portion of the artwork for Jason Primm's short story

Teeth
Jason Primm

It was a cool day for Florida, 65 degrees with a bright blue sky. A cold front was coming in and the morning news was full of worried farmers standing beside orange trees. Joshua dug around in his closet and found a jacket. He put on sunglasses and looked at himself in the mirror. He turned his collar up, and it made him feel invisible and young. The white coats he wore at his dentist office did the opposite. They made him feel like he was the one being examined.

His 10-year-old Honda Accord started on the second try. He parked his car behind the Oriental Spa and walked around to the front door. He rang the doorbell and smiled at the security camera so that Lou could get a good look at his face. The door buzzed, and Joshua pushed in and went up the stairs to the lobby.

“Hi, Lou.”

“Hi, Dr. Frye. Not many of the girls are around. May will be up in a second. That OK?”

“Perfect.”

“Have a seat. Do you want anything while you wait?”

In the evenings, Joshua would sometimes have a whiskey before he want back with May. Lou sold other more exotic things, but Joshua stuck with the simple stuff.

“Not today. I’m going to the office after this,” Joshua said.

“How about a coffee?”

“Sounds good.”

Joshua settled on the black leather couch with the coffee and a three-month-old New Yorker that he had taken from his waiting room. He came to the Oriental Spa for massages about three times a week. He was determined not to fall in love again, not to marry again. He wanted his desire to be like the sharks in the aquarium downtown. They were fed so much that they had no appetite. They ignored the other fish.

Six months ago, his wife left him for a patient. Not because the guy was a patient. He just happened to be one. He was in Joshua’s dentist chair a lot in the months before he began sleeping with his wife. All cosmetic work. When Joshua was done with him, he could have been a newscaster.

May came in. She yawned. She was a short Korean woman with big breasts that she carried around with the humor of Dolly Parton. She was wearing a green kimono, the uniform of the establishment. She took his hand and led him back to the small room that she was working out of. The bed was a single, and a wooden stool was sitting next to it.

“Take your clothes off, Joshua. I’ll be right back.”

Joshua stepped out of his shoes. He took his clothes off and made a neat packet on top of his shoes. She came back in and pulled the chain on the door. She sat on the stool and switched on the pink radio on the nightstand. She took off the kimono, put her breasts in his face, and used her hand on him. When he was hard, she sat up straighter and found the rhythm of the pop music. Nothing was happening. May gave him a look of pity and from experience he knew in another minute that the look would turn to exasperation that he didn’t have his mind right.

He liked May. It was mostly May he saw in the early afternoons when the young crack-thin girls were still sleeping off the night before. He was sorry that he wasn’t making it easy. He admired her muscular forearm and her resolve as she kept switching up the angles. Finally, he put his hand over her hand to tell her to stop, that it wasn’t going to work.

“Scoot over,” she said. She moved next to him and grabbed the remote. She switched the porn that had been playing silently to Green Acres and gave a snorty laugh when the farmer climbed the light pole to answer the phone.

“I want to see a real farm,” she said.

“I used to go to my grandparents’ farm in Georgia when I was a kid.”

“Was it like the TV show?”

“No. The house was old, but everything worked. They had a pet crow and if I got too close, it would swoop down at my head, and my grandmother would run out of the house with a broom to chase the bird away.”

“That’s like the show.”

“Maybe.”

He thought about those Sunday mornings when he and his grandparents would get in the truck and drive to a small white church at the end of a red dirt road and the boring scary talk and the nasally singing about the cross.

He looked down at May’s breasts and her small black panties. This would be hard to explain. Had his grandparents ever met a Korean? He felt stirrings again. The massage would work now, but it was too late. He had to go to work. On Mondays, he opened the office late. The van from the old folks home came at 2, and he saw them until 6 p.m.

His dental practice consisted mostly of older patients. Some were retirees dressed for a perpetual game of golf in the Florida sun, and some were nursing home patients in a state of bewilderment. Those who couldn’t or wouldn’t walk were wheeled from the van by large distracted attendants. Joshua sometimes wondered what the attendants told the patients, what happy lie got them out of the door of the nursing home. The look on their faces when they realized it was a dentist office was betrayal. Joshua understood. He did more extractions than root canals. He took more teeth than he saved.

He put his clothes back on. May was watching the next episode of Green Acres. He placed her money on the nightstand, and May absentmindedly patted his hand to say thank you. It wasn’t so different from the last few years of his marriage.

He reached into his pockets to make sure that he had everything and felt the tooth. He had forgotten all about it. It had belonged to a friend of his father’s, Mr. Schwartz. As a service, when patients had gold fillings in teeth that were extracted, Joshua would buy the teeth. He paid them 50 dollars a tooth, about half the value of the gold. Otherwise, the patient would be left to figure out how to get the gold out of the tooth and sell it. While it sounded monstrous, something from a concentration camp, most dental practices offered a version of this service. He got the idea from an article in a dental trade magazine titled, “Are You Ignoring a Revenue Stream?”

He started bringing the teeth home when he realized that it was easier to smash the tooth with a hammer than it was to scrape the gold out. He would put the gold in a ziplock bag and drive to the Gold by the Inch store in the mall. He didn’t get a good rate, but he wasn’t asked where he got the gold. He made about 200 dollars a month doing this. One day, the guy from the gold store came into Joshua’s office.

The guy didn’t recognize Joshua until he was sitting in the chair. Joshua could see the fear come across his face when they were shaking hands.

Joshua tried to make the patient feel at ease. “How’s business at the mall?”

“Fine,” he said, gripping the sides of the chair.

“What brings you in?”

Joshua felt bad. The patient didn’t want to say what was wrong. He opened his mouth and pointed to the back left corner. In the end, it wouldn’t have mattered whether he could speak or not. The black hole in the top of his wisdom tooth looked like the site of a small explosion. The patient grimaced when Joshua tapped the top of the tooth to see if there was anything to be saved.

Joshua straightened up, turned off the examination light, and used the pedal on the floor to raise the patient’s seat.

“It’s an advanced cavity. It hurts because the nerves in the tooth are dying. The good news is that it’s a wisdom tooth that should’ve been taken out when you were a teenager. The tooth needs to be extracted. I can do it now or you can make an appointment for later.”

The patient said that he would make an appointment, but he didn’t stop at the front desk. He never came back to the office, and Joshua never went back to the mall.

After that incident, he kept the teeth that he brought home in a desk drawer that he had emptied of flashlights and dried-up pens and corroded batteries. At first he meant to do something about the teeth, take the gold to another mall in the next town over. But he started to like having them in the drawer. Sometimes wide eyed with anxiety in the early morning when he should be sleeping, he opened the drawer and sank his hand into the teeth. If a patient ever saw this, if anyone ever found out about this odd collection, his life as a dentist would be over. That possible calamity and its finality calmed him down. It made his current problems seem small. He took to keeping a tooth in his pocket like one might keep a lucky coin or a rabbit’s foot.

His wife would have never let a drawer full of teeth come into her house. Before she left, Joshua would have said that your wife leaving you for another man was one of the worst things that could happen to you. Browsing at Barnes & Noble, he saw that there was a whole alphabet of terrible things to buy self-help books about. Joshua made it to chapter three in the book he bought. The book recommended that he make a list of the things that he needed. Make the list as small as you can, the book cautioned. He came up with three things: shelter, food, and sex.

For shelter, he chose a two-bedroom apartment just off the beach. It was cheap, a place that he could have afforded when he was single. There was a Mexican restaurant that made good margaritas, half a block away, with a patio facing the water. The extra bedroom was for his daughter when she came home from college, but she never slept there. She stayed with his wife in their old house.

Joshua let his wife have the house without an argument. A month after she left, he found his place on Craigslist. She had been staying at her boyfriend’s condo. Joshua moved out, and she moved back in.

He’d had some happy years in the house, but he’d never liked the house itself. It was in a neighborhood built around a golf course, and all the houses looked the same, ridiculously tall front doors in between ornamental Doric columns. The house was large and flimsy, a meringue of dry wall and ambition. It was too big a house to be lonely in, married or single. He didn’t know how she could stand it.

When he got to the office that afternoon, there were four patients. Three of them were not aware of their surroundings. This is waiting for us all, he thought. The attendant who wheeled them in was impatient for Joshua to sign the papers so he could go back to the bus and smoke a cigarette.

Joshua signed off and his assistant led the first terrified soul back to the examination room. Something seemed familiar about him, and he looked again at the name. It was Mr. Peters, his P.E. teacher from high school. He still had all his teeth. He still looked like he could run a few miles, but his eyes weren’t focused. Mr. Peters wasn’t looking at anything in the room.

“Mr. Peters,” Joshua said, “I was your student thirty years ago.”

He looked up at Joshua and, like a lamp with a shorted cord, the spark came back into his eyes for a moment. He looked scared and shook his head until his eyes went dim again. He made an engine sound by buzzing his lips to complete his escape.

Joshua took X-rays of all the patients. Their teeth, the ones that were left, were sound. He was relieved. There was nothing to do but help the hygienist with the cleanings. When they were finished with them, he walked out and whistled for the bus driver who sighed and after another minute ended his phone call and gathered the Shady Grove residents.

Joshua drove home and parked his car. Instead of going home, he walked to the Mexican restaurant and ordered a margarita. He sat at the bar on the back patio by the heater and watched the fat sly gulls that paced the sand in front of the restaurant’s deck. Off in the distance some of the fishing boats were chugging home, trailed by younger birds diving and rising. He threw a nacho on the beach, and two old birds tore it apart.

The woman at the other end of the bar raised her margarita, and Joshua raised his in a toast to loneliness. She was at the bar half the time Joshua was there. When she was in her cups, she flirted with him. She lived a few houses down, and if they were both drunk, they could be back in someone’s bedroom and finished with the act before a second thought had time to hatch. She was overweight, but judging from her dresses, she wasn’t self-conscious about it. There was half a tattoo of a mermaid visible on the top of her right breast.

His neighbor in the duplex, Tom, came into the restaurant and sat next to him. He ordered a margarita and lifted it toward the woman, and she nodded. A flash of jealously went through Joshua, but he dismissed it. He didn’t even know her name.

“Hey, I’ve got some chicken. I’m going to fire up the hibachi,” Tom said.

Joshua liked hanging out with Tom. He usually had dope.

“Good, I’m starving.”

When they were done with their drinks, they walked back to the duplex. Tom was a tax lawyer for hippies. He advised people who tried to live off the grid by bartering. He helped startups that made organic dog biscuits. He still had his college records and three-foot-tall speakers on either side of his living room. Tom put on an Electric Light Orchestra album and passed him a pipe. They sat dreamily through an 11-minute song before Tom sprang up, crying, “The chicken!”

Tom opened the windows so the music would reach the back deck, and they followed it out.

“Shit, it’s cold,” Joshua said.

“Hold on.”

Tom poured the coals in and squirted the lighter fluid. When he dropped the match, he hopped back from the six-foot-high rush of flame and the wave of heat.

“How’s that?”

“Better check your eyebrows,” Joshua said.

Tom placed the chicken breasts on the grill.

“One song per side.”

The chicken was only a little burned.

With his mouth half full and barbecue sauce on the corners, Tom said, “Your wife was here earlier.”

“Jill?”

“Yeah. How many wives do you have? She knocked on your door and waited about five minutes and knocked again like she didn’t believe you weren’t home. I let her know that you weren’t around.”

Joshua wondered what she wanted. The ink was barely dry on the divorce papers, and it went as well as that kind of thing could go. He gave her everything her lawyer wanted. It was true that she came by a few times, and he went into the bathroom and sat on the floor with a book until she went away. She left boxes on his doorstep with things he left behind: softball trophies, photo albums from before they married, books, porn. The only thing he took was his desk and his clothes.

“She said that she broke up with Robert, and that I should tell you that.”

“Shit.”

Joshua instinctively put his hand in his pocket and felt for the tooth. Jill must have finally seen through the boat and the Corvette and the condo at the marina and those glittering white teeth, he thought. Joshua imagined her boyfriend coming back for a refund on the teeth because his younger woman left him. He would tell him, I’m only responsible for your shiny new teeth, not for the words that pass through your crummy mouth.

Tom waved a hand in front of Joshua’s face. “Whoa. Where’d you go? You looked like a zombie.”

Tom had never been married, never been engaged. His relationships lasted about six months, the best part over and over again. Joshua was sorry that Tom had had to deal with the situation at all.

“Thanks.”

“For what?”

“For talking to Jill.”

“Yeah. Hey, do you want some corn?”

Tom pointed to the corner of the patio where there was a bushel of corn.

“Where’d you get that?”

“I’ve got some new clients. They’re squatters.”

“They pay in corn?”

“And weed.”

Joshua went back to his house cradling eight ears of corn.

* * *

That weekend he was back at the Oriental Spa. It was 4 in the afternoon, and May looked tired. His wife coming by had unsettled him, and this session went very quickly. She handed him a towel.

“May, something that I’ve always meant to ask you.”

“Yeah.”

“Do you find the name of this place offensive?”

“Of course,” she sighed. “Lou doesn’t see it, though. He wouldn’t know offensive from an alligator if it was biting his ass.”

“You’re getting good with the idioms.”

“The what?”

“Never mind.”

“I’m just kidding. I get them from Netflix.”

“You ever want to see me out of here? Go to the movies, May?”

“You don’t mean that, Joshua. You could get me in trouble with Lou by asking.”

“OK. It’s just that I’ve wanted to go to the movies lately.”

“So?”

“Feels weird by myself.”

Joshua put the towel over himself. Mentioning the outside world made him self-conscious. He noticed May felt it, too. She put a robe on, and Joshua was mad at himself for asking her out.

May shook her head and wagged her finger at him. “What’s wrong with you? Are you on pills? You never acted like this before.”

“It’s my ex. She broke up with her boyfriend. She’s calling me.”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“What?”

“You want a distraction.”

“Maybe.”

“Just so you know, I won’t be doing this much longer. I’m graduating in August. I’m going to be a paralegal.”

“Congratulations.”

“If you see me out there, in the world, don’t act like you know me. Introduce yourself. I’m not going to remember anything about this place.”

“None of this? I like hanging out in here with you.”

“That’s why I’m telling you.”

Joshua slid out of bed and faced the corner to put on his pants. He had felt so comfortable there, and now he wasn’t sure if he could come back. Maybe when May leaves, he could pay for one of the skinny girls. But they were too close in age to his daughter. It took too much of Lou’s whiskey to go back to the little room with them. May had a cleaning scheduled in October. He wondered if she would show up. He knew she wouldn’t. The sadness of this thought surprised him.

When he walked to his car, he saw his ex-wife sitting in the Dunkin’ Donuts shop next door. She was dressed in running gear and her long brown hair was in a ponytail. She had gotten into shape so as not to clash with her ex-boyfriend’s boats and cars. Her mouth was open, and she was about to bite into a Boston Kreme donut, her stress food of choice. Instead her mouth closed on the amazement of seeing him exit the massage parlor and opened again to say something that he would not be able to hear through the plate-glass window and realizing that, she said nothing, but her mouth stayed open, letting more amazement out. She held up her hand. She wanted to stop him. He sped up. He gave a jaunty wave, a “so sorry to see you at this moment when I am compelled to hurry off to another location for something already arranged before I knew that you would be placed here in my path” wave. Joshua had pulled into the trickle of Saturday afternoon traffic by the time she opened the door of the donut shop.

He wasn’t sure where he was going. Seeing his wife had pushed the slight hunger he’d felt at the Spa to a profound level. He wanted a feast. Then, he knew. He would drive to the Kapok Tree in Clearwater and have a steak. He used to go to the restaurant with his parents when he was a kid. The hangdog expression his father wore like stubble disappeared when he ordered his Löwenbräu and cut into the two-inch-thick filet mignon. Joshua ordered spaghetti or chicken fingers or hamburgers from the kid’s menu, but when his dad got halfway through, he would spear a piece of steak with his fork and hold it out for him.

“Joshua, this is what it’s all about.”

Joshua stopped for gas. He bought a soda and a can of Pringles for the drive. He stayed on the back roads. His phone beeped five times, texts from Jill, he guessed, wanting to know how far he had sunk. He put on the music of the masses, Beach Jamz 109. I’m just like you, he thought, cheerfully nodding at the other drivers. I’m normal. He noted the massage parlors on the edge of the small towns, even sadder looking than the Oriental Spa. He took old Highway 11, the road of his childhood, everyone’s road until the interstate. At the ocean, the road went from two lanes to one and veered south. The restaurant was right before the bridge to the island.

He got out of his car, brushed the chip crumbs from his lap, and looked at the abandoned parking lot. There was a chain-link fence around the restaurant and a painted wooden sign thanking their customers for a wonderful 65 years. The ancient tree rose over it all.

“Shit, Dad. No steak,” he said.

He took his dad to the Kapok Tree before he put him into the home for good. His dad had mixed the decades up and thought that Joshua was home from college.

“Your mom, your mom, I can’t believe she’s missing this,” his dad repeated. “Where is she? We have to order.”

He had forgotten that she was dead.

Two years ago, his mom died in January, and his dad died in June. And then his father-in-law died over the July Fourth weekend, and his mother-in-law died the weekend before Thanksgiving. The whole generation walked off the end of the pier, almost holding hands. He held up his phone and spoke slowly, enunciating every syllable, “Nearest bacon-wrapped shrimp.”

“There are three restaurants near you serving bacon-wrapped shrimp.”

He liked it when his phone told him what to do. He liked the voice, female, an engineered warmth. All the need and fear and ego of human emotion programmed into a pleasant helpfulness. It will never be wrong. It will never use its rightness as a weapon. It will never be sad. It will never die. It could make anything sound bearable.

“I am leaving you.”

Your father is very ill.”

I’m ready for you now.”

Please let me know if anything hurts.”

I lost it.”

Your flight is delayed.”

Calculating.”

Turn left on Highway 11.”

The road followed the beach for a while. He heard more texts, but his phone kept guiding him forward. Finally, he saw the sign, a 10-foot-tall neon shrimp lifting a top hat. He parked under its pink glow and went in.

He sat at a table with a window facing the beach, and when the waitress came, he ordered a beer. She brought it in a frosted pilsner glass. He put his head back, finished it in two tries, and ordered another one. He noticed the waitress and the bartender exchanging words. Have I become a cause for concern? Joshua wondered. He looked out the window. Normally, the beach would have been crowded, but with the cold, there were only a few people walking.

Joshua had been to this beach as a kid. His father had made a kind of scooper out of wood and chicken wire. They put it in the water and dragged it through the sand at the dip, a few feet out where the small waves broke. When the water and sand poured out, the scooper was left with shell fragments and shark teeth. The sharks had been coming to this shallow bay for hundreds of thousands of years. His dad thought he could sell the teeth. Make them into things. There was still a box of them stowed away in his wife’s garage.

When he was done with the meal and another beer and a piece of pecan pie with vanilla ice cream and chocolate syrup, he walked to the shore. He took off his shoes and put his socks inside. He rolled up his pants and stepped a few feet into the water. The water was warmer than the air outside. Bending down, he locked his fingers to make a scoop. He loosened his fingers to let the water and sand flow through. He was left with a few pieces of broken shell and five shark teeth.

He went back up the beach, until the sand was dry enough to sit on, and spread out the teeth. There was an old one worn smooth. The rest were fresh ones that came to sharp curving points. Sharks were perfect creatures, he reflected. They never needed a dentist. They kept making and shedding teeth.

He took the human tooth out of his pocket and put it in his right hand. He thought about the patient, Mr. Schwartz. Joshua remembered watching him play tennis with his father. Mr. Schwartz had been a college professor. He was one of the confused ones now. At the visit, his wife looked tired helping him into the dentist chair. Joshua didn’t want to carry the tooth anymore. He pushed it into the sand, and then he planted the five shark teeth around Mr. Schwartz’s rotten molar. He vaguely remembered a Greek myth about teeth being planted and an army rising out of the earth. He thought about Mr. Schwartz, not the old one that was his patient, or the middle-aged one that his father knew, but a younger man, surrounded by shark men, rising out of the sand, ready for battle.

Joshua heard some voices behind him and turned to see an old couple with metal detectors walking 10 feet apart across the beach. The man was laughing at something she said. They would find the tooth eventually. Joshua waved.

He held up his phone, cupping it against the wind, and asked the voice, “Where is my wife?” He closed his eyes and readied himself for whatever it was going to say.



Jason Primm’s Comments

First of all, my dentist was not an inspiration for this story. He’s a nice guy who explains all the insurance stuff to me. Adding this detail because I don’t know when I’ll next be at his mercy. Some biographical details made it into the story. I lived in Florida for a few years, and my father did make a contraption to sift the sand for shark teeth. My grandparents did have a pet crow. I do love margaritas. The drink appears in nearly all my stories. I’m deflecting now. Did I happen to mention that I’m terrified of sharks and dentists, and teeth creep me out? This fear is how I chose the main character’s profession. The Florida I chose in the story wasn’t the nice quiet neighborhood I lived in for a few years. It was a combination of the McMansions of the real estate bubble burst and the seedy-looking strip malls I see out the window when I’m driving around looking for the theme parks. Seediness was a tonal choice before the first word was written. So, at least in part, this story started out as a hit-piece on dentists. But as soon as the main character said the first thing that surprised me, I had to figure out how he got where he was.


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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 51 | Spring/Summer 2018