Extract 8 of Toad’s Road-Kill Café. I’d just loaded up with the most delicious bread and baked goods at a bakery in Gettysburg, South Dakota. I was feeling good - until next morning, when I lost something very precious to me.
Where The Huck Did I Put Them This Time?
Back on Highway 83 I treated myself to one more roll and pointed the car north. Hidden Lake State Park should be up ahead somewhere, and I planned to camp there before crossing into Indian Territory next morning. The Park was just outside Selby, the seat of Walworth County and home to the County Jail, a suitably old-fashioned place with barred windows, its stonework perfectly preserved. The lake beside which I was to put up my tent had been created, several decades earlier by the look of it, by damming some creek or other. It was well sheltered, being thickly planted with trees. Still water, little wind: yep, the bugs were out in their droves, revelling in it, and the frogs were chirruping at the thought of all that lovely grub.
The camping facilities were about what I’d come to expect in these places, except that the water hadn’t been turned on for the new season, so it was down to the lakeside to fill a pan for washing. The margins were thick with black, slimy mud, and the water, although clear enough, had an unpleasant dark tint to it.
But what the hell: there was plenty of firewood under the pine trees, and I was soon demolishing a splendid three-course supper of soup and crispy poppy-seed rolls, tinned ravioli and crispy poppy-seed rolls, tinned peaches and just one more crispy poppy-seed roll – leaving two for the morning. Then, just as I was starting to fret about the clouds of insects, the sun went down, the temperature dropped sharply, and they all disappeared. Perched on my folding three-legged stool, I slipped a fleece over my shoulders and lobbed occasional pine-cones onto a crackling fire, throwing up showers of sparks to die against a darkening sky as the first stars started to shine .
I had a wonderful uninterrupted sleep, from a little after nine until around six, with no wakeful spells, no yowling varmints, no three a.m. pee. Just nine delicious hours buried under a layered darkness. And when I awoke and crawled out onto the cool grass my fire responded eagerly to a handful of pine needles and a few puffs of breath. I piled up the wood, and when it was good and hot and glowing red I fried myself a man’s breakfast, brewed a can of paint-stripper, had an all-over wash in scalding hot water, and sat there dunking pieces of the last Gettysburg roll in my white china cup. If keeping a fire alive for nine hours is satisfying, getting yourself clean and refreshed with a small pail-full of pond water calls for an outbreak of unrestrained smugness. It was barely half-past seven, but I was fed, cleaned, super-charged with caffeine, and had my tent and belongings stowed in the back of the car. I cleaned my teeth in my last mug-full of fresh water, dowsed the fire, then got on my way. As I wound my way out of the park a coyote streaked across the road in front of me. My one regret on this scintillating spring morning was that, having had such a good campfire breakfast, I had no excuse for killing time in family-run diners. But you can’t have it both ways.
At Selby – which celebrated its centennial in the year 2000 – a tractor was pulling railroad wagons into position under a grain elevator. There were all the usual signs advertising businesses which may or may not have survived – the Star Theatre, the Opera House, Ken’s Karpet Korner – but I didn’t have the inclination to find out. My mind was focussed on the river, and Mobridge.
Well, it was until I started pursuing some vagrant thought about how I might approach the Natives on the other side. In order to facilitate the mental process I started pushing my tongue about the inside of my mouth. I’d found one of those pieces of bacon that escape the attention of the most assiduous dental-flosser and was trying to work it out from between two incisors. That was when I realised that I had fewer teeth this morning than I went to sleep with last night. Four fewer, to be precise.
I slammed on the brakes and scorched a pair of neat, black parallel stripes that ran for twenty-five yards along Highway 12 and then veered off towards the roadside ditch. Then I checked both ways for traffic – hey, this was South Dakota, why bother? – swung the car around, and roared away through a light haze of smoke towards Hidden Lake.
I’d only once before lost my dentures. On that occasion I’d spent a torrid half-hour plummeting through the several stages of panic and despair as I contemplated my premature mental deterioration. I had one of those brief visions of the horrors of dementia – the prospect of being fed custard through a spout came readily to mind – before I was struck with a more immediate concern: “What In God’s Name Will I Look Like Down The Pub Tonight With A Huge Black Hole Between My Front Teeth?”
Back at the camp-ground I soon found the patch of flattened grass where I’d had my tent. And there were the sodden ashes of my fire, the round flat rock splashed with tooth-paste and water, the little pile of pine-cones from the night before. But where was my denture?
In situations like this you have to remain calm. Start dashing around the place turning over rocks and stirring up the remains of the fire and the likelihood is that even if your lost plate is there you’ll either tread on it or bury it. It does help, however, to have a good swear. As my old rat-catching mate used to say, when things weren’t going so well, “Aye, go on: let’s have a round of fucks and be done with it.”
Walter knew that there’s really no substitute for a good swear. He knew, although he never articulated it as a theory, that the reason certain expletives have caught on is not so much because they are supposedly unsayable, but because – if spoken in a passion – they feel so damned good as they erupt from your mouth. It’s like having a good, productive, cough. Unless, that is, you’ve mislaid your dental plate.
The trouble with having applying Walter’s remedy when you’ve got a gap between your upper front teeth is that it comes out all wrong. Where the Huck did I put it? Why the Huck did it hahe to happen now? This’ll cost me a Hucking Hortune.” Take it from me: it’s not nearly as satisfying as the real thing.
Which perhaps explains why I resorted to the strategy outlined above – namely panicking and turning everything upside down. By the time I’d decided that my missing denture simply wasn’t there, that some Great Plains magpie, having spotted the glimmering metal framework, had swooped down and taken it off as a bauble to keep the baby magpies amused, I’d re-arranged the landscape. The rocks I’d set neatly around the fire the previous night were scattered randomly over half an acre, the pine-cones likewise, and the remains of the fire were scattered over me. My arms, legs and face were now caked in sweat and charcoal.
It was then that I spotted The Lads. I call them The Lads: what I actually saw, over on the far side of the camping area, was a pick-up truck. It was making steady but slow progress around the perimeter road, stopping and starting as two guys in overalls and wearing baseball caps climbed slowly out of the cab and threw various bits of rubbish into the back.
Remembering the kind of people I used to work with when I was litter-picking for the London Borough of Richmond’s Parks Department, I hesitated to approach. In one gang I worked with, `The Lads` consisted of: a sex-crazed midget with homicidal tendencies, a semi-professional football hooligan with a string of convictions and a lifetime ban from Queen’s Park Rangers, and a taciturn long-hair who read and re-read A Clockwork Orange – and nothing else – throughout my entire six-month stint. They didn’t have much in the way of social graces, and anything they found in amongst the usual road-side detritus – antique bottles, prams, items of women’s clothing, the odd dead badger – they either smashed, stuck on our Bedford van’s radiator grille, or sold to the foreman. The foreman ran a second-hand shop in Barnes, mostly in company time.
What if The Lads had found my plate? The truck was steadily getting further and further away. I had no time to think. I leapt into the car, stuck it in Drive, and shot off across the grass, whacking one of my discarded rocks with a hideous clunk.
“Hey, hellas,” I began. “I mean guys,” I corrected myself.
The last event of note in Hidden Lake State Park was probably the day they installed the Coke machine by the office and had the Mayor come by to put the first ceremonial quarter in the slot. Or maybe it was the time they ran over a beer bottle and, once they’d fixed the flat tyre, called in the Feds and instituted a man-hunt across three states. Drinking alcohol in a State Park? I tell ya, these South Dakota tearaways’ll stop at nothing. I’m not saying that The Lads’ life was contemptibly dull, or worthless, just that they probably hadn’t cultivated much tolerance of excitement.
And now these two amiable, tobacco-chewing – elderly, I now realised – Midwestern park attendants were confronted with a wide-eyed maniac blacked up as if for a minstrel show and talking in tongues. No real surprise that they threw a shower of gravel and twigs onto my windscreen as their rear wheels skidded and they shot off towards the park gates with me in hot pursuit.
I didn’t have to pursue them for long. They pulled up at the ranger station. Unfortunately for them – fortunately for me – the ranger was out. They would have to face me like men. The door of their cab opened, and out they stepped, one wielding a shovel, the other talking with grave deliberation into a mobile `phone. “Yeh – he’s alone, all right. But I tell ya, he looks real ornery. Texas plates an’ all.”
There was only one thing for it. As my old grandmother used to tell me, I might as well make a clean breast of it. I’d feel a lot better. I held up my hands and walked slowly towards them. “It’s okay, guys. I’m – I’m hrom England.”
“Say what, Tex?” Up came the shovel.
“I’m hrom England. I’he been camping here. I’he – had an accident.”
“What kinda accident?”
I truly sympathised with them. I’d just caught a glimpse of my face reflected in the windscreen of their truck. If I’d been a terrorist honing his bomb-making technique, I’d probably have ended up looking just like this. But before I could start on my story, the one with the shovel was narrowing his eyes and coming closer.
“Did you say England?”
“Yeah.” I pointed to the plates. “Hlew into Houston a couple oh weeks ago.”
“What parta England you from, pard?
“Well, you know London?”
“Sure do. I married a gal from Croydon.”
“Well, I’m about 200 miles north oh there.” But before we got embroiled in an outline geography of the British Isles I decided I ought to steer the conversation round to my lost dental plate.
The guy with the mobile `phone laughed. “Sure we found it. Sitting there on a rock in the sunshine.” And he walked round to the front of the truck and pointed. There on the grille, amid a collection of dolls, cuddly toys and world-weary plastic Santas, was a knitted donkey, its mouth gaping, and my denture protruding from between its crocheted lips.