The dinner invitation had not come at a convenient time. In any event, I wasn’t dressed; I couldn’t remember when I’d last been dressed. Most of my clothing had been eaten by moths or rats years ago, and the stuff that remained—leather, mostly—was brittle and dry, like old toast.
Besides, my teeth had begun to fall out. I’d lost one the day before, and two more by the morning. I think I must have swallowed them.
But I couldn’t refuse the Carpenters. The fact of the matter was that Mr. Carpenter had been looking forward to the evening all week, at least according to Mrs. Carpenter, and they were old friends of mine—perhaps the oldest—and it had been too long (much too long, as Mrs. Carpenter so kindly put it) since I’d paid them a visit. So I dressed myself in my very best curtain—a soft, delicate thing, made of cotton—and set out as soon as I could.
The world outside was ugly and crowded. Seagulls waited on chimneys and terraces, eyeing the brown rats that swarmed underfoot. Lines of old men stood on street corners, begging. Some begged for food; some begged for money. Some begged for teeth. I walked with my jaw clenched and my lips sealed. When I arrived, Mrs. Carpenter had already set the dinner out on the table. I was late.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Time must have gotten away from me.”
Mrs. Carpenter’s expression was tired, but not unkind. Since our last visit, her hair had turned from black to gray. “It’s been getting away from all of us,” she said.
From the corner, I could see Mr. Carpenter watching me. His eyes were round and large, like a bird’s.
We started on dinner at once. Mr. and Mrs. Carpenter sat on one side of the table, while I sat on the other. This seemed proper. As I took my first bite, I found that the turkey was cold and hard, like ice.
“How long were you waiting?” I asked Mrs. Carpenter.
She waved a hand. “Don’t give it a second thought,” she said.
Both Carpenters, I noticed, had filled their plates, though neither had begun to eat. I lifted another forkful to my mouth, then paused. Mrs. Carpenter was smiling at me.
“How’s your cat?” she asked.
“Dead,” I said. “Dead for quite some time, actually.” I lowered my fork. “How’s your daughter?”
“Gone,” Mrs. Carpenter said.
There was a long silence.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.
Mrs. Carpenter’s smile had vanished.
I took another bite of turkey. One of my front teeth broke off and landed on the plate with an audible, tinkling sound.
Mr. Carpenter watched it fall with rapt attention.
“Again, I’m terribly sorry,” I said. “For being so late. I really do apologize.”
Mrs. Carpenter shook her head. Her eyes were far-off and misty, as if she were thinking of something else. I took the fallen tooth off my plate and slipped it into my pocket.
“You and Clara used to play together,” Mrs. Carpenter said. “Don’t you remember?”
“I remember,” I said.
“You would sit out on the floor,” she said, pointing. “Just right there. Playing cards. Doing magic tricks.”
I nodded, once. Already, I had begun to feel unbearably sad.
Another silence followed. Mr. Carpenter’s gaze was still fixed on my plate, but the whites of his eyes had begun to glisten, as if with tears. I was gripped by an urge to reach out to him, to place my hand on his and leave it there, just for a moment.
Instead, I took another bite of turkey. As I chewed, I felt a second tooth crack; both Carpenters were watching me, their faces tense and unhappy. Slowly, I lifted a hand to my mouth and spit the tooth into my napkin.
My walk home was littered with old furniture, stray animals, and small children. I was saddened to see so many things without homes. Once or twice, I thought I caught a glimpse of my old cat—my wonderful, black-and-white boy, who had spent so many evenings curled up on my chest. It’s too easy to see the dead in the living. The cats I did see would hiss and growl and sometimes bark, like hyenas.
A few blocks from home, I did, by chance, encounter the Carpenters’ young daughter, Clara. We were walking on the same side of the road, heading in opposite directions. Her hair, like her mother’s, had begun to gray, but I recognized her by the way that she moved: rhythmically, and with small, careful steps, like a dancer. When I stopped, she looked up, as if by instinct.
“Clara,” I said.
She ran to me and threw her arms around my waist. I placed a hand on her head. She was smaller than I had remembered.
“My teeth are falling out, Clara,” I said.
She stepped back. For one, breathless moment, I thought she might speak, and a faint memory (the sound of her voice, perhaps) seemed to hang in the silence between us.
Instead, she reached into the back of her mouth—wincing, very briefly, as if from pain—and produced a tiny, shimmering tooth, almost perfectly white. She placed the tooth in my trembling palm and closed my fingers around it, one by one.
Clara’s is the only tooth I have left. All my others have gone.
It’s a little thing—a milk tooth, most likely—and much too easy to swallow. For safekeeping, I have wedged it in between my first and second toe.
I can’t say when my next dinner will come. Outside, the seagulls feed on the rats. The old men have stopped begging.