By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, September 4, 1937.
“Mmmmmm,” moaned Jimmie Frise, “have I got a toothache!”
“Poor chap,” I sympathized. “When are you going?”
“I’m waiting,” said Jim, “to see if it will go away. Often, if you just sit tight…”
“My dear man,” I protested. “Don’t be absurd. You might just as well wait for a broken ankle to go away. A toothache is a reality. A dreadful reality. The tooth enamel has decayed and exposed the nerve. Or maybe it’s an abscess at the root. Anyway you’ve got to get it fixed. And right away.”
“Lots of times,” said Jim, “I’ve had little twinges and they’ve gone away.”
“How ridiculous,” I cried. “Jim, have you no sense at all? Don’t you even read the advertisements? Those little twinges were warnings. Now you’re getting the works.”
“You’re telling me,” said Jim, with a gaunt look, placing his palm tenderly against his jaw.
“Clean your teeth twice a day,” I quoted. “See your dentist twice a year, whether you think you need it or not. But good heavens, man, when you have had twinges of toothache, don’t you realize…?”
“I hate dentists,” said Jim, intensely. “I hate them.”
“What nonsense,” I stated. “Do you hate doctors? Do you hate motor mechanics?”
“I don’t know,” said Jim, haggardly. “Dentists are different.”
“Poppycock,” I said. “You go into a garage and see your poor car all dismembered and lying around in horrible rusty gobs, greasy and repellent. There with its hind end all jacked up in the air on a pulley, stands your poor car, the companion of your joys and sorrows, and do you hate the guy that has done it? Even when he presents you with the bill, do you hate him?”
“That isn’t it,” said Jim hollowly, looking at space.
“A doctor hurts you a heck of a lot more than a dentist,” I pointed out. “He cuts right through your hide. He makes swipes with his knife that are sheer agony.”
“Yeah, but you don’t feel them,” said Jim. “You’re unconscious.”
“Dentists have anaesthetics,” I cried.
“Local anaesthetics,” said Jim. “They jab a needle into your gums.”
“You can take gas,” I reminded him. “You can take a local anaesthetic, and feel nothing until you wake up.”
“Yeah,” said Jim. “But who would want to take a total anaesthetic for a mere toothache?”
I looked at him pityingly.
“What’s the use of arguing with a man like you?” I demanded. “You hate dentists, yet they can do more for you than any doctor living. They can whisk a tooth out, so you never feel it.”
“Until after,” said Jim.
“They can put you right under and do a week’s work on you,” I declared. “And you don’t know anything until it is over.”
“Yeah,” withered Jim, “until it’s over.”
Closely Allied to the Brain
“Anyway,” I said with finality, “you’ve got to go to a dentist. This tooth has been warning you. Like a baby, you have ignored the warnings. At last, it has collapsed. Now you’ve got to face the music. The nerve is exposed. Like a live wire, there it is, jumping and sizzling.”
“Throbbing,” said Jim, passionately.
“Exactly,” I said. “And now that you have delayed as long as possible, there is only one recourse. Who’s your dentist? I’ll make an appointment.”
I picked up the telephone.
“No, no,” begged Jim. “Wait a second. I think it is going away already.”
“Jim,” I said earnestly, “even if it does go away, don’t you understand that every twinge is a warning? This tooth is ill. It is slowly going to pieces.”
“What did our ancestors do,” demanded Jim, “before there were any dentists? They just grinned and bore it. And they were better men than us.”
“Jim,” I pleaded, “don’t be silly. Our ancestors died at the age of 40. It was their teeth that killed them.”
“They were tough,” said Jim. “They could take it.”
“Look at the miracles,” I informed him, “that modern dentistry is performing. They are discovering new connections every day between the teeth and disease. You see one of your friends slowly growing thin and old. His eyes are dim. He is suffering from arthritis. He is slowly withering away. They pull a few teeth, and presto, he is born again. His teeth were slowly poisoning him.”
“I’ve heard all that,” said Jim. “But there’s nothing the matter with me. All I’ve got is a thumping toothache.”
“They’re finding more than that,” I persisted. “They’re discovering that teeth are responsible for thousand things besides physical disease. Teeth are responsible for bad temper, insomnia, indigestion, high blood pressure, overweight, thinness, baldness, failing eyesight, sinus trouble, antrum trouble.”
“Corns, warts and bunions,” said Jim.
“The teeth,” I informed him, “are in the head. The nerves of the teeth are closely allied to the brain. It is only a matter of a fraction of an inch from the tooth to the brain. They are beginning to believe that teeth are responsible for our mental quirks. They think criminal tendencies are due to defective teeth.”
“Now who’s been reading the advertisements?” jeered Jim.
“I tell you,” I announced, “they have pulled teeth out of habitual criminals and cured them. The poison from those teeth was responsible for the weakness, the instability, the mental and nervous disturbance that made criminals of the subject.”
“Maybe I’m a cartoonist,” said Jim, “because my teeth are defective? Maybe if you had your teeth pulled, you’d be an insurance agent?”
“I wouldn’t wonder,” I assured him. “Only a thin, fragile bit of bone separates the teeth from the brain. That nerve that is jumping in your jaw right now, is it any wonder you are suffering?”
“Mmmmmmmm,” said Jim, hissing cold air through his teeth and putting on an expression of agony.
Too Much Imagination
“Come,” I said, “what’s your dentist’s name? We’ll get this over with.
“If only they wouldn’t fiddle,” moaned Jimmie. “If they wouldn’t fiddle and poke around and pry. If only they didn’t have that drill.”
“They’ve got to prospect around,” l explained. They have to locate the source and nature of the trouble.”
“Why don’t they just yank it out?” asked Jim. “I think I’d be willing to have it yanked out.”
“Don’t be silly,” I laughed. “They know their jobs. Come, what’s his name?”
So Jim gave me the name of his dentist and I looked up the number in the book and Jim himself called him.
“I’d like you to have a look at my teeth,” said Jim, smiling easily into the telephone, “one of these days.”
“Here!” I commanded sharply.
“Haven’t you a spot about a week from now?” said Jim, quite cheerfully.
Apparently the dentist had not. Apparently, he was going on his holidays at this late season, he being a musky fisherman. So Jim had to take an immediate appointment.
“This afternoon,” said Jim, wanly, as he hung up the receiver. “At 4.”
“Good,” I said, “That’s the boy. I’ll go with you.”
“Come along,” said Jim hollowly. “See me suffer. Sit out in the office, reading last December’s magazines and hear me groan.”
But nothing could deter me from accompanying Jimmie to the dentist’s. I wouldn’t put it past him running his car into a hydrant half way to the dentist’s rather than face the music. He is a man of too much imagination. I made it my business to stay right with him for the balance of the morning, had lunch with him and then, with ever increasing vigilance, remained in sight of him as the afternoon drew on. At lunch, he barely ate anything, so severely did his toothache make him suffer. Beads of perspiration came out on his forehead and he kept issuing great sighs instead of groans.
But about 3 p.m. he began to brighten.
“Do you know,” he said,” the blame thing is weakening! Really weakening. I can hardly feel it, for minutes at a time.”
“Go on,” I scorned.” Don’t kid yourself.”
“It’s a fact,” he declared. “I honestly believe it was just another of those twinges…”
“Jim,” I said, “use your head.”
“That’s precisely what I am doing,” said he. “Why embarrass my dentist who is hurrying to clean up his business so as to get away on a holiday? Why start something that may take weeks to finish? If this twinge goes away, like the others did. I can telephone him and make an appointment for October, some time, when he’s back, and he can do a proper series of work on that tooth.”
“Jim,” I said, “I never heard such subterfuging. Anybody knows that a toothache seems better as soon as you reach the dentist’s office. This is just a case of your imagination getting the better of you.”
“I Gave You More Credit”
“I’ll give him a ring,” said Jim, getting up.
“Jim,” I shouted. “I gave you more credit. This is childish. Your tooth is aching like sin. Get it fixed.”
Jim sat down again, his eyes turned aside as he listened for the toothache, as it were. A shadow of pain crossed his face.
“Very well,” he said, thinly. “We’ll go.”
And we went. I drove. We arrived promptly and without mishap at the dentist’s office at precisely 4 o’clock. There was one woman in the chair and three more waiting when we got up to his waiting room. It was 20 minutes to five by the time Jim’s turn came, and we read all the Geographic Magazines back as far as 1932 and Jim kept growing more and more cheerful as each of our predecessors was silently called into the inner studio. But at last Jim’s turn came, and the dentist, with a merry smile, beckoned him in. I walked in too, because in my heart, I knew perfectly well that old Jim was going to stage an alibi.
“Well,” laughed Jim heartily. “I’ve often heard about a toothache vanishing the minute you arrive at the dentist’s, but I never had it happen to me before.”
“Up here,” said the dentist tenderly, indicating the chair. “We’ll just have a look around.”
“I don’t even remember which side it was on,” said Jim, astonished at himself.
“We’ll just take a look,” soothed the dentist.
Jim straightened like a hero going to his execution, and sat up in the chair. The dentist tied on the bib and took the little mirror in hand and stood expectantly. Jim opened his mouth slightly.
The dentist peered and probed. He tapped around.
“Was it in this jaw?” he asked.
“Nnn, nnn,” said Jim, shaking his head.
“Upper jaw?” said the dentist.
“Nnnn, nnn, nnnn,” repeated Jim firmly.
The dentist got a little light and peered within the cavern. He probed and Jim sat like a rock. He had a kind of nut pick, with which he jabbed and scraped. Jim never uttered a sound, and the dentist frowning, sighed and grunted into Jim’s face.
“Well,” said the dentist, “I can’t see anything much wrong here. Was it on the left side or the right?”
“To tell you the truth,” said Jim, “I’m darned if I can recall. Maybe it was only a little neuralgia? Eh?”
“I see no signs of any cavities,” said the dentist. “As a matter of fact, your teeth are in pretty sound shape.”
Jim sat up eagerly.
“Wait a minute,” I said in a level voice. “Doctor, this man was in agony up to about an hour ago. It was his left jaw he had been holding all morning. A regular thumping toothache.”
“So You May Think”
The dentist was looking at me in a curious way. His eyes seemed narrowed right on to my mouth, as I spoke.
“Excuse me,” he said, suddenly stepping forward and taking my chin in his fingers. “Open. Open.”
“What is this?” I said, opening slightly.
“My dear sir,” said thee dentist anxiously “Step up here. Let me have a look at this.”
“What is it?” I said, standing firm.
“Caries. I’m afraid,” said the dentist, sadly. “Or perhaps trench mouth. Did you serve in the war?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Sit up here, please,” said he, as Jim slid off the chair. I climbed into the chair numbly.
“Open,” said the dentist, the nut pick poised.
“Mmmmm,” he said, peering inside “Mmmm, mmm, mmmm.”
“Nnnn, nnnnnn?” I asked.
“Your teeth are in wicked shape,” he said. “Wicked shape. Have you been attending to your dental responsibilities regularly?”
“I have had no trouble with my teeth,” I assured him, “for ten years. They’re perfect.”
“So you may think,” said the dentist gravely. “That is the worst of our profession. Unless you are driven here by the toothache, you imagine your teeth are in no need. I assure you, sir, that if you don’t have these attended to immediately, you will have no teeth in a year or so.”
“Nonsense,” I said, “I can crack hickory nuts with my teeth.”
“You will be toothless in two years,” retorted the dentist.
“I’ll have them looked at,” I said, starting to get up.
“Wait a minute,” cried Jim, seizing my elbows and pulling me back down in the chair. “I’m alarmed. Doctor, take a look. Give us a survey. It won’t take a second. Just tell him the extent of the damage.”
“I’ve got my own dentist,” I said firmly.
“I’m worried,” said Jim. “This is my partner. I’m entitled to know about this. Good heavens, anything might happen to him if he lets his teeth go. Let’s have an outline of the situation.”
The dentist pried. He scraped and cracked things loose. He jabbed down under the edges and pried up. While my eyes were closed in disgust, he got his drill, unseen by me, and began drilling. I let out an indignant nnnn or two, but he went right ahead, with Jim holding me firmly but kindly.
“There’s about ten hours’ work on them,” said the dentist, at last. “Ten hours good work.”
Jim released me.
“I’ll see my dentist at once,” I said, getting out of the chair with dignity.
“I’ll make a memorandum for him,” said the doctor, earnestly.
So I’ve got an appointment for next week.
Editor’s Notes: I’ve mentioned before that stories were sometimes repeated while Greg was off as a war correspondent during World War Two, but this one had the unusual distinction of being repeated twice, in 1943 with the same title Vice Versa, and again in 1944 as Open Your Mouth.
I had never heard of a nut pick, a sharp metal pick for digging the meat out of a nut, often sold in sets with nut crackers, but I guess they are not as common now.
“Caries” is just another term for cavities, and “trench mouth” is an infection that causes swelling and ulcers in the gums. The term comes from World War I, when this infection was common among soldiers.