The Tooth Collector

2021.12.02 10:36 jalapeno-whiskey The Tooth Collector

On the old desk were two giant jars. One was filled with Kennedy half dollars. The other with human teeth.
Let me set the table. It’s the late 1970’s in a blue collar Massachusetts town, a place of faded cars, graffiti-covered trains and red-brick factories. Back then, the smokestacks still spewed black into the sky.
I’m 12 or 13 years old, my sister 11. We have a brother that’s six years younger than me, he’ll enter the story later.
Mom knew a lady who owned a little gift shop, and she would sometimes give us a buck or two to go buy something there to get us out of her hair for a while. One time, the shop owner told us an old man who lived upstairs on the third floor needed someone to go to the store for him. Apparently he had not left the apartment in many years.
The building was what we call around here a three decker, a shop on the first floor, apartments on the 2nd and 3rd. The stairs led up from the street beside the shop entrance. Up we went, eager to earn a bit of money.
We knocked on his door at the end of the stairs. A voice told us to come in, and sure enough, it was open.
Inside, a shriveled old man sat at a desk with his back to us. On the desk were two gigantic jars, one with the half dollars, the other with the teeth. He was scribbling into a ledger and didn’t stop writing or look up at us.
We looked around the musty room. Sparse. Dusty furniture from another time. Dark. Freight trains crawling a short distance away, visible through a grimy window. Freezing. It was winter and the apartment had little heat. The man wore a scarf and a fedora. Little wisps of white hair sprouted along his neck. A couple of blocks away, the church bell started ringing, and though we were used to it, here it startled us.
My sister, getting a bad vibe, started tugging my elbow to leave. I was about to give in when the man slapped a couple of half dollars onto the desk.
“Milk”, he said.
Hesitating a moment, I finally broke away from my sister and approached the desk. The idea of reaching for that money made me nervous. The man never stopped scribbling, and though he was tiny and frail, I was irrationally terrified he’d snatch my hand.
But the chance to make some money was strong enough to overcome my fear, so I took the coins. The shadow from the fedora and the dim light prevented me from getting much of a look at the man’s face.
We ran to Robert’s Supermarket a few blocks away, then returned with the milk and change. My sister waited nervously just outside the open door. The old man didn’t look up or slow his scribbling. Dust moats floated in the air, lit by the pale sunlight penetrating the dingy windows and stiff curtains. The freight train across South Broadway was close enough to almost make out the graffiti on the boxcars. The old man, breaths visible in the cold, said nothing as I approached the desk with the milk. He never looked up when I placed it there with the leftover change. His scribbling hand never slowed while he slapped two 1964 Kennedy half dollars down onto that change. Our pay. I took the money and left.
As the days and weeks went by and the winter grew deeper, darker and colder, I found myself thinking of that weird old man and his giant jars of teeth and half dollars. As kids say nowadays, WTF? Christmas came hard that year, as my grandfather had a stroke and was in the hospital dying. We were in the car late one night, coming home from visiting him, when we drove by the gift shop. Glancing up, I noticed the light was on in that third floor apartment, and I imagined the old man sitting there scribbling away, his cold breath fogging the room. I shuddered.
Weeks later, maybe around February, Mom got a call from the gift shop. The old man needed someone to run an errand. This time my sister had no interest in going, so I stopped by that third floor place in the morning on the way to school. Again he sat there scribbling away and not looking up. Again he simply said, “milk”. And again he clunked 1964 Kennedy half dollars onto the desk. I took them and promised to return after school.
Well, at recess we played our usual touch football. We were always divided into the same two teams, and the team I was on had a perfect record: zero wins. The games were sometimes close, but the other guys had just enough more talent that the end was never in doubt.
However, something unprecedented happened that day as I quarterbacked the always-losing team, half dollars jiggling in my pocket: there was a tie! Beyond all tradition and in the face of destiny itself, the wheels of the universe had ground to a halt and produced a tie.
Now any boy will tell you, at least from generations before scoreless soccer, that a tie is unnatural and unacceptable. During the summer, curfew was always when the streetlights came on, but they used to flicker for a couple of minutes, warming up. This was the two minute warning. In a tie situation, we always hurried to end any game, a matter of grave ugency, for a tie simply could not stand.
Here’s how the tie that day at school came about. There were a handful of boys who didn’t play sports, mostly kids that were not very athletic. I feel bad saying it now, but they usually just sat on the stairs and watched. Well, that day at lunch, I was sitting with one of them, a kid we for some reason called Cheese. Cheese was kind of a wuss. To be fair, I was also kind of a wuss, at least when it came to fights, and in fact I had a perfect record in that too. But I was OK at sports. Anyway, I knew a secret about Cheese: he was fast as lightning. I’m sure you can guess where this is going, but the relevant detail is in how I convinced him to join us. I had tried talking him into playing for us before, but never got anywhere. However, this time I pulled out one of the Kennedy half dollars. His eyes lit up.
“I’ll toss it,” I said. “Heads you play for us, tails you don’t.”
He said nothing, his eyes on the silver coin as it spun high up over the cafeteria table and all the way til it landed in my hand. Heads.
But he just shook his head. No dice.
However, during the football game, he watched me intently from the stairs, something on his mind. And it was as the recess clock ran down, with our team trailing by one TD, that he waved for my attention. He showed me two quarters. I nodded. The deal was struck.
He sheepishly entered our huddle. I exchanged a Kennedy half dollar for those two quarters. Then called the play. With a look of resigned terror, he understood what I wanted.
After the snap, I broke left. All the receivers ran left too, as I had told them. Cheese, however, lingered by the line of scrimmage on the right side, as planned, completely ignored by the defense. I tossed him the ball. Then he shot toward the other goal line like he’d been fired out of a cannon. The recess bell rang. Tie game.
One unprecedented event deserved another, so we decided to do something unheard of: we would meet after school, hide til there was no sign of any teachers, then finish the game on the recess lot. Snowflakes drifted in the air. It felt exciting to be doing something that seemed so forbidden. Each team would get 5 possessions. It would be epic! I felt the half dollar like a lucky charm. As the game went on, the other team kept scoring and we kept tying it up, so we had a chance to win. But then one of the nuns spotted us and chased us off. So once again it ended in a tie.
Most of us lived in the same direction, so we started for home, talking about the day’s events. There was a sense of excitement about it all, and we recounted the big plays of the day. But there was also an uneasy feeling. A tie was unnatural, like an eclipse of the sun, or like the scent in the air just before a massive storm hits.
And with all those distractions I completely forgot to get the old man his milk.
By the time I remembered the milk it was almost supper and the sun had long set. I felt panic. Would the old man think I stole his money? Did he need that milk for some medical reason? What would happen when he told my mom’s friend who owned the gift shop?
I considered telling my dad and asking him to drive me to the store, but a favor like this would come with a stern lecture about responsibility. A large part of a boy’s youth is spent scheming for ways to get out of trouble, so I came up with a plan: I would bring the milk to the old man first thing before school.
Ready for bed, I jiggled the half dollars, which weighed heavy in my hand. They had a different sound to them than regular coins. Many years later I would understand that this was due to their being made with silver, 1964 being the last year such coins were minted. But to my boy’s mind they seemed to have a unique power to them. No wonder Cheese had wanted one badly enough to join the game, and I wouldn’t be in this mess if he hadn’t.
My kid brother, six years younger, shared the same bedroom with me. When he asked about the half dollars, I thought about the 2 jars on the old man’s desk. For a lot of reasons, I decided to tell him nothing.
That night I barely slept, tossing and turning while wondering where those teeth in the jar had come from. Were they donated? Were they taken? Why did he want them? And what was he writing in that ledger book?
So troubled was I that I did something even more radical than us playing football on school grounds after hours. I got up way before sunrise, in the middle of the night in fact, quietly dressed, and snuck out of the house in the dark. There was a 24 hour store that I could reach in less than an hour.
Large flakes of snow drifted and stuck to the ice on windshields and was just starting to build on the sidewalks. The silence was eerie. No wind. I walked through a frozen world where I was the only thing moving.
By the time I reached Union Street, a couple of inches had accumulated and an occasional car ground tracks into the powder. The clerk in the Store 24 was the first person I saw. I felt afraid he’d call the cops on me, a kid out too early, but he just rang up the sale of milk.
Half hour later, I made it to the gift shop. Everything quiet. No traffic on a street that would soon be busy. The freight trains warmed nearby, one of them crawling along. I could feel the rumble in my feet.
Looking up through the wet snowflakes, I could see the light on in the third floor apartment. The door from the street was unlocked, somehow I knew it would be. Up I went, my footsteps loud. The stairwell felt impossibly colder than outside.
I knocked.
“Yes, yes…” came the reply.
Entering, I found the old man scribbling as always, not turning until I spoke.
“I got your milk.”
For whipped around. His face looked like a dried, shriveled apple, a slit for a mouth surrounded by folds of skin. Shrubs of white hair grew like white candle flames where eyebrows should be. Below those little bushes his eyes were wide with panic.
And then we heard the door from the street open again, felt the air whoosh from the room. Grunts sounded from below, then heavy footsteps on the stairs.
The old man, surprisingly quick for his age, jumped to his feet and pulled me further inside, shutting the apartment door.
Hand on his forehead, he searched frantically for an idea while the footsteps, maybe two pair, plodded on the stairs. Deciding a course of action, the old man dragged me across the room to a closet, yanked it open, and shoved me inside.
“Quiet!” he whispered with a terrible scowl.
He closed the door. Terror crippled me. Was I locked in? Who or what was coming up the stairs? I wanted to test the doorknob, but stayed frozen as stiff as a dead rat. The smell of musty old clothes and crumbling leather made my eyes water.
I heard the chair legs scrape the floor before the desk, then the sound of scribbling.
I waited. The heavy footsteps on the stairwell slowly came. Another whoosh when the door opened.
Now those heavy footsteps dragged themselves across the floor. I heard the sound of sniffing, like a hog or some other wild animal catching a scent. The scribbling never ceased. I held my breath.
Then I heard a hand in the jar of half dollars. Items dropped on the table. A couple of grunts. Then more animal sniffing.
Finally the footsteps retreated and the apartment door closed. I waited a couple of deep breaths, then escaped the closet.
The old man held a finger to shriveled lips: “Shhh!”
On the desk: two human teeth. The jar of half dollars was open.
We listened to the heavy footsteps descending the stairs. It seemed to take forever. I thought I heard more sniffing of the air when they reached the bottom.
Finally, we heard the door to the street open, and then shortly after slam shut. The old man gestured for me to hold still. I glanced out the window at the trains.
“Go,” the man said at last.
I tried to make my steps as quiet as possible when I went down the stairs, and I had to be careful because little puddles from melted snow made every step slippery.
When I reached the bottom, I was afraid to open the door onto the sidewalk. What if they, whatever they were, were still out there? But I couldn’t wait here either, I felt desperate to get out of this place once and for all.
I pushed open the door and poked my head out. Nothing. I stepped onto the sidewalk. The street was quiet. The freight trains purred. The snow had stopped and the gray sky had grown lighter as dawn approached. I started to hurry off, when I looked down. The only footprints in the snow were mine from earlier. I spun around looking at the ground, but the snow cover remained pristine.
Well, I made it home, explained my errand to my parents, then went onto school. I told no one details of what had happened. My sleep became very uneasy. Then, to my horror, a few weeks later, my brother lost a tooth.
As I mentioned, my little bro was 6 years younger than me, and we shared the same room. At his age, he considered it just a part of life that if you put a tooth under your pillow, you wake up the next day with it replaced by money. It’s a strange belief, when you think about it, and I’m not sure why it didn’t trouble us as kids. This wasn’t Ireland, we didn’t believe in fairies, and fairies weren’t a part of any other legends we were raised with or any holiday traditions. Think about it. You’re a kid and you are told that some kind of creature is going to enter your room, while you are asleep and defenseless, lift your head and reach under your pillow. Why? Because it for some reason wants your dead tooth.
Lying there in bed with the lights out and my brother’s tooth under his pillow, I thought about this transaction for the first time in my life. By that age, I certainly didn’t believe in such a thing. I understood that my parents were Santa Clause, the Easter Bunny and the tooth fairy. But now the whole thing seemed sinister. If such a tooth-desiring creature existed, how would it know where and when to find a tooth?
I bolted out of bed. With a flashlight, I grabbed a dollar bill from my sock drawer, then made my way to my brother’s bed, reached under the pillow, and found the little prize. In its place I left the dollar.
Of course, I understood my parents would come in later…God, I hoped it was them. They could see the dollar, figure out what I’d done, and add a buck. I took my brother’s tooth, opened the window and tossed it out into the night. A sense of relief accompanied me to bed.
As the weeks and months went by, all of this dissolved from my mind. No doubt, if my brother had lost another baby tooth I would do the same with it, but as it happened, there was nothing to awaken those fears in my mind. After a while I didn’t even think about the old man scribbling in his cold third-floor apartment.
We went on losing games at recess, and football morphed into kickball, and as summer recess loomed, baseball. In the schoolyard, we played a version that used a big, rubber ball and our little fists. Spring stretched at last into summer, and we started playing whiffle ball in our yard at home.
On a gorgeous June day, I was in the outfield when someone smashed a shot that reached the bushes at the base of the house. I dived in, trying to recover the ball as fast as I could while the runners ran the bases. I spotted it quickly, was reaching for it…when I froze.
The bedroom window of the room I shared with my brother was right above this spot, on the second floor. And right there on the ground, partially buried in leaves, was a coin. Forgetting the whiffle ball game, I pulled it out: a Kennedy half dollar. 1964.
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so, lost my coral coloured lite. felt like crap, went hunting for a new one. for the first time; I actually took my time and looked for a good deal. the results? a Pikachu Yellow Switch Lite for 90$. so I guess there is always a silver lining. oh and hi everybody! submitted by satanic_panics to nintendoswitchlite [link] [comments]


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