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Root and Bone

During my time working in the bookshop, I found myself sitting behind the counter on long, rainy afternoons, with nothing better to do than read and idly run my tongue along the protruding bur of one shattered tooth.  A boiled sweet had pulled a filling from it around my birthday and it bristled at the left side of my tongue, reddening it as I slept. I would run my tongue along it in the mornings, assessing the damage, but this was a transitory business. By afternoon I’d have forgotten it, until some stray motion would better my tongue’s acquaintance with the edge, setting it to bleeding.


On days of heavy rain, the odds of encountering customers were slim. In better humour one day in spring, we had carefully positioned the squat, red bucket beneath the leaking vent by the door, “for maximum atmospheric dripping.” The sound of that steady drip would fill the shop. By night, the shelves were shuttered and the Loft became a “space” that served as a small venue for up-and-coming musicians and poets; the acoustics were ideal for an intermittent drop. It reverberated.


We would sit in the cold of the draft blowing through a hole in the wall, a cavity the size of a man’s head, test-drilled as winter came to a close. The owners, eager to turn the place into a smoking area for the bar downstairs as soon as we shut up shop, hadn’t considered the length of time we might remain. The skylight had been sealed off the summer before, citing noise complaints from nighttime DJ sets, so the hole was as close as we had to a window.


As we passed days of heavy, April rain, the ceiling sprang new leaks, and there were no longer enough buckets to catch all of the water. The leaks were all along the line of one air duct that ran from one side of the shop to the other. The heaviest of the leaks was caught by a janitor’s mop bucket, whose one missing wheel would mean the occasional topple, sending dust-grey duct-water running along the floor to lap against the shelves.


When the hole in the wall had first been made, way back in February, the sun had shone through it, casting a glimmer the size of an old pound coin onto the floor in the middle of the shop. That sheen would track across the shop on bright days, reminding us that the sun was outside and all was right with the world. We’d look to the floor, from time to time, and tell one another, “Oh, the sun’s out again.”


As the weeks wore on and summer approached, the sun rose too high to ever shine through the hole in our wall, and the shop began to feel more and more removed from the outside world. That wouldn’t have been so bad alone, but the slow decline of customer numbers increased the sense of isolation. The tooth that had lost a filling had cracked wide open, a missed dental appointment having left me feeling uncomfortable calling to organise a new one.


The gradual collapse around us was mirrored in my mouth; tiny things were going wrong, nothing tragic in the grand scheme of things, but the barest indications of something far larger. The worst of it was that the sense of decline, of a slow rot, was at least a sense of progress, of time moving forward; it lent us some sense of narrative. Even going to hell in a hurry means you’re going somewhere.


So now I’m faced with the cold, hard truth. The shop is gone and the time has come to see a dentist, to have all of this wreckage patched up. We’ve joked about it for so long it’s become punctuation. I would call across the shop, “Flash? Do we have any Hemingway left?”


He’d throw me an exaggerated sigh before putting down his book and checking the stacks on the table in front of him. As he searched, he’d call back, “For God’s sake, I’m trying to decay over here.” No Hemingway left, but it was okay; they always ask for Hemingway, and leave with something else.


The strange thing is that I can’t escape the feeling that I’ll miss it more than I hated it; when all you have is that sense of deterioration, it surprises you just how hard you’ll fight to hold onto it. In the same way as the gap left behind is worse than the broken tooth whose place it takes. Still, the shop is shut now, and the appointment has already been made. In both cases, I realise that you can know something is both good and necessary without liking it at all, like that moment in the chair when you hear the soft tinkling as your dentist selects the apparatus, the right piece of mouthcutlery.


Sometimes the gentle reminder that you’re rotting away in tiny increments can be just what you need to remind you, every so often, that you’re very much alive. A slow decay seems like a terrible thing, but it’s easy to convince yourself it’s better than stasis. There’s a certain sense of the bittersweet to it; it’s a different bittersweet to the taste of rot in my mouth in the mornings, but not, if I’m honest, all that different.

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