A short story
“Teeth” is a short story of mine, just published as a chapbook by rob mclennan’s Ottawa-based above/ground press, a powerhouse of avant-garde and experimental poetry for nearly thirty years. In 2020, during peak COVID, above/ground press started a prose imprint called prose/naut. “Teeth” is its 20th chapbook.
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Here’s my introduction to rob mclennan’s “A Short Film About My Father,” published in Numéro Cinq a while back.
Herewith a short fiction, a short modernist fiction, terse words carved out of the white space of the page, a dramatic meditation on fathers, marriage, and history splashed against a screen of absence, a gem of concision which is yet replete with place (that Ontario landscape reeling by) and literary reference. rob mclennan is a Canadian writer, indefatigable blogger and critic; we are both, coincidentally, in the current issue of Fence, a serendipitous conjunction.
Rob is prolific, his press is prolific, he is an energetic and ebullient promoter of the lunar out-there of letters (as opposed to the earth-bound commercial publishing ecosystem), publishing fast and cheaply, underground almost, samizdat, but getting the work into print. A noble entrepeneur of the arts.
“Teeth” is from the lunar out-there. At its heart, the story is a romantic comedy set in a dentist’s office. The hero experiences satori during a root canal with Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels playing the background. "I have just seen the universe in a bicuspid, I think." Originally, it was all going to be one sentence (with a LOT of comma splices), written on the principle I outlined in my last substack:
Most writers and readers think that telling a realistic story is important. Get the details down, present scenes, record the dialogue, tell about everyone’s childhood memories. What I generally think is important is shaking up the reader’s synapses, creating fizz. Think of a sentence as a one-way street. Suppose you just stay on the street for two hours, with the same housing developments and strip malls the whole way. Now suppose there’s a detour in the first block, you have to drive up on the sidewalk, but there’s a young couple there with a dog and a toddler, your appointment is important, you try to get around, hit a parked police car, you exit your vehicle and begin to run up the street, you still haven’t got past the first block, you duck down someone’s driveway, after following various lanes and sidestreets, you find yourself back on the original street, you can see your car a block away, no time to retrieve it, you have to push on, there’s a short cut just ahead—
I had a great deal of fun reading about teeth for “Teeth”. Most of what I read didn’t make it into the story, but, my goodness, there is an entire world inhabited by dentists, oral surgeons, and dental hygienists mostly unknown by the rest of us. And the language of teeth is gorgeous.
Tiny threads of the story are autobiographical. I once had a dentist who had a beach house in Uruguay (he also owned race horses—I was sitting with him in the grandstand at Saratoga once when his horse won a race). I do have a crush on my dental hygienist (whose name is Julie, by the way), and I once had the strangest, most relaxing root canal EVER. I firmly believe, as happens in my story, that the root canalist (very young, female) auto-suggested drowsiness by telling me an anecdote about her own experience falling asleep during treatment in dental school.
Otherwise, this is all made up in the writing of the sentences.
Since “Teeth” is a print publication, you’ll have to buy a copy to read all of it. For ordering information, look HERE.
Teeth, the opening pages
I went to see Hackenfeller, my dentist, on Thursday, not to see Hackenfeller himself, although I have nothing against him — he has been my dentist for half-a-dozen years without incident — but to have my teeth cleaned by Clara, his dental hygienist, a large, voluptuous, melancholy, white-blond woman of thirty-four whose husband left her eight months ago after an undiagnosed case of Lyme disease developed into an auto-immune disorder that causes her debilitating pain — she told me that at night, when she tries to sleep, it is as if her blood had turned to acid. She can barely keep her job as a dental hygienist let alone have a relationship with a man or any kind of social life and thinks constantly of suicide, has daily suicidal thoughts even when the pain abates and she can dream of happiness again. Of course, Hackenfeller won't dismiss her because of what happened that one time when his marriage was on the rocks, despite her inability to work regular hours, her tendency to leave the chair in the midst of a gum examination, her brown studies, and general inattentiveness (patients have complained) and her habit of turning normal dental hygienist chit-chat into a litany of existential woes and complaints, all in code, of course, nothing overt, when she says "my cat Nigel," she means her husband Brad, as in "My cat Nigel was overly sensitive to my condition, and when the pains became unbearable, he fled one night after I inadvertently left the back door open taking the trash out."
"I hope he has not been run over by a car or eaten by foxes," she says as she hooks the inverted J-shaped suction tube into the corner of my mouth and begins probing the unhealthy tissue between my bicuspids. I know for a fact that her husband has a new lover already, that the new lover is pregnant, and that there is some question as to whether or not he was sleeping with her before he actually escaped from Clara (through the back door inadvertently left ajar). As is true of most undiagnosed cases of Lyme disease that develop into auto-immune disorders, there is always a question of veracity. In the minds of the medically uneducated there is always a niggling doubt (completely unjust to the sufferer) as to the true nature of the vague and mysterious symptoms of Lyme-based auto-immune disorders. Did Clara become ill as a subconscious expression of her agonized suspicions over her husband's infidelity, suspicions that she could not acknowledge because she didn't actually have them, only felt them, so to speak, sub- or un-consciously? Is she now, it is in all our minds, only acting out the trauma of a personal defeat and humiliation that she pretends not to know about? Are we all serial victims of her infectious self-victimization? Of course, it's probably true, as my sister Hulka says, that all men fall in love with their dental hygienists just as all women fall in love with their personal trainers. "And in your case" — your uttered in a typical tone of dismissive ennui — "we know all about your fixation on large breasts and depressed women who smell of head & shoulders shampoo and oil of oregano, Mother in short." (I will address this vile innuendo at the proper time.) But I cannot gainsay the preternatural feeling of peace and well-being that settles upon me as Clara fits the paper bib at my throat and adjusts the light beam into my intimate orifice, locus of taste, speech, and the tenderest gestures of love. The clatter of instruments is pure anticipatory bliss. The rustle of her starched smock, the smell of her hair, the sussuration of her adenoidal breath by my cheek, the faint, acrid miasma of nervous sweat, and the gentle palpating touch of her fingers are like the act of love itself.
She wears a knobby silver ring in her nose and half her skull is shaved, the remaining hair gallantly swept over and down the other side, falling into her face when she bends to peer into my mouth. Her look is a piece of bravado, unexpected in a person so insecure and socially awkward, and for that especially endearing. I long to rub my fingers in the soft, shorn stubble but have so far failed to advance our intimacies beyond professional courtesies and small talk inherent to the situation, although it is our habit to share a good deal of medical information not normally thought of as small talk — it is a form of flirtation for shy people. I know about Clara’s itching blood, the occupational therapist who made rude advances, her urine color morning and night (and what that might mean), the cyst in her left breast (oh, says he bravely, might I...), her sweaty thighs (constant, even now, as we speak, perhaps), her irregular, astonishingly copious menstruation, her astigmatism, her migraines, the floating spots in front of her eyes, the traveling bone pains, her chronic fatigue and insomnia (she is often “too tired” to sleep but nods off while driving, which has led to two minor accidents and one pending lawsuit), her MRI, the glass dildo her color therapist told her would relieve back aches (apparently, ineffective), the profile she uploaded to a dating site (and the 89 sympathetic responses from available, nurturing men who liked romantic movies, candle-lit dinners and walks on the beach). Above all, I know of her sad frustration that no one has yet been able to diagnose her true condition, to read the ciphered message her body is sending. She keeps changing doctors and therapists in hopes of finding the one to unlock the secret of her discomfort, believing somehow that our natural state is one of pain free harmony, regular sleep cycles and bowel movements, scanty periods, and the company of a decent, understanding man (who might, now and then, help relieve those back aches). When she does not have her fingers in my mouth, I often respond in kind, outlining the after effects of the bullying I underwent in kindergarten at the hands of a precocious classmate named Carmen (called the “class wiggly girl” by a teacher who did not think children listen), my annual colonoscopies, my erectile dysfunction (my color therapist says I just need a gentle and attentive partner), my agoraphobia, heart palpitations, hernia, hammer-toe, nervous vomiting (I had to rush to the bathroom when I told her this), and night sweats, not to mention the eighteen years of therapy, the Wellbutrin and the Zulpidem to sleep, and my chronic running nose (my color therapist says this is related to the erectile dysfunction and would dry up if I had a gentle and attentive partner).
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Great laughs reading the first bits of this story!
Fabulous! Witty and poignant both-- and all managed in such short compass! You sure know what you are doing, friend.