Place, Mercantile Library Short Story Contest, sponsored by CityBeat,
2005 amy purcell
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 tip-toes 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 door
frame 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
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
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
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
“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.
“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
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 lay 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.