It was a big day for Taz. That afternoon when school let out, Ivy was going to take her son to have his teeth replaced. She watched him from the doorway of her classroom. He was laughing at something his friend whispered in his ear. Even from several yards away Ivy could make out the serrated key-line of his broken teeth. The front two had been knocked clean off, and some others had been split in two or cracked like an eggshell. It was grotesque, she thought.
The day was nearly extinguished by the refuse the dusty skylights above them had collected from a dry and windy season. Ivy could make out the half-rotten banana leaves as they moved in the breeze. They pressed up against the windows like friendly fish in an aquarium. The stippled light had hardly touched Taz’s face before he fell under shadow and disappeared around the u-bend in the hall. The school was designed by hippies in the 1960s and subscribed to a pseudo-religious philosophy of turns and rounded corners. The children weren’t allowed to wear hats. “It blocks God from entering their minds,” someone had told Ivy. Text from Goethe’s Faust was emblazoned on the pigmented, rainbow-colored walls.
Ivy wrung her hands for a moment and stepped back inside her classroom. There were still two periods left in the day. She had never gotten used to Taz’s presence there at the school. Although she felt lucky to not have him as one of her students, she found it jarring when she ran into him, like encountering a shard of glass in an apple.
“It gives so much anxiety,” Ivy had told her colleague Jeannette. “I run into him and he acts like I’ve caught him doing something shameful. I can’t help but feel like I’m intruding on him.”
Jeannette had raised her eyebrows and nodded knowingly. She was a jolly, conspiratorial person, and Ivy felt that anything she told Jeannette likely made hardly any impact on her. But she was reliable. Jeanette was always good for a nod, or a shrug, or an “Oh, jeez yes.” Once, they had gotten happy hour drinks after work. Jeannette became tipsy easily. In a drunken whisper-shout she leaned over their margarita pitcher and told Ivy that she and her partner liked to dress up as science fiction characters before having sex. “Oh, you know how it is,” she’d laughed. “We love to play.” Ivy had rolled her eyes and said, “That’s great, Jeannette. I’m really happy for you.”
Ivy and Ted had split several months ago. He was a jerk, really, or had turned into one, she thought. People can do that. Turn into something latent. She’d stayed in the house, and Ted had moved to a desperate-looking bungalow nearby. Ivy thought the place reeked of mid-life crisis, with its stucco walls, its grotto pool, but she kept these things to herself. She tried to remain enthusiastic around Taz. “Dad’s new place is so interesting,” she would say when she dropped him off, side-eyeing the sad yard.
“I don’t trust you not to poison him, or yourself,” Ted had said quietly one night when things had neared their worst. He’d had too much to drink. He clinked more cubes into his glass, then a couple inches of tequila. The open windows blew in coastal darkness that smelled of lavender and bonfire smoke. As Ted moved around the bedroom he slyly unbuttoned his shirt to show off his tanned chest and toned muscles. He’d taken to working out on the beach early in the morning, while Ivy slept. He was obsessed with his body in a way she couldn’t fathom. She suspected he watched himself masturbate in their bathroom’s full-length mirror.
“You refuse everything I give you,” Ted said. “You’re a pathetic, abnormal woman.” Ivy had hurled an iPad at him and it struck the space below his eye. The bruise had progressed from pink, to deep purple, and yellowed on the day they signed divorce papers. Under the guidance of their respective lawyers they’d reached an arrangement where Taz divided his time between Ivy’s house and Ted’s new bungalow. Taz would stay at the school. Both Ivy and Ted agreed another change in environment could prove too damaging.
A few days earlier Taz had done something very stupid, the way children sometimes do. One afternoon after school while Ivy was taking a shower, Taz and his friend Worm had attempted to turn the first floor of the house into a parkour course. They’d run around shouting gleefully until Taz tripped on a bunched corner of carpet and fell face first on the coffee table. The broken bits of his teeth scattered and landed in an enormous potted plant nearby.
“What happened to Taz?” one of Ivy’s students asked.
Ivy chalked in the names of French poets on the blackboard in neat, ordered handwriting. Arthur Rimbaud, she wrote. Paul Verlaine. She was teaching her eighth grade literature class, her last period of the day.
“He slipped on a banana peel,” Ivy replied, and strangely the students roared with laughter. They were sweet, she thought, and dumb.
“He’s gonna get gold teeth!” someone exclaimed. “He told me he wants to get a grill.”
“Shut your mouth,” Ivy said, still facing the blackboard. “He isn’t getting gold teeth. If he’s lucky, he’ll get dentures.”
After school Ivy found Taz by the bus stop. “Come on,” she said. “We’re getting you new teeth, remember?”
“Obviously I remember,” he said sullenly. She watched as he slid his tongue across his craggy fangs, his gummy abscesses. It was a habit he’d developed almost as soon as the accident happened. She couldn’t wait for his face to be fixed. It was bad enough that she thought she heard whispers in the hall, from other teachers, from students. She was sure they talked about her. Her disordered life. And now her son had nearly cracked open his skull under her watch.
When they reached the car Taz said, “Listen, mom. The chances of being killed by the air bag are basically nonexistent. I’m more likely to die choking on my cereal.”
They had this conversation often. She insisted that he was too small for the front seat. At ten years old he stood a good few inches shorter than most of his classmates. “But dad lets me,” he complained. “And what if one of my friends sees me. It’s completely humiliating.” And then Ivy would relent and he’d clamber onto the passenger side. His feet barely touched the floor mat. He would roll down the window and wave his middle fingers at his friends and laugh as the car sped through the roundabout, past the bus stop, and down the street, which soon narrowed amid thick vegetation. She wouldn’t have admitted it to him but Ivy loved watching Taz ride shotgun through the late afternoon. The moment was so mirthful. It was the kind of moment that also worried her. She felt the images begin to turn into a memory almost right away. You must remember this, she felt herself thinking. This is the way he looks, this is the way the light looks, it’s the afternoon and we’re going somewhere.
After the divorce Ivy felt strange and family-less driving her Honda CRV, especially on the days when Taz stayed with Ted, so she traded it in for a faded black convertible. It was fast and pretty ugly. The leather seats always burned to the touch, and in several places they hatched foam. The air conditioner was broken. You had to roll down the windows by hand. The black paint was so sun-burned it had turned the midnight blue of a washed ashore whale. Taz hated the car, and often told her so.
“I’m not sure it’s the car that you hate,” Ivy said to him. “I think what you hate is what the car represents. The car indicates a change that connects to me and your dad’s divorce. When you see the car, it sucks you into the divorce vortex.” She tousled his hair. “I’m sorry, honey,” she added. The months after the divorce had been quiet, mostly. That’s what was consistent. Her emotions whirlwinded from furious to lonely, from desperate to relieved, but the house was very quiet with just the two of them. That was one of the reasons she loved her new convertible. The engine was loud and seemed to tear open the air around them.
They drove past the day-glow beach shops and diving shacks, the wide romantic yards, pick-up games in the driveways. Ivy noticed the roadkill, how it seemed to grow each week. Green water snakes pancaked into letters that baked into the pavement. Tufts of white skunk fur filled the roads’ sun-blistered cracks like elderly crabgrass. Turtles were the saddest of all to Ivy. There was something so irreversible about their deaths. Their moon-like shells broken open like clay vessels.
The dentist’s office was above a locksmith in a strip mall. They idled for a moment in the nearly empty parking lot before Ivy turned off the engine. Taz turned to his mother and bared his horrible teeth at her. She winced and he laughed. Then, just a quickly, his smile faded. He told her he didn’t want the procedure. “They’re okay like this,” he said. “They’re not so bad.”
“When you’re older and I’m not responsible for you, you can lose your teeth,” she said. “You can do whatever you want. You can be crazy. But for now you’re stuck with me.”
The dentist’s office was ludicrous and anodyne at the same time. Some safety-proof children’s toys lay strewn about. Highlights magazines scattered everywhere. Several out-of-date National Geographic were stacked on a glass coffee table. There were old puzzles with missing pieces, with softly worn cardboard corners. They made Ivy think of quilts locked away in cupboards, broken rattan furniture, a layer of dust on everything.
The dentist looked like a Ken doll. She had met with him once to discuss Taz’s options. A glimmer of Key West teeth. A perfect hairline. One of his eyes was watery, and shone like a sickle. The whole procedure would take about three hours and cost $5000, he told her. Her insurance would pay some, he said.
“His teeth will be essentially indestructible,” the dentist said. He smelled like coconut suntan lotion. “We use the same kind of polyurethane that you might know from roller blade wheels. We use a primer made from fiberglass, like from surfboards.”
“They’ll be indestructible,” Ivy repeated.
“I didn’t exactly say that,” the dentist said. “I said essentially. After a few years they might wear down a bit. After a decade it’s possible that they’ll come loose. Things happen, our bodies change, you know. Shit happens. He might bite into an apple or a nougat or something.”
Ivy could see that the dentist was staring at his own reflection in her dark sunglasses. She folded them and put them in her bag.
“If you like,” the dentist continued, “for an additional fee, we can add jewels into his teeth. Give him some bling. Kids are crazy, right?” He paused. “People get tattoos on their lips now, you know,” he said.
Ivy had opted for the normal procedure. Taz was led by a dental hygienist into one of the coral-colored stalls. The whole place was painted like an amusement park. Orange walls, turquoise ceiling, purple carpeting. A calendar of exotic snakes hung on the wall behind the receptionist. September was something called a blood python.
Strangely enough, a photo of the dentist’s office hung next to the calendar. A film photo of the dismal strip mall, the locksmith, the yellowing sign, a woman in cotton scrubs and a mask. A pickup pulling out and heading west. Dogs in the bed of the truck, grinning at the sky. The image seemed so specific. A day outside the office, hung forever in the office. For what? Ivy thought. To prove it existed? To prove there had been a day like that one?
She left and spent the next couple of hours at a bar. She’d arranged for the receptionist to call her when Taz’s procedure was nearly through. The receptionist didn’t look up from gluing on a set of acrylic nails, but nodded in acknowledgment. Ivy didn’t know exactly where she was going but walked a few strip malls down. She occasionally had to push through an ugly hedge, or past the cruel bristles of stunted palm leaves. She could taste a layer of salt accrue above her lip. The winds had been so careless.
The bar, like almost everything else around, was themed in some way. The theme wasn’t clear but boasted nautical ropes and gas masks, vintage posters of sadomasochistic porn, and the floorboards moved up and down, as if controlled by hydraulics. Ivy imagined this was to emulate the feeling of seasickness.
Tanned faces, wrap-around sunglasses, air-brushed souvenir T-shirts. When she made her way across the parking lot Ivy noticed several fishing rigs hooked to the back of mud-splattered SUVs and Jeeps.
The bartender made her something blue with an umbrella in it that she hadn’t meant to order. She took a sip and found that it was delicious.
“Do you want it soaked in gas?” the bartender asked.
“I don’t know,” Ivy asked. “What the hell does that mean?”
“It’s when you set the drink ablaze,” the bartender said. “Most people go crazy for it.”
Ivy declined, and took another sip of the cool blue liquid.
“It’s an aspect of flair bartending,” the bartender said. “Flair bartending is when an element of showmanship is included in the making of drinks. Some bartenders juggle, or catch things behind their back, and some set things on fire.”
Ivy ignored him and looked away. She noticed the clocks were shaped like starfish, and the barstools like seahorses. An image flashed before her eyes and she laughed, aloud. No one bothered to look over at her. She remembered a night when she and Ted had first met, years ago. She had still been at the University and was just starting to think that the world might open up at her command. Ivy and Ted had spent the weekend in another beach town, really not far and not especially different from where she was then. If you stood at the top of a dune you could see the whole town. They’d stayed in some kind of sexual bed and breakfast. The bed was shaped like a clam and was controlled by a remote control. It could rotate, vibrate, gyrate, and levitate, all at the press of a button. She and Ted had thought it was the funniest thing. She’d always liked sleeping with Ted, especially back then. But she remembered that after Ted had fallen asleep she’d stayed up, sitting on a chair by the window, with her knees to her chest. From the pale glow of the summer moon she could make out the shapes of transients as they passed down the sandy avenue. Some carried busted duffel bags, others pushed carts filled with garbage. Their movements were slow and seemed trapped to the night, as if they’d vanish if some floodlight found their path. She decided there were almost twenty of them, all in all. Ivy watched them until she couldn’t tell what was still moving anymore. She couldn’t tell where street met shadow, where moonlight met footfall. Although it was summer and she was on vacation she thought she could see snow making its way into the footprints in the sand, collecting at the base of the telephone wire, and covering the ballast driveways that neatly jutted up against the main avenue. She watched as heavy flakes met the windowpane and slipped away. She thought they might get cold, the people who’d disappeared on their journey. It wasn’t supposed to be this cold, she’d thought. This isn’t good. She pulled her knees closer to her chest and forced her eyes closed as the shadows lengthened all around her.
Ivy found her drink was nearly done and she ordered another. She felt good, but a little woozy. A levity brewed all around her. Everything appeared lucky and imbued with the pale pinks and flesh of seashells, with the perfume of flowers that bloom at night. Flowers set on fire, she thought, beaches burning in a sheet.
When the bartender plopped the goblet in front of her she asked him to douse it in gasoline.
He smiled and used the kind of long lighter meant for barbecues. The effect was somewhat lackluster, Ivy found, but thanked him anyway and let the flaccid blue flame burn for a moment before blowing it out.
“What are you celebrating?”
Ivy turned to discover an old woman had filled the seahorse stool next to her. She looked like everyone else. She wore her sunglasses indoors. It was dark. She wore a sweatshirt with a black corn cob on it and smelled a little sour.
“Nothing,” Ivy said. “I’m killing time. I’m waiting.”
“For what exactly?” the woman asked. She pulled on a cigarette and blew the smoke in Ivy’s face.
Ivy coughed, then said, “For my son. He’s getting an important surgery.”
“Will he be okay?” the woman asked. “I don’t trust anyone. Especially doctors.”
“I don’t really know,” Ivy said. “There are no guarantees, I guess. Our bodies change. Shit happens. He could bite into an apple or something.”
“Yeah, I get that,” the woman said. “I’ve been there. Haven’t we all.”
The bartender, who had apparently been listening in, nodded and agreed. “Amen, lady,” he said. “We’ve all been there.”
The woman ashed her cigarette in the folds of her jeans and took another drag. “My cat had to have surgery,” she said. “He’s always had problems with incontinence, and now he wears a diaper. But he’s okay. That’s all that matters.”
Ivy nodded and hoped the woman would leave.
“Do you want to know something else?” the woman asked.
“No, but okay,” Ivy said.
“Would you look at this,” the woman rolled up the sleeve of her sweatshirt. On her hammy forearm was a faded tattoo of a cat with a human face. “That’s him,” she said. “Yeah, that’s him. My cat who wears a diaper.”
The day had left only a sliver of orange sun. It looked like a winking eye. Ivy was relieved to be back in the air, humid as it was, as she made her way back to the dentist’s office. She wondered what the bartender had put in her drink. She felt drunker than she normally would have, and the glinting surfaces of passing cars and storefront windows all seemed to smile at her. She reached down and pinched her thigh, hard. No pain, she thought. The drink made her feel like she was winning something she hadn’t bargained for.
The receptionist told Ivy that everything had gone well, and that Taz would be right out. “The polyurethane, you know like from roller blades? Well, it has to dry,” she said. “Like my nails are dry,” she laughed, and held up her garish fingers.
Ivy waited in one of the poorly cushioned seats and flipped through a National Geographic. She saw a photograph of a hungry dog with ribs like a leafless tree. She read an article about children in poverty-stricken countries smuggling drugs for their parents. She saw an exotic bird trapped in some kind of netting, feathers askew, bright swath of opened skin. A whole spread of photos was devoted to fish caught in plastic soda rings. Their mouths seemed to move open and shut wordlessly. They pleaded with her. She felt tears well up in her eyes.
“Here,” the receptionist came from around the desk and handed Ivy a Kleenex. “You can keep it.”
Taz looked liked like a movie star with his new smile, Ivy thought. The dentist had not only replaced his old teeth but improved upon them. He’d molded them to be straight and symmetrical, and achingly white.
As they walked to the car Taz kept grinning.
“Do you love your new teeth?” Ivy asked. “I can tell that you do.”
“They’re okay,” Taz said, but he stifled a huge smile and both he and Ivy burst out laughing. As they reached the car Ivy held open the passenger door for him. “I think you’ve earned it,” she said. Taz shrugged and got in.
“What movie should we watch tonight?” Ivy asked as she pulled out of the strip mall. “It’s Friday, your pick.”
Taz was silent for a moment. “Jaws?”
“That’s an apt choice,” Ivy said. “I’m just glad you don’t look like a shark anymore.”
She put on Taz’s favorite Nirvana CD, and turned the volume way up. The barbarous guitars cut through the sounds of traffic and the bass and the car’s engine merged and shook the vehicle’s frame. They sang along to the songs and screamed when necessary, letting their voices peel and split into a gravelly symphony.
Ivy floored the gas and they sped through the night. They careened through the littered roads, past lit-up casinos and restaurants, gothic stretches of jungle, swamps and ponds. She gripped the wheel and felt it press into her hands. Good, she thought, I’m human again.
They were nearly home when Ivy turned a corner too quickly. A dark green turtle was making his way across the road in languid, deliberate steps. He was going as fast as he could. Ivy was sure she saw his head turn and look at her when the headlights splashed across his path.
“No!” Ivy yelled and slammed on the breaks. The car made a terrible groan and skidded into the other lane as Ivy desperately turned the wheel. She overcorrected and they spun out of control. As the car made another momentous rotation she reached out for Taz. She could hardly see anything, just lights flashing and music getting louder, louder. She was faintly aware of a droning voice surfacing from her subconscious. The words were unclear though Ivy felt that she tried to grasp them. They spiraled off the shoulder and the hood smashed into the guardrail. Ivy felt, or saw, the airbags burst open. She saw Taz’s head whip back against his headrest, and then propel forward and slam against the dash. She heard a nasty crunch, like a bone shattering, and watched in horror as his new teeth spilled out of his mouth and scattered across the console.
“Are you okay?” she heard herself saying. “Taz, are you okay? Taz, are you okay?”
A moment of blurred vision. The engine sputtered out. A hiss like steam from a pipe.
“Mom, it’s alright,” Taz said. She wasn’t sure what she’d been saying, but found her hand clasped in his. Taz opened his mouth and a spoonful of blood fell down his chin. “My teeth are gone,” he smiled weakly. He opened his mouth again and Ivy could see that most of his upper gums were gashed open, tender, and missing several teeth.
They got out of the wrecked vehicle and sat by the side of the road for a moment. Ivy inspected Taz more thoroughly. His lip was split, and still bleeding, but all in all he appeared in okay shape. It seemed as though only his new teeth has been knocked out. Maybe they were weak, and still drying, Ivy thought. Maybe the dentist really did rip me off.
“Do you think you need to go to the emergency room?” she asked him, secretly hoping the answer would be no. A visit to ER would heighten the situation and make it seem irreparably real.
“Mom, I’m fine,” Taz insisted. “For the last time.”
Out of instinct Ivy pulled out her phone and began to pull up Ted’s number. This gesture was like a muscle memory. She wanted someone to consult, to back her up, to validate her choices. Then, just as quickly, she decided not to call. Instead she drafted a quick text.
“Hi Ted,” she wrote. “Just a heads-up that Taz’s teeth thing didn’t really work out as planned. Sad to say they didn’t stick. We are going to give it another go next week or so! Talk soon.”
Next Ivy called a tow truck and a cab.
The tow truck driver had a bottle of Rescue Remedy in his glovebox and smiled reassuringly as Taz hesitantly dripped some under his tongue.
“It’s got alcohol in it,” the man said. “It’ll make you feel better.”
Before he towed away the crushed black convertible, Ivy used the light from her phone to locate all the pieces of Taz’s teeth. One stuck up like a totem in the plastic console. She put the teeth in the breast pocket of her denim shirt and buttoned it.
That night, Ivy let Taz eat ice cream from the container, watch two movies, and play video games until she could tell he could hardly keep his eyes open. His mouth had stopped bleeding. His lip was a little swollen but he seemed hardly to notice.
“Come on,” Ivy said. “Time for bed.”
When she was sure Taz was asleep, she climbed into the bed behind him. She gently cupped his shoulder in her palm and brushed her face against his hair. She was still shaking a little. The sound of crushed metal looped like a song she couldn’t get out of her head. As she breathed she steadied herself. Glow-in-the-dark stars pasted on the ceiling. A panorama lamp depicting animals cast silhouettes on the wall. An elephant, followed by a giraffe. It was then that she remembered the turtle. With all that had happened she didn’t know whether or not he’d been struck. She imagined him making his way to the other side of the road. The comforting weight of his shell on his back. His home. His ancient face. His leather hands. Small human hands, a human face. Maybe he was older than she was. She saw him clambering across highways, passing murky rest stops, a dream of taking empty lowlands.
Taz murmured in his sleep. She reached into her pocket for his teeth. She gently pressed them against his swollen gums. She held her hand there. She could make out the sounds of trees settling in. She pinched her thigh again and felt her skin smart. She hoped that by the morning it would all have been some funny, sick joke.
Jonah Simonak is a writer and poet from New York. His work has previously appeared in Entropy, Pretty Owl Poetry, and elsewhere. He lives with his dog, Sandy.