The Dentist in Zaire
August 1, 2002
Heartsick in deep darkest Africa
by Bob Thurber
ur last night in Zaire, Rene did the snake dance, fever dance, water danceall one two three, as though she'd grown up among those people. With a jungle lily between her teeth she swirled her hips on the make-shift pier which I'd watched them construct with bamboo and tawny vines thick as snakes. Real snakes rippled the black water. A harvest moon floated above the relentless heat.
In the morning a sea plane would skate across the Congo and whirl up to the pier and Rene wouldn't have to get her feet wet and I wouldn't have to worry about the small aircraft's pontoons becoming entrenched in the thick grey mud. I was homesick and heartsick. And I was sick to death of these mud-people and their sanctimonious smiles.
When the son of the chief, a seven-foot man with a fiery torch clenched between his newly capped teeth, started dancing with Rene on the shaky pier, I rolled my tom-tom into the water. The tiny drums were made of coffee cans and flour tins, with animal skins stretched across the open ends. They were sealed tight and floated like tiny arks. I watched my drum pass through the water, silent. I saw a ripple cross its wake as I untangled my legs. My left foot had gone to sleep and wouldn't hold my weight. I hobbled back towards the sleeping huts, doing a little dance of my own.
'Morton says goodnight,' I said, making a general announcement for anyone who cared.
Two young girls, huddled in the flickering shadows, giggled as though I'd swallowed an eel. Their scooped breasts jiggled as I passed. Their cat eyes glowed and the moon glimmered off their teeth.
'Don't forget to brush,' I told one, knowing she couldn't understand a word. She was cute as a monkey and I winked at her, thinking maybe she'd follow. I told myself a dirty joke about filling the cavity between her thighs as quickly as I'd filled her teeth.
In the last seventy-two hours I'd brought the gift of good dental hygiene to most of her sisters and brothers. All the natives were related in the sense that they all lived in the same village, all shared their food, all bathed in the same river, all packed mud in their hair. I couldn't make head nor tails of most of it, but basically the moon was their mother and the sun their father. I don't know where the mud came in. Everything hinged on a post-adolescent jungle walk. Until they were escorted into the jungle by a blue-faced elder and left to find their way back they were all brothers and sisters. Those who did find their way, and most did, were considered reborn. They could marry then. They could bed down with their own biological sibling at that point and no one gave a shit. Rene translated their word for rebirth as ingest. 'Survivors of the jungle walk are ingested, swallowed up by the village, allowed to mate, have children, and everyone lives happily ever after.'
A few days earlier, after extracting two twisted molars from a wrinkled stick of a man with a goat-like beard, I'd joked, 'You sure the word isn't incested? These people have been inbreeding for years. Look at the molars on this guy. If you ask me they all need a doze of Freudian browbeating to scare them into seeing what's what.'
'They seem perfectly civilized to me,' she'd said in that snotty way of hers.'
'Precisely my point. There's not a normal soul among them.'
When I got back to the States I planned to write a book about our travels. I'd write about the prevalence of gum-disease among the people of Thailand and the rat-teeth incisors of a Burmese Buddhist priest who'd never tasted meat. I had enough notes to write a dozen books and a legal pad full of possible titles: Flossing The South China Sea, Wisdom Tooth Of The Orient, Tricuspid Travels, Mottled Enamel Among Indonesians.
Back in my tent, I laid down on Rene's cot, figuring when she was all done flirting the night away with Andre the Giant her motor might be purring. The last time we'd done anything close to sex was feeding each other some goop from a bowl of weaved leaves. The stuff tasted better than it smelled, but the way everyone kept smiling at us, swaying their heads like they had shock absorbers in their necks, I suspected we were swallowing smashed maggots and parrot poop sweetened with cockroach eggs. When I later shoved my finger against my tonsils to purge, Rene said I might as well just spit in their faces.
'Go fetch the chief and I'll purge all over him,' I said, which was another joke that didn't tickle her fancy and which I probably shouldn't have said because in the first place there wasn't any chief and in the second Rene's a bleeding heart liberal and a born-again girl scout.
When nighttime rolled around and I suggested we line up our mats to make one big mat, twitching my eyebrows so she'd read me right, she said she'd rather paint herself with honey and sleep on an anthill.
'Kinky. Can I watch?'
'Go to hell.'
She brought her face up to the light and blew out the flame.
'Tell me something,' I said when she'd stopped rustling. 'Do they bite, or just lick?'
She twittered once in the darkness and I thought I still might get me some.
'Me African ant boy!' I said lunging to where I thought she'd be. She hit me with somethingher fist, I thinkand I fell to the dirt.
'You can be such an asshole, Dennis. Why is that? You're so good a dentist.'
I groped about, searching for her breasts. 'Why can't I be both?'
'I don't think I can live with both.'
Unlike a lot of my patients, I knew when to shut up. I crawled back to my mat and waited for sleep.
So there I was in deep darkest Africa in an army surplus post-Desert Storm tent (camouflaged in subtle grays and browns, though the world around me was every shade of green), there I was waiting for my baby. I waited until the tom-toms stopped. I waited and the jungle hummed. I waited in silence, sometimes breaking the dark with a Zippo, lighting one of my last few stale cigarettes. I sat waiting for the cows to come home, for the other shoe to drop, for the world to stop spinning so I could get the hell off. I laid there sweating in the moist heat, and then I dozed. Something crawled across my brow, breaking up a dream about milk shakes in a cool café, and then I waited some more, a wet apology stuck to my heat-chapped lips, until finally I couldn't stand it anymore and I got up off my ass to go look for Rene.
I flipped back the netting and strolled out into the moonlight. A mass of black flies swarmed around my head until they got a good whiff of the balm I wore like a second skin. The buzzing stopped as I approached the river. My eyes settled on the water which had captured the moon and was holding its light hostage, stretching a glimmer that bridged the river's width. I was alone. And I felt it. All alone. Just me, the river and a row of grassy huts.
In the back of my brain Andy Williams sang Moon River, performing a voice-over for an endless loop of reruns from my life, each image wavering in the balmy air. And suddenly all my energy was no longer dispersed, but concentrated, focused entirely in one direction.
In a flash of brilliance I felt enormous, spread out, connected to every place I had ever been, but I no longer felt myself. As though I wasn't me, wasn't entirely anything. And I wasn't alone now.
The man used his hand for an ashtray. His palm was already piled with ash, six crushed filters in there too. I watched him blow smoke. I waited. You haven't seen anything till you've seen a blue-faced man snub out a burning butt in his hand. I felt dizzy. On one knee I pretended to tie my boot lace while I watched out of the corner of one eye.
Except for the face, he was the same color as the rest, same height and build, same mud-slicked hair. He looked intimidating, and he appeared to know how intimidating he could be.
I tried to stand, tried to find my balance. He caught me as I toppled forward, locking his huge hands on my wrists, and soon we were both spinning though a vortex of he knows what I know and I know what he knows that I know and so on, with the world speeding up until we hit spin cycle high, and for the life of me all I could do was try to hang on, gripping to my idea of life like a hot potato holding to a pad of butter.
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