Crooked Teeth by Matthew Chabe

I’m standing on the shore with a burnt smoke in one hand and a beer in the other, and John’s talking but I can barely hear him over the roar of the fire. I think he says he’s leaving, but when I look at him, he’s still there and it’s not what he said at all. He said something different and he’s staring at me, waiting. 

“What?” I say. He looks nervous and jumpy. 

“You heard me.” 

I try to pretend that I did, or that I care, but it’s a lost cause from the start, so I stand there. My beer’s empty and I need another one. John notices the shift and blows air through his lips:

“Alicia, man. It’s Alicia.” He waves his hands like he’s trying to take flight. “What do you think?”

“I think you’re a pussy.”

He pinches a cigarette between his thumb and the flat pad of his mitten. He sucks on it and blinks.

“You asked me what I think.”

“No, dude, I’m serious. I think she’s, like, the one.”

I clear my throat and flick my dead smoke at the boiler. That’s what everyone calls it—the boiler—but it’s not that, not really. It’s just some old storage tank the owner of the bar found upstate and blew a hole through with an arc welder. Now it sits on the patio like a dumb animal, questionably legal, groaning and waiting for one of the local drunks to tumble in. From a speaker in the corner comes Howie Day, and I remember how, not so long ago, John and I used to see him play open mics not far from here. Before he became a star and got arrested on airplanes.

“‘The one,’ huh? Well, that’s cool.” I can’t stop the sarcasm from riding my voice, so I light a fresh smoke and jab it in the air. “Hey, man—” I start. What I want is to be the hard-ass buddy, to give it to him straight: that woman’s been around, if you get my drift. She’d been with my friends. She’d been with their friends. She’d even been with me, once, about a year ago, fueled by cheap beer and weed on a hill at some summer concert. It turned out to be nothing. But I can’t drag it out for him—I’m not his shitty dad—so I start again: 

“Well, that’s pretty fast, huh?”

John’s eyes narrow and then they get wide and his mouth stretches. I see rows of teeth, all straight and red in the fire except for one: it’s broken and slanted like a half-open door with blackness beyond. 

“I dunno, man. It feels right. You know? It feels, like . . . real.”

“God,” I say. There’s a sick feeling in my stomach, and I shake my head. I want to say, Stop being so pathetic. Pull up your goddamned pants. But for the second time, I can’t do it. Instead, I say something stupid—“It’s too hot”—and take two steps from the boiler, and instantly I’m attacked by frigid daggers. It was an inferno and now it’s like it was never real. John’s so close I can almost touch the wool hat that sits on his head like a post-grunge garden gnome. He’s just a couple steps away and it feels like zillions. I cinch my scarf around my neck and stare into my empty beer, and I remember I still need another one.

“You know we spend almost every night together? Hey, I met her sister!” He raises an eyebrow like we’re in a crime show and he just dropped the bombshell. “She’s here, somewhere.”

“Her sister?”

“No. Well, yeah. But Alicia. Her sister drove the car.” He scans the faces on the patio.

“Cool,” I say, but I don’t care anymore. I’m done with it and my bladder’s full. I offer John a beer, but before he can respond, I’m already backing away, I’m walking off, I’m in the toilet, I’m pushing my way toward the keg. By the time I take my place in line, the chill’s in my bones and it’s pushed the buzz away. I’m surrounded on all sides by ironic trucker-hat heroes, emo posers, princesses swaddled in velour pants and jackets with cheap fur hoods—they’re all waiting beneath frozen clouds to fill their cups with limited-edition something when, right upstairs, is a warm bar full of taps. A bunch of idiots, and I’m there with them. 

I shove my hands in my jacket and try to forget about it. Love: it’s a stupid word, a creepy word, and when I think about it—the word, not the overarching cosmic concept—I get a feeling like vinegar in my chest and I swallow. What does John know? His last girlfriend, the big girl with dry hair that was unsolvable—he thought that was love, too. It was all he talked about. Thought they were going to get married or something, until she ran off with her old boyfriend from high school. Ended up in Minnesota or some shitty place. John didn’t leave his room for months. It all made me feel sick, really. I don’t know; maybe not sick. Maybe just a little weird. 

I’d just about found the bottoms of my pockets when a voice behind me says: “Hey, sailor, you come here often?” Real low and theatrical. When I look over my shoulder, it’s Alicia. The last time I saw her, she had a short pixie cut. Now her hair hangs razor-straight from her beanie to her shoulders. A ring in her nose flashes blue in the light of her phone. She finishes tapping the screen and looks up. In the cold, my muscles struggle to make a smile.

“What’s up?”

“Thought I’d see you. Jesus, it’s like the Ice Age here!” She slaps me on the shoulder and wraps her arms around a coat that looks like it came from a garbage bin. A faded pin on the lapel reads Save a Horse, Ride a Snowboard

“Colder’n a witch’s tit.”

“Not if I get my hands on it.”

“Ah. I get it,” I say, and this sound comes from her throat. It’s like a laugh that skipped her vocal cords because it didn’t have the time.

“So where’s the band tonight?”

“No band.” I pass my cup to the guy behind the keg.

“I thought there was gonna be a band.” She pouts. The keg guy passes me a full cup, and I hand him John’s.

“Still no band. So what’s new?” I say and immediately regret it. She has a new job (“at that cool head shop downtown”). Her roommate moved to Georgia (“the country, not the state”). She’s going to Florida to retire with her cat (“like two old bitches—The Golden Girls, ha!”). The keg guy hands me John’s cup and suddenly I want to leave.

“Hey, it was cool seeing you.” I take a step back. “I gotta go find John.”

“Yeah, cool, cool,” she says, but before I can extricate myself from this situation, before I can make it cool, she hisses like a Cold War spy: “You wanna hit this with me?”

She thrusts her hand at me. In it is a thin, tightly rolled joint. 

“Jesus,” I say, “put that thing away.” I think about all the people standing around us, I think about the fucking cops, and then I think about John standing there by the boiler. I look over and he’s still there, smoking a cigarette and staring at the fire. Well, he’s a grown-ass man, I think. I’ll just be a minute.

I follow Alicia through the parking lot of ancient Saabs and Broncos with dented hatches, all discarded effigies, dead metal, dark and cold now away from the lights of the bar. A movie pops in my head, the one where that stupid kid freezes his tongue to a flagpole on a dare, and the thought of that soft, sensitive organ stuck to unforgiving steel horrifies me, as does the unthinkable remedy of peeling it away. Would it happen now? If I placed my tongue on a frozen door handle, would it stick until someone came to my rescue? Would anyone come? A shiver runs up my spine, and I hunch my shoulders and think of something, anything else. 

When we get to Alicia’s car, I stand by the passenger door and wait for her to unlock it, but when she pops the handle, I realize it was never locked. I put the beers on the roof and slide into the seat. The interior’s still warm, and the scent of clove cigarettes hangs in the air. Someone’s glued a statue of Buddha on the dashboard, and it squats there, fat and grinning, over a bumper sticker that says Honk if You’re Nutty and then, in smaller letters, Perry’s Nut House, Route 1, Belfast. The corner of the sticker is folded up like a dog-eared page. I smooth it out with my thumb; it stays down for a moment then peels back in protest. 

“You want music?! Let’s do music,” she says, and she jangles the keys in the ignition, and the dashboard comes alive. She digs through the mess of loose change, stained receipts, and Dunkin’ Donuts sugar packets between the seats until finally, triumphantly, she thrusts her hand in the air. In her fingers is a dirty cassette, and she shoves it in the stereo with a clunk; a moment later a drumbeat, tinny and cheap, comes from the right speaker only.

“Debbie Gibson?”

“It’s awesome, right? I love this oldies shit. It’s, like, a classic.” She guffaws, and then she sings and her teeth brighten like neon in the mystic glow of the speedometer, the odometer, the fuel gauge. She’s singing this Debbie Gibson song, hollering it, and flame erupts from her lighter, and she lights the joint, hits it, and passes it. I place it between my lips and hold the fumes as the car’s vents sigh lukewarm breath. When I think my lungs will burst, I cough and fill the cabin with smoke. 

“Dude, give me that fuckin’ thing,” she says, and her jawline is a lost and arcane blade that cuts the darkness. We pass the joint long enough for Debbie to get halfway through “Only in My Dreams,” and I’m searching for my gloves on the floor when Alicia says: “So, do you ever, like, think what happened? Like—whatever—you know.”

 “What do you mean?” I had found one glove, not the other, and I had just discovered something wet beneath the seat.

“I don’t know,” she says. I look at her and she’s looking at me; she’s looking down at me with a clove cigarette hanging in her lips, and she’s taking a drag. “I mean, we were hanging out, right? I thought it was cool, but then . . . I don’t know; I guess we just stopped hanging out. I’m sorry I said it. I mean . . . it’s nothing. Gawd, that’s awkward. I’m sorry. Never mind.”

I sit up in my seat.

“We only hung out for a little while,” I say. I don’t know if it’s the right thing, but it came out of my mouth, and the words hang for a moment, mingling with the smoke and condensation of our breath. Alicia’s eyes scan me. It feels like one of those things that might become something long and terrible, the kind where you sit there wondering who’s supposed to talk first. But then her face breaks into a smile.

“Yeah,” she says. “It was just a little while.” She cocks her head and looks at me through her eyebrows. “It was fun, though, huh?”

“Yeah. I guess.”

I think that’s that, and I feel for my gloves again, careful to avoid the wet thing below the seat, when suddenly her body is on mine. Her mouth is on me and her tongue is forcing itself through my teeth like an animal. Cassettes tumble to the floor as she crashes over the center console. I’m smashed into the seat and I can smell the clove on her breath, her shampoo, the dull absence of fabric softener. Her hand slips down my pants and finds its goal. Her jacket is off and I shove it to the floor. Then her pants are at her ankles and mine are off too and she’s against me, and our skins rub like wax paper stiff with cold. I think of John’s beer on the hood of the car. I wonder if it’s frozen. And then the thoughts are gone; they just disappear, and everything is warm.

When it’s done, I gather my things and leave. The night has somehow, impossibly, grown colder, and as I navigate the vehicles in the lot, I guzzle my beer until it’s gone. When I reach the keg, the guy behind it looks like he’s sorry for something he did.

“Hey, dude. It’s dead. ’Nother one coming if you wanna wait.”

“Just try it,” I say.

He takes the cup with a funny look and sticks the tap in it. Just as the beer reaches the halfway point, the nozzle sputters and dies.

“’Nother one coming,” he says again and shrugs, but I’ve already turned away. I’m cold and I still have John’s beer. I’m halfway to the boiler when he appears from nowhere. By his side is Alicia, grinning.

“Hey dude—there you are!” The cone of his hat has grown so tall it’s almost funny. 

“Yeah, I was—”

“Oh, I know,” he says, and something in me wants to escape, to shout at things, but he says, “Smoking that weed without me. Some friend.” Then, to let me know he’s just kidding, it’s all cool, just messin’ around, buddy, ha-ha-ha, he smiles and hits me on the shoulder; he leans into me, and in the glow of the boiler, I again see the gap in his teeth, except it’s not a door anymore, it’s a fucking black hole and I’m going to fall right into the center of it. I jump back and John laughs.

“Whoa. Good shit, huh?”

I glance at Alicia. John’s arm is wrapped around her waist, and he clutches her in the same spot where just a moment ago I held her hip bones. 

“Yeah, man. It’s good shit.” I hand him his beer.

“Damn, bro! Better late than never!” He laughs because he always laughs and waves it away. “We’re actually taking off. Guess it’s all yours.”

“John needs his beauty sleep,” says Alicia, and she kisses his cheek like a model in a magazine. Her lips make a wet smack when she pulls them away, and John’s face lights up. For some reason, I don’t know why—but I do—I feel a little angry about it.

“Yeah, he needs all he can get,” I hear myself say, but it’s a faraway sound, like someone reading a script on a distant stage.

“Hey, now,” says John. He slaps me on the shoulder, then he’s laughing, they’re both laughing, and they’re gone. I watch them as they ascend the stairs and disappear into the darkness of the parking lot. There are people all around me; their laughter and their talk are like icy ghosts, and I barely notice. I step closer to the boiler and a shiver runs through me. I’d never chugged anything before, not once, but as I feel the weight of what had been John’s beer in my hand, I’m struck with the sudden urge to decimate it, to destroy it, and I lift it to my lips then drain the entire thing and toss the cup into the boiler and watch it burn. There’s beer on my chin. When I go to wipe it with the back of my hand, I realize I left my gloves in Alicia’s car, and I think about John, that poor, confused motherfucker, John, and I wonder if Debbie Gibson’s still playing.


Matthew Chabe’s work has appeared in Voices de la Luna, Euphony Journal,, Backpacker magazine, Appalachia Mountain Journal, Boston Herald, and more. He recently completed his first novel. A native of Bangor, Maine, he now spends his time abroad. His website is