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Stephany Aulenback
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Every One of These Small Things Is A Tooth
      The old man is sitting in his lawn chair on his front lawn, a bottle of beer between his legs, waiting for the teenagers to pass by on their way home from school. He likes the look of the teenagers, especially of course the girls with their new jiggles and their smell and their shine -- he can sense them sailing down the sidewalk from miles away -- but he also likes to look at the gangly arms and legs of the boys, the knots jerking in their throats, the dirty furtive looks in their eyes. The way they sometimes duck their heads, hunch their shoulders, and scuttle. The way they sometimes bray and lope and run. The old man is sitting there, waiting for the show to start, and thinking about the tiny blonde hairs on his daughter's arm and how he used to be able to make those tiny blonde hairs stand straight up with nothing more than a stroke of his finger. He didn't even have to touch her arm, he'd just run his finger along a quarter of an inch or so above it.
      The old man is sitting there, worrying at his aching eye-tooth with his tongue, reflecting on those tiny blonde hairs, and sipping his beer when he gets it into his head that he sure would like to grow a perfectly round, perfectly red apple. He sets his glinting brown beer bottle down on the ground. He gets up out of his lawn chair and staggers into the house and digs around for some apple seeds to plant. He can't find any seeds or even an apple to cut open but that doesn't deter him any. He opens the fridge and takes out another beer. For medicinal purposes - his loose eye-tooth's been aching all day and his tongue won't leave it alone. The cold feel of the bottle on his upper lip is a comfort. The old man rolls the bottle around on his face a few times, then he leans in and takes a sniff and a slurp. He sucks at that bottle like some kind of baby as he goes around the house with a plastic bag from the grocery store, rounding up some other things to plant.
      The old man goes back outside, where he uses a metal serving spoon to dig a big old hole right in the middle of his patch of scraggly front lawn. He digs that hole, good and deep, and the sun feels real nice on his sore face. When that hole is good and deep enough, the old man drops in a whole net bag of rotting onions. You close your eyes and plug your nose before you bite, he thinks, and you can't tell the difference between an apple and an onion. The buzzer goes off at the school up the street, followed by the clamor of the place emptying out. Only a matter of minutes and the kids'll be sashaying down the sidewalk toward home. The old man takes a sniff and a slurp and thinks about those little blonde hairs.
      He plants a potato. He plants a shoe he found on the side of the highway a couple of days ago, when he was out walking alongside it looking for cans. It is a dirty sky blue sneaker, a child's size ten. He plants the handful of bottle caps that were on the kitchen counter and the mess of grey stubble that he shook out of the rusty blade of his electric razor this morning. That mess was on the toilet seat when he went into the bathroom to have a pee. He plants three tiny pearl buttons torn from one of the sundresses his daughter wore when she was small. Those were on the windowsill, above the kitchen sink. That little sundress had printed strawberries all over the crinkly front of it, he remembers.
      Now his daughter is tall and fat. She lives three towns away and doesn't seem to want to talk to him on the telephone. Every time he calls her he tells her, "You know you can bring the kids by any time you want." Soon after he says that she gets a hurrying sound to her voice. She makes up some kind of excuse - she says that her husband is calling her or that someone is at the door - and then she says good-bye and hangs up. So he tries not to say what he always says but he can't help himself.
He puts all these things in the hole on his front lawn, and then rests a while before filling it in with dirt. The air's quivering with the feeling of those school kids heading down the sidewalk. They'll be by now any minute. One hand on his knee, the old man uses the back of the other to wipe the sweat from his forehead. Then he lifts his sleeveless undershirt up over his head and covers everything with that. That undershirt was once white. Now it's yellow and stained rust-coloured in places. He doesn't know how to work the washing machine. His wife always did the wash.
      Now his wife lives in a nursing home a couple of blocks over and she doesn't know his name any more. He doesn't like to go there. The nurses think he doesn't like to see her that way but the truth is, except for the washing and the cooking, he wouldn't have minded if she'd moved out into the nursing home twenty years ago, instead of just this past winter.
     The old man covers that hole over with a mound of the good dark dirt that came out of it. He sits back down on his lawn chair and pushes the bottle of beer back in tight between his legs.
     And here they come. A girl and a boy who've paired themselves off. They tend to do that more often at this time of year and that's why the old man's been sitting out here waiting, a bottle of beer sticking out from between his legs. He likes to watch the way they paw at each other and dig into each other's necks and faces with their tongues. And besides, the sun feels real nice on his face. This girl has a rear end on her that moves like a dinging bell. This boy has a puffy pink mouth, like a girl's. The two of them are sucking at each other's lips and smirking rolly-eyed in between. The old man wolf whistles and the kids untangle themselves from each other and stop and turn around and stare.
     The old man has a grey face. He has grey eyes. Even the whites around them are not white, they are yellow and bloodshot. He has grey hair, what little there is left of it. The top of his head is bare and smooth. The skin there looks thin, like you could break through it if you poked too hard at it with your finger. Even his lips and teeth look grey. No wonder he wants something red and new. Imagine him biting into such a perfect thing, imagine the colour draining right out of the apple and into him. Red lips, white teeth, a full head of black hair.
     The girl makes a disgusted noise. She whips around, her long brown pony tail snapping behind her head, and she takes off briskly down the sidewalk, her plump rear end swinging back and forth just exactly like the ringing of a bell. The boy glares at the old man. His two hands are fists, but he's still holding them low, at his hips. The old man falters just a minute and then he lifts the bottle of beer to his mouth and takes a slug. He makes a big show of wiping the rim of the bottle off with his palm, then he holds the beer bottle out to the boy. "Ding ding ding ding," he crows, winking and tilting his head in the girl's direction.
     The boy doesn't know what to do. He bites his girly lips and stares stunned like a baby deer. But something happens to the air, the sky darkens, a cloud drifts in front of the sun for a second maybe, and the boy snaps out of it and rushes off after the girl, who is still strutting off down the sidewalk in her too-tight jeans.
     After they're out of sight, the old man feels a little deflated. His loose eye-tooth is killing him and his tongue won't leave it the hell alone. The old man grabs that tooth tight between two of his fingers and gives it a couple of sharp tugs. It feels so good when it finally comes out. A relief. There's blood but not too much. He leans over the mound of dirt he's made and bleeds into it a little. Shoves a wiggling finger in to make a hole, drops the tooth down there, and covers it over. The old man takes another slug of his beer and sits back in his lawn chair. The sun feels real nice on his face, he thinks. But now that the pain's gone he's really hungry. It sure would be good if he could grow himself some kind of perfect red apple. And underneath the ground, in the good dark dirt, the things he's planted begin to stir.
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