Dr. Asquith’s Intelligent Teeth
by Martin Hill Ortiz
“Mom? Mom? It’s Declan.”
Harriet Asquith had the leathery face and ropy neck of a desert tortoise. She puckered her lips as though they held a pip and were ready to spit. Trying to rise, she was held back by lamb’s wool straps binding her wrists to her eating chair.
“Tell them I want to see a doctor,” she said.
“Mom, I am a doctor.”
“I have a son named Declan. He’s in school. He’s going to be a doctor.”
“I am your son.”
It was lunchtime in the Day Room at Evening Shades. Half of the residents sat at cafeteria tables poking at and munching down their meals. Others, like Harriet, were strapped to their chairs. Declan waited for his mother to open her mouth long enough to spear it with a spoonful of applesauce. Her overgrown index nail tapped on her chair’s metal tubing with a monotonous click.
An orderly named Bruce lumbered up. He was a big lunk of a man, all muscles and gut. “I overheard you,” he said. “Don’t tell her you’re her son. You’ll just confuse her.”
“I don’t appreciate...” Declan began.
“Me, I’m always saying how I’m her kid to get her to do stuff she don’t wanna. Like when it’s her turn for a colonic.”
“Don’t tell her that. You’re confusing her even more.” Declan rubbed his forehead. He felt helpless, humiliated, pulverized like the mush he was trying to feed this lost woman who only occasionally recognized him. He scanned the other residents, their trays had finely chopped cubes of ham. He compared that with Harriet’s main course of pink puke.
“Why isn’t she wearing her dentures?” Declan asked.
The orderly pinched his face and leaned in as though delivering a secret. “S.B.D.”
“Senior Biting Disorder,” the Evening Shades’ staff psychiatrist explained. Dr. Collins sat bent forward, his elbows pitched on his broad desktop, his hands clasped together.
“I’ve never heard of it,” Declan said.
“That’s because you’re a research doctor,” Collins said, “not a physician.”
“I’m an M.D. and scientist.”
“Sorry.” With a single finger he guided a tin of mints across his desk as though in apology. “Your mother has lost her denture privileges after biting four of our staff. I made the diagnosis of S.B.D. It’s a rare disorder. We’re hoping to get it into the next DSM if we can get drug company sponsorship.”
Declan took a mint, set it so his incisors gently pinched it. Then he closed his lips and swaddled his tongue around it. “My mother’s life is harsh enough. Can’t she have the small dignity of wearing her teeth and eating some real food? I can set aside some funds for hazard pay.”
“That would set a bad precedent.”
“Because that’s what precedents are. Bad things. First, one precedent appears and then another comes along and soon everyone wants one and the entire floor goes to hell.”
“Do you even know what the word means?”
The psychiatrist tilted back, swallowed by his tall office chair. “Mister... Doctor Asquith, we have liability to worry about. Can you guarantee us she won’t bite someone else?”
Declan considered this for a moment. “Give me a week,” he said.
Dr. Asquith spoke to Dr. Tanney, his supervisor at Bottoms and Howell Research Laboratories, requesting time to follow a personal project.
“Is it something we can take to market?” she asked.
“I suppose. There’s this rare syndrome called S.B.D...” Those initials didn’t sit right in his mouth. From his brief online search it seemed the illness existed only in the mind of Dr. Collins. Nevertheless, because the disorder possessed an acronym, his boss deemed that sufficient grounds to get his project greenlighted.
Dr. Asquith’s plan was simple enough: transform dentures so that they wouldn’t clamp down on living tissue. The individual teeth made excellent protective shells in which to place the necessary sensors and circuitry. When the incisors detected the sweep of nerve conduction that lurked beneath the skin of the living, they sent a signal to the denture hinge which then temporarily locked in an open position.
* * *
He demonstrated his prototype at the nursing home with his mother as the guinea pig. Fitted with the intelligent dentures, he extended his hand in front of her mouth. “Bite me.”
“Why would I want to bite you, Declan?”
This day she was lucid. “Trust me, mom. You won’t hurt me.”
“My son is very bright,” she said. Harriet tried to bite down but found her jaw had seized up.
Astonished, Bruce offered his finger. “Bite me.”
“You, I want to bite,” she told him and then said to her son, “he’s always pushing me around.” Although she struggled, she couldn’t close her teeth around the finger.
Declan offered her a chewy strip of fried chicken. She chomped down and began chewing.
“I feel like a fool,” she said. “My teeth telling me what I can or cannot do.”
The test was considered a success and Harriet had her denture privileges permanently restored.
* * *
Six months passed and Dr. Asquith had set the matter far back in his mind. Then, one day, when he arrived at work at Bottoms and Howell, he was surprised to see a table where twenty more denture sets were being assembled. Dr. Tanney explained, “we’ve got a big order from your mother’s nursing home. Seems they got a genuine outbreak of S.B.D.”
Dr. Collins, the psychiatrist, had been so impressed by Dr. Asquith’s intelligent dentures that he saw it as an opportunity to put S.B.D. on the map. He diagnosed all of the residents as suffering from the disorder. In turn, the management at Bottoms and Howell were all too grateful to recuperate a portion of the development costs.
“These first few we’re making in the lab,” Tanney said. “But we’re setting up a factory in Singapore for when we’re ready to go national.”
“There can’t be that many cases...”
“S.B.D. has certainly been underdiagnosed. That’s why we need to raise awareness. What with the epidemic underway at the nursing home, our lobbyists are confident that with a prescription we can get Medicare to pay for the device.”
Dr. Asquith noticed during his next visit to Evening Shades that the residents had their lips pulled back in wide grins. Because the dentures refused to bite at living tissue, the lips needed to withdraw to prevent their mouths from freezing open in a painful cramp.
* * *
Declan described this problem to his boss.
“Not to worry,” Tanney said. “Our new batch already has some modifications. Instead of locking up in the presence of live tissue, they will activate in the presence of dead tissue.”
Declan said, “But the negative action loop is an important safeguard.”
“Not anymore. Besides, we’re no longer focusing solely on S.B.D. Do you know how many senior citizens choke to death on unchewed chunks of meat?”
“I have no idea.”
“No one does. That’s what makes it a crisis. We’ve reconfigured the dentures so they will automatically respond to dead tissue by chewing twenty times or until the meat is mashed into a ready-to-swallow pulp. The teeth have a positive reinforcement loop for doing their job correctly.”
“Positive reinforcement?” Dr. Asquith said. “The teeth are happy to be chewing?”
“They experience whatever jibes with the software equivalence of job satisfaction.”
“We’ll need to run tests.”
“We’ve already sent a replacement batch to Evening Shades.” Tanney’s fingers stood on her desk. Whenever she felt cheerful they danced an unconscious Can-Can. “We’re thinking of expanding to animals. There’s a lot of dog owners who will pay for dental implants to make sure their bratty little Fluffies won’t end up in the gas chamber after they bit the neighbor.”
“I don’t want Harriet to be part of the testing.”
“Harriet? Is that your dog’s name?”
“Dr. Collins has already approved the switchover. They’ve finished up with two weeks of baseline testing and the devices will be turned on tonight.”
No, no, no, no. When he designed the prototype, Dr. Asquith purposefully selected a target function that involved doing nothing: locking up. With a pro-active mission they would seek out activity. To chew dead tissue? The outermost layer of skin is dead.
“You’ll be remembered for discovering this market,” Dr. Tanney said. “Your name will be on every box of dentures.”
Declan stood up so quickly his chair fell over backwards. “I’m going to Evening Shade for tonight’s trials.”
“Great! I’d love a report with your evaluation.”
* * *
Evening at Evening Shade began at 5 p.m., their early-bird hour for dinner. Meal carts were wheeled out. The population of residents had been fitted with the second generation of dentures. Their pained grinning had stopped, but several began lip-smacking. Dr. Collins assured them this was temporary as they became used to the new feel.
Declan blasted his horn. He was stuck behind a slow-cruising vehicle, an elderly woman who could barely peek through her windshield from below the upper rim of her steering wheel. He had called ahead to the nursing home, begging them to not start dinner until he got there. If something were to go wrong, it would happen after the reinforcement loop kicked in. After the dentures had gotten a taste of flesh.
To demonstrate the capabilities of the dentures, all the Evening Shade residents were served thick T-bone steaks with the meat trimmed from the bone and pre-cut into sizeable chunks.
“Fresh grilled beef,” Dr. Collins announced, “courtesy of Bottoms and Howell.”
The expectant diners responded with a smattering of applause. “I could get used to this,” one said.
For the last several days, a bout of dementia had seized hold of Harriet. To prevent her from bolting up and running away, she had one arm and both ankles strapped to her chair. Her free hand held a fork.
The residents dug in, stabbing the steak cubes and stuffing their mouths. The intelligent teeth responded with a steady rhythm of tearing and gnashing, snipping and pulverizing. The crushed nuggets of beef released their savory juices across ecstatic tastebuds. Once the first bits were swallowed, the teeth began clacking until another morsel filled their greedy pincers.
The teeth chewed ever faster, finishing their job, clattering for more. When the plates emptied of meat, the chattering stopped. Jaws began whipping side to side, faces contorted.
“Turn it off!” an old man shouted.
Mandibles jutted out as though trying to pry themselves loose. One resident followed the stretch of his jaw until he was face down in his tray, gnawing on the T-bone. Those who could, leaped up from their chairs, fighting to control their convulsions.
“Stay in your seats!” Bruce said. “Everyone! Stay! Sit!”
“This has got to stop.” Dr. Collins seized a woman by her head, pressing her cheek against his chest as he grabbed at her dentures. They chomped down, clipping off his fingers. With blood dribbling down her chin, the woman began a frenzy of chewing.
When she was done, her jaw contorted and a single word exhaled through the oval of her mouth: “more.”
Other residents discovered the means of satisfying the spasms in their jaws, launching attacks against the staff and each other, biting down. Blood spurted in gushers. With their teeth clamped down on human flesh, the denture owners whipped their heads back and their dentures came loose from their mouths. An army of emancipated teeth continued to chomp away. Fallen dentures, rattled along tables and the floor, hopping about until they found fresh flesh.
Harriet began gnawing at the flesh of her lambskin restraints.
By the time Dr. Asquith arrived, the massacre had abated. Once the teeth had stripped off enough skin and pulverized enough of the meat immediately beneath, they began encountering squirming, pulsing life. Their directive required lifeless tissue, so the liberated dentures clattered their way out the door, seeking to strip others of their dead skin.
They left behind a score of half-chewed victims, their skins torn off, many unidentifiable.
Harriet was gone. She had chewed her way free, then wandered past the growing carnage and out the door. According to eyewitnesses, she was last seen walking along the beach. Her footprints disappeared in the wet sand at the water’s edge. The next morning, the corpse of a half-eaten shark washed up on shore.
* * *
“Technically speaking, the test-run was not all we hoped for,” Dr. Tanney told Asquith. “But there were two positive outcomes. First, the incident helped publicize S.B.D. better than we could ever have imagined. It’s going to be in the next DSM. Second, our pharmaceutical branch is addressing the S.B.D. crisis and we’ll be realizing a much greater profit than we could have ever gotten from the dentures. Multitudes of senior citizens need to be tranquilized to prevent this sort of incident from ever happening again.”
Declan thumbed open the cap of his prescription bottle and downed another sedative.
Copyright © 2013 by Martin Hill Ortiz