There they were: 1, 2, 3, 4 teeth floating in the dingy water. Molars from the look of it. Strange. She thought it was strange. Still, stuff came up from down below – in life and out of it – so why not teeth? Why not the unexpected? That’s what life handed you, right? The unexpected? So she’d learned and so she was still learning.
Breakfast was toast. Clothing was dull. Face washing was uneventful. The cat was nowhere to be seen. And still there were those teeth.
They went down with the rest of it and she went to work.
All day, the thought of those four teeth – whose they were, where they came from, why only four – flitted in and out of her head. They gnawed at her (ha ha) and when she missed lunch, she thought it was alright. She had no desire to put much in her mouth and chew. Her own teeth felt gritty. She’d neglected to brush. That’s fine. One day wasn’t going to kill her.
Ellen considered mentioning the teeth to her coworker Marie, but stopped short as she approached Marie’s cube. It wasn’t so much the nastiness of the ownerless teeth as the nastiness of calling attention to her toilet. Marie was the closest thing she had to a friend, but she didn’t want Marie thinking about her toilet.
On the bus ride home, Ellen thought about the teeth. So singular and alone. Four little teeth with no gums to hold them. She played around with that thought for a while and made up a little song around it. She chuckled to herself until she was convinced people were staring at her. They weren’t. No one stared at her.
When she got home that evening, the cat greeted her at the door with maiows and rubs. Good. Part of her had been afraid the cat was gone. She didn’t know why she thought that. The cat never tried to run out the front door. The cat was happy to be in a safe and warm place. It had something to do with the four teeth in the toilet. But, how? Exactly. How.
She’d been home for an hour before a dull ache in her gut told her she had to go to the bathroom. That’s when she realized she’d been avoiding it. Not consciously, obviously, but she usually went first thing and this was unusual.
The bathroom had a slightly menacing air. She flipped on the light and stood in the fluorescent hum for a second staring at her face in the mirror. Her eyes sat on soft little bags, comfortable enough that they seemed to have permanently attached the bags to her face. Well, let them have their comfort. Her nose was slightly red from the sniffles that lasted from some time in fall to some time in summer. Her hair had come out of its bun – the only hairstyle she was confident with – and little wisps tickled her cheeks. She looked sad. And tired. She looked sad and tired enough to say it out loud.
“I look sad and tired,” she said to the room.
She opened the toilet lid and looked in.
The toilet was filled with teeth. Hundreds. Thousands, maybe. They had displaced the water and were just filling the bowl. An ivory pile. For the first time, she noticed they all had intact roots. As if they’d been pulled from a mouth. A few were tinged with red, but there was no blood.
The cat wandered in and maiowed at her. She picked it up and held it so it could see the teeth. It did not respond. Instead, it leaped down and padded to the kitchen, waiting to be fed.
Ellen knelt at the bowl. The teeth were still. She reached out with her right hand and brushed the top of the pile. A few of the top teeth were moved aside, but overall the teeth were tightly packed together. They were molars and canines and . . . she didn’t know what the other ones were called. Cupids? Cuspids? Something.
Did they go all the way down? Was there a reservoir of teeth running under her building? Did other tenants have teeth in their toilets? She could knock on a door and find out, she supposed. But, Ellen didn’t know her neighbors that well. If there was a problem with the building, she’d hear about it.
Later, after she’d visited the ladies’ room at the shop around the corner – and purchased a frozen pizza that she didn’t want or need – Ellen sat in her living room, watching a movie on her laptop and cozying her cat. She heard a sound in the bathroom. A light tic, tic, tic.
That’s the teeth, she thought. That’s the teeth. They’re starting to spill over the edge of the bowl. She got up, crossed to the bathroom and saw a few teeth lying on the floor. In the bowl, the tooth pile had risen. She shut the lid. She went to bed.
The next morning, the few teeth that had fallen were gone. Had she cleaned them up? She couldn’t remember.
Ellen opened the toilet lid and looked at the new thing waiting for her.
The teeth had organized during the night. No longer a jumbled pile, they now lined the inside of the bowl in rows and rows. Like seed art with teeth. The water was back. It was oily. Without knowing why, she kicked the bowl. Lightly. Just a tap.
The oily water rippled a bit more than she thought was appropriate.
She gave the bowl a stronger kick.
The oily water chugged and undulated. The teeth . . . shifted. With a quiet click, clack, click. One circular row moved 1, 2, 3 teeth over.
Ellen stared at the teeth. She pulled a length of paper off the roll, crumpled it in to a loose ball and dropped it in the toilet.
She shut the lid.
A churning sound. Quick rattling clicks, like cards in the spokes of a bicycle. More churning.
The opened the lid.
The paper was gone.
Ellen tried the experiment with more paper. Then an entire roll. Then a magazine. Then her leftover pizza. Then a frozen game hen she’d been saving for a special night.
After a while, she closed the lid and sat down on it. She thought. She saw a future stretching out in front of her. A future of feedings. Her cat was old and not long for this world. Did teeth get old?
She called in sick and stayed in with the teeth. Eventually, she went to the grocery store and bought more then usual. When she came home, the bowl was different. Between the teeth, gums had grown. In the bottom of the bowl, the porcelain gave way to a fleshy throat. Ridges of muscle. A stump that looked like the beginning of a tongue.
That night, she fed the teeth a ham, a box of crackers – complete with box – a bunch of carrots and a cake.
“This is for your birthday,” she said, tipping the cake in.
That night, she dreamed of teeth. She was in a tight tooth-lined coffin. It was hot and cozy. The teeth began to shift and grind against her skin. It was not unpleasurable. She woke up in a daze. The early morning light revealed a long growth reaching from the bowl and hovering over her bed. It was pink and raw. Fleshy. It stood over her as a snake hangs above its prey. She reached up. The thing pulled back. She stood up. The thing retreated to the bathroom.
Ellen noticed the refrigerator door standing open. It had been mostly emptied. She looked around for the cat. She found it hiding in its covered litter box.
“You’re smarter than you look,” she said to the cat.
The pink, fleshy thing had pulled back into the toilet. It wasn’t a tongue after all. But, it might as well be a tongue. She stared down into the bowl.
“This is what I am,” Ellen said to the teeth, to the tongue. “This is what I am. This is what I am.”
The teeth shifted slightly. Did they understand? Could they hear? The tongue twitched.
“This is what I am,” she said. And all through the night and into the next day and into the next night she repeated those words. And the teeth listened. And the tongue listened. And the days. Grew. Shorter.
“This is what I am.”
This is what I am.
This is what I am.