Your Tooth has Died…

-…but otherwise you’ve a clean bill of health, said the Dentist. No cavities.

Having frolicked three years free of visits to any dentist’s office, I was happy to be reaffirmed in my methods of oral hygiene. This news, though, of the tooth-gone-someday-black (my left-front tooth), set a strange tone for the Chicago trip I took this past weekend.

-See there, said the dentist, pointing out a dark vein struck down the center of my tooth on a small x-ray plate, I’m surprised there’s anything there. Usually when a tooth dies like yours has, the nerve retracts and that canal is filled in with tooth.

-Looks pretty good though, I said, even fatter than the healthy tooth’s nerve.

-Oh no, there’s nothing in there. What’s in there now, if we went in and did a root canal and sucked out the contents of the nerve cavity, would look like sticky, stinky, black cottage cheese.

-Gah! Disgusting, man. That’s in there, now?

-Yep. What actually happened to that tooth?

-Well, I was a kid, like, eleven years old or something, maybe ten, when I had oral surgery to remove a baby tooth. The adult had grown in at a forty-five degree angle over the young one and so there I was with three front teeth and the one, this one, a snaggler. They cut it out and glued a brace bracket to the adult to bring it down properly, but something must have gone wrong-

-they brought it down too fast-

-with it…yeah it must have been brought down too fast-

-and it came down so quickly the nerve separated from the tooth-

-god, I remember it really hurting-

-and at that moment, the tooth died. It probably wasn’t so yellow then as it is now, and it will, by the time you’re in your forties or fifties, turn totally black.

-Dammit!

The news that an operation which was supposed to beautify my appearance had become some kind of poor-health Trojan horse was tough to take! To my knowledge, this tooth represents the first of my body parts which has been diagnosed to need replacing (or resurfacing, apparently). Its lifespan is definite. It is slightly yellowed now; one day it will fade to black and be brittle enough to break on common foodstuffs, not unlike my mother’s front tooth which met its fated end in a potato in her late 30’s (my mother’s, not the potato’s). And it will be black. Maybe not meth-head black or lifetime-smoker black, but dark nonetheless and perhaps moreso for its contrast with the mouthful of healthy teeth I’m presently packing.

Worked a long day and finally Savi came by after and with our backpacks stashed in the back seat of her Jeep, we struck for Nashville. It was her trip, after all; our destination the following morning was the Spanish Consulate in Chicago. My parents fed us and following a go-nowhere debate on the social validity of Tea Party activists (of which my parents number two, sadly) it was road-time in my father’s maroon Chevy S10, replete with bumper stickers adhered to the cab’s back window: “Extremely Rightwing” on the left pane (ironically?) and an NRA emblem on the right. I foresaw there would be issues; just issues, nothing more, nothing good.

At the base of Sam’s Hill (atop which they live in a lovely round-log cabin) I checked the fuel gauge. Quarter-tank. I phone my dad in a “what-the-hell” tone and he says “what the hell” back and that was that. Again we didn’t see eye-to-eye. Is it not common to receive a borrowed vehicle in its cleanest and readiest state? Is that not the mode of all rental agencies and finally, just good manners? His line was that he expected it returned with a quarter-tank which just, for some reason owing to my freakish sense of order, struck dumbly against me. Why ought the front of the lessee’s mind be consumed with maintenance worries from the get-go?

Owing to stellar travel chops, I smiled contentedly as Savi laid her head on my lap for the better part of the four-hour drive. I knew where I was going until we crossed into Chicagoland (as I’d never been to Oak Park) and asked that she only navigate a little at that future time. When I woke her she was disoriented and groggy and utterly cute but also a tad unhappy with having to navigate in her state. Of course we relied on Google Maps and of course it wasn’t long before we whizzed past an informational sign which read “South Bend – 65 miles”.

-We’re going the wrong way, I said.

-Not according to…well, yep, the little blue dot’s moving away from Chicago, she replied.

-We’re going the wrong way, I repeated.

And in that way we came to the Indiana/Illinois border and retreated 30 miles and were forced then to double back along the way we came. We arrived in Oak Park sometime past one in the morning, lighter on fuel than would later prove healthy.

The Spanish Consulate was easy to find. From her grandparents’ place on Grove it’s a short hike to the L station and a long-ish ride on the Green Line to Randolph/Wabash. We caffeinated ourselves at a Starbuck’s and entered the lavish hotel within which the consulate occupies Suite 1500.

-Which floor is Suite 1500 on, Savi asked the concierge, who raised an eyebrow and half-smiled, saying flatly:

-Fifteen.

One poor girl was working the window up there on the fifteenth floor, entertaining a low, drop-ceiling lobby of Spanish visa aspirants. As we entered there was a skinny blonde mother emphasizing syllables into her cellphone, through the counter-window glass at this poor thing working solo. She was there, out of her depth on behalf of her kids, who apparently were going to Spain and HAD to get this taken care of that morning. Of course, the consulate only serves up hot visas from 9-12 daily and to even earn a look-see in that office you have to make an appointment. I’ll let you decide, dear reader, what you will about that office given that several “customers” announced not-so-subtly having been scheduled for a ten 0’clock appointment, as was Savannah. Nugget of the day: When any government office issues you an appointment time, get there early on the assumption they’re covering their ass at your expense.

Thirty minutes, though, and we were gone and up the street, looking for trouble in a warming Chicago. What a lovely city in the summer, Chicago. Just out of earshot of one group of amplified buskers are more amplified buskers and in the Millennium Park amphitheater, an orchestra committing a soundtrack to the morning air. We passed by these  while wandering up and down the city looking for the Taste (again, GPS failure) and finally found it (thirty or forty blocks later) close to the lake and teeming. Myself, I was broke but Savi bought a run of tickets (12 for $8) and in leaving we pushed through the throngs holding a bottle of water and a chocolate-dipped piece of cheesecake on a stick, and one useless ticket. The pricing was classic: each plate cost between 7-10 tickets, forcing festival-goers to purchase two strips of tickets if they’d like, say, a drink with their meal. That’s $16 a person, on average, which equates to pretty healthy margin on a slice of pizza and a 20 oz. pop, and a shared ice-cream cone.

Ghana soon would be ending its tenure as a World Cup contender, an affair which we hadn’t any stake in but pleasure in tasting cold Guinness and observing, so we ventured for an Irish pub. We wound up in the Tilted Kilt, a Scottish-themed Hooters which had Savannah stalking out the door before anyone with luscious, bodice-shaming cleavage could seat us. To give you some idea of what horrors presented themselves at the door:

/shudder. Feel for us, please. Grim as times sometimes get, we pulled through and found our coveted stout in nearby Miller’s Pub. Ghana threw their hands up after a botched handball call and we’ll look for them next time.

We passed the rest of the weekend quietly and when it came time to leave Savi related to me her family’s concern that I might be a conservative, given the truck’s hostile adornments. Her mother had been joking, of course, but I half-expected the cab’s back window to have suffered a brick’s passing while parked in diverse, liberal-riche Oak Park. Nothing of the sort, and we shoved off without incident.

On bumper-to-bumper I-94, however, six miles from the I-65 exit, the truck shuddered and instinctually I pulled off onto the shoulder, knowing only then the bottom of the gas tank. Click HERE to gain perspective on our plight. Sure, we were a little closer to Hammond than Gary, but who can say where THAT radius becomes safe? According to Quitno Press, today’s Gary is the fifth most dangerous city of its size in the country, and there we were walking into oncoming traffic on the highway which runs through it. We strolled hand-in-hand and unfed in 90-degree heat for an hour on the shoulder until we came to the nearest possible help for us; Krazy Kaplan’s fireworks, an opportunistic business venture near which we’d hoped to find gas stations.

We sprinted across two off-ramps toward the place and came finally upon the final barrier: a swampy ditch unflowing and stagnant around reeds and busy with garbage floating in filmy, brown-orange waters. Savi accidentally sunk her toes in it and miraculously has retained them. For forty minutes we searched for the narrowest crossing-spot and found it to be five or six feet from bank-to-bank. She pointed out a piece of jetsam which might help our situation; a piece of diamond-plated steel which in some historical vehicular violence had shorn from a truck and had come to rest, its edges flared and sharp, on our ditch-bank. Having set all morning in the sun, it seared me when I grasped it and so with a handful of weeds for a potholder I carried it over and set it down strategically in the center of the hell-ditch. We hopped over vis-a-vis Frogger and crossed the street in front of Kaplan’s.

The rent-a-cop posted at the entrance doors pointed to the street and said we had to follow it as it curled around and then walk a block south from a stoplight to a Speedway. We thanked him and walked single-file on a two-foot shoulder, bordered on the right by an immense swamp and on the left by whizzing traffic. The street (179th) was actually an access road which ran along what we’d later learn was Cline Avenue, the selfsame exit for which two nights previous had taken us away from our destination. We arrived at the foretold stoplight and walked along the Cline Ave. shoulder toward the Speedway, crossing finally at opportune times through traffic and stepping through the pump-area to the building a full two hours since the beginning of the ordeal. I bought a $9 two-gallon gas can. Savi bought a Polar Pop. We went outside and I began to fill up when a shiny new Honda pulled up alongside us.

-Hey, said the driver, I’m gonna follow you on this pump because that other one’s out of order!

-Sounds good, I said to him.

He switched off the Honda and stepped out. He was bald and into his fifties, looking every bit the steel mill worker he proclaimed he was. He eyed our situation and surmising it all, asked where our car was. He decided as we related the whole story to help us, and when we’d finished he told us he’d be happy to clean out his back seat and give us a ride back to the truck. Nothing, I think, at any time over the weekend, made me happier (or more relieved) than feeling that sentiment wash over me. After the requisite exchange of disbelieving and reassuring sounds, we fell down into his nice leather seats and told him where to find the truck.

His name was (and still is, I presume, barring the most unfortunate of all circumstances) Michael and on the first pass he totally missed our stranded Chevy. At my questioning he told us the story of his 4th of July weekend with Georgeanna (pronounced Georgie-anna), his girlfriend, and his close friend’s family who, over the years, have taken to calling him “Uncle Mike”. This story evolved into the story of his personal hardship, and how “the man upstairs” had been awfully rough on him over the years but now, having handed him a job at the mill making more money than he’s ever made, expects him to return the favor through extensions of kindness to folks like Savi and I (now that he’s able). Whatever the reason it’s always refreshing, invigorating even, to witness a human’s kindness toward others of their species. He asked only that we include his name in our prayers (to which we eagerly agreed) and having looked in the rearview he seemed to see Savannah for the first time and confided loudly to me that none of this help would have been possible had she been anything but a redhead.

-I’d do anything for a redhead, he cried.

-Me too, I said.

Meanwhile Savi blushed and we again missed the truck. Michael stopped on the tail-end of a cloverleaf ramp and stepped out of the car, craning over the concrete barrier to see how close we’d come. Satisfied, he climbed back in and threw the Honda into reverse (on the ramp-shoulder, mind you) until just below us, thirty feet down a flowered embankment, sat our dry truck. Mike tearfully produced a twenty-dollar bill and pressed it into my palm, reminding us that things haven’t always been this good for him and now that he’s able to help people he’s going to keep at it so as to keep the man upstairs appeased so DON’T, he said loudly, refuse the money. I thanked him dearly and passed the bill to Savi, which extracted a wife-money joke from our deliverer. Leaving the car we shook his hand and hopped the barrier onto the embankment and took large steps through the flowers down to the truck. We had gotten lucky.

Of course, however, the gas tank faced traffic. I jammed the gas can nozzle into the opening and stared each semi-truck driver deadly in the eyes to make sure each one of them would give me berth. All the right-lane traffic passed not two feet behind my back until the gas can was empty. Some passengers cat-called us, whistling and laughing, “Hey, what do you two think you’re doing?”

Finally we were off and made to the nearest exit and after refueling, used Mike’s goodwill twenty to gut-bomb ourselves at an A&W/KFC hybrid. Fried chicken sandwiches with fries and root-beer floats; these rumbled in our stomachs as we pulled away down I-65, happy to have escaped The Region, whose sun and burrs and highway had beat up our exteriors and whose fast-food was working our insides to pulp. We felt very lucky and Savi slept, head on my lap, nearly all the way home.

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