, too: I know that Dad isn’t the type to shy away from doing things himself. The garage on our property was built by him, my grandfather and my uncle, and any kind of repairs that the house needed he did himself. So, to me, it comes as no surprise that he’d take it upon himself to get rid of the bad tooth.

Dad’s first step: Get a bottle of Wild Irish Rose Whiskey.

We lived in a middle-of-nowhere town named McGaheysville that was slowly being developed into a somewhere, or else about to be absorbed by the nearby Massanutten Resort. The only two places that you could get to without driving were the Exxon (then called Neighbors) some distance away, across State Route 33 or The Village Market (what everyone in our little blip on the map just called The Store, or Dick’s) just up McGaheysville Road.

Dad privileged Dick’s over Neighbors because he was less likely to get run-over getting there, and because the owner knew him.

In recent years, I’ve always tried to imagine what that must have looked like to a random passer-by. McGaheysville Road doesn’t have any sidewalks, it’s mostly lined with people’s lawns, and to get to The Store you have to climb a steep hill that takes about half the twenty-minute, quarter-mile journey.

I’ve tried to imagine the shape of my dad, all six-foot plus and 200-some pounds, brown skinned with a mustache grey and thicker than the hair on his head as he ambled his way up that hill. He’d sweat into his t-shirt and his jeans and wear holes into his slip-on shoes. The sun would gleam off his dark sunglasses and maybe at the top of the hill he’d stop on the side of the road, pull a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and light one in his thick, gnarled fingers. Then he’d gulp down the smoke like a Budweiser and exhale it into the humid summer air.

It took, by my timing, about twenty minutes for Dad to walk up to The Store, and then another twenty or thirty minutes actually buying the whiskey.

See, Dad likes to pretend he’s antisocial, but he’s also a southern boy at heart. He can’t say no to a friendly conversation with Dick, who’ll always ask after Mom and the rest of us kids even though we hardly know the guy ourselves. Saying goodbye probably took up at least fifteen of that twenty-or-thirty minutes. The rest of it was grabbing the Whiskey and three packs of Skittles, one for each of us.

Then, no doubt, he’d head back to the house, walking on the other side of McGaheysville Road, the sweat-soaked back of his shirt clinging to him in the humid valley air. That side of the street, at least, is shaded with more trees and a higher embankment and eventually the old McGahey plantation house. That walk would take another twenty minutes before he’d be back in the house, dropping the Skittles on the tile of the kitchen table and then retreating to the sanctity of the un-attached garage. He’d have the whiskey, brown-bagged so that no one could know his business, with him.

This is the part where I have to let my imagination do the talking. I’ve walked to and from The Store, talked with Dick and his wife behind the counter. I’ve seen the way my dad walks in the summer and the slow way he breathes in a cigarette, and the way he nonchalantly drops our one-dollar treats in the kitchen. But I have never seen my dad pull his teeth.

But I can imagine it.

I can imagine the way the old garage door was up, gaping like a maw into the massive building. I can imagine Dad, sifting through the dirt and past a bucket full of crude-oil that’d been in that place since I was a little kid to go find a pair of pliers. I can also imagine the precautions he took.

He used to keep an old brown first-aid-kit in the medicine cabinet next to the stove, though it’s long since gone now. I can still see the dull plastic cover and the bent sticker on the front reading FIRST AID in bright-red letters inside my head. And I can imagine my dad pulling it into the garage with him and fishing out the alcohol wipes and the bottle of hydrogen peroxide he kept in it.

But I can also imagine him not doing that at all. I can imagine that he just unbagged his Wild Irish Rose Whiskey, opened it up, and chugged half the bottle without thinking about it.

And that’s when the pulling comes in. That’s the part I don’t want to imagine. Because I don’t like to imagine that Dad could be in any greater pain than I would ever want to deal with. But I know he did it, because I’ve seen the teeth he’s pulled. He keeps them in a leather pouch in his room. And I know because I found the empty bottle of whiskey and because I saw him come into the house with his bloody tooth in his hand, root in-tact, to clean it and his mouth in the kitchen sink. I know because I saw him roll up a paper-towel and stuff it in the empty space in his gums like it was gauze and wipe off the pliers he used to do it.

Because, when I was thirteen and I had guests, he’d always ask them, “Do you wanna see my bag of teeth?”

Thirteen was a long time ago, almost half-a-lifetime. I’m twenty-five now, and yet when I try to explain my dad, this is the story I tell.

It’s usually good to get a few stares, and the version I give is a lot simpler, but by the time it’s done people understand me a little better. I’m not sure if it makes me seem less odd by comparison or if it makes my oddness something of a genetic thing that can be explained away by science. Once, when I told this story to a coworker, she asked to see a picture of my dad, and then was disappointed when he didn’t look like the famous WWE wrestler “The Undertaker”. I understand what she was getting at when she said he was just “a normal looking guy.” I had, by no means, given her or anyone else the impression that my father was a normal man.

I get weird looks and the horrified gasps I get when I tell the story, and I understand them. I know the reactions because that was me every time I thought about it as a teenager. Every time my dad would open his mouth and say, “Do you wanna see my bag of teeth,” to my friends, or to my brother’s friends who were just old enough to piece it all together, I’d feel the same derision and disgust most people react with. The very same shock and confusion that you, reader, no doubt experienced with my opening line.

As an adult, though, I understand it a little differently. I’m no more well off at twenty-five than they were when I was thirteen. In some aspects I’m poorer. I’m a student who works twenty hours every two weeks.

Do I have money to put a roof over my head and eat okay? Sure.

Do I have money to go to a dentist? No.

It was the same way then for my dad, an older, deal-with-the-problem-yourself sort of man when I was a child. With time the whole thing sounds a little less absurd. With time and context, it makes more sense. After all, things don’t get better if you do nothing about them.

Maybe one day, when I’m in my 50s and my molar is killing me, and I don’t have dental insurance, I’ll go buy a bottle of Wild Irish Rose Whiskey and some pliers. And then my kids and my grandkids will have this insane story to tell about their Gram, who had a toothache and pulled her teeth out.

And it’ll start the same way:

“So my gram pulls her own teeth.”

* * *

Jora R. Lam comes from rural Virginia and has deep ties to southern culture. She recently graduated with a degree from Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania and is attending school for her M.F.A. at Monmouth University, in New Jersey. Jora takes inspiration from her southern father and her German mother, meshing both cultures in language and story. She hopes to, through her writing, make this world a better place for herself, her family, and everyone else who shares it. In her spare time she likes to chat with her girlfriend and watch trashy movies.

Photo by Philip Swinburn on Unsplash


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