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Put All Your Money In The Bag I Have A Gun

By Lawrence Clayton.

I don’t know what the fuck to do about this thing going on in my mouth.

The cavity feels like Lake Freaking Tahoe, but the lump on the gum line is what I am worried about right at this moment. It started acting up three or four days ago, and at this point it feels like an electric robin’s egg. It hurts. Varies from an insistent ache to a nagging throb, with the odd agonizing jolt thrown in there for variety. Advil doesn’t do dick. Lately it’s been making me feel dizzy at work. And dizzy is a lousy thing for an ironworker to be feeling.

I am an ironworker, in the sense that for the last two years I have been more or less steadily employed erecting the steel skeletons of future condominiums. I am not an ironworker in the sense that I am not in the ironworker’s union, and therefore I do not have any health insurance. Or more to the point right at this instant, dental insurance. I haven’t been to a dentist in I am embarrassed to say how many years now. A deeply seated fear of all things dental combined with chronic poverty is a great recipe for not getting your annual checkup. So if I go to a dentist, which I can’t by any means afford to do, the odds are pretty good that he is going to tell me that I need thousands and thousands of dollars’ worth of work done to my mouth. I can barely afford to pay the rent this month, and my student loans are teetering on the edge of default. I don’t need the lecture and ain’t got the cash.

I feel like shit. I was drinking beer last night, down at the Good Times Saloon. Beer is terrible for you when you’ve got an infection. I should have been drinking something stronger. Gin, whiskey, something high proof. But beggars can’t be choosers, and I’ve been dragging ass all day long.

I extract myself from the subway, and climb the piss-stairs up into the world of light. I think better when I am walking. Something has got to give. The thing has grown to the size of a golf ball, feels like it is growing by the minute. The right side of my face is visibly swollen and puffy.

I pick up a blank deposit slip from the little island in the lobby and carefully print on it, in black Sharpie, the words: PUT ALL YOUR MONEY IN THE BAG I HAVE A GUN. This could be the answer to all my dental woes. I keep one hand balled up in a fist in my jacket pocket. I have never fired a weapon before in my life. I look around at the cashiers behind their walls of plexi, the loan officers at their tidy desks, and gingerly probe my hollow molar with the tip of my tongue.

When was the last time I was in a bank? I remember before there were ATMs you had to go to the bank every time you got a paycheck. What a pain in the ass that was! You had to stand in line and then deal with some fucking teller who would look at you like you were a criminal and didn’t want to believe that your own signature belonged to you. I make $20 an hour, cash under the table, and I normally do my utmost to avoid interacting with any institution more respectable than a bar or an occasional grocery store.

It’s nearly closing time. People are looking at me, thinking what the hell is HE doing in here? People go to the bank to set up IRAs, to invest in mutual funds, to get approved for mortgages and stuff like that. I am not the kind of person who looks like he is going to be doing any of these things. It feels like everyone is looking at me, wondering if I’m here to rob the fucking place. Well the joke’s on them. I am here to rob the fucking place. Just not today. I wad up the deposit slip and shove it deep into the front pocket of my jeans. I need a little time to think this over.

I’m a lousy criminal. The total extent of my criminal career (if you don’t count all the acid I dropped in high school) was getting arrested in Maine for driving with a suspended New York license when I was unemployed and living in my car and couldn’t afford insurance. Oh, and then stealing somebody’s license plates so that I could drive my illegal car back down to New York so I could then ditch it in North Jersey and get a job as a non-union ironworker in Brooklyn. I was pissing vinegar all the way down too, believe you me.

Back at my apartment, which is a crappy one room studio with a shared bathroom at the end of the hall in a crappy building in what used to be a crappy neighborhood in Brooklyn, but is now getting all posh on me with lesbians with baby strollers and non-Starbucks type cappuccino joints opening up all over the place. The time has come for decisive action.

I mix up a nice cocktail of equal parts hydrogen peroxide and water and gargle with the solution over and over. I squish the stuff through my mouth, running it between my teeth like mouthwash. Then I get out my Spyderco, my serrated rigger’s knife. Some of the teeth are broken off, but the tip’s still good, and it should do the trick. I turn on a burner and hold the blade over the blue flame until I’m pretty sure that it must be sterile. Then I pad down the hall to the bathroom with the knife in one hand and the bottle of hydrogen peroxide in the other, and lock the door behind me. Oh God. What if I fucking die doing this? I unlock the door. Oh God. What if someone walks in on me doing this? I lock the door again.

Looking in the mirror, I open my mouth wide. The lump is right there on the gum line, upper right, big as a freaking billiards ball. The trick is not to try to think in terms of the mirror reversing left and right. Just stick that knife where it needs to go.

Fucking Punk Rock Dentist, Yeah Howdy!

I guide the tip of the knife to the swollen abscess. It’s like touching a red hot wire to an over-inflated balloon. A balloon over-inflated with rancid pus. The thing is all pink and marbled, looks disturbingly like raw bacon. As soon as the tip of the knife touches it, the swollen bump bursts, instantly filling my mouth with foul tasting goop. I would be disgusted, except that the sense of relief is physically overwhelming. It hurts like a motherfucker, and I double over, grasping the sink with both hands. I spit out all I can, then rinse with peroxide. Instantly it foams up, filling my mouth and leaking out the sides. Looking in the mirror, I see a mad dog. You handsome dog you. I smile a grim little smile at the rough looking self in the mirror, and rinse and rinse until all the foaming stops.

I’m half an hour late to work the next morning, but nobody says nothing. They all knew about my mouth. I swear some of those troglodytes were just waiting to auction off my tools. Batso had offered to loan me some cash to go to a dentist, but I wasn’t about to take his money. The guy has a kid to support.

Later on, me and Batso are six stories up, sitting on a piece of W-6 that is falling out five-eighths of an inch low. That sucks because the holes don’t overlap so you can’t get a spike in to pry it up. It sucks because you can’t drill new holes because the new holes would fall out right on top of the old ones, and besides that would mean that this stick is out by five-eighths, and we do have our standards.

We have rigged up a leverhoist to the beam above us. The hook end of the leverhoist is choked around the W-6 I-beam we are sitting on. When I crank the leverhoist up, our beam should raise into place, and Batso is ready with a bullpin and a five pound sledge to make those fucking holes line up.

Batso takes out his customary little brown bottle of amyl nitrite and takes his customary whiff. He ritually offers me a hit and I ritually decline. I don’t do anything stronger at work than a one-hitter in the morning and a couple beers at lunch. We are a good seventy feet above the sidewalk and there is a stiff gusty breeze coming off the East River, and this Punk Rock Dentist has a healthy sense of self-preservation.

I work the handle of the leverhoist. It comes along easy at first, but then it gets hard as it starts to feel the weight of the beam. The ratcheting device is good for two tons. Click by click, the beam is moving visibly up under our asses. It is unnerving to feel the steel shift beneath us. I’ve never really gotten comfortable with being up high like this. Not comfortable the way some of the guys are. It’s a little too close to being dead for my taste. Now we can see light through the prepunched holes. Finally Batso can get the end of his bullpin in. He stands on the six inch wide ribbon of steel, grinning like a mad man, and beats it home with the sledgehammer. At last I can get a bolt made. We lock the nut down with our spudwrenches. One time I dropped a structural nut from thirteen stories up. It took out the windshield of a parked Lexus real nice. I never heard back about that one. Sometimes you get lucky.

I run my tongue over the spot where yesterday there was a festering golfball sized abscess. It feels fine. Batso does another hit of amyl nitrite. I take the deposit slip out of the front pocket of my filthy work jeans and crumple it up into a little ball. I toss it off the side toward the street, where it perversely falls up instead of down, finding wings, dancing away on the wind until I can no longer see it. Sometimes you do get lucky.


Lawrence Clayton lives in New York City.  He (grudgingly) works for a living.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, August 6th, 2008.