Teethings by Deena Lilygren

I’m on my front lawn, undressing Barbies and exposing their breasts to passing cars. I’m the neighborhood pervert, but no one notices. Ten years later, a more advanced neighborhood pervert will expose himself to me on the street and I will be scolded by the police officer for laughing as I run away. That’s exactly what he wants, the officer will explain, and now, my laughter has encouraged his penis. Do I understand? I will think about my own disappointment when the cars had not gone careening off the road, or even slowed for my peep show and will tell the officer I do understand. Neither of us will be punished.

In fifth grade, I meet another neighborhood pervert, one of those sad latchkey kids from the news, born from worldly mothers and lacking discipline. She takes me down to her basement and teaches me about strippers, how they work on a pole and how their job is to take their clothes off very slowly. This is all news to me—thrilling news, to learn I’d had the right idea on my front lawn, after all—and I sit on the concrete floor watching her spin around the load-bearing pole, inching her shirt up over her bra. I don’t have a bra yet, so when it’s my turn I start with my belt, a clunky thing with a childish magnetic clasp. I leave the belt behind and later on the school bus, with the sunlight glinting on her Sunkist-colored hair, I’m reluctant to bring it up. I’m punished for the lost belt, but not the stripping.


I’m in my twin bed, kicking at Mother. Nightly, I wake just before midnight and yell out all the violence that’s collected in my body during the day. When my parents rush in, they’re frightened by the serrated edge of my screams. With that weapon, I savage the household peace. In the morning, they all hate me and I have to drink my juice from the glass with the Hamburglar on it, which Mother used to trap a spider that time. Father takes me to Pastor, who says a special prayer just in case.


I’m eating scrambled eggs. It’s Saturday morning and I am remarkably unpunished. My sisters are suspicious of this rare desegregation. They feel they are receiving mixed signals about my place in the family and stare at me as they chew the crust of their toast, searching for answers. Mother doesn’t answer questions. She neither gives time-outs nor instructs me to think about my choices. I am simply punished. Dr. Dobson says the adult must always win a power struggle and she has the stamina of a woman who as a girl carried water from a well and used an outhouse. I have the stamina of a prisoner in possession of a sizable library. The problem is that we’re too evenly matched. But she has the book with my name on it: STRONG WILLED CHILD.


Mother has news. She has read something interesting in Redbook magazine about how to more effectively discipline her children. Father is also intrigued. They are the two most dangerous people I know.


I’m whispering in class with Jenna, the kind of child punishments are made for. The very idea is a deterrent. She would never choose pain, or shame, or conflict. For me, punishment is always on the table to be weighed against the thing I want to do.

I watch out for Jenna because she seems younger than the others. She has a gray tooth and her hair is boy-short, brushed with vanilla. These shortcomings aside, she is eager to learn the roller skating routines I’ve choreographed. Verisimilitude is important to us both. I’ve heard about Olympian gymnasts’ harsh Eastern European coaches and she lets me scold her the way I imagine they do. I pinch her when she misses a turn and leave thumbprint-sized smudges of purple on her bare arms. But today, we are in school and Teacher is tired of our talking, so here we go to the front of the room to make a record of our behavior on the chalkboard. Jenna doesn’t bear this classroom disgrace nearly as well as she bears my abuse.


I’m in the kitchen corner, taking my punishment. The rule is that no part of my body touches any part of the wall. I begin with twenty minutes and Mother will add five minutes each time I ask about the time. This is the trick: I can’t stop asking. Soon, my sentence has swelled to twenty, forty, fifty-five. The timer only goes to sixty. With only the wallpaper in my scope, I am convinced that at my back the world has changed. My family has been raptured away and gangs of godless cannibals are casing the house right now, wiping their bloody handprints on my bedspread. Or worse, Mother is still here, and the stovetop timer has stopped. I’m growing like Alice. My shoes are beginning to pinch. They will discover me months too late, dressed in rags, shriveled in the kitchen corner like a dead cricket.

At one point, I’m left alone in the kitchen for two years.


I’m listening to Mother and Father discuss how to best punish me. The problem is the church. Mother wants me to go and learn how to be better, but Father doesn’t like how fun they have made things for children. When he was a child, church was being hung by a rope until your prayers became real. Sometimes, a snake was involved. They compromise. I go to church but am kept in the sanctuary to suffer through long, adult sermons I survive because Mother’s parenting, it turns out, has a loophole. Books, she believes, are written by men like Father, to improve and instruct mankind. While Pastor drones on, I think about the things I read in the books I’ve acquired: all the places women are willing to pull up their skirts—civil war-era plantations, suburban schools, apocalyptic compounds—the ways a witch might curse and then bless another witch, always with blood, the things men to do wind up in prison, and what they do once they’re inside. I never once look at the clock. I am becoming unpunishable.


Mother has read something else. She tells me that she has learned about night terrors from Reader’s Digest. How funny, she says, for such a misunderstanding to have occurred. It all makes sense now, she says, her voice light with relief. She has done a fine job, after all. Dr. Dobson didn’t account for night terrors. She will write him a letter in the morning.


Part of it is that I’m getting older, which means people, even Mother and Father, are more careful about discipline. Now that I’m older, I’ve discovered the double life of everyday objects: feathers, leather belts, almost any kind of fruit. This, of course, is how the concept of prison came about. The only way to punish sinners of a certain age is with boredom. Corporal punishment is too exciting.

Jenna doesn’t know about any of this. She’s been saving up. She’s hoarding bad behavior, as though she can hedge the future with twenty years of obedience. Obedience isn’t the same as sweetness, and I’m convinced that her one gray tooth is discolored with repressed screams. She’s never pledged me any kind of loyalty, but she has mine. I need to see how this ends. How terrible to be so unpunished for so long, forever waiting for the belt to strike.


Deena Lilygren lives, writes, and indulges her many obsessions in Louisville, Kentucky. She is an Associate Professor of English at Elizabethtown Community & Technical College. Her work has appeared in LEO WeeklyNew Southerner, and 94 Creations.

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