The Tooth

     Katie Moritz

 

It was the winter Odont brutally murdered the wasp. The one that flew around in slow motion, sluggish from cold. It kept him company at the paper where he worked as a staff writer and occasionally helped with IT. His office was spartan and drafty and overlooked the railroad tracks that ran along the river. On summer afternoons, he watched the trains haul pieces of granite away, and in winter, he watched the snow settle on the mobile homes that had drifted downstream the year the hurricane hit.

 

Now that it was dead, curled into a brittle bud on the corner of his desk, he sat and stared at it. The rage he had known moments before edging away, not wanting anything to do with the aftermath. He used the old newspaper that had ended its life to brush the wasp into the wastebasket and wiped the wet spot with a napkin.

 

The wasp had interrupted his writing and now he struggled to get back to it. He stared at the computer, squinting through his large round glasses. No snow today. At least not yet. Just clouds and a chill. The article he was working on was also going nowhere. But he was on deadline and had to turn something in, or Barbara, his editor, would have his balls.

 

It was going to be one of those days. To make it better, he could walk down to the Kwik Mart for a candy bar and a cola. Without even thinking, he began thumbing through Facebook on his phone, pausing only briefly on the girls he had gone to high school with, the ones who were now into “multilevel marketing,” who were athletic trainers and hot moms. If they had any real intellectual ability, they’d have real jobs, he told himself. They’d have real interests and they’d be doing something of value. They’d be contributing to the world instead of posting photos on Facebook and Instagram.

 

He should stop, he told himself. He needed to finish his article. But he was hungry! If he could dull the pinging in his stomach, it might help his mood. He grabbed the plastic wholesale jug of nuts he had bought from Costco yesterday. He had also bought salmon fillets and bacon (a couple of weeks ago he had overheard one of the salesgirls telling the production manager that her boyfriend, Xander, had started the keto diet and that he was getting, like, so jacked).

 

He had done some research into this diet and figured he too would give it a go. He wasn’t fat. In fact, he was trim for thirty-six. His few friends, most of them married, a few with kids, had bodies that gave away their age: the gently rounded middle, the body hair that no longer followed the map laid out in puberty, sprouting where it saw fit, atop shoulders, around knee caps, fading out from the belly button. Odont had the same odd hair patterns, but he was relieved that, unlike his college bud, Matt, he had a thick head of hair that always seemed to shimmer thanks to curls as round as quarters.

 

“You’re gonna be a movie star with that hair,” his grandmother said. Or used to say until he became too old to be a movie star and she died falling down the basement stairs.

 

So, aside from his hair, and his big round glasses he had a body that did not take up much space. His buddy Matt’s four-year-old called him Uncle Leg. Which is how most women viewed him as well.

 

How depressing.

 

Odont tossed a handful of nuts into his mouth, his eyes skimming an email he had just received from the governor’s office denouncing sexist comments made towards an outspoken member of his staff when he bit down on something hard. The cold pang, sharp, like glass, shot through him, causing a shiver to seize up his jaw.

 

He reached for the napkin that had come with his morning bagel and remembered he had used it to clean up the wasp. He looked around his office, his mouth frozen, the hard object sitting like a pebble on his tongue. The masticated nuts enclosed it in a mushy pod and pressed up against the sides of his teeth, gritty and warm.

 

He finally found a tissue. He spit the mess into the palm of his hand and stared: within the rubble of cashews, almonds, and pecans, sat a single tooth.

 

Odont scowled. He worked his tongue, starting in the back, over the tops of each tooth. He did not feel any pain. When his tongue had finished its rotation without finding any gaps, he started over. The second time proved to be just as fruitless.

 

He swallowed several times with great difficulty, hoping to rid his mouth of any remaining nut fragments, and then plucked the tooth from the mess and tossed the tissue.

 

It was 2PM on a Thursday.

 

***

 

As if the tooth were a sign to go easy on his own oral health, Odont decided to make something soft for dinner and cooked a burger on the stovetop. It looked sad on its own, so he fried an egg and put it over the greasy patty. As he sat on the sofa eating, the TV in front of him playing some mindless show, he thought about the tooth. Its metallic ping, the very fact that it was a foreign object, that it had been in his mouth when it belonged in someone else’s.

 

Odont had saved the tooth because he planned to write the wholesale distributor in the morning and would need it as proof. But he also liked the tooth. How it looked, its texture and color. It was a molar for starters, so it was of good size and classic shape. It also wasn’t yellowed, nor was it artificially white. Instead it held the color of an old wedding dress with a glossy sheen. A small divot a few shades darker puckered its center like a dimple.

 

He had placed the tooth in his wallet for safe keeping earlier in the day and there it remained, a tiny bump beneath the leather. He pulled the wallet from his back pocket and held it, rolling his thumb over it mindlessly as he stared at the TV.

 

***

 

As Rosemary waited for her gin martini to arrive, she tipped her head to the side to take a sip of her water and was stunned to find that when she went to bite the straw predictably between her molars, it instead slid straight to the roof of her mouth, causing her to sneeze.

 

She scrunched her nose and pulled the straw out for immediate interrogation: the smallest spread of pink, the rounded plastic sides, the straw had not been compressed or squeezed in any manner. It had slid just as it had felt, smoothly through. With her brows clenched and her eyes narrowed, she pushed a slender finger into the corner of her mouth and felt with great surprise that her right molar was entirely gone.

 

How could she have lost her tooth, she asked herself, just as the bartender placed her drink in front of her and bounced off to another patron. She was so good about taking care of her mouth! She brushed at least twice a day – three times on weekends – and she saw her dentist every six months. She had never had a cavity. She owned and used a waterpik.

 

She still had her finger in her mouth when her friend Jess arrived. Jess herself was in a bit of a fluster as she removed her hat and coat and threw her purse over the pointed shoulder of the high bar chair. Her hair, wild and damp, clung in black curlicues around her ears. Her overly made up eyes were smudged. Rosemary began to hear her friend mid-sentence, as she had started her story before even sitting down. Something about missing the bus and having to haul seventy-five student papers in a cheap tote bag three miles to make her afternoon appointment.

 

“ – If I thought the grading was going to kill me, I was wrong. It’ll be the pain in my neck that incapacitates me. I’ll end up in bed and I’ll finally realize, with all the time in the world to write, that I actually can’t write and I’ll kill myself just to prove a point to myself…”

 

Jess, finally seeing Rosemary with her finger in her mouth blankly staring at her drink, sat, sighed, and cocked her head sideways.

 

“You okay? Got something stuck in your tooth? A piece of ham?”

 

“My tooth. It’s missing.”

 

Jess raised an eyebrow and smiled.

 

“What do you mean missing?”

 

Rosemary shook her head and began rummaging through her purse, which was hooked on the bar’s small metal hanger between her knees. She pulled out the garishly jeweled hand mirror her mother had given her as a child and stared at her face.

 

It was shaped like a leaf with a sharply dipping chin, a pointed nose, and gentian blue eyes rounded and rimmed by thick lashes and an almost organized pattern of freckles. Her hair, which an old boyfriend once called “orpiment orange,” fell in bushy clumps around her pale neck and collar bones.

 

She bared her teeth in a clownish grin and widened her eyes in horror: like a profound realization, the gap made itself known subtly at first, then blossomed into a full-blown darkness.

 

“Gone, Jess! Gone! Oh my god.”

 

She closed the mirror shut and stared at her friend, wide-eyed.

 

“Girl, it’s not that obvious. Does it hurt? What the fuck happened?”

 

“No. No pain. I have no idea. It doesn’t even hurt on the gumline. It’s just so… weird.”

 

Rosemary finally took a long sip of her martini and as she continued to poke the gap in her mouth, she pondered her situation. She hadn’t been in a fight or done anything particularly athletic. And it must have happened recently, otherwise she would have noticed its absence.

 

***

 

Rosemary was raised in a family of males and meat eaters. She had two bullish brothers, a father built like an orangutan, and a mother who fried slabs of red meat in thick puddles of brown butter. Yet, this was not why she chose to be a vegetarian.

 

Every day, when Rosemary was seven years old, she would explore the pond in her family’s back field. It was her kingdom, and she saw it her responsibility to care for it, to protect it. And every day when she went to it, her black muck boots chaffing her thin pale legs, her red hair braided to keep the tangles at bay, she surveyed the reeds, the sandy spot on the north end, the clarity of the water. She loved the mud and cattails and the thick organic smell that she could almost taste when the wind slowed down.

 

One day, Rosemary visited the pond on a warm spring day to find the shallow waters teeming with tadpoles. Released from the stillness of their jellied worlds, they swam with abandonment, their tails squiggling as their round bean-sized bodies, black as pupils, powered ever forward.

 

Rosemary filled her small red bucket with water and placed it firmly in the sand before she began, with great excitement, to scoop up netfuls of tadpoles and deposit them inside.

 

When there didn’t seem to be many tadpoles left in the pond, Rosemary looked into her bucket and marveled at how they moved: as if she had created something new.

 

Then something started to feel wrong. The moving mass was just too much. Too many tadpoles. She awoke from her dream of possession, dragged her bucket over to the pond and quickly poured the tadpoles back. When they hit the water, they became separate again, and each sank, motionless, like small black stones, to the sandy bottom of the pond.

 

***

 

At eleven PM, Odont woke with a start. He was still on the sofa, but the television show had stopped, the screen asked if he wanted to continue watching. The room was dark except for the light he always left on above the stove, which filtered in from the adjacent kitchen. He had been dreaming about something unnerving. He wasn’t sure what. All that remained of the dream was a feeling of losing time and of being reprimanded.

 

He picked up his phone. When he saw that it was still early, he felt mildly relieved. To calm his heart, which was beating faster than felt comfortable, he turned on some lights, continued streaming, and swiped open the dating app.

 

Too basic. Too fat. Too artsy. Too high maintenance. Yet, he liked these profiles anyway. Sure, he had great hair, but it wasn’t enough to get a woman to commit. There was something in the way. He wasn’t sure what it was, though. He kept his apartment clean. He made enough money. He went to his friends’ BBQs, and he talked to his mother every Sunday. He considered his biggest flaw to be his inability to stand up for himself. But he thought he hid this pretty well, and he doubted women could sense his insecurity. There had to be something else.

 

He continued to swipe right a few more times before giving up and heading to bed.

 

***

 

The next morning, as Odont lay in bed, he checked his phone and saw that a woman had not only matched with him, but had written him a message.

 

“Hey! I noticed in one of your photos that you look exactly like Michael Landon!”

 

He clicked on her profile. Trim. Red hair. She only had two photos, a closeup of her holding a cat, and a picture of her standing at a lookout on a hiking trail. She didn’t filter her photos, which he liked. It suggested a sense of self-assurance. Her bio said that she liked books, running, painting, cats. She had a small tattoo of an owl on the inside of her wrist.

 

Odont turned off his phone and climbed from his bed, still tired. He would write her back after the paper. He had to get up. It was going to be a long day, and he had to take care of the tooth.

 

***

 

It wasn’t until Rosemary got to the cafe that she remembered Jess had sent random people messages from her phone the night before. She didn’t really care, it was a dating app. No one took those things seriously anyway. How could you, when half the men sent dick pics as an introduction.

 

Once she set up her laptop and ordered an Americano, she opened the app and found a handful of messages. It seemed her friend’s sarcastic remarks had not been enough to deter potential soul mates, and the men answered in a variety of ways. Some responded with haha before launching into long winded missives. Others cut to the chase with a hello beautiful, let’s meet up and I’ll blow your mind. Only one had yet to reply.

 

His username was OJM_MJO2019 and he only had one photo. It looked as if it had been part of a much larger photo, cropped and enlarged so much that it was blurry and pixelated. He had a mop of semi curly hair and a large grin, held firmly closed by thick feminine lips.

 

Rosemary liked his profile. It suggested that he might be a real person. She was tired of all the men posing in front of lakes holding fish. She glanced at what her friend had written:

 

“Hey! I noticed in one of your photos that you look exactly like Michael Landon!”

 

Accurate. He did.

 

She took a sip of her Americano. It was a lovely day outside, and the café was empty. Which was good, she would be able to focus on finishing the kiosk display for the library. She had laid out the pages and formatted how it would look. Now all she had left to do was add text, photos, and figure out a color scheme.

 

Without much thought, she wrote,

 

“Sorry, that was my friend. She took my phone. But for the record, you do kinda look like Michael Landon.”

 

She debated adding a smiley face but chose not to.

 

***

 

When Odont saw the message, he didn’t know how to respond. So, it had originally come from someone else. That made something small inside him deflate. But the true author had come forward, which almost seemed to count more. He chose to hold onto that. It felt right.

 

His Friday passed quicker than expected, and before he knew it, he was driving home, he realized, he had not called to complain about the tooth. He knew he really should, it was such a weird thing to find in a plastic container of nuts. Could it potentially pose some sort of health hazard? What if there were other teeth, in other containers? What if, broken into tiny pieces, an entire human being was being distributed and consumed by all those unsuspecting people?

 

Instead, when he got home, he wrote the girl.

 

“Hey, no worries.”

 

He paused. What to add? Here was his chance to make a connection.

 

He deleted it and rewrote:

 

“Hey, I actually am Michael Landon,” and he clicked SEND.

 

***

 

Odont had two problems that he needed to solve.

 

First of all, he wanted to find a way to get the girl who said he looked like Michael Landon. But how?

 

She had written him back several times now, and she was really nice. Normal, even. They had started texting, which made it more legitimate, and she had sent him photos. They weren’t of her, but of her life; what she had made herself for dinner one night, the cat sitting in the bathroom sink, a flower she had found on her way to work at the library. What he loved most about these photos was not the focus, but the way she ended up in them accidentally. Her hand in the flower photo, her reflection in the cat one, a lock of hair framing the left side of the picture of her pizza. Plus, they contained pieces of her: her soap, her bare nail flecked with blue paint, the fork that had been in her mouth.

 

The second problem Odont needed to solve was what to do with the tooth. He had decided against complaining about it. What good would it do? Instead, he continued to carry it around in his wallet where one might place a photo of a child. He sometimes took it out and placed it on the shelf above his computer at work and stared at it when he was bored. Only once someone had interrupted him and he had forgotten it was there until halfway through the conversation. The sales girl glanced at it, then at him, and forced a smile.

 

“I was babysitting my brother’s kid this past weekend,” he explained, surprised at his ability to lie so quickly. “And the kid lost a tooth. Got to play tooth fairy. My trophy. Fun times.”

 

The girl had given a forced laugh before leaving. As she left, he reflected on how tight her shirt was, how her breasts burst over her bra beneath the blouse, giving each a sort of muffin top.

 

He couldn’t keep the tooth there anymore. It was weird to display someone else’s tooth, no matter how he had obtained it. He could make up all the stories he wanted, but he knew these girls saw through them. He would have to keep it hidden.

 

***

 

Rosemary arrived at the bar first, because she always liked to be early and felt that it gave her an advantage. She could get an idea of the vibe, of the people, or her surroundings. It gave her time to add lipstick or remove it, depending on the place.

 

She had come straight from work and had to tuck the basket she used to carry her books, lunch, and laptop beneath the stool. The bar was warmer than the library though, and she hung up her cardigan and rolled up her sleeves. She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror behind the bar and smiled. The gap as black and round as a tadpole.

 

She decided to order a drink while she waited. Not because she was anxious, although she was, but because she didn’t want him to feel obligated to pay for her. When the martini arrived, she sipped it quickly, enjoying the almost immediate head swirl as she sank out of work-mode.

 

Earlier that day a patron at the library had been particularly difficult. Plus, she was training several new volunteers. And on top of it all, she had told a new gallery that she would have three paintings ready for installation by the end of the week, which was tomorrow.

 

She had pulled out her phone and was flipping through her inbox, searching for the exact wording of the gallery’s email, when she felt a presence slide onto the stool beside her.

 

“I’m actually saving that for someone,” she started, before realizing the man was in fact, Odont.

 

“Oh,” she managed, as she straightened herself.

 

“You must be Rosemary.” 

 

“I am indeed. You must be,”

 

She stumbled on his name, unsure how to pronounce it.

 

“Oh’ don’t?”

 

“Odont” He confirmed, pressing the two sounds together.

 

“I’m sorry,” she fidgeted, pushed her hair behind her ears, and took a sip of her martini.

 

“No worries,” he responded almost curtly.

 

“So…” She adjusted again, feeling awkward.

 

“This is a little awkward, isn’t it?” He asked. And then smiled, standing again to remove his pea coat.

 

“So awkward, I forgot to take my coat off.”

 

She smiled and shrugged, feeling the gin and a sudden swerve of excitement.

 

“Ah, whatever. I’ve never met anyone off a dating app before. But I say we just go with it.”

 

***

 

It had taken some time, but both found a balance. It involved Rosemary playing demur. She turned her statements into questions, and she widened her eyes and nodded in encouragement as Odont told her about his work as a writer and his plan to publish his near-finished novel. It would, he was convinced, bring him great success.

 

By eleven, the bar had nearly emptied. It was a weeknight, and the weather was unusually cold. The two decided to call it, and Odont offered to drive her home so that she wouldn’t have to wait for the bus. She hesitated at the offer but then accepted. It was close to zero outside, and the bus took thirty-five minutes to get to her stop.

 

Once they made it to her apartment, Rosemary unclipped and turned, thanking Odont for the ride and the company. He held eye contact but leaned back in his seat, his hands tight on the wheel. She felt somewhat dejected by this. She grabbed her cardigan, which she had forgotten to put back on before buttoning up her coat, and her purse, and bounced from the car into the night.

 

Not once did he ask her about her painting, or her work at the library, or about her interest in books.

 

***

 

­­­­ “I should have kissed you,” he texted her an hour later. Rosemary had made herself a cup of tea and was sitting on the floor of her studio apartment. She leaned against her bed, Colette the cat on her lap, a nature documentary playing on her laptop in front of her.

 

She didn’t know how to respond, but she didn’t want him to think she was upset.

 

Finally, she wrote back, “oh, yeah?”

 

She hoped that it would come off as flirty, not taunting. She wondered if he had noticed her missing tooth.

 

A few moments later, he responded.

 

“Yes. I wanted to kiss you all night.”

 

She felt stupid. Giddy.

 

***

 

Three weeks had passed, and Odont had solved both of his problems. Things were going well with the girl. They hadn’t had sex yet, but he knew she wanted him, and that made him feel good. For he saw that she was the kind of girl men wanted. She was smart, and she respected him, his viewpoints, encouraged his ideas. She was extremely interested in his book, and she had something intoxicating about her, although he couldn’t quite pin down what it was.

 

The problem with the tooth had also been addressed. He decided he would keep it. He liked to look at it but knew he couldn’t take it out at work. Sometimes at night, when he was home and feeling down, he’d take it out and place it in his own mouth. He’d swirl it around, feeling its smooth sides, thrusting the tip of his tongue into the crevice, or the sharp hallowed bottom, where it was once anchored into gum and bone. But he always returned it to his wallet for safekeeping.

 

Things were looking up.

 

***

 

Rosemary and Odont were lying on the floor of her apartment. She had put on some music and it had set a nice mood. She owned only two lamps, and instead had strung white lights around the windows, which probably seemed too youthful, but she also hoped romantic.

 

She had the day off and had spent it shopping at the farmers market and cleaning her apartment. The smell of homemade pizza filled the small space, and she was relieved that it was time to eat, the red wine they both had been drinking was starting to make her silly. They had already finished a bottle and her cheeks felt hot.

 

“So, Michael Landon. Have you always had such big hair?”

 

Odont ran his hand through his tangle of curls and looked toward the ceiling dramatically.

 

“Why, yes. It’s what made me a movie star.”

 

Rosemary reached forward, sifting her thin fingers through the bountiful loops. Soft. It smelled salty and bitter.

 

“I don’t believe you. You know, Tyra Banks once got a modeling gig off her driver’s license? Let’s see your license. That’ll prove just how far those curls will get you.”

 

Odont rolled his eyes before he pulled out his wallet and tossed it towards her.

 

“I have to use your bathroom. Here. Enjoy.”

 

As she grabbed it, she felt a wave of dizziness. Too much wine. She flipped the wallet open.

 

That was then she saw her tooth.

 

***

 

They had only hung out a few times, and it always felt a little awkward in the beginning. Like they were both trying to figure out how to be genuine without giving too much away. But things for Rosemary were different now. This man had her tooth, and she had no idea how he had gotten it from her mouth.

 

While she waited for Odont to return from the bathroom, she went to remove the pizza from the oven and set it out to cool. She opened a second bottle of wine. When he finally appeared, she enthusiastically explained that the license was good enough to land him a gig. She avoided his eyes, kept her hands busy with napkins and plates.

 

***

 

“Holy shit, you found it?” Jess leaned in close, squinting at the tooth.

 

They were sitting on the porch at Jess’ apartment a little after ten o’clock. The night air was cold and calm. The snow in the park across the street actually sparkled under the lights that lined its walkway. Their cigarette smoke drifted away slowly, like steam.

 

“Yes, it is. And you’ll never believe where.”

 

She told the story the best she could. About how she had found the tooth in the man’s wallet, how she hadn’t thought, just grabbed it and tucked it under the sofa cushion before he came out of the bathroom. How they ate the pizza and afterwards, she had made up a headache to get him to leave.

 

When she was done, she shook her head, took a drag. She smoked only occasionally, with Jess, and the cigarette made her feel a little nauseous.

 

“But, like, are you sure? That it’s your tooth?” Jess pulled her coat up closer towards her face.

 

“Because that’s just too weird. It’s probably his nephew’s or something. If it were your tooth, would you try to have it put back in? Is that a thing?”

 

Rosemary shrugged but the movement was lost in the bulk of her parka.

 

***

 

Rosemary never called the dentist.

 

Instead, she placed the tooth in a small clay saucer she had made in college and kept it in her nightstand. And there it remained until the spring.

 

***

 

Oh to lose something that isn’t yours to keep!

 

It was a Monday and Odont was at work at his desk. He hadn’t looked at the tooth since Saturday when he had gone over to Rosemary’s for dinner. When he flipped open his wallet, he realized the small familiar bump in the leather was missing. He clawed at the flaps, dug into the folds over and over again. Nothing. How had he not noticed? How had he paid for Sunday’s takeout without realizing that it was gone?

 

He stared at the container of nuts on his shelf and wondered if there were any more teeth inside.

 

So again, he began to eat.

 

***

 

Rosemary looked at the tooth. Then at the patch of soil. Then back at the tooth.

 

It was a sunny day in late April. The air outside smelled like dirt and it was warm enough to wear a t-shirt. Rosemary had hiked out to the pond that defined the edges of her parents’ property and found that, by the time she reached the marshy shore, her underarms were damp from the exertion.

 

Wads of tadpoles clumped around reeds and grasses. The pond was beginning to wake.

 

Rosemary dug into the wet earth with her pocketknife, turning and twisting, loosening. Water seeped in, the smell of plant life. She then pulled the tooth from the back pocket of her jeans, looked at it one last time, and placed it with great care, like a seed, into the earth.

Katie Moritz lives in Vermont’s rural Northeast Kingdom, where she works in communications at a not-for-profit critical access hospital. She studied creative writing at Dartmouth College and has published in Plume, Numéro Cinq, Clamentis, and has a poem forthcoming in Plume Anthology #9. She writes outside of an academic lens, often taking inspiration from André Breton’s belief that “beauty will be CONVULSIVE, or it will not be.”