12. Truck Stop Teeth

12. Truck Stop Teeth

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Matters

Truck Stop Teeth

Shopping tip: You can get shoes for 85 cents at the bowling alley.

~Author Unknown

“Nothing good could possibly come from buying dentures at a truck stop,” I tried reasoning with my mother after she unveiled her latest unique version of a blue light special. “This is not day-old bread or Christmas wrapping paper in January. These are your teeth,” I reminded her.

“Yeah,” my sister added, “you kind of messed up your first set. Don’t screw these up, too!”

The news of the truck stop teeth didn’t come from the back of a tabloid magazine or from a flyer tucked under the windshield wiper as one might expect. Rather, it mysteriously came from the women my mother worked with at the high school cafeteria. They were better known to us simply as “The Girls.” These hard-working women ranged in age from forty to seventy, and what was newsworthy to “The Girls” usually fell into two categories. The first was their daytime soaps, which they checked on religiously from a small portable TV in the kitchen prep area of the cafeteria. The second and not necessarily lesser newsworthy category was bargains: clearance sales, two-for-one sales, end-of-the-year sales, fire sales, and now, apparently, denture sales at the truck stop off Exit 24. “The Girls” were not ones to spend carelessly, and if there was a deal out there, they knew about it before anyone else. My mother fit in well.

Of all the lessons she could have taught me as a child, I think the one my mother stressed the most was: “If it’s not on sale, you’re paying too much.” Truck stop teeth were a somewhat logical result of that belief. Growing up with that belief system, my mother would drag me to the back of the department store hunting for red signs with percent symbols on them. In the shadows, well out of sight of mannequins showing off the latest fashions, there lived the ragtag apparel, and they were the objects of my mother’s desire. They were the slightly worn, the slightly defective, and the slightly past their prime. Draped carelessly on plastic hangers, they prayed for an owner before fate or a new clothing line treated them like Rudolph’s misfit toys and shipped them to some faraway island, like a Goodwill Store.

“So what if ‘Yankees’ looks a little lopsided?” my mother asked once, referring to an over-sized baseball jersey on which the lettering started at the collarbone and ended around the third rib. “That’s the style!”

My mother always seemed to know what the style was, and as it happened, whatever the condition the clothing was in, that was generally the style. “You’re starting to fill out nicely. It will fit you beautifully in the spring!”

Nothing was unsalvageable. Pants that were too long could easily be hemmed. Sweaters with pulls could be mended. Small holes could be overlooked. Like a botanist examining the rings on a sequoia tree, my mother loved to unveil the original cost of an item by peeling back the layers of sale stickers. The more stickers, the bigger the audible gasp, and the quicker the faded, misshapen, or buttonless item found its way into our shopping cart.

It wasn’t until around middle school that I began to feel differently about my mother’s gift for thrift. When my friends came over and had to use napkins with logos from the local donut shop to wipe the PBJ from the corners of their mouths, it was a little embarrassing. It was also tricky to explain why their sandwiches were served on Happy New Year paper plates in the middle of April.

But through the years, I began to accept my mother’s quest for the perfect bargain as something that was more about the thrill of the hunt than a result of real necessity. I believe it gave her something to boast about and probably made her feel like she was pulling something over on someone, even though it was sometimes at her children’s expense. But this latest find was a little more serious than stuffing your purse full of rolls at the Old Country Buffet. This was a little unsettling and required an intervention of sorts.

“The Girls said he makes the dentures himself,” my mother explained. “They’re the same ones you find at the dentist’s office, but he’s the real artist behind them.”

“I like his style,” I said, playing the good cop. “He’s like those artists in Paris who sell their paintings along the river. He’s just cutting out the middle man!”

“Did you ever consider that maybe he’s not really making them? That maybe someone else made them a long time ago?” my sister asked eerily. “Your mouth probably won’t be the first they’ve been in, you know?”

“That’s right,” I piled on. “If he’s wearing work boots covered in mud, you’d better get out of there.”

“You kids are sick,” my mother countered. “They’re not from a graveyard. The Girls said they come with a guarantee.”

“Do you think you’ll have to floss before you eat your first meal?” I asked, somewhat seriously. “And what if you end up with cheap wooden teeth and look like George Washington when you smile?”

Maybe it was the thought of getting splinters on her tongue. Or maybe it was my six-year-old daughter running into the room, singing, “My grandma’s got truck stop teeth,” to the tune of “My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean.” But for possibly the first time in her life, my mother gave up the hot deal in the back of the store and went to the bright lights of the front, looking for a dentist who was actually listed in the phone book and didn’t give consultations where you can smell gasoline and hot dogs at the same time.

Of course, it wasn’t the end to my mother’s bargain hunting days. Like Indiana Jones continually putting on that well-worn Stetson, my mother still searches for the ultimate bargains. She has given up on me and my sister by now, but our children are fertile fodder for her shopping exploits. Just the other day, she brought over a bag of clothes for my daughter. Among the heavily stickered items of various sizes was a little purple training bra with butterflies. My daughter is eight now, still a little too young for that particular item. But, hey, it was cute and at eighty percent off, can you really go wrong?

~John MacDonald

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