by Suzanne Crone
Rosco Perdu sits under his impressive Chippendale desk brushing his teeth. He is cross-legged on the plush Wedgewood-blue carpet, and surrounded by spent toothpaste tubes; some rolled up, others simply twisted and discarded. The orphaned lids are assembled on the floor in a line that resembles an ammonite, or the concentric swirls of exiting water down a drain. He hiccoughs, and in the time it takes to swan another curl of toothpaste on his brush, he notices the buttons on his shirt. He’s a tall man, ectomorphic, so it’s difficult to sit under this desk, but requires that his fitted white business shirts have more buttons than, let’s say, his father, Mr. Farquhar Perdu. Farquhar was a short ass. Rosco is at least six feet, eleven inches tall; his height gifted undoubtedly from his mother, Celia, who towered over Farquhar. Piled on top of Rosco’s desk, and on the floor to the left of his lair underneath, are the fresh, plump tubes of the toothpaste he is so intent upon; the labeling clear and bright, Dent-O’s ‘Taste-O’ the South’ Bourbon Mardi Gras. This is the Dent-O Company’s newest success that, much to the surprise of the public, and the shareholders, and now Rosco, not only keeps cavities at bay, but takes the stress out of the day at 80 proof. Rosco Perdu, the CEO of the Dent-O Toothpaste Company, is blasted.
On the back of the tube, in very small print, is a warning, ‘Do not brush and drive. This product is not a meal replacement. Keep away from children.’ Then, below, are the insignias of various dental associations, and the area gaming and liquor control board. Rosco knows his father, if he were still alive, would be wary of ‘Taste O’ the South’. He would wonder if bourbon represented an appropriate direction for a toothpaste company in its 78th year.
Farquhar is raised an only child in cold, damp England. His parents, run a Rock Candy concession out of the window of their camper van and Farquhar eats not much else other than the hard, sugar-laden treat. His mother feeds it to him in a bowl with milk in the morning, between two slices of bread for lunch, and slathered in gravy for dinner.
“Lucky you,” she says. “’N’ought a penny to pay for such a treat. Others ‘d give their eye teeth for such delight.”
If it weren’t for the milk and the bread and the gravy, poor Farquhar might perish. By his early teens, he has few remaining teeth and plucks the last one while stowed away on the ship that brings him to America. He glares at the stub of rotted enamel and vows to succeed in life. Five minutes later, he steals the teeth from Taffy, a ventriloquist’s puppet he finds stored in luggage. He pops the enormous wooden set in his mouth and after the ship docks, appears incredibly happy stepping onto the pier. Within the first week, he secures a job at Ye Olde Phosphorous Paste Company as a product tester back when product safety wasn’t a consideration. Thanks to his fake teeth, he is able to, for a time, endure many nasty, yet minty toxins along the course of a workday and soon finds himself promoted. He marries tall, sideshow, Celia whom he meets at a circus while he is out stealing more teeth. They have Rosco, and Farquhar rises to company president and changes the name to Dent-O before succumbing to the virulent and robust accumulation of all of his work toxins as they present in the form of barn painter’s lip. This little-known malady is normally unique to the barn painters who test the integrity of their paint by dabbing it onto their lip or tongue. Too much, or too little water in the paint is easy to divine by such method. Unfortunately, after years of testing, the painters usually end up with an angry-looking lip that comes shortly before their demise. Farquhar Perdu’s lip is bigger than his head when he dies. He tries to give his son instructions on how to run the Dent-O Company, as he hands over the reins, by telling him that,
“Change is necessary. Change is good.”
But all Rosco hears is,
“Mange an estuary. Mange en nood.”
He figures his father is simply going bonkers. Bonkers. Rosco, himself, is not that far away from bonkers himself right now.
There is a knock on the door of Rosco’s office followed by the rattling of the knob and a weighted challenge to the lock with, perhaps, a shoulder. Miss Pronger-Ward, Rosco’s assistant, calls to him in a muffled, other-side-of-the-big-thick-door voice, “Sir? Mr Perdu? Are you alright? Can you…can you hear me?” There is a moment of silence, and then,
“I’m calling Mr. Fewer.”
The knob rattling stops. Rosco puts his latest tube of toothpaste down and, chin on his chest, begins talking to the buttons on the front of his shirt.
“Heyyyyyyyy li’l guys! Heyyyyy. Hey, you guys are sooo cute. Aren’t you? Wait a sec’n.”
Rosco slumps himself out from underneath the desk, rolls onto his back and onto a spent tube. The discomfort drives him to right himself and he sits out from underneath with his back against the side of the desk. He naps for a minute, then opens his eyes and looks up and out the window at the billboard, hired by the competition, to glare in to Rosco’s office window from across the street and
remind him of their success. The Bristling Smiles Toothpaste Company is now the top toothpaste manufacturer in the world with their new Make You Likeable toothpaste, dethroning Dent-O, and making Rosco a failure. Make You Likeable is brilliant. It’s so simple. Yes, it has a fresh clean taste. It helps to whiten a little and, as in Dent-O’s flagship brand, S. A. T. Score Satisfaction, makes the user much smarter than they have any DNA-right to be. But given everything? Given anything, who doesn’t want to be liked? Who doesn’t simply want to belong?
“Why didn’t I see this?” Rosco thinks.
He nods his head and in doing so bangs the back of it against his desk. He looks down at his buttons.
“Heyyyy. You guys! You guys! You’re sooo…I’m, I have a song.”
He flails into a sodden, slurring rendition of ‘Hold ‘em Joe’. He knows only the title lyrics so there is lots of repetition. Another knock on the door, and this time, a male voice,
“Rosco? Rosco, can you hear me? It’s Allen.” A pause. “Allen Fewer. Your Vice President.”
Then there are muffled voices, female first,
“Well he came walking through… magazine about Bristling. He sighed, took off his jacket, picked up…boxes of bourbon toothpaste, and told me that he wouldn’t be available…near future. I thought he was joking. He likes to joke, er, normally, but that was two hours ago and the door is…”
“Yes, I know the door is locked. Can you…Sid Moore in accounting? Tell him…emergency board meeting. And call Rosco’s wife. I’m getting the procedural manual.”
Rosco continues to talk to his buttons.
“The Brizzzling Smiles Toooothpashte Company. Tha’s the problem fellas! I tried. I mean I triiiiiied. Hey. You fellas wan’ some toothpaste? It’s bourrrrrbon. An’ not jus’ the flavour. I’ss real bourbon! Yep! Go on. Try it out fellas…”
And with that he carefully removes his shirt, drapes it over the back of his chair and starts to smear a bead of toothpaste along the button line. The chair, on wheels, moves away as he applies the toothpaste.
“I never noticed you guyz before. You work sooo hard. Ev’ry day. Every single day.” Then he sings,
“Hol’ ‘im Joe, Hol’ ‘im Joe…m, m, m-m-m hol’ ‘im Joe.” A pause.
“Hey. Where you guyz goin’? Hey! Don’…don’ you like me? Like me…oh. You sure know how ta hurt a guy…when he’s down. I need ta brush my teeth some more.”
Rosco sits back down, this time against the side of the desk facing the window, and cracks open another fresh tube. He finds his toothbrush on the floor near the caps, does his best to pick off the bits of carpeting lint and then heaps himself a double bourbon, neat. No floss.
“Cut throat,” he thinks. “This business is cut throat.”
He remembers when toothpaste, is nothing but toothpaste. All it does is clean your teeth. It doesn’t make you a better person. You can’t even use it to understand all of the Romance Languages or the basics of the Fibonacci Spiral. He remembers what a big deal it is when Tri-Day Labs comes out with Edison Brush. They are hesitant to market it as toothpaste since its main perk is that it sparks ideas. Users, in documented studies, come up with inventions like, reheatable toast, remote-control pencil sharpeners, and ways to store light that is not being used. Not all of the ideas are great(one in three), but with further research, the product is evened out and promises every user some kind of revelation or at least the ability to know that inventions like grass skis are a bad investment. The industry takes off with promises on its labeling that run the gamut from brilliance, to the ability to fly a little, and Dent-O takes its fair share. But this last blow seems, to Rosco, insurmountable.
“I am done, fellas. Joe. Mr. Hol’ ‘im. I am done.”
Rosco makes his way to his feet and opens the front drawer on his desk. He pulls out the report explaining the sharp decline in Dent-O stocks. He tries to throw it across the room but the report opens, catches air, and lands open on his coffee table next to the magazine, Cuspid Monthly with Likeable Lou headlining the front cover picture of Lou Alton, Bristling Smile’s CEO. The article lauds the company as a mighty success and provides a link to its advertising videos. The most popular is the one with the high school girl, unremarkable, lonely, mediocre in every way. She looks longingly at a group of happy teens frolicking on the lawn in front of some high school. The camera follows her as she wanders into a store where she accidentally knocks a box of Make You Likeable off the shelf. She reaches down to pick it up and reads the box. She looks to the camera, shrugs her shoulders and moves with it toward the check out. We see her at home, climbing the stairs to her room, dropping off her purse, then walking directly to the bathroom, opening the box on the way. She brushes with the toothpaste again before dinner, after dinner and again before bed. The next scene is her walking toward the front doors of the high school, expecting nothing. The sun dazzles her from high above, and the kids playing Frisbee stop, run over and ask her to join them. The principal comes out through the front doors, greets her and asks if he can carry her books inside for her. The cheerleading squad mounts a performance for her on the roof, and the captain of the football team gives her his jacket. She turns to the camera, holds up a frothy toothbrush and smiles.
Rosco keeps rummaging until he finds a computerized, automated toothbrush. He looks through more of his drawers and finds a pack of toothpicks. He opens the pack and jams the toothpicks into the toothbrush.
“I’m done fellas.”
He turns the toothbrush on and moves it towards his carotid artery, but not before each of the toothpicks flies out onto the floor, leaving him only with the threat of polishing himself in the neck.
“Argh, Joe. Why don’ you hol’ ‘im. Why don’ you? Joe…”
Rosco sits back down against his desk with the toothbrush in his hand. He stares at it then resolves that the only thing he can do is just jam the thing in his ear and brush his brain until he’s dead, front, back, and all through the cracks and crevices. Don’t forget the medulla oblongata. For this, he feels the need for more bourbon to set his nerves. Rosco rolls his head around in an effort to find a new tube and hears a knock. Then he hears a muffled voice. He opens the eyes on his well-fluoridated head and squints towards the window in front of him. He sees his wife.
“Oh. Hello Giselle. I’ll be late home for dinner ‘cause I’m drunk outta my gourd. An I…”
He pauses. Then he starts to fumble his way to standing but continues talking.
“I gotta fin’ out why alla my buttons are mad at me..over there…Hey. What are you doing out on the ledge, my darling? I’s droppy there from thirty floors up an you…Good God Giselle!”
Giselle Perdu, Rosco’s wife is out on the ledge, having received the phone call from Miss Pronger-Ward. She motions to Rosco to open the window. He does.
“Damn it, Rosco. What the hell?” Giselle bends through the slim, vertical opening of the window and drops to the floor perfectly, in high-heeled boots.
“How did you…?”
Rosco sits back down on the floor. His head spins.
“How did you get out there on that ledge?”
“Oh really? Come on Rosco.”
She pulls out a tube of Dent-O’s Danger Movie Heroine Toothpaste and throws it at his feet.
“Your own brand, Sherlock! I jumped from the top of the Clouder Building right onto this ledge. Or have you forgotten? Have you?”
She summersaults to the door and unlocks it. Allan, Miss Pronger-Ward, Sid Moore, and the other five members of the board fall into the room. Giselle turns back to Rosco, catapults herself over the sofa and the desk, picks up her husband and puts him in his chair, all the time having perfect hair and a totally hot body. She puts her hands on the arms of the chair and peers into his face.
“Rosco? Rosco? Where is the Rosco that I married? Where is the man with all of the ideas, huh?”
“Giselle? I would like to introduce you to…my buttons. Guys?”
He turns his head looking for the chair with his shirt on the back of it. He realizes, after finding one of the shirt sleeves under his arm, that he’s sitting in it and tries to cork screw around to see the back of the chair and the front of his shirt. Giselle sees what he is trying to do and stands back from the chair. Rosco’s efforts make the chair begin to spin. She catches him before he falls out. She grabs the shirt off the back of the chair and hands it to him, buttons-first.
“Oh, hiya fellas. Giselle? These are the fellas. Fellas? Giselle.”
With that, Giselle grabs the sides of the chair and stops it from spinning, squaring against her face with his.
“Rosco. You can’t give up now. This little thing with Bristles? This is what shakes you? Are you kidding me?”
“Giselle, I love you. I wish you could hol’ ‘im Joe. Could you hol’ Joe for me?”
Giselle turns toward Allen.
“Get him some coffee.”
He does. He’s gone for a comically short time, as if a stagehand has the coffee ready for him as soon as he walks out of the office. He has a tube of toothpaste visible in his shirt front pocket, Dent-O’s Efficient/Effective Orbiting Leader Toothpaste, so it’s no surprise. Rosco drinks the coffee, spilling some of it down his front. The effect of his scalding chest and the caffeine bring him closer to coherency.
“Giselle. What ever happened to just making a thing. You know, so you can have some healthy teeth and then go do a thing, like plow a field or buy some beef jerky. Everything’s like this. Nothing is what it is. Shampoo doesn’t just clean your hair. It can get you a laaaw degree. Aftershave can make you a good bronc b-buster. Hey…fellas…buttons. Buttons. Buttons are buttons.”
He pauses and maneuveres a slow complete turn in his chair. Buttons don’t highlight your shortcomings and make you feel you need to be better somehow…Joe. Joe is Joe. Maybe…maybe we don’t need to hol’ ‘im?”
“Damn it, Rosco. Learn from this. Don’t let your father’s tragic lip death happen for nothing. Learn. So Bristle’s up right now. Well? So? Raise the bar! Don’t make me pity you.”
“Giselle. Giselle I…I think I’m getting something.”
“Allen, I have an ideeea. More coffee. What kind is that, by the way?”
Allen has a fresh cup in Rosco’s hand before he finishes the sentence.
“Epiphany Roast, Sir.”
Rosco drinks and thinks. He puts his cup down. He takes up a marker, staggers to the whiteboard and writes TRUTH.
“This, I thinnnk, may be the peak, my friends. TRUTH. Allen, call research and get ‘em up here.”
“I just did, Sir.”
“This is it. This is aaall. This is the game-sh-shanger. Truth. Likeability’s sooo tepid. So safe. Bristles won’t know what hit him. An’ right on its heels, before he can blink, we’ll launch EMPATHY/COMP-P-PASSION. An’ finally, finally, we’ll hit it outta the park with ESCAPE, ‘cause the real world is too mush for p-people. I’ss too mush for anyone. Hol’ ‘im Joe. That’s all.”
Rosco throws the marker down and sits. Giselle helps him put on his shirt. He snorts and looks down as she does up his buttons.
“I love you fellas. An’ I love you Giselle. You’re sooo nice. Hey fellas! See how pretty my wife issss?
“Is that the truth or is that the toothpaste talking?”
“The fellas love you Giselle. They think you’re swell. An’ buttons don’t lie. Neither do I. …’Kinda rhymes.
“You realize truth could mean the end of this business?”
“I know. No more Heroine…but that outfit! We’ll juss’ make toothpaste. ‘Had to happen eventually.”
They all look at the billboard, and toast with a round of Bourbon.
Suzanne Crone has been writing forever. ‘Born just after the Big Bang, she’s seen a bit. ‘Raised up two fine fellas that can verbally spar like champs. She has a BA in English, a certificate in PR, and after some psych at Ryerson conducts her own experiments using dryer sheets and Scrabble scores. She’s had four essays published in the Globe & Mail in 2007, has written two novels(editing one now) and a bit of some pretty-alright poetry. She loves the creative process of writing and the thrill when ideas blossom. She loves a well-turned sentence.