A Child of Gross Motivation
by Alex McElroy

I attribute the tonguing of teeth to a day in the park with my mother. I was young, not yet five or recently five, and had climbed the steps that led to the top of a slide, a tunnel slide, plastic and poorly constructed, it bolts poking out like the heads of curious mushrooms waiting to puncture my back. On the platform at the top of the steps a boy a few years older than I smiled at me. He was missing his front left tooth, a pair of incisors, and a bicuspid. I wanted his smile. I reached for his face. But it was his turn to slide so he entered the slide and by the time I rode to the bottom the boy, whoever he was, had disappeared.

Perhaps he was beaten, it occurs to me now. How unlikely to lose so many teeth without the service of knuckles. No matter. The point is that I returned home from the park that afternoon intent on tonguing the teeth from my mouth, the urge like a horrible pill, like the urge rust must get before consuming a bumper. I began at the front of my mouth. The upper left lateral incisor. I licked that tooth from morning to night, using my tongue, only ever my tongue, and never my finger. The finger could not be included. I wouldn’t allow it. Surely the ordeal would have gone faster had I applied the force of my finger, but the mind of a child is peculiar and loopy, driven by a distorted resemblance to logic. This logic, soupy and bullish, prevented me from using my finger to force the tooth from my mouth.

I should mention the grip of the tooth. The tooth wasn’t loose. There was no indication on the part of the tooth that the tooth needed to go. That is my gift. I know what my body does not. The property occupied by the tooth belonged to an absence, a gap, and it was my duty to rectify the territorial error.

I consider this moment, the tooth’s lingual displacement, as the first sign that I was a child of gross motivation. Superbly ambitious. No child my age had lost any teeth. Perhaps this was the force compelling me to tongue the tooth from my mouth: the force of glory and fame. Adoration. Some part of me, deep in my lower intestine, maybe the thigh, must’ve foreseen the acclaim of becoming the first child in kindergarten to lose one of his teeth.

I licked the tooth as often as possible. Constant pressure. The application of pressure became unnoticeable. I was more aware of my breaths than I was of tonguing my tooth.

On a Sunday in May it started to wiggle. The joy I felt was brief and disposable, transforming into moxie and grit. I tongued the tooth from a wiggle to wobble, from a wobble to swoop, from a swoop to a hang-by-a-thread. How pretty it felt to create such a change in my body. Is that not what everyone wants? To be the force enacting change in the body?

No one respected the effort it took to capitalize on the vulnerable tooth. My mother, indeed excited, misunderstood the proceedings. She believed the loosening tooth indicated the maturation of son into man, time symbolized as a boy in dusty trousers, blood trickling thinly over his lips.

The tooth hung from my gums by a slender cord, like a spider riding its web, or a man from a beam, patiently twisting. My idiosyncratic commitment became problematic. My refusal to tug the tooth, to pinch it free with my fingers, made the final days a terrible era. My mother felt sorry for me and acted reprehensibly kind. One evening as I was sleeping she plucked the tooth from my mouth. In the morning I wept. My mother fed me a pill. The following night she advised me to place the tooth under my pillow. I did as she said. She woke me up in the night, her hand worming under my pillow. Your tooth, she said, where did it go? I showed her my mouth. She tried to tug out the tooth. But the glue had already set.

Alex McElroy‘s writing appears in Black Warrior Review, DIAGRAM, Tin House online, Indiana Review, Electric Lit, Gulf Coast, Music & Literature, and more work can be found at He currently lives in Bulgaria.

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