“Toutes ont les dents jaunes. Jamais une brosse à dents n’est entrée dans le couvent. Se brosser les dents, est au haut d’une échelle au bas de laquelle il y a: perdre son âme.”
– Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
Paul Maslow arrived at the family clinic, a clinic handed down to him by his father after his fatal pancreatic cancer. He had been running it on his own without the old man’s assistance for six years, following the expiration of his grad school apprenticeship where John Maslow taught him the tricks of the trade.
“Hello, Lacy,” he said, opening the door.
“Good morning, Doctor Maslow,” she said. Lacy had the duty of getting to the clinic early, unlocking the doors and booting up the computers.
Lacy, the secretary and bookie for appointments, was fond of mint candies and had a bowl of the pinstripe sweets on her desk, which she popped down the gullet one at a time when the moment was ripe. Paul was agitated and offended over these small things, and he viewed them as an affront against his own personal comfort. She popped a mint candy, her curly orange hair accentuating the dark mascara of her moonish face and her exorbitant bustline.
Frequently, there were stories of attractive and isolated coworkers evolving their relationships into love affairs and romances because connection happens by proximity far more often than by discovery. Because of this, or perhaps for more complicated reasons, Paul never pursued Lacy further, even though he had many opportunities–many many opportunities.
Paul unlocked the door to his office and nearly fainted into his swivel chair, a cold sweat beading his face as the door closed slowly behind him.
At dinnertime he ate a Salisbury steak with his mouth of horrid bones. He preferred to ingest soft foods, skipping past the teeth. Oatmeal, mashed potatoes, applesauce, you name it. Brushing his teeth at night also proved itself to be an immense task and a nuisance. Many times he broke down in the weakness of his heart, unable to continue with foaming the toothpaste across his gums, falling to the bathroom floor, unable, for the moment, to continue.
Dr. Maslow went through hell to get his degree.
Most human beings are born with bones inside their mouth that they use to grind, to clack and to tear. This process of tearing is referred to as chewing, and is a common step in between the act of foraging and the act of eating.
One time, Paul was walking along the street when he felt a discomfort in his shoe. He continued walking, but there it was with each step. He eventually was forced to stop — the discomfort being too much (he was limping to avoid stepping on the discomfort) — to remove the rock or whatever other foreign substance was plaguing the comfort of his foot. He took a seat at a nearby bench and removed his shoe and reached into the sock to get ahold of whichever substance was affecting his precious comfort. A few people passed by, staring, but he was too old now and with too little self-respect to care. He pulled out the substance.
“What,” he said, holding it in his thumb, a small white shard.
Holding the substance between his fingers, he walked to the office, his legs wavering under the force of gravity, a knot in his throat. He was breathing regularly, but it wasn’t giving him oxygen.
“Hm?” said Nancy. She was a doctorate and wanted to be a dentist at Maslow’s clinic, and he was teaching her the tricks of the trade.
“Can I tell you something?”
She was jolted with surprise. “Sure,” she said, but obviously with hesitance. Mostly because of the way he said it, which implied that it was confessional.
He learned that there are things you can confide to no man or woman. People don’t want to hear your deep and dark secrets. No. There are high-paying professions devoted to hearing you get those thoughts off your chest and acting like they are listening only reluctantly, to empty those skeletons from your closet. But there’s even limitations to what you can tell a psychiatrist before you get placed in a psychiatric ward, before police are notified. Telling a shrink that you’re suicidal, for instance, is a no-no. Now remember the whole spectrum of emotions and atrocities, and think of those that are even worse than self-harm which can’t in confidence be confided to a psychiatrist, a person being paid for the services of listening. For a much greater fee they will need than that to hear the worse confessions. And the evils of the human mind grow up and up from $10 to $1,000 to $10,000 and so on — until it’s either paying a person to behave like a brick wall while you whisper universal horrors to them, or you join the Church and forget all evidence of your existence.
“I feel like I’m traveling in circles,” Paul said.
The extreme metaphysical gravity lessened.
Relieved, Nancy exhaled deeply and said, “Everyone feels that way.”
“Listen, I’ve gotta go,” she said. “See you tomorrow, boss.” And she clocked out. One day she would take over Paul’s role. But not soon enough.
Thirty-two calcified bones, misshapen and grimacing. But someday the deeper light would shine through from the tonsils. He hoped.
Dentures disgusted him to no end. The way they clacked and moved. He remembered watching a film as a young boy where an old man’s dentures were knocked out of his mouth and fell to the ground, clacking, of their own accord, as if they were animate, as if they were alive. When watching as a child — and his playmates laughed on all ends of the couch — he felt a sense of repulsion rising in him. That repulsion would only rise to a boiling point, giving him the impetus to snap, after already achieving his doctoral and working a dozen years as a dentist. It happened during a root canal. He was drilling the pulp of his patient’s tooth when he was suddenly overwhelmed with disgust. It snapped within, and the teeth in the man’s mouth both frightened and disgusted him. Paul used the recesses of his energy to finish the job, inserting the tooth with pink, delaying hyperventilation, before wiping his hands off and telling the man, “There you go.”
“Thanks,” the man said, brushing his shirt off, slinging his jacket over his shoulder, and heading to the accountant at the front desk to pay.
Paul followed in his father’s footsteps. Dentistry was not his favorite activity but rather the easiest of the professions he could assume. Paul’s father had been a dentist and his father before that, and before that his father had been a dentist, and his great great grandfather was also probably a dentist. Paul sometimes wondered why the first ancestor of his chose to mess with people’s teeth. Back then there had been no anesthesia, so perhaps he felt a sick thrill in ripping the teeth out of his patients’ mouths. The word for this, in its appropriate German origins, is Schadenfreude, meaning “the pleasure derived by another person’s misfortune.” This might have been the reason for Paul’s greatest grandfather to have pursued the art of fixing mouths, and the cards just fell in place for sons of the family to follow in the tradition.
Paul himself didn’t rightly know, it was only a hypothesis.
He trembled within proximity of teeth.
“Sir, we have to remove his molar!”
“Don’t bother me now, Nancy!”
“You have to get over your fear!”
“Fear? Fear? Who says I have a fear?”
“We see the way you tremble every time you see teeth! A person can’t even smile around you without you clamoring about nervously!”
“Yeah, I’m afraid of teeth. There! I said it! What more do you want from me?”
The patient drooled, doped up on Novocaine.
“So why did you choose to become a dentist?”
“Because sometimes what we do in this world was decided for us before we were given a say in the matter!”
At this, Nancy shut up.
The fear of teeth had been a progressive acquisition. Paul wasn’t born with a fear of teeth, neither had the horror of teeth come to him all at once. This thing was a steady progress into becoming the thing that gave him nightmares, that put fear in his heart.
There are people with fossilized bones hidden in the recesses of their faces. And they have muscles that can clench and grind material to masticate, similar to the behaviors of sheep, wolves, lambs.
Paul knew the term well, the concept for the fear of dentists. It was called “odontophobia.” But he didn’t feel like his predicament could be that simple, because he didn’t believe that he felt “fear” in the traditional sense.
But then again maybe he did. He didn’t rightly know.
He was buying groceries when he saw her in the bread aisle.
“That you, Paul?”
“Hey, yes. How are you?”
“Oh, you know. Good.”
“You’re having an identity crisis,” she suddenly said, smiling mischievously.
Paul stuttered, confused. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“The fact that you are afraid of doing the job that was intended of you. This is why you were put on this earth, isn’t it?”
“Listen. I know everything about dentistry there is to know…”
“So? You perform a function.”
“But it isn’t fulfilling…”
“Why are you treating me like this?”
“Well, your father clearly didn’t raise a man.”
“HAHAHA! See? You were even hesitant and frightened when you said that. Your eyes betray you.”
He returned the shopping cart and drove home with no food.
Once, as a child, when his baby teeth were loosening from the root and falling out, the adults told him that something larger and greater was to grow in its place.
The intuitive powers that he had once used for observation were decaying, and his faculties of reason had been lost. The future had once been a valley wide open and available for every possibility; somewhere along the line the hope which shone through the cracks in his cave with piercing rock intravenously had gone; the light had faded; and the ensuing result was
“Disillusionment,” his therapist said.
“Oh God, they have a word for it?”
“They have a word for just about anything if you look for it.”
“When I was in college, I tried reading the Dictionary.”
“You must have had a lot of free time,” she laughed.
“I only made it to ‘C.’”
She paused, “That’s three letters more than most people.”
“But twenty-three fewer than some.”
She wrote something down in her notebook.
Hills of teeth. Tooth transplants. Plastic teeth. The compassion was gone. He sat up at the foot of the bed while his wife leaned back, typing away on a laptop. “I think I’m gonna quit,” he said.
“What?” she responded, directing her attention to him.
“I think I’m gonna quit,” he repeated.
“This is crazy talk,” she said, closing the computer. “You’re losing your mind. You’re sleep-deprived.” She put her hand to his forehead. “You’re warm. You must be running a fever. I’ll call in and we’ll cancel your appointments. That protégé of yours, whatshername, Nancy, must know how to hold her own by now. Maybe it’s time for a vacation.”
“No, I’m not talking a temporary thing.”
“Why? What’s wrong? Is Lacy causing havoc again?”
“It’s not that.”
“Well,” Susan said, throwing up her arms in exasperation, “what is it then?”
“I’m afraid,” Paul said. And Susan’s eyes bulged.
“Y-you’re afraid?” she said. Susan had never seen this side of her husband before — his insecure side. She was always used to his confident behaviour, spartan and stoic, yet this revelation that, even he, as able-bodied-seeming and knowledgeable a creature as he, with what’d often seemed like all the security in the world, was still deep down a wavering, quavering mess whose own irrational fears dictated his day-to-day life, frightened her. He was nothing like the tools she saw on the racks in his clinic, but was an unconstant mass of insecurity just like the rest of us. He wasn’t the Pez dispenser of affection which she had dreamed of as a young girl, the Prince Charming, nor was he a robot of tranquility whose life was purely on the autonomic pursuit of duty, as the military officers in war movies. But he was human. And after five years of marriage, where he’d barely showed a glimpse of error or accident, this sudden change of character struck fear into her heart, scared Susan, to the point where she didn’t know what to do or say. “What,” she mustered, “what will you do instead?”
Paul thought about it long and hard, folding his brow. “I don’t know,” he said at long last, the tension so thick in the air it was stifling, making it hard to breathe.
She jumped in a startle, as if a firecracker had gone off in her ear. “So what do we do then?” she asked, on the verge of tears. “I guess that means I’ll have to start working overtime while you find a new job that pays even half the salary you’re making now! And we won’t be able to pay off the mortgage while you’re trying to work your way up. You won’t be in a good paying position for three years max! So we can pay the rent and buy food–What will I tell Becca? That I can’t afford Girl’s Night any more because my husband is afraid of work? We can’t afford the standard of living here if you don’t bite down. Do you want us to live in a goddamn trailer?”
“I don’t know,” he said. And the room was filled with silence. The silence in the room was uncharacteristic. The room was usually not silent.
When Paul turned back, Sharon was a pillar of teeth.
Isaac Birchmier was raised in Helena, Montana and studied at the Universities of Montana and Cork. He has been published or is forthcoming in Calliope on the Web, The Oval, theEEEL, The Commonline Journal, 101 Words, cattails, Theme of Absence, Sidereal Journal, The Lunaris Review, Eternal Remedy, Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, among others. Find his website here and his tweets here.