I have a drawer full of children’s teeth in my bedroom. I have never told anyone before. Well, anyone besides my wife, and that may be the last person I should have told.
To be precise, the teeth sit in an old check box, once intended to store carbon copies of checks but rendered moot since the release of the bank’s phone app (where I can ignore the balance of my checking account in half the time!). This box lies inside the top drawer of my bedside end table. There is nothing else of note in that drawer—a couple of pens, a bent paper clip, a faded and yellowed receipt from some forgotten purchase that was, apparently, significant enough to warrant saving, but not so much so that it found its way to the filing cabinet (an overflowing box of papers on the top shelf of the office closet that I wouldn’t dare open, even for an audit). So, I only open this drawer every three to four months to drop a child’s tooth into the check box. Then life moves on.
In part, I save my kids’ teeth in the same way that I save their artwork: I don’t want them to look into the trash the next day and happen upon the evidence that I’ve discarded their…precious creations. To find their artwork in the garbage would only harm their self-esteem (and my credibility as a raving fan of their work), while to find their teeth in that same garbage would likely stunt their little, gullible imaginations (and my credibility as chief narrator of the tooth fairy story). How we as a people landed on a magical creature who sneaks into the bedrooms of children while they sleep to pay them for their teeth, and why we as parents so happily sign on to propagate this myth, I don’t fully understand. Just the fact that the alleged swap takes place while the children doze feels inappropriate. At best, it is a cheap negotiation tactic; at least hash out a price face-to-face in the light of day, so the kids know they’re getting a fair deal. The subterfuge suggests that the market would bear more; that a consenting, conscious child, knowledgeable of the market could talk the price up into the paper denominations.
Certainly, it plays in my favor that I can set the price for teeth without haggling. When they gripe about it in the morning, I refer them to that elusive sprite who made the exchange. I offer a half-hearted defense that is more for my benefit than for hers: “You get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit.” A common line we use with our kids to get out in front of temper tantrums. Though it is becoming clear to me we’ll have to pivot soon from that message of acceptance to the teaching of basic negotiation skills, so they’ll know how to handle themselves with the tooth fairies of the world. In any case, even the kids think the concept is creepy, despite their joy in receiving a bounty for the half-ounce bloody chiclets falling from their mouths. “What does she do, eat them?” they have asked on more than one occasion. I find myself short on answers, but oddly comforted that this tooth-snacking monster is a “she,” as far as they’re concerned. My cover is intact, for the time being.
I’m losing my memories. Not by any tragic malady, but rather with the same casual inevitability of a favorite sweatshirt disappearing during a move; the realization only dawning at first chill in your new home. And I’m noticing the children are losing certain memories too, if they retained them in the first place. It is especially those earliest years. For them, it was simply an age range unfit for the capacity to remember, perhaps. For me, it is a deepening well of memories, the water at the bottom murkier and more difficult to reach with every passing day. Whole experiences, learned skill sets, values imparted (hopefully), threaten to slip into the abyss without some way to hold on.
Certain souvenirs of the past, then, grow more valuable to me as my own memory fades. And hearing the kids’ patchy recollections of their own history only further inspires the preservation of such articles, most of which reside in any one of myriad boxes in our basement storage room.
I’ve kept our youngest son’s first pair of shoes with laces, for example, to prove that I once taught him how to tie a proper knot, even though he went on to wear slip-ons and Velcro for the next few years until, finally, a classmate showed him the “good way” to tie his laces.
The golden-colored rayon swim ribbon that says “I can do the backstroke” lies in one of those boxes. My daughter earned this distinction after nearly a year of weekly swim lessons, though she now swears she taught herself to swim. Nearly drowning in her cousins’ pool this summer when trying to float on her back proved everyone wrong.
I almost disposed of the creased, wrinkled park map of Disneyworld, but it’s still in there somewhere. And it’s a good thing, too, as my son recently claimed he had never flown on a plane. I said, “What about when we flew to Disney World?” He looked over at his sister, one year his elder, for help. She tried to come to the rescue, though her generic description of the park could have been any old county fair, with the names Mickey and Daisy sprinkled in for believability.
My wife—queen of pulling up old photos of our children on her phone at any given moment, to whimper about how adorable they were as toddlers—is enraged by all the “stuff” we keep, whether it’s kids’ memorabilia or the one or two boxes of my pictures and knick-knacks from my life before her. And it doesn’t matter that it is all tucked away in boxes, which are neatly stacked on top of one another in the corner of the storage room. It is the awareness of so much detritus hiding in there that vexes her, as tangibly as it would vex me if those same contents were strewn about our living room floor. Periodically, she wages an assault on these boxes, same as she does the mass of books we own—you know, those cumbersome flat rectangles that stack tightly on a shelf against the wall that would have no purpose otherwise?
“It’s an accent wall,” I tell her of the large bookshelf that covers the wall behind my desk in the home office. “We could remove the bookshelf and paint that wall a bright shade of coral, if you prefer. But that’s so two-thousand three, don’t you think?” However, the mere presence of the books (many of which, admittedly, will not be read a second time), no matter how orderly they are stacked, causes her such indigestion that it spills out as an argument from time to time, as surprising and careless as an accidental burp.
I have gathered that what chaps her ass the most are my old photos, especially those of former girlfriends. And I could understand that if I pulled them out every so often to gaze longingly at the images of lovers past. But I have neither looked at them nor given them any thought whatsoever since they landed in their respective boxes. This, of course, only gives credence to her claim that they serve no purpose and thus should be discarded.
“What are you going to do with all this junk?” she asks.
The same thing I’m “doing” with a bachelor’s degree in Asian Studies: nothing. I sell sugar and spices. Which sounds related in a Marco Poloesque kind of way, but calling grumpy old bakers twice a week to ask if they’ll consider buying brown sugar in fifty-pound bags from me instead of their current suppliers is not exactly traversing the Silk Road.
Those saved photos are part of my history—part of what made me who I am and what brought me to this point in my life, meandering path that it’s been. And to get rid of those reminders of my past feels to me as dubious as tearing down old statues. Those young women did nothing wrong outside of agreeing to go out with a much (?) less mature version of me (twenty-pounds lighter with a full head of hair), undoubtedly a forgettable experience for which no statues will be erected or torn down anytime soon.
What is the importance of holding on to these photographs? I tend to guard them as if I will be asked for proof of the stories I tell. As though I will arrive at the pearly gates of Heaven and St. Peter will ask, “What did you DO with your life?…Photo evidence strongly encouraged.” But if that’s the case, I’d better filter the portfolio more carefully. As irrational as it is, I can’t shake the question that if I get rid of my photos, did any of it really happen? Or will it feel as though I’ve been dropped into the middle of my life, those whispers of the past nothing more than cold shivers of déjà vu or vague memories of a prior incarnation?
Perhaps my youthful folly captured in those photos provides an important cautionary tale. Maybe I’m a better husband for their tacit influence? The photo of my first girlfriend and I chowing down on Big Macs on Valentine’s Day could be calling to me now, quietly reminding me to put my partner’s feelings before my own twisted sense of humor. The numerous photos of the erstwhile girlfriend from a foreign land—for whom, I knew at the time, my feelings weren’t strong enough to survive our geographical limitations—may be whispering lessons on the honesty and dedication required to maintain a relationship. But what if these snapshots did not exist?
Once in a while, I pick up one of the books from the shelf behind my office desk just to hold. Visualizing the cover, then feeling its shape and texture help remind me of its meaning. The feelings that book evoked once upon a time—the joy of a memorable quote or the sadness of a universal truth in its message—weigh on me as viscerally as the heft of the book in my hand. As I hope they will when I pick up those baby teeth from the check box inside the bedroom end table drawer and rattle them in my palm like dice. I expect to see my three-year-old daughter’s gap-toothed grin shining back at me like the time at Applebee’s when she giggled with hardy, unabashed glee every time I spun around to look at her. I can see it clearly. Every time I turn (thinking she must have tired of our game of peek-a-boo already), I am rewarded with more vivacious laughter. I expect to see my two-year-old son’s proud pearly-white smile, just as when he approached me in the basement of our old home, on an otherwise uneventful Saturday, to show off his new costume: bare-chested but for a thin fleece blanket cape and his own Batman undies atop his head. I will not tell that apparition that Batman didn’t wear a helmet made of undies. Instead, I will watch in admiration and try to soak in the joyful glow of his smile. These are the past images encased in all that enamel. And if I roll that handful of teeth right into the garbage, do I risk losing it all?
If photographs are our frozen memories, then the ribbons, the shoes, the teeth, these are the totems helping store those memories in between. I tell myself they have been saved for the benefit of a shared memory with the children. But soon enough our kids will be gone, off to college or off to pursue their own vision of the future. Then, when I hold these totems in my hands alone, they will tell me what I want to hear: it happened; it was real, and it still is; it’s not over yet. The associated memories will take a shape contoured just so to comfort me. And still I will wonder if I have held on too tightly, or not tightly enough. Those teeth in the drawer, as unsettling as the image may be, are a part of my family’s history. Together, they represent a huge bite out of our last decade; getting rid of them will feel like leaving the salad days behind for good. Then what is left on my plate?
Someday will dispose of the teeth, lest our kids should discover them during a mischievous scavenger hunt for mommy and daddy’s naughty things, and they deem me more scandalous than that economically oppressive pixie who furtively gathers teeth in the dark. And I will get rid of the old photos that bother my wife, too. For those women, out there somewhere, the mere existence of their images boxed up in my storage room, is, I suppose, about as creepy as a box full of children’s teeth. Eventually, I will find the right occasion when I am ready to say goodbye, and when no one is around to see me dispose of these treasures…especially not that shifty tooth fairy.
— Jimmy’s work can be found in publications such as Bright Flash Literary Review and Spank the Carp. When he is not selling sugar, xanthan gum, or fd&c yellow no. 5 by day, or challenging his kids to Pokemon battles by night, he is reading, writing, or sneaking in the occasional crossword puzzle.