Toothache by Kimmen Sjölander

A Jewish WWII veteran in Connecticut suffers from a toothache that prompts him to wonder how alienated he has become from the people closest to him; by Kimmen Sjölander. Nominated for the PEN/Robert J Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers.

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The pain wasn't that bad. He'd dealt with worse in his eighty years, and in tougher quarters than his apartment in Connecticut. He could handle a stupid toothache. But it bugged him. Was it really asking too much to get a tooth out? Goldstein was pushing antibiotics. "Toothaches can be dangerous, Mr. Rapaport," he'd said a week earlier, when Max went to see him. Toothaches, dangerous? Danger was being shot out of the sky and landing in a field to find a Hitler Youth pointing a rifle at your face. What did Goldstein know about danger? He'd probably never stepped foot outside Connecticut. What a putz!

Max heard his voice in the empty apartment and laughed. He liked living alone. He could smoke and drink from morning to night, watch TV at any hour, and nobody could tell him not to.

The prescription was still sitting on the kitchen table where he'd dropped it next to the mail and the bottle of vodka. Max poured the rest into a glass and added a couple of ice cubes. Normally he'd drink it neat, but the cold glass felt good against his face. He stood by the sink for a minute, holding the glass to his jaw, and then sat down at the table to go through the mail. Most of it was bills, threats to cut off this or that. It was all a bluff. They wouldn't dare turn off the power. He was a war hero, with a Purple Heart! The letter from the US Patent Office, on the other hand, he would deal with. He put it next to his typewriter. Then he went through the mail again. One goddamn birthday card, from the car insurance company, unsigned; the embossed silver calligraphy declared, Wishing you another great year! Nobody else seemed to have remembered. Not even Annie, his daughter.

Saul would have sent a birthday card. When it got near the end, Max had driven every day from Connecticut to Westchester to sit in the small wooden chair next to Saul's bed. Saul had slept through most of Max's visits, but sometimes his nurse got him to open his eyes. "Wake up, Mr. Flexer," she'd say, "your old friend is here to see you." The last time he saw Saul, they'd held hands, as if they were back in kindergarten. Yeah, Saul would have sent a birthday card. His sister would have, too. Both of them gone now.

He pinned the birthday card on his corkboard. What the hell, even though it was just from his insurance company, it was better than nothing.

The corkboard held pictures of his kids and grandkids that he'd downloaded from their websites. They were only black and white - he couldn't afford the color ink - but he could look at them whenever he wanted. He'd put up a picture of his ex-wife, too. One he'd taken and developed in the darkroom at their apartment in Queens. Back at the beginning. Jean had been so beautiful. Like Grace Kelly.

Saul had set them up, back in '54. They were twenty-nine then, he and Saul, and they'd already known each other a quarter century. Imagine that. Saul was the first person Max had wanted to talk to when his mother died, just weeks before his bar mitzvah; the only person he'd told when he totaled his dad's car. Saul was also the only person he'd tried to tell about what happened in the war. He didn't get far. A few minutes into it, he saw, without Saul saying a word, that some things were better left unsaid. He switched to a story about being assigned to latrine duty at the camp. It was always him and another Jewish POW, a kid from Virginia. They got special treatment. So there they were, side by side, shoveling out the shit. The Jews always get the best jobs, they told each other; we rule the world! And then they'd call each other the worst curse words they knew, and they knew plenty, in a half-dozen languages. Max had tried to forget most of what happened in the camp, but he loved the feeling of those words in his mouth, the Italian ones especially. He still liked to say them to himself when he made his coffee in the morning. Testa di cazzo was his favorite. It was a funny story, and Saul had laughed.

"But you're back now," Saul had said, when Max got to the end. "That's the important thing." It was the important thing. He had to remember that.

Saul had been married a few years already, and he and his wife set about matchmaking. After a dozen blind dates, Max was ready to give up, but Saul insisted he knew someone perfect.

"Jean's gorgeous and brainy," Saul said. "No, really. I'm not bullshitting you."

Max wasn't holding his breath. On his walk over to the restaurant, he was already planning how he'd get out of it. Saul had told him to wear a flower in his lapel. It was the signal, so she'd recognize him. Now, sitting at the bar, he took it out, looked at it for a second, and put it in his pocket.

He was halfway through his beer when she walked in. At least, he hoped it was her. She stood in the door, her blonde hair backlit by the sun. He fingered the carnation in his pocket and was about to pull it out, when a second woman, a brunette, joined her. That one was a non-starter. He took his hand out of his pocket. The two women were talking, probably here together. Damn. He was checking his watch when he became aware of someone standing next to him and a low voice saying, "Are you Max?" It was the blonde. He couldn't believe it. He stood up, held out his hand. Her hand in his was small, thrilling.

"How did you know it was me?" he asked, continuing to hold her hand, unwilling to let go, afraid she would fly away.

"Saul told me you'd be at the bar. He told me to look for a Jewish Cary Grant." She grinned. "I thought he was kidding."

She took off her coat, revealing a slender girlish frame in a sleeveless dress, and perched on the stool to his right. "Before we take a table, there's something I need to know."

"You want to know if you can have champagne?" Max said, smiling. "Definitely."

She laughed. "No. Well, maybe. But first I have to ask you something."

Max felt sick to his stomach. Saul had given him advice before the date: "Whatever you do, don't talk about the war." Fine, he thought, bracing himself. "Shoot."

"Who did you vote for in the last election?"


"Stevenson or Eisenhower?"

"I didn't."

Jean tilted her head, clearly puzzled, studying him. "You're saying you didn't vote?"

Max shrugged. "Does it matter? Lots of people don't vote."

"So, you're Jewish. And, according to Saul, some kind of genius. But you don't vote."

"I get it. You're one of those political types. So who did you vote for?"

"Adlai, of course."

Max raised his eyebrow. "I hadn't taken you for a liberal."

She looked amused. "What had you taken me for?"

"I don't know. Saul said you were from a small town upstate, a conservative background."

"Why do you think I left?" She eyed him skeptically. "You really didn't vote? You're not just trying to hide that you voted for Eisenhower?"

"Nah," Max said. "All politicians are just out for themselves."

She shook her head. "Not all." She turned away from him, suddenly very interested in the bottles stacked on the shelves opposite.

Max wasn't sure how to proceed. As far as he was concerned, all politicians were self-serving slime-bags, just in it for the money and power. But Jean obviously cared. And even with her being in some kind of mood, about politics of all things, she was looking better by the second. He liked her profile, how quick she was, her intensity. He wondered what she'd be like in bed, all of that self-possession gone, craving him, begging for more.

"I'll tell you what," he said, touching her arm to get her attention. "I'll promise to vote in the next election, provided you stay for dinner." He saw her soften, and continued. "But since I'm not yet up to speed on politics, perhaps we can switch to talking about the Picasso collection at the Museum of Modern Art? Or don't you like Picasso?"

There was a silence while she studied her nails. "I saw the collection," she said, finally. "But, to tell you the truth, I don't really get Picasso. You do, I suppose."

Max smiled. "I'll make you a deal. I'll teach you about modern art, and you'll teach me about politics. Okay? Now let's get a table and order some food. I'm starving."

They moved to a table and talked for hours, about everything. Everything except what happened in Germany. But at the end of the meal, when they were finishing their coffee, Jean looked at him and said, "You were in the war, weren't you?" His face must have given him away, because she reached across the table and put her hand over his. "You poor man." He put his other hand over hers, and they sat there, looking at each other. He'd never been so close to anyone so beautiful, so desirable. He kissed her then - he could see it on her face, she wanted him to kiss her - and she kissed him back.

He hadn't imagined such a thing would be within his reach, and he went after her, hard. It didn't take long before they were spending their nights together. He didn't understand it, but he wasn't complaining. They married, although not underneath a chuppah, because Jean refused to convert, but he didn't care. His parents were dead by then, and his Orthodox grandparents, after Jean's refusal, declared him dead, but Ruth, his sister, came, and Saul was his best man. Max was incredulous with happiness, especially after the children were born; what a miracle that was! First Annie, and then twin boys. All the pain and terror of the war were in the past. He was safe. Jean loved him. He adored her and the children. And he'd sold his novel about his experiences in the war for what had seemed a fortune, and it was translated into five or six languages. Those were the good days. Golden days.

Where did that book come from? The words had poured out of him with almost no revisions, two hundred pages of manuscript. He didn't tell anyone about the hell inside him that propelled itself outwards through his fingers and onto the page. It was his way of getting back at them, those sadistic sons of bitches.

To that day, he could not forget the Nazi who had interrogated him, the sneer on the man's face when he saw Max's Jewish dog tags, and when Max refused to give up anything more than his name, rank and serial number, the man's cool amusement as he stood up from the table and came over to where Max was standing, took his chin in his hand, and kneed Max sharply in the balls. And while Max was doubled over on the ground, gargling in pain, his hand cupped between his legs, the bastard kicked him in the kidneys. And then the two other guards hauled him up, one on each side, so that the bastard could hit him with the butt of his rifle in the stomach and punch him in the face, again and again. He'd refused to give them a thing, but he'd paid for it.

There were four more interrogations before the Germans officially declared them prisoners of war. "We just have to hold on," Morgenstern had said. "Once our POW status is official, we'll be protected by the Geneva Convention." Morgenstern was a good guy, but man was he naïve. The Nazis sent them to a relocation center in Frankfurt, where they were given Red Cross parcels and a postcard to send home, and then from there, via boxcar, to a permanent prisoner-of-war camp in East Prussia. They arrived in the middle of the night and then sat there waiting.

The next morning, the doors to the boxcar opened, and guards were standing outside holding rifles shouting "Raus! Raus!" The men were joking as they jumped out, but as they got to the ground and looked around silence fell on the group.

"What the fuck?" Max said, under his breath.

Morgenstern, standing just to his right, jabbed him quickly with his elbow. "Shh."

Ahead of them, as far as they could see, a narrow dirt road stretched into the forest. German soldiers were lined up on each side, some carrying submachine guns, others carrying rifles with fixed bayonets. A few were holding dogs on short leads, German Shepherds that were now looking at them and barking with excitement. Max's gut cramped. He hadn't been afraid to jump out of the plane, or even when he was taken into the interrogation cell, but this was different.

Morgenstern was elbowing him again. "What?" Max whispered.

"There, the man on the horse."

A red-haired man with thick glasses on a large white stallion had begun to shout at them in German. Max understood enough German to follow most of what the man said. He was the camp commandant, and he demanded absolute silence. He waited until the men stopped talking and then he continued.

"You American swine had it easy," he said. "You call yourselves flyers. You think you are the cream of men. Well, at this camp you are the scum of men. Any man who falls on the way to the camp will be bayoneted. Any man who delays will be prodded on by dogs and bayonets. Any man who refuses to obey a German guard's order will be shot. Is that clear?"

All the men remained silent.

"All right," the commandant yelled, "Begin! Begin! Begin!"

It was chaos. The Germans were shouting and jabbing the men with their bayonets. The men began running with their Red Cross parcels in their hands. It was a three-mile run and they'd had little to drink or eat in days. Within minutes most of them dropped their Red Cross parcels. Max watched a man fall and get bayonetted in the stomach. He turned his head, sickened, but Morgenstern stopped to try to help and a guard bashed his head in with a rifle butt. Max kept running, ashamed of himself, and soon he, too, was being bayonetted and dogs were tearing at his legs; but out of nowhere a guard appeared by his side, an old man who said, "Stay next to me." He'd been a POW in the Great War, he whispered, and he didn't agree with what they were doing. By the time Max got to the camp gates, he was bleeding profusely and his trousers and shirt were shredded, but he was alive. He turned to thank the old man, but he'd disappeared.

In their hut that first night, Max told the men about the German guard who had saved him. The man was an angel, Max said, a fucking German angel. But they all suspected angels were in short supply in the camp, and they understood the lesson that the run up the road had been intended to teach them: at Luft IV, the Geneva Convention would not apply.

Winter arrived early that far north, and it was freezing in their unheated hut with the snow blowing in through the cracks. They had no bunks in Max's hut; men slept on the floor and on the tables. There were no bathing facilities and the latrines were open-air. The guards stole most of whatever the Red Cross sent - clothing, food, medical supplies. Guards with machine guns shot over the men's heads when they were in the yard. Notices were posted everywhere: anyone who tried to escape would be shot. Some men couldn't help themselves. Max watched them die.

One morning, almost a year into Max's captivity, the Germans pushed them out onto the road. Up and down the ranks the message flew: the Allies were coming! The Germans could have left the men behind, but they were more useful as pawns, even if it killed half of them. In the middle of the coldest winter on record, the Germans drove the men hundreds of miles deeper into Germany, away from the approaching Russian troops. They slept out in the open, unless they were lucky and slept in a barn with animals. They scrounged to live: grass, feed meant for livestock, even rats that they caught and ate raw. Everyone got dysentery. They'd lost weight in the camp, but they turned into walking skeletons on the Death March. Max almost died before Liberation. Thousands did.

Back in New York, Max enrolled in college, but barely squeaked by. School had been easy before the war; now he had trouble concentrating. He went to France after graduating, and there, in a small town in the countryside, had a psychotic break. He became convinced the Nazis were watching him in the cafes and bars, following him on the streets. Someone in the town where he was staying brought him to an institution for the insane. He tried telling the doctors about the Nazis he'd seen. He'd heard them talking, they were coming for him. The doctors told him he was safe there; the Germans couldn't get past the gate. He saw the looks on their faces, heard the nurses say "Le pauvre; qu'est-ce qu'il imagine?" He'd known enough French to understand then that he wasn't right in the head. He worried about that still, sometimes, after he got back.

He couldn't believe his daughter had forgotten his birthday. The last time he and Annie had spoken, he'd been so angry afterwards that he'd marked the date on his calendar. It was ironic, because he'd called her to offer to fly out to San Francisco and visit them.

"I haven't met your new kid," he said. "How old is he now?"

"She is five. Her name is Sarah."

He'd forgotten how prickly Annie could be. But he could see her point. He was bad with names.

"I'd like to see the kids," he said. "And you."

There was a silence. He waited. And then it came: the same excuse. She was too busy during the semester, and then afterwards she had a grant proposal due and papers to get out.

"I see," he said, although he was thinking, That's a load of crap. "You can't be that busy," he said. "You got tenure. I saw it on your website."

"That doesn't mean the workload gets any lighter, Dad."

"Don't give me that bullshit, Annie."


"If you're suddenly too important to spend time with your father, then admit it. Don't hide behind your work. It's beneath you."

There was a pause, and he heard in the intake of her breath that she was going to say she was sorry for having pushed him away for so many years. He had so many plans for what they would do. On the weekend, when she didn't have to teach, they could go to Golden Gate Park. There was a model boat pond there, like the one in Central Park. She'd loved sailing model boats when she was little. But Annie had begun speaking.

"I forgot," she said. "You don't have much experience with jobs. You wouldn't know what it's like to have responsibilities. You want to know why I keep saying no? You really want to know? I'll tell you why. Because you beat us when we were kids. I'm fifty years old, and I'm still afraid to have you in my home because I imagine you coming into my room in the middle of the night and hitting me, or hitting the kids. That's why."

Max couldn't believe what he was hearing. "You're imagining things. I never hit you or any of my children! How can you say something like this? Who has been telling you lies about me?"

"I'm not the only one who remembers you beating us, Dad. All of us remember it. You want to lie to yourself, go ahead. But I'm tired of it."

And then the line went dead.

He was fuming when he got off the phone. In the laundry room in the basement of the building he ran into his neighbor, Elise, a widow in her sixties who had a refrigerator covered with pictures of her grandchildren. He hadn't seen her in months. Back when he first moved in, she'd had him over for dinner a few times. He'd fancied her a bit back then.

"What kind of daughter," he said to her as she folded her laundry and stacked it in her basket, "is too busy to see her father year after year? What kind of daughter keeps a man from his own grandchildren?"

"I don't know what to say, Max," she replied, looking briefly at him with those impenetrable blue eyes. "All my kids live nearby. I haven't had to deal with that."

But he could see what she was thinking in the set of her jaw, the way she continued to fold and stack, looking anywhere but at him, as if nothing in the world were more important than sheets and towels and clothes to be folded and smoothed: she was getting back at him for rejecting her. He went back to his apartment and put a mark on his calendar: Annie said no to visit. And he stopped talking to Elise.

That was six months ago, and he hadn't heard a word from Annie since. Or from Elise. He held the glass against his jaw, waiting for the throbbing to subside, trying to remember the last time he'd received a birthday card from any of the kids. He added a resolution to the list: If they were going to be like that, fine; it would save on postage when their birthdays came around.

The letter from the Patent Office was as he'd expected: their "expert" had decreed that his invention was a trivial extension of someone else's patent. Ha! They didn't know who they were up against. Max Mordechai Rapaport was not one to allow some schmo in a suit to walk all over him! He went over to his desk and inserted a fresh piece of paper in his typewriter. How should he begin? He rubbed his hands together, stubbed out his cigarette and lit a new one. The radio station was playing Satie, one of the Gnossiennes. It didn't get much better than that.

He placed his fingers on the keys and waited. It was always about capturing the voice. It would come. The magnolia tree just outside his window had been stripped bare for months, but small buds were beginning to unfurl. He smiled, and began, and then he was on a roll, laughing, imagining their faces, those pompous bozos, the words flowing from his fingertips like a symphony. At the end, he pulled out the page, leaned back in his chair, and read through his response to the Patent Office. It was good. Damn good. Let them try to wriggle out of it!

There was a knock on the door. He got up and looked through the peephole. It was Dominic, the building manager. He opened the door.

Dominic began by saying he was sorry for being late. He added something about a tenant with a plumbing problem. "Trust me," he said, "you don't wanna know. Anyway, that's why I'm late."

"Late?" Max said. "What are you talking about?"

"You didn't get my message?"

"What message?"

"I left a message on your phone saying I'd come by around three. You didn't get it?"

Max was confused. But then he remembered: he'd heard the phone ring. He didn't like answering the phone; too many collection agencies. He must have forgotten to check the machine. "Sorry. I must have been sleeping."

Dominic was looking at him, curiously, with concern. "You don't look too good. You okay?"

Max shrugged. "Damn toothache is all."

Dominic laughed sympathetically. "Ain't that the worst?" But then his expression became serious. "You know we gotta do something, right?"

"C'mon, Dominic. Have I ever not paid up?"

"Hey man, it's been two months. You know the owners. They're tired of waiting."

In the end, Max convinced Dominic to talk to the owners and get him another month. He'd always come up with the rent before, eventually. His Social Security payments were usually enough for the basic expenses, and if he needed more, which he sometimes did, his sister had money. Or rather her husband Irving did, which was close enough. Ruth would write him a check, and the drama would be over. Dominic knew that.

He didn't tell Dominic that Ruth had died. That was none of his business.

Everything had gone to hell after Ruth died. Everyone had turned against him. When the lawyer called to tell him about the will, Max hadn't even known she was dead.

Why had nobody called him to let him know? It had to be his brother-in-law's doing. Irving had turned the family against him. It began when Ruth's cancer returned. Irving had tried to keep Max from finding out. Max had called to arrange to see Ruth, and Irving had said she wasn't feeling well, but it was nothing, just a stomach flu.

Of course, Max had found out. What was Irving thinking? That he could hide it forever? His cousin Carrie had called, told him Ruth was going through chemo again. "It's not the right thing to do," she said, "not at this point. Trust me. I went through this with Murray. What she needs right now is palliative care. You know what I mean. Drugs. Morphine."

It took a few seconds for Max to respond. "I didn't know."

"You didn't know?" she said. "That's crazy. Where've you been, the South Pole? Everyone knows. Talk to him, Max. Make Irving listen to you. Don't make her suffer any more than she has. It's not right."

As soon as they got off the phone, Max called Irving, yelled at him for lying. Irving insisted he'd done nothing wrong. They shouted at each other for a while, and then Irving said, "Did you ever stop to think, Max, that maybe Ruth didn't want you to know?"

Max slammed the phone down in the cradle. Ruth would never keep something so important from him! Max had only suspected it before, but now he saw: Irving was a petty and malicious man, and he was jealous of the bond Max and Ruth shared. Irving was rich, but apart from that he was nothing. Irving had to suspect that Ruth didn't love him, that she had stayed with him just for his money, for the fancy penthouse apartment, the Caribbean cruises, the clothes and the jewelry. Ruth didn't have to say anything to Max about this; he knew her better than she knew herself. She was weak, but Max had forgiven her. Irving, however, had it coming.

Max spent that night and most of the next day at his typewriter, detailing everything Irving had done over the years, his cruelty and lies. Max was declaring him persona non grata. If any of them wanted to see Max again, they'd have to side with him against Irving. By the time he was finished, the letter was five pages long. He made photocopies at the library and sent them to everyone: his kids, cousins, nephews, nieces.

And then... silence. Only Carrie called. Max stood in the kitchen, listening to her voice come from the answering machine. "I just got your letter. What the hell are you thinking, Max? Are you crazy?" There was a pause, a voice in the background, her daughter, maybe. Then Carrie's voice again. "I can't deal with this. Max, are you there? Max?" And then she hung up. He looked at the phone for another minute and then deleted the message.

A few weeks later, he got a letter from the lawyer for Ruth's estate saying she was gone. He'd sat at his table, holding the letter in his hands. They'd all known she was dying, and nobody bothered to tell him to come and see her before it was too late. Even after she was dead, they didn't call or write to let him know about the memorial service, so that he could go pay his respects. None of them. Not even Annie.

The pain speared his jaw. He couldn't believe a toothache could be this bad. He had a fever, too. He went into the bathroom and took out the bottle of aspirin. In the mirror, the bulge in his jaw was almost obscene. Just like the kids' first cat. It, too, had developed a lump.

The lump had appeared out of nowhere while Jean and the kids were visiting her family, in that small town just outside Buffalo that Jean claimed to hate. The cat had seemed okay when they all piled into the car for the long drive up to Buffalo, but when Max got back the next day, having left Jean and the kids with her sister, the growth was there, on the back of the cat's neck. Max tried to ignore it, but the lump was still there the next day, a little bigger, and the day after that, bigger still.

He had nightmares in which the cat crawled onto him while he slept and was kneading his chest with its claws and rubbing its neck against his face, and the growth burst and pus was pouring over him and into his ears, like poison. And then somehow he was back in Germany, on that Death March, lying outside with the rain pouring into his ears, but when he tried to wipe the water from his ears he saw it wasn't rain at all, but liquid feces dripping from the pants leg of the man above him on the slope. And when he got up and pushed at the man, saying, "Wake up you shmuck, you're lying in your own shit," the man was dead, staring up at the sky.

He awoke from those dreams dripping in sweat. He looked at the cat and thought: cancer. Taking it to an animal hospital was impossible; the money from the book had dried up by then. But to watch it get sick and die?

One morning, it was just him and the cat, and the lump was leering at him. He put on the rubber gloves Jean kept under the sink, picked up the cat and placed it in a box, and carried the box to the car, as far away from his body as he could manage. A mile or two from their home, he pulled over at the side of the road. He took out the box and placed it, open, on the sidewalk. "Here you go, Tweety Bird," he said. Crazy name for a cat, but the kids had chosen it. A character from Looney Tunes. That Tweety Bird was a ditsy yellow thing that was perpetually pursued by a black-and-white tom to a soundtrack of one of the jazz tunes composed by Max's uncle. He wondered now if the kids knew of the family connection. Jean did, not that it made much difference, when all was said and done.

The cat didn't want to get out of the box, and Max didn't want to touch the cat. Finally, he pulled the box out and away from the cat. It crouched on the pavement and looked around, confused. Max got in the car as fast as he could, afraid that the cat might try to follow. As he drove away, he looked in his rearview mirror. The cat was still crouching there, watching him. He knew it was crazy, but he swore the cat was already plotting something.

Jean had three sisters up in Buffalo. She always wanted to stay up there for at least two weeks. It gave him time to think about what to tell her and the kids. In the end, he decided to tell them the truth. Or something like it. How bad could it be? By the time he got in the car and began the drive back to Buffalo, he'd almost forgotten the cat.

Max hadn't anticipated the barrage of questions the children launched at him like hand grenades before he'd even stepped out of the car - How was Tweety Bird? Did Tweety Bird miss them? - or the look on their faces after he told them, that they would stand there staring at him as if he were a monster, or that Jean would take him aside afterwards, when the kids went in to get their suitcases, and hiss: "How could you?"

How could he explain that to watch someone die was terrifying? He couldn't say that, so he didn't, but on the long drive back to Queens with Jean and the kids the cat was there in the car, crouching in the silence that hung over them. When they got back to the apartment, the kids disappeared into their rooms and didn't come down until dinner. They ate a few bites, and then sat, waiting to be excused. The silent treatment went on for a few more days, and then, as he expected, they got over it. They got another cat, and life went on, more or less. And then less, and less.

Did cats have ghosts? Did they return to haunt the living who had betrayed them? Did they plot their retribution from some dark cat underworld? Years later, when Max tried to figure out why things had turned out the way they did, he kept thinking about the cat, wondering if it had turned them all against him, because not long afterwards, everything began to go wrong, for reasons he couldn't understand. He called it Tweety Bird's Revenge.

He didn't know where the bad luck came from, or why he should be singled out for so much hostility, but they seemed to take over, twin demons feeding on his flesh, passing pieces to each other. He left one job because his boss was corrupt, and got another, but the employees at the new job conspired against him, so he quit. His manager at the next place took him aside one day and said, "Max, you're a smart guy, but you're rubbing people the wrong way. People above me. You know what I mean? I'm sorry."

Max went through the want ads for a while, but nothing was right. Jean kept begging him to get a job, any job, but there was no way in hell he was going to take a job bagging groceries or delivering milk. When the nagging went on too long, he snapped. Why couldn't she understand that a man can only take so much? Then he pretty much gave up on finding work.

Max started drinking pretty heavily then; mostly at night, at first, and then steadily, beginning soon after breakfast. He'd wake up the next day not remembering the night before. He had vague memories of Jean cowering in the corner, her hair a matted mess, mascara smeared, crying. She was grotesque, repulsive; he hated her for letting herself go.

What bugged him the most was how the people he'd thought of as friends began staying away. They stopped inviting him and Jean over for dinner, and if he ran into them on the street they'd pretend to not see him. Why should his business problems affect them? Saul was the only one who didn't pull that crap, but he was living in Chicago back then.

Some years after Tweety Bird - three? five? It all blurred together, like Vaseline on a camera lens - Jean kicked him out. She came back from taking the children to school one morning and announced she'd gotten a job and wanted a divorce. He hadn't seen it coming.

"You really think you're going to walk out of here and find someone else?" he said. "You're thirty-two and you have three children. Who's going to want you?"

She just looked at him then, like she was waking up, but that wasn't it; it was as if he'd failed some test that he hadn't realized he was taking. She looked at him with that face, sad and tired and ready to move on, and said, "I suppose you actually believe that." And then she got up and went into the kitchen and started making dinner. After that, she stopped listening, and she stopped talking.

That night, when they told the kids, the boys ran to their mother, but Annie hesitated, looked at him sitting there alone, and then at her mother, and back, and finally came to stand by his side.

He moved into the city, to the first of a succession of apartments, kept afloat by disability payments, periodic loans from his sister and brother-in-law, and wealthy women. The children came on weekends for a while, but that soon stopped. He remarried, a Finnish woman. After she went back to Helsinki, he gave up on the idea of marriage. He got used to being alone.

He shoved some gauze around his tooth, and looked at himself in the mirror. It was grotesque, this face that looked back at him. His eyes were black stones set in brown muck; the right side of his jaw and the glands on his neck were swollen and tender. Dominic was right; he looked like crap. He should probably lay off the booze. But not tonight. He poured himself another glass of vodka and downed it - the gauze got wet, but he didn't care - and crawled into bed.

He was in the kitchen with his grandmother, at their house in Brooklyn, helping her make gefilte fish. He was chopping the onions and telling her a story, and she was laughing. And then she was telling him a story about when she was a girl, back in Russia. Something seemed odd, and then he realized it was because she was speaking English. Max was confused, because he knew his grandmother didn't understand more than two or three words, but it was convenient, because he'd forgotten how to speak Yiddish. He'd forgotten, too, what it was like to feel loved. He started crying. His grandmother put down the spoon - she'd been stirring the fish balls cooking on the stove - and came over to him. She pulled him to her. She was fat, and soft, and smelled of baby powder; the buttons on her dress pressed into his face. "Max, bubbeleh, what's the matter? Don't cry, boychik. It's okay. Don't cry."

But he couldn't say what was the matter, because he didn't know, and he couldn't stop crying. He'd lost something, somewhere, somehow, and he didn't know how to get it back.

He woke up disoriented. The streetlights glowed through the thin curtains. Max turned to look at the alarm clock by his bed: it was just after 2am. He felt like shit. Halfway to the bathroom, he almost fainted; or perhaps he did, because one second he was walking, and the next he was on the floor, not knowing how he got there. As his vision slowly cleared, he remembered something Dr. Goldstein had said.

They'd been arguing. Max had become impatient with the lecture Goldstein appeared intent on giving, that abscesses were dangerous and Max had to promise to take a full course of antibiotics and blah blah blah. Max wasn't listening. All he wanted was to get the damn tooth out. He shouted something about Goldstein being in bed with the pharmaceutical companies, that all of them were on the make. Then Goldstein said, with that flat, patient, authoritarian tone that Max hated, "Fill the prescription, Mr. Rapaport."

"Why should I?" Max asked. "Because otherwise you don't get your cut?"

"Mr. Rapaport, for the love of God, just fill the prescription."

"What is it they give you, Doctor? Ten percent? Or is it a flat rate, ten bucks a pop?"

That did it. Max watched with glee as Goldstein turned red, the veins on his neck standing out like ropes. He looked for all the world like a balloon that was about to pop. And then Goldstein shouted, "You're a damn fool, Mr. Rapaport, a stupid damn fool! Don't you understand anything about sepsis?"

Max's first response was surprise. He'd never heard Goldstein raise his voice or say a single curse word. The man was a real milquetoast, with his small, careful, manicured hands. But then Max's anger at being called a fool took over. He stormed out, livid, determined to never return, and there was no way in hell he was going to fill that prescription.

Now, sitting on the floor, with pain shooting through his jaw, he began to wonder. A few minutes later, back in bed, he told himself that tomorrow, first thing, he would go to the drugstore on the corner. And then weariness overtook him, and he slept.

He was with the children in Central Park, and the children were running after the pigeons who flew up all around, an amazement of wings. And then they were at the duck pond, and the children were feeding the ducks from the bag of Wonder Bread he'd bought. He wanted to plead with them to remember those times. Why wouldn't they come see him? Why wouldn't they let him visit?

And then Central Park was gone and he was in his bed. It was morning, and Elise was standing next to him. He hadn't seen her since the time in the laundry room when she'd been so rude. She had a different look on her face now. Maybe she'd come to apologize.

"You look like shit, Maxwell," she said. "You need a doctor."

He wanted to ask her how she got in, but she was gone. He was too tired to think. He heard her in the kitchen, talking to someone. His eyes hurt and he shut them. And then Saul was there, sitting next to him on a chair. Max could see him through his eyelids, that same old ratty sweater with the holes in the sleeves, the same warm goofy smile. Saul was saying, Hang in there, buddy.

Then Elise was back, saying she'd figured out that Max must have been eighteen when he was captured. It was no wonder he was so messed up. Did his children understand what he'd gone through? Maybe if he told them, things would be different.

What good would that do? Max said to Saul. Why should they know about that hell?

Saul twirled his finger around his ear, the way they used to do when they were kids, saying Elise was cuckoo. Max laughed. Elise didn't notice Saul, but maybe she couldn't see ghosts. It took a special gift. Saul had come back to be with him. What a pal!

And then Elise went back to the kitchen and he heard someone say Annie was on her way. Her plane would arrive in a few hours.

He was afraid, suddenly. Annie had said terrible things the last time they spoke.

He remembered now, hitting her; she was bent over his knees, her pants down, screaming, and he kept hitting her, hard, pinning her to his knees as she struggled to get away. He was punishing her for something. Shame washed over him; and then, in its wake, a rush of pity. She was so small, maybe two years old. He remembered other times, too. What had he done? He would write her a letter as soon as he felt better, and ask her to forgive him. I remember now, he would say. I don't understand how it is that I hurt you, you of all people. I'm sorry.

He hoped Elise was right. He could talk to Annie. He could tell her he was sorry. His daughter would understand. But to talk about the war? No. He was too tired to talk about those things. It was so long ago, and so hard, and he didn't want to go there.

But then he was there, again. It was his twentieth birthday, they were on the Death March, and he was lying on his back in the snow looking up at the stars. The sky was clear; it was freezing, and the wind had died down. He was huddling under a blanket, and he was afraid of falling asleep because he might not wake up. He was crying. He didn't want to die so far away from home.

Max wanted to reach out and wrap his arms around him, this boy that was him, to tell him it would be okay, that he would not die, that there was so much to live for, so much that was beautiful in the world: Satie, his friendship with Saul, the love he would share with Jean, the children he would have, and their children, sailing...

And then a woman came into the room, and Saul got up from the chair so that she could sit down. Saul was always such a gentleman. How he loved that man!

"Mr. Rapaport," she said, putting her hand on his wrist. "How are you feeling?"

I'm okay, he wanted to say, but just then he didn't have the energy to talk. But she understood. He saw it on her face, this woman with kind eyes and stars in her hair.

She reached out and touched his face. Her hand was cool, like his mother's; he was burning up. Everything seemed to be falling from him, all the things he'd thought were so important. Why had he fought so much? Why had he been so angry, and for what? He wanted to say he loved her, that he loved them all, and he was so sorry for everything, because he understood now what he'd done, how much he'd hurt them, especially the children. But he was suddenly so very tired. He felt it waiting for him, like the cool waters of the Long Island Sound after a long day out, the anchor down, the sun painting the burnished pewter surface of the bay with flecks of red and gold. It would be so easy to let go, to fall into those dark depths. Something in him understood, and recoiled. No! No, it can't be! But still it was there, tugging at him: all of his dreams, the fury, the grief, the longing, the memories, all of it falling away. And her hand was on his forehead, a cool blessing, saying he was loved, yes, loved! And it was enough, it was enough.


  1. I'm thrilled to see my story -- the semi-fictionalized account of my father's life -- appear in Fiction on the Web! And kudos to whoever did the art! It's fabulous. Thanks!

    1. The art was generated by OpenAI using DALL-E 2. A machine, in other words!

  2. There’s a special fluidity and authenticity to the writings of Sjolander. It’s impossible not to be carried along by the emotion and humanity, and impossible not to fall in love with Max.

  3. The title of Kimmen’s “Toothache” doesn’t do justice to the deep, multi-layered life and personality of Max, the story’s MC. Basically it is a life as viewed through the tortured lens of an old man who has apparently suffered PTSD from his experiences as a Jew in a Nazi detention camp during WWII. This experience colors everything that comes after: disaffection with family, the world of employment and society in general. I gritted my teeth when Kimmen began discussing the disposition of the family cat, as at other times during the narrative. This is a very serious and very affecting piece of genuine literature. Another one-word Holocaust story, equally effective, was Art Spiegelman’s “Maus.” Coincidence? Maybe not. Vielen Dank, Kimmen!

  4. Breathtaking! Behind the raving lunatic, Max has such humanity and is easy to relate to! It's unsettling to venture intoax's soul, but Sjolander makes this journey beautiful!

  5. So raw. I remember your mother so well. Your father less so. So many parkway families had truly horrifying stories we will never know.

  6. A powerful and gripping impression of the devastating chain of causes that is war.
    Beautiful in its ruthless unsentimentality, the story is told in crisp, unadorned prose to portray the inner musings of a cantankarous old man. The reader is immediately drawn in by the seemingly innocuous first scene, which already tells us so much about the protagonist. It is followed by a slow but sure buildup of backstory in glimpses of memory, some tender, some harrowing. I'm impressed at how the author can thus evoke understanding and even compassion for a character so seemingly unpleasant, without ever justifying his actions.
    There's a terrible inevitability laid bare here, and I'm not ashamed to admit I didn't keep it dry by the end. To me 'Toothache' is wonderful illustration of the importance not just of telling each other stories, but of telling ourselves each other's stories.

  7. Beautifully written. This bittersweet story takes the reader right into the reality and fantasy of Max's mind.

  8. A complex character suffering from a kind of amnesia throughout his life... he is perplexed and in a kind of denial, suffering the effects of PTSD. These effects impact Max and his family and friends, through the generations. Heavy duty story, convincingly told.

  9. Thank you. Many, all too many, suffer the lifelong effects of PTSD. Traumatic experiences hidden within the deepest part of your soul that will come crashing through your entire being. It takes a long time to learn to maintain some level of control, to keep the secret hidden.

  10. Thank you, Kimmen, for this beautiful, exquisitely crafted story.

  11. I love stories about mental health awareness. Thank you for sharing this fiction on the web.

  12. Im blown away! We see so many sides to Max's complex life, and in such depth. A very affecting story with an excellent ending- sad,

  13. Moving story, but painful to read. Sjolander is able to give insight into a tortured and lonely man, with great compassion. The daughter (Sjolander?) is wonderfully strong, given how difficult the father was. I wonder how much of this is fiction and how much fact. In any event, this is a wonderful story, and I applaud the author for the skill in creating this character.