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Salvatore Difalco lives in Toronto.

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The Teeth  

Salvatore Difalco

Arto awoke to discover that his upper two front teeth had fallen out during the night. His tongue flicked through the fresh gap, touching the torn gum. He could taste blood. He sat up in his bed, shaking off the cobwebs. He felt the gap with his fingers. What the fuck? He searched around for the teeth, turning aside the sheets and flipping over his pillow. There they were, under the pillow, resting in little blots of blood, his two front teeth.

He shut his eyes to gather his senses. Could this be happening? Was he still asleep? His tongue probed the fleshy gap in his smile line. It felt real enough. He slapped his thigh sharply. The stinging skin confirmed he was awake. You can’t slap yourself in your sleep and feel that.

Two questions immediately came to Arto’s mind. One, who did this to him? And two, why did they place the teeth under the pillow? Was it some kind of joke? You know, the bizarro Tooth Fairy had come?

His eyes darted round the room. The closet door was ajar. He jumped from his bed and swung it open. Nothing but clothes on hangers and shoeboxes. He froze and listened. He could hear shuffling upstairs, but that was just Old Man Winks. He was always moving around up there. Dementia. For a moment Arto wondered if Old Man Winks had committed this indecency, but recalling how the guy could barely tie his shoes, he likely lacked the manual dexterity to yank teeth.

Arto returned to the bed and reluctantly picked up the teeth. He tried not to look at them, but couldn’t help himself. Solid, but badly stained from all the coffee, blood still reddened their roots. How had he not awakened during the extraction? Had he been drugged? He felt no chemical aftereffects. Very strange. Why would someone do this fucked-up thing to him? Why? He wrapped the teeth in a paper tissue, wondering if a dentist could somehow reinsert them. They had techniques these days, technologies. It would cost a bundle, for certain. But he didn’t have a bundle. Living in a rooming house as Arto did evidenced a degree of penury, if not complete degeneration. You don’t wind up in a rooming house because things are going peachy for you.

Up until now, Arto had not felt fear, just confusion, and perhaps anger. But when he started thinking about how monstrous this act was, how vile, and also how peculiar—cold fingers of fear gripped his neck.

He quickly dressed, pocketed the wrapped teeth, and stopped in the hall to use the bathroom shared with the other two residents on his floor, Max the ex-junky, a shell of a man, and Luther, a middle-aged masturbator, whose perverse habit had cost him his job as a stock broker. Neither seemed a likely suspect.

And neither men had yet attended to their morning evacuations. The bathroom exuded a nice Mr. Clean freshness that in a small way mollified Arto. That is, until he saw his gap-toothed visage in the bathroom mirror. His knees buckled and he gripped the edges of the sink to keep from falling to the floor. He shut his eyes and drew deep breaths. Who could have done this to me? he thought. Who would want me took like this?

He turned the tap, drank some water and swished it around his mouth. He spit it out along with little clots of blood. Fucking butchers, he thought.

He staggered down the stairs to the first floor. The kitchen, or mess hall, as some residents called it, was located in the back, with a patio opening out to an ugly rock garden. Someone was usually in there making coffee or munching on cereal or toast. A cook from the ministry prepared lunches and dinners. But for breakfast the men were on their own; and since most of them rose late, mornings never saw the kitchen crowded.

Hank, an obese ex-cop with Elvis sideburns and a suicidal gambling addiction, sat in the kitchen on this morning—granny-glasses perched on his bulbous nose—studying pink racing forms. A white mug with the logo Monkey Monkey steamed at his elbow; a plate with several oatmeal cookies rested by the forms. Hank once explained to Arto that in gambling, Monkey Monkey is the nickname for picture cards. The original word was Monarchy, referring to face cards—kings, queens and knaves—but Monarchy morphed into Monkey.

“Good morning,” Hank said without looking up from his forms.

“Hank, Hank, you gotta help me,” Arto said, rushing to his side.

Hank looked up from his forms and studied Arto over the frames of his glasses. “What the hell happened to you?”

“You won’t believe this. Someone pulled out my two front teeth!” He peeled back his upper lip.

Hank reared his head and raised his plump hand, appalled. “Jesus, man. Looks like you stopped a hockey puck.”

“You gotta help me, Hank. Someone did this. I have no idea who or why.”

Hank smiled. His incisors were gold, an affectation that never ceased to annoy Arto. Whenever Hank smiled the room seemed to tilt a little.

“You in deep with a loan shark?” Hank quipped, familiar with the terrain.

“I’d know about that, wouldn’t I? Whoever did this must have drugged me because I felt nothing.”

Hank nodded. “That’s some fucked-up shit, brother.”

“Wanna come and inspect the crime scene?”

“Now why the fuck would I do that?”

“You’re an ex-cop, Hank.”

“What is about the ‘ex’ you’re not getting?”

“I’m just saying. I feel stupid calling the real cops for something like this. What do I say, that someone came in the night and yanked my two front teeth without me noticing? Don’t look at me like that, Hank. I haven’t touched anything for 369 days and eight hours, you know that. Fuck, you were at the meeting last week when they gave me my plaque.”

“Yeah, they gave you a plaque. They gave me one, too.”

“But Hank, no one pulled your fucking teeth out.”

“You’re gonna have to call Spencer about this.”

“Fuck Spencer, he’ll think I’ve been using.”

“Demand a blood test.”

“Blood test! I’m clean, man. You’ve been here as long as I have. Not once, not once have I stepped out of line.”

Hank smiled, his incisors reflecting sunlight shining in through the kitchen window. Arto felt a buzzing in is ears, as of bees.

“Arto, buddy. You’re getting all bent out of shape. Now let me tell you something, and don’t take it the wrong way. But, frankly, you’re mistaken if you think for a second that I keep tabs on or give a rat’s ass what you or anyone else is doing in this shit-hole.”

“That’s harsh, Hank.”

“Call Spencer, or better yet, call the Director.”

“Come on, man.”

Hank wasn’t taking this seriously. He selected a cookie from the plate, slid it entirely into his mouth, and returned to the racing forms, blubbery jowls fluttering. Arto removed the tissue from his pocket, unwrapped his teeth and thrust them under Hank’s nose. Hank let out a guttural grunt and fell back so hard his chair tipped over and the great bulk of him landed upended on the floor still firmly lodged in the chair.

“Help me,” he groaned.

Arto stood up reflexively to help the big man, but froze at the least second.

“Help me, you sonofabitch.”

“What are you gonna do if I don’t, punch my teeth out?”

“Help me up!”

“Call Spencer, or better yet, the Director.”

Arto snatched his teeth and left. He regretted approaching Hank with this problem. Now he had to formulate a game plan. He considered canvassing the rooming house residents to ask if they’d seen anything untoward during the night. Of course, some of the younger residents weren’t beyond shenanigans. Yogi, the redheaded junky came to mind, or his pal Felix, a known child molester. They were quite capable of terrible doings. But Arto’s dealings with them had been issueless. He’d given them no motive for such a heinous act.

Arto exited the rooming house with no clear plan in mind. He considered visiting the police, but they’d surely laugh him off once they knew his history, and where he resided. Men inhabiting such places often fell victim to bizarre and violent acts. Madmen, addicts, subversives, pederasts, what do you expect from the dregs of society? A few inexplicably missing teeth was comical. He’d lighten their day with his tale, bring smiles to their faces.

He decided that a walk-in dental clinic was his best recourse, though he’d never dealt with one and didn’t know how he’d pay for such a thing. He had a hundred dollars to his name, if that, and wouldn’t have a penny more until month’s end. His social benefits card allowed for some dental coverage, but not this. The teeth had been unrooted. He could still taste blood.

As he walked to the plaza on the other side of the apartment complex flanking the rooming house, the cold October air punched his palate, the pain so excruciating he held a hand to his mouth. When he reached the plaza he thought he’d faint from the pain. He located a dental clinic next to a bargain shoe shop. The place was packed. He wondered for a moment if everyone had been assaulted by a demented Tooth Fairy during the night. It would have given him some relief to know he’d not been the only victim.

He approached the reception desk and the angular, ear-phoned receptionist, held up a finger while she dealt with a client on the telephone.

“Yes, Mr. Mercer, we can clean your teeth, but only if you pay cash. That’s right, cash only. Your last cheque bounced, Mr. Mercer. Insufficient funds. It’s just company policy. Yes. That’s right, Mr. Mercer. You have a good day now.”

The receptionist cued Arto to tell his story.

He opened his hand, flattened out his palm, and revealed the teeth.

The receptionist recoiled.

“Sorry about that,” he said. “It’s not what you think. I wasn’t in a fight or anything. I woke up and the teeth—someone pulled them out during the night. I found them under my pillow.”

The receptionist unplugged her head-set and rushed off to the back. Arto thought to summon security, if they had such a thing in this clinic—but she returned moments later with a tall silver-haired man in dentist’s whites.

“I’m Dr. Fennel,” he said. “How can we help you today?”

“Well, like I told her, I lost my two front teeth during the night...”

“You’ll have to schedule an appointment with our denturist to discuss replacements.”

“But I have the teeth with me.” Arto opened his hand.

“Uh, yes well. There’s nothing we can do with them now.”

“You can’t, like, try to put them back in?”

“As I said, sir, you’d best talk to the denturist about that, and Ms. Bellows here can schedule a consultation for you.”

“Should I put them in milk or something till I do?”

“Talk to the denturist. And by the way, our rates are posted on the wall there. Study them closely.”

Arto glanced over the tables and figures. They made no sense to him. He suffered from undiagnosed dyslexia. He felt crushed. He walked out of the crowded clinic without booking the consultation. He held his hand to his mouth as he rushed back to the rooming house.

Once there, he went into the kitchen and poured himself a glass of milk. He put his teeth in the milk. He’d read somewhere that putting teeth in milk preserves them. Hockey players often resorted to that trick. He covered the glass with a square of aluminum foil and put the glass in the fridge behind the condiments. He thought of affixing tape to it with his name written on, but figured no one would bother with a covered glass of milk set so far back in the fridge.

He ran into Hank in the hall. He thought Hank might do something violent and was prepared to kick him in the nuts the moment he tried anything.

“I’m pissed at you,” Hank said, hobbling. “First you freak me out, then you abandon me.”

“Sorry Hank, I was out of my head.”

“Better now?”

“Not much. It’s gonna cost me thousands to get the teeth fixed.”

“That sucks. That really sucks. Almost broke my hip.”

“You want me to feel guilty for that? What kinda cop were you anyway?”

Hank smiled. The room tilted eastward.

Disgusted, Arto went up the stairs to his room. He sat at his desk and took out a notebook. He wanted to draw up a list of possible suspects and motives for the act. But after jotting a few names, he grew bored with the exercise. He had enemies, sure, everyone has enemies, but he found it impossible to believe that someone hated him enough to come in the night and by some weird stealth pull out his front teeth. It made no sense. Would it ever?

His tongue felt the flap of flesh where his teeth had been rooted. He could still taste blood. Maybe a salt rinse would help. Salt always helps with this shit. And the teeth were in milk, safe for now. He had to come up with a plan to get enough cash to put back the teeth in his mouth or have them replaced altogether with implants. But this was altogether unrealistic.

Arto wept. He seldom wept. He’d wept when he went off the opioids. He thought he might die. But he got through it. He chewed a lot of gum and drank barrels of coffee, but he got through it. He had been clean for 369 and a half days. An achievement. He had a plaque. He wept full-bodied now. He’d never thought, a few years back, when he was working and making money, happy with his girlfriend, happy with life, and doing his drugs without getting into trouble, that he’d wind up in a rooming house, broke and fucking toothless, but here he was.

He crawled into bed and cried himself to sleep, something he hadn’t done since he was a child.

He slept through dinner and slept through the night. His sleep was heavy and dreamless. It may have been the most restful sleep he ever had. He awoke to the trilling of birds and a lovely spring buzz in the air. For a moment he considered that it had all been a crazy dream, losing the teeth. And that even Hank and the rooming house had been a dream. But when his tongue jabbed forward and felt the fleshy gap, his heart sank doubly. This was his room. This was his reality. There was no escaping it.

He dressed and hit the bathroom. It smelled peculiar, fleshy. Arto did his business and washed up, avoiding his reflection. He didn’t need to be reminded. Then he heard a commotion coming from downstairs. He dried off and headed out. Max the ex-junky happened by, moving like a zombie.

“What’s going on?” Arto asked him.

“Dunno,” Max drawled, eyes closing and opening. “Going down to check.”

Old Man Winks was already shuffling down the stairs, his long white hair trailing behind him like a veil.

Voices issued below. One of them sounded like Hank. He could holler pretty good. Arto followed Old Man Winks and Max downstairs and back into the kitchen. Hank and Yogi huddled around someone on the floor. Arto caught a glimpse of the Nike Jokers and knew it was Felix.

“What happened?” he cried.

“Something in his windpipe,” Hank said.

“He’s, like, choking to death,” Yogi said.

“Get him up and do the Heimlich,” Old Man Winks said.

“We tried,” Hank said. “We fucking tried.”

“I think Hank broke his ribs,” Yogi said.

“Aw, he’s dying guys,” Hank bawled. “He’s dying.”

“Call 911,” Yogi said.

No one moved.

Arto spotted a glass on the counter. No, he thought, not possible. His eyes searched for the aluminum foil and when he didn’t see it he gasped with relief. As Hank and Yogi tried to perform CPR on Felix, Arto went to the fridge and opened it. He pushed aside the condiments and stopped.

The glass was missing. Arto spotted something glittering on the floor. His heart jumped: the aluminum foil. Felix, that fucking idiot, had drank the milk in Arto’s glass, and was probably choking to death on his teeth. He looked over at Felix, convulsing on the floor. While Hank massaged his heart, Yogi stood by counting down like a boxing referee.

Arto lunged.

“What’re you doing?” Hank cried.

Yogi straightened up.

“He’s got my teeth!” cried Arto, grabbing Felix by the throat. “He’s got my fucking teeth!”

If Felix wasn’t dead when Arto put hands to him, he certainly was when Arto let go—his throat and chest clawed open as though a wild horned animal had gored him. The others grabbed Arto, screaming at the top of his lungs, an action made grotesque by the missing teeth.

They waited for the cops and the ambulance. Hank used his bulk to restrain Arto, while the others tied him to a chair. He continued crying, “He’s got my fucking teeth! He’s got my fucking teeth!” Finally they stuffed a cloth in his mouth to silence him.

And no one except Hank knew what the hell Arto was raving about. The teeth, the teeth, the fucking teeth. One fucking stooge had put them in the milk. And the other stooge had swallowed them. Hysterical. What were the odds of that? You couldn’t make this shit up, Hank thought. He also thought it best to keep mum on the subject. Talk about killing two birds with one stone.

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