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Chattery Teeth

Stephen King

  Chattery Teeth

  by Stephen King

  Looking into the display case was like looking through a dirty pane of glass into the middle third of his boyhood, those years from seven to fourteen when he had been fascinated by stuff like this. Hogan leaned closer, forgetting the rising whine of the wind outside and the gritty spick-spack sound of sand hitting the windows. The case was full of fabulous junk, most of it undoubtedly made in Taiwan and Korea, but there was no doubt at all about the pick of the litter. They were the largest Chattery Teeth he'd ever seen. They were also the only ones he'd ever seen with feet -- big orange cartoon shoes with white spats. A real scream.

  Hogan looked up at the fat woman behind the counter. She was wearing a tee-shirt that said nevada is god's country on top (the words swelling and receding across her enormous breasts) and about an acre of jeans on the bottom. She was selling a pack of cigarettes to a pallid young man whose long blonde hair had been tied back in a ponytail with a sneaker shoelace. The young man, who had the face of an intelligent lab-rat, was paying in small change, counting it laboriously out of a grimy hand.

  "Pardon me, ma'am?" Hogan asked.

  She looked at him briefly, and then the back door banged open. A skinny man wearing a bandanna over his mouth and nose came in. The wind swirled desert grit around him in a cyclone and rattled the pin-up cutie on the Valvoline calendar thumb-tacked to the wall. The newcomer was pulling a handcart. Three wire-mesh cages were stacked on it. There was a tarantula in the one on top.

  In the cages below it were a pair of rattlesnakes. They were coiling rapidly back and forth and shaking their rattles in agitation.

  "Shut the damn door, Scooter, was you born in a barn?" the woman behind the counter bawled.

  He glanced at her briefly, eyes red and irritated from the blowing sand. "Gimme a chance, woman! Can't you see I got my hands full here? Ain't you got eyes? Christ!" He reached over the dolly and slammed the door. The dancing sand fell dead to the floor and he pulled the dolly toward the storeroom at the back, still muttering.

  "That the last of em?" the woman asked.

  "All but Wolf." He pronounced it Woof. "I'm gonna stick him in the lean-to back of the gas-pumps."

  "You ain't not!" the big woman retorted. "Wolfs our star attraction, in case you forgot. You get him in here. Radio says this is gonna get worse before it gets better. A lot worse."

  "Just who do you think you're foolin?" The skinny man (her husband, Hogan supposed) stood looking at her with a kind of weary truculence, his hands on his hips. "Damn thing ain't nothin but a Minnesota coydog, as anyone who took more'n half a look could plainly see."

  The wind gusted, moaning along the eaves of Scooter's Grocery & Roadside Zoo, throwing sheaves of dry sand against the windows. It was getting worse, and Hogan could only hope he would be able to drive out of it. He had promised Lita and Jack he'd be home by seven, eight at the latest, and he was a man who liked to keep his promises.

  "Just take care of him," the big woman said, and turned irritably back to the rat-faced boy.

  "Ma'am?" Hogan said again.

  "Just a minute, hold your water," Mrs. Scooter said. She spoke with the air of one who is all but drowning in impatient customers, although Hogan and the rat-faced boy were in fact the only ones present.

  "You're a dime short, Sunny Jim," she told the blonde kid after a quick glance at the coins on the counter-top.

  The boy regarded her with wide, innocent eyes. "I don't suppose you'd trust me for it?"

  "I doubt if the Pope of Rome smokes Merit 100's, but if he did, I wouldn't trust him for it."

  The look of wide-eyed innocence disappeared. The rat-faced boy looked at her with an expression of sullen dislike for a moment (this expression looked much more at home on the kid's face, Hogan thought), and then slowly began to investigate his pockets again.

  Just forget it and get out of here, Hogan thought. You'll never make it to L.A. by eight if you don't get moving, windstorm or no windstorm. This is one of those places that have only two speeds -- slow and stop. You got your gas and paid for it, so just count yourself ahead of the game and get back on the road before the storm gets any worse.

  He almost followed his left-brain's good advice... and then he looked at the Chattery Teeth in the display case again, the Chattery Teeth standing there on those big orange cartoon shoes. And white spats! They were the real killer. Jack would love them, his right brain told him. And tell the truth, Bill, old buddy; if it turns out Jack doesn't want them, you do. You may see another set of Jumbo Chattery Teeth at some point in your life, any thing's possible, but ones that also walk on big orange feet? Huh-uh. I really doubt it.

  It was the right brain he listened to that time... and everything else followed.

  The kid with the ponytail was still going through his pockets; the sullen expression on his face deepened each time he came up dry. Hogan was no fan of smoking -- his father, a two-pack-a-day man, had died of lung cancer -- but he had visions of still waiting to be waited on an hour from now. "Hey! Kid!"

  The kid looked around and Hogan flipped him a quarter.

  "Hey! Thanks, m'man!"

  "Think nothing of it."

  The kid concluded his transaction with the beefy Mrs. Scooter, put the cigarettes in one pocket, and dropped the remaining fifteen cents in another. He made no offer of the change to Hogan, who hadn't really expected it. Boys and girls like this were legion these days -- they cluttered the highways from coast to coast, blowing along like tumbleweeds. Perhaps they had always been there, but to Hogan the current breed seemed both unpleasant and a little scary, like the rattlers Scooter was now storing in the back room.

  The snakes in piss-ant little roadside menageries like this one couldn't kill you; their venom was milked twice a week and sold to clinics that made drugs with it. You could count on that just as you could count on the winos to show up at the local plasma bank every Tuesday and Thursday. But the snakes could still give you one hell of a painful bite if you got too close and then made them mad. That. Hogan thought, was what the current breed of road-kids had in common with them.

  Mrs. Scooter came drifting down the counter, the words on her tee-shirt drifting up and down and side to side as she did. “Whatcha need?" she asked.-Her tone was still truculent. The West had a reputation for friendliness, and during the twenty years he had spent selling there Hogan had come to feel the reputation was more often than not deserved, but this woman had all the charm of a Brooklyn shopkeeper who has been stuck up three times in the last two weeks. Hogan supposed that her kind was becoming as much a part of the scene in the New West as the road-kids. Sad but true.

  "How much are these?" Hogan asked, pointing through the dirty glass at what the sign identified as jumbo chattery teeth -- they walk! The case was filled with novelty items

  -- Chinese finger-pullers, Pepper Gum, Dr. Wacky's Sneezing Powder, cigarette loads (A Laff Riot! according to the package

  -- Hogan guessed they were more likely a great way to get your teeth knocked out), X-ray glasses, plastic vomit (So Realistic!), joy-buzzers.

  "I dunno," Mrs. Scooter said. "Where's the box, I wonder?"

  The teeth were the only item in the case that wasn't packaged, but they certainly were jumbo, Hogan thought -- super-jumbo, in fact, five times the size of the sets of wind-up teeth which had so amused him as a kid growing up in Maine. Take away the joke feet and they would look like the teeth of some fallen Biblical giant -- the cuspids were big white blocks and the canine teeth looked like tentpegs sunk in the improbably red plastic gums. A key jutted from one gum. The teeth were held together in a clench by a thick rubber band.

  Mrs. Scooter blew the dust from the Chattery Teeth, then turned them over, looking on the soles of the o
range shoes for a price sticker. She didn't find one. "I don't know," she said crossly, eyeing Hogan as if he might have taken the sticker off himself. "Only Scooter'd buy a piece of trash like this here. Been around since Noah got off the boat. I'll have to ask him."

  Hogan was suddenly tired of the woman and of Scooter's Grocery & Roadside Zoo. They were great Chattery Teeth, and Jack would undoubtedly love them, but he had promised -- eight at the latest.

  "Never mind," he said. "It was just an -- "

  "Them teeth was supposed to go for $15.95, if you c'n believe it," Scooter said from behind them. "They ain't just plastic -- those're metal teeth painted white. They could give you a helluva bite if they worked... but she dropped ‘em on the floor two-three years ago when she was dustm the inside of the case and they're busted."

  "Oh," Hogan said, disappointed. "That's too bad. I never saw a pair with, you know, feet."

  "There are lots of ‘em like that now," Scooter said. "They sell ‘em at the novelty stores in Vegas and Dry Springs. But I never saw a set as big as those. It was funnier'n hell to watch ‘em walk across the floor, snappin like a crocodile. Shame the old lady dropped ‘em."

  Scooter glanced at her, but his wife was looking out at the blowing sand. There was an expression on her face which Hogan couldn't quite decipher -- was it sadness, or disgust, or both?

  Scooter looked back at Hogan. "I could let ‘em go for three-fifty, if you wanted ‘em. We're gettin rid of the novelties, anyway. Gonna put rental videotapes in that counter." He closed the storeroom door. The bandanna was now pulled down, lying on the dusty front of his shirt. His face was haggard and too thin. Hogan saw what might have been the shadow of serious illness lurking just beneath his desert tan.

  "You could do no such a thing, Scooter!" the big woman snapped, and turned toward him... almost turned on him.

  "Shutcha head,'' Scooter replied. “You make my fillins ache."

  "I told you to get Wolf -- "

  "Myra, if you want him back there in the storeroom, go get him yourself." He began to advance on her, and Hogan was surprised -- almost wonder-struck, in fact -- when she gave ground. "Ain't nothm but a Minnesota coydog anyway. Three dollars even, friend, and those Chattery Teeth are yours. Throw in another buck and you can take Myra's Woof, too. If you got five, I'll deed the whole place to you. Ain't worth a dogfart since the turnpike went through, anyway."

  The long-haired kid was standing by the door, tearing the top from the pack of cigarettes Hogan had helped buy and watching this small comic opera with an expression of mean amusement. His small gray-green eyes gleamed, flicking back and forth between Scooter and his wife.

  "Hell with you," Myra said gruffly, and Hogan realized she was close to tears. "If you won't get my sweet baby, I will." She stalked past him, almost striking him with one boulder-sized breast. Hogan thought it would have knocked the little man flat if it had connected.

  "Look," Hogan said, "I think I'll just shove along."

  "Aw, hell," Scooter said. "Don't mind Myra. I got cancer and she's got the change, and it ain't my problem she's havin the most trouble livin with. Take the darn teeth. Bet you got a boy might like ‘em. Besides, it's probably just a cog knocked a little off-track. I bet a man who was handy could get ‘em walkin and chompin again."

  He looked around, his expression helpless and musing. Outside, the wind rose to a brief, thin shriek as the kid opened the door and slipped out. He had decided the show was over, apparently. A cloud of fine grit swirled down the middle aisle, between the canned goods and the dog food.

  "I was pretty handy myself, at one time," Scooter confided.

  Hogan did not reply for a long moment. He could not think of anything -- quite literally not one single thing -- to say. He looked down at the Jumbo Chattery Teeth standing on the scratched and cloudy display case, nearly desperate to break the silence (now that Scooter was standing right in front of him, he could see that the man's eyes were huge and dark, glittering with pain and some heavy dope... Darvon, or perhaps morphine), and he spoke the first words that popped into his head: "Gee, they don't look broken."

  He picked the teeth up. They were metal, all right -- too heavy to be anything else -- and when he looked through the slightly parted jaws, he was surprised at the size of the mainspring that ran the thing. He supposed it would take one that size to make the teeth not only chatter but walk, as well. What had Scooter said? They could give you a helluva bite if they worked. Hogan gave the thick rubber band an experimental tweak, then stripped it off. He was still looking at the teeth so he wouldn't have to look into Scooter's dark, pain-haunted eyes. He grasped the key and at last he risked a look up. He was relieved to see that now the thin man was smiling a little.

  "Do you mind?" Hogan asked.

  "Not me, pilgrim -- let er rip."

  Hogan grinned and turned the key. At first it was all right; there was a series of small, ratcheting clicks, and he could see the mainspring winding up. Then, on the third turn, there was a spronk! noise from inside, and the key simply slid bonelessly around in its hole.


  "Yes," Hogan said. He set the teeth down on the counter. They stood there on their unlikely orange feet and did nothing.

  Scooter poked the clenched molars on the lefthand side with the tip of one horny finger. The jaws of the teeth opened. One orange foot rose and took a dreamy half-step forward. Then the teeth stopped moving and the whole rig fell sideways. The Chattery Teeth came to rest on the wind-up key, a slanted, disembodied grin out here in the middle of no-man's-land. After a moment or two, the big teeth came together again with a slow click. That was all.

  Hogan, who had never had a premonition in his life, was suddenly filled with a clear certainty that was both eerie and sickening. A year from now, this man will have been eight months in his grave, and if someone exhumed his coffin and pried off the lid, they'd see teeth just like these poking out of his dried-out dead face like an enamel trap.

  He glanced up into Scooter's eyes, glittering like dark gems in tarnished settings, and suddenly it was no longer a question of wanting to get out of here; he had to get out of here.

  "Well," he said (hoping frantically that Scooter would not stick out his hand to be shaken), "gotta go. Best of luck to you, sir."

  Scooter did put his hand out, but not to be shaken. Instead, he snapped the rubber band back around the Chattery Teeth (Hogan had no idea why, since they didn't work), set them on their funny cartoon feet, and pushed them across the scratched surface of the counter. "Thank you kindly," he said. "And take these teeth. No charge."

  "Oh... well, thanks, but I couldn't..."

  "Sure you can," Scooter said. "Take ‘em and give ‘em to your boy. He'll get a kick out of ‘em standin on the shelf in his room even if they don't work. I know a little about boys. Raised up three of ‘em."

  "How did you know I had a son?" Hogan asked.

  Scooter winked. The gesture was terrifying and pathetic at the same time. "Seen it in your face," he said. "Go on, take ‘em."

  The wind gusted again, this time hard enough to make the boards of the building moan. The sand hitting the windows sounded like fine snow. Hogan picked the teeth up by the plastic feet, surprised all over again by how heavy they were.

  "Here." Scooter produced a paper bag, almost as wrinkled and crumpled about the edges as his own face, from beneath the counter. "Stick ‘em in here. That's a real nice sportcoat you got there. If you carry them choppers in the pocket, it'll get pulled out of shape."

  He put the bag on the counter as if he understood how little Hogan wanted to touch him.

  "Thanks," Hogan said. He put the Chattery Teeth in the bag and rolled down the top. "Jack thanks you, too -- he's my son."

  Scooter smiled, revealing a set of teeth just as false (but nowhere near as large) as the ones in the paper bag. "My pleasure, mister. You drive careful until you get out of the blow. You'll be fine once you get in the foothills."

  "I know." Hogan cleared his t
hroat. "Thanks again. I hope you... uh... recover soon."

  "That'd be nice," Scooter said evenly, "but I don't think it's in the cards, do you?"

  "Uh. Well." Hogan realized with dismay that he didn't have the slightest idea how to conclude this encounter. “Take care of yourself."

  Scooter nodded. "You too."

  Hogan retreated toward the door, opened it, and had to hold on tight as the wind tried to rip it out of his hand and bang the wall. Fine sand scoured his face and he slitted his eyes against it.

  He stepped out, closed the door behind him, and pulled the lapel of his real nice sportcoat over his mouth and nose as he crossed the porch, descended the steps, and headed toward the customized Dodge camper-van parked just beyond the gas-pumps. The wind pulled his hair and the sand stung his cheeks. He was going around to the driver's-side door when someone tugged his arm.

  "Mister! Hey, mister!"

  He turned. It was the blonde-haired boy with the pale, ratty face. He hunched against the wind and blowing sand, wearing nothing but a tee-shirt and a pair of faded 501 jeans. Behind him, Mrs. Scooter was dragging a mangy beast on a choke-chain toward the back door of the store. Wolf the Minnesota coydog looked like a half-starved German shepherd pup -- and the runt of the litter, at that

  "What?" Hogan shouted, knowing very well what.

  "Can I have a ride?" the kid shouted back over the wind.

  Hogan did not ordinarily pick up hitchhikers -- not since one afternoon five years ago. He had stopped for a young girl on the outskirts of Tonopah. Standing by the side of the road, the girl had resembled one of those sad-eyed waifs in the UNICEF posters, a kid who looked like her mother and her last friend had both died in the same housefire about a week ago. Once she was in the car, however, Hogan had seen the bad skin and mad eyes of the long-time junkie. By then it was too late. She'd stuck a pistol in his face and demanded his wallet. The pistol was old and rusty. Its grip was wrapped in tattered electrician's tape. Hogan had doubted that it was loaded, or that it would fire if it was... but he had a wife and a kid back in L.A., and even if he had been single, was a hundred and forty bucks worth risking your life over? He hadn't thought so even then, when he had just been getting his feet under him in his new line of work and a hundred and forty bucks had seemed a lot more important than it did these days. He gave the girl his wallet. By then her boyfriend had been parked beside the van (in those days it had been a Ford Econoline, nowhere near as nice as the custom Dodge XRT) in a dirty blue Chevy Nova. Hogan asked the girl if she would leave him his driver's license, and the pictures of Lita and Jack. "Fuck you, sugar," she said, and slapped him across the face, hard, with his own wallet before getting out and running to the blue car.