Eileen wishes the speed of Teesha’s legs for herself. As soon as the
school doors blow open Teesha breaks ahead of the class and sprints
across the blacktop courtyard shrieking louder than all the other
dozens of steam whistle screams. Eileen chases after, but by the time
she’s reached the mulch of the playground Teesha is already halfway up
the jungle gym, as high as Eileen ever dares to go, and she’s climbing
“EllyEllyElly!” Teesha taunts Eileen from the summit with a gluttonous
grin. “Get up here and look.”
The jungle gym rungs are hot and solid as Eileen begins her climb with
her mouth sealed shut as much in determination as to hide her tongue’s
insistent pawing at a loose lower incisor. Nobody knows, she thinks,
and nobody will know. She hoists herself up across the empty
interstices with her eyes locked on the bar ahead, but when the space
above begins to feel too far, the space below too deep, when the bars
feel as spare as threads in her sweating hands, she stops at a height
that’s even with Teesha’s feet.
“Look at this,” Teesha folds her belly into the top rung and leans way
over with only one hand wrapped around a bar. She points to her big
front teeth and bends one back with the tip of a finger.
“Let me touch it,” Eileen asks and Teesha leans further past the
fulcrum, her feet arching unanchored into space.
“I can’t reach,” begs Eileen.
“Get up here.”
Eileen doesn’t dare. “Are you going to put it under your pillow?” she
asks from below, and behind closed lips her tongue nudges the tooth
that bends more freely than Teesha’s.
“My mom’s gonna give me money for it.”
“Don’t you give it to the tooth fairy?”
“Hah! Tooth fairy. My mom says it’s a dollar bone. A dollar, Elly.
I’m buying two packs of gum with it.”
“You can’t chew gum with that tooth.”
Teesha cocks her jaw, chews sideways and laughs loudly. “Tooth fairy.
You’re crazy, Elly. What’d you do when you lost that baby tooth?”
“I put it under my pillow. When I woke up it was gone and there was a
“A quarter? Your mom only give you a quarter for it?”
“That’s what the tooth fairy give me.”
“You better talk to your mom about that, Elly. Your mom’s a cheat.”
Mom begins brushing with casual strokes through the thin, compliant
strands at Eileen’s temple. Eileen’s eyes are vacant and untroubled;
Mom’s lips are thin and relaxed, her chin unwrinkled. “What will you
do at recess?” Mom asks.
“I don’t know,” Eileen replies absently, soothed by the brush’s rake
across her scalp. “Play. Probably climb the bars with Teesha. She
goes ahead of me. Yesterday, I went way up almost all the way.”
“All the way? Did Teesha help you?” The brush flows down, drawing a
train of hair behind Eileen’s ear.
“She was already up. She just yelled.”
“She yelled at you?” Mom is not concerned, not enough to suspend the
brushing that leads her around the lengthening tresses.
“She yells alot. She showed me her loose tooth.”
“Another loose tooth. You’ll have another one soon too, I’m sure.
She’s a big girl. Mmm,” Mom takes a different sort of breath, a
change-of-course breath, and starts the brush low at the back, holding
a length between her fingers and climbing the strokes until she hits a
snag that makes Eileen wince.
Mom sucks air in through her teeth; “There’s the lace.” The brush
strikes more shallow, more quick.
“Mommy!” Little Brother hails from the other room.
“What is it, Baby?”
“Will you play with me?”
“Not now, Baby,” she stabs at the knots. “In a minute.”
“Ow, Mommy,” Eileen strains against the yanking of her brow and anchors
her tongue lest an incautious flick reveal the tooth’s looseness.
“Well, he did a good piece of work back here, Leen.”
“Little lace maker.”
“Who’s that,” Mom corrects and breathes out a space in which to
fabricate. “He comes at night and ties hair into knots.”
“Like the tooth fairy?” Eileen grimaces hopefully.
“Mm… like that, but with a different job.”
“Does he leave money?”
“No,” Mom laughs and for a moment lets up. “It’d be nice if he did.
No, he just leaves messes that parents get to clean up.”
“That’s mean,” Eileen states.
“Not really mean,” Mom digs in with pugnacious strokes, with
intentional breath; “just mischievous.” The brush grabs and sticks;
“Dammit! Sorry, Leen.” She digs it out; “There are meaner things, I
“Mommy, will you play with me?” Little Brother toddles into the room
with the fingers of both hands tangled through a scissors’ handle, its
point leveraged against his soft belly.
“Oh, mother. No no no,” Mom lunges, wrenching Eileen by the knots.
Eileen’s scalp burns, but it is Little Brother who screams.
Eileen hooks her arms around the overhead bar to secure her perch on a
rung high above the earth. If Teesha were there she’d be looming above
with her teasing and laughter and with Eileen under her sway, but today
Teesha is unaccountably absent and the bars belong to Eileen alone.
Today Eileen is the sun uneclipsed looking down past the rays of her
feet upon the black, brown, and tow-colored crowns of her classmates,
at how they ricochet and scatter across the flattened mulch without any
sense or purpose but to not be “it”. Today she is the sun as stark and
hot as the sky that enfolds her. Her tongue licks where her tooth
clings to the flesh, finds beneath its cushion a bony flange where none
was before and glides along the ledge; looser, looser. She imagines
Teesha sliding two sleeves of pinkly packaged gum across a store
counter with a toothless grin that could swallow kingdoms. But there
is none today as high as Eileen. Her tongue probes beneath the bone
and lifts; the sudden hint of blood makes her sway on her perch. Her
foot slides to the side to steady, putting a little incidental weight
on the fingers of another climber. She tightens the link of her arms
around the bar and closes her eyes to shut out the cries of the
offended, to concentrate on the play of tongue to tooth, the pliant
peg, the relinquishing flesh, the iron savor.
Dinner came late, and whether for good reason Mom kept that to herself.
Either way the imposition lent to error and ire, thus Little Brother
spilled milk roughhousing with his spoon while Eileen, hardly able to
chew she’d plied that hidden tooth so, nudged and nibbled with a
caution that quickened Mom’s irritation. It was an amateur travesty,
but Mom would have none of it and sending both early to bed she comes
with the brush to Eileen’s bangs with lips thin and pressed, her chin
puckered into divots. Eileen’s eyes narrow with uncertainty and strain
to peer around her temple, for she dare not move her head to follow
Mom’s rush to impugn the knots at the back.
“Dammit, what are you washing with, Leen?” Her query is cut with a
blame that Eileen has worn before.
“I use the gray bottle.” Eileen can’t even clench because of that
“That’s it?” her words stab like the jabs of the brush; Eileen already
knows she’s blown it. “That’s bath water, Leen, nothing but old bath
water. C’mon, you should know that, you filled it.”
Come to think of it…
“Jesus, might as well be glue. Leen, you got ‘em good.”
Eileen, hurting at the root, wants to shift the burden; “Little lace
maker did it.”
Mom will have none of it and rebuts with scorn; “That’s only at night,
“He,” Eileen makes the correction under her breath.
“Mommy! Help me!” The squall spreads to Little Brother’s room.
“Not now,” Mom commands with precarious control. “Knots. Dammit, I’m
gonna cut this shit off.”
“My hair?” Eileen, trying not to break, seeks consolation in the secret
looseness of her tooth.
“Yes, your hair,” she chops.
“But I like it long.” Her tongue steadies the jarring of the bone;
“Teesha can’t grow hers this long.”
“When it’s long, it’s work,” Mom hacks with the brush.
Little Brother teeters in, half naked and cutting tears, slung up in
the twisted sleeve of his pajama top; “I can’t do it.”
Mom jams the brush in Eileen’s tangles and casts off to deal with
Little Brother lobbing “Go to bed,” over her back.
Eileen breathes in her pillow the tea scent of night-breath and sweat,
sucking on a twist of bed sheet, feeling herself swollen with cunning.
The bit in her fingers is like a pearl, small and polished. She had
waited in the dark, feigning sleep, for the bedroom door to quietly
latch, for the lingering ghost of her mother’s temper to evaporate
before reaching into her mouth and unloosing the bone. Sliding her
hand beneath her pillow she leaves the tooth in a place of safekeeping
just under her ear, believing beyond her doubts that by dawn it will be
properly exchanged. Her tongue probes its absence, tastes the gamy
space. Shaded voices, blurred by the sighs of intermittent traffic,
billow up from the street below her window, a canopy for the muffled
strains beyond the walls that urge Little Brother to lie down, to quiet
and to close his eyes while her own eyes, battened with tire, wade into
the fading shallows of the near wall.
Sleep is born undercover of a quiet lacuna slung across the interstices
between the bars of Eileen’s breathing. If cries were to accompany its
birth they would be as restrained as the moan of hinges that accompany
the hesitant opening of her bedroom door. But in her confident sleep
she hears no such cries, as she does not hear the cushioned steps
across the carpet of her room, nor the suppressed breath near her ear,
or the paired fingers that lift the tips of her hair, or the quiet
shriek of hinged blades, the crunch of severed strands and their silent
fall upon her pillow.