The Price of Teeth
J. Thomas Murphy
I called my cousin one afternoon to ask him about the price of teeth.
“High,” he said, “real high. You buying?”
“Selling,” I said.
“That’s a choice,” he said.
I made posters and put them up all over town. It took a long time for someone to call. In the meantime, I started to practice good hygiene: I brushed, I flossed, I bought whitening kits and wore them at night while I vacuumed. I made an appointment to see my dentist. If someone wanted my teeth, they’d want the whole thing, tip to root. It only made sense to get it all cleaned, even the parts I couldn’t see.
“These are the cleanest teeth I’ve seen in my whole career,” my dentist told me.
“That’s good,” I said, “how much do you think they’d go for on the open market?”
We looked at each other.
“Are you suggesting that you’re going to sell someone your teeth?”
“My cousin says prices are up. He tends to know about these things.”
“I highly recommend that you don’t.”
“With the money I’ll make I can buy a whole new set of teeth, or a blender.”
“My professional opinion? Don’t do this. What would someone want with your teeth anyway?”
I shrugged, “What do I want with them?”
Eventually someone called me up asking about my teeth. We made an appointment to meet at the supermarket. He was pretty old, halfway dead from the looks of things. He spent a decent amount of time just staring into my mouth with a tiny hand-mirror. Then he took me into the supermarket and picked out a variety of foods and made me bite into each one. He took videos of me on his phone. We did this for a little while before someone asked if we were going to actually pay for anything. The old man looked at me expectantly. I sighed and cashed us out. A couple of days later I called him up, and he said he’d changed his mind. He didn’t need the teeth after all.
I decided after that to sell my teeth individually. I set up an account online. Anyone who needed a whole head of teeth probably had something wrong with them. It wasn’t worth the hassle. I sold one of my eye teeth to a guy in Boise for five-hundred bucks. When the check cleared, I logged into my bank account and sat there for an hour refreshing the page, astonished.
One by one I sold off the rest of my teeth. All except the right front incisor. I had chipped it in my youth, and the end had been capped. With the money I made, I was able to buy new teeth, all military-grade plastic. In a hundred years, even after my flesh had rotted, they’d still be there, bolted into my skull. They were beautiful. Except now my bad tooth stuck out like a testament to all my shame. Next to all of the other teeth it seemed twisted and malformed. I thought I’d have to have it pulled without a buyer.
Then one afternoon someone sent me a message. He wrote:
YR TEETH. STILL 4 SALE??
I replied yes, but just the one. I sent a picture. Ten minutes later, he had wired me the money. I had it pulled, sent it off. It felt good to have it over with.
A month later, the same guy sent me a check for ten-thousand dollars. He wrote me an email that said my tooth was good luck. He kept it in amber and sat up nights listening to it for signs from the universe. It told him about investment opportunities, which people were conspiring against him, even when the bread in his cupboard was getting moldy. He wanted to know if I had anything else to sell. I asked him what he wanted. Anything, he said, anything. I said I’d sell him a locket of my hair. He asked if I had anything else. I threw in some toenail clippings.
Six months later, another check came, this time for twenty-five thousand dollars. There was a note inside. He was doing well. He said that he had been buying up my teeth from people all over the country. They had all been reluctant at first, but he convinced them. Now he had the full set. He felt powerful, he said. His luck was changing. He told me that he could finally understand the signs. He said the pattern was becoming clear. He wanted to know if there was anything else I could sell him. He scrawled his phone number at the bottom.
I called him. He said he had a proposition. He wanted me to visit him. He would pay for everything. Anything I wanted, I could just ask. I could leave whenever. He assured me it wasn’t what I thought. I wanted to know what it was, then.
He said he wanted to drape himself across my body. He wanted to press his ear against my chest and listen to my rhythms. He said my body was the key to the universe. He said I contained hidden truths. The cost was very negotiable, he said. I told him I’d consider his offer. I asked him to call me back in two weeks. That afternoon, I closed my email account and got a new phone number.
I stood in the bathroom, smiling at the mirror.
A letter arrived in the mail with another check. He didn’t understand what he’d done wrong, but he’d resigned himself to never meeting me. If I wouldn’t come, he asked, could I send something else: a picture, a video, a recording of my voice? I tried to write him back, but my language failed me. I tore everything up: his letter, mine, the check. I stuffed it all into my mouth and chewed with fervor. Except the sound of my teeth against the paper was unbearable. It was like the bones of tiny, helpless things being broken and ground into dust. I vomited the whole sticky wad into the trash. It sat there, nestled between used gum wrappers and snack-sized cellophane bags, dripping with saliva, staring up at me.
J. Thomas Murphy’s work has appeared in Heavy Feather Review, Spry Lit, Gravel Mag, and elsewhere. After teaching English in Korea for two years, he decamped to the Pacific Northwest, where he lives with his wife and cat.