Gladys and the hygienist sat down for chat. Gladys chainsmoked candy cigarettes through the whole thing. The hygienist thought about a burrito from time to time, but neither ate nor drank.
“You’re probably wondering why I called you here tonight.”
“I imagine it has to do with my showing up to your house with your husband.”
Gladys ashed her candy. “You were kind. Right?”
“I don’t understand.”
“You must have been kind to John. Whenever someone is kind to John, he has one of two impulses. He either wants to kill himself, because he knows he is not kind. This happened recently when he was waiting at a red light and a man in front of him leaned out of his window and gestured to John, for a fair amount of time, because John can sink into himself like a snail, to turn his headlights on. Like this.”
Gladys twisted her fingers like you do.
“And John figured it out, eventually, the semaphore, and turned his lights on. And the guy waved at him happily. And the light turned green.”
Gladys took a drag.
“You know what John told me?”
Of course she didn’t.
“He said, ‘If it had been me, I would have just seen the guy behind me and thought, look at this asshole without his lights on.’ He might also have wondered if the person was an undercover cop, because John worries about that kind of thing. He feels very guilty, and that’s understandable.”
“What’s the other impulse?”
“If you’re an attractive woman, or close enough to it, he assumes that your being kind to him means you must be in love with him. It doesn’t matter if you just met. In fact it doesn’t matter if you never meet.”
“You can’t be kind to someone you never meet.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, of course you can. What did you tell him about his gums?”
“Did you say anything about them? Or did you just hover over his open mouth with an air of disdain? He can feel that. We all can.”
“I think I said they looked fine.”
“There you have it. He had gingivitis once. It wrecked him. Always caring too much what other people think, but that’s his godfather’s influence.”
“I don’t care what other people think,” Saint Vincent said at that very moment, to John, sitting across from him in the dining room. “They say groundhog is too gamey to make a fine meal. I say tell that to my mouth.”
Saint Vincent deposited a steaming groundhog flank onto John’s plate. He flicked the skin off his very sharp knife. “You’ll want that part too. Happy Groundhog Day, Johnny.”
“Couldn’t you, feel, what this, hog, went through, when you…well…”
“Sure. Like I said, I can feel everything I see. That started when I was a kid. Used to go to the movies, well, back then it only cost thirty dollars, so you could go more often.”
“And I wanted to be in the movies. I don’t mean an actor. I mean in them. So one time I went, I saw the same movie three hundred and forty-nine times.”
“Norma Rae. Sally Field as this factory worker, cute as a button. Anyway the choice of movie was kind of arbitrary. The guy who owned the theater in my town kept it running for years because he, well, took pleasure in it. If you know what I mean. Every night. Reel three.”
“What happens in reel three?”
“Oh, nothing blue, nothing like that. She learns about collective bargaining, is all. Some people have different pleasures than you do or I do. Okay?”
“Well, it happened. All of a sudden, after I watched it enough and knew it enough, it all started to happen to me. I mean I felt it as it happened. I lived that movie. I was Norma Rae. I was the factory owner, too. I was the whole thing. And then it was just a matter of time before that picked up in every aspect of my life. And that was a good thing. Made me tough.”
He removed a piece of buckshot from his mouth, without breaking his chew.
“Are you tough, John?”
“I didn’t think so. I saw you step out of that car and I knew it. That’s why I think this is gonna be good for you, that I’m stuck here now that my kids are all dead. That which does not kill you makes you stronger. And the more ‘that’s you have, the stronger you get. So a man who is constantly empathizing is constantly exercising. You see?”
It was then that Saint Vincent stabbed John through the hand with his knife. Effectively pinning him to the dining table.
“I’m not sure you do. But you will.”
The scream hadn’t happened yet.
“John has no cavities? That’s what you told him?”
Burrito. “That’s correct.”
Gladys eyed her. She ate her next cigarette whole.
“Did he make you sign a certificate that says as much?”
“Yes. I could see it meant a lot to him.”
“Yes. He put it on the refrigerator just after he brought you into our home. It’s a lie. Right?”
“Well…technically it’s true. John does not have any cavities. Because a cavity is not something you can have, really. I mean, if you have something, you can give it away. Like love. But a cavity cannot be given away, so you don’t really have it. It just is. Inside you. Him. Inside John. There is a cavity. Yes. I mean beyond the regular ones, like his mouth or ear canals.”
“I knew it.”
“And it will grow. Until it has him. And he has nothing. Unless…”
“The Lorax ending.”
“Unless he finds something to fill it.”
That’s when the scream happened.
Saint Vincent poked his head in. “Dolls,” he said, picking his teeth, “we’re going to need an ambulance.”