Cover Story: Mercantile Library Short Story Competition: Second Place Winner

Open Wide

Oct 5, 2005 at 2:06 pm

Here is how it opens.

You come home from work and retrieve the newspaper the paperboy has thrown — ever so consistently, you believe — into your bed of petunias, the delicate flowers crushed against the newsprint like bright, melted crayons.

You stand on tiptoes and reach up to the mailbox. Someday, you will lower it so you won't have to dip your hand into the darkness, hoping a daddy long-legs hasn't taken up residence along the rusted bottom.

You have mail. A catalog, an electric bill, an envelope marked "current resident." You smile at your existence.

You fish through your purse for your keys, extracting them along with a crumpled foil gum wrapper and a ponytail holder. When will you get organized, you ask yourself. When will you make sense?

This is when you get distracted by the tools. There, perched on your doorknob, leaning against the doorframe is a set of small, rusted instruments sunk into a chunk of dirty Styrofoam. If you had to venture a guess about the tools, you would say "medieval torture chamber" or "burglary with black ski mask."

You move closer, puzzled and excited by this new moment in your life. Could it be a break-in? Of all the houses, why yours? You swell with importance.

Gently lifting this mystery — only touching the Styrofoam in case the crime lab needs to dust the instruments for fingerprints — you imagine yourself on the evening news, describing how your regular day, your so-called life, suddenly turned peculiar. You have on your red sweater, the one that accents the copper highlights in your upswept hair. You humbly accept the kind words and accolades bestowed upon you by the FBI for aiding in the capture of this hardened criminal. You say, "It was nothing, really," in a casual-no-bigee-nonchalant way that you hope conveys it was something. Really.

You push on the door. Still locked. Upon further inspection of the tools, you conclude someone has left you dental instruments.

Picks and miniature axes and knives and things that hurt. You are sure the tools have hard-to-pronounce clinical names but are unsure why a dentist is trying to break into your house instead of your mouth.

Perhaps your dentist-robber is obsessed with opening things more than mouths. It is the challenge, the power of prying into something closed up tight, reaching the tiniest crevice, scratching and poking and prodding until the surface gives way to the nerve, exposed and twitching. Perhaps your dentist-robber is addicted to the smell of fear in his victims' saliva and the astonished look on their faces as he digs and digs through their belongings.

This is when you run your tongue over your implant, that fake part of you. You remember how at age ten your dentist held your shoulder down with his elbow to extract your chipped tooth — the one you lost when you fell out of the apple tree. There was the whir of the drill and the sweat shining on your dentist's bald, marble head as your mother sat in the corner, rosary beads slipping through her hands, praying this would save you from orthodontia and an ugly teenage mouth.

The dog's whining reminds you to open the door, which you do slowly, in case your dentist-robber is still inside. You stop in the foyer, listening. Your house is noiseless — save for the dog's panting — and empty.

You throw the tools, the mail, the paper, your purse, your keys down on the sofa. Your house is too quiet, too dark, so you turn on every light you pass. There now, that's better.

You listen for the dentist-robber but decide your paranoia is better suited for a screenplay in which you aren't the star. You are not that important.

You call your non-dentist, non-robber husband, taking one of the tools out of its block. You open your mouth but think better of it. As the phone rings, you wonder if your husband left the tools for you s some kind of symbol, a metaphor of your relationship, that he thinks it needs a root canal or maybe that your morning breath is no longer endearing. But he is not that kind of husband.

He answers on the seventh ring. He is not a first-ring man. You love this about him only when his rule applies to people in non-dentist-robber emergencies.

You tell him about the tools and he calls it "an interesting turn of events." An event! Yes, you are that important. Your life is exciting, original. Like landing on the moon! Like creating the polio vaccine! Like curing cancer!

He changes the subject, telling you that something very serious is happening at that very moment which is why he needs to end this conversation very shortly. You walk up the steps — "uh-hmmm, oh, my, well, of course I'm listening" — and check the closets, the shower, under the bed for the dentist-robber. You enjoy a pee, cradling the phone between neck and shoulder. You are a good wife. You multi-task. You do.

Back down the steps, "why not?, that's awful, typical, typical, uh-hmmm" — you open your kitchen cabinets, marveling at the rice in its bag, piled grain on grain, patiently waiting to hit the water so it can become something more. That rice. Your days.

When your husband hangs up, you sit on the sofa with the instruments poised on the armrest. Your living room is crowded with things: piles of old paper, books, chairs that don't match, your slippers, his ashtray, a dirty dish, the tacky European knick-knack you never did like, the dog's chewed-up bone, three pens, an unmarked videotape. The clutter makes no sense. You feel more empty.

And there's the fireplace with its crumbling layers of paint covering the original marble. The white layer followed by the red and then the brown. It is the strangest thing, you think, to spoil the natural beauty. You wonder who would do such a thing. What was so wrong in the first place? How do you get the real thing back?

It is too much for you to consider so you flip through a magazine, not so much reading it as listening to the sound the pages make when you turn them in your Quiet House. The sound says lonely.

As you turn another perfume-laced page, you think three thoughts at the same time:

1. Why does your husband love you?

2. Will you get breast cancer like that woman on page 68?

3. How would a dentist make love?

You can't answer Number One even though there's a quiz you can take on page 125 to help you rate your husband's love meter. Love is a mystery, you say out loud to yourself. A surprise dental set on your doorknob.

Your answer to Number Two, "Will I get breast cancer?" is "Probably not." You're not that much of a hypochondriac, you declare to the dog, as your hand wanders absently over your left breast.

Your answer to Number Three, dentist lovemaking, is still forming. Your dentist is gentle, soft-handed but determined. In control. He searches your mouth with his tongue, polishes your skin with his slow strokes, opens your life wide for you. He melts you like cotton candy, your pink sugar puddles staining his sheets.

You decide all three answers need a second opinion.

"What did you say they were?" your best friend says to you through the phone. "Mackenzie, get off your brother's leg," she says away from you.

"Dental tools."

"Who would leave those? MACKENZIE ... I mean it!"

"That's why I'm calling," you say, already seeing where this conversation is going. Your friend's house is noisy, alive, frightening, a place you wouldn't survive.

"Sorry," your friend says, exasperated and uninterested in you. "You were saying?"

"I wasn't really. I swear my head is hollow."

"That's great. Can I call you ..."

Your friend's child hangs up on you.

The dog jumps on the sofa and you stroke her, your fingers sinking deep into her fur. She is soft and comfortable — velvet, velour, cashmere, marble, the small of your husband's back. It irritates you, this softness. You grab the supple folds of skin at her neck, holding tightly like mother's teeth, until the feeling yields. This is when you decide you could never be a mother. How would you let go? What would be left to hold onto?

You hum a little tune to fill up the space between you and your dog, anger and love, teeth and tongue. You like how the tune fills your Quiet House, the echo disappearing into the walls.

You poke the dog with an instrument, the one that looks like a crooked finger. Then you run it down her back, making s-shapes in her fur. You gently pry open her mouth to scrape a tooth. You say, "Open wide" like the dentist would and then, "This won't hurt a bit." She growls and nips the instrument, just missing your finger. Your tongue runs over your own teeth, this time stopping at the hole where your wisdom tooth pushed its way through, crying, "Get me out of this overcrowded mouth." You wonder why some teeth are so wise.

You think about your teeth and how much you don't think about them. They are just there, a part of you that you have taken for granted for too many years.

The phone rings. You lie on the sofa and listen to the answering machine. Your teeth have made you sad, sad that they don't measure up in importance like your hands or your eyes or even your hair, which you have definitely spoiled with overpriced stylists and designer shampoo.

You hear a familiar voice, a friend's voice. An acquaintance, really.

The man's voice says it left some tools at your door. The voice says it got them at the flea market for you. It says it remembered you wanted to uncover that lovely marble fireplace, rescue it from a bad paint job. The voice says it hopes the tools are helpful, to call when you have a free minute.

You lay very still and look at the fireplace with its paint and its marble all jumbled and confused, first one thing, then another. It doesn't know it has ruined your event, your dentist-robber, your peculiar life. But it has. It must know you want it all back.

You pick up a tool and place the blade against the fireplace. You carve your initials, first very small, then again a little larger, in the bottom corner. The marble is scarred now, will always carry your scars. When your husband comes home, you will tell him you want the marble painted over after all.

Outside, you hear a child shriek excitedly. He has been chosen. He is "It" in a game of tag.