Teeth is Teeth
by Ellis Parker Butler
Daniel, the gateman, was sitting on the pine bench before his little square gatehouse, gazing gloomily up the empty stretch of South Fourteenth Street. He was an old man, and having outlived his days of usefulness as an active railroad man had been given the gates at the grade crossing in South Fairview. It was not a lively job. During the middle of the day nothing ever used the track but an occasional bobtail freight, and South Fourteenth Street itself was not lively. Teams avoided the heavy road of loose sawdust, knee-deep over a bed of pine slabs. Morning and evening, to be sure, the sawmill hands passed the gatehouse in a hurrying stream, and some time during the day S. Potts usually dropped over to have a word with Daniel. The days were as long for S. Potts as for Daniel. Except in the morning and evening customers seldom entered his corner saloon, and S. Potts could sit on Daniel's bench and keep an eye on his own door. For five years he had poured upon Daniel the vast stores of his knowedge, and he felt a sort of proprietorship in the old man.
"S. Potts," said Daniel, as his friend look his customary seat on the bench, "I wisht I had turned out to be an inventor, 'stead of a railroad man, I do."
S. Potts settled his long legs comfortably, and shook his head. "Now, there you go, Daniel!" he said reproachfully. "Here I've been teachin' you philosophy for near six years -- just chuckin' it into you free gratis by wholesale, as I might say -- an' still you ain't satisfied."
"I am satisfied, S. Potts," said the old man. "I'm just too satisfied for any use."
"No, you ain't, Daniel," insisted S. Potts. "You're sore an' mad an' discontented, an' it pretty nigh discourages me. Here you are, sixty-four years old, goin' on sixty-five, an' you've got a good job as gateman to this railroad, an' yet you ain't satisfied."
"Yes, I am," insisted Daniel; "yes, I am, S. Potts."
"No, you ain't," S. Potts reasserted, "an' I don't take it as no compliment to me, neither. It ain't everybody that has a chance to associate with me an' hear me talk. You can't claim I've been stingy in giving you free information, Daniel. I've give you enough knowledge to make you equal to Solomon, an' I've learned you philosophy until you ought to be chuck-full of it. But the more I learn you the less you seems to know, an' you keep kickin' all the time."
"You hadn't ought to git mad at me, S. Potts," said Daniel. "You know --"
"I wouldn't blame you so much, Daniel," interrupted S. Potts, "if you didn't have me to talk to, but it does seem, associating with me like you do, an' hearing me talk, you ought to have more sense. Sometimes I think I won't bother with you no more, only I'm so full of knowledge it sort of hurts my head. An' all of it, every drop of it, I pour out on you, Daniel. You ought to be mighty thankful."
"I am thankful," began Daniel, but S. Potts interrupted him again.
"If you was you'd be singing and dancing like a nightingale," he said. "If you knew what was best for you, you would be mighty glad to sit on this bench here an' listen to me talk."
"I am," declared Daniel.
"No, you ain't," insisted S. Potts. "I've knowed you five years, Daniel, and if I had thought it was best for you to be an inventor I'd have made you into one. But I seen you wasn't fitted to be made into an inventor, an' that is why I didn't make you into one. I seen you was fitted to be a gateman, an' I left you be one, didn't I?"
"You did, S. Potts," Daniel admitted.
"I might have made you into an inventor an', sent you off, an' then had somebody with some brains take this job so's I could talk to him an' git some comfort out of it," said S. Potts. "But the minute I seen you I knew that if I made you into an inventor you would go an' invent somethin' to ruin yourself, like Peter Guppy did."
"I'm perfectly satisfied, S. Potts," said Daniel.
"That's the kind of inventor you'd be, the kind Peter Guppy was," continued S. Potts. "He was just sech a discontented old kicker like you are, Daniel, but he was worse off -- he didn't have no S. Potts to be a model to him. He had a nice, steady job sawing wood, an' all he ever had to do was just rest one knee on the sawbuck an' push a saw up an' down all day; no brain work, like the kind that wears me out -- just plain wood-sawing. He had everything to make a man happy, except he didn't have no friend to come across from the saloon an' give him good advice, like you have."
"I'm satisfied," Daniel said, but S. Potts continued:
"No, you ain't, an' he wasn't. He was like you, Daniel. He wanted to invent, an' he looked around to see somethin' to invent that hadn't been invented already, an' what he saw was false teeth. False teeth looked to him like a good thing to invent, because nobody had invented anything very new in false teeth since he could remember."
"Say," exclaimed Daniel enviously, "I wisht I had thought of false teeth! False teeth would be a mighty good thing to invent, wouldn't it, S. Potts?"
"I told you you hadn't no more sense than Peter Guppy had," said S. Potts pitilessly, "but Peter Guppy had more brains than what you have, Daniel. How would you go about inventing false teeth? Just tell me how!"
Daniel gazed at the sawdusty level of South Fourteenth Street, and creased his tanned forehead into thoughtful wrinkles. He shifted uneasily on his bench, and frowned hard. "Well, of course, I can't say right off like this," he said at length, "but if I had time --"
"The reason nobody had been gittin' up new inventions in false teeth," interrupted S. Potts, "was the same then as it is today -- false teeth was already as good as they could be made. But Peter Guppy was like you, always complainin' an' unsatisfied, so he went an' had the few old teeth he had left in his head pulled out, an' had a good set of false ones made -- double set, uppers an' lowers -- an' he used to set on his saw-buck day after day with them false teeth in his hand, studyin' 'em an' studyin' 'em, an' wonderin' how he could improve on 'em. An' at night he would sigh, an' go to bed, an' then he couldn't sleep for thinkin' of them false teeth. He was about three years thinkin' how to invent better false teeth."
"It was worth it, it was worth it!" said Daniel enthusiastically.
"Three years," said S. Potts, "that was the time that Peter Guppy put in settin' around holdin' his uppers an' lowers in his hand. Sometimes he would hold the uppers in one hand an' the lowers in the other, an' sometimes he would hold them all in one hand an' scratch his head with the other, an' all the while he was gittin' more an' more discouraged. They ain't nothin' more disheartenin' than to set day after day studyin' false teeth. The more you look at 'em the more they look just like what they always looked like. But Peter Guppy was just sech a fool as you are, Daniel. He hadn't no sense."
"Well, S. Potts, we can't all be --" began Daniel.
"He was lazy, that's what he was," said S. Potts. "He wanted to git rich quick, like you do. He'd set by the day with them uppers an' lowers in his hand, openin' an' shuttin' his hand so them teeth would champ open an' shut before his eyes, an' when he got tired in his right hand he would shift them teeth over into his left hand an' go on champin' 'em. So one day he says: 'I declare to goodness, if it's goin' to take ma forty years to invent somethin' new about these here teeth, I wisht there was some way the plaguy things could do their own champin'! My hands is 'most wore out champin' the plaguy things.' An' right there, Daniel, was where he got the idee."
"I can almost see it, S. Potts," said Daniel.
"Power!" said S. Potts. "Power! That's what he thought of. That's what a lazy man always thinks of first off -- gittin' power to do his work for him. First off Peter Guppy thought he'd hire a boy to champ his teeth for him, whilst all he had to do would be to lay back an' look on; but he didn't have no money to hire a boy. Then he thought what a fine thing it would be to have self-workin' teeth that would champ by machinery whilst he looked on, an' then he stood up an' yelled. He'd thought what he could invent about false teeth. He could invent self-operatin' teeth. Nobody had ever invented self-operatin' teeth, so far as he knew."
"I wisht I had thought of that invention," said Daniel greedily.
"I bet you do," said S. Potts. "That's about what sense you've got. But it wasn't much to invent. I could have thought of it long before Peter Guppy did, but I seen it was a foolish thing to invent, so I didn't think of it. Anybody could have seen that the only way to improve a perfect thing like false teeth was to put power into them, but I wouldn't do it. No, sir! But Peter Guppy went right ahead an' done it. He set right to work an' invented Guppy's Auxiliary Motor Teeth, an' was as proud as pie. Soon as I seen 'em I shook my head. I hated to discourage him, but I hadn't no faith in self-actin' teeth, so I just hiked up my head an' shook it. But it didn't do no good.
"I guess he made a lot o' money, didn't he?" asked Daniel wistfully.
"Out of an invention I had shook my head at?" questioned S. Potts scornfully. "Peter Guppy thought he would make a lot of money. That's what he thought. Them teeth looked all right, an' they would have fooled you, Daniel. They was rigged up with a clockwork spring, an' when Peter Guppy touched a button they went right to work an' chewed. Just like I'm openin' an' shuttin' my hand here -- champ, champ, champ! That's the way they worked when Peter Guppy held 'em in his hand. He was all swelled up about 'em.
He figgered they'd save a lot of labor, an' lots of time, too, because all a feller had to do was push his food into his mouth, an' them teeth would do the chewin'. Peter Guppy was mighty proud."
"I'd be proud," said Daniel.
"I wasn't," said S. Potts. "I waited. Peter Guppy went around town tellin' how he was the greatest benefactor America ever had, an' that all this nation had needed was him to invent them teeth, an' now it would be the happiest on earth, he said everybody knew that what was the matter with America was indigestion an' dyspepsia, caused by lack of not chewin' their food enough, caused by lack of time for eatin'. Now, he said, folks wouldn't have to chew long, they could chew quick. They could set their teeth at high speed, an' the teeth would chew sixty bites a second, or if they wanted to git some satisfaction chewin' tobacco or gum they could set the teeth at low speed an' chew long an' steady. All lazy people would have to do would be to set with their mouths open an' let the Guppy Auxiliary Motor Teeth go ahead an' chew. Peter Guppy used to stand down at the post-office corner an' place them teeth on the sidewalk an' set 'em goin', an' the whole crowd would stand off an' admire 'em whilst they champed away, sixty bites to the second, as regular as clockwork."
"What'd he put 'em on the sidewalk for, S. Potts?" asked Daniel.
"They was safest there," said S. Potts. "Peter Guppy had let 'em champ so much in his hand that the muscles of his hand was all tired out, an' he was afraid they might champ out of his hand an' fall an' git broken; but on the sidewalk they just champed around in a circle, goin' kind o' hippety-hop. They traveled backward like a crab, but the action was more like a clamshell, only quicker. You don't often see a clamshell open an' shut sixty opens an' sixty shuts to the second, Daniel."
"I don't recall none," said Daniel. "Why didn't he use them teeth in the regular way."
"There was one bad thing about them teeth," said S. Potts. "They had to have room in 'em for the spring, an' that made 'em step mos' too high when he had 'em in his mouth. Peter had only about a two-inch-high mouth, an' them teeth was three-inch steppers. They sort o' strained his mouth. There ain't nothin' much worse in false teeth than to have 'em tread too high, 'specially when they tread by machinery. It used to tire Peter all out, openin' an' shuttin' his mouth that way, sixty times to the second, an' them teeth used to knock so hard on the roof of his mouth that he had
to sit at meals with one hand on the top of his head to hold hisself down, an' even then he bounced so hard on the chair that he jarred the house some. The whole neighborhood could tell when Peter was havin' a little nourishment. He made a noise like a motorboat. Them that seen him said it was sort o' funny to see him, settin' back with his mouth wide open an' them teeth jiggin' away inside of it. Often he used to joggle clean off onto the floor, an' if he didn't grab the table-leg with his free hand he would joggle all 'round the room. I wouldn't have had the things at no price."
"Neither would I," said Daniel.
"Yes, you would," said S. Potts. "You would if I hadn't been there to stop you. You would have gone an' bought a pair, like as not. 'Twould have been just like you to sleep with the blame things in your mouth, like Peter did. That's what spoiled Peter's looks. He'd been a fair looker before that, but one night he went to bed with them teeth in his mouth, an' they got touched off accidental whilst he was asleep, an' they champed all night, an' the next morning Peter had the top of his mouth all blistered, except where them teeth had worn calluses, an' his lower jaw was pushed down so far out of plumb that it was permanently lowered, an' all the rest of his life he had to go 'round lookin' like a big-mouth bass out of water. He couldn't git his mouth shut by an inch. No, sir! You bet he never wore them teeth to bed again!"
"Took 'em out nights, I reckon," said Daniel.
"He took 'em out," said S. Potts, "but he didn't do like he ought to have done an' put 'em outside the house. He laid 'em on the stand by his bed, an' woke up dreamin' they was stole, an' when he put out his hand to see if they was there they bit him on the finger. They bit him three times before he could git his finger out, an' he was so mad he grabbed 'em an' threw 'em across the room, an' they lit on the sofa an' chewed a sofa-pillow till daybreak. When Peter got up in the morning there wasn't nothin' left of the sofa-pillow but fine feather dust, an' the teeth had chewed on through the sofa, an' fell to the floor an' chewed the hind leg of the sofa clean off. Peter's wife was so mad she never smiled again until she got his insurance money. Peter died from them teeth."
"I s'pose," said Daniel thoughtfully, "I s'pose that when them teeth bit Peter they give him the hydrophoby."
S. Potts looked at him sorrowfully. "Ef that ain't just like you, Daniel!" he said. "There ain't no logic in you. Of course if this was a pack an' parcel o' lies I was tellin' you, it might be that I'd go on an' say Peter Guppy got the hydrophoby from that bite, but nothin' of that kind happened. Natchurally. Because them was Peter's own teeth what bit him. If Peter had had hydrophoby when them teeth bit him then they would have give it to him, like as not, but he didn't have. The trouble was that he swallered them teeth. I don't suppose you know anything about physiology, Daniel?"
"Well," S. Potts," said Daniel apologetically, "I ain't looked into it much. You ain't never told me much about -- what did you say that word was, S. Potts?"
"Physiology," said S. Potts. "But if you don't know nothin' about it, it ain't much use tellin' you about what happened to Peter Guppy, "cause you wouldn't understand it. I don't reckon you know what an esophagus is, even?"
"Now, S. Potts," began Daniel pleadingly, "you know I never had any esoph--"
"Daniel," said S. Potts, "an esophagus is a sort of knob on the inside of your throat, that's what it is. It's put there to help you swaller. But the whole inside of Peter Guppy's throat was spread wide by the constant champin' of them teeth, an' where the back end of them rubbed, his esophagus was worn down to a nubbin. So that's how it happened that whilst Peter Guppy was goin' downtown one day he swallered his teeth. He threw his head back to sneeze, an' whilst his mouth was open them teeth slipped on down his throat. That wouldn't have been much loss. Them teeth was a failure, an', anyway, if Peter Guppy had wanted to have a pair he could have rigged up another, but on the way down the push-button bumped against his esophagus, an' it set them teeth goin'. Never shall I forgit that scene, Daniel, an' I hope it will be a lesson to you."
"I hope so, S. Potts," said Daniel.
"I hope so, but I doubt it," said S. Potts. "I heard poor Peter yell, an' I run, an' so did everybody, an' there was poor Peter layin' on the ground, writhin' in agony, an' nobody knowed what was the matter. Some thought he was havin' a fit, and some thought maybe he was inventin' some new invention. Then all of a sudden we seen a little lump rise by his left knee, an' out come them teeth. Whilst we was all dumfounded, they sort of looked around an' give a champ or two, an' jumped right at Peter's other leg, an' disappeared, sixty champs to the second. There wasn't much we could do. Some said one thing an' some said another, but any of them wouldn't have done no good; if so I would have done it. You know that, Daniel. When the sun went down there wasn't nothin' left of Peter Guppy but one shoe, an' them Auxiliary Motor Teeth had begun on that, sixty bites to a second. But I stopped that right then."
"I bet you did, S. Potts," said Daniel enthusiastically. "I bet you did."
"I did," said S. Potts. "'Here,' I says, teeth has had fun enough, an' it's time they stopped. We'd best stop 'em whilst there's enough of Peter Guppy left to have a funeral with.'
That's what I said, but I had to git an ax before I could kill them teeth, an' then they nearly sprang on me an' bit me. But I was just a little too quick for 'em."
"There ain't no false teeth goin' to git the best of you, S. Potts," said Daniel admiringly. "But it does seem sort of too bad that they had to be killed off. They might have --"
"There you go!" said S. Potts. "If that ain't just like you! Why, them teeth was murderers! That's what they was -- murderers!"
Daniel shook his head regretfully. "I'd liked to have seen 'em, S. Potts," he said. "If you hadn't killed 'em that way maybe I might have seen 'em, an' if I had seen 'em I might have knowed how to invent 'em a little better. Of course they was murderers, but you might have sort of arrested 'em -- put 'em in the penitentiary. Them teeth oughtn't to have been killed that way with an ax, S. Potts, even if you did do it. They ought to have been arrested an' tried. They ought to have had a fair trial,"
"Well, it ain't much use tellin' you things, Daniel," said S. Potts with disgust. "Seems to me like Peter Guppy give them teeth all the trial they deserved. I bet you don't even see the moral what this talk has got in it for you. Do you, now?"
Old Daniel wrinkled his brow and thought deeply. Suddenly he smiled. "Sure I do!" he said. "Sure I do, S. Potts! When a feller invents Auxiliary Motor Teeth he don't want to use 'em; he wants to sell 'em to other folks."
"Great howling Christmas candles!" said S. Potts, and he got up and went back to his saloon.