Magazine | December 09, 2019, Issue

Wise Teeth

(Phil Noble/Reuters)

I have had pretty normal teeth all my life: no braces, no hockey-puck demolitions. When I was a child I put each fallen baby tooth under my pillow and found a coin in exchange in the morning. When I became an adult I got a few fillings. Trained early, I brush regularly. One of the disgusting qualities of Mao Tse-tung, on top of the vicious ones, was that he never brushed, but his young concubines had to kiss the Great Helm mouth anyway. (He also gave them STDs, so it could be, and was, worse.) I even learned, reluctantly, to floss. The toothpaste commercials of my youth mentioned no such thing; why should I add to the practices of midcentury, especially since flossing would add, oh, 60 seconds to the nighttime bathroom regimen of the driven city dweller? But, urged by my dentist, I complied. The little gray containers of rolled-up fish line accompany me to every train station and airport, along with extra underwear and a tabloid newspaper. So I was flossing away one recent night when a filling popped out. In the sink and down the drain. Hole in one. I couldn’t have done it if I had practiced all day.

The tooth the filling had filled was the upper-right wisdom tooth. That particular filling was vulnerable to eviction because the gap that adjoined it had been a longtime trap for not-swallowed chow, especially leafy vegetables. After a meal with a hip salad, there was more kale in there than in my vegetable garden. So flossing that trouble spot must have loosened, as it finally dislodged, the tooth’s metallic occupant.

As my tongue probed the site, it found a rococo art piece: curves enclosing a space. They were as delicate as they were definite, suitable for a cabinet of curiosities, or the frame of a painting of the Triumph of Love. For years the plug of metal had rested among them, grinding prime rib, sweet corn, and salted nuts. In its absence you appreciated its efforts, and those of the excavated tooth that had held it in place.

Dentists are not sentimentalists. Mine had been campaigning to get rid of this tooth for a couple of yearly cleanings. He gave reasons, to which I perhaps failed to attend. My attitude was, it’s not bothering me, why bother it? My wife, when she finally learned of these discussions, told me to ask him particularly what the consequences of hanging on to a dubious tooth were. When I did, they seemed compelling: Decay might spread to the tooth next door, or molest the gum. This magazine ever dreamed of rollback, beyond containment. How could I, of all patients, resist an argument for removal based on such a threat perception? So I had already made an appointment to have the tooth extracted. Now that the filling had popped out of it, the task of removing it gained priority. Dentists always keep a slot in their day open for sudden calls on their time.

Wisdom teeth are so called because they are the last to appear, in our twenties. Aristotle (History of Animals) mentions people getting them as late as their eighties. Where some subjects are concerned — hope, self-love — they never come in at all. Most people push up four, two on each side. Some produce even more, some can’t come up with one. I had two, both on my right. There should be a political joke here, though in the Trump years I can’t think of one.

When I was settled in the dentist’s chair — his window looks out on plantings, sidewalk passersby — I mentioned the tooth extractors who sit for tourist snaps in souks, their equipment a pair of pliers, their advertising a selection of their extractions. He countered with his own tale of the third world: a merchant on a rug, displaying a stock of dentures. Fittings, while you wait! But this is the city, so there was none of that. There were a few pricks to numb me, then a dull tugging, which steadily became freer form, then all was done.

As I bit down on a wad of gauze, he showed me what he had removed. My fantasies of art even in decay received their comeuppance. The tooth was small and ugly. He showed with a pick the dark parts that had rotted. Did I want to take it, to show my wife? There would be no coin; I said no.

Behind our house upstate, up the hill in the trees, are several hundred yards of stone fences. They mark old fields; one seems to be the footprint of a small structure or pen; two form an alleyway, straight as a rule, now a parking lot for ferns. When we first bought the place I found in one of the fields a deer’s jawbone and one antler. Someone, not me, could have told from the size how old the deer had been when it died. Why would such things be there? Hunters surely carry off the whole carcass of any kill. Had the deer been felled instead by some animal, or by winter or old age? Through a combination of curiosity and reverence I let these mementos sit. After a few years they were gone. Small rodents do gnaw bones; or maybe some less scrupulous passerby (and a trespasser to boot) had taken them.

There is a cemetery in town, along the state road. But there are smaller, family-size plots on the back roads, here and there. Most seem well tended. One is marked only by a cluster of three gravestones, gathered and propped up at the edge of a patch of second-growth trees, undistinguishable from the woods around it. Cremation seems abrupt, but the oblivion of burial is only slower. Until then, I will get used to my new mouth and the new smooth surface, like the small of a woman’s back, where my wisdom tooth was.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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