Rumpus Original Fiction: Country People Work


Irving Campbell became a dentist. When he graduated from the University of the West Indies, his mother attended the ceremony. She wore her best church hat, and her scented powder had the essence of melon.

Are you proud of me? Proud: cocoa, tea.

The taste of words formed at the back of the tongue were swallowed and digested when spoken. Irving Campbell told only his mother when he began to taste his words. He could not quite recall the exact age at which he shared this with her, but he knew it was of a time where there was comfort to sit at a mother’s lap. Words like “comfort”: plum, just almost overripe. Antihistamine: bitter, metallic, like licking the rim of a car. Words like “fuzz” made an itch, a tingle, stalks of wild grass planted in the pit of his stomach. Church, like scotch bonnet pepper sliced, sautéed with onions, scallion, and callaloo served on plates that displayed dancing hummingbirds somewhere above the sea. Irving explained this to his mother as best as he could. His trepidation tasting stale: breakfast cereal left in the cupboard too long.

“Someting nasty grow, take root, yuh’ve got to dig it out, with your bare hands if necessary. But that’s left to you and God, that’s where I leave you,” his mother said to him after he finished explaining. She said nothing more and didn’t say much more to him ever again. Me tink some of his wires got crossed, somewhere along da way, Irving had overheard her saying to a woman from church. And me cyaant save him now.

In bed that night, Irving put three fingers into his mouth and clawed at his tongue. Something nasty grow, take root, yuh’ve got to dig it out, with your bare hands if necessary. 

He vomited his fear, which tasted like communion bread and wine. Another sign he reasoned that something evil had made its way inside of him. And only a devil could do that.



So Irving Campbell became a dentist. To look inside the mouths of others and dig out all the devils. It was a job he found most responsible, most rewarding, most dignifying. It was a job for a respected and trusted man. It was the job for the type of man who he had wished could have pressed a cool cloth to his forehead, put the weight of his hands on to usher him into bed, the kind that told stories for sleep that could have held truth, the playful kind of truth that balances delicately between what is lived and seen and what could be. Father: star anise, boiled in broth for soup. Dead: chicken bones, chewed for marrow.

Irving had pulled eighty-one teeth throughout the years he had been hired by various schoolhouses across the countryside. Though the checks were often mailed to him months later, for amounts that did not match his quote, he agreed to visit the schools each year. The children and their parents would have severe decay, the kind he knew came from country people work. Which meant canned foods instead of toothpaste, only the occasional baking soda rinse. He would offer his recommendation of extraction, much to his delight. A delight which came from a work, a duty, bestowed onto him by God. A secret shared between them. Something watched over, tended to, something whispered, in the release of the gums as he pulled: devils, with his bare hands. When the blood came, he would point to a mop bucket just beside their chairs, where he asked them to spit.

Irving would read about his condition, the taste of words, later on in his life, and knew somehow that the discovery would kill him. Synesthesia. He saw the word in a medical journal while sitting at the rusted metal desk in his office. He thought then of his reputation, a reputation which had taken him years of medical practice to build, and therefore, as things work with time, could not be undone. A reputation that he had spent most of his career underestimating. That is, until more recently, the day of the girl who refused to open her mouth.

“Me know what yuh do to us children! We all know yuh pull out all our teeth, and we must eat porridge for the rest of our lives! Well, not today, not me, sir,” the girl had said before she clamped her jaw shut. The strain bulged the veins at her neck.

The girl threatened to bite if Irving were to touch her, and so he didn’t. Her schoolteacher escorted her out. Ornery pickney, she mumbled.



The girl’s mother was the one who brought her back. At the end of the school day. She held the girl’s shoulder and squeezed until she sat down in the chair across from Irving.

“Me know that she have tooth rot, she holler so bad biting into dumpling me thought me would have to take it out right then. Cyaan take not another one of her antics. Lord! Now, Yvette, apologize to Dr. Campbell.”

“Not necessary, child.”

“Yvette. My name is Yvette, and me want you to know that this will be allowed today against my will,” the girl said crossing her arms. Her mother slapped her across the back of the head.

“Sincerest apologies, sir,” the mother said. “I don’t know where she gets these tings in that head of hers. She got some spirit inside her.”

On the day that Irving read about his condition later on in his life, at his desk, in his office, he whispered a prayer to all who he had caused unnecessary pain and shame. He knew most of them would never get the gaps filled. He thought most of the steadfast girl who would grow into a young woman, and seek love, seek desire, who would not know whether or not these things could be found if she were to smile, smile so in the ways of love and desire, revealing the open rawness of her gums. Forgive me, Lord. Forgive: ripe pomegranate, split, juice sucked from the core.

It would be just a few days later, after the discovery of his condition, when he sat again at his desk, in his office, that Irving would notice his office had suddenly become identical to his childhood bedroom, and instead of his desk, he sat at the edge of his childhood bed. He felt as though his mother were in the room just beyond, sleeping, as she had slept before, when he gagged on his words quietly so as not to disturb her. He gagged again, as he had then, his tongue feeling bloated; his teeth, which he ground into one another, felt somehow frail, like in this way they would be whittled into a nothingness, leaving only the bloodied flesh of his gums. He called for his mother, which came from the emptiness of his mouth in a squeal, incomprehensible, much like an infant. He felt this all just before collapsing backward and hitting his head against the wall where his diploma hung, just slightly uncentered.

He thought he heard something. And so he thought it was his mother, hearing his cry, finally, in some way, understanding him, and so, appearing before him in this time of need. His mother, in her appearance, took the form of a child, hovering just above him. Though what he heard was not his mother, but his own voice, from before. And it was. It was his own voice, from a time before, repeating what he had spoken then, into the now. His jaw, slack, curved into the fat of his neck, so the words came not from his own mouth, but the mother-child.

It won’t be a problem after today, the mother-child said in Irving’s voice. It is what Irving had told the stubborn girl. He would pull straight from the source, all her cantankerous. Cantankerous: nutmeg.

 Now open and let me see that little devil.



Irving Campbell did as he was told.




Rumpus original art by Dmitry Samarov

Stephanie Mullings is a fiction writer from Chicago. She is a graduate of Boston University's Creative Writing MFA program, where she received the Leslie Epstein Global Fellowship. Stephanie is a winner of the 2021 First Pages Prize and a finalist of both the 2021 Arkansas International Emerging Writer's Prize and CRAFT's 2022 Short Fiction Prize. Presently, she is a doctoral student in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Southern California. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Boulevard, Catapult, Bat City Review, the Los Angeles Review, Wigleaf, and elsewhere. More from this author →