The Theory of Wisdom Teeth by W. F. Roby

Lieserl Einstein lived to maybe twenty months; the date of her death is disputed. Eduard went to an upper-level school and was a rising star in the brand-new field of psychiatry but was diagnosed with schizophrenia and soon required around-the-clock care; his last chat with daddy was a shouting match. Hans was the most Einsteinian of the lot, a scholar, a real authority on sediment transport, a sort of godfather of modern geotechnics and environmental science, but not exactly “rewriting the laws of physics.” Hans also has the benefit of the best gravestone inscription: “A life devoted to his students.”

The third molar on the upper-right quadrant of my mouth has a claw-like root that’s tapping every-so-often against what must be a sinus cavity. I’m turning forty and I’m fighting with my last wisdom tooth. I’m turning forty and entering (exiting?) the age of wisdom, avoiding all of the crowding concerns usually associated with third molar eruption due to four decades of orthodontic and maxillofacial trauma. It has room. It has a very bad attitude. I am awake, my wife is asleep, and Lieserl Einstein has been dead for 117 years.

Nights like this, I can’t help but think of Lieserl. Lying in bed, about 11:30 at night, and I have a wisdom tooth erupting. The pain of it is an earache, yeah, but just swished around the glass and then poured out, and topped with a macerated bundle of pinpricks, splash of diarrhea—for a garnish, the Carduus Benedictus of Beatrice, an embarrassment to even mention it. Lieserl Einstein, who according to the surprisingly awful letters of her parents was in some way disabled, lying there in her soft baby furniture. The letters refer to what we’d call “developmental delay,” this daughter of the man who created the moon and the stars. Lying there trying to babble to connect, her tongue coated in strawberry marks, tongue white from the disease, and unable to do much. It doesn’t make me feel better, it makes me feel worse.

The word “edematous” can be used to describe both the status of the gums in the upper-right quadrant of my mouth and the flesh in the armpits and thighs of Lieserl Einstein. This isn’t lost on me. Aristotle reported on the “great pain” in the “coming” of the third molar, noting that it most often erupts at the age of twenty in both sexes, and later in his life adding that it is best that these teeth erupt early, as the pain in elderly people is greatly increased. I want to bash myself in the face with a rock.

Lieserl Einstein is the most tragic of the Einstein children. I want my money back. If this marks my entrance into the age of wisdom, give me back my primary teeth, give me back my phonics workbook, pass me down the aisle to put money in the collection plate, set up the tree fort and the sandbox and the teeter-totter; the pain of it is white-hot but it is also blue and it is also black. The room is dark, but parts of it are bright.

Lieserl would’ve had the swollen glands, the bright red patches that moved dizzily from groin to armpit, from elbow to sternum, all anatomy textbooks and saturations and bright hues. A patch of my jaw is red, but not painful to the touch. The Internet seems to think I’m just fussing with it too much, but I take a few more OTC painkillers and let a sleeping pill dissolve in there, too, for good measure. Lieserl was three decades too soon for penicillin, the only thing that would keep her from the 25% mortality rate of the disease. Lying under this stupid ceiling fan with a splitting nose and two Styrofoam eyes, I’m only a few decades from some lovely panacea, an opioid without a backbone, a sleeping pill with no rebound, a velvet crossbow you can tie on your own at home.

At 40 years old you don’t expect to meet your last teeth. That’s a teenager’s game. In this way, Lieserl and I are at once alike and different. According to her daddy’s letters, Lieserl hadn’t yet met all her primary set, much less the adult talons tenterhook’d around and across her sinus glands. You don’t expect to die before you meet your first teeth. My jaw is probably infected—one minute I’m convinced, the next I’m not so sure. This feeling would not be unfamiliar to Einstein’s only daughter.

Lieserl Einstein exists in letters, the letters now exist in dots across matrices, and in the end Lieserl is kept alive at least in part because I’m kept awake because my jaw is doing the hard work necessary to let go of something that had been holding it back; personally, and professionally. I had always been of the opinion that the part should reflect the whole, but in a bed in a room in a house on a street full of wisdom teeth in various states of ascension, retention, infection—in that bed I sit and stir and think of Little Lieserl, and the sleeping pill and the OTC painkillers and the cheesecake work together to really give it a good try, this time, they swear.

I’m imagining a woman working a loom, and a man turning a mill, and I’m also imagining blowing them up with grenades.

W. F. Roby is a teacher. He lives in Houston.