Gums moved to town with her gorgeous mother and sister to live with a grandmother, an unattractive woman of Gums’ type though with prominent features all her own. The old woman’s problem was the opposite of Gums—she had large yellowed teeth that bucked over her lips even when she wasn’t smiling—but she was decent and allowed her daughter’s family to encroach on her widowhood so that she relocated to the garage apartment with her old divan. The comely creatures of the family filled the house with cheap perfume and the jewelry they bragged had been given as gifts by very old men. And perhaps some of them had been affectionate tokens, but I had seen Melissa, the pretty sister, palm a marcosite broach at the mall and drop it into her purse.
It wasn’t Melissa the sales clerks were watching, though. It was Gums with her gums shining pink over the scant ridge of her teeth as she looked at dollar jewelry. Few people stared at Melissa after they labeled her beautiful. She had robin egg eyes and black hair that hung to her waist, but onlookers were transfixed by Gum’s mouth and the way she couldn’t quite close her lips. She wasn’t even aware of the attention, and she walked always slightly behind Melissa at school, content to gaze at the back of her sister’s shining head.
She was proud of her pretty relative, so proud that she tore my cheek with the jagged lid of a snack pack can when I accused her sister of theft. My watch had gone missing during track practice, and I saw it a day later on Melissa’s lovely wrist. Had I confronted Melissa directly, I might have had a chance. Gums would have pulled me aside and given me back the watch, but I told the principal, and Melissa was pulled out of class without her sister. So Gums followed me into the girls’ restroom and slashed me easily with a flick of her wrist. We stared at each other in the mirror, Gums showing her gums, and I said, “People call you Gums, you know.”
“Really?” she said. She looked at herself, and her nose reddened as if she were about to cry. “Do they really?”
I held my face with one hand. The cut was deep, and I could feel a flap of broken flesh against my palm. It didn’t hurt, though blood squeezed between my fingers. “Yeah, they do.”
“That’s so mean,” she said. Her nose started to run, and she let it. “Do you know who started it—started calling me that?”
I shrugged, and Gums pressed her face against the mirror so that she fogged the glass. She explored her gums with her index finger, measuring the distance between her jaws and teeth. When she tilted her head back to gauge the length, she cried.
We stood there until the bell rang. By that time, my face had stopped bleeding, but it had dried in my hair and down my neck. The first group of girls to enter the bathroom ignored us and went into the toilets. I listened to them pee and flush and wash. They didn’t look up until a teacher walked in and grabbed Gums by the wrist, forcing her to drop the can lid.
Her mother wouldn’t ride in the sheriff’s car with her, but her grandmother did. The old woman’s drew Gums into an embrace and rested her chin on her granddaughter’s head.
I only saw Gums one more time several years later. By then, I was used to my scar. It stretched across my cheek almost to my ear so that people stared, and I accentuated it with sparkling blusher that made the puckered flesh shimmer. I enjoyed the way honky tonk cowboys traced it with their thick fingers and bought me beers and asked me to dance. I never had to worry about what I wore because all they saw was my scar. It was my scar they two-stepped across sawdust floors and my scar they asked to take home. I was leaving a honky tonk with one of those cowboys, walking cheek to cheek, when I noticed Gums. She was surrounded by a group of roughnecks, and Melissa, still beautiful still perfect, still lifting wallets when she was sure no one was looking. But the men weren’t interested in her. They gazed at Gums, trying to make her laugh so that she would pull back her lips and reveal those gums almost iridescent under the black lights.