by John Vicary
“Yeah, so they says to me, they says, ‘Barry, you look like you could use a drink,’ and I say, ‘What, do I look like an—”
Jenny paused and checked her card. This was the correct place. Despite the unprofessional language and cigar smoke she could see drifting out from the door, the numbers on the office placard didn’t lie. It didn’t much look like any claims agency she’d ever been associated with, but it wasn’t her business to judge. Maybe years of being in billing made folks coarse or something. Perhaps it was the bad lighting wreaking havoc on their nerves. Whatever it was, so long as she had a job, she didn’t care what the place looked like. Or smelled like. Jenny wrinkled her nose as another cloud of smoke wafted by her. She straightened her hemline and knocked.
“Oh, for the love of … I gotta call you back, Mike. Temp’s here. Yeah, yeah, another one. Sure, Thursday, you’re on. Your turn to bring the beer. Yeah it is, you schmuck. See you then.”
Jenny heard the click of the phone being slammed down in its cradle, followed by a sigh.
“You gonna stand out there all day or what? You here for the job?”
“Yes, sir.” Jenny rounded the corner and saw exactly what she expected to: a middle-aged balding man behind a desk. “I’m here about the acquisitions position from the—”
“Yeah, I know. It’s the busy season, so let’s get this show on the road. I’m Barry. Pull up a chair and lemme go through the files with you,” Barry said.
Jenny selected a chair with the fewest stains on the upholstery and flipped open her pad to take notes. “Can you begin by telling me the exact nature of the property we are attempting to merge?”
Barry barked out a laugh. “Teeth, dollface. You kidding me? Now, like I said, it’s busy season. You wouldn’t think so, but September and October we’re slammed. And of course there’s always a spike around the holidays, ‘specially Halloween. Ever since we had to sign Murphy’s Law, that time of year is a killer …”
Jenny scribbled away. “Murphy’s Law? Where are the precedents on that? I’m not familiar with that article. Is there a case number, so I can check up on it and familiarize myself with the details?”
Barry ignored her and kept talking. “Janice, over in Polishing, has this theory that kiddie sports have something to do with the losses this time of year, but I think it’s just the competition amongst classmates and all. You don’t want your best mate to get ahead of you, do you, not when one good yank’ll get you a payoff. Right. So that’s my thought on that.”
“Sports … losses … competition …” Jenny was scrambling to get all the words written down, when she paused. “Can you clarify that for me? What company are we taking over? Something in dentistry? Or does it have to do with sports medicine?”
“Look here.” Barry leaned back in his seat. “The agency said they were sending someone who could handle this sort of thing. This is a high-pressure position. And like I just said, it’s our busy season. So are you a quick study or not?”
“I am!” Desperation crept up like a flush on Jenny’s cheeks. “I’ve worked in a legal office; I know I can handle this. It would just help to know more about the product we’re acquiring, that’s all.”
“Teeth, I told you.” Barry shook his head. “You’re not deaf, are you?”
“No! I’m just not quite sure I understand.” Jenny tried not to let her confusion show. She stared at her notes, but the words remained unhelpful. “We deal in teeth?”
“You got it, toots. Our region is only the northern mid-quadrant. Sometimes the southwest quadrangle falls off—those lazy buggers—and we have to absorb the overflow, but I try not to let that happen. What do I look like, a charity office, here?” Barry grimaced. “Anyway, we manage our region, which is fine, unless we get short-staffed, like now. You follow?”
Jenny nodded dumbly. “So, like … when you say ‘northern mid-quadrant’, you mean that we are in charge of, say, Chicago?”
Barry recoiled. “Good God, no. What a nightmare of logistics, can you imagine? I said the northern mid-quadrant, not the mid-quadrangle, northern urban unit. Big difference.”
“Yes. I can see that.” Jenny pretended to make a note of it, but she wasn’t sure if Barry was quite sane.
“So, look here. These cases are flagged as imminent. Boy, these little buggers are hanging by a thread. These are the ones you’ll be dispatched to immediately. Field agents are in place, but before they can move on these cases, they will need their allocation, and that clearance will come from you. There has been a lot of slack in the financial department lately, I’m not gonna lie. Even given the adjustment for inflation, there has to be a cap on this. You are going to be in charge of expenses and balances.” Barry gestured to the computer screen.
Jenny perked up. “Okay, so I’m in charge of making sure that agents are being truthful about how much money they need? Expense reports, as it were?”
Barry nodded, pleased. “Exactly. Red flags will happen tonight. Possibly tomorrow. You can check up on orange files. They are sure to come due in the next week or so. Sometimes they’ll surprise you, though. Yellows are just the kids who are crying wolf. Maybe there is a little wiggle, but short of them falling smack on their face, those suckers aren’t going anywhere for a month, at least.” Barry unwrapped another cigar. “Not that we haven’t had that happen, mind you. None of us like a Code Blue. Puts us in a crank for the whole day, let me tell you what.”
“Sorry, what exactly is the business that you’re in?” Jenny didn’t care if she looked foolish or not; this whole conversation was turning her brain to mush. “It sounds like you are collecting children’s teeth.” She laughed.
Barry lit his stogie and puffed a few times to get it started. “I thought you said you weren’t hard of hearing.”
“So, do I need to hold your hand over this, or can you figure it out? I have three code reds tonight alone, and the going rate for a molar ain’t cheap, sweetheart. Don’t let those guys try to bull you for more, though. We have budgets, just like the rest. And you don’t want to stand before The Committee and say you ran outta funds before the fiscal year is out, trust me. That’s on you now, thank the good Lord. Damn little kids won’t get outta bed for less than a dollar these days. When I was a kid—”
“Mr. … Barry …” Jenny felt the sort of sour sickness in her stomach that heralded either immediate vomiting or a contrariness that would get her branded as the office “bitch”. Jenny hoped, for the sake of her paycheck, that she’d just had a bad danish, but the words just kept spewing, and she rather feared it might be the latter. “Are you trying to tell me that you’re the … Tooth Fairy?”
“For the love of Christ.” Barry cracked his neck. “Are you trying to tell me that you can’t read? They sent me a temp who can’t read. Perfect.”
“No, I—I’m just really confused! What the hell is going on?” Jenny was aware that she had shredded her notes into confetti all over the floor.
“Honey. I’m going to say this as clearly as I can, because we are out of time. We are a division of the U.S. Government. We collect teeth. See?” Barry held up the nameplate on his desk, which read “Barry McFadden, Tooth Collection Agent Manager”.
“You’re telling me that there really is a Tooth Fairy?” Jenny stared at Barry’s combover in horror. “I always pictured her in a blue dress. With wings. And maybe some sort of tutu.”
Barry rolled his eyes. “That’s the corporate logo.” He fished a card out of his pocket and handed her the embossed rectangle. There was, indeed, a blue fairy on it, complete with wings, crown, and magic scepter. “But adults usually realize that it takes more than magic to make these things happen. Next you’ll be telling me that you pictured the Easter Bunny as a six foot rabbit. Ha!” He looked at her face. “Holy shit. Wait until Charlie hears this …”
“It’s just that … I don’t understand how the government can subsidize children’s teeth. What do we have to do with it?” Jenny asked.
“It’s a bargain, you kidding?” Barry took a pull on his cigar. “We pay a dollar—less, if we can swing it, and that’s where you come in, angel— for every tooth, and look at the markup on those suckers! Where else can you get something so cheap? Except China, of course. Little bastards are always making our numbers look bad. Those Chinese kids’ll give up their teeth for a few measly yen. I can tell you, if they start outsourcing, that’s it. I told ’em, I ain’t moving to Zhāngjiākǒu, I don’t care how good the noodles are. They got the best eggrolls right over on thirty-seventh you ever had, I don’t need to go halfway around—”
Jenny rubbed her temples. “Barry, it still doesn’t explain why we want teeth. Even for an exceptional deal.”
Barry stopped mid-diatribe. “I don’t have time to explain economics to you, peaches. This ain’t college. You might have mistaken me for your prof, when in reality I’m the Tooth Fairy. Or one of them. You know, I don’t think you’re gonna work. Why don’t you go see if they can use you down on the fifth floor. I know that Phil needs someone. I really think that would be more your speed, sugar.”
Jenny stood up. “It’s a regular office? Nothing funny?”
“Nothing funny. See ya around, babe.” Barry shook his head. “Charlie, a freaking rabbit, for fuck’s sake …”
Jenny grabbed her attaché case and stepped away from Barry. As she made her way through the office, she saw things she’d missed the first time through: little toothbrushes decorating some desks, molars hanging from the ceiling, a picture of a pile of gold coins and even a jar of teeth near the elevator (she’d taken them for after-dinner mints on her way in). Jenny shuddered.
“Excuse me.” She caught the receptionist before the elevator made its way up. “I’ve been reassigned to the fifth floor. Can you tell me what to expect there?”
“Sure,” the girl said. “You’ll like it. It’s pretty small, actually, and nothing much happens there. It’s for folks who prefer a quieter workplace. I’ll phone that you’re on your way.”
“Thanks so much.” Jenny smiled. She had a much better feeling about this assignment.
The receptionist picked up the phone as Jenny got in the elevator and pressed the button for floor five. “Hey, Phil, it’s me. You have a new girl on her way. I know, St. Patrick’s Day needs its fair share of attention, too—that’s why she’s on her way, to help you organize those calls about the leprechauns from last year …”
The door slid shut before Jenny could say another word.
John Vicary began publishing poetry in the fifth grade and has been writing ever since. A contributor to many compendiums, his most recent credentials include short fiction in the collections “The Longest Hours,” “Midnight Circus,” “Something’s Brewing,” and “Temporary Skeletons.” He has stories in upcoming issues of Boktor Magazine and “Halfway Down the Stairs.” John enjoys playing piano and lives in rural Michigan with his family. You can read more of his work at keppiehed.com.
John Vicary has essays in the Garden of Eden anthology and Sulfurings: Tales from Sodom & Gomorrah.
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