“Café Metafoor” * Fiction * Mike Lewis-Beck

I sat on a bar stool at the best beer pub in Leuven, not to say the best in all of Flanders, which means the best in Belgium, maybe the world. Of all the brews on offer at Café Metafoor, I chose the Affligem Dubbel, a dark malty ale, just sweet enough and strong enough, but not too strong. Like all true Belgian alehouses, no food was served, except for peanuts or chips, for the salt. I went for the peanuts, since they provided protein, and I had not eaten since I got off the plane from Chicago. The nuts I ate fast, crunching several packs, washing them down with several Affligems. Then I left, ambling down the cobblestone streets to my hotel, an old cloister in the Trappist tradition, like the Affligem beer itself. Immediately I fell asleep, in a big four-poster bed in my room numbered—prophetically—007.

When I woke, I began my usual morning ablutions— cold water to the eyes, floss to the chompers. That’s when it happened. A front tooth, top right incisor, broke loose. A part flew out my mouth, and I heard it ding off the metal radiator. In my boxers, on hands and knees, I found the tooth bit. It was big enough. Looking full-face in the bathroom mirror, I saw a character from Dumb and Dumber, but without the cachet of a name like Jim Carrey.  Trouble. The gaping hole and the pain, plus my job interview tomorrow at the KU-Leuven Center for Democratic Studies, where I would offer my dissertation on why Hillary won but lost, a talk in their ongoing seminar about what’s going wrong in America, and how to fix it. How to fix my tooth? More trouble. It was Sunday in a small Belgian mediaeval town.

I ran a fork through my curly hair, put on my tortoiseshells, googled hospitals, and found one nearby, Heilig Hart on Naamsestraat, a street remembered for its American bowling alley. Wandering that street, I stopped where it should be, and used my French on some Flemish locals:  “Qu’est-que c’est? What is this?” pointing to what I thought was the hospital. With a frown, they responded in English: “Parking lot.” I kept circling the neighborhood, not able to stop poking my tooth hole with my tongue, until I spied a lady hobbling out of church, carrying a baguette. I asked about the hospital, again in French since it’s a bilingual country and, after all, she had a baguette. She said, in English: “I live behind I take you to the Emergency Room.” It wasn’t, it was a Consultation Room, the ER was way over in a dung-brown brick building. They had no dentists.

“It is Sunday,” the angular ER receptionist said, before inflicting me with her French: “Encore, vous ne’pouvez pas asseoir ici,” telling me ‘no way you can sit here.’ She figured I was some sort of badass Frenchie, wrong side of the law. The Head Nurse shoved a scribbled note at me, with a long-distance number to call for the one place in Belgium with a Sunday dentist. That dentist could be anywhere, meantime my Goofy gap was getting air-hammered. Belgium is a small country—entire, about the size of Maryland. Still, I wouldn’t want to go to outback Maryland in search of a dentist if I was in, say, Annapolis. My once-upon-a-time tooth, though gone, was pounding in my gums.

Since it was Sunday morning, I decided to recover myself in church, Big Begijnhoff, the church of Sint Jan de Doperkerk, now open to women and to men, everyone causal, one dude even did a Bible reading in camo. I took communion, though I’m Iowa Methodist. Things were going fine until I failed to pass the collection bag to the pew behind. People began to stare, thinking ‘dirty stealer,’ and gawked when I smiled back looking like a street fighter. I divined it was time to call the long number.

*

In the Metropole, a student joint on Old Market Square, I ordered a bowl of red sauce spaghetti sworn to by Wouter, my Flemish buddy in grad school. I scarfed it up, hungry as a horse, but the pasta kept popping out the window in my teeth, plus the spice and heat hurt the gash. I abandoned the bowl and turned to Tuur, the name on his waiter vest. I said, in French: “Tuur, I’m Simon, friend of Wouter’s…”

Tuur raised his hand, made a stop sign, then spoke. “Wouter mentioned you, you know English. We in Flanders know English. We don’t like the French.” With that, he removed the towel on his shoulder, and began snapping it at the counter top.

“Belgium is a bilingual country, Dutch and French.”

“Flanders is, too. Flemish, then English.” He continued his shenanigans with the towel. I wished he’d wipe it on his bald spot.

“Tuur, what’s the knock? See my mug like a player in the National Hockey League, took a puck in his cake hole? I wouldn’t take Bobby Clarke’s money, but I’d take his dental work. Do me a favor?”

“Maybe.”

“Call this long number?” I flashed a wide gapping grin. He made the call, then repeated what he learned. “Drive toward the coast, to the village of Wijgmaal. See a doctor Jost Hooghe.” Tuur wrote out the dentist’s address on a dirty napkin and tossed it to me.

“How do I get there?”

“You figure it out, you speak French.” Guess it takes all kinds.

*

A taxi stand marked the front of Sint-Pieters church, but no taxis were waiting. Instead, in the dead space were a bunch of guys kicking a soccer ball, a Sunday pastime in Belgium. I went up to one, told him he had a foot like Zinedine. “No, he’s French.  I kick like Vertonghen,” launching the ball into the park. This Flemish-French thing got weirder and weirder. I asked about taxis. A fireplug fellow with a potato nose duck-walked up, said he had a car.

“ That’s my cab, under the chestnut tree. Keeps the sun off.”

“What about the birds?”

Potato Nose ignored the remark. “Where you want to go?” I showed him the Metropole napkin, he gave a price, I handed over my sacred wad of euros, my travel award for this whole gig. How explain that to the Graduate College committee? My missing tooth ached like the b’Jesus, even though I’d stuffed the blank space with a genever-soaked cotton ball. Potato Nose whipped his Jetta like Black Beauty across the Flanders fields, while I hummed Joan Baez and her poppy song about the dead soldiers.  The driver didn’t let out a peep, except for his rhythmic breaking of wind, rolls and trills, a ceremony occasioned by the tabloid-wrapped heap of fries and mayo he devoured. I did remark on the pride he must feel, since the ‘French fry’ was conjured in Belgium. He said: “It’s the horse fat,” then closed the car windows. My phone battery died, but I guessed we’d been on Thunder Road two hours before he hit the brakes. “3018 Casinolaan,” Potato Nose said, yanking me out before he shot off.

*

I shook my head, fingered my dental absence, and crossed my eyeballs. I thought Herbert Hoover’s WWI Famine Relief had done its job, but this back Belgian pasture was filled with Dickensian ragamuffins, playing a game like dodge ball, except throwing stones— at each other or at the large draft horses across the way, until I became the target, pounding on 3018, a white stucco house on a cul-de-sac. The rocks missed me but busted out a glass pane of the door, as it flew open. A man-fortress in a white coat emerged, hoisted his stevedore arms, and the urchins scattered.

“You must be the dentist.” A pathetic comment, I had to admit. But I was scared shitless, my phantom tooth throbbing, the socket raw and red.

“I am Doctor Hooghe.” We took each other in. He had a square head, almost a flat top, and a rectangular horse harness beard. His nose was muscular, his shoulders boulders. I couldn’t see his hands, in his pockets holding back the tails of his coat, until they came out to turn my upper lip. “Come.” He led me to a fully equipped clinic, in the garage of his house, overlooking a pine woods. We could even smell the pines, they were so close, and the window open. We were alone, I in the dental chair cupping my jaw, he sorting his instruments, ordering them like weapons, by size and sharpness.

“Open wide,” he said, before he stuck a horse needle into my upper gum. I barely screamed, while managing to offer him a rescued piece of the tooth, wrapped in a piece of toilet paper. “The tooth!” he said. “A living thing.” He began rummaging through a typographer’s tray intended for letters, but one used here as a tray for teeth. My bit of lost tooth now rested in a cell box marked K-6.

He paused.  “What is your work?”

“I study voters,” I said. A moronic blurt, but all I could come with.

“Why do they vote the way they do?”

“Passion mostly. They feel for or against a candidate or a group.”

“Like we Flemish. We do not like the Wallons. All national political debates are in the two official tongues, Dutch and French. We do not trust the French. Open wide.” A relief to return to that stock line—open wide. No more politics, I tried to say, just cobble my mouth. But the tray of teeth, and all the sharp objects, were creeping me out. Besides, the tooth—correction, the tooth stump—was shooting stars. I wanted to faint, prayed for it, filled my mind with dancing bottles of sedating Affligem ale.

“The saved tooth fragment identified the proper color,” he said, holding between a huge thumb and forefinger what looked like my gone tooth. “This crown, from my collection, will be your new incisor.” He began to pick, scrape, grind, and shove, occasionally commanding me: “spit.” I winced and groaned until it was over. He handed me a mirror. My new tooth shined back at me, comfortable in its row, looking like it had never left its bed.

“Far fuckin’ out!” I regretted the curse, for he had healed me. Of course, he rose above it.

“All in a day’s work. In fact, my last day of work. I retire tomorrow.”

“No more ‘looking down in the mouth?’” Why my dumb joke? I blame delirium, from the pain and the release.

“I shall sculpt. Give up my crown collection of teeth for bigger sculptures, the full human head. Busts of famous dentists, men and women.”

“The Rodin of dentures.”

“My daughter says that, to vex me. See the woman in the woods gathering pine cones? That’s her, Griet.”

“Sorry, sir. Today’s been…I don’t know…” My cranium was like a popcorn popper, inside kernels of off-beat sentences exploding every which way. “Just point me to a train station, I’ll get back to Leuven somehow.”

“No more trains today.” I bowed for no reason, left his clinic, just stood on the doorstep, reading his gold office plate: ‘Doctor of Dental Surgery, Leuven University.’  My interview there tomorrow morning, up in a puff of train smoke. I felt like crap. The horses in the pasture watched me, judging me.

Griet walked up carrying a basket of pinecones. Her hair matched the pinecones, in color and cut. She shared Dr. Hooghe’s look of strength, but her eyes let go the light. “You father’s last patient, Mr. Lost Tooth?” she said.

“Just Simon—Simple Simon, maybe. You are Griet.” I picked up a pinecone and tossed it to the big bay.

“Don’t do that! It will make him sick! Besides, they’re decorations, for the parade.”

“Parade?”

“See this sash? It’s for father to wear.”

“I offended him, called him a dental Rodin.”

“Father’s one fault is vanity. The parade will cheer him up.” As she spoke, Dr. Hooghe came out. He did not appear cheered up yet.

“Daddy, take off your clinic coat. Put on your sash, the blue suits you. And here’s the baby top hat to wear in the birthday parade.”

“Why’s it say ’53’?” I interrupted, since I understood nothing.

The doctor came to attention. “The year of my birth, 1953. The parade honors Birth Year Day. We in Wijgmaal celebrate our birth group every September. Griet’s sash says ’88.’’

“Hey, 1988, when I was born.” A dufus remark, but this coincidence struck me as providential.

“Yea! You can march with me! Hear the drums, the trumpets? They’re coming.”

“I played the trumpet in high school.”

“Bet you were good.”

“Terrible. Never got out of Third Coronet. In the whole band, only Billy Prieff was worse.” I shouldn’t have explained this, but I was still loopy.

“Come on. We’re late,” said Griet, before taking my hand. I liked its feel, warm with long fingers, well-groomed, like a pianist.

“ Flash me that winning smile that father gave you.” I let loose a great grin, from ear-to-ear. My new tooth, in all its glory. It felt so good, so natural, I had forgotten it, like one does when something is good, like it’s supposed to be. You take it for granted.

*

“Mais tu es beau,” said Griet.

“That’s French for ‘good looking.’ Pardon my blush. I would return the compliment.”

“What’s wrong with French? We learn it in school. You can tell me where you learned yours at the feast tonight.”

“Feast?”

“Our local stew supper, from the ‘blue’ beef of our famous cattle.” She took me by the arm and pulled. “Come on, let’s move! We have to catch up with our Birth Group.” I started to laugh and couldn’t stop.

“What you laughing at, Silly Boy?” She came to a halt and caught my eye.

“Nothing.  Nothing at all.  All in a day’s work.”

 

—About the Author—

Mike Lewis-Beck writes from Iowa City.  He has pieces in American Journal of Poetry, Apalachee Review, Aromatica Poetica, Blue Collar Review, Cortland Review, Chariton Review, Eastern Iowa Review, Ekphrastic Review, Guesthouse, Heavy Feather Review, Inquisitive Eater, Pure Slush, Pilgrimage, Seminary Ridge Review, Taos Journal of International Poetry and Art, and Wapsipinicon Almanac, among other venues. He has a book of poems, Rural Routes, recently published by Alexandria Quarterly Press.

Read “Magpie Aubade and Other Poems” for a sample of his worldly poetry!