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  • Writer's pictureLammergeier Staff

Gumrot | Helena Pantsis

The train rumbled, deep and dull, a constant ache. The old woman sitting next to Ricci wobbled with it, swaying back and forth like a lone egg on a refrigerator door. She was reading a magazine opened to an article titled 'Your Fatal Flaw and How To Make It Your Fiercest Feature'. It had pictures of B-list celebrities with flat chests and stretch marks plastered around the pages' borders, thick red marker circling the proposed flaws.


If Ricci had to give himself a fatal flaw, it would be his teeth. He had a smile so unexpected it made people jump back, transforming into a jack-o'-lantern with the parting of his lips. He was gummy, and had a way of skirting his tongue reflexively along the ridges of his soft, pink mouth. The little teeth he had left, molars by the far side of his jaw, were thin as fish bones and blackening. He was full of some internal rot, decomposing from the inside out. Ricci tightened his mouth closed, pursing his lips and staring forward. 


Pulling into Murumbeena Station, a woman so fantastically gorgeous stepped into the train that Ricci almost couldn't believe she was real. She had eyes that opened in fine slits, revealing brown irises so dark they made the pupils seem to stretch for miles. And ears that curled like orecchiette, adorned with ornaments in golden rings and sleepers and studs that danced under the metro's fluorescent lights, something ethereal. He kept glancing over at her, a self-sabotaging instinct, unable to keep his gaze anywhere else, like when trying to identify someone whose face is eerily familiar yet unplaceable — he couldn't tear his eyes from her spectacular image. 


She remained standing as the train began to move again, holding onto a monkey bar on the ceiling so her legs grew taut and her arm stretched lithe and muscular. Noticing his gaze, the woman's eyes flickered between him and the floor, eventually resting on him and resulting in a small, tight smile. Ricci's brows raised in response and in surprise at her noticing him. He let his lips curl back at her, then pinched them shut instinctively with the flat of his gums.


They’d started their decline from very young, his teeth. He’d hit his chin hard against the bitumen, careening down the road on his skateboard, and: smack. His front teeth were knocked loose, eventually uprooting from their sockets and cutting into his bottom lip. To this day he kept a shard of one of the broken teeth in a little jar by the side of his bed; he’d found it shining bright and burgundy yellow against the black of the street beneath him. Something about his childish longing to keep himself whole had him unable, even now, to throw away the cracked enamel. 


The rest of the set followed suit not long after. Rot tends to breed rot. He hadn't visited a dentist a day in his life. Ricci had used the same toothbrush from the ages of five to fifteen. He didn't blame his parents for it, there wasn't much money leftover for toothpaste or toothbrushes or dentist appointments when his dad could barely hold down a job and his mum was constantly popping out babies — eating corn and apples and meat from the bone was for the rich anyways.


Still, despite his mouth he knew he was an attractive guy. He had the jaw of a young Marlin Brando and the compelling stare of Henry Golding. He might've been an actor himself if it weren't for the half-solid set of teeth existing inside of his mouth. If he had teeth, he'd have it all. Maybe it was the universe's way of keeping him humble.


The woman across the train swayed gently with the rhythm of the carriage. They bumbled along, trapped together in the great metal worm. She had looked at him, smiled — all good signs, but there was nothing more to be done about it. She could be his wife, if his body wasn't made of ugly, gaping holes.


After the first accident where he lost his two front teeth, Ricci sat, thumping and gauze-mouthed, his mother having filled his gob up with cotton to collect the blood, and she said to him softly: a man is not what his mouth holds. She was wrong, though, he thought. 


Ricci worked as a remote IT support worker. He fixed software from a distance, most often just restarting computers via a remote access connection. He couldn't get a job in person. As soon as he'd open his mouth in an interview, he could see the interviewer visibly recoil, quickly attempting to compose themselves by directing their attention, adamantly, to his shifting eyes. They stared so hard sometimes they forgot to blink, or would continue staring long after he'd answered their questions. It didn't matter how qualified he was, no one wanted to hire a man they gagged at whenever he opened his maw.


His first and only relationship had been with a woman, Mary, who had her own hygiene issues. Like Ric, she couldn't help her condition, her raging, pungent body odour that permeated through every room she entered. Mary was a nice enough girl, but no other man could bare to be around her, even with her prescription deodorant. So Ricci and Mary were bound by their undesirability. Ricci even grew used to the stench after some time; the difference is while an odour makes someone hard to be around, it doesn't affect the way the body feels, the feel of tongue on tongue or the photos posted on social media. Kissing Ricci was like tonguing jagged twigs. In photos he was clamped shut, face half-hidden away. 


He supposed the relationship ended organically, as it was destined to in some way, with both parties resenting each other for what they considered a kinder fate than they’d been gifts. Still, when he woke to an empty bed and the smell of clean sheets, he found himself missing her.


Ricci often tongued a half-chipped tooth at the back of his mouth subconsciously, sharp and scratching at the taste buds lining the wet meat of his mouth; he rubbed it like a lucky Buddha when what little luck he had left seemed to be running out. 


For years he was electrocuted by pain; when he still had teeth in his head the bony palette of his mouth seared with aches, frail and soft. They say the teeth are connected to the heart, some link between gingivitis and heart disease — maybe that was why his chest pulsed when his mouth was on fire. Ricci had to give up eating the foods that he loved because they were just too painful to swallow. For as long as he could remember he spent mealtimes digesting soups and mush and potatoes soft enough to just melt down the gullet.


The train rolled to a stop. Ricci watched the beautiful woman lower her arm and retrieve her bag from the floor. She looked back at him, expectant or hopeful. They often were, glad that a handsome man had found interest in them, wanting it to lead to more. When he didn't react, she stepped off the train, turning back briefly to catch him once more. Ricci ran his tongue across his bottom gums.


As the doors closed, he felt a rush of confidence run through him. The woman gave him a final, shy, darling grin. With a door between them, she wasn’t so intimidating, and maybe he wouldn’t be so vulgar to see. So he smiled wide, his threadbare mouth dazzling in the sardine-packed carriage. And as the train took off Ricci caught her face. She was laughing, guffawing with elation, giggling so heartily she clutched her stomach and bent from her midsection. She couldn't stop. 


When the train shot through the tunnel, she disappeared from view. Still Ricci could hear the echo of her laughter bouncing around the locomotive, weaving itself between the gaps of the carriages, and through, down the wet bed of his gutted mouth.





Helena Pantsis (she/they) is an editor, writer, and artist from Naarm, Australia with a fond appreciation for the gritty, the dark, and the experimental. Her works have been published in Overland, Island, Meanjin, and Cordite. More can be found at hlnpnts.com.

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