Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
An excerpt from I Keep My Worries in My Teeth.
I keep my worries in my teeth.
Tooth 1: Black ice and banana peels in front of bear traps.
Tooth 2: Having a baby.
Tooth 3: Not having a baby.
Tooth 4: Dying. Not the dying part of dying, when the triangles of the beep-beep-beep machine shrug their shoulders and slump into a straight line. I’m okay with that, but I’m not okay with people standing around my hospital bed, pointing and whispering because I was too worried about dying to pluck my chin hairs.
Some of my teeth are reserved for long-term worries like nuclear annihilation, finding shoes that are comfortable but not ugly, or a clerical error that forces me to repeat high school. Others are reserved for temporary worries, but the one worry that unites both bicuspids and incisors is the fear of getting knocked out. I can’t live without my teeth because, if I lose my teeth, I’ll lose my job at Juliet Pencils, and losing my job would be a disaster because my mouth is the only place the world makes sense.
I was an anxious kid with angry gums. Birch bark, tire tread, clay pots, and silky cat paws—if I wanted to calm myself, I opened my mouth and shoved it in. When I teethed, I refused the cold comfort of frozen washcloths and instead gnawed on golf clubs, a habit my hopeful parents misinterpreted as budding athletic talent, but my chubby fingers weren’t as strong as my stumpy teeth. Mom tired of nosy neighbors sending social workers who pursed their lips at my black eyes, so she bought me tiny sunglasses and locked the golf bag in the garage. Bedtime meant stories and stuffed animals, but I bit Teddy’s arm and aspirated stuffed-bear stuffing. Penicillin cleared my lung infection, but Teddy had to live on a high shelf, so I learned to cuddle rolling pins and vacuum cleaner hoses.
When my permanent teeth arrived I got fat, fast. Tests ruled out glandular problems, and dentists questioned the excessive wear on my molars, but no one knew what to do, so Mom enrolled me in ballet classes, and after six months my pliés and tendus were still wooden, but I lost weight because the other girls taught me how to eat without eating. After days of Tab and celery sticks, the skeleton girls permitted themselves one treat—a snack-size bag of potato chips, usually sour cream and onion, occasionally barbecue—to be shared among all twelve of them. After their coat-hanger fingers slipped into the oily bag, the girls assembled in a tight circle and closed their eyes. On the count of three (we were learning waltzes) the dressing room filled with quiet chewing, rustling tutus, and sour cream exhales. When the fatty juice threatened to slip down their throats and pad their forked hips, the girls bourréed to the trash can and spat, spat, spat until their mouths were sour cream-and-onionless. Water was passed, everyone swished, and discipline restored. I didn’t care about Swan Lake, but chewing without swallowing, understanding without possession or consumption, that was life-changing stuff.
At my last checkup, the dentist poked me with his shiny stick, snapped his glove, and said, “You have the gums of an eighty-year-old.”
The exam light shined in my eyes, and I used my hand as a shield. “I’m not eighty.”
I’m not twenty either. I’m in that late-thirties zone where gums are puffier and dreams deferred. The dentist fitted me for a nocturnal appliance. That was his word: appliance. I don’t like that word. It makes me think of deep freezers, like I’m sleeping with a melon baller in my mouth. The dentist patted my knee and told me the appliance was for my own protection. I don’t like that word either. Protection makes me think of belted sanitary pads, and that makes me angry or it makes me want to cry, but either way I want cake. The first night I slept with the appliance was like shoving cold cereal into my soft palate, but now I’m used to it. It helps my teeth relax, and relaxed teeth are precise teeth, and thanks to my protective appliance, my mandibular control is better than ever, exact to 0.0000008 mm, which makes me the best MouthFeel Tester™ and VIP Pencil Preserver™ Juliet Pencils has ever employed.
If it were up to my teeth, I’d work seven days a week, because exercising my teeth exorcises my worries. After a few days without work, my longtime fears and temporary worries escape their craggy homes and battle for dominance. Holidays are the worst. My jaw throbs, my teeth threaten recession, I threaten dentures, they threaten mutiny, and everyone yells at each other, until the only thing that calms us down is rum with a Tab chaser. I can’t imagine my life without my job at Juliet Pencils, and luckily I don’t have to because no one can do what I do, and the factory is so successful we operate three shifts a day, seven days a week, and we still can’t keep up with demand. We ship pencils across the country and supply all the local businesses. We sponsor the Little League team (the Points), the dance troupe (On Pointe), and the debate team (Excellent Point). The factory employs most of the town, so even if you don’t work for us, you can’t work without us.
Did you know that of all the things women put in their mouths, pencils are the number two most popular?
When I started at the factory, I used generic templates left by my predecessor, but after site visits with clients, I created a new system that improved customer MouthFeel by 147 percent. It’s easy to confuse what I do with impersonation, but the clothes and accessories I use aren’t props; my tools transport me to a toothy parallel universe where I sync with my clients’ biting habits and imagine how and why they bite their pencils.
To test the MouthFeel of a legal secretary, I change into a wool skirt, a full-length slip charged with a Wednesday’s worth of static cling, a blouse that looks like silk until you touch it, clip-on earrings, and nude-colored pantyhose that are too tight in the crotch and not nude enough. My manicure is chipped or smeared, or if it’s near the end of the month, both. On my desk is a credit card bill I can’t possibly pay, a dry-cleaning ticket for two gray wool suits (my boss’s), and a thick Rolodex with his wife’s birthday and his mistress’s bust size. When the phone rings, I unclip one earring, cradle the phone in the crook of my neck, pull the pencil from behind my ear, and bite. I take messages and I put clients on hold. If the person on the other end of the phone is irritating, the pencil flails between my front teeth like a tiny gangplank. I transfer memoranda from Dictaphone to typewriter, and clench the pencil for the amount of time it takes to resolve a problem I didn’t cause but will be blamed for anyway.
When MouthFeel testing is complete, I record observations about paint integrity, wood strength, and tongue feel, rating these on a scale from 1 (bad) to 8 (excellent). I summarize my thoughts, offer suggestions or changes, and then send the report to the head of quality control. In addition to our corporate clients, the factory has a custom-order division that produces small runs of personalized pencils. The glitter-embed option is popular, and at the end of custom-order MouthFeel testing days, I spit flecks of multicolored glitter in my bathroom sink, and even though I floss and gargle with dispatch, I wake up with gold sparkle between my teeth, as if I’ve spent the night bingeing on party toothpicks.
Besides MouthFeel testing, I’m also in charge of the Wall of Bite Fame, where pencils are showcased in individual glass cases, like tiny, clear coffins. To prepare a pencil for the wall, I dry the VIP’s spit from the barrel and then place the pencil on a velvet pad. After the pencil is sealed, the case is hung on the wall with an engraved brass plate that identifies the VIP by name and profession. I don’t need to read the nameplates because bite patterns mirror personalities. Henry Kissinger crushed his brass eraser housing, Miss Ohio offered to sign her pencil with her pencil, and Karen Carpenter utilized hers in a way that the factory doesn’t condone. Every year many tourists visit the Wall of Bite Fame, but most of them come to see the same two pencils. Men stare at Marilyn Monroe’s scarlet lip prints and adjust their crotches, while women dream about steely sacrifice and Chanel suits as they gaze at former first lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy’s pencil. Admission to the Wall of Bite Fame is free, because my boss, Juliet, believes pencils should create community.
I’ve worked here for nearly fifteen years, but I still remember my interview as if it happened yesterday. When the interviewer asked me, “Why would you be a good fit for this position?” I didn’t know what to say, so I just answered truthfully, “I keep my worries in my teeth.” Back then, I had no idea how pencils were made, and I didn’t really care, because a pencil is like air: you don’t notice it until something is wrong.
Any day I bite wood is a good day, but today could be a great day because I’m biting wood on live television. Juliet created a program encouraging young women to find their life purpose in work, not boys. The program is called Girls! Do Work! It launches today with a televised factory tour lead by Juliet and her daughter, Frankie. My bicuspids and incisors are anxious because we’ve never been on TV, but Juliet said all we had to do was act normal and do our jobs, so I’m going to MouthFeel test like it’s any other day.
My first client is Dr. Chevalier, the optometrist. In the back of my office I have a closet filled with representative client outfits. For Dr. Chevalier, I slip on a charcoal pencil skirt, taupe heels, and a white lab coat that smells like an Ivy League education—freesia and aloofness. Dr. Chevalier orders pencils that mimic her patients’ eye colors: espresso, moss, and drops of window cleaner spilt in fresh snow. During allergy season she orders pencils with red graphite and peppercorn-flavored barrels. When I MouthFeel test those, my eyes burn and I sneeze a lot, but thankfully today is a standard order, so I bite and analyze: MouthFeel 8, responsive yield with a pleasant oaky aftertaste. As I make notes, my incoming order bell chimes. I’m not expecting any new orders, so I ignore it and switch the orientation of Dr. Chevalier’s pencil in order to test the rigidity from both ends.
Orders arrive in my office via a factory-wide network of glass pneumatic tubes that shuttle pencils throughout the entire manufacturing process: cutting, graphite packing, shaping and sharpening. The order bell dings again. I check the tube and it’s empty. That’s odd, but Juliet did mention increasing the line speed for the television coverage, so maybe the system is a bit off. I guess we’re all jittery about being on TV. I flick my finger against the side of the tube, “Cut it out.”
I test two more pencils and then complete the paper work for Dr. Chevalier’s order. I place the tested pencils and my report into a transport container, flip the lever, and watch as it zooms across the ceiling. As I walk to my desk, the delivery bell rings again. I wonder if there’s a blockage further up the tube, in the elbow curve that’s behind my wall. I crane my neck, but I can’t see anything, and the bell is getting on my nerves, so I shove my arm up the tube as far as I can, and palm around inside, but I don’t feel anything.
I hear tapping on the glass wall of my office. I turn around, and see Frankie smiling and waving, pointing to her watch. It’s time, already? She points to my arm, the one shoved in the tube, and gives me a thumbs-up. I stick out my tongue just as Juliet and the anchorman from Channel Six News, Chuck Edmonds, approach the glass wall. Juliet points to my mouth and pantomimes biting and then points to my arm in the tube and raises her shoulders. I smile and wave, hoping that smiling and waving covers up the reality that my arm is stuck in a tube while the news anchorman stares at me. Juliet points to her watch, and the cameraman hoists the camera onto his shoulder. I yank and tug, and sweat drips into my pantyhose. I can’t mess this up. I will not mess this up. I jerk my shoulder and rip my lab coat, but my arm is now free, so I smooth my hair and walk sideways toward the camera, trying to hide my ripped and dragging sleeve. I reach my desk, angle the good side of the lab coat toward the news crew, and nod to Juliet who nods to Chuck who nods to his cameraman. I force a big smile, grab a pencil without looking, and bite. The camera’s light is so bright I can barely see. Chuck tilts the microphone to Juliet, and Juliet gestures in my direction and pantomimes an exaggerated bite. I don’t know how long I’m supposed to do this, so I keep biting and smiling, and my eyes are itching and watering and I have to sneeze. I can’t sneeze on live television. It’s “Girls! Do work!” not “Girls! Do sneeze!” I squint and read the barrel of the pencil. It’s one of Dr. Chevalier’s allergy pencils. I push my palms into the steel edge of my desk. The light moves from me to Juliet and back to me as my teeth sink deeper into the pepper barrel until the pencil splinters just as the camera light shuts off. I lean forward and spit the broken pencil on the floor, pull a sliver of wood out of the roof of my mouth, and then sneeze. Through blurry eyes I see the news crew walking away, but Frankie stands in front of my glass wall, holding her neck in an invisible noose. Her eyes roll back in her head, and she sticks out her tongue. I tilt my head to the opposite side and do the same. I’ve known Frankie since she was a kid who got dropped off at the factory after school. If I ever have a kid, I want it to be like Frankie. She gives in first, laughing, and then kisses her palm and smacks it against the glass wall before she runs to catch up with her mother and the news crew.
Excerpted from I KEEP MY WORRIES IN MY TEETH: A Novel by Anna Cox (Little A, 2020). Reprinted with permission from Little A.
It is available for purchase here.
Anna Cox is a writer and photography professor. Selected publications include The Chronicle of Higher Education, the anthology, P.S. What I Didn’t Say, and Carve Magazine’s Raymond Carver Contest. I Keep My Worries In My Teeth is her first novel. She’s working on her second.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.