WEDNESDAY: Phantom Pain


Matthew Oldridge is an elementary math teacher in Mississauga, ON. Copyright rests with the author.

“THIS SHOULDN’T HURT. It’s the tooth where you had your root canal last year. There are no nerves left in there,” Dr. Bernstein said. “So there’s no need to be nervous.” He chuckled as if it was the first time he had used that joke, as he held the whirring drill up in the air. “Getting this crown on you is going to be, well…my crowning achievement,” he said, and laughed.

He was well known for his jokes and puns, setting some nervous patients at ease, and annoying others. Henry wasn’t particularly annoyed, but he wanted to get the procedure over with, so he just forced a bit of a laugh and looked back at the TV screen hanging on the wall. Nothing worse than a root canal, people always say. In Henry’s experience, a root canal was nothing to worry about.  He didn’t feel anything. It was the same years ago when he’d had his wisdom teeth out. He had expected to be on the couch for days, gauze in his mouth, remote control in hand. Instead, he stopped the bleeding with alcohol (straight bourbon, on the rocks) and went out to the pub. He’d always been pretty good with pain, physical pain at least. He never worried about stubbed toes, or cuts from a kitchen knife, or taking a hockey puck off his shins. He always just shook it off, moved on. His mother was more upset by his childhood scrapes and bruises than Henry was. Her shock and tears when he cut his hand on a kitchen knife were more alarming to Henry than the blood dripping from his hand onto the dirty linoleum.

No, he wasn’t worried. Getting the root canal tooth crowned would be no problem. He hadn’t felt pain of any real kind in over a year now. The prescription pills in his pocket and his own self prescription for vodka (his new drug of choice) made sure of that.  Vodka was to the soul as freezing was to the gums. Straight up from a glass, burning as it slid down his throat, then sweet nothing afterwards. Henry thought, in one of his more sober moments, that “Frozen Fire” would be a good name for a new vodka. Some celebrity with smiling white teeth would pose with the bottle in the ads. Until then, good old Stoli would have to do. It could be worse, he could be drinking potato vodka from a kitchen still, like some Russian peasant, until his liver failed, and he went blind.

He watched the drill as the dentist picked it up and brought it forward toward his mouth. Henry imagined all the sick scenes he’d seen from movies about serial killers, and twisted, criminal minds. At home, Gloria had always turned her eyes away at the worst parts. She never understood the attraction of his dark entertainment, but she tolerated it. The dentist might take joy in using his many steel tools as instruments of torture after working hours. Maybe there’d be a light in the window of the office while he was walking by, and he’d stop and look, lured by the fluorescent glow of the office lights. He’d see Dr. Bernstein, holding a bloody scalpel, manic gleam in his eyes, and his dark shadow against the wall seeming to swallow up the unlucky patient in the chair.  He imagined himself in the chair, as the dentist brought a giant needle up and buried it in his eyeballs.

Even that might not be enough to make me feel anything, he thought. He shook off his thoughts, and turned toward the TV mounted on the wall. It was -6 Celsius degrees. Somebody had a car crash. The 24 hour news channel was talking about how long the day’s commute home would be. It should be four minutes, but it would take 26. He turned quickly away from the sight of twisted bumpers and shattered glass on the screen and shivered slightly.

The dentist noticed Henry’s sudden reaction. “They shouldn’t show that sort of thing on the TV. It will make us all afraid to drive our cars,” he said, chuckling as if he’d said something funny. “Although in the future we’ll probably have cars that don’t need drivers. And robot dentists. Heck, the robot dentist could probably put your crown on, in a driverless car.”

Dr. Bernstein put the drill down for a second and smiled through his surgical mask. His grey hair poked out the sides, even though he was shiny bald on top. He probably wanted Henry to reply, but Henry just wanted to get back to the bar that was three doors down in the plaza.

“I’ve got my oldest son starting university this year. Time flies, huh? Seems like just yesterday it was him in diapers, and soon it will be me,” he said.

Henry forced a laugh. He’d probably used that joke a hundred times before. “I hope tuition is free by the time mine are grown up, that’s my only hope, doc,” Henry said.

“How are your kids, anyway?” Dr. Bernstein asked.

Henry hesitated, then answered. “Fine, I guess.” He turned his head back to the TV where the traffic report was concluding.

Dr. Bernstein raised the drill to Henry’s mouth. “Better get this done,” he said. “Time is money, and money is time.”

That was one of his favourite jokes. Henry had heard it many times before. It didn’t make sense the first time. “But if money equals pizza, how come pizza doesn’t equal time?” Henry said.

Dr. Bernstein just chuckled and pressed the drill to Henry’s molar.

Sharp, stabbing pain. As the drilling started Henry noticed he wasn’t numb like he should be. The gums were frozen all around the tooth, and the tooth died of abscess a few years ago, rotting from the inside out. He heard the sounds of the drill, and smelled his tooth being shredded as the drill ripped through the enamel. Some people couldn’t handle anything at the dentist — the sights, sounds, the feeling of being poked and prodded. The only thing Henry minded was the sickening burnt smell as the tooth was shaved away so the crown could be put on. He watched clouds of tooth dust rise in front of his face and tried not to breathe in.

He tried not to show that he was feeling the drill. It could be a trick of the mind. Maybe now he was feeling some kind of phantom pain, like soldiers do when they lose a limb and feel the presence of something, where there is only an empty space. He’d heard of amputees feeling an itch forever after, a cruel trick of the brain. He imagined frantically itching the stump of an arm, or the bottom of a leg, below the knee. An itch that could never be scratched. Maybe this was the memory of living nerves tangled inside a tooth.

Henry steeled himself against the pain. At least it was something real. That he was even here to feel the pain was its own miracle, even though some days it didn’t feel like it. Polishing a glass of vodka off in his nearly empty living room was nobody’s idea of fun. At least until the third or fourth glass was down, and he could fall asleep to late night talk shows, or infomercials (“Buy now, don’t hesitate, or it will be too late!”), until another day dawned and he could throw up into the toilet and start again.

“You still okay?” Dr. Bernstein asked.

“Right as rain,” Henry mumbled.

With the drilling done, the crown slid right on the tooth. “Just avoid anything too hot or too cold for 24 hours,” Dr. Bernstein said, as he walked Henry to the receptionist’s desk.

“Got it, no sucking on ice cubes, or drinking soup,”  Henry said, forcing a smile.

“Say, tell Gloria we haven’t seen her in a while. We should schedule her cleaning, right?”

“You got it,” Henry said. “Anyway, gotta go. Time is money, right?”

Dr. Bernstein chuckled and said goodbye. On his way out the door, Henry impulsively went into the convenience store next door. He picked up a Hungry Man steak and potatoes dinner and a bag of Cheetos. The bored clerk could hardly hide his smirk as he put down his magazine, leaving it open to a picture of a scantily clad young woman posing with some kind of python wrapped around her neck.

Henry couldn’t resist. “Good articles in that one?”

The teenager hastily closed the magazine as a tint of red covered his cheeks. “Sorry,” he muttered. He was probably right to smirk, anyway, Henry thought. All that was missing was a jumbo bottle of Coke and a couple of chocolate bars and he had the ultimate meal.

As he walked to his car, Henry considered the bottle of vodka hidden in the wheel well, wrapped carefully in a towel beside the spare tire. Useful for a little nip here and again, on his lunch break from work. The sharp stabbing pain in his mouth had given way to a dull ache. The freezing as it started to wear off left a warm feeling on the side of his face. He adjusted his collar against the November wind and started his car.

On the drive home he resisted pulling into one of the liquor stores on the way. He had all but forgotten that he always planned his driving routes past liquor or beer stores. It was just the way it was. He stopped when the will was weak, and travelled on past when the will was strong. Today he mentally calculated the number of ounces of vodka he had left in his car and at home, and decided not to stop.

His building loomed ahead of him, shabby but comforting. The residents all had balconies turned into storage spaces, crammed full of bicycles, toys, boxes, and other junk. The superintendent had given up long ago. Henry saw his balcony above him as he got out of the car. He knew there was nothing on it but a few bottles and a can he sometimes used for an ashtray.

On the way into the building he saw broken glass, McDonald’s bags, the ordinary detritus of apartment life. As the elevator opened on his floor he smelled the familiar smells of apartment life— curry, pot pourri, and the stale not-quite urine smell of old carpets in hallways. Turning the key in the door, he thought, not for the first time, about a house on a shady lane, with nicely cut grass, and the sounds of children playing, and the feeling of pulling into a driveway knowing your loved ones were waiting. He could feel the phantom arms of his children on his legs, and Gloria’s gentle kiss on his bearded cheek, above the thawing spot on his new crown. You are home. I love you. He whispered the words while he poured vodka from the bottle into a glass.

He sat down in his tattered armchair in the nearly empty living room. He felt the familiar warm bloom in his stomach and smiled. It would be a good night.


  1. M.Wilson

    Very well done!! I love the little details in descriptions and the process at the dentist just what really happens there behind the door:) I felt sorry for the character; whose fault is it when people cannot live together anymore?

  2. Norm Rosolen

    I’ve been not quite there. Not an alcoholic myself but a broken family and wistful memories and I’ve known a few alcoholics and feel for them. You pulled this off very nicely, Matt.

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