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Raymond Walker Fiction

Voltaire’s Toothache

by Raymond Walker

A twinge. A small stab of pain in his upper right jaw. Could be anything. A temporary build-up of gas. A nervous tic.

A festering abscess.

Probably not, he tells himself. And later me. He tells me everything, every tedious detail. He assumes I’m interested.

A person can have these twinges for no reason at all, or at least any reason that they and the health care community in their combined ignorance can determine. We still don’t understand how the body works and aren’t really that far removed from the ancients who relied on chicken guts for diagnoses.

So he tells himself. And me.

At birth we rely upon others to feed and diaper us. In our dotage we depend again on that same charity. In the meantime our bodies are hostage to disease and injury. They are never really ours to command.

That’s how he thinks. Half the time I don’t understand what he is saying.

A couple of weeks later … another twinge.

Instead of making a dental appointment, he makes excuses.  The body will often miraculously heal itself. Well, maybe not often, but sometimes. So he says.

The twinges become more frequent. Sharper. Spontaneous healing seems unlikely, I suggest. Sarcasm is lost on him.

The bit about the medical community being ignorant is mere prevarication, I tell him at supper one night when the hot mashed potatoes makes him yelp. Mere prevarication. God, I’m even staring to talk like him.  I feel like grabbing his ears and smushing his head into his too-hot potatoes. I smile at the thought. He thinks I am being empathetic.

There is a deeper truth, he concedes. An appointment with a medical practitioner is an admission of frailty. It is an admission that the body is corruptible and death inevitable.

That’s just stupid. I blurt it out. I can’t help myself. It is so stupid

I know, he says, with that smirk I have come to loathe.

He rouses me finally in the darkest part of the night, shaking a turned-away shoulder. Do we have stronger painkillers? Where? What is the name of our family dentist anyway?

A root canal may be necessary, the dentist advises the next day during an emergency consultation.

His heart constricts. He knows what that means.

His mouth will be forced agape with metal restraints. His jaw will be frozen with a succession of needles each one bigger than the one before. His knuckles will be white where he grasps the arms of the dentist’s chairs. Muscles, arms, legs, stomach, will be rigid with barely-restrained panic. He will gag on his own saliva even though the nurse hovers over him with her little suction tube.  And even though he is supposed to be safely anesthetized he will feel excruciating pain as the dentist roots for corruption. Smoke and the odour of burning tissue will waft past unnaturally parted lips as rotten bits of himself are ruthlessly filed. His toes will curl as the empty shell of his tooth is crammed with foul-tasting plaster. 

We’ve had this discussion before. Dentists are able to do the most profound surgery with minimal discomfort, I tell him as calmly as I can. I feel like shouting, though. I often feel like shouting these days.

 It’s not so much the pain. It’s the potential for pain that’s unnerving. He admits this is irrational. We fear the future. We regret the past, he says. Yea, yea, yea. I am so sick of his philosophizing. He thinks he’s Yoda.

There’s a problem though.

The offending tooth can’t be pinpointed. Nothing shows on the x-rays. He does have a suspect . . . two down from his left incisor. Either that or the fourth one down, which is also tender.

I have complained about his wishy-washiness. Can we know anything for certain, he says. Even that we exist? 

Why do I bother?

The dentist has three choices: do the procedure on the most likely tooth, send him to a specialist, or wait for the pain to localize. He’ll wait. The tooth isn’t hurting that much.

His conscience nags him. He knows it’s a stupid choice.

He wonders about his conscience at supper. Is it separate from body? From mind? Why does it not speak or fall silent at his command? How can a man boast of free will if he cannot control the voices that command him? 

We never have normal conversations. Why can’t we talk about the weather or gossip about movie stars?

His conscience has my voice, he says.

I turn up the radio.

The next day he is reading on the couch when it occurs to him the ache had become intolerable. How appropriate, he says, hand capping a jaw that is noticeably swollen. For there was never yet philosopher that could endure the toothache patiently. Those aren’t his words, of course. He is quoting from his book. He is always quoting dead people. I asked him once if the living had anything interesting to say. It was like he didn’t even hear.

He phones his dentist. Never mind that he can’t pinpoint the tooth. If necessary, he’ll have all the teeth in the upper right quadrant removed. In fact, the dentist can remove all his teeth. He’ll get dentures.

The dentist is away. Family emergency. Won’t be back in the office until Tuesday.

His shoulders sag. That can’t be right, he says to the receptionist. He sounds like he is about to cry. I am embarrassed for him. Slouching there with his pot belly sagging over his boxers, hand cupping his jaw. He looks old. Feeble. He has no dignity.

The receptionist orders powerful pain killers.

The drugs work. The infection bubbles, but he is insulated from pain. He can survive until Tuesday.

So he thinks.

The pain escalates to a heretofore unimaginable level by Sunday night. The drugs are as useless as an umbrella in a hurricane, he says.

There are not enough words to describe the different levels of pain, it occurs to him as he paces the living room. His original discomfort which he thought severe at the time, is nothing compared to this. It’s the kind of agony a man might feel getting sucked into a jetliner’s engine, except that pain, while severe, is transient. A tooth ache lingers.

I stifle a yawn. It’s getting late.

It’s like hot coals in his mouth, he says.

I hate his whining.

It’s like tens of thousands of tiny, maniacal, demons with dull, serrated blades that have been bewitched so that any injury they do is immediately healed, allowing them to continue their torment throughout eternity, or until his face explodes.

I don’t bother to hide my yawn this time. 

He wonders who will rescue him from the night that has settled in like a nuclear winter.

Who will rescue me from having to listen to somebody who always speaks in metaphors? I’m in bed. I have work in the morning. 

He paces. He’s sorry. He understands I don’t like to see him suffer.

I don’t bother to contradict him.  

Even the deepest bonds of love have been sundered by the fleshless fingers of infection, he says. He sits on the foot of the bed, trapping my feet beneath the covers. Fleshless fingers of infection? I  grit my teeth, pretend I’m asleep.

During the Bubonic Plague, brothers left brothers, husbands deserted wives, wives deserted husbands. He lectures as if I’m one of his history students. Fathers and mothers abandoned their own children untended, unvisited, as if they had been strangers, he says in that irritating voice that tells me he is quoting somebody. What kind of person memorizes a quote about kids being left to die? He is popular with his students. Not so much his colleagues.

He would never abandon me, he says. If I was infected and could not be cured he would infect himself so that we might die together.  

If you love me so much, please shut the fuck up and let me go to sleep. I almost say it. So close. I have to choke back the words.

He moves to the window. Sooner or later we all sleep alone, he mutters to his reflection. He thinks he says something original. If I wasn’t pretending to be asleep, I would sing him the chorus from Cher’s song.

Isn’t it strange though that he can be in such distress, and I, closest to him of all the people in the world, don’t even feel a twinge. Nor could he feel my pain, if I suffered, though he loves me so much he would give his life to make me happy. There is always a gap between us no matter how passionate the embrace. Infinitely small. As wide as the universe. All the millions of people in the world and each one locked away in their own bubbles, isolated in separate realities.

Passionate embraces? Yea right. I almost smile.

Can we really know someone else, or do we just populate the universe with variations of our own personality? The you that I see is different than the you that you see and the I that you see is different than the I that I see, he says. He moans in that aggravating way he has. I want to throw the clock radio at his head. I want to pound the mattress. I want to scream. La la la, I shout in my head, but I can’t drown him out.

The doting husbands sleeping every night for fifteen years beside his wife is ultimately just as much a stranger to her as the man she brushes past in the shopping mall.

I gasp. A small, sharp, inhalation, but he doesn’t notice.

Does he suspect?

No. He’s just babbling. I try to block him out, but I have ensnared myself. I listen, eyes squeezed shut, teeth clenched, pretending to sleep. His breath is like insect legs on my skin. My back itches.

I can’t bear to think of life without you, he says. God, he’s so nauseatingly melodramatic. I stifle a groan. He is silent for a long time, but just as I am drifting off he pipes up again.

Snow is falling on the lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lays buried. Quoting someone, I suppose, but it’s mid August for Christ’s sake. He whispers, but it may as well be shouting. He falls silent again. I count every wheezing breath and imagine myself holding a pillow over his face. Finally, he shuffles downstairs to his library. I offer a silent cheer.

He is waiting when I come downstairs in the morning. He has not died the mewing death of a sick cat expiring in his own feces under an abandoned car. (Yes, even first thing in the morning he talks like this!) He made coffee. Tries to smile when he says good morning. His face is wan. I can’t bear to look at him.

On my way to work I take him to a different dentist who has mercifully agreed to make room in his schedule. I offer my cheek when he tries to kiss me goodbye.

The dentist presses a hot probe against the suspect tooth. The pain stabs from the jaw down to the right ventricle, telling dentist and patient this is the one that needs repair.

Drilling releases the pressure. The pain disappears. He is overwhelmed with gratitude. If he could do more than grunt, he would offer the dentist his first-born son, except his first-born is an often surly adult who rarely visits, so he will settle for paying his dental bill promptly.

This is his sense of humour.

He calls to let me know he is better. Doesn’t want me to worry. Tells me how the dentist laughed at his joke.

I pretend I’m busy with a client.

That night he feels a familiar twinge.

Whom the gods would destroy … he mutters. I don’t hear the rest of the sentence, but I don’t care. A familiar pressure builds. The little men with bewitched knives return.

When I go to bed he is cupping his jaw. He paces In the morning, I return him to the dentist. He begs me to wait. 

The dentist determines, to their mutual astonishment, that he has another abscessed tooth. The root canal will take more than an hour. Happily anesthetized, he comes into the waiting room to warn me.

I’m already on my way out. I don’t care. I’m leaving. He can have the cat.

I see his reflection in the mirror. His arms are hanging limply, his mouth agape. There’s a small string of saliva on his chin.

A different kind of pain on his face.


Raymond Walker is a former journalist living in Vancouver B.C. He did at one time have two abscessed teeth, but his wife didn’t leave him.

The Writing Disorder is a quarterly literary journal. We publish exceptional new works of fiction, poetry, nonfiction and art. We also feature interviews with writers and artists, as well as reviews.



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