Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Fiction #78: Don McLellan

Ouch

IT HAD BEEN a long and dusty day of hauling and pushing; of crawling into tight, dark places; of the irritable foreman cursing in a language most of the crew didn’t understand. He was waiting for a bus when a much-travelled Chevy lumbered to the curb.

It was Matt, an old friend. 

“It’s your lucky day, man,” he said, dreadlocks hanging from the window, and indeed it was.

There was also a sleeping bag rolled up on the back seat, a heap of smelly laundry spilling from plastic grocery bags. It was the 1960s; Matt, he recalled, had always been something of a nomad.

“Moving?”

“Temporary lodgings, man. I’m between jobs.”

In the pub, a ball game flickered silently on the TV above the bar, a chunky peeler gyrated cheerlessly around her pole. Few of the patrons were paying attention to either. He’d skipped lunch, so after a few beers he ran across the street for some curry chicken. When he returned, the tabletop tinkled with empties. Matt’s sleepy blue eyes were glazed like the surface of a frozen pond.

He offered to call a cab for himself; Matt wouldn’t hear of it.

The heat of the day, the booze; he began to nod off. On Earles Road he felt the car leaving the macadam, its threadbare radials crackling on the gravel. He shook off his slumber just as the semi came hurtling toward them. The last thing he remembered was Matt’s head slumped over the steering wheel, those eyes dreamily sealed.

The front end crumpled like a can of mushroom soup. His face slammed into the dashboard, scattering his teeth; a bracing foot burst through the floorboards, snapping an ankle. Matt was hurled through the windshield. He bounced off the road like a rubber ball.   

A cloud of dust appeared above the rooftops. A woman living nearby heard the collision and joined neighbours rushing to the crash site. She talked to her daughter that night of dogs howling at the keening sirens; of the bodies being loaded like crates of vegetables aboard the ambulance; of, after the wreckage had been towed, a man hosing blood into the sewer, a cigarette drooping indifferently from his lower lip.

“People will always die, little one,” her mother said. “The rest of us go on. Until it’s our turn.”

The girl made a detour on her way to school in the morning. She wanted to stand in the place where it had happened, to see if death made a place feel different, to see if death made her feel different.

It did.

She found five teeth in the grass on the boulevard, folding them into her handkerchief for later inspection.

“I thought they were beads,” she told a classmate, “from a broken necklace.”

*

THERE WAS THIS chick, see, a real looker, a few years his senior; her name was Simone. She’d returned his smile as they passed in the hall, and that’s all it took. A boy his age can fall in and out of love in an afternoon, and fall for her he did, hard. Girls didn’t normally return his attentions, but Simone, he would discover, wasn’t normal. The scars zigzagged across his face like tire tracks seared into a lawn.                                                         

He’d reinvented himself, as we sometimes must. Grew a patchy beard soft as cat fur, an aspiring intellectual. This was in the early ’70s; it seemed to be the thing to do.  He got by selling pot, taking a few history courses at the college. He enjoyed reading about war, the battles, memorizing the death tolls. 

The first words out of Simone’s mouth were, “I’m an artist,” as though that explained all he needed to know. A month later they were shacked up, fucking like rabbits. She doodled abstracts and gave them gloomy one-word titles like Solitude and Despair, peddling them to fellow depressives for exaggerated sums. Their first fight was about him dismissing her “work” as “graffiti inside a fancy frame.” He’d never met a real artist before; he didn’t know they could be so sensitive. 

She could also be gloomy. 

“Just look out the window,” she’d say, in one of her moods, “all the fucked-up people. Give me two good reasons not to be blue.”

“A cold beer on a hot afternoon.”

“That’s one.”

“You and me in the shower.”

A premolar began acting up, but he was living on student loans and couldn’t afford a dentist. Simone seemed to know a lot about non-traditional medicine; she seemed to know a lot about non-traditional everything. Until her, he’d thought people wanting to be tied up were joking.

One night she brought home a bag of cloves, a tropical spice.

“It looks like mud,” he said.

“It’s a painkiller. And don’t knock mud. Food grows in it.”

He was riding the bus home after class one day when the tooth started throbbing. The pain was fickle and would occasionally subside on its own, but this time it didn’t, and he’d left the cloves at home. It was rush hour, the bus was packed. The discomfort, as medical professionals like to call it, became so severe he disembarked miles before his stop, running along the busy street frantically looking for a dentist.

He found one above a row of retail shops, blurting out his predicament to the nail-painting receptionist. Dr. Murphy, cleaning teeth, overheard him. He leaned into the hallway, pulling down his face mask, a middle-aged man with kind, dark eyes and a caterpillar moustache.

“I’ll be with you in a moment, young man,” he said.  “Marilyn will give you a couple of Aspirin.”

After probing and prodding the troubled premolar, he recommended a root canal; it would preserve the tooth. Dentists talk about “saving” a tooth like it’s a human life. They don’t mention the procedure costs more than a respectable second-hand car. That you can holiday at an all-inclusive in Mexico for less.

“I’m a student,” he said. “I don’t even have bus fare home.”

“You strike me as an honest fellow,” Dr. Murphy said. “If you’re willing to mow my lawn once a week for the summer, we can do an extraction. You’ll be out of here in a jiffy.”

“What about the root canal?”

“You’d have to paint a house. Mine is vinyl-sided.”

“Is it a big lawn?”                                                                                                       

“I am a dentist.”

Once the Novocain kicked in he felt a slight tug; his mouth filled with blood. Dr. Murphy dropped the premolar into a vial and handed it over. It looked like a Chiclet.

“Marilyn will give you bus fare.” 

After he mowed the lawn, Dr. Murphy’s wife would feed him before driving him to the bus stop. The IOU was retired in September. The doctor also bought a doodle from Simone, who sometimes came along to help with the raking and because of the food. The doodle consisted of a few wiggly lines and an image that might have been a tooth. She gave the piece a title: Ouch. Though their relationship didn’t survive – he always thought of Simone as his Maggie May – Ouch still hangs above the fireplace in the Murphys’ rec room.

*

HIS FAVOURITE UNCLE had passed; there was an inheritance; he decided to travel. In Hong Kong, a bar in Wanchai, he got into a tussle over a girl. They took the quarrel into the alley. His opponent danced around him, making him dizzy. He remembered someone telling him that over there, after a few drinks, everybody becomes Bruce Lee.

The guy’s shoe caught him flush in the mouth before he could throw a punch, taking out three teeth. He lay on his back a while, gazing up at a south China sky black as ash.

The desk clerk at his hotel recommended a denturist in Oi Kwan Road. The stitches would be coming out in a few days, and the denturist would have to make an impression.

“Tell them who sent you,” the desk clerk said. “You might get a discount, you might not.”

He dropped into the last available chair in the waiting room, the only gweilo. It was the one Cantonese word he knew; the girl he’d fought for had taught him.

“It means ‘foreign devil,’” she’d told him. “It also means ‘ghost,’ because to us, that white skin, you all look like one.”

A Christian pastor clutching a bible sat to his left; the collar dug into his fleshy neck. He was accompanied by his wife, a plainly dressed but attractive younger woman. A schoolgirl – their daughter, he presumed – hunched over her homework. 

The receptionist addressed him in Chinese.

“She wants to know if you have a health card,” the pastor said.

He wagged his head, rubbing his thumb and index finger together: I’ll pay cash.

“Do you speak any Chinese?” asked the pastor.

He removed the bloodied cotton balls from his mouth, tossing them into a trash can and inserting replacements.

“I’ve only been here a few days,” he said, “but ever since I arrived I’ve heard people saying this one word; I’ve been hearing it everywhere. The guy who did this to me was saying it.”

“Maybe I can help. What’s the word?”

“It sounds like, dyoo-lay-mo,” he said. “Make any sense?”

The pastor flushed.

“Well…I – ”

The receptionist called the next patient – the man of the cloth. Patients to the right urged him to move into the vacant seat, as a lineup had formed. The pastor’s wife glanced up from her magazine and smiled.                                                                                                                       

“Do you know that word?” he asked her. “Dyoo-lay-mo? I might be pronouncing it wrong.”

“Your pronunciation is adequate,” she said, “but it’s not a good word. Nice people do not use that word.”

Wanting to be thought a nice person, doubtful he was, he fell silent. After a few awkward minutes she leaned over and whispered, “It translates as…‘fuck your mother.’”

“Oh,” he said, “I get it:  ‘motherfucker.’”

“No,” she said. “Fuck your mother.”

“Sometimes people would say, dyoo-lay-mo see fat,” he said. “What’s that mean, the see fat?”

The pastor’s wife looked as though something had caught in her throat; she scurried to the washroom. Everyone shifted seats again.

“Hello,” the daughter said. She had sweet brown eyes, a fine row of teeth. It was 1987.

He repeated the question:  “I know dyoo-lay-mo means ‘fuck your mother,’” he said. “What about see-fat?”

The girl put aside her schoolbooks.

“In the ass,” she said.

*

HE’D ALWAYS KNOWN he’d eventually have to go to full dentures; implants were suspect in the early 1990s, and he didn’t have that kind of money. He’d squandered the inheritance in less than a year.

“I have ten teeth left,” he was telling his drinking pals, Steve, Kim and Phil. “The rest are partial plates and bridges. I’ll be a new man with dentures.”

“Like Brad Pitt,” said Phil.

“You’ll be swarmed by pussy,” agreed Kim.

There was a group of yahoos, half a dozen younger guys, at the next table. He asked the waitress to find them another, but there was a playoff hockey game on TV, and the bar had filled up fast. The yahoos were shaking their drinks, soaking anyone within reach. Everyone at his table knew something was going to happen because they used to be the yahoos. When they whooped it up, something always happened.

“Settle down, fellas,” shouted Steve, who loved a scrap, win or lose. “We can’t hear each other talk.”

“Then don’t,” the largest of the yahoos fired back.

When the hockey game ended and patrons started filing into the parking lot, the yahoos slipped off their stools and came at them like an invading army. Another place, another time, he might have tried to broker an armistice. That evening, never certain why, he started swinging.

In the morning he studied his bloodied mouth in the bathroom mirror.

Two down, eight to go.

*

WE BEGIN WITH thirty-two. Those of his that survived had been repaired and refilled multiple times or filed down to anchor artificial replacements. Some partial plates were secured with metal wires, hastening the decay. Everything needed to be replaced, which would require another bank loan, and he hadn’t paid off the last one. And then his girlfriend told him they were going to have a kid. It was 2003. He was almost forty. Most nights he drove a taxi, twelve-hour shifts.

He decided to have the remaining eight extracted surgically and get fitted for a full set of acrylic imposters. According to his calculations, over time, doing so would save him thousands of dollars. He’d never have to see a dentist again.

A buddy, Lenny, said he knew a guy who could help.

“If my arithmetic is right,” Lenny said, “the extractions are going to cost you the same as the dentures, am I right?”

They were hoisting a few in a smoky joint on Kingsway.

“The dental surgeon wouldn’t budge on price,” he said. “Whenever you question their fees, they tell you how many years they went to university.”

“Tell them about all the shit jobs you’ve worked,” Lenny said. “The asses you’ve had to kiss.”

They drove out to a place in Surrey one night in Lenny’s Merc, to a barn that looked like it should have burned down a long time ago. The guy who could help, Nob, was dentally challenged himself and looked as mangy as Sugar, the mongrel mutt lolling atop a bale of hay. Nob also had a pet goat, Shifty. It roamed in and out of the barn like a drunk in search of a vacant bar stool.

A stall still smelling of former residents had been refitted with the equipment – pliers, a syringe, the works. A lamp attached to an extension cord hummed intermittently in the corner.   

“Nob your only name?”  Small talk calmed his nerves.

“It’s a nom de guerre,” Nob said. “Open wide, don’t move.”

“You’re going to dope me up, I hope.”

“I were you, I’d start with two Oxy. Some people need three. They’re fifty bucks each.”

“I’m getting work done,” he said, “I usually ask for customer references. You have any?”

“I do. Ask ’em anything you want.” 

Nob whistled, and both of them came running.   

 *

Vancouver writer Don McLellan has worked as a journalist in Canada, South Korea and Hong Kong. His debut collection of short stories, In the Quiet After Slaughter (Libros Libertad), was a 2009 ReLit Award finalist. Brunch with the Jackals, his second story collection, was published by Thistledown Press in 2015. More info at donmclellan.com.

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