William R. Soldan
Ethan slid into the kitchen chair, propping his elbow on the table and palming his jaw, trying to tough it through the pain so the old man wouldn’t see. His father didn’t believe in doctors—“buncha con men,” he said. There were lots of things he didn’t believe in. Climate change, for instance. And banks. He burned tires and Styrofoam and all things plastic, doused with used engine oil, and kept all his money tucked and buried in and around the trailer where they lived, propped on blocks in a littered patch of woods he bought outright for cold hard cash.
Sitting there cradling his face, the heat of infection radiated into Ethan’s calloused hand and made it sweat. He’d felt the pain coming on for days. In the dirty bathroom mirror, his cheek had been swollen as if stuffed with a three-finger plug of tobacco, and when he opened his mouth to peer inside, the molar toward the back was cratered and gray and jammed up against an impacted wisdom tooth that had grown sideways in the socket. A sharp and blackened edge had just cut the surface of the puffy, oozing gum like a tiny claw.
He knew what it meant as he hooked a finger in his cheek to examine the abscess, searched his mind for ways to avoid what was coming as he rinsed with peroxide and let the foam trickle and hiss into the drain. He’d once watched his father extract one of his own teeth with a flathead and a pair of needle-nose pliers, nothing to numb it but whiskey, a wadded wash rag to soak up the blood. His father could set broken bones and stitched ripped flesh. “We take care of our own,” he always said.
Ethan had sensed nothing but dread and the hot throb of pain as he limped toward the kitchen on a gimp leg, fractured when he was eight and which had never healed quite right. There’d been no cast, just a wood splint and some electrical tape. Another of the old man’s patch jobs. He knew of some folks up in the hills, ones who danced with snakes and drank poison and refused doctors because they believed the Lord would protect them. But his father wasn’t the God-fearing kind like his mother, who feared a great many things, her husband among them. He said he simply understood that the world was full of so-called “experts” and “professionals” who were only interested in what you had in your pockets. “I’ll be damned if I’ll pay someone to do something I can do myself,” he’d say. And he reckoned he could do just about anything.
“How come you’re not eatin’?” his father asked him now. His mother was at the sink, scrubbing dishes, her head hung low.
“Not hungry,” Ethan said through lips that barely moved.
His father eyed him warily. “The hell’s the matter with you?”
“Look at me.”
His father got up and grabbed his wrist, pulled Ethan’s hand away. Nodded slowly. Ethan imagined his jaw glowed like a hunk of hot iron.
“Let’s see it,” his father said, taking hold of his chin and turning his face toward the dusty bulb dangling from the ceiling. “Oh yeah,” he said to his wife, “boy’s got himself a real nasty one, Mother.” She put a wet hand to her mouth, her eyes growing wide and nervous.
“It’ll be fine,” Ethan said. “See, it don’t even hurt?” He tried to ignore the piercing jolt that shot down his neck as he smiled.
“No, we need to take care of that pronto,” his father said, snapping his fingers at his wife, who promptly brought the bottle of rye from the cupboard. “Now drink you down some of this,” he said, and went outside, the screen door’s clap followed by the squeal of rusty hinges as he entered the shed.
Ethan’s mother readied the rag and draped a towel across Ethan’s chest and over his shoulders. She took his hand for a moment, squeezed it, and said in a dull tone, “Just think of something far away, sweetheart.” Then she went back to the dishes.
He watched her head drop back to its normal height and her body regain its burdened posture when his father returned from fetching his tools and straddled him in the chair. Ethan closed his eyes and listened to the soft slosh of soapy water in the sink, like waves curling onto a beach halfway across the world.
There was a breathless moment before a hand met his forehead, pushed it back.
“Now open wide,” his father told him. “And hold real still.”
William R. Soldan grew up in and around the Rust Belt city of Youngstown, Ohio, where he lives with his wife and two children. A high school dropout and college graduate, he holds a BA in English Literature from Youngstown State University and an MFA from the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts program. His work appears in or is forthcoming in publications such as New World Writing, Elm Leaves Journal, Bending Genres, Jelly Bucket, The Best American Mystery Stories 2017, and others. You can find him at www.williamrsoldan.com if you’d like to connect or read more of his work.