A Winner of the Authors on 8th Writing Competition
BY DAVID THOMPSON
Buford had only one front tooth in his upper jaw. He hadn’t taken care of his teeth and now, at 50 years of age, was paying for it. Maybe it would have been wise to have worn a mouthguard playing hockey and prowling the bars, he mused.
But how could he drink beer and chat up someone’s girlfriend with a mouthguard?
He loved that tooth. He took care of it by brushing three times a day and flossing it like a rope around a hitching post. He used a shoelace instead of dental floss.
“Works just fine, and if I need a shoe lace, well, I know just where to find one,” he said.
In 2007, he had the tooth capped with gold, admired it every morning while shaving and quit the hockey team to protect it.
“Let me pull that thing out,” his brother Craven would demand. “It’s the ugliest thing I have ever seen. Just let me just get the pliers.”
Craven would run out to the barn and rummage through piles of rusty tools in beaten army surplus boxes.
The good folks of Dawson City didn’t concern themselves with the tooth. There was plenty of room in the hearts and minds of Yukoners to accept one odd-looking tooth.
“My God, you have the most interesting tooth,” an English tourist was heard exclaiming. He then took multiple pictures of Buford’s grinning face for the family back home.
“You should be on a postcard,” the tourist’s wife said as she stood on her toes and peered into Buford’s mouth to get a better look.
The brothers’ parents had passed away and left them the hay farm 20 miles out on the east side of Dawson City. They eeked out a living, as best they could, but they weren’t good farmers; nor were they businessmen or housekeepers.
If their mother could return, she would be horrified. Buford and Craven had never washed a cup, picked anything up or cleaned the place since the day of her funeral. The barns and the fields were overgrown and neglected. If the neighbours hadn’t leased the fields, everything would have gone to seed.
“You could get more hay off these fields if you used your irrigation system,” Bob, the farmer from across the way, told them.
“The pumps broke. We like things as they are, thank you very much,” Buford told him curtly.
Buford was lying on the couch, barely able to peer over his ample stomach, watching Saturday-night hockey on satellite TV and polishing his tooth. The images from the screen reflected off his shiny bald head and bespectacled face.
“Its too bad CBC lost that hockey song,” he yelled to Craven who was standing six feet away by the sink, using a knife to scoop the last bits from a can of spaghetti into his mouth. Craven could eat as much as he wanted, but his Adam’s apple stuck out almost as far as his chin.
He was so skinny, people said, “Who’s he? Ichabod Crane?” There was a bright-orange ring around his lips and sauce dripped onto his beard. He found a cloth buried in one of the pockets of his overalls, which hung off him like a flag in the doldrums, and wiped his face and hands clean.
“Mighty delicious, that spaghetti!” he shouted.
“CBC …” “Those fools spent thousands of dollars finding a new theme when it would have cost a fraction of that to pay the composer of the first song!” Buford shouted back.
They had no reason to shout they could hear each other clearly, but it was a bad habit.
“Taxpayers’ money … why should they care!” Craven yelled.
“You’re right on that one!” Buford shouted again.
Craven took a step forward, “I’ll give you one-thousand bucks if you let me pull that tooth.”
“Where are you going to get that kind of money?” Buford asked.
Craven didn’t answer; he had never seen that much money, never mind offering to give it away.
Craven had other methods of getting at that tooth. While working in the yard on a chain saw, he pulled the cord and let his hand fly backwards hoping to smack Buford in the mouth and dislodge it. Buford would just step aside and grin.
An early winter howled across the land, that year, bringing deep snow and metal-snapping cold. The drafty cabin logs held little heat and, not having brought in winter wood, the brothers tore down the new barn, which their father had built five years ago, to feed the hungry stove.
As they crowbarred boards from the walls, their teeth chattered and they hunched their shoulders and drew their arms close to their bodies. Craven couldn’t look at Buford. The tooth was moving up and down like a needle on a sewing machine and beating out a staccato on his bottom gum.
“Why don’t you send Morse-code greetings to the folks in town while you are at it?” Craven yelled.
Buford stood with his arms piled high with wood, his nose running and a hurt look on his face. He threw the pile of wood at Craven’s feet and stomped off to the house, yelling over his shoulder, “Pack the wood, yourself.”
In the next few days, the driveway piled high with snow and the battery froze solid in the truck. Buford and Craven wanted relief from each other, but didn’t dare chance the cold and hike to the highway to hitch a ride into town.
In the depth of night, Craven woke from a restless sleep. He thought he heard someone calling his name. He looked across the room. Buford lay on his back, his mouth wide-open, snoring like a freight train. The oil lamp light flickered off the gold cap like a one-ounce nugget.
Craven knew the tooth had called him.
“I’m coming,” he whispered and reached under his bed to where he kept a tool box.
Silently, he rummaged until he found an ancient pair of pliers. Walking across the room, on his toes, he poised over Buford and brought the pliers closer to the tooth.
Just as the metal jaws were about to snap shut, Buford opened his eyes and screamed horrifically. Craven jumped up and ran around the room.
“You monster!” Buford screamed. “If Ma was here, she would kick your butt, you idiot.”
“If Ma was here, she would smack you until that tooth dropped out,” Craven yelled back.
“Don’t ever try to murder Mabeleine, again,” Buford cried. He pulled the pillow tightly over his head, turned over and went back to sleep.
Craven was puzzled. Mabeleine, he thought. Must be an old girl friend.
At breakfast the next morning, Craven lied and said, “I did that because I had a vision in my dreams.”
Buford was skeptical. “A vision? You tried to rip a tooth out of my head. Make no excuses.”
Buford’s complaining gave Craven time to think.
“I did have a vision and it told me that this year’s Yukon River ice break-up was going to be exactly as it was one-hundred years ago, which was May 11, 1909, at 9:46 in the evening. I looked it up,” Craven said.
Buford looked at him. “This is all too crazy,” he said. “You’re crazy.”
“Furthermore, with this information, we’re not only going to win the prize, but you, my brother, are going to pull off Dawson’s stunt-of-the-century,” Craven said.
“How’s that?” Buford asked.
“You know how the tripod on the river ice is wired to a clock so when the ice breaks up, the time is tripped? Well, we also attach your tooth to the tripod with fishing line and when the river goes out, so does your tooth.
“It’ll be marvelous … we’ll have the video all set-up. You’ll win the prize and be on CNN. You’ll be famous overnight; it’s a sure thing. Remember, I had a vision. You have to do this, Buford,” Craven said, pointing his finger in Buford’s face.
Buford wanted to grab it and break the end of it off. Vision smizion, he thought. Then he said, “I’ll think about it.”
Life around the cabin deteriorated after that. Buford was extra protective of his tooth and wore a baseball catcher’s mask to bed. Craven didn’t help matters by carrying the pliers around and snapping them open and closed.
The sound sent chills up Buford’s spine. My Mabeleine, he thought.
A month later, the weather lifted and the brothers jump-started their battered truck and drove into town. They stayed at the Downtown Hotel and partied separately with their friends. Buford headed straight for the Occidental Hotel, got blind drunk with a girl’s hockey team who polished his tooth with their skate laces.
“Buford is absolutely the best dancer in the world to party with,” the team’s captain said.
Craven didn’t drink, but joined the RCMP curling team and played a few ends with them.
“We are always glad to have Craven join us; there is no better sharp-shooter-of-a-lead than Craven,” Sergeant Preston said.
Come Monday morning, they packed the Chevy cab full of fresh groceries and headed home.
At the dinner table that night, Craven and Buford were peeling fruit for dessert.
“Did you have a vision, Craven?” Buford asked quietly as he reached for an apple.
“Yep,” Craven said.
“And do you think CNN will show my tooth being pulled by the ice break-up?”
“Yep,” Craven said again.
“Do you really think me and my tooth will be famous?”
“Are you thinking of doing this?” Craven asked.
“I’m thinking …” Buford said.
Craven watched as Buford bit into an apple. Buford had always wolfed his food and in one gulp, he swallowed. Craven looked in amazement; where the tooth had once stood, there was nothing but an empty field.
Buford hadn’t noticed Mabeleine had left him, painlessly, and got up from the table and went to watch television.
That night, Craven woke with a great weight on his chest. There was Buford, perched on him like a gargoyle on a cathedral’s flying buttress, with a pair of pliers clamped firmly onto his front tooth. Craven was pinned by Buford’s mass.
Buford leaned closer and said quietly, “I, too, had a vision, Craven, and it said “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth”. With that, he gave a solid tug and the tooth came out like a sink plug on a chain.
Craven went white; his eyes bulged; he screamed in pain and ran from his bed, hand over mouth, to find water and a towel. The pliers had axle grease on them and tasted terrible.
“You idiot!” Craven screamed, spitting blood. “You crazy out-of-your-mind idiot!”
The men now turned their backs and maintained a monastery silence for months, which they both later agreed was awkward in the tiny house. Craven didn’t try to explain anything because he knew Buford believed with all his heart that he had somehow stolen Mabeleine.
One morning, Craven dropped a bundle of tax-return forms in front of Buford while he ate breakfast.
“We have to discuss this, Buford. Tax time again … forms to fill out. Time to talk.”
Buford looked up, “I lost twenty pounds from the stress of not talking,” he said.
“I gained twenty pounds from having nothing to do but eat,” Craven said.
Craven went to Whitehorse for a front-tooth bridge and encouraged Buford to get a full set of dentures.
Buford complied but refused to smile. “Makes me look like an idiot,” he complained.
Soon Craven noticed that more and more teeth were disappearing from Buford’s head until, months later, there was only one tooth left. Buford looked like his old self, and his happy celebrity status returned.
He went to Vancouver and had the tooth capped with gold, which he had panned from Bonanza Creek, and faced with a polar-bear diamond from the Northwest Territories. He called the new tooth “Gertie”, after a gold-rush dance-hall girl.
Town people called him “Diamond-toothed Buford”.
“I love my name,” he said. “And I love my tooth. And I love my brother who got me Gertie.”
Craven left Buford’s tooth alone and never found fault with him for anything again. He now realized that a person’s happiness is much more important than a person’s appearance.
“And that’s a law of the Yukon,” he said smiling and looking out at the dust devils marching across the neglected hay fields.