Strong White Teeth


by Frank Oreto


 

The screwdriver slipped and plowed a red furrow across Jacob’s left hand. “God-damn-son-of-a-mother-f—. He pressed the scraped flesh against his mouth as much to cut off the stream of curses as to dull the pain. Putting on a door sweep shouldn’t be this hard. The instructions didn’t even have words, only  an over-sized drawing of three screws and some arrows.

“Whoa there, buddy,” cut in a familiar voice “If you’re not careful that boy of yours is going to grow up sounding like a longshoreman.”

Jacob looked up to see Ed Breen gazing down at him over a sport-fleece constrained beer gut.  He held two glistening bottles of oatmeal stout in one large hand. Jacob liked Ed. The man was loud and a little conservative, but the two of them shared a love of good beer, and Ed wasn’t averse to loaning out his mower when Jacob’s wouldn’t start—a good neighbor.

Jacob would have flushed red with embarrassment if anger hadn’t already colored him. He took a deep breath. “Drinking two at a time these days, Ed?” he asked, his voice hopeful.

“Press this against your hand in between sips,” said Ed, holding out one of the stouts. “Having a problem?”

“I’m not exactly handy,” Jacob said after a pull on the beer. “Hell, who am I kidding? I’m freaking pathetic. The white picket fence is going to fall over next. Truth is I don’t know if I’m cut out for the whole suburban homeowner thing.”

“It’s what you want, though, right? For Maggie and your boy?

“Yeah, it’s what I want—what they deserve. I’m just frustrated. Maggie’s job brings in the money. My end is supposed to be taking care of Jake and the house and I can’t even put on a door sweep. Sorry, Ed, you don’t need to hear this.”

“Maybe you just need a little help,” Said Ed. “Hand me that hammer over there and give me a little room. You see, you need to make a starter hole for the screws.”

In the time it took Jacob to issue a few weak protests, Ed had knelt, given a few taps with the hammer, some turns on the screwdriver, and stood again. “There you are,” he said and clinked his near-empty bottle against Jacob’s.

Jacob moved the door back and forth, watching the door sweep brush the threshold at exactly the right level. “I hate you,” he said. “Thanks.”

Ed gave a braying laugh and slapped Jacob on the back. “Seriously, you can’t let this stuff get you down. Come over to the house. There’s something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about. And I want to show you my rec-room.”

“Let me put away the tools and clean up a little. I’ll be over in ten minutes or so.” Jacob stepped through the house’s side door into the kitchen, wondering what Ed couldn’t tell him outside.

Maggie stood at the sink cutting up potatoes and singing to herself. “Did you get done, Mr. Potty-mouth?” she asked when she saw her husband.

“Sort of,” Jacob said. “I was so pathetic Ed came over and did it for me.”

“At least it’s finished and we won’t be air conditioning the whole block anymore. And you somehow got a beer out of it.” She took the empty bottle from Jacob and tossed it in the recycling bin. “Seriously, though. You’re supposed to be learning to take care of that sort of stuff.”

“I know baby. I’m trying.”

“Maybe you should take some more of those classes at Home Depot.”

“Fine.”

“I’m sorry if I’m annoying you, but we had a plan, remember? I do the 9-5 thing; you take care of the home front. Anyway, dinner is in twenty minutes. Could you get little Jake ready?”

“Well,” hemmed Jacob, “Actually, Hon, Ed wanted to show me something at his house. I’ll just whip over and tell him I can only stay a minute.” Jacob stepped out into the mudroom before Maggie could get in a logical objection. He snagged two IPA’s from a sampler case as he opened the side door.

“Come home sober,” yelled Maggie.

“Yes, Ma’am.”

Ed’s wife, Dianne, opened the door when Jacob knocked. She looked at the beers and shook her head. “Hi, Jacob. Ed’s in the rec-room. Just go through the living room and down the stairs. ”

Jacob had never been in Ed’s home. Up to now, they’d been strictly what Maggie called front-porch friends. The house was nice.  A lot like Jacob’s, in fact. Hardwood floors, obelisk-shaped newel posts on the stairway railing, a bit of stained glass here and there. The similarities stopped in the rec room. Built in barrister bookcases covered two walls, the floor was hardwood, inlaid with circle and diamond patterns,—really inlaid, not that creative staining you see in Martha Stewart books. In the center of the room was a large library reading table with clawed feet and gargoyle faces peeking out where the legs met the tabletop.

“Wow,” said Jacob around his beer. “This is nice, this is really nice.”

“Just finished it up this week,” said Ed. “Did everything myself. I built the bookcases, glazed the glass, inlaid the floor. I even made the goddamned table. There’s a place in Lawrenceville where you can rent workshop space and tools. I made all the parts there, did the carving, and then I put it together here. Not a nail in the whole thing.”

“All right, you’re Bob Vila and I can’t put on a door sweep. Happy now?”

“I’m not Bob Vila,” Ed said. “That’s what I wanted to tell you. You’ve lived here around three years, right?”

Jacob nodded.

“You have a good wife, a nice kid, got some equity built up in the house. You’ve put down roots.”

“Well, I’m not planning on going anywhere,” said Jacob.

“I’m glad to hear it. You and Maggie are good people, good neighbors.”

“Come on Ed, I’m getting all misty-eyed,” Jacob said, taking another swig of beer.

“All right, here’s what I wanted to tell you. I wouldn’t be saying this if you weren’t really, you know, part of the neighborhood already.” Ed looked around as if he couldn’t find the right words. “I’m not the Bob Vila type. I used to have to call my father-in-law to put together an IKEA coffee table.” Ed paused again, running his hand along the grain of the tabletop. “You remember Frank Graves, used to live down at 1523, had that gazebo in the back yard? He died around two years ago?”

“Oh yeah.” Jacob smiled. “He used to wear those big rainbow suspenders in the summer.”

“Uh huh, that was Frank all right. Nice old guy. He was a master carpenter, you know. I mean amazing. He did a lot of work on St. Bart’s Church over in Monroeville. Anyway, he was great. All this woodworking stuff—joinery, carving. I sort of got it from him. So did Joe Hecher, Phil Mackey, and a few other guys on the block.”

“What? He was giving lessons from the gazebo?” asked Jacob, with a laugh.

“No, not lessons. It wasn’t like that. You see… I kind of…” Ed blew out a sigh and tried again. “All right, I know how to do the stuff Frank did, but he didn’t teach it to me.”

“Okay fine, so how did you learn it?”

“Well Jacob, here it is. I know how to build a table and inlay floors because when Frank Graves passed away—” Ed took a deep breath and looked Jacob straight in the eye. “I ate him.”

The two men looked at each other in silence. Finally, Jacob let loose a single sharp laugh. “Screw you. You had me there for a second. Seriously, how’d you afford to have all this done?” The smile on his face faltered and he forced it back on. He sipped his beer, but his mouth still felt dry. It has to be a joke, he thought, But Ed wasn’t laughing.

“No Jacob, you believe me. I can see it in your face. Lighten up buddy, the wife’s not going to pop out behind you holding the world’s biggest meat cleaver.”

It took all of Jacob’s strength not to look over his shoulder. “You killed Frank Graves?”

“Whoa Jacob, no one killed anybody. Frank died of emphysema. The doctor wanted him to carry around one of those oxygen canisters, but Frank said he was afraid his cigarette would make it go off like a roman candle.” Ed grinned at the memory. “We just ate him. He wanted things that way. He wanted to pass on what he’d learned, not let a lifetime of skill get buried and lost.”

“All right,” said Jacob. “Listen, I’ve got dinner in a few minutes and…” His words faltered and he tried again. “Either this is a really bad practical joke or you’re nuts, or…I don’t know. I have to go. Let’s pretend we never had this conversation.”

“You can, you know,” said Ed. “You can pretend I never said anything. Nobody’s going to come after you like in a bad movie. Hell, I don’t care if you go around telling people that the suburbs of Pittsburgh are full of cannibals. I can give you all the details if you like. We pick up the…supplies over at Reznik’s funeral home. Been doing it for generations as far as I know. Probably some hunky steel worker from the old country got it started.”

“It’s too weird for anybody to take seriously, Jacob. Even if they did, what are they going to do, charge us with desecration of a corpse and make us pay a fine?”

“Okay then, I’m gonna go now. Thanks for whatever.”

“Wait a minute,” said Ed. “Listen. I felt the same way when Phil Mackey told me about things being the way they are. It’s disturbing. I know. But have you noticed you didn’t question the actual process? I eat Frank, so I get all his woodworking skills. You didn’t say it was bullshit, that all I’d be likely to get from eating Frank was a bad case of the runs.”

“I’d have gotten around to it,” said Jacob. But he realized that wasn’t true.

“It feels right doesn’t it?” asked Ed. “The kind of right you don’t learn in college. Something you just feel down in the old lizard brain. It works, Jacob, and it’s not even a bad thing. Who gets hurt? Frank’s dead. He isn’t any deader because we ate him. It’s just the opposite. Part of Frank is still around, helping out his friends and neighbors. In a weird way, the whole thing made me more a part of the community—connecting the generations and all.”

“What? You ate Mr. Graves because it was your civic duty? Why are you even telling me this stuff?”

“Now, that’s the question isn’t it? I like you, Jacob. I like your family. More importantly, Lou Keseberg likes you. You carry his mail up to him so he doesn’t have to go to the box.”

“Yeah, we shoot the shit on his front porch.” An image popped into Jacob’s mind of a whipcord-thin old man lighting an enormous briar pipe. Jacob had a sinking feeling in his gut. “I talked to him last Friday. He told me out of the blue that he’d decided not to take chemo. I didn’t even know he had cancer.”

“Yeah, he says the doc told him days, not weeks,” said Ed. “He used to be a general contractor back when they had to really work. Not an artist like Frank, but damn good.”

“Oh God, you’re going to eat him.”

“No Jacob, you wanted to know why I was telling you this. Don’t you get it? I’m not going to eat Lou—you are.”

#

“You drank too much and now you’re not hungry,” Maggie complained.

“You drank too much!” echoed little Jake shaking his three-year-old finger at his father.

“Don’t you yell at your daddy,” said Maggie.

Jacob sat looking at the bowl of potato soup in front of him. Thank God it’s not a steak, he thought. “Sober as a judge,” he said to Maggie. “I’m just a little shook up. Ed made a pass at me.”

Maggie’s face registered shock for the few moments before Jacob winked at her. “You had me there for a second,” she said and smiled. “Just be careful what you say in front of certain little people.”

Jacob’s own smile was weak, but his wife didn’t seem to notice.

Four days later, Jacob was on the phone in his kitchen gazing forlornly up at the corner of the ceiling. “How do you know it’s going to cost twelve-hundred dollars if you don’t come out and look at it?” he asked. “No, no water is coming through, but the stain’s growing. So, that means at least twelve-hundred, huh? Okay, thanks, I think I’ll call around.”

Maggie glowered at Jacob from the dining room doorway, looking from her husband to the stain on the ceiling and back. “We have to get this taken care of, Jacob.” Her words sounded like an accusation.

“What? I’ve been on the phone all day. That last guy will come to the house if we commit to spending twelve-hundred bucks. Hell, the rest say they’re too busy no matter what we’re willing to spend.”

“Is that mold starting to grow in the middle there?” Maggie asked. “Do you know what black mold does to your lungs?”

“No, what?”

“I don’t know exactly, but it’s supposed to be pretty darn bad.”

Before the argument could flare into a full-blown fight, the front doorbell rang. Jacob and Maggie looked at each other for a few beats.

“If you can’t fix anything around the house maybe you could at least answer the door,” said Maggie taking the phone from Jacob. “I’ll call the next one on the list.”

Jacob stood there too stung to move. When the doorbell chimed a third time, he walked to the front door. It was Ed.

Jacob started to close the door but stopped. “What do you want Ed? I thought we agreed to stay away from each other.”

“I know, but I thought.” Ed paused and scratched his head. “You know Lou Keseberg passed away?”

“Of course I know. You saw me at the funeral home.”

“Right. Anyway on Saturday some of the guys in the neighborhood are having a little barbecue.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, stop right there,” Jacob said, his voice a stage whisper. “I’m not going to be part of whatever sick, twisted, little thing you guys are involved in. I want to be left alone.”

“Saturday, high noon, Jim Parker’s house. Come or don’t, it’s up to you.”

“Goodbye, Ed,” Jacob said and shut the door. He shoved his hands into the pockets of his shorts and walked back to the kitchen. He could hear his wife arguing with whatever repair guy she’d been lucky enough to reach. She slammed the phone down. The rest of the evening went steadily downhill and that night Jacob slept in little Jake’s fire truck shaped bed. Jake was ecstatic to have Daddy with him. Jacob, in a less than ecstatic mood, lay awake on the tiny mattress. He stared at the three-little-pig painting on the wall and thought about barbecues.

Jim Parker had a Holtan 2500 semipro smoker grill. He’d once made ten racks of ribs, eight Boston butts, and twenty chickens for a block party when the Collier’s Run Rampagers had reached the state playoffs. When he fired that thing up, the whole neighborhood knew it. Jacob could smell the combination of cooking meat and Hickory smoke drifting over from Jim’s, along with the sound of Steve Earle singing about the unrepentant. Jacob sat on his porch swing. He thought about the stain on his ceiling and of years of hammer-bruised thumbs and hardware-store humiliations.

High noon found Jacob sitting at Jim’s redwood picnic table, hands clasped over the red-and-white-checked vinyl tablecloth. He concentrated on reading the recipe ideas on the various sauces populating an enormous Lazy Susan. Clyde’s Lip Smackin’ Pepper Sauce evidently made a mean potato salad when judiciously applied. Two men Jacob had nodding acquaintances with sat in lawn chairs nursing beers and looking nervous.

Ed sat across from Jacob. He’d been talking nonstop since Jacob walked into the yard. Introducing the other men, speculating how the Steelers would do in the fall.

Jacob looked up at Ed and muttered something.

“What’s that buddy?” asked Ed.

“I didn’t expect it to smell so good,” said Jacob, louder this time.

“Well, it doesn’t really. Jim has some kielbasa and a brisket in there in addition to… you know. Jim and I need something to eat too.”

Jacob went back to reading the sauce labels. Soon enough, a platter of what looked like hamburgers was set on the picnic table next to a package of buns. Jacob started to sweat. Ed had been right. Those burgers didn’t smell good. They had a sort of gamey odor. Jacob’s mind started to rebel. Is this even safe? he thought. I mean the guy had pancreatic cancer for God’s sake. Jacob’s knee started to bounce involuntarily.

I am not a cannibal, he screamed, but only in his mind. Just because my wife get’s pissed at me for not being able to fix things, it doesn’t mean I should start eating the neighbors.

What bothered him most was how normal everything seemed. It was practically Norman-friggin’ Rockwell. Picnic table, washtub full of ice and drinks by the back door. A few guys with bald spots and beer guts sitting down to some burgers. No black robes or pentagrams, no ritual chanting, no strange elixirs. This sort of shit happened to jungle explorers at the ends of the earth, not suburban dads twenty minutes outside of Pittsburgh.  Ed set a paper plate in front of Jacob. On it were two thick burgers with pickles and tomatoes. Jacob flinched when he saw them.

“Here,” Ed said, setting a glass of thick white liquid next to the paper plate, “You’ll want a few swigs of this.”

“Strange elixir?” asked Jacob.

“Maalox. You’ll need to eat around three burgers and keep them down.”

No, I don’t need to do that, Jacob thought. I can’t. He gathered his legs under him. He had to get out of there. Horror-movie scenes played out in his mind. Middle-aged harmless-looking men fell on him as he tried to run. They dragged him to the great black horror of a grill. It opened of its own accord—a hungry iron mouth breathing fire. Strong arms pushed Jacob face-first toward the gaping, glowing maw. He blinked away smoke and screamed. A flame-warped hand reached from within. Blistered fingers stroked Jacob’s face leaving a trail of ash and rendered fat. “I always liked you, Jacob,” said a rasping voice. The hand found Jacob’s throat, tightened, and began to pull.

Jacob stood up. He got one leg over the picnic table’s bench seat before Jim Parker turned down the boom box and cleared his throat loudly. Jacob froze, expecting grasping hands at any moment. None came. He looked to the small man holding a beer in one hand and enormous tongs in the other.

“Here’s to Lou Keseberg,” said Jim. “A good man, a good neighbor. He will not be forgotten.”

The others lifted their drinks. “To Lou.”

In his mind, Jacob again saw the man he had counted as a friend, not  a smoking corpse this time, but  the laughing old guy who would tell a dirty joke in a stage whisper so as not to scandalize the missus. Something in Jacob’s gut loosened up a little bit. He looked around at his neighbors. Not monsters after all. Just your average, everyday, all-American cannibals. What the Hell, he thought. Jacob raised the glass of Maalox, “To Lou.” Then he picked up a burger, closed his eyes, and took a bite.

Bill Stuart got sick later. He’d been hitting the beer pretty hard. Jacob stuck to water and an occasional swig of Maalox. The meat was dry and bits of it were so rubbery in texture that Jacob had to swallow them whole. The taste was like pig, but maybe the more unsavory bits of the animal. Jacob felt okay. A little dazed, but okay. When it was all over, he walked back to the house with Ed. They didn’t say anything, just strolled along, soaking up the good weather. Jacob watched people playing with their kids, mowing their tiny lawns with plug-in mowers. It was a damn fine day.

When they got to the house, Ed patted Jacob on the back. “You done good.”

Jacob walked up to his porch. He spent the rest of the day playing with Jake while Maggie went for groceries and ran errands. That night, she brought up the stained wall and ceiling again.

“I’m pretty sure I’ll be getting some help from Ed and the guys,” Jacob said. Maggie glared a little, but let it drop.

Jacob was running a fever when he went to bed. He woke up gasping from dreams he only remembered in snatches. In one, men screamed in German and the smell of cordite made him gag. In another, a tall red-haired boy of about twelve laughed as he kicked Jacob in the ribs. Finally, Jacob gave up on sleep and spent the rest of the night reading. At dawn, he dragged himself to the shower for a good scrub, then walked downstairs and poured himself and Jake some Captain Crunch. After breakfast, he fixed the goddamned stain.

He knew exactly what to do. Obviously, there was condensation building up from the chimney that ran up the corner of the kitchen. Jacob drove with little Jake to Ray’s Hardware, a place he used to refer to as the “Humiliation Palace.” There he picked up supplies, new chimney flashing, some quick-dry cement, a gallon of bullfrog primer/mold killer and a half dozen other odds and ends. Jacob didn’t talk to any of the salesmen who he used to suspect were laughing at him. He didn’t need them.

It took the better part of two days, but by the time Maggie got home from work on Monday, Jacob had finished putting the final coat of paint where the stain had resided.

“It wasn’t that bad,” he told her. “The flashing had rusted out and the chimney lining wasn’t much better. I replaced the flashing and poured some dry cement down the chimney to seal it from the inside, and then put a breathing cap on the top. After that I  finished up with a little fresh plaster and paint.

“Don’t forget the hole,” little Jake said.

“Oh yeah, I opened up a hole at the base so air would circulate and dry things out. Easy-peasy.”

As he patiently let Jake help him fold up the drop cloth, Jacob noticed Maggie looking at him with a gaze he associated with religious adoration. He gave her a kiss on the cheek as he passed her on the way out the side door.

Ed answered the door a few seconds after Jacob knocked. They smiled at each other for a full minute. “I’m Bob freaking Vila,” Jacob finally said, and they laughed like kids.

A few weeks later, Ed and Jacob sat soaked in sweat on Jacob’s front porch. “There was a little more to it than you told me,” Jacob said after a long draw on his new pipe.

“What? Are you sorry you did it? So you smoke a pipe now—big deal. Your roof doesn’t leak, does it?”

“It’s not just that. I saw Mrs. Keseberg a couple of days ago and I suddenly knew she liked to… let’s say I knew how she liked it.”

Ed chuckled. “To quote Lenny Bruce, ‘She’s an older woman, but firm’.”

Maggie came out on the porch with two large glasses of iced tea. “Drinks for the Good Samaritans,” she said. She looked across the street at the Sawyers’ yard. The giant bushes had been cut back, mulch replaced, grass trimmed, and then everything cleaned up and hauled away. It looked good. On the porch of the Sawyers’ small neat colonial sat the elderly owners, sipping ice tea of their own and giving a friendly wave. “You should be real proud of yourselves,” Maggie said to the two men “You’re good neighbors.”

“Well, they’re a real nice couple,” said Jacob.

Ed nodded. “Yep, and you know Bill over there was a master plumber before he retired.” The two men clinked their glasses together and smiled at the man across the street, showing strong white teeth.