What is life that I must get teeth pulled? Brown Dog thought, sitting on a white pine stump beside the muddy creek with a swollen jaw for company. It was late April and trout season would open in two days. Brown Dog was a violator and had already caught two fine messes of brook trout, not in contempt for regulators but because he was hungry for brook trout and so were his Uncle Delmore and his stepchildren, Red and Berry. Despite this Brown Dog put the highest value on the opening of trout season which meant the end of winter, though at his feet near the stump there was still a large patch of snow decorated haphazardly by a sprinkling of deer turds.
Here I sit in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, one hundred eighty pounds of living meat with three separate teeth aching and sending their messages of pulse, throb, and twinge to each other, their secret language of pain, he thought.
Brown Dog was not what you call a deep thinker but within the structure of aching teeth mortal thoughts tended to arise in the seconds-long spaces between the dullish and the electric, the surge and slight withdrawal. Sitting there on the stump he blurred his eyes so that in his vision the creek became an immense and writhing brown snake emerging from the deep green of a cedar swamp. Until the autumn before the creek had run clear even after big rains but the bumwads from the County Road Department had done a sloppy job on an upstream road culvert and now the water was the color of an average mud puddle.
Brown Dog knew that teeth were simply teeth and they shouldn’t be allowed to repaint the world with their troublesome colors. When he had gone into Social Services the week before more than curious about finding help for his malady, he was not allowed to immediately see his ally Gretchen but first had to pass the foamy gauntlet of the Social Services director Terence Stuhl who always reminded Brown Dog of the suspicious water of the Escanaba River after it had been sluiced through the local paper mill. Stuhl was more bored than mean-minded and began chuckling the moment he spotted Brown Dog in a mirror on the far wall of his office that reflected anyone entering the lobby of his domain and was stuck there temporarily dealing with the purposeful hostility of the receptionists to whom anyone on any sort of dole was up to no good and must be tweaked into humility. Along with his relentless chuckling Stuhl sucked on a dry pipe sometimes too deeply, whereupon the filter stem would hit his uvula and he would begin choking and then draw on a bottle of expensive water paid for by the taxpayers of Delta County.
Stuhl, however, was far from the biggest asshole Brown Dog had to deal with in life. Stuhl merely drew Brown Dog’s file, really a rap sheet, from a cabinet and chuckled and choked his way through a recitation of Brown Dog’s low crimes and misdemeanors: the illegal diving on, stealing, and selling of old sunken ship artifacts in Lake Superior, the stealing of an ice truck to transport the body of a Native in full regalia found on the bottom of Lake Superior, the repeated assaults on the property and encampment of University of Michigan anthropologists who were intent on excavating an ancient Native graveyard, possibly the northernmost Hopwell site, the secret location of which had errantly been divulged to a very pretty graduate student named Shelley while Brown Dog had been in the usual ill-advised pussy trance. There were also small items like a restraining order keeping him out of Alger County, the site of the graveyard and his former home in Grand Marais, a lovely coastal village. Another charge of flight to avoid prosecution for a trip to Los Angeles had been dropped through the efforts of Brown Dog’s Uncle Delmore, a pure-blood Chippewa (Anishinabe). Delmore had managed to keep Brown Dog out of jail by arranging the marriage to Rose, a cohort in the attack on the anthropological site. Unfortunately Rose in a struggle had bitten off part of the finger of a state cop and had another year and a half to serve which seemed to be a long time, two years in all, but then her court-appointed lawyer, a dweeb fresh out of Lansing, far to the south, had claimed the photos showed that Rose had also blackened the cop’s eyes and ripped his ear after he had touched her breasts. Rose had also intemperately yelled during the trial that the judge was welcome to kiss her fat ass which brought titters from the audience and angered the judge, especially when Rose had turned, bent over, and showed the judge the ample target. Brown Dog had regretted missing this proud moment but he had been on the lam in L. A. with Rose’s older brother, Lone Marten. Rose’s other brother, David Four Feet, had died in Jackson Prison and had been Brown Dog’s best boyhood friend. Rose had behaved poorly in detention, so that when Delmore, Brown Dog, and Rose’s children, Red and Berry, had driven to the prison near Sault Ste. Marie the children hadn’t been permitted to witness their mother’s marriage. Rose hadn’t even kissed B.D. through the heavy metal screen. She only whispered, “My heart and body still belong to Fred,” another cohort in the attack on the anthropologists. On the long drive home Brown Dog reflected that the only marriage of his forty-nine years hadn’t been very imposing but was better than being in prison himself. The deal Delmore had made with the prosecutor, thus allowing Brown Dog to return from the not so golden West, was simple enough: marry Rose and assume full responsibility for raising her children, Red and Berry, whose separate fathers were indeterminate, and save the county a bunch of money. Red was twelve years old and no particular problem while Berry at seven was a victim of fetal alcohol syndrome, a modest case but debilitating enough to prevent any chance at what our society clumsily defines as a “normal life,” a concept as foggy as the destiny of the republic itself. As a purebred and an enrolled member of the tribe Rose had a few benefits, and along with some help from Social Services and what he made cutting pulpwood for Delmore, Brown Dog got them by, with the only sure check being the fifty dollars a week Gretchen and Social Services had helped extricate from Delmore after a tree kicked back and crushed Brown Dog’s knee.
In truth domesticity is an acquired talent and up until his prison wedding Brown Dog had not spent more than moments a day devoted to it. So much of his life had been lived in deer cabins where he traded his handyman services for rent. He was fairly good at laying out new but cheap linoleum, reroofing, shoring up sagging bunk beds, fixing disintegrating woodstoves, and cutting firewood that he was never without a place to stay. This scarcely qualified him to raise two children but then Rose’s mother, Doris, though quite ill had helped him right up until Christmas morning when she had died, an event that was the reverse of Dickensian expectations. Delmore’s cabin back in the woods was hard to heat by the beginning of November, and too far to the road for Red to catch the school bus, so Delmore had bought a repossessed house trailer which was placed a hundred yards from the main house. Brown Dog had pickaxed frozen ground to dig a pit for an outhouse. There was electricity, and a propane cooking stove and a heater, but water had to be hauled from Delmore’s in a big milk can on Berry’s sled. The sled broke and he had to buy a new one plus a toboggan for the water, all of which had cost him two full days of wages.
In her last waning days Doris had been moved from the trailer into Delmore’s house where he had patiently nursed her. They had been friends since they were children, over seventy years in fact, keeping in touch during the long years Delmore had worked in an auto factory four hundred miles south in Detroit, and had become wealthy by default having bought a small farm during World War II on land part of which became the wealthy suburb of Bloomfield Hills.
Back at the creek Brown Dog sipped some whiskey from a half-pint, then stuffed three fresh wet camphor patches against his teeth, a patent-medicine nostrum for toothaches, the relief offered of short duration. He was tempted to take the ten bucks in his pocket straight to the tavern and drink it up but he needed it for dinner groceries for the kids and himself. Gretchen at Social Services had given him Dad’s Own Cookbook by Robert Sloan as a present and he was slow to admit that he had come to enjoy this duty more than going to the tavern after a day cutting pulpwood. There weren’t any tourist women to look at in late fall, winter, and early spring, just the same old rummies, both male and female, talking about the same old things from bad weather to frozen pipes to late checks to thankless children to faithless wives and husbands. Since the arrival of the cookbook Delmore had taken to strolling down to the trailer around dinnertime sniffing the air like an old bear ready to gum chickens. He would carry a Tupperware container for a handout because he had a short fuse for Berry’s errant behavior, especially when Red was late coming home from school, Brown Dog was cooking, and Delmore felt defenseless in the onslaught of Berry’s affection. Brown Dog thought of Berry’s mind as being faultily wired so that if she peed out of a tree, took a walk in the night, or sang incoherent songs it was simply part of her nature while Delmore always wanted the lid of reality screwed on real tight. He loved Berry but craved a safe distance from her behavior. Delmore had overexposed himself to the Planet of the Apes movies on television and liked to say, “We’re all monkeys only with less hair” and Berry was a further throwback to ancient times. Brown Dog had noted a specific decline in Delmore beginning at the time of the death of Doris nearly four months before. On her sickbed he had sung to Doris, “I’d love to get you on a slow boat to China” nearly every day which Brown Dog had thought an odd song to sing to a dying woman though Doris had enjoyed it and joined in. The evening before when Delmore had showed up for a serving of spaghetti and meatballs he had intoned, “As a reward Prince Igor received as a gift his choice of dancing girls. More sauce, please.” Delmore listened to Canadian radio with his elaborate equipment and Brown Dog guessed that certain things Delmore said came straight from a program of high culture. Delmore liked the idea that Canadian radio gave a lot of Indian news and referred to them as “our first citizens.” When Doris was on her deathbed and Brown Dog tried to get information on his own parentage Delmore had turned the radio way up so no one could think straight. It was a gardening program about the care and planting of perennials, but then Doris was unlikely to give him information anyway. Genealogy was the last of her concerns. Delmore had been somewhat miffed when Doris had given her medicine bag to Brown Dog to keep for Berry until she was old enough but to hide it away so Rose couldn’t sell its contents for booze when she got out of prison. Doris had shown him her loon’s head soapstone pipe that was made about the time of Jesus, or so she said.
On his way back to the car Brown Dog detoured up a long hill, a place he favored when his heart and mind required a broader view of life than that offered by the pettier problems that were mud puddles not the freeflowing creeks and rivers he cared so deeply for. You could sit on a rocky outcropping and see the conjunction of the West Branch and Middle Branch of the Escanaba River miles away and in a thicket on the south slope there was a Cooper’s hawks’ nest and a few hundred yards away a bear den, both of which were used every year he could remember. It was a hill that lifted and dispersed sadness and when he had nearly reached the top it occurred to him that while his teeth still ached the pain had become more distant as if he were a train and the discomfort had receded to the caboose. When he reached the top he did a little twirl on the ball of one foot which he always did to give himself the illusion of seeing 360 degrees at once. There had been a brief spate of late April warm weather but enough to cause the first faint burgeoning of pastel green in the tree buds. He sucked in air to balance the arduous climb and felt he was sucking in spring herself, the fresh earth smells that were the remotest idea during winter. Rare tears formed when he saw the back of the Cooper’s hawk passing below him. If you hung out long enough in the area the local hawks and ravens grew used to your presence and resumed their normal activity though it was fun to irritate red-tailed hawks by imitating their raspy whistle. He dug under the roots of a stump and drew out a metal box that contained marbles, arrowheads, and a semi-nude photo of Lana Turner he had owned since age twelve. He didn’t take a look but dug deeper for a leather pouch that contained a half-full pint of peppermint schnapps from which he took a healthy gulp then lay back for a session of cloud study. Delmore had told him that way out west in northern Arizona there was a tribe that lived in cliffs and thought the souls of their dead ancestors had taken up residence in clouds. It was pleasant to think that his mother who he couldn’t remember lived in that stratocumulus approaching from the west, and maybe the father he had never laid eyes on had joined her in the cloud. His grandfather who raised him had loved lightning and storm clouds and would sit on the old porch swing and watch summer storms passing over the northern section of Lake Michigan. Brown Dog didn’t give a thought to his own afterlife, the knowledge of which would arrive in its own time. At the moment as the Cooper’s hawk passed overhead for a quick study of the prone figure Brown Dog thought heaven would be to live as a Cooper’s hawk whose avian head was without the burden of teeth.
Coming down the hill after a brief snooze and another ample sip of the schnapps he paused for a moment of dread, mere seconds of understandable hesitation at the idea of returning to a domestic world for which he had had no real training. The option of at least a full year in jail reminded him of his grandpa saying, “Caught between a rock and a hard place.” When he had visited arrested friends jails were smelly, and full of the clang of gates and doors closing. The food was bad, there was no place to walk, no birds. His old girlfriend, the anthropology graduate student Shelley, had told him that way back whenever in the Middle Ages hell was thought to be a place totally without birds. Jail was also a place without women, an equally dire prospect, and more immediately punishing. Brown Dog was greatly drawn to women with none of the hesitancy of his more modern counterparts who tiptoed in and out of women’s lives wearing blindfolds, nose plugs, ear plugs, and fluttering ironic hearts. One warm summer morning when a damp sheet was wrapped around the knees of Shelley’s nude body Brown Dog had gazed a long time at her genitals and then began clapping in hearty applause. She was a little irritated to be awakened thusly, then warmed to the idea that this backwoods goofy thought a portion of her body about which she had some doubt was beautiful.
When Brown Dog reached his car, a ’72 Chevelle, the force of his aching teeth made him quiver. He took four ibuprofen with a swig of water from his canteen. Delmore had gotten the car in payment for a bad debt from a cousin over in Iron River, not remembering that the old brown sedan was powerful with a 396 engine, what Red from the back seat called “kickass,” so that when Brown Dog stomped the gas pedal to see what would happen it was a neck snapper. Delmore was amused saying the Detroit cops used Chevelles for chasing miscreants. Brown Dog was appalled. Rose had wrecked his beloved old Dodge van in a stupor, and after that had come the Studebaker pickup with no side windows. On his grandpa’s advice he habitually held his speed at forty-nine which, by coincidence, was also his favorite temperature.
On the drive home he found his irritation at Delmore rising. That day after making his way through Social Services past the frothy Stuhl and reaching his ally Gretchen’s office he had poured forth his tooth pain but found her less responsive than usual. Rather than her usual abrasive self Gretchen was morose. Since they were long acquaintances, almost friends, Gretchen confessed she had lost her lover of eight years’ standing, a “marriage” of sorts that had begun her senior year at Michigan State University. Despite her grief she arranged for Brown Dog to have a free consultation with a dentist friend of hers. There was no public money available for actual treatment. Gretchen was sure, however, that she could find a way to get the money out of Delmore by bringing up his failure to adequately cover Brown Dog’s accident when a tree bucked back and shattered his knee. She could also legally force Delmore to install full plumbing in the shabby mobile home. Delmore loathed Gretchen, huffing and referring to her as a “Daughter of Sappho,” an old-fashioned term of opprobrium for lesbians. Rather than listening to Gretchen’s invective Brown Dog had drifted off remembering the diner waitress he had made love to on Gretchen’s living room floor when he was supposed to be painting the walls yellow. The waitress had one short leg but he had decided many mornings at breakfast in the diner that this short leg had become attractive in its own right. He hadn’t realized that Gretchen’s lover was upstairs, presuming her to be at work. From snooping in Gretchen’s undies drawer and finding photos, Brown Dog knew that lady was a real looker. Sad to say that on hearing the love racket downstairs she had called Gretchen’s office and Brown Dog had been caught in the saddle, though in fact he was underneath. This event had cooled the friendship which gradually warmed up, mostly because Gretchen liked this preposterous fool, so unlike her father and his cronies. She’d grown up in a modestly posh suburb of Grand Rapids where all the men were middle or higher management in Steelcase (purportedly the world’s largest producer of office desks, file cabinets, and folding chairs) or Amway, a super version of the old Fuller Brush Company. She actually loathed her bully father, not to speak of his friends and their veiled but implicit condescension to all things female from the Virgin Mary to cats and dogs. If they were to fish with female worms the worms would be chuckled at with the curious sense of superiority many males in this culture feel their weenies entitle them to.
Brown Dog cooled his heels for a full hour in the office of Gretchen’s high-end dentist chum. The waiting room reminded him of fancy hotels in Chicago though he had only looked through the windows of such places. There were three women and two male patients also waiting who were clearly members of what Delmore called Escanaba’s “upper crust,” though that designation might also include successful car dealers and their wives. None of the others returned B.D.’s friendly nod but he thought perhaps they were also in pain and therefore uncivil. He did note that the pine sap on his trousers had stickily attracted dirt and that the Mexican chicken stew he had made from Dad’s Own Cookbook the evening before had splattered a goodly amount of grease on his camouflage T-shirt, a discontinued item from the back corner of a discount supermarket, twelve of them in fact for a dollar apiece. He did recall that in his earlier days rich people greeted poor folks on the street and were now less likely to do so.
The dentist was chunky indeed with a mottled beige complexion but B.D. couldn’t help but feel thrilled during the cursory examination when her green-smocked pelvis brushed against his knees. She was genuinely appalled when she learned he had never in his life been to a dentist. He was embarrassed enough to try to change the subject by asking her why she wore the thin latex rubber gloves. “AIDS prevention, you goof.” She was not so much angry as dumbfounded by the fact that this man beneath her fingers had never been to a dentist. Besides, Gretchen had used the term “goofy” when referring to B.D., saying also that she had heard around town that he was quite the lover. The dentist, Belinda Schwartz, had found slim pickings among the men of her own social set, the “upper crust” as it were, including Stuhl, Gretchen’s boss, who was an implement freak, two car salesmen, and an alcoholic who worked for the newspaper who had shit his pants after collapsing in her bathtub. Belinda who had a decided nonresemblance to fashion models had taken to driving north to Ontonagon on weekends where her randy spirit had easily won the affection of a number of young Native men, two Finnish miners, and a mulatto logger who had sent her to body heaven. On questioning, Brown Dog had admitted his career as a bare-knuckle fighter early in life and she advised that this was the reason his teeth were permanently loosening from their deadened roots outward. Before leaving she gave him a few dozen Percodans and Percocets recognizing his pain, and then, as advised, called Gretchen to say she would need a deposit of three thousand for starters. Gretchen called Delmore with the news and the threat that she could force him to install proper plumbing. Delmore called her a “vile rug muncher” and she, unfazed, merely said, “I’m going to win this one, kiddo.”
Two weeks later, the pain drugs long gone, Brown Dog’s sore teeth were still being held hostage to the war between Delmore and Gretchen. When he had returned from the dentist late that afternoon he expected a shit monsoon but instead Delmore wept quietly on his porch swing, then was kind enough to offer B.D. a drink of his rationed Four Roses whiskey. When B.D. patted Delmore on the shoulder Delmore said he was weeping for the youth of America. This surprising announcement was allowed to stand alone in the coolish April air for at least five minutes. B.D. had heard most of the “youth of America” material many times before but was attentive to new additions. On the way home he had taken a Percodan with a warm can of beer found under the car seat which had made him as impervious as a stone Olmec head to Delmore’s caterwauling about the toughness of the cinema hero John Wayne in Red River, the manliness of the football coaches Woody Hayes and Vince Lombardi to which B.D. always replied, “It’s easy on the sidelines,” at which point Delmore added Bobby Layne, the old Detroit Lions quarterback, and the brave young men at Iwo Jima and on Pork Chop Hill, not to speak of the Ojibwa warriors, Delmore’s own ancestors, who had repelled the Mohawk invasion in the eighteenth century in a battle in the eastern Upper Peninsula.
The upshot of Delmore’s mournful speech was that in the old days when “men were men” they pulled their own teeth rather than spend someone else’s hardearned money. B.D. knew this was true having watched out a back window as his grandfather pulled his own molar. He also knew that Delmore had full dental insurance in his retirement from the auto factory negotiated by the AFL-CIO. The next day Delmore had brought home new GripLock pliers and a fresh quart of whiskey as a further challenge, a bargain compared to the cost of dentistry, or plumbing for the house trailer.
The stalemate had continued with one long evening spent in the woods with the pliers and whiskey, but when the coolish metal of the pliers touched a sore tooth he recoiled. There was a profound sense of body attrition so that when he took out his weenie to pee he addressed it: “Someday you’ll wear out, old friend.” But not yet, of course.