At 800 words of length, this originally appeared in Lady Churchill's Rosebd Wristlet, #14 June, 2004 [ Tangent Online Review ]. It has not been reprinted before now.
This is based on something that actually happened to me as a teenager, when we were clearing out my grandparents' house after the death of my Granddaddy Lake. A bit more detail is available here. If you like this story, please consider supporting Small Beer Press and LCRW. In any case, enjoy.
A Conspiracy of Dentists
by Jay Lake
Teeth fall like rain, the old house weeping mouth-ivory, enamel the color of tea, with overripe banana spots. Tongue-and-groove ceilings flip open as if they were Venetian blinds, feeding the downpour, while sink drains gurgle and burp, avenging a century of toothpaste and spit in a fountain of molars, canines, bicuspids.
Granddaddy was an old man all his life, born wrinkled and never quite smoothed out. There's one picture of him as a child, pudgy and mean, glaring over horn-rimmed glasses that dominate his face and surely draw beatings from the other boys like an outhouse draws flies in the heat-stunned East Texas of his childhood. Nothing more then, no evidence of his existence for years, until he graduates from dental school, that transcendent moment captured in a hand-tinted photograph, him already overlarge with a thin-lipped grin and an expression of determination steely as his jaw-cutters and wrenches. The tints make him look like a badly-prepared corpse, something between Easter pastel and denture-pink, a color no human has ever actually been.
The rain of teeth seems to be slowing now, though a few continue to trickle down, pooling on the floor of the old house like New York snow. I can walk, crunching, over the enamel drifts, Scott searching for the South Pole, or the prescient Titus Oates losing himself in the snow. Had I a telescoping aluminum probe, I could search the drifts for evidence of an earlier era of carefree childhood that my grandfather knew only in the womb.
I remember him mostly as a girth, reeking of tobacco and astringent, a great flannel zeppelin motoring slowly through my young life with a fierce iron love only a degree removed from cruelty, all in the name of peace and quiet and a little rest for my ailing grandmother. He would put his fingers in my mouth, great as Polish sausages, slightly salty, stained from his pipe, his huge wrinkled face rising over my field of view like a harvest moon, and ask me if I wanted him to pull that loose tooth. Afraid of pain, I would shake my head and mutter shy denials until a grin split his old face like a melon and he floated away over the horizon, untethered and bereft of any ground crew.
Downstairs, I sit in the mottled light streaming through the stained glass windows of his great house. Grandmother's ghost whispers to me from the polished floor, salvaged a generation ago from a distant church, while within the walls the great pocket doors creak like sails in the wind of Granddaddy's passing. The teeth are fewer here, scattered carelessly, piled up in small drifts around the grandfather clock, stuck in the corners, aimless wanderers uprooted from their jaws.
Then I find his uniform lying on the stairs next to me. He was in the army, and some fraternal order as well, but these epaulets speak of a different era -- comic-opera kingdoms or Prussian marching bands. The uniform is white, with gold buttons and lace and a chestful of suspiciously fanciful medals, and even though I too am large and growing into an airship of my own in keeping with the family tradition, it would fit me like a mess tent.
Daddy is in the kitchen with Uncle Lloyd, quiet voices discussing some estate problem. Mom is upstairs, gathering teeth with a snow shovel and an angry sigh. I am alone with his uniform, this great acreage of white linen and canvas that smells, like him, of old tobacco.
It does not fit, I tell myself, slipping a leg over my jeans. I will never be so large. The cuffs flop down around my fingernails. A conspiracy of dentists could meet in here with me. I fasten the gold buttons, each gleaming as if fresh from the jeweler's clamp. Seized by some dim instinct, I walk outside. My Adidas track shoes seem to have grown to cavalry boots, polished bone-white to match the uniform, and I thump as I walk, eliciting queries from the kitchen.
On the porch, painted blue for the wasps, I stare out at the sere grass, the dried-out fountain, the high sandstone curb with its hitching post seventy years out of date, like the old man himself. Then the breeze catches at my arm. It plucks me, playing with my hair, finding wrinkles on my face though I am only fourteen, lifting me by the elbows as if to toss me like a young boy in his grandfather's arms.
Then I am airborne, a white zeppelin majestic as any great-bellied storm cloud, my pockets ballasted with bright nickels and dimes and quarters, already searching for some house with a loose tooth and an eager child. "I may be some time," I shout to Daddy and Uncle Lloyd emerging onto the porch, as a grin splits my face. Then I steer into the wind, ready to spend a lifetime creating an enamel rain of my own like Granddaddy before me.
© 2004, 2007, Joseph E. Lake Jr.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.