Years later, she is still haunted by the memory of her step-father’s hands and the tooth he wore around his neck.
About the AuthorRyan W. Bradley has pumped gas, painted houses, swept the floor of a mechanic's shop, worked on a construction crew in the Arctic Circle, fronted a punk band, and more. He is the author of eight books, including Code for Failure, Winterswim, and Nothing but the Dead and Dying. He received his MFA from Pacific University and lives in Oregon with his wife and two sons.
The Pit Bull's Tooth
What I remember most is the pit bull’s tooth he wore on fishing line around his neck. I’d heard of shark’s tooth necklaces, seen it in movies. A California surfer thing. And I’d had friends, natives, who told me about the bear’s teeth and eagle talons their grandparents kept, but Buddy was something else entirely. A kind of man I’d never met. He was my mother’s boyfriend during the summer of ’07, her first since Dad had taken a job in the lower 48 and left us behind. I was nine.
Buddy claimed to be a stuntman in the movies, said he worked on three Schwarzenegger pictures. But not many movies were made in Alaska (it was cheaper, Buddy said, to shoot in Montana and pretend it was Alaska), and he never went anywhere for work. Mom didn’t question him, though.
The first time he showed me the tooth he told me he’d taken it right out of the dog’s mouth. “The cameras were rolling and everything,” he said. I’m ashamed to say the story gave me chills, made me crave adventure.
That was how our mornings went, after my mother had left for her job answering phones at a cannery. He would put me on his lap, ask me if I wanted to hear about movies. But I always asked about the tooth and Buddy always told a different story.
The first time Buddy touched me between the legs, he said the tooth really belonged to my mom. “She’s the pit bull,” he said. He held the tooth between his fingers. “This is how I taught her not to bite,” he mimed the act of pulling it from her mouth. There was beer on his breath, thicker than my mom’s perfume got around the middle of the month. “But you’re not a biter, are you?”
His hand was warm against my leg, but still I shivered deep in my spine. He didn’t say anything as his fingers worked their way up my thigh, just exhaled against my neck. I sat still as I could. As he pushed one inside of me he whispered, “It’s okay” and “It won’t hurt long.”
But it did hurt, his fingers were callused and his nails untrimmed. The sweat he worked up made me sick. Mom gave into him, treated him like the king of our apartment, I was just another piece of our lives that he owned. I waited for him to go on his afternoon beer run before I sat in the shower until the water went cold, until the the goosebumps ached. Until I was so cold I couldn’t feel the ghost trails of his touch.
After that first time he didn’t wait for me to ask about the tooth any longer, just for the sound of mom’s car leaving the driveway. “It won’t hurt long” became “It gets better,” but it never did. His breathing got heavier and eventually even his clothes, his skin smelled permanently of beer and B.O. The shouting at night between Buddy and my mom got louder, went deeper into the nights, and I knew he was paving his road out of our lives. I steeled myself, told myself he would be gone soon.
There were close calls. Days, weeks at a time we wouldn’t see him, but it was three years before he finally left for good. I was a sophomore in high school by that time and other boys were starting to look at me the way Buddy did. Just a wrong glance could make my skin go clammy.
After Buddy left I scoured the apartment for the tooth, hoping he’d left it behind. It was easy to see he’d been telling the truth about taking it from my mother’s mouth. He had broken her so well, as if house training a wild dog. How else could he have managed to keep us so long, so close? I wanted that tooth, wanted her to have it back. If she had been a pit bull before, she could be one again.