A dentist first informed me of my deficiency.
“You can fit a tennis ball in some folk's mouths,” he said, his latex-gloved fingers tracing my gum-line. “Not you! I'm lucky if I can get two fingers in here.”
So many things fell into place after that dental exam. The twenty-seven previous years of painful shyness. My trouble pushing words through this tiny oral aperture. Everyone always asking me to speak up. The dentist helped me understand that my social anxiety has a physical component, right here on my face.
A man recently won Italy's annual Bigmouth Competition by placing an entire soda can in his mouth, in the vertical position. He's known as the Angolan Jaw of Awe.
As far as I can tell, there's no formal competition for the world's smallest mouth. Maybe I should put one together? In the main event we'll see who can strip the most ears of baby corn in a single sitting, like Tom Hanks in Big. We'll also track which contestant says the very least over the course of 48 hours. Smaller side events might include Stump the Dentist and Pucker Up.
The Angolan Jaw of Awe can hinge open his mouth like an alligator, the distance between his teeth a staggering 16 cm, or half a foot. By comparison, my jaw is just over 4 cm, tops.
I know this because a standard golf ball is 4.3 cm, and for the sake of this essay I just barely wedged one cold dimpled specimen between my teeth and taste buds.
Then my jaw cramped up.
I panicked at the thought of an ER visit. How would I communicate with the receptionist? Would a pack of clean-cut doctors rush me, each vying for the shiny new Titleist?
Luckily my bantam-sized mandibles relaxed and I never had to find out.
All twenty-eight teeth just barely crowd inside my lips. This causes mild speech impediments—a slight lisp, trouble with my l's and r's, occasional stuttering.
Shortly after my diagnosis, I watched the Coen brother's film Oh Brother Where Art Thou? An actress with a tiny slice of a mouth appears in a bank robbery scene—I love watching the words That's Baby Face Nelson spill slantways from her lips.
In comparison to my mouth, my hands are huge. Some folks can cram their whole fist inside their maw—something I can't even fathom. My hands do feel natural on a keyboard or with a fine point Sharpie balanced between thumb and forefinger. A smallmouth is someone who rarely comes up with the wittiest repartee or the best comebacks. Once, at a restaurant after a family member's funeral, a distant relative asked, “Has anyone ever told you that you look like Chris Eliot?”—Chris Eliot being a clownish actor with a large forehead and an underdeveloped jaw. When a smallmouth thinks of a zinger it's always a couple hours too late—this distant relative looked exactly like Yanni live at the Acropolis—and then all we can do is jot it down for later, when we'll type it up quietly in a story or essay.
Justin Hocking has been published or is forthcoming in The Normal School, Poets & Writers magazine, The Rumpus, Portland Review, Orion, Tin House, and elsewhere. His recent memoir, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld (Graywolf Press), won the 2015 Oregon Book Award for Creative Nonfiction and was a finalist for the 2015 PEN USA Award. He is the former Executive Director of the Independent Publishing Resource Center and currently teaches creative nonfiction in the MFA and BFA programs at Portland State University.