I work for the tooth fairy and it isn't all pillows and quarters my friend. It's not sleeping babes, tonguing their tender bleeding holes away into dreamland. The fairy part is aesthetic only. More often the experience is rotting cavities, receding gums, and halitosis.
Jack is with me tonight, every night. He's a black as night standard poodle, and together we walk the dark neighborhood streets and he sniffs out teeth from the garbage cans, tips the singing metal cans with curly paws to scavenge the throwaways, tossed out by people who are unaware of their value, seventy-five to eighty times more than the coins and bills that are stuffed under the pillows by my employer.
Sometimes, see, teeth are flushed down the toilet and I go after them. Jack can't shrink like I can, can't hold his breath. He's just a dog trained to sniff out teeth, the flushed teeth I follow into the festering pool of stench alone. My employer demands teeth. Each one is piece of a tidy profit, and the teeth are free. There are many of us, but never enough. My employer is concerned with quotas and she docs pay when they aren't met. She can be violent. I've seen her put her stinger into a man, deposit her eggs and wait for them to hatch and eat the man from the inside out. I saw it on the first day training video. But I do good work. I don't worry about that.
Sometimes, when I wander the halls of the houses I enter, I go beyond my orders. This is how I manage to exceed my quota year after year, and by extension, keep my insides from being food for the next generation of factory workers. My employer could never request I do this, that any of us do it, reputation and all. Public opinion is all that separates her from any other boogey in the closet. Were she exposed, she'd still get the teeth. My method would be the new standard.
It's only natural I'd come to the conclusion, eventually. And it did come, years ago, as I stood before the house of my former landlord, the man from my old life, the life I had before the night I woke to find my employer over my newborn, a trained Greyhound sniffing his body. My employer looked down, almost ashamed, but not for herself, for me. She was very lovely. I couldn't be startled and even though I knew this was a strange event to say the least, I was enchanted by her presence.
"Well fuck," she finally said.
She told me the magic didn't take since it's a magic fueled by the dead teeth, and that she can't enter a residence undetected unless someone's recently lost a tooth. She can enter, but she won't be hidden. It's an inescapable rule that applies to every one of us Teethers. Who knew the irrational was governed by natural law?
"Oh, I hate it when this happens," my new employer said, and she blew dust over me. I froze. I listened.
"This is very sad," she said. "But, this is not your fault. It is no one's fault. Would you like to work for me? It's a good job, with good pay. It won't bring this child back, but there are benefits, room for advancement."
"Will I have to remember this?"
"Yes, but it will only hurt for the first hundred years or so. And the pain dulls considerably before that."
I sneezed three times and my wife called from the bedroom, "Don't wake Ben!"
"Are you sick? Have you got a cold?" my employer asked.
"I'm allergic to dogs," I said.
"We can get you a poodle. They're hypoallergenic."
"I heard there's no such thing. A myth only."
"A Mexican hairless then, either way, I've got plenty of allergy medicine, the good stuff from Mexico."
"Do you get a deal on the medicine and the dogs when you buy them together?"
"You think you're funny, but yes actually, I do."
"Are you coming back to bed?" my wife called out. I looked at my employer and was instantly drawn in deeper, beyond the job or the money or the benefits.
"No," I said. "I'm up."
And we left.
My employer was right. I've been at it for nearly ten years and the pain of loss has faded considerably. Before it happened, I used to dream about losing my wife or my child and the pain of my sleep could on occasion reduce me to tears. And even as I faded out of the dream, and the relief swelled me up, the pain was potent and lingered throughout the day, tainting me and then reminding me to think of death again as I fell asleep the next night. That's how it feels now. I walk the streets with the taint of faded despair.
I was feeling it as I stood in front of the landlord's house, Jack digging through the bastard's trash; me thinking about the broken windows he wouldn't fix, the mosquito welts on all of us, the fried refrigerator and the Igloo cooler he gave me to replace it. I thought about the mouse droppings everywhere, the lead paint I suspected due to Ben's affinity for chewing the window sill.
I thought about these things and said, "C'mon Jack. Let's go inside."
I stop first at his boy's room. I enter quietly without trying. I slide my hand under the pillow, drop the quarter and take the tooth in a single sweeping motion. I add the tooth to the others in the leather satchel attached to my belt. I look over the boy, wonder if he's eaten lead paint, wonder if the C grades adorning the refrigerator are a result of nature or nurture. He is his father's son and that is his lot. I take only what he's left.
I walk the dark hall, violating the family photos with my dirty fingers, tilting them crooked with a magic touch that will never allow them to be straightened for long. I reach the master bedroom and hear him snoring. I know his wife will have taken sleeping pills, though while I'm there she won't need them. I wake his eyes with a wave of a hand and he looks at me, pupils shrinking in the glow of my light.
"What do you want?" he says.
"Everything." I say and I look to his sleeping wife. His eyes are hot and the audacity is enough to make me laugh. "But I'll settle for your teeth," I say. And then I do laugh.
I work with a small pair of channel locks. Tears run down his face but he is silent. Even if this were a dream he wouldn't be the same. The taint he would feel would linger no matter how long he wandered the streets. I turn his head and let him bleed onto his pillow. He eyes his wife, wondering if she'll wake and pull the thirty-eight from the night stand. I turn his face and drain him again and get back to work. Cracking root follows cracking root until I am done and then I collect each tooth from the nightstand while he watches, still bleeding blood and tears. I add the teeth to the satchel, but it's too full; I've done my job too well. I take an eyetooth and stick it into his ear, push it to place where only a doctor can reach it.
"Goodbye," I say. Jack follows me down the hall and out the door. I make the man forget. I make his wife wake. I hear the screams from through the walls and she wants an explanation.
"What happened to you? What happened?! You're bleeding!"
"Ah ohn oh. Ah ohn oh! Ah! Airs um-ing im ah ear!"
My boss is pleased. She promotes me. I've got an office and it overlooks the plant where we process the hundreds of thousands of teeth, from all over the world. From my floor to ceiling window over the plant I watch the technicians below extract the various carbons, hydrogens and nitrogens from enamel and dentin. Others workers shuttle it away to be processed with the Mexican allergy medicine, all to yield my employer C10H15N. On top of overseeing production, I am in charge of training the new recruits, allowing them to learn from my experience. Days in the factory. Nights in the field. I work all-hours less the few minutes she steals from me.
My employer is a fairy, but also an angel. She is an angel with the wings of a wasp. I used to wonder if she would sting me like I'd seen her do when the need arose. "Why me?" I'd often ask in the dark, sweating, trying to stay awake, to keep from dreaming. "Why me?" I still ask.
"I knew you'd find a way to boost production," she says. "I smelled it on you." And that's the only answer she ever gives.
From my office, I call my wife, ten years behind me. A man answers the phone. I say nothing.
"Who is this?" he asks my silence.
I listen to the children play. Theirs, not mine. If I were to be a father again, it would be the children of my employer, eating me from the inside out. And I wonder how bad it could be. It sounds awful. But I miss my boy.
I feel her behind me and I know she's here to steal my minutes. I can see my reflection in the glass, fuzzy-focused yellow-suited workers blurry behind it. I feel her hot breath and I shift my focus back to the workers. On the floor, a worker drops dead, a common enough occurrence, especially as the weather begins to cool.
CS DeWildt is the author of the books Candy and Cigarettes and Dead Animals, as well as the flash novel The Louisville Problem. His novel Love You to a Pulp will be released by All Due Respect Books in January 2015. Please visit him at http://csdewildt.com