Most mornings, he woke to find some bruising someplace on himself, and, often as not, a newly forming scab or two.
Nothing big. Nothing major. He wasn’t a fighter. But he did black out a lot. And his forehead would meet the pavement with not inconsiderable velocity once every other week or so.
Or he’d misjudge things and the doorframe of the cab he was to slopping himself into would catch him on the hairline.
Or he’d pass out on the floor of the bar where he was supposed to be working and in addition to the cigarette butts and bottle caps mashed into his face – so it was like embossed – he’d find his spine all janked around so turning to face anybody was more like the turret of a tank than the fluid swivel of other mammals.
So. Even though he wasn’t getting into tussles with anybody, exactly, he was pretty beat to shit most of the time and you could very much say that his was a life of conflict.
People he’d gone to school with had, like… embarked. On something you could properly call a life. They had set sail for points distant, with a bracing mist dampening their faces and a briny wind at their backs. While he just seemed to remain… suspended. In a tide pool, warm and cloudy as milk.
He’d long suspected things had gotten bad. That HE had gotten bad. But he didn’t really KNOW it until he snapped off like half of his front tooth. It was an incident he came to call The Snaggling. As in, he was now snaggle-toothed, and so that the precipitating time his teeth became thus, he called The Snaggling.
To those that did not know him well, which was everybody, The Snaggling nested within his longstanding precedent of rueful humor at the expense of his own excesses. He’d roll in late to the bar with a scabby face, cock and eyebrow, and go “You oughtta see the other guy.” Shit like that.
But with The Snaggling, he couldn’t even muster this form of slack deflection, this oblique non-coping.
There’d been plenty of other incidents. In fact, if he was honest with himself, which he almost never was, he’d have to concede that his recent past was pretty strewn with red flags. Red flags that he’d disregarded completely.
There was that time The Girl had come into the bar, requesting his set of keys to her apartment, since his sloshing and bleary state stood in clear contravention to her longstanding refusal to let him in her place while hammered.
Or the time his landlord had come by the bar during a brunch shift to make a polite but firm inquiry about his back rent.
Or the time he’d made that readhead cry pretty hard in that back booth.
Or the time he’d passed out on the steps of that Methodist church a few blocks over. Not like on A step, but lying diagonally across SEVERAL steps, each perpendicular point of contact – shoulder, ribs, hip, outer thigh – had this abraded-looking blood-blistery bruise.
Then there was the plain fact that the whites of his eyes looked like rancid butter. Even though he was only twenty-eight.
No doubt about – he was a mess.
But The Snaggling seemed to represent a new plateau, an order-of-magnitude type deal. His vanity was a part of it, for sure – every time he caught sight of his scoured-out face in the mirror behind the bar, he saw that glaring little gap – askew, sharp-edged, a black little polygon of space where he till recently had a pretty good quality front tooth.
Because even though he was routinely pretty torn to shit, he remained a decent-enough looking dude who exerted a dark magnetism on certain among the “save-him-from-himself” ladies. He felt like that shit was now over, with this gaping absence in his mouth.
“Fuck it,” he told himself. “Chicks, man. I don’t need the fucking headaches.”
This was maybe as much in response to the fact that he didn’t have the money to fix his tooth as it was his to his whole deal with chicks.
Setting aside his vanity, though – it was this galling thing of the, like, incontrovertible-ness of it. The Snaggling was this starkly visible emblem of the chaos he was living in. His face was now the kind of face that would prompt longer, more probing looks from cops, and would cause moms to hustle their kids away from him in the food court or whatever.
With one sharp blow, he’d gone from a little rough-looking, maybe, to fully unsavory-like and ragged and presenting maybe some threat. The thing that really sucked was that this sharp blow was a blow for which he had no recall, since he’d it had taken place at some point behind that opaque whiskey curtain he drew over his mind each night.
The Snaggling had turned him into a sad piece of shit. Or, more likely: it had REVEALED to him and everybody else what a sad piece of shit he’d permitted himself to become.
He’d reached that fork in the road – go all-out and die a boozy mess, like his stupid father, or figure shit out and get a handle on this.
Which, on paper, is an easy choice. But in real life? Whole other thing. He’d have to haul his ass to those fucking meetings or whatever, and get some kind of real job. Go back to school, maybe. He was exhausted in advance by all the change he’d need to undergo. Just completely wiped out.
So obviously he did nothing.
Kept waking up on the floor of the bar, his faced waffled by the mungy rubber floor mats.
And trapezing from one financial crisis to the next, hitting up his step-dad for money every couple months, which felt like facing a firing squad every fucking time.
And things remained essentially hectic and stupid and shitty. And grew, of course, worse.
And he powered down shots and pints to try and drive from his mind The Snaggling. Except this was impossible, obviously. Because in addition to its being situated in the center of his fucking face, the busted stub of his tooth started to rot. He’d killed the nerve, or whatever, so even though he was hyper-diligent brushing and so forth, the jagged stump yellowed and turned brown.
After a few months, he had this speckled and slanty little chisel thing where a tooth should’ve been. Needless to say, he’d stopped smiling, at first because he wished to conceal this jutting little tusk, then later because he concluded on a more or less permanent basis that there was nothing to smile about. Like literally – he couldn’t think of a single fucking thing.
And he settled into a trough of habit and hatred and pointlessness, his life little better than a parade of face-plants and escalating fuckups.
And then The Snaggling started to blacken and hurt like a motherfucker.
So he finds this dentist who’ll take cash to pull the thing, which is all infected. This dentist smelled of gin only halfway metabolized and went to dental school in Grenada or some weird island nation. This hulking and fat-fingered waste case of a dentist – the only one he could afford – kept pumping these gin clouds into his propped-open mouth, making him gag on last night’s gut-load of whiskey.
This sketchy dirtbag of a dentist, as he’s yanking, tells him how lucky he is. Tells him how if he’d waited any longer on this extraction, the infection would have claimed some of the bone in his upper jaw. Tells him he’s just in the nick of time and super lucky. He’s a lucky, lucky guy.
He pays at the counter, sliding a meager stack of worn and wilting bills through the slot in the glass that looks bulletproof, and griping a little bit that the fat-ass didn’t even write him a prescription for something good like Vicodin,
He lights a cigarette on the cracked sidewalk out front of the clinic, even though the dentist just now told him not to smoke for the next few hours.
He tongue-stabs the blood-throbbing, pulpy hole and squints at the sky.
A lucky, lucky guy.