Thumbsucker (Walter Kirn)

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  It was the one thing I'd always done. Even breathing did not go back to the womb. Being part of a circle of shoulder, arm, hand, mouth, connected me to myself. This circle is what they tried to break the summer I turned fourteen.

The appetite was neither thirst nor hunger but seemed to include them both. It could come at any time: while I was waiting in winter darkness for the school bus, fretting about Marcel, the French exchange student who sat behind me in social studies class and liked to rap his knuckles on my skull. Or I'd be walking past the downstairs bathroom, humming and pressing my hands against my ears to block out the sound of Mike, my father, singing high and tunelessly about the suppliers to his sporting goods store: "Oh, Orvis, you sons of bitches, get off my back," or "Give me a break, Smith & Wesson, just one small break." Or maybe I was downtown at Wayne's Cafe, watching my ravenous little brother, Joel, spread so much butter on an English muffin that his teeth left disgusting clifflike marks.

The effect when my thumb touched my lips was subtle and encompassing. Because I sometimes watched my self in a mirror, doubling my sense of self-communion, I knew how I looked at the moment of closure. Above my greedily flexing cheeks, my eyes would shine as though I'd just put drops in. My forehead would relax and lose its lines. From the rhythmic bullfrog swelling of my throat and the pulsing muscles along my jaw, it appeared I was actually taking nourishment. I believed I was.

* * *

When Mike began his campaign against my habit, the idea of it didn't seem to anger him. With his chewing gum and cigars and Red Man chewing tobacco, it's possible he even sympathized; he was a person who liked his mouth full, too. What riled him was that I'd developed an overbite and he was getting the orthodontist's bills. One night, when he was grouching about them, I said, "I thought your insurance paid for everything."

We were in the TV room watching Ronald Reagan, whom Mike had given money to and voted for. Mike still had a Reagan sticker on his Ford, nicked and shredded from my mother's attempts to scrape it off with a razor blade.

"You people must think insurance is free," Mike said. He spat brown tobacco juice into a beer can he was holding against his lower lip. "In point of fact, Justin, my entire store is paying for what you're doing to your teeth."

"I didn't know that," I said. "I'm dumb sometimes."

Mike gazed at Reagan's square, tanned face and sighed. "Insurance just spreads the costs, it doesn't erase them. Can't you people get that through your heads?"

That was what Mike called our family: you people. It made me feel like an intruder in his life.

Our dentist was a man named Perry Lyman. He worked in the northern suburbs of St. Paul and commuted from our little town of Shandstrom Falls. Before outsiders started moving there, in the early seventies, the town had been a sleepy trading center for hog and dairy farmers, but its large, inexpensive Victorian houses and proximity to the St. Croix River--a government designated "wild river" that people said you could drink from, though I wouldn't--attracted a stream of outdoorsy young professionals. They brought with them new, exotic sports that hadn't yet spread across the Midwest: cross country skiing, bike touring, kayak racing.

Rallies and meets were held every month or so, announced by flyers posted at Mike's store. Mike competed in all these events. He held his own, but the first place trophies always seemed to go to Perry Lyman.

I could see why. Perry Lyman was steady, cool, and able to pace himself, while Mike's approach of clenched ferocity burned him out mid race. Perry Lyman seemed to take pleasure in sports, while Mike's interest in them was Spartan, almost survivalist, as though he were in training for the day when modern civilization would collapse and men would have to paddle and ski great distances, gathering food and supplies. Mike's experience playing college football (only a senior-year knee injury had kept him from going pro) had taught him, in the words of his old coach, that "winners treat every practice as a game." The saying decorated Mike's business cards and hung in a gold frame inside his store.

Perry Lyman took a softer approach. He was a kind of hippie, a social dropout, though with short, mossy hair and normal clothes; he sometimes wore a bracelet of tiny seashells but always removed them before touching patients' mouths. He smoked pot--I saw a scorched hemostat on his desk one day while he was adjusting my retainer, and I knew what it was from the sheriff's antidrug booth at the county fair. He was a hippie in other ways, too. He preferred hypnosis to anesthetics and liked to prescribe simple exercises for the correction of minor malformations. The year before he gave me a retainer, he'd actually had me using my fingers to push my top teeth back. I pushed for an hour each night after supper and gave myself low-level headaches.

Though Perry Lyman knew the real reason, he pretended to blame my overbite on an odd nocturnal tongue motion supposedly common in boys my age. In explaining these spasms he introduced me to the term "subconscious pressure" and the idea of involuntary behavior. I instantly recognized the all-purpose excuse I'd been seeking all my life.

"So if people can't help things they do," I said, "why punish them?" I was thinking of John Hinckley, who'd shot Reagan.

"It has nothing to do with changing the offender," Perry Lyman said. "It's merely society working out its rage."

"I see."

"There's a group subconscious, too. It's complicated."

"It makes sense to me."

The day of my retainer fitting, I sat in Perry Lyman's padded chair and gazed around at rainbow colored posters reminding me that "A Thing of Beauty Is a Joy Forever" and "If You Love Something, Let It Go." While I struggled to breathe through a stuffy nose, Perry Lyman packed my mouth with gray mint flavored putty, then had me bite down to make an impression. Two weeks later he gave me my "appliance," a pink plastic, crab-shaped object ringed by wires and ridged on top to match my wrinkled palate.

I was supposed to wear the thing all night and as much as possible during the day. I did this for two weeks, despite some problems. Its wires seemed too tight and made my gums sore. It caused me to speak with a lisp, which people made fun of. Also, the retainer smelled bad, collecting a fizzy yellow scum between its lifelike creases. It did have one important virtue, though: by heightening my awareness of my mouth, the retainer seemed to reduce the chance I'd forget myself in public.

This was a crippling, ever-present fear. Ned Lesser, a skin-and-bones foster child with digestive problems, had been hounded into switching schools when our eighth grade class found out he wore a diaper underneath his jeans. I expected similar bullying if I lowered my guard. I'd learned that the trick was never to relax. Whether sitting alone in the lunchroom with a yogurt, trying to look noble in my unpopularity, or idling in right field during a softball game, wishing I shared my little brother's athletic skills, I had to maintain a vigilant alertness.

The person I had to be most careful around was Rebecca Crane, my first great crush. Far ahead of me mentally and physically, practically a woman at fourteen, Rebecca had long, brown, center-parted hair and a narrow, foot-shaped face. Like me, she rarely smiled, though it had nothing to do with her teeth, which happened to be perfect, straight and white. Rebecca was a dark and serious girl, devoted to endangered species. She wrote poems about the baby seal, using words such as "holocaust," and once got a warning from the principal for circulating petitions at school. Watching her fierce hazel eyes flash as she lectured me on the plights of porpoises and auks stirred my blood and absorbed my whole attention; I'm sure I would have forgotten myself in front of her without the retainer's irritating presence.

One day Rebecca and I went bird watching along the Soo Line railroad tracks. Around us were hayfields mowed into stripes. My idea was to get her alone, outdoors, in nature, where our gaping social inequality wouldn't be so noticeable. With the retainer snug against my palate, I felt secure, protected against a slip, and I let myself relax completely--one of the first times I'd ever dared.

"It's hot. I'm taking my shirt off," I announced. It was a bold act for me. At fourteen, I had the physique of a sperm: an enormous oval head trailing a skinny, tapering body that, unless I started lifting weights as Mike was always badgering me to, would probably just drop off someday.

"Go ahead, take it off," Rebecca said, scanning a pasture with binoculars. "Look: a red-winged black bird!"

"You take yours off, too," I said.

"My stomach will get a sunburn that my dad will see. He'll ask me what I've been up to."

"Your father looks at your naked stomach?"

"He checks my body for wood ticks. Doesn't yours?"

"With me it's Audrey, my mother," I admitted. "It's fine, though. She's a nurse."

Rebecca lowered her binoculars. "Why do you call your folks by their first names?"

"Mike says when I call him 'Dad' he feels old and I sound like a child. When he hears me call Audrey 'Mom,' then she seems old to him."

Finally, I got Rebecca to take her shirt off. Her bra straps made red nicks in her pale shoulders and I saw how the cups were cradling real weight. The sight thrilled me, but in bed that night, when I thought of Rebecca's father, a burly contractor, inspecting her body for ticks, I got anxious. When I opened my eyes in the morning my thumb was snugly seated in my cheek and the retainer was sitting on my pillow, staring back at me like an odd little sea creature. I never put it in my mouth again.

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Excerpted from Thumbsucker by Walter Kirn. Copyright © 1999 by Walter Kirn. Excerpted by permission of Anchor Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.