Bragg sleeps alone. Thirty-four. This morning, he wakes up with one less tooth in his mouth, a central incisor. What his dentist, later and while looking at a dental chart, calls the patient’s Number Nine.
Bragg’s Number Nine, root to crown, a crucial corn-on-the-cob tooth, is not in his mouth. It’s on the pillow beside him. Bragg rubs sleep from his eyes. That first glimpse of the tooth sends his tongue darting to the front of his mouth. An absence. A canyon.
Bragg taps the tooth with his fingernail to check its hardness. The off-white tooth is almost yellow on the back for a world that only ever sees brushed fronts. The Number Nine looks a bit grizzly there, propped up on a flat island of dried drool like a continent on an antique map. It’s been there a while. Stale. Bloodless. Evidence of a heinous act. Bragg closes his eyes again, knowing that when he really wakes up, the tooth will be snug in the gums where it belongs. That’s the way nightmares work.
His tongue flits around in the open space of the Number Nine slot. The gum section that once supported a tooth is smooth flesh. Had a tooth had ever been there at all?
But it doesn’t hurt. There’s no clue, no reason for Bragg’s tooth to be on his pillow rather than safe in his mouth. He opens his eyes and decides to have at the day, if he can. These incidents in bad dreams don’t last long, and then they are over, and one is made optimistic by an early morning scare that proved to be nothing.
Except this is really happening. Bragg stands at the bathroom mirror and considers his smile. Mouth closed. Dark hair, short on the sides, longer on top, kept the same by haircuts every two weeks since his late teens. While his face has always been square, Bragg has recently felt some concern about what he considers a rounding of the jaw and chin—he thinks himself handsome by the standards of those who, on a day-to-day basis, summon the courage to leave the house. He tells himself he is vain, but he also asks himself, who isn’t?
Bragg opens his mouth and lifts the top lip. Two years of braces in his mid-twenties closed the small gaps he once carried between each tooth; that cosmetic correction erased the perception that Bragg still had baby teeth. But now, a cavern punctuates his face, near dead centre. He holds the Number Nine in his left hand and then closes his mouth.
Beyond the bathroom, the sun is out. The sky is blue enough to improve the mood of those who need weather to tell them how to feel. Someone will go to the park on a whim. Offices will be short staffed as people skip work after fake coughs on a phone call. A couple in love will be more in love for a few hours. It was a long winter. It’s a long life. Today it will look like the whole world is kissing.
Bragg draws the venetian blinds closed and decides that today is a terrible day for a crisis. Surely there is a good explanation for this, and it will come in due time. He cannot be so unique as to be the only person in history whose tooth has left his mouth with the gums concealing the trauma.
The answer doesn’t come.
So Bragg calls a dentist, though most of his discussion is with Dr. Parish’s receptionist Brutus.
“It’s just . . . gone, Bragg?”
“Yeff, Bru’us. It’s gaw-n.”
Bragg’s F’s intrude on words. F’s have half their power. T’s and V’s mutate, unrecognizable. An L requires the craft of tongue emphasis solely on his right incisor, where it can bear the full brunt of its phonology. Brutus tells Bragg to put the tooth in milk and get to the office right away. A fly on the wall hears Bragg say, “Why wood I pug’za toof in a bag of miwk?” before Bragg hangs up on Brutus.
Maybe I’m evolving, Bragg thinks. Then another thought replaces it. I am falling to pieces.
The Number Nine swims in a clear plastic bag of half & half (he had no milk) and dangles from Bragg’s hand as if he was carrying a lantern to a midnight search party. Or would an onlooker see that Bragg carries the bag gently, as though he was protecting a goldfish home from the pet store? Or would anyone who saw him think anything at all?
He limps into his car, a two-seater, and lays the bag in the passenger seat. He secures the bag with a seatbelt, more for the tooth than the bag. The seatbelt squeaks to remind him that no one has sat in the seat beside him in a year. Bragg catches a glimpse of himself in the rear-view mirror and opens his mouth to check if this has all been some misunderstanding, the bad dream extended a little too long. Absence. Canyon.
He starts the car and hates himself a bit for wallowing in something as stupid as loneliness when there are real problems everywhere.
The two pieces of him, one a driver and one a passenger, crawl along in the morning’s slow traffic. Bumpers on bumpers. Rims on rims. Those who ignored the potential of Mr. Blue Sky and go to work provide the bricks for the wall of gridlock keeping Bragg from his effortless path to Dr. Parish, DDS. From the confines of his car, Bragg looks right to a boxy brown four-door idling beside him. The sedan is from another era. 1983 or something. He makes eye contact with the sedan’s driver, a middle-aged man who gives him a nod of solidarity, or perhaps he nods for no reason at all. People nod for no reason all the time, and how can Bragg know the man’s intentions? Bragg flashes to a lifetime of unsolicited advice, sentences that begin, “You know, someone like you Bragg . . .” or “Guys like you and me . . .” or other misinterpretations, as though personality was abstract art which someone else needed to decode for him.
Perhaps the 1983 Man in the sedan smiles as reflex because he is uncomfortable acknowledging a stranger. Perhaps 1983 Man is mindful of the idea that those caught in rush hour traffic are at once the victims and perpetrators of their own predicament. Perhaps he would make the joke, why do they call it rush hour when it moves so slow?
Bragg can offer him nothing familiar in this moment. He unwedges the bag of cream from the seatbelt, raises it for 1983 Man to see, and smiles. The man’s face crumples up into something more familiar to Bragg, confusion and, as if by magic, his lane of traffic unclogs. The boxy-brown vanishes into a horizon of cars.
Bragg puts the bag in his lap. He feels the chill of the half & half through the front of his jeans and onto his balls. It’s a nice feeling for that moment. He would do it again in freer times. For the rest of the trip, Bragg keeps his eyes forward and breathes through his nose as the half-and-half warms to an undrinkable temperature, and the cool relief disappears.
Dr. Parish’s rubber glove fingers around in Bragg’s mouth. A hunk of metal pries Bragg’s mouth open. A dental mirror taps on his remaining teeth from time to time. A stark light overhead keeps Bragg’s eyes shut for him. The mirror taps and taps and that music lets Bragg knows the dentist has no idea what’s happening. Everything about this visit is cold, as though Bragg was an alien that scientists recovered in a New Mexico desert crash.
“Gums are intact where the central incisor should be. No sign of a blow. Minnie, could you pass me the tooth.”
Bragg feels warm cream drip onto his face as Minnie, Dr. Parish’s dental hygienist, passes the tooth over him. “Sorry, Bragg,” she says as the long white suction device that normally slurps mouth saliva goes to work on the droplet of cream on his cheek—a little too close to the soft skin under Bragg’s eye. As she pats everything dry, Bragg can feel warmth from Minnie’s hand through a latex glove. Her warmth is surprising, and he wonders if she is suffering from a fever. “All clean,” Minnie says.
At the best of times, Bragg hates dentists: the powerlessness he feels lying under adults, the light magnifying imperfections (particularly anything up or around the nostrils). There was no time for the usual pre-game of heading to the dentist today: the frantic brushing of teeth, mouthwash, flossing—just to avoid the accusations that he wasn’t a partner with the dentist’s office in his own oral health, how dare he. And now here’s Parish and Minnie, trying to figure out the Number Nine, while no doubt distracted by the snot and nose hair . . . disgusting . . . Bragg knows they hate their jobs because of people like him and the horrors trapped at the nose and mouth holes . . .
“It’s pretty beautiful out there, isn’t it, Bragg?” Minnie says. “Plans for the weekend?”
Bragg shakes no, knowing that even if he did have plans, a missing front tooth has put an end to them.
“So there’s no pain? No discomfort?” Dr. Parish is all business.
“You just woke up this morning and it was . . . out? Like, on the pillow, you say?”
“I’ll be right back.” Dr. Parish exits the room.
Minnie winks at Bragg as she removes the metal bars, “cheek pullers” she calls them, holding his jaw agape. She tilts the lamp away and there’s a moment of relief until Bragg remembers where he is.
Bragg is sure that Parish has no clue what’s happening. That he’s gone to consult a textbook or call a colleague, some smarter, richer dentist in the financial district. Parish made eyes before he left the room, telling Minnie, I have no idea what is wrong with this guy’s mouth hole. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Minnie stands up with a tray of dental tools covered in Bragg’s slobber. The vertical blinds sway as her body passes them on her way out of the room. Slivers of this beautiful fucking day seep into the room, and gently rock Bragg to sleep, as though he were relaxing on a dock at a rich dentist’s summer lake house.
“Bragg, wake up. Bragg.”
He is relaxed and warm. He doesn’t open his eyes, sort of remembering where he is, hoping that a dream that feels real is merely a sign of an evolved spiritual being, hoping that he is now in the dream-within-a-dream phase that would put his Zen ex in a tizzy. The dentist’s lamp flashes hot and his eyes open, squint, then close again. Minnie touches his shoulder, and shakes him softly. “Bragg, wake up.”
She looks different, more serious, but not grim in her neck-to-ankle turquoise uniform. Her black hair is now pulled back tight in a bun, a look of, what is it? . . . horror . . . on her otherwise flawless skin. Does she know she has good skin? Everyone is vain.
Minnie is betraying her cutaneous gift with a look of outward concern now. Could she tell Bragg was examining her? Is she turning against him? Story of his life. Bragg forces his mind to stop thinking of her appearance, or his own, just in case she can read his shallow thoughts. Bragg is sure that people he is attracted to can read his mind, so as much as possible, he tries to let her know he isn’t a complete monster in his own thoughts. He closes his eyes and thinks, I am not a monster. He opens his eyes, and hopes she will transmit back, I hear you.
“Dr Parish, come quickly!”
Parish enters, hovers. Age has been good to him, if it has noticed him at all. Bragg is at it again, noticing his dentist’s hair as that blonde-grey of blonde men going grey. His skin is orangey-brown, not fake tanned, but clearly the sign of a man who doesn’t wait for winter to end to find some sun. Maybe he has a lake house and a dock . . .
Bragg notices that neither Parish nor Minnie look at his face. Instead, they look directly at his chest. Parish says, “Could you open your mouth, Bragg?”
Bragg opens his mouth.
“His Number Eight, Doctor?” Minnie says.
Parish picks up a tooth from the paper bib on Bragg’s chest and holds it under the lamp. “Right central incisor.”
Bragg sweeps his tongue across his mouth for a survey. The front gap has doubled. L’s will never sound the same. “Ca’ I get’ a tiggue?”
Parish holds the two front teeth together, reuniting them after an uncertain time apart, for Bragg to see. “I’m thoroughly at a loss here, Bragg. You’re a real mystery. In the meantime, if any others come out, keep them in cold milk. Keep them nourished until we can figure this out.”
Parish plunks the Number Eight and Number Nine into the bag of half & half. “Let’s give these a bit of a refrigerate before we send Bragg on his way, Minnie.”
“I ha’ to lee?” Bragg asks.
“Will you just be at home?” Minnie asks.
Bragg nods and they sit him up in the dentist chair. He blows his nose. Relief.
“Do you have anyone we can call?”
Braggs shakes his head no. He feels the harsh of his lonely no.
“It’s not so bad,” Minnie says to him. “I’ve seen much worse situations. Did you know that country singer LeAnn Rimes had baby teeth until she got famous?”
Bragg thinks Minnie is bullshitting him, but she looks him in the eye, and it is a kind look. It is a look he cannot remember seeing in such a very long time.
Bragg is slumped on his sofa, fiddling the remote, moving the television channels. A fast-food commercial reminds him of hunger. Putting food into his mouth seems incongruous. He sulks to the kitchen.
The refrigerator is a grocery list of things he can no longer eat: a Granny Smith, leftover pizza, expired items in plastic containers. He picked up a new jar of milk and, in a small jar, Number 8 and Number 9 bathe in 2%. In the cupboard beside the stove, a bit of salvation: tomato soup. Bragg wrenches the can-opener around the rim of the soup can, pops the lid off, and tosses it. He drinks the thick mush right from the can. The cold soup is rusty. The can has leeched into any semblance of vegetables that once made up the mixture. It tastes like blood iron. The blood Bragg thinks should be in the mouth of someone who has just today lost two front teeth. He chokes a bit on the soup and it feels like a golf ball has passed through his throat. Bragg follows with water to carry the soup down into his stomach, but it does little to change the metallic aura in his mouth. He predicts he will vomit and stands at the sink over last night’s dinner dishes. When the puke doesn’t come, he leaves the kitchen.
And then he is back on the sofa. The low flicker of the television is the only source of light he wants in the room. He watches the weather channel. He leans into this Quasimodo moment, and his stomach growls. He belches, and the moldy soupy taste escapes through his nose. The soup event reaches conclusion.
He flips to the music channel and makes a bargain with some non-specific universal force: if the next video is for a LeAnn Rimes song, everything is going to be okay. A commercial is next. It advertises a complicated piece of at-home gym equipment and promises a better body in only 14 minutes a day.
It’s been 24 hours since Bragg has been back at home . . . . Parish’s office still hasn’t called. Bragg wants a name for his syndrome. An explanation . . . . He is afraid to sleep . . . . He has just slurped leftover pizza mixed with an ounce of water in the blender jug . . . . The shades are drawn and it is night. But then it is morning . . . . He has slept. Though he must have slept twice, since on top of his television are his two bottom incisors. There is now a square in his smile. He takes the small rectangular bottom teeth to the kitchen and pops them into the jar of milk with Number Eight and Number Nine. He doesn’t know what number these newest escaped teeth are…so he keeps it simple by thinking of them as three and four.
Bragg has stopped sleeping, and he hasn’t lost any more teeth, so a mystery is solved. Not how, but certainly when. Caffeine was good at first, but the effect wore off and he needed something stronger. Exercise works if he keeps it at a slow pace: invigoration rather than exhaustion. He practically lives in the shower, knowing that not even his body, careless and rebellious as it is, would allow it to fall asleep if it meant drowning. The first three days were the hardest, when the body begged for rest, but Bragg ignores the voice that says Sleep and now, ten days without sleep, Bragg is winning the battle against this body to keep the teeth in his mouth.
His liquid diet and exercise and lack of sleep have revealed his bones. His ribs are beginning to peek from his torso and his skin is a tedious grey. Bragg has shunned electronics as well, keeping away from the sex and youth immediately searched on a computer, the porn that he once devoured, and decides instead to throw himself into old books with spines stiff from disuse. He started in on an old book of his father’s, Secrets of Ships in Bottles by Peter Thorne, and plans to get his hands on the materials for “Cutty Sark model in round rum bottle.” In a set of encyclopaedias, which have been in storage for at least a decade and that are twenty-some years out of date, having been purchased for him as a kid (baby teeth), Bragg looks up old definitions for terms that would have new meanings by now like “Computer” and “East Germany” . . . He decides he should read the whole set, in order, and he plans to start that tonight after a round of jumping-jacks.
Things Bragg once called boring, like book reading and exercise, now sustain him. He is evolving, he thinks, and the thought holds.
Bragg’s motivation is intense. Keep the teeth. Constant vigilance that the same body he deprives of rest is the same body revolting against him. Body and mind must stay active, no stopping. He will not be his own traffic.
All the lights are on. The curtains are open. Making himself uncomfortable is another trick staving off sleep. He had always wanted to take a crack at exile, to cut himself off from the outside world and quit his crap job at the call centre, but it was always such an empty thought. He had no Zen. Zen was impractical. That’s what he said to his ex once, just as she was on buying her third book on how to become Zen.
Now he’s on sick leave. Paid. There might have been easier ways than losing his teeth, but achieving the power of invisibility feels like an attainable goal. He flirts with making this invisibility business his superpower.
There has been a long gap in time when Dr. Parish’s office finally calls. When Minnie, not Brutus, is on the other end of the line. Bragg doesn’t know how much time has passed. He stopped looking at clocks or calendars, to simplify time. Maybe long periods of isolation wouldn’t feel as long if he lost track of days.
The ring of the phone reminds him that he still has a phone at all. He tells Minnie what he’s up to with sleep deprivation, and she says, “That’s concerning.” She says, “I’m coming over,” and before he has a chance to tell her not to, or to even give her his address, she hangs up.
Bragg opens the N encyclopaedia and reads the half page on Nursing, then the three-quarters page on Florence Nightingale which begins:
1820-1910, English nurse, the founder of modern nursing, b. Florence, Italy. Her life was dedicated to the care of the sick and war wounded. She was called “The Lady with the Lamp” because she believed that a nurse’s care was never ceasing, night or day; she taught that nursing was a noble profession, and she made it so.
Bragg remembers then that Minnie is a dental hygienist, not a nurse, and looks this up in Da-Di. No entry. He wonders if dental hygienists operate under the same code of conduct as nurses. Wonders if a modern encyclopaedia would have an entry on the profession.
Bragg hunts and pecks through Buddhism (B-C), Zen (Wi-Z), Rust (Ro-Si), and Lady with the Lamp (La-M) as four of his teeth, now beyond salvation, float dead in the expired milk at the back his fridge.
Minnie’s hanging around now, and Bragg likes her being there. He hasn’t mastered invisibility just yet. She brings him food. Changes his milk. She’s helping him with his letters, getting him to rethink the new shapes his mouth can make. Bragg has new role models: the artist who learned to paint with his left foot, Def Leppard’s drummer reinventing his gear and technique after losing his right arm in a traffic accident. I too have got this, he thinks. Bragg presses his tongue against his right molar, shifting the lower jaw to create a hard T sound.
He’s been awake for nineteen straight days, and twenty-eight teeth remain in his jaw.
Today, Minnie tells Bragg, “Dr. Parish made you flippers.”
“Flibbers?” Bragg’s bottom lip presses to canines to produce that difficult F and he whiffs on the double P sound.
“Temporary false teeth. You know, until we can do implants. Maybe we can even get you out of the house.”
“Where woul’ I go? I’ve gaw everything I need righ’ here. Books. No ‘istractions. I’m becoming what I always shoul’ve been.”
“But once you’ve got your teeth…”
Bragg scratches his nose to cover his mouth. Takes heavy nasal breaths. “So like…wha’?”
“I just figured we could go somewhere sometime.”
“Like a d-ate?”
“We shoul’ put the grow-sries away.”
At the top of one the bags Minnie’s brought over, Bragg spies a yellow envelope with his name on it. Minnie snatches it up and puts it behind her back, but they both know it exists. Bragg shelves the coffee, milk, a bag of apples for applesauce, pineapple for this pineapple-rice dish which liquefies well, black thread for the Cutty Sark in round rum bottle model’s rigging. When he’s done, he pours a glass of milk and sits at the kitchen table, waiting for Minnie to give up the goods on this envelope. “Whu izzit?” he asks.
Bragg puts both elbows on the table and rests the lower half of his face in his hands. It makes him think of the first time he saw her, a surgical mask covering the bottom half of her face. He thinks he remembers half her face behind a mask, but he also remembers thinking she was pretty and how that is such a small part of what she is to him now. So now he doubts she was wearing a mask at all. He will ask her if there’s ever a lull in their conversation.
“Like . . . a card. It’s just . . . something.”
“Can I ha’e i’?”
“It’s just a card. It’s stupid.”
Bragg cannot remember the last time anyone gave him a card. He was a child, certainly, and it was from a parent, even more certainly. He drops his hands from his face and shows her his toothless smile. He reaches across the table and takes the envelope from her fingers. He opens the envelope gently, careful not to tear it, thinking the choice of a yellow envelope denotes a special sort of care that white envelopes do not. On the front of the card, a centered orange flower on a purple background and in black lettering, a pretty standard “Get Well Soon.”
Bragg flips the card open and ignores the stock writing printed on the inner right panel. He looks at the delicate wisps of Minnie’s writing in the card’s left-hand panel.
Bragg. Smile. X. Min.
Bragg gulps the rest of the milk and feels a tremble in his eyelids, like a spasm. “You’re not supposed to read it in front of me. Now it’s awkward,” Min says.
Bragg reaches across the table and puts his hand on hers. He leans across the table and kisses her.
It’s the first time he has ever kissed a woman, and it’s interesting for both of them. His lips push back into his mouth, and he wonders about the fortification teeth must normally provide a kiss. Min pushes her face closer into his, and his top lip has curled to the roof of his mouth. The kiss breaks naturally and they both sit down across from each other at the table.
“Wha’ ew you e’en see in me?”
“What do you mean?”
“Iz this li’e Florens ‘ightingale?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Iz jus . . . I ha’e tis i-nn-er foice. It zays things.”
“I look ter-rible.”
Min giggles intentionally to lighten up what she’ll now say, “You’re very vain, Bragg.”
Bragg shields his mouth with a wide palm as the inner voice tells him she’s looking right at the gaps. But she’s still looking at his eyes. “I’ve seen worse,” she says.
“Worse ‘an this?”
“Like . . . Baby bottle tooth decay. Way worse.”
Bragg hasn’t read this entry in the B-C encyclopedia. He shakes his head no and Min continues. “Mostly happens when parents let their baby sleep with a bottle. The baby sucks on the bottle for so long that their mouths are continually bathed in whatever sugar is in the liquid. It can be lactose from breast milk, formula, juice. And the baby is powerless do anything about it. It’s completely the parents’ fault. The worst thing I ever saw was a mother who put Pepsi in her daughter’s bottle. The little girl came into the office crying. Screaming. Loudest shriek I ever heard. From the rot. It was all I could do not to cry along with her. Her little mouth was red raw. Her teeth were being corroded the minute they popped through her purple little gums. She didn’t know what was wrong with her mouth any more than you know what’s wrong with yours. The difference is, you can manage . . . You can smile.”
Bragg drops his hands. “I doe wah-na l-ose any more t-eeth!”
“You’ll manage,” Min squeezes Bragg’s hand. “I am not here to save you. But we’ll manage.”
Bragg looks in the mirror. Dark circles dominate his face. His hair has gone white in just three weeks. Who is this guy? He counts the remaining teeth in his mouth with his tongue. In twenty-eight sleeps, if he lets sleep happen, they’ll all be gone.
“Min,” he calls and “Minnie,” he calls again.
She doesn’t answer. I am not here to save you, he thinks.
A thing sinks in the same place where he felt the kiss, somewhere starting at the mouth hole but moving almost to a single spot under his balls. Not sexual, but deep within. Like a field of energy in front of his spine. A very peaceful place that he doesn’t have the language for. It is too new for a name. Was this what his ex was talking about when she said words like chakra? He can feel tears, but none come. He steadies himself to cope with the loss of another piece. I didn’t deserve Min, he thinks, so did I dream her? He opens the faucet, lets the cold water run long and loud. He splashes his face with the water over and over and over again so that the dream that she was ever here at all can end. But it won’t end. He has known for a while that this isn’t a dream, and so Min appears behind him. “Were you saying something, Bragg?”
Her hand is on his shoulder. “Let’s go to sleep,” she says, so that tonight he believes he could sleep like a baby.
That night, and for at least the next twenty-eight nights, Bragg will sleep like a baby. Unsure if anyone will be in the space beside him each morning. Unsure if this is a punishment for something he is or something he’s done, and if he is doing anything now to make amends.