It was Hank told me about Carter’s father, then about Carter’s teeth. Lost them both, Hank said. His father and his teeth: Poof! Hank and I sipped Jack Daniels straight up, perched at one of the high and round tables that bordered the bar. It was the same Applebee’s where we met every Christmas, once a year conversing face to face. Posters of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean filled the walls, along with at least five license plates from every state.
“All his teeth? That’s awful,” I said. “How’d it happen?”
“Jennie heard about it secondhand. Maybe a heart attack.”
“Carter had a heart attack! He’s not even thirty.”
“I was talking about his dad.”
“Oh.” I felt stupid and took a gulp of whiskey. “I guess that’s more important.” Hank’s father died a few years ago. Heart attack. Well, heart failure, if there’s a difference. He worked eighty hours a week. My mother used to grumble he must not be too fond of his family.
“How’s your dad doing?” Hank asked.
“He and Mom ride motorcycles cross-country.”
“What the fuck? Like Hell’s Angels?”
“They’re part of this whole underworld thing. A whole mess of old geezers ride around places like Montana and shit.”
“Who the hell wants to go to Montana?” Hank asked, shuddering.
“They showed me pictures of their trip. It was like something out of Boy’s Life.”
Hank stared at me, his face blank. He’d let his curly chestnut hair grow out down to his shoulders. He was short, under five and a half feet. Tattoos covered his arms to the wrist. The silence lengthened. This was what happened after so long apart. You forgot what they knew and don’t know. I read a lot these days. I didn’t tell Hank this was the first time I’d been out in a month.
“I can’t believe your dad’s still alive,” he finally said.
I took a slug of whiskey. “Death got bored and went bothering someone else.”
“We all thought yours was going first,” he said.
“The first to die?”
Silent, Hank looked at me as he lit a cigarette.
“Were you taking bets?” I asked.
* * *
Jennie approached my table tonight with her trademark limp that she refused to explain when we were young. She had returned to town two months after the holidays in the wake of her break-up with Linda. They had lived together five years. I was impressed; it excites me if something lasts six months. We sipped acrid coffee in a crowded IHOP across the street from the mall.
“Have you heard from Carter?” I asked.
“I wrote him about a year ago but never heard back. I miss the little shit.”
“Did Hank tell you about his teeth?”
“I told him about it.” She tapped the side of her coffee mug, thinking. “Can’t remember who told me though…”
“Did he lose them all?”
Jennie gazed out the window, adrift. “That’s pissing me off. I usually remember shit like that.” She turned to me and laughed. “Goddamn, we’re getting old.”
Her face was round and spackled with freckles. She was not beautiful, her hair too straight and black, her smile pained even when sincere. She had approached my table tonight with her trademark limp that she refused to explain when we were young.
“How do you lose all your teeth?” I asked no one.
“Maybe he didn’t brush.”
It was hard to tell when Jennie was flip and when she was sincere. She leaned over the table, pity on her face. I remembered this from high school. She would pull me close, that same dopey look, when I said something stupid about sex, revealing my ignorance to the world.
“I think it happens from smoking too much meth,” she said.
“That’s a lot of meth.”
“Hey, we all partied back in the day. Some of us didn’t outgrow it.” Jennie didn’t know I still got high. Obviously not as much as Carter, but if someone passed judgment, you’d take his side.
“How do you lose your teeth, though?” I asked. “Smoking that shit…?”
She leaned back in the booth, thrilled to instruct me again after so long. “When you’re wired all the time, your hygiene goes to shit. Plus, the smoke eats away at your enamel.” She stopped, spaced out again, thinking. She did this a lot. I used to blame the weed.
“What is it?” I asked, tired of waiting.
“I’m trying to remember where I heard that. Ever since Linda dumped me, my mind’s been out milking the cows.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“I don’t want you thinking I’m making this up.”
“I believe you.”
She grinned, impishly showing she had pleased herself. “So how’s your mom?”
“She’s fine.” I tried not to smile back, knowing what loomed.
“You gonna tell her you saw me?”
“I don’t have many friends here,” I said. “A parent comes in handy when you need to chat.”
“Still doesn’t like me, huh?”
“I’m not even sure she likes me.”
Jennie laughed so hard, her head snapped back. That’s why these guys liked me: I was funny. No matter how dead serious the situation, they thought me hilarious.
“The one she really couldn’t stand was Carter,” I confided like it was a secret. “He was rude on the phone.”
“Your mom’s a bitch.”
* * *
Brenda managed the Victoria’s Secret outlet in the mall. After I’m naked, I love to tell guys the only girl I kissed sells lingerie. Gets a laugh every time.
A few weeks later, I stumbled upon her perusing the shelves at WalMart. The floors were grimy and a teenage voice cracked over the intercom system, desperate for Heidi to report to hardware. My cart held potato chips, soda and chocolate cupcakes. I was a little embarrassed, but honestly, I’d only started. My mental list featured real, decent food. I was about to head the opposite way when she spotted me. It felt good when she smiled. I told her about me, she told me about her husband and new baby.
“Have you heard from Carter?” I asked.
“Oh, my God! Carter! I haven’t thought about him in so long!”
“I heard he lost his teeth.”
Brenda’s smile vanished. “What do you mean?”
“Like, they’re gone. Extracted, I guess.”
“Why would someone do that?”
“Jennie thinks it was because of crystal meth.”
“Is that really true?”
“That’s what Jennie said.”
“You know—oh, my God—I saw her at the reunion.” Hank, Jennie and Brenda all had their ten-year reunion a year ago. I was a year older.
“She looked really good,” Brenda continued. “Did you know she’s a lesbian?”
“We all knew that.”
She let out a sharp squeal, like a dolphin. I’m a funny guy.
Then Brenda turned serious. Spend too long with her and you feel lousy for having a good time. You can count on it. She’d get that look after we messed around in high school. I dated her despite liking guys. We made out in the homes of various friends. I found out before graduation she was convinced I was gay. Neither of us mentioned it to each other. It would’ve been rude.
“I hope that isn’t true about Carter,” she said.
“I haven’t talked to him.”
“Do you know how to reach him?”
“He added me on Facebook, but he didn’t actually write me.” I hadn’t realized until that moment it pissed me off.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I hardly ever check my account.”
“You should write him and find out what’s happening.”
She absently dropped a can of deviled ham into her cart. Then, an awkward moment appeared, old friends suspecting they no longer had anything in common.
“Is your mom doing okay?” she stammered.
“Oh, you know. She’s Mom.”
Another high-pitched squeal. Man, those always annoyed me. “Oh, yes, I know,” she said in a stage whisper. She was really into theatre during school. When she meant something for you and no one else, she projected her voice like an audience listened.
We hugged like people who used to get naked often do. It was easier than finding a place to hide. She told me to come see her and we’d get lunch at the food court. I said that sounded great.
She flashed me a last smile as she headed down the aisle. “By the way,” she said, “get something nutritious, something good for you. You’re too damn skinny.”
* * *
I didn’t see anyone who knew Carter for months and months. I didn’t forget. There was a picture on his Facebook profile. He sat on the couch in what I assume is his apartment, a guitar in his lap. He had a tattoo on his left forearm and another on his right bicep, but from the angle of the picture, I couldn’t tell any specifics. He had this dreamy, intense look in his eyes. It took seeing them again to remember their brilliant blue, like a lake at summer camp. The last time I’d seen him, I was home from college, and he was eighteen or nineteen. He was grown now. I felt a stirring within myself I knew quite well.
Maybe I was high and really wanted to leave that Friday night. It’s as good as any explanation why I confessed to Bobby about Carter and his lost teeth. He was a fuck buddy who lived in a rented house a half-hour north. Model submarines docked on his bedroom shelves. He was tall and handsome when you caught his face from an off angle: a long nose and thick, wet lips. We saw each other monthly, starting around the time I encountered Brenda at WalMart.
He huddled in the bathroom shooting up while I stayed in the bedroom and smoked from a pipe. I don’t call it tweak around my straight friends; they wouldn’t understand. Bobby had asked me if I wanted it in my arm, but I said no. I have rules.
“Is that why you slam it?” I asked, laid out on the bed.
“What?” he called out.
I got off the bed and leaned inside the doorway. I kept him out of sight, though. Watching a guy stick a needle in his arm makes me feel so empty. “Is that why you shoot up?” I asked. “Because of what smoking does to your teeth?”
“Never thought about it.”
“A guy I know lost all his teeth from smoking.”
“Take it as an object lesson.”
“Fuck you,” I said—but in a soft, high voice so he’d know I didn’t mean it. I set down the pipe.
“Was he cute?” Bobby asked.
“He was just a kid.”
“How old were you?”
“A couple of years older. He was a sophomore when I graduated.”
“That’s nothing. You ever mess around?” He paused, no doubt cherishing his precious rush. “You like sucking his dick like you suck mine?”
“No,” I said, more offended than I expected. “We were friends.”
“We’re friends, and we mess around.”
Sometimes Bobby fixated on the most random thing until you had to demand he knock it off. When he got that single-minded about sex, it was fucking fantastic. It wasn’t all he fixated on, though.
“Did you hear me about his teeth?” I repeated.
“Yeah.” He set the needle down on the edge of the sink. He was almost done; we could start fucking and maybe he’d forget the subject. “I’ve heard of guys losing their homes and their jobs and shit. You know, the usual stuff. But never their teeth.”
“I wonder if he wears dentures?” I asked no one.
“God, I hope so,” he said. “He couldn’t go out in public otherwise.”
I pictured Carter dropping a set of fake teeth in a glass at night. I heard them clink against the moist bottom. Why couldn’t I think about a topic more promising?
Bobby drifted through the doorway, naked. He took me into his arms and kissed me roughly, guiding me toward the bed. I stepped backwards until I tumbled onto the mattress. He kept kissing me, his skin warm and clammy. He stopped.
“I’m sorry about your friend. That really sucks.”
For then, at least, it really was okay. I wanted Bobby to kiss me before it wasn’t again.
* * *
Mom and I liked to watch Desperate Housewives. Well, she liked it. If you couldn’t talk about it afterward, there was no point in watching. Mom discussed the characters and their bizarre problems like they were personal friends, a pastime I felt she took rather far. There was no one else I knew, however, who liked to watch. We sat in two recliners facing the big-screen television. My father was playing computer solitaire, still waiting to die.
During a commercial, she muted the set and fixed her gaze on me. Station breaks allowed us to talk.
“Have you heard from Hank?” she asked.
“I probably won’t till Christmas.” He’d told me about Carter a year ago.
Mom didn’t say anything but didn’t return the volume either. She was waiting for me to say something, and I couldn’t bear to disappoint.
“Oh, I never told you,” I said, with a casual tone that surprised me. “Carter lost his teeth.”
“My old friend.”
“Which one was he?”
“He lived a block from Jennie. He liked to skateboard, play guitar.”
My mother stared at me, uncomprehending. She worshipped the sun, sat out in a halter top from April to September. Fine wrinkles bunched beside her eyes and around her mouth. She had turned sixty that year. She glanced up to make sure commercials still aired.
“He was always rude on the phone,” I finally said, in a small voice.
“Oh, him! What did you say he did?”
“He lost his teeth.”
“How did he manage that?”
“He smoked a bunch of crystal meth and they rotted.”
“Well, that’s what happens,” she said with a shrug. If I announced smoking meth caused hysterical blindness, her reaction would not have changed a bit.
“It’s really sad.”
“A lot of sad things in the world,” she said. “The trick is not to think about them.”
I looked at the screen. Nicolette Sheridan slithered down the block in some outfit both sexy and a little nuts. “What’s she up to now?” Mom muttered, adjusting the volume.
* * *
About a week later, I was checking Facebook for messages and found myself scrolling through Carter’s profile. His profile picture wasn’t the one of him holding a guitar but a picture of Tigger he’d spotted somewhere in cyberspace. That’s right, Winnie the Pooh. Typical Carter.
Reading through his favorite books, movies and such, the infrequent comments friends made on his page, I thought about one of our last times together. I knew for a fact we hung out after this but couldn’t remember details. This one time was all I recalled.
I was home from college, squirreled away in my room with the half-ounce of pot I scored before hitting the road. Carter came over and we smoked a joint. I had Natural Born Killers with me. I was laid out on my bed and he was draped across the foot of it, our bodies perpendicular. He was watching the movie, but I was watching him. His face had thinned, lost its baby fat. His body had become sleek and toned. He was a little tubby when we first met, back when he was fifteen. His beauty knocked me out. I knew he wasn’t gay, but sometimes your hope—your stupid, stupid hope—grabs you and you go with it. I grazed his calf with the bottom of my foot. I was casual at first, passing it off as accidental, but when he didn’t move, I rubbed more forcefully. I was mad with optimism. Maybe I was wrong about him. Maybe I was wrong about everything.
Despite being lost in the feel of his bare leg against my foot, instinct told me to look into his eyes, to make sure. Carter stared back at me. He didn’t look angry, just perplexed, maybe disappointed. God, the disappointment! I would’ve rather he smacked me in the jaw than give me that look.
“I’m gonna lay on the floor,” he said simply. He rose from the bed and did so, exhaling relief. Silent, I crossed my ankles, my foot an errant tentacle I had to rein in. We watched the rest of the movie, him on the floor and me on the bed. He never said another word. We smoked a second joint after the movie ended. I didn’t know how to read the situation, so I didn’t think about it. Mom taught me that.
But I ruminated over it while in front of the computer, my monitor showing an empty message box with a blinking cursor. It was waiting for me to write Carter. It was waiting for me to learn if this awful thing about his teeth, this humiliating thing, was true. Maybe he was too cracked out to care what some childhood friend wanted. He didn’t need my help.
I never wrote him. I couldn’t get shot down again. I clicked over to that picture, the one where he held his guitar. He looked so mature, so grown. The boy I knew was gone and this stunning but alien creature had replaced him. I could’ve pretended we were strangers, ignore his smoldering half-smile. I closed the browser and stared at the screen. I wondered whether he still had his teeth in that photo. I wondered what, finally, lurked behind those eyes the color of ocean that tempts you further and further from shore.
© Thomas Kearnes. All rights reserved.