20 Oct Gramma’s Teeth
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"Gramma's Teeth"Written by Deryk Artlen
Estimated reading time — 11 minutes
When I was just a little kid, my grandmother on my mother’s side once scared the living shit out of me. I’ve never forgotten that terrifying moment of my youth. Until now, it was just a fond memory of a silly little boy in his Scooby-Doo pajamas running down the hall and screaming at the top of his lungs as his Gramma gave chase. Looking back on it, it really was kind of funny.
It was Halloween night of 1981. My little brother Nathan and I had been trick-or-treating in a small rural community of northeastern Ohio. I was the Headless Horseman that year, and Nate was The Scarecrow from The Wizard Of Oz. My mom had lovingly made these costumes herself, and somewhere in a box there still remains a Polaroid of the two of us, cheesing it up for the camera. I really should find that photo… My mother and my Gramma had taken us door-to-door as we collected pillowcases full of candy, apples, and the occasional nickles and dimes from people that had run out of candy (or had simply been ill-prepared). And of course, there was the inevitable toothbrush from the local dentist. We had returned home on that brisk October night, already sugar-high on whatever treats we had managed to shove into our greedy little mouths before my mother had been given the opportunity to examine them one-by-one for needles or razor blades. She would always do this while lecturing us with a story about a sweet little girl who hadn’t waited for her mother to check the treats for these hidden tricks. The story went that the girl had crammed an entire Mallo-Cup into her mouth and had promptly sliced off her tongue with a blade some sick bastard had hidden inside of it. She choked to death on her own tongue as a frothy blend of saliva, milk chocolate and cream had bubbled up from her pretty pink lips. Her mother had attempted to remove the little girl’s tongue from her dying daughter’s throat (with the blade still firmly affixed to it) and had severed her own finger in the process. This story never deterred us, however.
A spooky Jack-O’-Lantern on our front porch still flickered dimly from within as we made our way up the steps. I remember the crunch of the crispy fall leaves beneath my feet as I made my way past that pumpkin, and I almost felt as if he had been grinning mischievously at me. Once inside, we surrendered our candy, took our costumes off, and were marched off to the bath as Mom and Gramma enjoyed their traditional “pumpkin punch” and whatever creepy film was on that night. Once we had finished bathing and returned to the living room, Mom and Gramma would begin the painstaking and seemingly endless ritual of examining the candy. As each piece was approved for consumption it was placed into a box on the coffee table. If there were any questionable treats, they would be placed in a separate small box under the suspicion that they required further scrutiny. (It was many years later that I learned that this examination process also served as an opportunity for them to pick out a few choice morsels for themselves…) Once the candy had been examined, the apples tossed out the back door (who the hell gives a kid an apple for Halloween, anyway?), and any loose change deposited into our piggy banks, we were allowed to choose five pieces of candy to enjoy while we watched TV.
That year, the movie Halloween aired for the first time on broadcast television. With much apprehension, my brother and I were permitted to watch Halloween that night. My father, being a stern disciplinarian, would never have allowed this. However, he was a truck driver and fortunately for Nate and me, he was on the road that week. So, we huddled under a blanket on the couch with a large bowl of popcorn and our little handful of candy, and watched Michael Myers hack and slash his bloody way through the film as he stalked Laurie Strode. We shrieked in terror when he would suddenly leap into view as frightening and ominous music would increase in volume and intensity, announcing his arrival. We cowered in fear and shouted “Run, run!” as he would slowly creep after his victims and eventually catch them, usually because they would inexplicably trip and fall. We shuddered and gasped and sometimes covered our eyes with our hands as he delivered stab after bloody, gruesome stab to an innocent and frail teenage victim.
When the film had concluded, Mom had asked us if we were scared. (Of course, we said we weren’t, but all the same, we both knew we would sleep with a night light on that evening.) It was rather late by this point, and after all of the walking in the neighborhood, the lengthy movie (thanks to commercials), and the ultimate crash from the earlier sugar-high, I was tired and thus completely unobservant. After I had finished brushing my teeth with the new “treat” the generous dentist had tricked me with, I went into the kitchen for a final drink of water, and to kiss my mother goodnight. Nate was still in the bathroom as I made my way to my room, which was at the end of the hallway off of the living room. Between my bedroom and the living room, and on the right-hand side, was my brother’s room. Unbeknownst to me, my grandmother lurked within, and I hadn’t noticed that she was no longer in the living room. My grandmother wasn’t very old in ’81. In her early fifties, anyway. Her hair was beginning to gray, but her deep blue eyes were still very vibrant and piercing. Her least noticeable feature was also her most prominent one. My sweet Gramma wore a full set of dentures.
She was fond of pushing them forward from within her mouth, crossing her eyes, and making a strange growling sound deep in her throat. Every so often, she would chase little Nathan around the house like this as he cried out with terrified and nervous laughter. I would get such a kick out of this, laughing as he ran, and calling him a chicken. It was funny to me then…
I was walking down the hall towards my bedroom, my toes sinking deeply into hideous plush carpet the color of pea soup. I was rubbing my eyes with sleepiness as I passed Nate’s completely darkened room, when Gramma crept quickly from within and into the dimly lit hallway. Her graying hair was intentionally tousled in disarray, and she was on her hands and knees, growling! Her blue eyes glared and glowed, and in her left hand, she held those damned dentures. They were clacking together and chomping. They smiled at me. I swear to God those damned teeth SMILED at me. I shrieked like someone that has had a large spider cross their bare foot while toweling dry after a steamy shower. I ran towards my room as if the very flames of hell were on my ass and my pajamas were catching fire. And yet, I could barely move. Every leaping step I made was being swallowed whole by the insatiable carpet. My head was turned towards my right, and out of the corner of my eye, all I could see was this monstrous, withered and writhing imp chasing after me, its outstretched and gnarled hand snapping with sharp and glistening fangs that were slathered in dripping blood. The guttural sound my loving grandmother was producing sounded like a beast conceived by Stephen King and Satan’s own drunken harlot. I was simultaneously frozen by fear and propelled by it. I finally gathered my footing, and with a sudden burst of childhood adrenaline, I barreled into my room. I slammed the door shut and climbed as deeply into my closet as I could. A cool and clammy sweat had broken out on my forehead, my mouth had become as dry as a desert, and my tongue was a swollen, sand-papery rock.
I trembled in the closet for what felt like an eternity. Slowly, my heart began to resume its normal pace as I gulped down several ragged and calming breaths. I could hear raucous laughter echoing from the living room. It began to dawn on me exactly what had happened, and I chuckled nervously to myself. Eventually, I emerged from the closet and moped into the living room, my head hung low in shame, knowing that my grandmother, my Gramma, had gotten me. The very same sweet, loving woman that had made the best damned chocolate chip cookies in the entire world had gotten me! That crazy old woman had gotten me good.
Gramma passed away in 1994. Right after I had enlisted in the Army, and right before I shipped out for Basic Training. I was a total shambles the day I found out. Because of the cancer, her death wasn’t sudden, nor entirely unexpected, but you know how it is. You just think, damn, I wasn’t ready, Gramma. I wasn’t ready for you to go…
After her passing, my mother collected Gramma’s meager belongings, and distributed some of them to my brothers and I. We were her only grandchildren. I had been given her treasured sewing machine. A Singer. She was proud of that machine. She had taught me how to use it many years ago, and I still can. She had been a seamstress for most of her life. She had learned the trade at General Motors in Detroit, Michigan. She would apply upholstery to the seats of cars that were headed to the assembly line. As she got older, arthritis had reared its ugly head and made it difficult for her to work with her hands. She began to collect disability, and survived as most do when in the same situation. My brothers and I would help her in her garden every year (because as Gramma pointed out, seeds were cheap) tilling the soil and planting vegetables. We spent countless hours weeding and trimming, dusting with insect repellent, and watering, always watering while she supervised, teaching us a valuable lesson. She would can most of her produce in Mason jars, and she would have enough to last her for an entire year, but she would always send us out with boxes to those neighbors that she knew were also struggling to make ends meet.
In spite of the paltry check that the government provided, her home was always clean and inviting, and always smelled richly of Pine-Sol; she swore by it. She made perfect fried chicken, and the best vegetable soup I’ve ever had. She was always a very kind and generous person; the very first thing offered to any guest in her home was something to drink or to eat. For my twelfth birthday, and every year until she died, I received an annual subscription to Reader’s Digest. She knew my fascination with words and stories and instilled that desire in me to never stop learning. She had a heart of gold, that woman. She’s always missed.
My mother’s seventy-fifth birthday was last November. In March, she had to move into an assisted-living home. My youngest brother made his first million in aeronautical engineering last year, and he ensured that Mom’s new place was top notch, and she wasn’t spared any available luxury. As we helped her move her into the new home, we had to pack up a lot of her stuff from the old one and put it into storage. I tended to the majority of it, but I hadn’t truly gotten around to really going through the bulk of it to determine what was eligible for donation, and what was necessary to keep. By May, she had slipped deeply into the depths of dementia. If anyone here has had this same experience, then I needn’t explain. It’s tragic. In June, she passed away peacefully in her sleep. She is loved and missed as much now as she ever was. I tried to take comfort in the belief that she and Gramma would be up there in Heaven, swimming in the clouds, and basking in the glory of God. That is, until I found one particular box. Labeled, “Gramma”.
Last Friday was the first day of an extended weekend for the holiday. My plan was to take my wife and our grand-kids out on this lake in the large house-boat that I bought last year. She and the kids declined. The wife isn’t so fond of boating, because, as you can see, her skin is rather fair and she burns easily. She’s also not fond of the BBQ grill I had installed, terrified that a flaming sausage might take a flying leap from the grill and engulf the entire thing in flames. So, instead of boating, I decided to at least try to make a passing attempt at sorting out some of Mom’s numerous boxes of knick-knacks. I went to the storage building in town where we had rented a large, indoor, climate-controlled unit to store her things in. (Thank God for small favors, it was over a hundred degrees that day.) I had picked up a rather heavy box laden with some old Precious Moments figurines, and when I did so, underneath it I saw another box. The one labeled “Gramma”.
I carried it over to a dusty, rose-colored recliner and sat it down on the floor. I eased down into the chair and leaned over to examine the box. It had originally held a window-type air conditioner. Not a very big box, but somewhat bulky. I reached into my pocket and removed my small knife. It was a Gerber that Nathan had given me as a Best-Man’s gift at his wedding. I keep it oiled and sharpened. (Everyone should carry a good pocket knife.) I slid the blade along the gap between the upper flaps where the tape held them together, and pulled them back. Inside, I found quite a few interesting items. I found Gramma’s old King James Bible, with our family tree hand-drawn and labeled in the very front. Little slips of paper with verses and notes were scattered within the pages, as well as a few five, ten and twenty-dollar bills. I had to smile at that. Those bills were surely intended for her grandkids, to be slipped into a card and mailed along with a gift she had either made or purchased with her limited income. There were some framed photographs, some yellowing, but still clear and discernible. There were several documents, like her birth certificate, and an employee-of-the-year award that was embossed with a gold General Motors logo. At some point, she had gotten it laminated.
I was gathering up some of those papers when I saw the top of a familiar item that seemed oddly out of place. It was the top of a Mason jar. Perplexed, I reached down and gingerly plucked the jar out of the box. It made an audible slosh as I removed it. I damn near dropped it when I saw what was inside. Gramma’s dentures. I snickered to myself as I peered at those gleaming white teeth inside. I thought, dammit, Gramma, you’ve gotten me again! I sat the jar aside on top of a cedar dresser that had seen better days. I spent quite a few hours in that storage unit, sorting, rearranging, reminiscing. Before I knew it, it was damn near supper time. I was genuinely surprised that my wife hadn’t rung on the phone. I pulled it out of my shirt pocket to look at it, and realized I would have missed her if she had called. There was no service inside the storage unit.
I’m not exactly sure what possessed me to take that Mason jar home with me that day. Nostalgia maybe? I’m not sure. Anyway, on the drive back, I would glance at it, snugly secure in the drink compartment of my pickup truck, and I would laugh a little, remembering that Halloween decades ago when that crazy old coot had chased me down the hall, hair askew, grunting like a demon from Hell while I ran for my life.
As I joined my wife in bed that night, I brought the jar upstairs with me. I thought she’d get a kick out of the dentures. As I pulled back the sheet and blanket of my side of the bed and climbed in, I sat the jar down on my nightstand. She just wrinkled her nose and said, “What in the hell are those?” I looked at her for a moment, grinning, and said, “Those, my dear, are Gramma’s teeth!” I then told her the whole story, and we both laughed at my recollection of that infamous Halloween decades ago. After I had finished my story, she picked up her hardcover copy of “Fifty Shades Freed” and began to read; her usual routine before nodding off. I continued watching CNN for a little while, until at last sleepiness finally overwhelmed me. I picked up the remote, switched off the TV, and returned it to my nightstand.
I was about to turn off the light when my wife turned to me, removed her glasses and said, “Are you going to keep that jar right there, on the nightstand, all night?”
I asked, “Why not? They’re kind of neat, don’t you think?”
She grinned and replied, “Well, I think they’re kind of gross. And maybe a little creepy. But, if you don’t mind them, then I don’t.”
I leaned over to her and gave her a kiss and whispered “Thanks, hon. I do like having them there. I dunno, it’s kind of like she’s here with me again.”
She blinked a few times, gave me a somewhat puzzled look, and said, “Well, that’s just fine, I suppose.” She closed her book, turned off her own lamp, and within a few moments, was gently snoring. I dozed off shortly after.
At first, I thought I was dreaming, when I heard a muffled clack. I sleepily dismissed it. Then I heard it again. This time, urgently… Clack! Clack! Clack!
The pungent aroma of Pine-Sol stung my nostrils. I fully awoke, and rolled over towards the nightstand. In the jar, Gramma’s teeth were grinning as they greedily snapped down repeatedly. A Mallo-Cup wrapper was swirling around in the water.
Clack! Clack! CLACK!
Credit: Deryk Artlen
Story artwork is by Nathan Lenart, and is featured and adapted with the artist’s kind permission. For more of the artist’s work, check out his social media and links below:
➤ Fine Art America
➤ Pixels Portfolio