Robert Pettus


My head throbbed. My ear was full; oily liquid drained from it continuously. I opened the glovebox and popped some acetaminophen; that stuff seemed to work better than ibuprofen or naproxen. I shoved my pinker finger into my ear, pressing hard against the wall of the canal; I could hear and feel that rumbling noise from within my eardrum, as if a bubbling volcano. I had gotten regular ear-infections since I was a kid, but this was different. The symptoms were too diverse in nature. My ear ached, my head hurt, stinging pain filled my furthest back, top molar. Some TMJ sort of situation was developing in my jaw, which caught and clicked with each closure of my mouth. Eating was a hilarity, considering the frequent rapidity with which percussive music sprang from within my chin.

I clutched my face, pressing hard into the perceived central locus of the pain. I massaged the muscles near my jaw; I also massaged those encircling my skull – I had learned from a YouTube video that that muscle, called the temporalis, also affected the ear and the jaw. That seemed to help – at least I thought that it did. It could have been purely a psychologically manufactured placebo, but that was fine with me, too. It felt like it helped.

I opened and closed my mouth several times – the clicking, quickening its pace, sounded like a piece of paper crumbling within a clenched fist – and the pain resided briefly. I felt better. I continued my morning commute to work.

I lived in Kentucky, but worked in Cincinnati. Traffic was variable, but it usually wasn’t too bad. The bottleneck preceding entry into the Brent Spence Bridge – Cincinnati’s primary artery – was always clogged, but even that wasn’t too bad. It was a leisurely drive, for the most part. I tried to focus on my audio book. I was listening to a dueling biography of both Grant and Lee; I was trying to broaden my knowledge of history, and the Civil War was more of a gray area that I would have liked it to be.

Looking out from my opened window while traversing the Brent Spence, I saw through the morning fog the muddy Ohio. It looked gross, as usual – someone needed to take care of it. It was rotting away – infected. Its dirty currents collided, as if in grinding response. 

I made it across the bridge. The rest of the drive, from the river up the hill to Clifton, was easy breezy. I passed the Museum Center, and Duke Energy – the locus from which every resident of greater Cincinnati was on an eternal, monthly basis, scammed.

I turned onto the off-ramp, at the Hopple Street exit. Camp Washington Chili sat vacant across the street. It would fill-up, soon enough – it was one of the lucky local businesses which had made it seemingly unscathed through the pandemic. 

There was always traffic outside Good Samaritan Hospital – a name so hilariously ironic for a hospital it would be funny if it weren’t so horrifying. I thought about my tooth. It ached, as if in response.

“There’s someone in that hospital who could fix my stupid tooth, and ear, and jaw,” I thought to myself, “but who knows what it would cost me…“

My insurance wasn’t reliable. I was afraid to go to the doctor.

The gate to my parking garage was broken. Each time I scanned my pass, it ignored me, so I had to park on the street. That situation occurred with frustrating regularity. I didn’t park in any of the on-campus garages – they were too expensive. I parked at this privately owned garage just off campus. It was cheap, though unreliable. I had to park on the street a few times every month. I would call the management and bitch at them. They would reimburse my street-side parking costs, most of the time.

My tooth ached. 

I shut and locked the door. Dodging remnant trash – mostly beer cans and shattered glass, from party-minded college kids – I made my way to my classroom. Standing in the circle at the center of the University of Cincinnati campus – located directly outside of my classroom – I looked up to the proud, swiping bearcat statue. He was atop a thickly sculpted tree branch. He looked angry. He had massive, unsheathed canines – perhaps he had a toothache, too. I chuckled at that, then put my head down in embarrassment and walked to the door of my building. They slid open automatically. I hated mornings. 

My tooth continued throbbing. It was worse than usual, today. Upon twisting my key and pulling open the door to my department, the automatic lights awoke. No one was there yet, not even the housekeeping lady. I pushed my lunchbox into the fridge, shoved shut the grating door – which was off-axis and didn’t like to close correctly – and turned toward my classroom, grabbing my jaw along the way, opening and closing my mouth a few times – hearing that frustrating, crackling click.

I was tired. I flipped open and turned on my laptop. I looked at my gradebook. So many students; so many essays to grade. They didn’t pay me to grade anything; they didn’t pay me to do squat, outside of teach the class. I guess they imagined that that work completed itself. It didn’t, though – it was a buttload of work. Buttload of free work. I wasn’t even worth decent insurance, to them.

One of my students jiggled the doorknob, peering through the narrow slit of the window into my classroom. Class didn’t begin for another thirty minutes – no way I was letting him in; I had stuff to get done. I had unpaid grading to do. I ignored him. My tooth ached:

“He’s trying to get in; I’m trying to get out!” came an internal voice, as if from nowhere.

“Wha, what?” I thought to myself. What was that? I gripped the armrests of my twirling office chair, sweaty palms imprinting themselves on the black plastic upon removal. I grabbed my face with both hands, like that kid from Home Alone:

“What is wrong with me?” I thought miserably.

I’m what’s wrong with you!” came another voice from inside, “You’ve got to let me out! I’ve got shit to do! Big shit to take care of! You’ve got to let me the hell out of this dark, clicking prison! Your jaw bones crunch on and on, like a morbid, irregular clock! It’s fucking irritating!”

I put my hands to my mouth and muffled a scream. I pulled my phone from my pocket, inverted the camera, and took a long look at myself in the mirror. I was scared – frantic. I opened my mouth wide – the clicking crunching and reverberating off the walls of my cheeks like crawling, brittle cockroaches – and looked for my aching tooth. I shouldn’t have been able to see it, but I did! It was moving! I swear it was moving! It was wiggling around as if to dislodge itself:

“Yeah, that’s right!” came a voice from inside “I’m coming out whether you like it or not; you may as well expedite the process!”

I could no longer muffle the terror. I shrieked. I began sobbing and squealing. I backed up, as if to separate myself from my tooth, in my current state of stupidity not realizing the futility in the attempt. There was only one way to escape. I shoved my left hand – my dominant hand – deep into the back of my mouth.

I pushed my hand in too far – at first gagging and coughing, now down on my knees, spitting on the floor. I grabbed hold of the toxic tooth, twisting and yanking it – now screaming out in pain; that scream muffled by my hand still shoved inside my mouth.

The tooth came out surprisingly easily. I dislodged it and slung it against the door. It made a strangely noisy, resounding thump against the wood, falling to the dirty tile below:

“God dammit!” said my molar, “You weren’t supposed to drop me on this dirty ass floor!” Dust and dirt covered its yellow enamel.

I shrieked, scrambling backward spider-like away from the door.

The doorknob jiggled again. At first thinking it was just another student, I realized that wasn’t the case upon hearing a twisting incision of a key into the keyhole. The door swung open, swinging over top my tooth – the door’s vacuous air sucking it slightly aloft from its place on the tile, spinning counter-clockwise to the edge of the wall. The custodian, Winslow walked in:

“Hey!” he said jovially before witnessing my pathetic figure slouching on the ground, “What? What’s wrong? Let me help you!”

He knelt beside me. Blood poured from the locus of my former tooth to the dusty tile below. It stained my khakis; it stained my white, nice button-up shirt. It solidified in the dust and dirt of the filthy floor. I coughed again; more blood expelled, dripping from my sobbing, bearded chin.

Winslow looked frantically for something with which to clean the mess, noticing a box of tissues at my desk. He darted in that direction before halting abruptly:

“Stop right where you are!” said my tooth from the ground, now standing – its infected roots acting as decrepit limbs, “I’m a tooth! I need a new mouth, and it’s going to be yours! You take care of yourself; I can tell! You’re a healthy bastard! Not like my previous landlord, over there! So open wide; I’m coming in!”

Winslow fainted with a whimper. My molar laughed, waddling over to his passed-out, sprawling figure.

Somehow climbing atop Winslow, my tooth then turned to look at me. It didn’t have a face – no mouth or eyes – but I somehow still recognized that it was looking at me:

“You’re not worth a fuck!” It said, “Not a single little shit! I’m on to bigger and better things!”

It then crawled into Winslow’s mouth – which was agape, drooling spittle. My tooth slid in and wedged its decaying roots deep into Winslow’s gums. He opened and closed his mouth a few times and clutched his jaw, as if in pained recognition. The tooth spoke to me from inside:

“It’s comfy as hell in here! Yeah, I can get used to this!”

I screamed again. Blood from my mouth now painted the room. The door jiggled. One of my students peered in, wanting to come to class early. 

I had so much grading to do…

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