At under 2600 words, it’s a quick read. That’s probably the right length for a story about a man who finds teeth in unexpected places. This story has been previously published.
One day, while sweeping the corners of his kitchen, Leo found a tooth. He held it up to the light. It appeared to be a human molar. Leo didn’t fancy himself an expert on teeth, but he didn’t suppose people put metal fillings in animal teeth, and this one had a hard pool of silver in the crown.
“My God,” Leo mused. “A tooth in my own kitchen. Imagine that. Hey! Honey, come look at this!”
He waited for his wife to materialize.
“Honey!” he called at the foot of the stairs. “Rosalie, honey, where are you?” Perhaps she had closed a door somewhere. Upstairs? He clutched the small piece of bone behind his back in anticipation of surprising her.
She wasn’t in the bathroom, hallway, study or closet. Neither were any of her clothes. She wasn’t in the bedroom, either. A half-fed suitcase gaped open on the bed, spilling a checkered silk blouse onto the floor. An ivory tower of perfectly folded socks threatened to collapse, too.
There was an envelope tucked under the pillow. There was a letter inside. It began, Dear Leo, I am leaving you –
He skipped to the bottom. The last sentence was Please do not forget to feed the fish. He refolded the letter along its original creases and slipped it under the pillow.
He glanced at the small glass bowl on the table. Three flaccid goldfish gently bumped each other on the surface of the water.
His palm bore the imprint of the molar he had been carrying, He dropped the tooth in the fish tank and watched it sink to the bottom.
A tooth was a human pearl, worth saving.
The pet store was dark and humid, lit sparingly with flickering fluorescent lights. The hall was crammed with glass tanks housing reptiles and fish. Some of the tanks bubbled, and some of the tanks hummed, heated by square lamps. Sand shifted where creatures had buried themselves. The air was ripe with the smells of decaying plant matter and general animal filth. From the look of the clerk behind the counter, he seemed to be contributing as well. A yellow snake lifted its head and flapped its tongue. Leo didn’t like that. There were more elegant ways to use a tongue. He should know.
“Goldfish?” The kid at the counter barely glanced up from his phone.
“Yes.” Leo was startled his needs were so transparent. It must have been a common enough request, goldfish in a pet store. “In this color, please.” He put a sample of wallpaper on the desk.
“Uh, okay. I’ll just go see if we have any in… Princeton orange.”
“I need three.”
“We don’t have any free ones.”
“Three. Thuh-ree.” He waggled a pitchfork of fingers in the kid’s face.
“Oh, three of them. I gotcha.”
The scraggly kid used a net to scoop up three wriggling fish. They each came in their own little plastic bag.
“No, this isn’t right at all,” Leo said. He tried to explain but the kid wasn’t having any of it.
“Look, man,” he kept saying. “I don’t know what you want, but that’s what we have. Those fish. There.” He pointed to the grimy tank swarming with orange.
“I have made it perfectly clear what I want,” Leo said. “You are being decidedly unhelpful. Now, please,” he emphasized the word. “I would like to see your manager.”
The kid winced. “Uh, Lenny,” he called. “He’s here.”
A heavyset man in shorts emerged from the back. His T-shirt read, I am the man from Nantucket.
“Thank you for seeing me,” Leo began. “Do you see these fish here? I asked for Princeton orange. These are, as you can see, entirely unsatisfactory. These are more of a mango, or a melon, or a papaya. Not even that, more of an off-papaya. Now these details may seem insignificant to you, trivial perhaps, even inconsequential. But nevertheless it is a mark of pride among Princeton alumni to sport the correct kind of fish.”
“You went to Princeton?” The kid’s eyes popped.
He hadn’t, of course, been to Princeton. But it was the principle that mattered, and there was nothing wrong with a state college anyway. But he appreciated the clerk’s awe.
The manager cut in. “These are the closest match. We didn’t have anything better last week, we don’t have anything better today. And guess what, we’re not going to have anything better the next time you come in. Feel free to save yourself the trouble.” One of his bottom teeth was chipped. Leo fought the urge to disfigure him further.
The clerk had pretended not to understand his instructions. This was unforgivable. His diction was excellent; even in school his teachers had told him so. He had suffered round after round of elocution lessons – and for what? All his life he had believed that the purpose of education was to bring people together. Well, between himself and the others who had availed themselves of proper schooling. If anything, his education had formed a gulf, rather than a bridge, between himself and the lesser-learned. At the counter of that ill-staffed shop his idealism had suffered a major blow.
“Are all people from Nantucket this rude? I will not be returning,” Leo assured him.
The clerk and the manager exchanged glances.
He retreated to the bus station clutching the three plastic bubbles. “Off-papaya,” he whispered indignantly to the bus driver. He brandished a single fish in case the collective injustice of all three proved overwhelming.
“Same goes to you, buddy,” the driver said. “Okay, English now. Are you getting on or what?”
When Leo got home he set the bags of goldfish on the bathroom counter. They bobbed and threatened to roll away on the smooth surface, so he put them in the sink.
“You are not as clever as you think you are,” he said. They floated inside their plastic bubbles, flicking their delicate off-papaya fins as if they had not heard him. Perhaps they were offended. First he had disapproved of their coloration, and now this; even a fish could only bear so much. Maybe they only pretended to be deaf out of antagonism. They were as badly mannered as the pet shop clerk who had sold them.
“Hey,” Leo said. “I’m talking to you.” He jabbed at a bag.
To his astonishment, the motion was answered with a clinking sound. Not for a second did he think it came from the fish. Not even a talking fish could carry out such an accomplished act of ventriloquism. Leo knew that. He had been to college.
He found a tooth in the drain. It was an incisor.
Leo was delighted. He knew the first person he would share the news with.
“Rosalie!” he shouted. “Hey, Rosalie, honey, come look at this!”
Rosalie didn’t come.
“Honey!” he called. “I found a tooth!”
He crept upstairs, the fish in one hand and the tooth in the other. Rosalie was nowhere to be found. He entered the bedroom. Over the bowl, he opened the bags one by one and let the fish slide into the water.
On the bed there was a piece of paper poking out from under the pillows. He carefully wiped his hands on his trousers before reaching for it. It was an envelope. Inside was a letter in Rosalie’s handwriting.
It began, Dear Leo, I am leaving you because you refuse to seek help for your condition, or even acknowledge that you need help. Your denial…
Leo chuckled. What a clever prank. Rosalie could never leave him.
He would never let her.
He opened the pipes with a saw. His efforts yielded three more teeth.
It was exhilarating to be using tools again. Rosalie wouldn’t have let him, if she she had been there, but she wasn’t. So Leo, as the saying went, made hay. He thought he might even be getting a little carried away, because he kept finding the tools where he didn’t remember putting them. He’d spent half the day looking for the saw, which he had found in the guest bedroom, and then the pliers had been in the kitchen sink, of all places, coated with a sticky brown residue that smelled like iron. He had never seen rust like that before.
He would have to put the house in order before Rosalie came back.
He put the new teeth in the fishbowl, but they didn’t settle like he had envisioned. He poured the contents of the tank onto the bathroom floor. Details were important. The plastic castle needed to be at just the right angle or else the portcullis looked like a spiky frown. By the time he had rearranged the colored gravel and teeth to his satisfaction, the three goldfish had stopped flapping across the tiles.
“Damn,” Leo said. But they hadn’t been the correct color of fish anyway.
A castle of teeth, he thought, is all a mouth really is.
He was right. A mouth was a castle where battles of words were fought, an arena where each tooth played its part like a chess piece. The blunt, powerful molars were rooks, guarding the back of the arguments, and the tapered incisors were like bishops, peeking out from under the lips when the discussion grew most heated.
Teeth held a great power, and this was to disclose a person’s background. Words could be twisted, accents hidden, but the shape of a tooth was more honest. It was good to discreetly examine the mouth of a new acquaintance. However well-off they were at present, mature teeth could not hide the signs of an underprivileged childhood. After a certain age there was only so much a dentist could do to disguise you. It was just one of the lamentable facts of life.
Rosalie had good teeth. He couldn’t have married her if she didn’t. Leo had always felt a little inadequate. His own teeth were crooked. Irreparably so, at this point. He wondered if her family had ever noticed. If she had noticed. The thought was unbearable.
Fingers, by comparison, were not as important. He comforted himself with this thought as he collected the dead goldfish with his bare hands. They looked oddly deflated, as if their bubble-shaped bodies had been punctured. Leo felt a chill creep across his skin. He had never cared for goldfish, but the thought of needles unnerved him. No doctor had ever pierced his skin with any of their terrifying instruments. Only one person had, and that was the dentist he had been to before he’d married Rosalie.
He could still feel his sweat dripping onto the rubbery arms of the dentist’s chair, the drill burrowing deeper and deeper into his jaw like a hellish worm. He had read about tiny parasites that buried themselves in their host’s skin, secreting a numbing toxin so that they could not be detected. This is what he thought of when the anesthesia was injected. From the friction of the metal bit came the smell of burning bone.
He knew the power of teeth. Every second had been worth it. It had brought him Rosalie. Rosalie in sickness. Rosalie in health. Rosalie at the altar, in a dress that matched her smile, while her family sat behind her in rows and rows like a shark’s mouth.
Rosalie was gone.
Leo knew that now. The thought struck him like a physical blow, a punch that he could feel in the bones of his jaw.
It was all his fault. His fault why she had left, and his fault why she wasn’t coming back. He buried his face in his hands. The pain was brilliant.
How much more of this could he endure?
He deposited the dead fish in the toilet, and flushed.
Leo didn’t hear the first ring of the phone over the sonic roar in the toilet bowl. It was as loud as an airplane’s. He was mesmerized. Even when his heart leapt at the second ring, he couldn’t tear his eyes away from the parallel orbits of off-papaya against the white ceramic. It was beautiful. He was so overwhelmed by the force of the sound that he thought he might be sucked inside. He felt insignificant beside the cosmic grace of the toilet. He tried to fill his days with beautiful thoughts. They came harder now than ever.
When the fish disappeared for good, the toilet made a last great slurp and the spell was ended. Then it was safe to answer the phone.
“Hello?” said the voice. It was Rosalie. He knew she would balk at the idea of her skin being touched by hands slimed with dead fish and toilet water, but he chanced that her voice wouldn’t mind. Maybe she couldn’t tell. A voice didn’t use its eyes; you could talk with your eyes shut, couldn’t you?
“Leo, is that you?”
“Of course it’s me,” he said. He closed his eyes before testing his voice again. He hoped Rosalie wouldn’t think that was rude. “Are we going to play chess?”
“Leo, I’m worried about you. I don’t want you to hurt yourself.”
“Ah, kindness. A familiar opening move, masking a devious follow-through. Your voice has always been kind to me. What does that mean?”
“I think you’re breaking up – ”
“Sometimes your eyes are angry, even though your voice is not. That makes perfect sense, since they’re not connected, except by your sinuses.”
“Leo, I’m having trouble understanding you.”
“Others have related similar concerns. Why is that, do you think? Everyone seems to be utterly at ease until I open my mouth. What am I, a shark? I’m a shark-in-law at best.” Check, he thought.
“Honey, you need a doctor.”
“You need a doctor. An oral surgeon.” His words dripped out slowly, as if they were made of syrup. It was like those nightmares he used to have where he was running and running, only the muscles in his legs had turned to jelly. But now it was his tongue. “Ha! Oral surgeon? That sounds like a fish. Boreal sturgeon.” Then remembered the goldfish were all dead. Marine life was not a safe topic of conversation. He had unwittingly exposed his king, but Rosalie didn’t take the opportunity to attack.
“What are you saying? What is happening to you?” Rosalie sounded as if her sinuses would soon be flooded with tears.
“Darling, love of my life. Can I ask you something? Are you, by chance, missing any of your lovely, pristine, perfect white teeth?”
“Are you threatening me?”
It was a supreme act of discipline not to hang up the phone. He wanted to talk more but there was a pain in his jaw that made him dizzy, worse than the time the drills had breached the walls of his castle.
“Oh no, honey. I would never do that. You mean more to me than anything. You are my pearl. My human pearl.”
“Leo, listen to me. Your condition – ”
Then he remembered: he had fixed his condition. Weeping with relief, he told Rosalie the good news.
“No, you listen, Rosalie. I have something very important to tell you. You can come home now. That’s right. Come home. You don’t have to be embarrassed anymore.”
Leo’s lips peeled back into a smile, and for once, he smiled fully. There was nothing left to be judged by.