Tall Tale Three: Night of the Dentist

(Last change: 16 August 1995.)

This is the third in an extremely irregular series of three original Tall Tales I posted to the alt.callahans newsgroup in the early ’90s. If you’re not familiar with the way alt.callahans works, read the FAQ for background; if you’re not familiar with the Tall Tale concept, read Spider Robinson’s stories of Callahan’s Bar.

The door swings open, and a caucasian human male in his mid-20s ambles in. The door flips back and forth in his wake as if it suddenly believes it’s attached to a saloon. The man’s wavy brown hair is much shorter than last time he visited, and the beard is more neatly trimmed; the ear ring with a malachite bead appears to be new, as does the t-shirt that reads “Both/and: reject dichotomies!”

“Heyo,” says the visitor, addressing the room at large. “My name’s Jed; I used to hang out here now and then back when the Place was founded, but I’ve been scarce of late. And even now I’m just passing through—I’ve got an appointment with Fate in half an hour.”

A worried murmur goes through those of the crowd who are paying attention—“uh-oh” and “is this a call for help?” being the most prominent comments. Jed hastens to reassure everyone. “Oh, don’t worry—nothing like that. I’m talking about Morgan Fate, DDS; I have to get my teeth cleaned.”

Everyone relaxes, and most go back to their drinks, conversations, and exotic dancing. Jed drops into an empty chair at an otherwise full table and, to those still listening, ruminates, “Come to think of it, last time I visited Fate he told me a story y’all might be interested in.”

At the word “story,” a few more ears perk (or re-perk) up. Once assured of an audience, Jed glances over at the bar and says, “Mike, could I have a whiskey over here? I don’t usually like the taste of alcohol, but it seems appropriate for this tale.” A jug labelled “XXX” appears at Jed’s elbow. He uncorks the jug, takes a swig, and grimaces.

“Ick. Okay, now that’s over with...

“I like my dentist because I always learn something when I visit him—while I was in college he sometimes helped me brush up for exams by drilling me. He’s a history buff; he was the one who told me the real story behind the search for the Fountain of Tooth, and about why Dickens ended up changing the name of his famous novel A Tale of Tooth Cities. (It’s too complicated to go into in dental, I mean detail—suffice it to say that it was the same reason George Eliot had to change the title of The Molar and the Floss.) He also told me about the thriving tuber trade along the old Erie—his great-uncle lost a fortune when that old root canal dried up. This was the same great-uncle whose grandparents came to America as dentured servants...

“Anyway, it was about six months ago when I last had my head examined, or at least the mouth part of my head. After much poking around with sharp implements and much sad head-shaking, Dr. Fate informed me that I had a cavity. Since his schedule had a similar gaping hole in it that afternoon—someone had made an appointment thinking Fate was a fortuneteller, but had cancelled on finding out he was only a dentist—he decided to go ahead and fill it right then and there.

“He needled me—with novocaine, that is—and while we waited for it to take effect, something that I’d always wondered about occurred to me. ‘Doc,’ I asked, ‘is it really true that dentists in the Old West used to use whiskey as an anaesthetic?’

“‘Absolutely,’ said the good doctor. ‘They didn’t have anything fancier. It was usually the cheapest available whiskey, of course... In fact—by gum, that reminds me of a story my great-grandfather once told me. Great-grandpa—a man name of Orribal—was a dentist in the Old West, in a little town called Tombstone. (It was called that on account of it was the site of the big rock quarry where they got all the headstones for all the graves in the county.) Here’s how great-grandpa used to tell it:

It was a dark and stormy night—thunder and lightning filled the air. I was just closing up shop when I heard a pitiful moaning at my back door. At first I was a mite scared, but at last I opened the door a crack—and there stood as haggard and emasticated a fellow as you’re ever like to see. He was six feet five if he was an inch, and his clothes looked like two mountain lions’d had a fight in ’em. He was cradling his jaw in one hand and moaning louder ’n the wind.

“Come in, come in,” I said. “What seems to be the problem, young feller?”

He managed to mumble out that his tooth was hurting him. I pulled his hand away from his mouth, pried open his jaw, and peered inside. He had big teeth sticking out in all directions in front, but they looked healthy enough. I looked further; and there at the back, softly gleaming in the darkness, was a perfect diamond in place of one of his teeth, surrounded by the worst mess of rotting gums I ever saw.

“That tooth’ll have to come out, son,” I said. He nodded, then he mumbled, “Anything you say, Doc. Just stop the pain!”

I gathered my tools together, and then an awful thought struck me. I had used the last of my cheap rye whiskey on a patient’s stubborn toothache that afternoon! What was I to do? The fellow was obviously suffering; I couldn’t let him stay in that much pain. With a pang of regret, I went to the cupboard and withdrew an expensive bottle of aged whiskey that my pappy brought all the way from Kentucky. It was practically a family heirloom, but I couldn’t stand to see the boy hurt, so I broke the seal and handed him the jug.

Inside of ten minutes he was feeling no pain—nor was I; I’d taken a couple of sips myself, and it was smooth as cornsilk—and I set to work. Laying hold of my biggest pliers, I grabbed onto that diamond, braced my foot against a chair, and gave a prodigious yank.

Near ’bout fell over backward. The diamond had rooted itself into the gum, but otherwise was a perfect gem the size of a big tooth. While I was goggling at it, the stranger said, “Ah, that feels much better. Now, Doc, I’d be mighty obliged if you’d take that tooth over to the Widow Wilson and give it to her and her two children—it should have been their father’s.” And with a sad smile, he drifted out the door.

When I recovered from gawping at the diamond, I noticed right away that he’d walked off with my fifty-year-old whiskey. I ran to the door, yelling, “Hey! Bring that back!” But he’d vanished into the storm.

The next morning dawned bright and clear. I took the diamond and put on my hat and went to visit old Tom Wilson. He and his spinster sister had grown up in Tombstone; I figured if there was any Widow Wilson around, he would know it. I told him the story of the previous night and showed him the tooth. He looked wonderingly at it, then told me the other half of the story:

“When I was just a lad,” said Tom, "my daddy was a renowned bandit. He and his gang were the terror of the stagecoaches in those days. My mother always lived in mortal fear that he would go off and get hisself shot up and not come back to us; and one year that was exactly what happened. One of his boys came to our cabin in the middle of the night—in fact, it was exactly fifty years ago last night, come to think of it—and told my mother that my daddy’d had a brilliant plan for stealing a famous diamond from a bank coach. The plan had gone off perfectly—except that my daddy got killed as the gang made their escape. That night, one of the gang—a man named Armid Teef, better known as Toothy ’cause of his snaggle-toothed grin—disappeared with the diamond.

“I later heard tell that the law caught up with Teef, but he kept his mouth shut—refused to tell what he’d done with the diamond. He spent some time in jail, and died soon after he got out. In fact, he’s buried out on the edge of town...”

Tom rode out with me to the graveyard where his parents, and Teef, were decaying. And there, believe it or not, sitting on top of that bandit’s grave, was my bottle of whiskey.

Jed pauses. He takes another gulp from the whiskey bottle and coughs. "I was fascinated by the story, but I’d heard similar tales told before as ‘absolutely true.’ So I asked Dr. Fate—mumbling around my numb lips—‘Doc, d’you really think that’s th’ t’uth?’

“He grinned—he’d been hoping I would ask. He said, ‘Well, my great-grandpa always told me it was. But me, I’ve always reckoned it was just one of them bourbon legends.’”

When the groans die down and the shower of glasses hitting the fireplace ends, Jed puts on a rye grin and adds, “The dentist has known me for years. He knows my sense of humor and knows that I’d rather tell a joke than be caught by one—I hate to be taken for a straight man.” He gestures at his t-shirt. “But in this particular case, I have to admit that I walked right into it by asking about the whiskey. I’m sure he just couldn’t resist—I should have known better than to tempt Fate.”

Amid the ensuing hullaballoo, Jed manages to toss the entire jug of rotgut into the fireplace. When the peanut dust settles, the Place’s door is swinging in the breeze again and there’s no sign of Jed, unless you count the dollar bill folded into a ring that he left on the table.