Yellow Mama Archives II

Robert Dinsmoor

Acuff, Gale
Ahern, Edward
Allen, R. A.
Alleyne, Chris
Andes, Tom
Arnold, Sandra
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Baker, J. D.
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Barker, Tom
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Dinsmoor, Robert
Dominguez, Diana
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Zeigler, Martin
Zimmerman, Thomas
Zumpe, Lee Clark


Robert Dinsmoor

Every statement made below is true in its essence, but occasional embellishment by the author and lapses in memory, particularly those induced by the agent above, must be forgiven.

Under normal circumstances, it is exceedingly rare for me to engage in conversation with complete strangers—even on a train, in which idle conversation is the norm or even a custom one might deem socially obligatory.  Although, in this instance, even though the other passenger actually spoke first, I must confess that I unintentionally initiated the conversation.

          I was traveling from New York to Boston by way of Providence, occupying my time by composing a scathing literary review to deliver in person to the editor of an inexplicably prestigious Boston literary journal, when I began to develop an excruciating case of odontalgia. The pain manifested itself as waves that moved, with increasing frequency and power, from one of my right back molars and up through my jaw, where its tendrils moved not only down my neck and shoulder but also through my skull, especially my forehead and temples.  How much pain, I pondered, could a human being tolerate without going utterly mad?  In this case, I mused, mightn’t madness actually be a blessing? 

          A fragment of poetry embedded itself into my brain:  The pain was throbbing, throbbing, throbbing, robbing me of peace of mind . . .

          Had I been close to home, I could have procured opium oil or laudanum from my local apothecary or, in an extreme case, visited the barber for a tooth extraction.  Tooth extractions were gruesome processes in which the barber chained the patient to a chair, bracing himself with one foot on the back of the chair, and then pulled on the offending tooth with an enormous pair of forceps.  Yet, even that Medieval form of torture would have been preferable to the torment that I was experiencing now minute by minute, second by second.  The only painkiller that I had, alas, was a flask of whiskey, and once that was gone, what was I to do?

          The young man in the seat across the aisle from me must have noticed my rubbing my jaw and moaning pitifully—how could he not?—and he asked me about my affliction and whether there was anything he could do.

          “I’m experiencing a dreadful case of odontalgia and I’m afraid there’s not much that anyone can do.”

          “Don’t be quite so certain, my dear fellow.  There is a dentist in Boston who has developed a method for rendering the patient completely insensible to pain during a tooth extraction.”

          “Does it involve mesmerism?” I asked, somewhat worried as I considered the fate of the misfortunate protagonist of my story “The Facts of the Case of M. Valdemar,” who is awakened from a trance after he has died and his body has commenced to putrefy.

“No, he uses a queer sort of gas and has been successful in several instances.  He is planning to patent the gas and needs to try the technique on as many patients as possible, so it’s quite possible he’ll perform the tooth extraction completely free of charge.”

          “Is it safe?” I asked.

          “It is completely, undeniably, irrefutably safe.”

          “How do you know?”

          “I have tried it myself. You see, I have worked in Dr. Morton’s office as his assistant and was one of the first patients to undergo insensibility from the gas.  My name is Thomas Spear and I fully expect my name to appear someday in books devoted the history of medicine.”

          “Could I trouble you for directions to his office?”

          “I can do better than that, my dear fellow.  I’ll lead you straight to his doorstep.”

          Soon after the train arrived, as the sun began to set behind the cityscape of Boston and the lamplighters could be seen carrying their ladders toward the street lights, we began our modest walk toward Dr. Morton’s office on Tremont Row. Having lived in Boston some decades ago, I was familiar with the neighborhood.

          We arrived at a narrow brownstone, slightly elevated from the street, with a half dozen steps leading up to a door with a shingle that read “W.T.G. Morton, Dentist.” 

          “I hope his office is still open,” I ventured.

          “His office is always open during the week.  He often sleeps here.”

          The man who answered Spear’s knock was as young as he was.  “Hello, Leavitt,” Spear said. “This gentleman is in dire need of a painless tooth extraction, so I directed him here.”

          The man called Leavitt nodded and stepped into another room as Spear directed me to one of several chairs in the waiting area. After several minutes, Leavitt opened the door again and beckoned us into what I assumed to be Dr. Morton’s operating space.  There was a heavy wooden chair in the center of the room, bolted to the floor. On one nearby table was a whale oil lamp, and on the other was a queer glass globe with a wooden spigot and what looked like a sponge at the bottom.  In addition to the acrid smell of whale oil, I detected something sweet yet nauseous.

          The lamp cast shadows over Morton’s cheeks that obscured his eyes, but I could discern that he was in his late twenties and sported a lush yet well-groomed mustache.  He motioned toward the seat. “Please have a seat, sir. I assure you you’ll experience no pain.”  After I sat down, he said, “Allow me to introduce yourself.  I am William Thomas Green Morton.  And with whom might I have the pleasure of speaking?”

          “Edgar Allan Poe.”

          Morton paused.  “That name sounds vaguely familiar.  Where might I have heard it before?”

          “I’ve written poems and short stories for quite some time.  My most recent and popular poem, published earlier this year in The New York Evening Mirror, is entitled ‘The Raven.’”

          “Yes, of course!  ‘Quoth the raven, nevermore!’  I’m very pleased to meet a man of letters.  Then you’ll be especially appreciative of the name I have given my magic gas.  I call it Letheon.”

          “Oh, yes. Named after Lethe, the River of Forgetfulness—in Hades—I presume?”

          “You presume correctly, sir! Perhaps you can write about your experiences with it someday.”

          Morton picked up the lamp from a nearby table, held it close to my mouth, peered in, and asked me to point to the tooth that was bothering me. As I showed him, he nodded and put the lamp back on its table.  Then he carried the glass globe, about a foot in diameter, over to the chair.  I could see now that the sponge at the bottom was sitting in a shallow pool of colored liquid.  He explained the workings of the wooden valve and then instructed me to inhale from its opening.

          As soon as I inhaled the vapors, I had the queer sensation of falling backwards a not inconsiderable distance without coming to a landing.  For quite some time, I heard only voices that sounded very distant, as Morton must have been instructing his two assistants. Then I experienced nothing whatsoever.

          When I became conscious again, I was able to gradually focus on Morton and his assistants bending over me with looks of great concern. “Pass me the smelling salts, will you, Spear?”  A few seconds later, I was overpowered by a wave of ammonia, but still unable to stir or even to cough.   “The mirror, would you please, Leavitt?” Morton then asked, and then held a small mirror underneath my nose.  After half a minute, he said, “There’s no fogging of the mirror.  He doesn’t seem to be breathing.”

          “I’m not detecting a pulse either,” Spear said.

          “Try the stethoscope,” Morton said.  Spear produced a long wooden tube.  He opened my shirt and pressed one end against my chest whilst listening on the other end.  “Good God!  There’s no heartbeat!  He must have inhaled too much!”

          “For the love of God, I’m alive, you fools!” I screamed in my own mind, yet my vocal cords were unable to work.  In fact, I was utterly paralyzed.  Was I destined to live out the nightmare I had written about in “The Premature Burial?”  The story was fiction but, in fact, unfortunate individuals were buried alive frequently—the reason that caskets were built with bells on top of them. I tried to frown or smile, or move even my smallest finger, but it was all to no avail.

          I lost consciousness again and, when I awoke, everything was dark.  I was lying on a rumbling wooden structure and I heard hoofbeats.  Was I in a carriage now?  Not far from where I lay, two men were talking but I couldn’t distinguish any of their words. Where were we headed and why?

          Again, my mind conjured another horrific possibility.  What if Morton and his assistants had finally given me up for dead?  Was I in some sort of hearse?  Were we, in fact, on our way to some paupers’ graveyard, where I would be buried unceremoniously without even a proper headstone to bear my name?  Again, I tried to scream, but no sound emerged from my dormant voice box.

          The horses slowed to a stop and the two men got out.  “What brings you to Massachusetts General Hospital today, gentlemen?” I heard.

          “We were sent here by Dr. Morton.  This man appears to be dead.”

          “So this cadaver is a donation to the medical school?”  This possibility, which had not yet occurred to me, was far worse than being buried alive. Was I to be dissected by medical students, cognizant of every clumsy cut of their scalpels?

          “We were instructed to seek out Dr. Bigelow,” Spear said.

          “To what end?”

          “We need to confirm that the man is dead.”

          “I’ll see if he is available.”

          I may have lost consciousness again, and when I regained it, another man was staring down at me.  He examined my eyes closely, and then threw a sheet over my head.  “Is he dead?” Spear asked.

          “That’s what I intend to find out.” 

          The room became dark.  Someone must have extinguished the lantern.  “I would like to test out a procedure I learned from a doctor in Paris while I was studying medicine there.  It involves an ordinary friction match.  Watch closely, lads.”  The sheet was removed and for several seconds, it was still very dark.  Then the darkness was torn asunder by striking of the match, and I could smell brimstone in the air.  Did the doctor intend to inflict a burn, hoping to elicit a scream?

          With the match still hovering mere inches from my eye, he peered through a magnifying glass.  “There, you see that, lads?  His pupil reflexively contracted when exposed to the light.  Were the man dead, it would remain fixed and dilated.  I wager this man is very much alive!”

          I was so overwhelmingly relieved at this reprieve that tears began to roll down my cheeks.  “Oh my God!  Look, he’s crying!”

          “Wait a few minutes and I believe he’ll reach full consciousness.”

          Thus, I lived to tell this tale.  I now keep the molar as a memento in a jar of ether which, I later learned, was coincidentally the agent that had rendered me insensible.  Quite possibly, if for nothing else, I’ll someday be remembered as the subject of this historic medical experiment.

Rob Dinsmoor has had dozens of short stories published in various literary magazines, several of which were nominated for Pushcart Prizes.  Two of his short story collections, Toxic Cookout and You'll Never See It Coming, were published by Big Table Publishing.  He is very active on Facebook, where he promotes his and other writers' books, and more information is available on his Website,

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