RUNNY YOUNG FOLKS
She came home for a new set of teeth. Back to where the baby ones had been tucked under her pillow, bloody freckles keeping tally of every ten-cent reward. She nudged him, You ever get hard in the dentist’s chair? He ignored her. She asked, Isn’t that every man’s worst fear? She was not toothless, just missing a few. The ones she had left boasted rot in brown-black craters like cigarette burns. She came home for implants, bridges, porcelain veneers.
He took inventory of everyone in the room. An assistant, no—receptionist, or was it a hygienist on the other side of that Plexiglas? Maybe she called herself a nurse. A grandfather and grandson. An everyday woman with a scarf at her throat, overshadowed by a cheap oil painting of deer in a field. Him and his big sister.
How’d it go with that guy I set you up with? Junior sounded eager, wishing he could care less. She and him were noise against the television muted with the captions turned on. We went out, she said. And? Why should I tell you if you can’t remember his name? I know his name. Spell it, then. No I’m not gonna spell it—Christ, Jess, just tell me what happened.
She made a big deal of laughing at him then told him to chill the hell out. All that teasing was not quite his biggest fear but she was getting closer. Jess told him the truth, All that happened was we went out, regular like he stood up to shake my hand as soon as I got to the bar. Christ, you met at a bar? She smiled at the grandson in the plastic chair kitty-corner to hers. That’s right, a bar. And I told your friend the only other person I’ve ever met named Arlo is a dog.
He set his chin in her palm, wondering how long they’d have to wait. All doctors were the same. Dentists weren’t even doctors. Either way, Jess needed a lot of work. She could use anyone’s help, but wouldn’t ever take it. He couldn’t tell if she was pulling his leg when she said she’d taken a horse’s kick to the mouth. Well surgeons, even oral surgeons were doctors, he figured, so it would be a hell of a wait. He shifted his weight until he found the right position, someplace nice to stay.
She glanced at him, read him, kept telling the story. Arlo made up his mind about me after that. But he had the nerve to pretend to be polite all night. Christ, you spent all night with him? She raked her hair back with her fingers and let it drop, splash around her shoulders. He smiled with all his teeth.
Mom made you be my tooth fairy, you remember that? He checked the clock, the receptionist-nurse-hygienist’s cleavage. How’d that work? he said, You’re older. You tell me, she dragged four futile fingers at an itch underneath the thick of her jeans. It worked just like you told me, or she made you tell me—there’s no such thing as the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, or Santa Claus. And God, she snorted. That doesn’t sound right, he sucked those perfect teeth. You’re gonna tell me? she slipped her hand from under him. You were too young to remember.
Now tell me about that wife of yours—you all pregnant yet? There was a lilt in her voice, like she was anticipating the way anesthesia might catch on the remnants of her drawl. He hacked something up like he wanted to spit. No chance in hell I’m letting you anywhere near her. He hadn’t bothered asking if she’d stick around a week or two longer. No use if she wouldn’t even stay the night. But he couldn’t stop from picturing it, her cheery crying and cussing along on the sidelines while his wife gave birth to a little pink monster.
You all really live with Mom and Dad, huh? She didn’t wait for his answer. Mom told me all about her, I know she’s a grade school teacher. So tell me how she can stand those kids. He told her, Lots of, most people love kids. Well I can’t imagine, she flipped a few magazine pages. But you—a dad—that’s cute. He pinched her, left a mark. He blushed or bloomed with anger.
Speaking of hens, have you ever held a chicken? He grunted and brought his hands into the shape of a cradle, making believe. She nodded, They’ve got these good vibrations. He’d never gone to visit but he said, Alright, alright, I’ll try it next time I’m at the farm.
It takes one day for a hen to release the yolk from her ovary and lay an egg. They work faster in the summer ‘cause daylight helps. As you know, it takes us chicks a lot a longer. He knew just barely; he wouldn’t think of touching his wife down there when her slot was bleeding. Oh you’ll like this, she started, Way back in the day a girl named Mary wrote Christ is coming on an egg and shoved it back up her hen. Then charged admission to suckers who wanted to see the miracle get laid. That’s bull, he whispered, Back in what day?
Yep, they executed her as a witch or something. Something. Another one, she shoved baby rabbits up her snatch and pushed them out, giving birth to them like a one-woman sideshow. He was starting to believe it, said, Ladies sure do love attention. She kicked him by accident, Yeah right, you wish. The rest of the room kept on pretending not to look.
She scrolled through her phone, immune to the crack in the surface her younger self would have mourned. Now it didn’t phase her any more than the musk of hay and hooves did. He was trying to get a look at her eyes. Who you talking to in there? She pressed a button to blacken the screen. You, she said, sagged her head on his shoulder. You have my undivided attention. He stayed real still. She smelled a little bitter—almond extract, marzipan, not quite sour cream. It was white out the window. Snow doesn’t stick anymore, he stared and said. Sure it does, she smelled sex on herself, Come out to my country. It still sticks, you’ll see.
He wasn’t one for promises. Twelve years ago she’d left home with their mother’s name, but they don’t call girls junior. He’d stayed behind with Dad’s. He was a Junior junior and wasn’t that a funny joke, didn’t it give you a tickle? He said, Mom can’t believe the post office never screws up, like you’ll come back if they start delivering us your mail. She tried taking the tiniest bites from the tips of her fingers. Hey, how do you do it anyway—sort out yours and Dad’s? I don’t get much mail, is all he said. She knew Dad didn’t either.
Their father’s eyes should have been hers, or she’d always thought so at least. But Junior got them, hazels to her browns. He had the wrong lashes too, thick like sample carpet swatches. Being pretty like that caused all kinds of problems. It was enough to keep a grown man—perfect pregnant wife or not—it was enough to keep him home.
They still love you more, he told her. Of course they do, they can’t make me out anymore. They see me blurry like those photos Mom keeps on the mantle. By the shotgun. Hey, is her gun still there? It’s there. He said it again, They always loved you more. Sure they did, she kept trying to tell him, They always knew I’d be leaving.
Jasmine—Miss Jasmine Jacks?
That’s not your name, he stretched a stiff arm across her chest, coming down like a warning, a freight train was coming. She limboed under, stood up. They were watching—the grandfather and grandson, the everyday woman, the painted-on deer. Maybe the dentist too, on closed circuit.
The doctor is ready to see you.
It’s Jessamyn, he barked. Jess-a-min, he muttered, and closed his eyes for just a minute. He counted and kept losing it until he was thinking any old number, the steps she was walking down that deep dark hallway where the door had slammed behind her. He was good and ready for a little more waiting. Good and tired of what he lost or found. Maybe he would show her how it felt. Maybe not, he wasn’t brave or didn’t care enough.
Sonofabitch, under his breath he was wishing he’d at least flinched a little when she called him up crack of dawn that morning and asked if, told him he would come. Hellofahomecoming she’d thrown for herself. That farm she was so devoted to was probably just the same as their tired old yard. He didn’t want to know the difference between here and there if it was just a matter of dust, a little more or less.
The oral surgeon was tired, she could tell. She trusted him anyway, it was easier that way. Now I can numb you, he said after they got through the small talk, Or I can put you to sleep. There’s someone here with you, now isn’t that right? That’s all I need to know if you want me to put you to sleep. Just say the word if you don’t wanna feel it. He winked. And remember this is hard work we’re doing today. This is no picnic—a whole new set of teeth. She gave him the go ahead, He’s here with me. Yes please.
Your husband, she explained, A couple hours ago he beat it, said he needed to stretch his legs. I thought he was a good one, too. Real cute. Those eyes. That creamy skin, she said. I tried to stop him. She kept shuffling papers, clicking pens, clacking keys, just trying to look busy. I thought you were a lucky woman. But honey, I don’t think he’s coming back. Maybe he’ll be home when you get there. Roses. Waiting. Oh honey, don’t get your hopes up. Don’t let him get you down. Now who are you gonna call—and don’t say a cab. Someone you know has got to come get you, or else me and the doc here can’t go home.
He’d numbed her on top of putting her asleep so Jess couldn’t when she tried to explain to the behind-the-Plexiglas woman and tell her it was just like the game she and her baby brother used to play. Now her mouth had its own sort of gravity, something pulling her tongue down with all kinds of weight. Back then they took turns lying down in the street and trusted each other to yell the secret word when a car was coming. They trusted the other to get up in time. Mom saw but didn’t stop them because cars didn’t come through often and when they did it was slow. From the porch, she rooted for them, calling out to her runny yolks. She had a shotgun with all their names carved in it and she didn’t need, never did wear a ring.
Junior wasn’t there to set the record straight. See Jess, you always misunderstood the way the words went together out from Mom’s mouth. She had bad teeth too, that’s not what she said. She called us runny young folks.
Jessamyn couldn’t feel but she knew she’d been sewn up. Still, it was like bleeding. Like there was no difference between taking a sloppy hit and getting split open with trained precision. She tried out her new smile. Now look at that, the woman said. She’d started powering things off, locking up the files, and shutting off the lights. You sure are pretty too. Now tell me honey, who’s gonna take you home.
Mariah Stovall thinks eggs are the most interesting thing we eat. Her work has appeared on Literary Hub, Civil Eats, Joyland, and Arcturus (Chicago Review of Books). She is writing her first novel.