Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Vampire Wore Dentures

Charmaine Frost headshot by Charmaine Frost

I ride the elevator to my 34th floor office more than a thousand times each year. My breath smells as clean as Listerine; no wisps of meat poke out between my teeth like weeds. I cut my fingernails each morning; long nails accumulate grime and my fingers must be nimble and sterile. When the elevator's crowded, I look at the floor or stare at the number panel, as though the force of my gaze can will the contraption to rise faster. When the elevator's less crowded, I sneak peeks at shoelaces dangling from sneakers and at the scuffed sides of old rawhide boots. Sometimes, a passenger knows me; if the elevator isn't crowded, he sometimes even addresses me.

There's the bulimic girl who's lost half her teeth; the acid eats away at her enamel just as obsessions eat away at her concentration. "Doctor," she moans whenever she first sees me, "I just have bad genes. My mother's teeth all fell out while she was pregnant with me - the teeth littered her pillow, slid right out of her mouth as though they were greased. Doc, I'm cursed by heredity." There's the excessively handsome man intent on suing the toothpaste companies because he's gotten a cavity at age 26; now his perfection's flawed, the product didn't fulfill the advertisers' promise to keep his teeth as flawless as plastic ones. There's Jeff, the 30-year-old construction worker with an amalgam mouth, who needs another six fillings.

"Those high school teachers should have told us what drugs can do to your mouth. They should have shown us pictures of chipped and decaying teeth,' he said during his ride up, only two days ago, "Dirty yellow teeth ruin a guy's looks. A few graphic posters, and we would have been smashing our bongs and giving away our last grains of coke."

Today, Jeff and the thin man enter the elevator together. The door thuds closed and the motor rumbles, a churning bass prelude.

"Doctor," the thin man asks, "My teeth are in, aren't they?"

Mr. Gaunt wears his habitual, perfectly pressed dark suit and his habitual frown on a whitewashed face. His lips part slightly, too red and full for his chiseled, stern face. This is his second visit to Doting Dentistry; he found me by flipping through the yellow pages, was attracted by the large ad with its promises of flexible hours, treatment for unscheduled emergencies and guaranteed patient confidentiality.

I nod solemnly, remembering who the thin man is. "Yes, your teeth are in," I drone robotically; my work has taught me to hide my emotions, sometimes even to live cocooned in numbness.

On the way to my office, he glances several times around the corridor, as though someone might be lurking in the walls or in the space where wires and pipes travel between the ceiling and the floor above.

"I've been miserable all week without my dentures," he declares as he enters the procedure room, with its sanitized tile walls and sinks as white as perfect teeth. "I'm not your garden variety old fogy who can sip pureed chicken and breakfast on baby food for a week. I can't survive on a diet of Ensure, fortified soy milk, and vitamin enhanced super orange juice, even if they provide me with every nutrient known to man and a hundred herbal extracts from the rain forest. As I told you last week - everything is confidential, isn't it? - I have to suck up my most important food, what you might call 'the blood of life'. I have to dig my teeth in deep to suck the substance fresh; my special food expires fast. Fifteen minutes of exposure to air spoils it; one clot in the fluid renders it inedible."

Mr. Gaunt can only come at night. He told me his story when he came as an emergency walk-in on an evening in early November; a fall had knocked out the tooth. Panic, distrust of dentists, and mandatory appearance at a celebration kept him from getting help immediately.

When the skeletons dance on the Day of the Dead, Mr. Gaunt stands among them as referee and choreographer, distinguishable only by his black suit, dark goatee and the strips of pale flesh stretched over his bones. Even the king and queen of the dead wear no clothes or skin at this dance. The dead dance naked as a symphony of bats whines and a chorus of resurrected gargoyles howls; leaves, stained ochre by the scarred Jack-o'lantern moon, fall like embers dying into the char of night. The throngs clatter and clink as their arms jerk, their skulls swivel on rickety necks, their bony toes flop against the concrete, and their hipbones pirouette in wobbly circles above knocking, unsteady knees. Some of the dead have murdered after betrayal in love and been hung for the felony; after their executions, they return above only on this night, dancing with fevered rage of killers never purged entirely of anger. Others, who died of cancer or old age, limp as the music shrieks.

Usually, Mr. Gaunt glides confidently around the dancers, knowing that he can move more gracefully than any of them, due to the red muscles that still control his bones precisely, the ears that still respond to every nuance of pitch and rhythm. "How their jaws chatter, their bones clatter", he's often thought, "Let the bat songs shatter every window and crystal palace around". Mr. Gaunt usually enjoys watching this ceremony; it reminds him of his own immortality. He's been healthy for over two centuries, not likely to die until the sun went supernova.

This year, Mr. Gaunt pressed his tongue into the socket where his right fang should have jutted down, sturdy and incisive as a steel knife; his left fang wiggled. He imagined it dropping out when he took his next meal, a brown and pulpy stub attached by only a thin lifeline of connective tissue to his maxilla. As the waltzing skeletons clanked past, he shuddered and silently repeated the children's chant:

How their teeth chatter,
Their battered bones clatter,
Their shrieks scatter
Like the leaves and winds of fall.
Please, my beau,
Don't make me go,
Don't take me to the skeleton ball.

Mr. Gaunt had to go; for his kind, attendance is a duty. But tonight, he couldn't go to laugh in private. The children's rhyme, once comic, beat through his mind like an obsessive taunt. The proper time line, the one that ends near infinity, had been yanked from under his feet. The wrong timeline, one meant for some kid's great-grandfather, had replaced it. How long could he live without that tooth?

"The mortal timeline is a short, fragile thread," he'd muttered, then opened his mouth with reluctant hope to my probing fingers.

Mr. Gaunt's dentures had to be made with a special mold, which I obtained from the zoo; I told the zookeeper and the curious lab techs that an eccentric customer wanted dentures for his German shepherd. The vet wouldn't make dentures for a dog, but I was the compliant sort, eager to please. Why disappoint a customer unnecessarily, why turn away business? That's what I told the lab folk when they muttered about the latest impression I'd sent them, about how I was making teeth fit for a wolf.

"If I don't have my dentures soon, I'll waste away. Even I can waste away, never mind all those myths about immortality," Mr. Gaunt added. "I'm already thinner than I was last week."

Last week, Mr. gaunt was a skeleton loosely draped in dry, parchment ski. All week, he's been a shrinking skeleton; his bones creak as they contract and shed dust while he sleeps.

"Yes, your teeth are in," I intone in my flattest voice as Mr. Gaunt slides into the dental chair.

Jeff's appointment follows Mr. Gaunt's; the hygienist must stay until the last patient is serviced. I hope that several late patients with dental emergencies crowd the waiting room tonight. Mr. Gaunt's famished; will he want to test how well his implants work, will he want to drink blood? Maybe he can sample Jeff's blood or the hygienist's. I've kept no records of Mr. Gaunt's visits; I don't want auditors to question why I custom-made fangs or why I believed a patient's tales of supernatural origin. With nothing about Mr. Gaunt in the files, their deaths would seem due to the brutality of a madman; no one would suspect that I had any foreknowledge.

"Thinner and thinner," he complains. "You try sleeping in a hard coffin, with only a tatter of skin between you and the casket. I'm turning into a skeleton with a back ache and throbbing joints."

Under my turtleneck sweater, I wear a high stiff cloth collar that scrapes the underside of my chin. Under this, I wear a metal neck clasp, which I bought specifically for this appointment at a sex shop; the clerk leered at me over my purchase.

Mr. Gaunt has been a vampire for 232 years. Fangs break, chip, go weak from cavities. Some vampires wear dentures; the dentists either die, or don't talk about an encounter with a creature in whom few believe.

I lean close to Mr. Gaunt's mouth, ready to implant the fangs.

Maybe, the metal collar, the hygienist and Jeff will keep me from dying. Maybe, guardian angels are as real as vampires.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I thuroughly enjoyed this.