Readings — From the June 2014 issue

Long in the Tooth

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By Bohumil Hrabal, from Harlequin’s Millions, published last month by Archipelago Books. Hrabal (1914–1997) was the author of many novels, including I Served the King of England and Too Loud a Solitude. Translated from the Czech by Stacey Knecht.

I had never, ever expected that life would go by so quickly. Before I’d even taken a good look around me, I’d plucked out my first gray hair. But in those days I’d always been under the impression that I still had plenty of time, that I had time for everything, that old age was something that didn’t concern me. So I dyed my hair, smoothed my wrinkles with creams and massages, while Francin stayed the same, it even seemed to me that he was exactly the same as when he was thirty, but he had grown older, too, because all of a sudden he was retired, all of a sudden we had moved to the little villa on the river that I’d designed myself . . . and all of a sudden it was my birthday and I turned sixty and all of a sudden sixty-five and all of a sudden I got paradentosis and Mr. Šlosar pulled out all my teeth and promised he would make me a set of dentures more beautiful than my own teeth, that’s what Mr. Šlosar told me, and I had believed his eyes and his voice that assured me that false teeth gleamed brighter than the teeth he had pulled, why, in America it was even the custom that when you reach a certain age, you have all your healthy teeth extracted and instead of those you wore teeth you could rinse under running water, because teeth with fillings just kept decaying and caused rheumatic diseases and heart problems. This had happened to me in the fall, Mr. Šlosar was in excellent spirits, I’d heard that the fall was paradise for dental technicians, because it’s hunting season, and the huntsmen in our little town celebrate the end of every hunt by drinking themselves silly, and early the next morning when one of them throws up in the ditch or the toilet bowl, he accidentally spits out his expensive dentures, so from September to New Year’s Mr. Šlosar has his hands full with all those teeth, he even has to work nights repairing and making new false teeth for his hunting clientele, while they have to pay three times more than what they’d paid for their dentures the first time around. And when my gums were healed, I had him make a plaster cast, and a month later I went back to him, full of hope, I smiled, because I knew that by the end of the day I’d be wearing those porcelain teeth, that work of art, as Mr. Šlosar called them, those lilies of the valley that he would plant in my rosy gums. And Mr. Šlosar disappeared into his workshop and when he returned he was carrying something wrapped in cotton on a tin tray, he asked me to sit down in the chair, close my eyes and open my mouth, and he slid something cold and hard over my lower gums, my chin dropped under the weight of it, then he slid in something even more disgusting, some object that made me want to vomit, I started gagging, but the voice of Mr. Šlosar urged me to suck the silver plate to the roof of my mouth and wait until the dentures had warmed up a bit. And so I lay there, the woman who moments before had clapped her hands when she saw Mr. Šlosar walk in carrying his artificial remedy on a silver tray, now I had the feeling he had clamped my whole head in a vise, I felt myself turning deathly pale, my whole body and soul struggled against the humiliation and disgrace that had been shoved into my mouth, a hostile object in a cold, harsh cave, with cones of dripping stone above and below. I paid, Mr. Šlosar assured me it was only a matter of time before I was used to the new teeth, under no circumstances was I to remove that artifact of his, which he had labored over with such care, I even had to sleep with it in, something aging saleswomen and office girls did best, since they couldn’t possibly go to work without any teeth. He walked me all the way to the square, actually he had to hold me up, because when I left his dental studio it was like leading a widow away from a grave, he held me up and whispered in my ear that I shouldn’t run my curious tongue along the teeth, a curious and restless tongue could give you cavities, even cancer, one of his clients had contracted such a serious illness with her curious tongue that she’d had to be admitted to the psychiatric unit, the psychoanalyst had given her orders never, never, under any circumstances, to yield to her curious tongue, otherwise the cavities could turn into cancer, Mr. Šlosar said in parting that there were plenty of men, boorish types, who had a set of dentures made but wore them only once and then threw them in a drawer and trained their toothless gums on crusts of bread until they were beautifully callused, which was a perfect substitute for teeth, but still! I had always been an attractive woman, he told me, I’d never make a fool out of him and I’d wear my teeth at all costs. He said this in a confidential tone and then slipped his own dentures out of his mouth and held them up before my eyes and said, I wanted to throw these away, too, but that was out of the question! How could I ever recommend false teeth to a patient if I wasn’t wearing them myself? That would be like Kolár the pharmacist having no hair and constantly trying to fob off his hair tonic on everyone else, his tried and tested hair tonic. The best thing for men with a new set of dentures, their first, was to take money out of the savings bank, or borrow it, or cajole their wives into giving them a thousand crowns so they could take a week off work and then sit in the pub surrounded by other people and drink beer or restorative beverages from morning till night, only then could they forget about those false teeth, that was certain, said Mr. Šlosar, the teeth must stay in your mouth throughout the course of treatment . . . And I walked across the square with my head held high, I had to walk that way, because if I leaned forward even slightly, my head would drop and my teeth would fall out. I felt this, and burst into tears, because I realized I was doomed to be an old woman, from this moment on I’d be an old hag, a toothless old crone, because I couldn’t bear having a thing like this in my mouth, even if I were to take all my savings out of the bank and spend six months drinking champagne and beer, even then, and that’s how well I knew myself, I wouldn’t be able to endure those teeth, my whole body, my soul, everything was telling me those dentures were unwelcome, I couldn’t help feeling that I’d been tricked, that they had stuck a blacksmith’s anvil in my mouth, a big glass ashtray full of cigarette butts and burned matches, two sharp river shells, on which I’d already cut my tongue, which was completely terrified and wriggling all around that strange thing in my mouth, I couldn’t keep that tongue still, it wasn’t curious, it was deranged, that finicky tongue of mine had gone crazy, it bled and could very easily have destroyed itself, just as hunters claim that if a weasel gets caught in a trap, it’ll be dead before sunset, even if it hasn’t been wounded. And when I arrived home I got the old tool kit out of the Škoda 430, grabbed the metal lever for prying tires off the rim of the wheel, spit the teeth out onto the table, looked aghast at those choppers, which were laughing at me, the gums had fallen open in a wide grin, and with a few blows of the tire iron I smashed those very expensive teeth, the porcelain shattered like a beer bottle, I hammered away at those teeth as if I were the one who’d gone crazy and I kept on hammering until the pink gums had turned to dust and teeth were flying around the kitchen. I swept together the remains and threw them in the stove . . . At Easter, when I was doing my spring cleaning and moved the table with the washbasin away from the wall, I found a few more teeth still lying there.

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