There’s a story in Shirley Jackson’s short story collection The Lottery called “The Tooth.” It’s about a woman whose life is ruled by an unruly tooth, a cavity or rogue masochist molar that ruins her life. It’s a backhanded horror story about how painful oral discomfort can be – and something I very much feel like I’m living right now.
In the story, simple wife Clara Spencer travels to the city by herself to get her tooth fixed. She has had a problem with said tooth for years and years and years, one that has put a wedge in life situations like her honeymoon. She wants to get rid of it, once and for all. She buses to the city, alone, with questionable 1950s money where she meets her dentist. She is treated as if insane, as if her tooth is what makes her. Upon losing said tooth, she devolves into something else.
It’s a jarring story about how consuming pain is and a sort of unique investigation of one of the most common doctor fears. I don’t have a fear of the dentist. In fact, I love my dentist. What I don’t love? My wisdom tooth, the one in the back right, a little piece of slick bone that has been poking up through a gummy flap for years and finally wants my entire body to focus on it. I have become Clara Spencer.
This tooth would occasionally wink for attention by applying pressure to the other teeth like a child at the back of a line at school who repeatedly trips into the person in front of them until everyone dominoes forward in a stumble. That’s typically my tooth. But, recently, it has become more unruly: it is in a constant ache, punching me from the rear of my mouth, its roots stretching down my neck to make it feel like I have a sore throat, inflaming lymph nodes and tonsils, making it feel like my throat is closing to make room for its new toothy king. Each swallow feels like a hangnail being ripped down my neck. Clenching the back of my jaw offers brief relief. The tooth throbs with desire, for attention. It’s all so uncomfortable, inescabale even.
I had a dream two nights ago that I got in a fight with the tooth. It was big and mean and followed me around. I didn’t win the fight. Instead, I went to Washington, DC and took photos of myself giving the middle finger to the White House. Donald Trump came out of a giant tube and refused to wave to his small audience. The tooth was scarier than the Donald, I thought.
Being Clara Spencer is not fun. I haven’t been Clara Spencer since I was a child. I’m in great oral health but, alas, this tooth in all its wisdom is a distraction based in pain. Situations like this give a new double consciousness: you might physically be present but your mind is inside, listening to a finger demand you poke it, sooth it with gel, numb it with pills until it feels like nothing anew. It’s exhausting, being in pain.
Alas. It is time to dump thousands into the tooth just so I no longer feel like I am becoming a molar. Clara Spencer: no more.