Toothache From Hell
Short Story | Duration: 11 Minutes
This story is free! Consider becoming an XPress member to keep future stories free and support your favorite independent creators! Thank you and enjoy the story ~ WM
Adam Abbot’s earliest memory of public humiliation was when he was forced to act out a role in a primary school play at the age of seven before an audience of uninterested adults who sat at the children’s desks in a stuffy, flyblown schoolhouse on the outskirts of Knob Noster, Missouri, in the late spring of 1956. He acted the part of an anthropomorphized tooth that also happened to be a prosecuting attorney, accusing a defendant (a freckled classmate wearing a propellor cap) of having committed the crime of hygienic negligence by refusing to brush his teeth before bedtime. His costume was a large piece of pasteboard with an impressionistic outline of a molar wearing a top hat, his face peeping out from a hole cut in the middle.
There was something ironic about Adam playing this role. He’d already lost four sets of teeth, which was miraculous in and of itself, and a fifth set had sprouted up through his inflamed gums to fill their places. They were wobbly and brown despite all of his efforts to preserve them.
His dad was dead and his mom didn’t seem to care that he suffered incessantly from toothaches. She was an obese woman and wore a floral print dress the day of the play. She was fond of costume jewelry; and a necklace of paste pearls bit into a dent around her thick neck. Her straw hat had a pink ribbon in it and her hair was dyed maroon. Afterward, she told Adam that she’d been embarrassed for him, that he’d looked ridiculous in that get-up, and that she’d been surprised Adam hadn’t protested to his teacher. “There were other kids who could’ve played that role. There were only four roles in the entire skit.”
“What’s a skit?”
“It’s what you were in. It’s a pointless little play. Maybe that’s why they chose you. You’re pointless. I think they chose you intentionally because they thought it’d be funny to mock you.”
They walked along the bridle path that led to their little white clapboard house by the wheat field.
The Storyletter is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
“Do you think it's ray beams or maybe radioactivity that causes my teeth to fall out? I think the government‘s putting something in the ground. Or maybe it’s the water that does it. Ain’t there missile silos close by?”
“Yes there are, but no, that ain’t the reason. You inherited it from your no-good daddy. His teeth was just like yours, they did the same thing. I made him a pair of wooden dentures, like the ones George Washington had. But I guess I didn’t measure his teeth adequate-like, or smooth the bases of the dentures good enough, because when I stuck ‘em in his mouth—Well, it wasn’t pretty. He later died because of those things.” She giggled.
Adam looked at the wheat field. “I guess I don’t want you to put dentures in my mouth.”
“Prolly for the best. I thought I’d sandpapered all the splinters out, but I guess I hadn’t.”
Adam didn’t understand why mama was happiest when he was sad, and why it was that in those rare moments when he was happy, she grew depressed.
“Mama, are you some kind of Martian from a flying saucer?”
“I don’t have antennas, do I? And I ain’t never been in a flying saucer.”
But she didn’t say she wasn’t a Martian, he thought.
“Mama, are you a demon from Hell?”
She looked at him with a thin-lipped grin.
“I don’t have a forked tongue or pointy tail, do I? I ain’t from Hell.”
Why did she say she wasn’t from Hell? He wondered if Hell was where he was right now: Franklin County, Missouri, which he pronounced “mi-ZUR-ah” even in his head.
“Everyone round these parts is weak,” Mama said and waved at Sally Banks who came outside to fetch her mail. “Your daddy had bad teeth when I met him, but they got worse after I gave birth to you. Maybe he caught something from me. Maybe I passed something on to you. Maybe it don’t really matter, because I sure know it don’t matter to me.”
He stopped in the middle of the road because an incisor was loose. He pulled it out and stared at it, a string of bloody spittle connected the tooth to his gums. He was about to throw it into the grass next to the bridle path, when she grabbed his wrist real tight. “Don’t throw it away, dear. You gotta give it to the tooth-fairy.”
His last memory of public humiliation was his high school graduation. He was the first one called to the stage to collect his diploma since he was alphabetically the first student on the roster. “Adam Abbot!” the principal said, scowling. Adam’s whole world suddenly seemed not quite right, his vision distorting as if seeing the reflection of a city upon a lake but not seeing the city itself.
Adam rose from the fold-up chair next to Mama. He wore his beat-up sneakers and a bright red graduation gown with a tasseled cap. He trudged his way to the steps leading up to the stage. His lips and the skin around his mouth were purple and red with dark black sores extending up his cheeks to his ears. He couldn’t shave because the slightest pressure on his face made his eyes tear up, so there were blotchy patches of adolescent down on his cheeks and neck. But he didn’t have any zits, so that was something to be thankful for.
He heard the whispered voices of the parents and teachers, as he walked by:
—A widowed Christian mother, salt of the earth, and that’s her reward.
—Smells like a day-old dead dog.
—You can lead a horse to water…
—But you can’t make children brush they teeth.
He took the diploma and thanked the principal, who pushed Adam rudely so he’d keep moving and go down the steps on the other side of the stage. He struggled with each step, the exertion taking its toll on him. By the time he reached his seat and no sooner than he sat down, the gymnasium exploded in a torrent of applause.
“Ida Sue Purdy!”—the purtiest girl in school. Ida Sue made her way to the stage and curtsied to the principal as she accepted her diploma. Adam noted that he did not shove her away. She waved. The applause grew louder. There were cheers and whistles and a press man took her picture.
The one thing Adam would never understand until the day he died, which just so happened to be that day, was why everyone thought Ida Sue Purdy was so pretty and sweet. Her head was surrounded by a complicated network of metal wires, because she wore braces. He overheard one of his classmates say, “The wires make her head look like it’s framed in silver and her teeth seem to be electrified diamonds.”
Adam thought she looked like a robot, and maybe she was. Either way, Ida Sue was the meanest of his tormentors. He recalled that day on the playground when it had started to rain and Adam got slapped in the face with a red rubber ball, knocking six teeth out sideways. He’d lowered his head and as the rain fell, Ida Sue dropped on the concrete laughing so hard that she spewed teardrops of mirth out of her eyes. Her little legs kicked about and she convulsed and had trouble breathing and some of the wires around her head got bent a little.
He’d gone home and told Mama. She asked where the teeth were that got knocked out; and when he told her they were still on the pavement of the ball court at school, she marched with him back down the bridle path through the lashing rain until they got to the ball court at the school. With one hand she pointed at each rotten tooth one by one until he placed them each into her other shaking palm. Then she said, “You pay the tooth fairy her due.”
After the graduation, they went home. He was feeling so weak. He removed his cap and gown and hung them on a hook, then headed to his room to crawl into bed even though it was only 2:23 p.m.
This annoyed Mama. She wasn’t having it and stopped him in the hallway. She saw what he was doing. He was going to let himself waste away and die.
“You need to eat something.”
“I don’t want to.”
“I’m not gonna have you die in the house today—of all days! I don’t wanna have to drag you outside and bury you.”
“I’m sure someone in town will help.”
“Well, you can’t die until I get back from the shopping mall in Kansas City. I’m going there tomorrow on a bus with my girlfriends. I’m gonna buy myself a new dress. It would be selfish of you to die while I’m gone.”
“I’m not feeling so good,” Adam said.
There was a knock on the door. Mama opened the door and there was Ida Sue Purdy standing at the threshold holding a sheet cake in her hand.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Abbot. My Mama runs a shop.”
“I know she does, darling.” Mrs. Abbot said. “Your mama makes sweets, cakes, and candies.—And she made you, the sweetest thing on earth.”
Ida Sue giggled. “Well, my Mama knows Adam don’t have no friends. She felt sorry for him and made him a graduation cake.”
“Isn’t that something!” Mama said and took the cake. She turned to Adam. “I say, isn’t that just something? What do you say, Adam?”
Adam looked past Mama at Ida Sue, whose wired-up face was leering at him with an expression of concentrated malevolence.
“Thank you,” he said in a faint voice and looked away.
“Adam, don’t be rude. Look at this cake!”
“I drew the picture on it,” Ida Sue said, “and wrote out all the words.”
Adam looked at the cake, which Mama held at an angle so he could see it. It showed a molar in a graduation cap and gown, smiling broadly. In a slanting script to the side were written the words, “Congraduations, Adam!”
“Do you remember, Adam,” Ida Sue said, “when we was little kids and you acted out the role of a tooth? That was the stupidest thing I ever seen. Aren’t you glad you grew out of such foolishness?”
“He’s a little ill, dear,” Mama said. “Thank you so much for this. And please, please, please make sure you thank your mama, Miss Emilou Purdy for the cake and tell her I look forward to going to Kansas City with her tomorrow.”
When Ida Sue was gone, Mama regarded Adam with disgust.
“I tell you what. I’ll chew some food up for you and you can eat it out of my mouth like a little baby bird. That’ll keep you healthy for at least a day or so.”
“Okay,” Adam said. He made his way into his room as she prepared his meal. He crawled into bed still wearing all of his clothes, too exhausted to remove them. He could hear her grotesque noises out in the kitchen, but it no longer bothered him.
Mama chewed up raw pig flesh. She stuffed a whole potato in her mouth and kept chewing. She didn’t swallow any of the food, but kept putting more and more into her mouth until her fat cheeks swelled out like a chipmunk’s. She thrust the whole cake in her mouth and chewed it rapidly. She grabbed a rancid chicken leg with maggots on it and stuck it, bone and all, between her slavering lips.
She went to her son’s bedside and opened her mouth wider and wider. Her lips drew back from her pink gums. Her jaws expanded until her mouth was more than two feet in diameter. The interior of her mouth was filled with seventeen rows of glistening white teeth. The rows extended to the back of her mouth toward the flapping strawberry-colored uvula.
As the masticated ooze dripped from the tooth-fairy’s mouth into her son’s parted lips, he felt himself dying, passing into something else, into someplace else—some world far removed from (and therefore far better than) this one. There was no pain here, there was no breathing either. He saw the mirrored city on the lake, just as he plunged facedown through its reflection—down through the brown weeds and green murk. And then, as far as he could see, he caught glimpses of white nacreous light flashing along the tiled rooftops of a city whose towers jutted up—toothlike—from the black lake’s spongy bed.
Another presence emerged to join Adam there in the depths. It was the figure of a familiar-looking man. The man turned to him and all at once Adam recognized him. His dad raised an arm in a wistful wave, a smile stretching across his shadowed features. Displayed within that smile were two rows of beautiful white teeth, brilliant and perfect, unlike anything Adam had ever seen before.