At the time there are three distinct women. Two orbit around his person like meteors that arrive and disappear, pendulous and pending, with the rigidity and regularity of the calendar. They are dark and light, one and the other. The fair one is more than fair. Her skin is pellucid. Thin webs of capillaries and veins map her arms, her breasts, the small of her back. The other, the dark one, is Mediterranean, raven-haired, Homeric. She smells of cigarette smoke and has hands older than her age. There is a husband somewhere. Cruel. Oafish. He keeps her meanly and she stays. The third is Nadja, herself. She is his earth, past which the others streak.
"I have made you an appointment," she tells him." At half-nine tomorrow."
He presses his fingers to his face, toward the eye socket. The pain is there, where he touches. Not in the tooth itself, but on his face. Always he has avoided dentistry. But now, she has made the appointment and, when the time comes, she will drive him there.
The two others, the dark and light ones, we shall call Mim and Mam.
Mim keeps exotic animals. Large brilliant birds, ataractic reptiles, silky-haired dogs. She walks a wolfhound, Erté-like, on a tartan leash, its dusky coat shimmering in the sunlight.
She wears black always and walks with catlike grace, taut muscles rippling effortlessly and surely. On certain evenings she will stride into McLoughlin’s and the big dog will stay at her feet through two and sometimes three gin-and-tonics. The dog is said to be gentle.
The other one, the dark one, he calls "Calypso," and when she kept him, the moment seemed infinite and timeless. She fusses about him yet, fusses about what he eats and drinks and thinks, pleasuring him with a maternal concern that he had long forgotten. To his soul, dusty and cretaceous by nature, she brings the mist of the sea, the juices and oils of the fields, the energy of the sun. She gives him hope and calls him her "Father Confessor," for she too has her secrets, her venom, her lusts. He never touches her but for her hand and her crone-like fingers.
It is to Nadja however that he has decided to remain grounded, connected. For her, too, he has given up the drink, the three-o’clock whiskeys, the bottle of Beaujolais at dinner, the Armagnac before bed. Of course, he has lied. He is always aware of his duplicity, for he said, in a moment of self-incriminating fury, that she would never again see him with a drink in his hand. And he keeps that promise, to be sure. But he continues when she is not there, when he is alone, when she is away.
"Ah, they’re not going to do anything, ya big baby," she teases as she walks him up the scrubbed steps of the dental offices. "Not today at least. They just want to see what’s wrong. I doubt if they’ll do anything." Behind them traffic wheels steely and smokey.
He doubts her doubt and lets her handle the insurance forms and the new patient forms. In true fear, he watches a soap opera on the television, high up in the corner of the waiting area. She returns and smiles and pats his leg.
"You’ll be fine."
He knows he will not.
The cleaning is painful. He considers leaving at this point, but stays on out of resignation rather than shame. He imagines the dentist chair as an allegory of life itself so he needs stick it out. His jaw twinges sharply as he bites down on the X-ray tabs. He does as he is told. They take pictures from several angles, wheeling a long tubular lens towards and away from his mouth, and later they show him the film. With a pencil, they point out the dark shadows up in the roots of his skeletal image. There is infection. Other appointments are made with more specialized dentists. They are far enough in the future that he plans on forgetting. He knows that she will not.
On the way home, he considers asking her if he could break his shallow promise with a few drinks for the pain, but then decides against it. He understands that they are both deceiving each other. He must let it go on.
Mam tells him that her grandmother is a witch. One of the ancient folk who know about the shapes of roots and the patterns of tea-leaves. She understands the meanings of dreams and of bones on a table and of the splitting of a fig. Dark-eyed Mam explains that a dream about teeth is revealing. Powerful. If in the dream the tooth causes pain, then the dreamer will soon hear of a loved one lost. If, however, the tooth is in pain and falls out on its own, then the dreamer himself is marked. She tells him this that afternoon, when he has called her with birthday greetings. He begins the call both loving and nostalgic, but hangs up shaken. He will not sleep. Not chance dreaming.
He tells Nadja about the dreams, about teeth and how they point to death. She had known Mam once, had feared her, but considers her now merely annoying.
Afraid to sleep, he leaves the house that evening, abandoning Nadja to whatever dreams might visit her alone. He walks to McLoughlin’s, his local, to salve both teeth and fears with beloved Jameson’s. Traffic is light, and the evening still grey in this northern clime where sunset stretches quietly, softly, until of a sudden between ten and eleven one notices the blackness. The entrance to McLoughlin’s twinkles with tiny, fairy lights that he associates with Christmas, but which seem tonight like a galaxy of stars outlining the windows and doors. The building is darker than the pewter sky around it. Inside, in the corner, Mim sits, head in hands, no beast by her feet tonight. Her skin shines forth from within the dimness of the bar.
"You look horrible," she says, bending her head forward for him to kiss her cheek.
"I’ve been to the dentist. And I must go back."
She merely nods.
He wonders if she knows of Mam, if he could explain the dream of teeth. He orders a whiskey, and sips slowly, swishing the liquor around his teeth. Quickly, he orders another.
"Are you in for the long term? Cause I’m leaving after I finish this."
"I don’t want to sleep. I mustn’t."
In the doorway an old one stands. She is selling paper poppies for the Legion. The barman sends her out.
"She can stand out there, but not in here," he explains to those closest to the door.
He continues to Mim. "I am out for the night. I can’t go home."
Both Mam and Mim know of Nadja.
"Are you staying here or moving on? You can come with me if you want."
He does not answer, so she stands, kisses him on the top of the head and leaves him there, alone. He watches her pass through the doorway, sees the crest of her white feathery hair pass in front of the high-set window, and decides, himself, to join her. Along the river, they walk like two odd birds: she, tall, graceful, and heron like. He, some flightless, squat aboriginal creature.
Mim’s home is a world of sharp angles and surfaces. There is much glass and polished stone. Cats slink behind his legs, birds breathe behind covered cages, the dog lies before the door. There is athletic coupling on the floor, hashish in the bed, bracing tumblers of gin during a bath. Treacly music sounds anonymously from speakers within the walls. Again the fumbling and groping. Again the drinks, the smoke. Light- headed and nauseated, he rushes to the back door and spews in the garden. He showers again. Mim sleeps face-down, diagonally across her bed. A patterned sheet crosses her bottom. He dresses quietly, steps over the dog and lets himself out into the darkness.
He usually calls Mam when she’s at work, so now he must look in the book for her number. He tries three different phone-kiosks before he finds one with its book intact. He rips the page out, brings it closer to his face, so he can see the number. She answers sleepily.
"It’s me." He envisions her in her bed, a voluminous night gown, her hair down and flowing darkly.
"Hello?" She pretends she does not know him, pretends it’s a wrong number.
"I have not dreamed." He hears the husband, hears the phone replaced on the cradle. It falls softly.
The sun once again has risen and he sleeps, his back supported by the false Tudor beams of McLoughlin’s exterior. His shoes are wet with dew and his skin tightens with a matinal stickiness. He reviews the night. Mim and her glossy flat. The call to Mam. The return to McLoughlin’s. He remembers the dream. He was on the beach. White houses rose against blue sky. There were steep cliffs, onto which flowering shrubs clung precariously, tossing rhythmically in the white breeze. His tooth had pained him throughout. He walked along the long pebbly beach, holding his hand against his face. But it was there, he had not lost it in the dream.
He thinks of Nadja now. How it must be she, the loved one who, he was sure to learn, had died. Surely, a toothache means the death of a loved one. Mam had said so. He sees her dead. He sees himself alone, with morticians and priests, cousins and kin. He imagines himself giving the eulogy? Would they expect it of him? Could he do it? Sitting there in the parking lot against the stucco and timber, he feels his eyes filling with tears. He regrets all that he had done and all that he had failed to do. He thinks of what he will say there at the front of the church on the day of her funeral and his speech makes him sob. He wishes she were with him now, for he does not think he can go on without her.
He trudges home, in the morning traffic. The Vietnamese market already has arranged its cut flowers in tiers of buckets outside the shop. A businessman enters the Dry Cleaners with a handful of shirts. With unwavering faith, Mrs. Casey scrubs the three steps to her house. Having turned onto Woodhill, he stares at the emergency vehicles and police cars, as if he had expected them, as if they were necessary. He does not move, but watches blankly, rubbing his cheek. A policeman walks down the steps carrying a large gun in a clear plastic bag. Two others bring a burly, bearded man from the house. The man is crying.
"I thought it was him. He was calling my wife. I meant it for him."
The police tell him to say nothing.
In the early morning, within the pulse of flashing blue and red light, the bearded man still does not see his man, who stands against a grey-dishrag sky, numbly watching.
Copyright © J.P. Bohannon 2003
J.P. Bohannon’s fiction and poetry has appeared in The Irish Edition, The Santa Barbara Review, The Baltimore Review, ART/LIFE and Oasis. He lives outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
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