A Warm Winter
by Molly McArdle
Caroline didn’t have any gloves, or rather, she declined to search for the ones she had. The last time she’d seen any sign of them, a week or so ago, it had been a single glove (her left hand’s), bereft of its thumb. The yarn, she guessed, had been unraveled by mice. She imagined a curled ball of mouse flesh, mouse fur, occupying the space in one of her gloves where the palm would otherwise be, their collective mouse chest, mouse lungs, rising and falling in unison.
Her brother Bobby was at school. It was strange at first after he left, quieter at home. When he walked through the junk of their apartment, it crunched and snapped beneath his feet—under his weight, the layers of packages would pop open, papers tear, plastic boxes crack apart. Their mother, Miriam, seemed to float above it. Nothing of hers (it was all hers) broke when she moved through their overflowing three-bedroom apartment. It was like watching a person walk on water, though Caroline knew it just must be a matter of taking care. Bobby relished bulldozing through the debris of their mother’s life. Anger is a kind of caring.
Miriam rattled off an interminable monologue whenever Bobby was in her proximity, though the siblings only gave it half their attention at any given time, if that. Now she seemed only to huff and sigh, wordless, as she drifted through the piles of things in their apartment—clothes, crafting supplies, half-empty toiletries, Christmas decorations, canned food—filling his absence, her own silence, with new, unarticulated sounds. Her mother, like nature, abhorred a vacuum.
Today Miriam’s words grew back. “If Bobby were here, then he could drive me to the dentist.” Her brother knew how to drive; Caroline did not. They were going to have to take the Metro to the Farragut Square office and cab back to Columbia Heights.
“At least we won’t have to park?” Caroline offered.
Miriam’s eyes were liquid, unfocused. She looked so small today. She took a big gulp of lukewarm, milky coffee from her oversized mug. Caroline was always afraid to drink those teeth-crumbling, enamel-staining drinks on a dentist day. She didn’t brush her teeth as often as she’d like to (toothpaste had a tendency to, like everything else, become lost in the apartment’s great churn of things), but at the very least she rubbed them down with a spare tissue or laced them with a string of floss when the little plastic box emerged from the detritus. She hated to disappoint the dentist (or anyone, really), and her mother made her all the more afraid to. But it didn’t matter how much coffee her mom drank today. It hadn’t mattered for a long time.
“Don’t you have gloves, Caroline?”
“It’s warm out.”
“Oh, I have an extra pair lying around somewhere.” Caroline’s mother put the coffee mug down and skimmed out over a laundry basket filled (inexplicably) with coins, each in its own sandwich bag; three boxes of VHS tapes (they had not had a tape player for nearly five years); and a two-foot-high web of tangled clothes that covered this section of floor. The next thing Caroline heard was a crunching in the living room.
“Here’s one!” her mother shouted. “I’m not sure where the other one is.”
Caroline followed the voice and found her mother hemmed in one of the more difficult corners of the living room, a pocket of space between the couch, piled high with binders, and the computer desk, blanketed with the contents of a toolbox. Her mother held up a single glove, a piece of cereal (was that a Golden Graham?) stuck to the cheap fiber. It was not hers. Caroline thought, briefly, of how many single gloves their apartment must contain. Too many, not enough.
“No thanks, Ma.”
“If we can’t find the other one of these, we can pick some up later.”
The last thing Caroline or anyone in this apartment needed was more gloves, but there wasn’t time, or she didn’t have the energy, to argue. “We need to leave now.”
“Okay, well, help me out over here.” Her mother stood, bound between the two overcrowded pieces of furniture, and lifted up her arms, arms that looked like a child’s in the bright green coat she wore. Caroline picked through the clothes and around the laundry basket and boxes until she was next to her mother. They grabbed each other’s forearms, and Caroline supported her as Miriam climbed up on the arm of the couch, stepped down onto the small area of cushion uncovered by office supplies, and returned to the floor. They let go. Her mother’s face was flushed, her bristly black hair fallen forward onto her face.
“Let’s get out of here,” Caroline said, brushing lint off the shoulder of her mom’s lime jacket. Miriam ran her tongue back and forth over her incisors. Finally she nodded, and they left.
Her mother had bad teeth. Caroline wasn’t sure how, precisely, they were bad, just that they could no longer bear to be in her mother’s mouth anymore. Maybe it was that they weren’t strong enough, or that too much had been asked of them. Genetics. All that coffee. Too many lost tubes of toothpaste. Caroline clenched her jaw, feeling each tooth press against its pair. Stay, she thought, willing the idea into their roots. Stay with me.
Her mother had had dental work done for what felt like Caroline’s whole life. She couldn’t remember a time before the root canals or the vague, terrible-sounding toothaches that led her mother to take off work and lay up in bed for days. Maybe it was better this way, just to be rid of them. The teeth had begun to absent themselves a few years ago, and this was the natural culmination of the process. Some dentist—even here in his office Caroline could not remember his name—had decided this or that tooth had to go, and they were removed one or two at a time: first the molars, then the bicuspids, most recently the canines. Miriam had lived for the last few years with just a front sheet of teeth, the center four, and if she smiled too broadly you could see the black spaces at either corner of her mouth where teeth should be but were not. Caroline told her mother that no one noticed these gaps, when she would decline to smile for pictures, but in truth Caroline had no idea what other people saw. She couldn’t not see, each time, the peculiar lack of teeth, her mother’s now rabbit-like expression.
Caroline flipped through a two-month-old New Yorker but couldn’t keep her mind on anything but the comics. Clenching and unclenching her jaw, she tongued the cool, smooth flesh above her teeth, feeling for intrinsic weakness—a soft part, a sore one. Her mother came out almost an hour later, staggering from the inner bowels of the office supported at the arm by a nurse.
“Hey Ma,” Caroline said, standing up. “How are you doing?”
Miriam’s mouth was full of bloody gauze and her “Okay” came out muffled, damp.
It was drizzling outside when they made it down the elevator of the big office building’s lobby. Caroline left her mother inside and ran out in the rain to hail a cab. She fetched Miriam, her warm, mother-sized parcel, and ferried her into the taxi’s back seat. Her cheeks were swollen; the fabric poking out from her lips was turning pink. The tepid February rain made the whole world seem like one big mouth.
When she was little, Caroline would sit on the chilly tile of the bathroom floor, curled into a ball and tightly wrapped in a pastel towel: an Easter egg. She could not stand the dramatic shock of cold air on her skin when she emerged from a bath and so would stay, amphibious, in the tub long after her fingertips pruned and feet shriveled. Eventually, her mother would check in on her and urge Caroline up and out, offering the towel, held wide and taut in her hands, as a safe alternative to the now cool water. Caroline draped the towel over herself like a shroud and, knees to chin, tucked its edges beneath her on the bathroom floor. Miriam would sit on the closed lid of the toilet, urging this curled-up dumpling of a daughter to scoot in between her legs, and pull the towel back to reveal Caroline’s bent head. She took their wide-tooth brush and pushed her daughter’s straight, nut-brown hair into neat compliance, the bristles leaving furrowed paths against her scalp. Miriam’s hair was wiry and curled in big loops, like her son’s, but Caroline had inherited the thin, fine-grain hair of her father. She grimaced, unintentionally, as she gathered the last of the tangled hair from her daughter’s warm, wet neck.
You’ve seen them, the people who don’t have teeth. You’ve seen them sleeping at bus stops and running in Cops and sitting on porches in documentaries about impossibly distant rural places. Caroline only saw the dressings the first day, the bloody netting that filled the space in her mother’s mouth where teeth should be. On the second day, her mother emerged from her bedroom without it. Her face had changed—it was shorter. The proportions were off. Her mother’s jaw lifted up too high. Her chin could now curl up almost against her nose, unobstructed. Her cheeks, normally thin, sallow things, ballooned out like jowls. Where was her mother’s face?
“I just took some painkillers.” Her mother slurred the words, each syllable wet and slick. There was no hardness to sounds that should be hard, and her voice slipped past consonants like they weren’t there. It was all lisp.
“How are you feeling?”
“Crappy.” The same spitty, slushy voice.
“Do you want me to make you some coffee?”
“I’m not supposed to drink hot things.” She reached up and dabbed at a corner of her now upturned mouth, the curved parenthetical frown of an emoticon. She scraped at the crusted saliva and blood.
“Well, I’ll make some and put it in the fridge for you later.”
Miriam cleared off some of the binders from the couch and sat. Caroline pushed her way through the crowded floor to the kitchen, where she didn’t have to look at her mother’s face, and started a pot.
Miriam couldn’t wear her dentures until the swelling went down; her gums needed time to heal. She could feel the oozing gaps where her teeth used to be, though she was too timid to run her tongue over this newly cleared real estate. She was not allowed to probe.
“Caroline?” It sounded more like Kawowine.
“Can you get me some warm salt water?”
Caroline rooted around the near-empty cupboard where they were supposed to keep the glasses. (This was the great paradox of the apartment: though all other spaces were full to the brim, the cabinets and closets were almost as bare as the day they moved in.) She brought a jam jar, the warm water opaque and swarming with dissolving grains of salt, to her mother, who took it, tilted her head back (her mouth open), and poured some of it inside. Caroline stood a few feet away and saw a red glimmer, the sheen of the roof of her mother’s mouth. She leaned in, her arm outstretched, to take the glass back. She would not step closer.
Miriam sloshed the water around, her cheeks expanding and shrinking as the liquid moved back and forth. There was something tender about the feeling, intimate. Warm and salty, like spit or the ocean in late summer. It touched raw bundles of nerve, exposed interiors of flesh that were unavailable to her but for moments like this. This would be the last time, Miriam thought. There were no more teeth to remove after this, no more gummy cores to explore.
Caroline was about to turn away when her mother shot out a hand. She made a noise, deep in her throat, to communicate something urgent. The salt water was now evenly distributed between both cheeks and it rounded them out—restored, somewhat, the old shape of her face. Her mother signaled again with her throaty half-grunt, half-groan. She pointed to her closed mouth.
“You don’t want to spit it out in the bathroom?”
Miriam pointed now to the glass, jabbing at it.
Caroline set her mouth and extended the cup. Would Bobby ever do this? Miriam did not take it, so Caroline held still as her mother leaned over.
It came out pink. It dribbled a little down the sides, and Caroline could feel it reach her hands, seep under her fingers. There were little bits of things, things Caroline firmly refused to acknowledge, ranging from red to translucent, that floated inside the glass.
“Thanks honey,” Miriam said, sounding not unlike Daffy Duck.
Caroline walked mechanically to the bathroom, pulling herself back from the spittle-wet hand so that it felt like a thing attached to her but not her. She thrust it—dumping the glass’s contents unceremoniously down the sink’s crusted, speckled drain—underneath the bathroom spigot and turned on the hot water. When she pulled it out again, it was pink and tender but her own again. She rinsed the glass and balanced it precariously on top of the kitchen sink, overfull with dishes, mugs, empty milk jugs, pots for plants. Caroline would have to deal with this pile at some point, but not now. She leaned over the heap to open the window just above it. The air that came in was warm. It felt like spring today.
Miriam used to have to impel Caroline, towel draped over her shoulders, up onto the stool beneath the sink, which brought her high enough to peer at her reflection in the lower half of their bathroom mirror.
“It’s all fog,” she said, gripping her towel so tightly that her fingertips were white with effort. Caroline was eager to be released from the rapidly cooling bathroom so she could burrow under the covers of her bed.
“You have to brush your teeth,” Miriam said, and wiped away a circle in the steamed mirror, a porthole through which Caroline could see herself. She thought about the marks it’d leave, the circular trace of terrycloth, which she’d have to wipe away with Windex later. She had just cleaned the bathroom yesterday but Rob hated a dirty mirror, so.
Miriam leaned over her daughter and helped squeeze out the last of the sparkly blue toothpaste both her children loved so much. Miriam would have to get more. She made a mental note to remember. She’d do better to write it down.
“That’s enough, Mom!”
“Oh!” Miriam had squeezed out too much. “Here,” she said, and flicked off the excess with her finger.
Caroline grinned at herself in the mirror, taking one last look at her teeth before they were covered in bubble-gum flavored foam. One bottom front tooth was missing, the other tilted at a precarious angle.
“How is that one coming?” Miriam pointed to the baby tooth’s reflection in the mirror.
Caroline pushed her tongue forward and the tooth eased out of its socket, forward, till it was almost perpendicular to her gums. Miriam peeked down into her daughter’s mouth; it was connected by a single strand of red, shiny flesh.
“Well don’t force it, honey, it’ll come out when it’s ready.”
Caroline popped the dangling tooth back in place, or as well as she could. “What if I swallow it?” she said. She cringed at her own idea.
“Then you swallow it. You can leave a note to the tooth fairy explaining the circumstances. I’m sure she would understand.”
“Will Dad get mad?”
“No.” Miriam frowned. “Probably not. Now brush.”
Her mother had brought her new dentures home with her from the dentist. While she was nodding off on her tiny corner of the couch, a half-empty and lukewarm coffee cup sitting on the floor beside her, Caroline fished them out of her purse, where they had sat among her mother’s empty gum wrappers and a nest of inscrutable receipts. They were in what looked like a sandwich bag, nothing remotely official-looking attached or included with them. It was strange, especially because Caroline knew how much they cost. (Bobby had sent money home to help pay for them.) The idea of dentures always reminded Caroline of her old mouth guards, which her mother used to boil to softness in their old kitchen, back when they lived in a house. There was something so satisfying about biting down into the warm plastic, forcing it to mold to her teeth, her gums, her jaw. But there was nothing about these two pink and white slabs that felt like the gummy sheath she had worn, infrequently, for soccer. They looked animal, like they had been extracted fresh from some luckless skull, but also unnaturally dry.
This was her mother’s second set of dentures but the first full set of teeth. Her last—it was only one piece—was more elaborate. It looked like a kind of retainer: it snaked across the palette, making space for the teeth her mother still had, standing in for the ones she no longer did. But that single, knobby piece was lost almost a year ago. It was probably, Caroline suspected, in the same place as her missing glove, serving as some elaborate mouse throne. Miriam had gone without since then. It was cheaper, ultimately, to get the remaining few teeth pulled and buy the simpler, traditional set. The dentist had told her that it was only a matter of time before they’d go too, and why wait?
Caroline shoved the teeth back into her mother’s purse. It was probably the best, safest place to keep them. There was no telling where they’d end up if they were let loose into this ecosystem of mess. She looked up at her mother, whose abbreviated face tilted up toward the ceiling, her lower lip curling up just below her nose.
“Ma, do you want me to bring you to your room?”
Miriam’s eyes cracked open, but did not look at her. “Yes.”
Caroline got up. “Come on,” she said, and looped her arm underneath her mother’s smaller one, and helped her up from the couch.
“Be careful walking, hon.”
“I will,” she said, and together they picked their way across the uncertain terrain.
Miriam had checked on Bobby before she got Caroline out of the bath—he was reading some sci-fi book with a flashlight in his dark room. He started shouting at her for letting light in as soon as she creaked the door open. He had Rob’s temper. Bobby would probably be fine for the night, but she should check in on him again in an hour or so to make sure he didn’t stay up too late. She made a mental note to write a real note to remind herself: look in on Bobby, buy more toothpaste, wipe down mirror with Windex. Rob was coming back from his trip tomorrow.
Caroline spit into the sink’s basin.
“Here, rinse.” Miriam offered her a tiny paper cup covered in the outlines of dinosaurs. Caroline swished the water around her mouth and spit again. Miriam wiped the noxious, too-sweet smelling froth away from the corners of her daughter’s mouth with her thumb. “Okay, let’s get you into PJs.” Caroline still held her towel like a cape, a cloak, a mantle. Her daughter bounced out of the bathroom behind her.
With her mother back in bed, or rather the sliver of bed she allotted herself (the rest was overtaken by photo albums, more clothes, bags of popsicle sticks, a box of manila envelopes), Caroline had the apartment to herself. It had been a long, empty day: her Saturday. At least she had been able to skip class the day before, though nothing much happened at her high school on Fridays anyway. Her mother had told her that she would try on the dentures tomorrow. Maybe then they could eat something other than pudding.
Caroline went back into the kitchen. In the cabinets above the stove were the remnants of her father’s old liquor cabinet. Why her mother brought these bottles with her in the first place, why she continued to hold on to them, was a mystery to her—Miriam didn’t drink. She might have said they were for guests, though no one other than she and her two children had ever entered the apartment since the day they moved in, almost ten years ago. Her mother sometimes spoke of inviting people over, but this was set to occur in an impossible future where their apartment could be freely traversed, when all of the counters were clear, when mice did not run through their things.
Caroline climbed up on an overturned paint bucket they used for a stool and opened the cabinet up to reveal ancient bottles of Kahlua, Myers’s Rum, and other, more obscure cordials she didn’t recognize. She grabbed what she was looking for, an old handle of Bacardi, its once-white label yellow and cracked. When she first found it, it was nearly full. Now it had less than half its original content. Caroline had resolved that, first, her mother would never notice the difference, and second, by the time she did, Caroline would have finished the bottle and filled it again with water as a precaution. Anyway, the guests would never come.
She poured an inch or so into the bottom of a plastic McDonald’s cup and filled the rest with an orange liquid that was only tenuously juice. The window above the sink was still open and cool, but not cold, air blew in. Caroline took her cup and inched through the narrow passage between the stacks of boxes that lined the hallway’s walls and out to the balcony. She had to kick a pile of clothes to one side to make space for the door to open, but it did, and she went outside.
Miriam fished around below the kitchen sink. Caroline had to be coaxed into her nightgown from beneath her bedcovers. No reading tonight—too much to do—but she left behind a pile of picture books. Caroline had been yawning and was bound to fall asleep quickly anyway. Miriam still had her daughter’s damp towel slung over her shoulder. She should run off a load tonight. In the meantime, she had found the box of dishwasher soap she was looking for and pried open its top. Tilting it on its side, she shook the crystalline powder around until a corner of plastic appeared.
“Ah!” she said, and reached in to grab it, pulling out a sandwich bag with a crumpled pack of Camels inside. She shook it out and smiled with satisfaction as she drew a cigarette out of the carton. She paused before sealing it up again and considered taking a second. But no, Miriam decided, and pressed the remaining air out of the bag before closing it and stuffing it back into the bottom of the dishwasher soap. She shook the box again for good measure and stowed it back beneath the sink. She procured a matchbook from the pile of them kept in a basket above the refrigerator—all from bars, all which Rob brought home—and took it and her single, precious cigarette out into the winter air of their back patio. It was warm, even for February. She felt like she could stand out there forever.
Their balcony looked over Cardozo’s football field, but Caroline could still see the Capitol, the skyline’s elaborate cake-topper, from where she stood. Plastic patio chairs, leftover from a time when they needed such things, sat stacked in one corner. Her mother’s plants took up most of the rest of the space. Caroline pulled up a chair from the pile and scooted the pots around to accommodate its legs. She sat, taking up her drink again. It was beautiful out here. She took a big, satisfying gulp. The sugar made her teeth ache, and she ran her tongue over them, imagining them gone. With one hand, she pressed down on her gums through her lips, trying to measure from the outside where they ended and where bones began. Her cheeks felt hot.
It had been warm like this all winter. Caroline never thought she’d miss the shock of cold that a truly frigid day brought, but there was something about it that was antiseptic, sanitizing, like everything could be clean in the cold. She took another big mouthful from her cup. Nothing could really ever be clean, she thought. Rot was bound, eventually, to set in.