Creative Nonfiction: Crowning the Wild Thing by Susan Barr-Toman

photo credit: Sarah Barr/Susan Barr-Toman

I’d crushed a molar grinding my teeth. Apparently while I slept (maybe while I was awake too), I’d been clamping my mouth shut tight, putting hundreds of pounds of pressure on my teeth. The dentist pulled my chin toward her as she examined the jagged remains. Her headlight bright, I closed my eyes and remembered years before leaving my newborn at home and escaping for a routine checkup. Exhausted, I was so at peace waiting after my cleaning I fell asleep cradled in the leather recliner. Since then, I’d considered the dentist’s a little getaway where nothing, especially talk, was required of me.

“Looks like you’ll need a crown to cover the damage,” she said. “Are you under a lot of stress?”

“Yes,” I said, without adding any detail. I did not want to talk to my dentist about my husband’s terminal diagnosis, or deal with the awkwardness of either of us trying to find the words for a conversation about the nature of death, his death. I wanted my mouth to be filled with cotton, the suctioning question mark hanging over my lip, where I could only nod.

“We could fit you for a mouth guard,” she paused, “or wait for the stress to pass?”

I nodded, I shrugged. I said nothing. When would that be? After my husband was dead?

Weeks later, I returned to have the crown installed, because things like this still needed to be taken care of. I relaxed under the gas despite the pinch of several needles. The chair faced a large window with a view of the city to the south, toward home. We waited for the numbness to come.

As I gazed over the sea of rowhomes, the peak of a church steeple, and beyond to the hazy horizon, the word gnashing came to mind. My thoughts drifted to the children’s picture book Where the Wild Things Are, when Max is leaving in his sailboat, and the wild things want him to stay. “Oh, please don’t go—we’ll eat you up—we love you so!” But he says no and goes. Powerless to stop his departure, they “…roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws…” What else could they do?

As the dentist turned toward me with the drill in hand, her foot hit the pedal accidentally, prematurely, and the drill nicked my chin. I didn’t feel it. I didn’t make a sound, even with my mouth wide open as if to scream.

Susan Barr-Toman lives in Philadelphia, where she teaches Mindful Writing workshops. She is the author of the novel WHEN LOVE WAS CLEAN UNDERWEAR. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Watershed Review, and Longleaf Review, among others. Visit her at

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