Fiction / December 2014 (Issue 26)


by Clara Chow

The old, rotten teeth on the tray came in all shapes and sizes.

Some looked like little white stools, with four fairly stable legs to perch on. Any damage was structural, not cosmetic—some hole under the seat, giving way if a tiny midget sat on it. Others were gnarled, yellow, like bits of old amber, stubborn roots. Dual-coloured rock strata. Hollowed-out ginseng. Small limestone caves.

Yuen Fok sat on an actual stool—low, squat, square, bamboo—and played with the teeth. There were hundreds of them. He pushed them around with his index finger, sifting through for the most interesting-looking specimens. Once he had amassed his tooth army, he would set about lining them up to do battle with one another, promoting some of them to generals, making them prance and bow and speak.

Next to him, his adoptive grandfather lounged on a low rosewood chair, waiting for customers. The chair was busted, one of its legs shorter than the others, and missing an arm rest. Someone had abandoned it a few doors down, and Gong Gong had dragged it over so that it now formed part of their entourage.

Most days, Gong Gong would set up his stall in the five-foot-way, just downstairs from the three-storey shophouse he shared with eighteen other bachelors, each sleeping in a three-foot by six niche. The widower visited his grown-up children once a year, during Chinese New Year. But on normal days, after setting up stall, Gong Gong would scrounge around the five-foot-way for tossed cigarette butts, checking flower pots and the squat red incense-burners with archeological care. Once he had collected about ten, he would open them up and carefully remove the unsmoked tobacco, which he then arranged into a little heap. He would draw out a piece of cigarette paper from a pouch he kept on his belt and roll the tobacco up into a new smoke. Watching him, ten-year-old Yuen Fok understood on a fundamental level that it was this painstaking process that gave the cigarette extra flavour.

Today, however, Gong Gong was smoking his opium pipe. The boy inched his stool closer with his bum: he wanted a whiff of the fragrant, second-hand dragon. It made him think of white flowers. He always figured that he was Gong Gong's favourite, streaks ahead of all the biological grandchildren. They spent all their time together, companionably silent, while those run-of-the-mill, flesh-and-blood grandkids were at school.

A customer strode up. Old Li. Gong Gong looked up, quickly put away his pipe and smiled a welcome. Whisking off the white Good Morning towel around his neck, he dusted off the green iron barber's chair with its red leather upholstery, and then gestured Old Li into it. The old man, a few tufts of white cotton-wool hair waving in the wind on his head, took his seat and reclined with a grunt.

"Ya tong," he said in Mandarin to Gong Gong, pointing to the air next to his ear. Toothache. Then he opened his mouth and closed his eyes.

Gong Gong shooed Yuen Fok away from the tray of teeth, and unrolled his little bundle of tools onto his portable work top—a lacquered teak box with two pieces of wood nailed to the sides and a bar across on top for carrying to and fro on one's shoulder. The journeyman dentist selected the small pliers. He strapped the small flashlight to the side of his head, walked back and bent forward to peer into Old Li's mouth. There couldn't have been more than five teeth left in the eighty-year-old's head, sticking up like tombstones or hanging like stalactites here and there.

The dentist clicked his tongue. Tsk, tsk. "Tooth at the back needs to come out."

Old Li gave the least perceptible of nods.

Yuen Fok sidled over for a better view—close enough so that he could count Old Li's liver spots. But not near enough that he would get in Gong Gong's way and a scolding. The boy wondered what this new addition to the tooth tray would look like.

Gong Gong draped his Good Morning towel around Old Li's neck, as though he was preparing him for a lobster dinner. He then went to the worktable and sterilised the pliers in the kerosene lamp he kept burning there. Job done, he turned back to Old Li and put the pliers into his still-agape maw.

Gong Gong put two hands around the handle—left over right—and prepared to pull. He spread his legs a little, for a steadier stance, and then gave a few testing tugs. Satisfied, he braced one sandaled foot against the base of the barber's chair and yanked with all his milk-drinking strength.

Both men groaned like bulls.

The seconds became elastic, like veins and membranes that would only stretch but not give way. Embedded enamel refused to give up its grip.

Then, Gong Gong was staggering back like a kungfu master sustaining a mortal blow from an opponent in a duel. He held up the pliers triumphantly. A gold tooth winked in the afternoon sun.

Some blood dribbled out from the side of Old Li's mouth. His eyes were still closed, but the lines of pain etched on his forehead had gone away. He looked like a very peaceful, sleeping giant ape.

With a swift movement, Gong Gong slipped the gold-leafed tooth into his pocket, fishing out someone else's rotten molar to take its place.

"All done, Mr Li!" he announced cheerfully, dabbing at his customer's mouth with the corner of his towel.

Old Li opened his eyes and Gong Gong showed him the changeling, stuck on the pliers' tip like a miniscule piece of white coal. The customer nodded, climbed off the chair, dropped fifty cents into Gong Gong's outstretched palm, then strode off again—surprisingly spry for his age.

Yuen Fok drew closer again, waiting for Gong Gong to pass him the old man's molar, as he did all extracted teeth, for his tray collection. But the street dentist merely stepped around the boy, hitched up his pants before lowering himself onto his stool, and went back to sucking thoughtfully on his opium pipe as though nothing had happened. The grandson felt a stab of anxiety: why was Gong Gong withholding the prize?

The boy sidled over behind Gong Gong and began to give him a massage, making two fists and pounding rhythmically on the grandfather's shoulder blades, in the hopes of gaining the gold tooth as a reward. Gong Gong's eyelids rolled downwards, unfurling bamboo chits and he gave a small grunt. Implicit in that sound was acknowledgement and appreciation; satisfaction and scepticism. I know why you're doing this.

After ten minutes, during which Gong Gong did not open his eyes nor make any move to surrender the hidden treasure, Yuen Fok gave a few last chopping blows to the side of his grandfather's neck to vent his frustration. Then he went back round to sit in front of his tray of teeth again, his rubber slippers slapping the blue and white mosaic tiles on the floor with a dry, witless sound. Piak-piak, piak-piak. Stu-pid, stu-pid.

He picked up the tray, and then kicked his bamboo stool, sending it hopping like a toad, until it was across the five-foot-way, diagonally opposite his napping grandfather. Gong Gong pretended not to hear the racket, and mock-dozed on with Buddha-like fortitude. Yuen Fok plonked himself down on the stool, keeping the tray steady but lowering it onto his knees with a deliberate bang. The teeth jumped and clattered, so many chattering fragments in so many ghostly heads, but did not fall out and scatter.

Without taking his eyes off the charlatan—for that was how the boy now recognised this once-beloved elder—Yuen Fok felt around on the tray and pinched a random tooth between his thumb and forefinger. Like a phrenologist, he carefully explored the shape of the tooth: the shape of its crown, the state of its exposed dentine. It felt smooth, until his fingers reached the jagged edges of a large cavity.

He lifted his hand to his lip, and popped the damaged-pearl morsel into his mouth. A resentful O swallowed an innocent H. Wrenched from pulp and gum, the tooth tasted salty like dried snot. But also bitter, of ash. He transferred it with his tongue inside his left cheek, and bit down on it as he would hard candy. He covered his ears and listened to the crunching sounds that travelled through, were amplified, by his own teeth. For the rest of that afternoon, he sat there, grinding his grudges. Tooth against tooth. Until the tray was empty.

Years later, after he had established his own chain of dental clinics all over the island—had grown it to Singapore's biggest oral-care group, in fact—the memory came back to him.

Gong Gong died in 1982. Yuen Fok had been away, at a medical convention in the United States, when the centenarian's condition took a turn for the worse. When his cousin called, Yuen Fok said there was no way he could get a flight back in time.

"Do you want me to pass him a message?" asked his well-meaning cousin.

"What's there to say?" Yuen Fok replied, before hanging up. Instead of tears, his saliva began to flow.

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