Man with the Missing Mouth
Nathan found his mouth separated from him one day, and he did not know what to do. It was alive, his mouth, the one that’d been on his face for thirty-eight long years. Where it should be in its rightful place, below his nose and above his stubbled chin, now gone. He did not notice it at first. The loss wasn’t dramatic—no strange hand had come to rip it off, no excruciating pain or blood, or any other sign of something unusual. Everything was placid. He was in his office. Behind the L-shaped cherry wood desk, metal cabinet at a corner and an abstract painting of a staircase above a cream-colored couch. Seeking an eraser he’d pulled the drawer of his desk. What should be there but his mouth. Who’d believe this, a pair of stranded lips, lying amidst the stationery like an eraser, dully pink and shaped after a blade of fallen leaf. On it, a coat of shea butter. “What’s this?,” he thought and picked it up by its corner, three fingers midair as though holding a teacup, shrugged and threw it into the trashcan. The assumption that his mouth was where it belonged was reasonable. That was when it puckered into a bud and whistled, like a warbler, then said, in Nathan’s voice, “I am your mouth.”
Ears confused he looked into the trashcan. It’d gone silent, soundless at the bottom, inert. Rarely, however, no matter how unhearing, would anyone mistake or ignore his own voice. It came uncommanded and loud with authority, too: “I am your mouth.”—an audacity for anyone to say. After all, a mouth was a private organ. Who’d claim to be another’s, but for a tyrant—why was he hearing it? What just betrayed me?, he thought. His life had been so rife with betrayals, as though daily bread, an exaggeration but frequent enough, that he’d now take as automatic that his lips had betrayed his face. He did not eat bread every day. Found that would make a dull man overly obedient to breakfast norms and flour. He liked entertainment on his food, often visited expensive places with dainty dim sum floating down in metal carts like dumpling clouds of dreams. Restaurants with waitresses in silky costumes, hugging tight to bodies like the skins of fish.
But this was not the time for food. This was an emergency where food was now a question for Nathan. A mouthless situation that paralyzed him—how could this happen, absurd as though it was raining milk, the sky a mother—debilitating and effeminizing him. A flutter of fear, a metallic sensation, soured his pelvis, as when one stood at the edge of a tall building, against height’s majesty; as he blinked and watched the abandoned pieces of lips, ownership now vague, seeming to turn white, blending in like a chameleon with the surrounding papers, trash, with every hard stare. Were they his? They seemed familiar, so that his eyes could not doubt while his mind refused the sight. This must be what was called jarring, he thought, unmoving. His body was fixed, nailed to the leather chair, his property since 2013, while his skin imagined ants scrambling and the organs of his face felt uncoordinated.
This must be a lie, he thought. It had to be—when had history ever produced a mouthless man? Its weight was undeniable, the past cold as a stone its timelessness silent, that one puny man screaming, “You are wrong. I have no mouth, but I exist!” would not be heard, callous as history was. The best it’d do was to forget him. Even his grave. Truth was death, that if he were to give in to this reality and believe his lips were in the trashcan, that his office was a memory from a graveyard, and no longer could any delicious dim sum reach his mouth or water wet it…No. His body was the only sure existence where truths originate. His pair of lips was lying to him. If not, this was a dream, a fictive made up of pillows and cotton from where he’d soon wake, when his Casio radio alarm went off. Things would be back to normal. His fingers would hit the alarm, he’d snooze in the final throes of grays before tossing off the duvet. Bare-chested, a shiver traveling down his spine, he’d shake off with a glass of water from the sink. The coffeemaker gurgling and coughing like an old man, even though it was bought last year—a Hamilton Beach—he’d thought to throw it out soon. Machines were short-lived these days.
This morning he was sure his mouth was there, when he opened the fridge for the herbal cheese spread, his usual breakfast fare, and with a butter knife smeared the creamy white on a bagel. It’d gone flat—the part-time cleaning woman best know this, if he had to open his mouth to make it clear, “Why are the bagels not fresh,” it’d sting. Errors start tiny like weeds, she’d not want to spark a fire in Nathan, with his polite harshness for his rule to meet his will. She could not say, the date was valid, call the bread factory…freedom of speech didn’t apply to her, a valid passport wouldn’t help Nathan’s hearing. “Don’t explain, don’t try.” He ate the bagel halfway, in distaste threw the rest into the stainless-steel garbage, feet off the pedal. The way he would hours later for his missing lips. Once he’d been in dire straits, when his future was bleak, now he was well-off and had no sentiment for others’ hardship, his memory shallow as a puddle, Nana, the cleaning woman knew. She wanted to quit. A man like this did not deserve years of service. She’d get nothing but his disgust, loathing, passed on to her, intent to mess up her life. Dim as Nana was she was bright enough to know that each time an American woman did not want to do her job, she’d inherit it…
The bagel forgotten, he wiped his mouth with a napkin from a holder. From where he stood, by a narrow strip of lacquered counter table, he could see the chic clock hung above the panel tv, numberless and copper-rimmed, hands near seven. He went to the bathroom to brush his teeth. His mirror indicated nothing. Told the same story of his face, his mouth faithful and intact on his beloved face. No signs of an impending, absurd departure. The toothbrush was electric. It turned on with a buzz that, fixed as he was on the leather chair in his office now, he could still hear. The monotonous whirs like a cricket vibrating along his teeth, evidence of the morning’s existence of his mouth. Or was memory playing a prank? Someone had told him it was unreliable as rain. Nathan had asked, “Even your own?” and the man, sipping champagne, said, deliberately abstruse, “Mine’s like a castle’s.” He was the director. Maybe that made memories purer. Maybe memories chose who to favor, unfair as storms and bitter rains. Nathan knew it was there. It was the memory of his teeth’s morning’s rendezvous with the electric Samsung brush, the soft points of bristles and mint exploring the gaps between molars. Surrounding that foamy mouth was a face of handsomeness, proven by the flocks of women who gave themselves over to appearances.
Because his mouth was certainly gone. As inscrutable as magic, rare as lottery. He’d climbed the staircase of his loft after the wash, beside the bed a brick wall ended with a window opened to a bleached, gray morning, and changed. First an undershirt from a pine shelf, a shirt and pants hanging from the racks. At seven forty-five, in a pair of Italian oxfords, to him a measure of a man, for the solid steps he took in them, as though the ground was a woman flattened and ready to receive his gaits of dirt, comparison was how he derived confidence, he saw himself again in the full-length mirror. Mouth was in it. Balmed. Hair, peppery-gray and forelocks swept up, ready. Vanity, that pretty thing, tilted his chin. A proud man was a winner, a vain one might not be. Whatever the case, the route to his office downtown was the same. The office was empty yet. The security guard said hi. Soon he’d be off his shift and no one remembered his dark face, whether Nathan had a mouth or not, he didn’t care to know. On the sixth floor, the cubicle farm in his company was quiet as a graveyard and would come alive at nine, most not eager for unpaid hours. But for Jean, whom Nathan did not see, hidden behind the divider screen, and Chanon.
But now mouth was gone. Of all places it was in the drawer amidst pens, pencils, rules, post-its, stapler, highlighters, gluestick, paper clips, pins, keychains…When he entered his office mouth should still be there. At which point had he lost it, and like a man retracing his steps to find a lost item had shut the door with a name plate that said, “Nathan Y., Chief Innovation Officer,” which he’d hug like a wife if he could and crossed the pistachio carpeted space to his desk. Sat on the black leather chair which had retained the shape and weight of his bottom in a slight dent after five years. They’d wanted to give him a new chair but he’d rejected it, preferring the old. At the desk’s edge was a stack of folders. He was ready for the day’s agenda, to read the reports Chanon had brought in yesterday. They did not exchange words. Nathan had hardly lifted his head to look at him. It could be Edward, the other accountant boy. It didn’t matter who came in for a task such as setting down binder files. Nathan did not know anyone; he’d only expected everyone to know him.
He suspected mouth got lost some point after he took the top file, an orange one, and opened it. Briefly he’d looked at the cup from Amsterdam—he’d thought to get coffee later, for now he’d work. The report was sixty-eight pages in length and esoteric, of financial analysis in the market distribution for common equity, besides the pie charts and statistics that had to be checked for the right figures, or he’d have hell to bear from the director who’d sipped the Moët and might say, “Welcome to my castle.” Power obeyed gravity, and Nathan was passive. Vanity did not help him at this. A castle was a profound place and he didn’t know where the keys were. He had three hours, he thought, glancing at the wall clock, curiously like his home’s, but the rim silver.
He plunged into work and did not notice mouth. The clock’s hands were independent of the room, him, and half an hour passed when he noticed strange pencil scribbles in the margins. They did not look like alphabets, but musical notes, or a bird with a beak or a fish facing up with a circle for an eye. An e with the opening skyward, a g drawn in the reverse. Was it an axe or hammer…what were these cluttering the margins?!, he almost thundered. Who’d given him a dirty report! But he did not, he remembered, open his mouth. Exasperated and by instinct he tugged the drawer, when normally he’d have picked up the phone and dialed for his secretary: “Get me a clean report.” He must have known the office was empty. The clock read eight-fifty, though he did not look at it, and that was when his fingers held the corner of his lips and dropped it like a banana peel into the trashcan.
Once more, he thought, “This must be a dream.”
Beyond the office door he caught the signals of life filling into the company space like pigeons returning to roost. It was time Nathan checked his mouth. He put his hand to his oral zone. As check, corroboration, confirmation, have I really lost my mouth?, and it was sure as a delivered verdict. It was gone. Without explanation or saying goodbye, below his nose only a smoothness of a stone’s. Chin still stubbled, shaving was every three days, but there were no protrusions, philtrum, only a mysterious, sealed blank space with a slight concave.
My god. What had he become, a mouthless man, this mound of sordid block now in its place—what was in it, gum, bone, flesh, cement, plastic? Sealed like a perfect egg, when it was once open and free as a 口, a box, a character he knew as mouth in Chinese. This beloved box had been the instrument in all he said and ate, for nutrients, water, life, pleasures into another’s, a woman’s, the last time he kissed was in a club. He didn’t know who she was. Nowadays names were not required for a mouth to flare into urgent passion or pretend there was or by mistake, strangers deepthroated and tongued every July. Or March as it was now spring and the weather victorious with the scent of buttercups, and people would like to kiss. Kiss and part as though it’d never happened and when you meet a stranger she was as familiar as daffodil or vodka. As though springing awake suddenly he recalled, “Denmy.” She was the last person he kissed and she’d worn something like a diver’s suit. With a sparkling zipper lowered down to her cleavage.
What was he going to do with a sealed mouth, as his fingers traced. It was a weapon for pain, each time he shouted instructions at Nana or Chanon. He didn’t mean it. When the rumble erupted from the base of his throat and the thunder of sentences exploded. When he cursed in breath that stank of anger and the power it loved. Layers of balm, L’Occitane, and cruel words that gave no respite because he was the master of his loft and office. Mouth had been his edge, pitch, marriage, wife, chair, linen pants, oxfords, the bagel he’d thrown away this morning. Without it he was as good as gone. The unspeaking could live, somewhere in the countryside where silence was less salient and one didn’t need to talk anymore, like a rabbit, nuzzling lettuces and wild grasses, and let talk die. But that wasn’t what he wanted.
He wanted talk, his mouth back. To the state of nature, human mouth belonged on faces. So that he could order Jean, “Go get this.” Not this terror of blank space now. Suddenly, he shivered. Was death coming? That definite destination like a Ferris wheel that kept spinning, round and round, carrying whoever rode it into eternity. Stopping only when one got lucky and was kicked out, or loading for more revolutions. Death was the only explanation he could think of, death was quiet indeed, and now it’d deprive him of his final words. Or that sip of water he was craving, his throat parched, a dense swath of thirst wrapped around his neck like a scarf. He remembered a story about a boy punished by chocolates. Everything he ate, drank, turned into that, for days feeling sweet thick brown, encumbered by the density circling his throat, like hungry snakes. He felt nauseous.
In Amsterdam a ferry was going under a stone arched bridge. The ferry was blue and white, so were the canal houses along the bridge. The ferry, houses, bridge were framed by an oval and did not move. The oval was imprinted on a porcelain cup, which Nathan picked up with shaky fingers. He did not bring it to his lips, which were in the trashcan, but midair. He looked at the ferry, houses, bridge. It was ’08 when he bought the cup in a shop that looked out at a similar scenery. That pleasant day he’d walked around after a conference, wishing he could stay, but had to leave for Brussels. The cup traveled with him and crossed the seas to America, it’d known the texture of his lips. There was no coffee in it, no drip of water to wet his finger. He checked the chic clock. It was ten, March 5th a Wednesday, right after lunch he’d have a meeting. He’d made a mental note yesterday that whoever scheduled it would be reprimanded. Whoever wanted a meeting right after lunch? That was his preference, as he thought, “Time was a quick learner and she’d better called it a teacher.”
He’d not be able to bark his authority anymore. Was he the only one afflicted? Could there be more like him milling about, puzzled by this sudden loss which might be a new trend set by an invisible and upper-handed alien god, sick and tired of peoples’ mouths? Eat, spit, speak, talk, mock, rot, sarcasm, like free sweets passed out. These days anything could happen. It was possible nature reversed its mighty pact and took back mouths: “You don’t deserve it.” Waving a grand wand or hand the alien said, “Let’s do an experiment.” Since losses were lamented, since cherishing came this way. Since a killer loved to cry victim, the dead resenting the kill. Set this as the latest living rule: From now on mouths would be extinct, obsolete. All eating, drinking, speaking, kissing, would use a different organ. Maybe the armpit. His were drenched. The deodorant wasn’t working. The label had said foresty scent, he wondered if his mouth would breathe eucalyptus when it came back. He was growing quickly unmoored, he thought.
He insisted, “This is just a dream.”
He shut his coffee brown eyes. When he opened them, mouth would be back, fresh and moisturized, teeth intact, smiling and ready for the meeting where speed talking would ensue. A wrestling of mouths between views and opinions and intelligences, underlaid with preferences and whims and grudges. Once a colleague had called him a betrayer and coolly, as though giving a handshake, tore up his handout. The director, the man who’d sipped champagne, wanted them to fight. That was why Nathan went to Jean’s cubicle and tore up her work. She did not say, “That was uncalled for.” She was smarter than Chanon, who did, for having a weak heart and the slamming every Monday, Wednesday, was injurious. Edward, who had a way about him like water, left unscathed, blending into the background. It helped that he was pale. Once in a while, when the office shades were drawn and the sun, tiny as a gold button, pierced through the windows, it was as though he was swimming underwater, skin translucent.
A pair of runaway lips did not return easily. Not by mere shutting of eyes. He opened them and fluorescence overhead was blinking rivulets of bright white. Shining into the trashcan where mouth still lay. There was nothing to indicate this was wholly a dream. If for the third time Nathan thought, “I am dreaming,” reality might open a hole or 口 and laugh. “Hahaha, I am a cruel thing. Inhuman and your best friend.” Laughter was seasonless and a wonder cure, laughter was the gentleman of all. “Don’t fret. It’s just a mouth.” “How do you expect me to be fed, pay rent?” “Don’t ask me, I’m not your wife.” The office was still. Same as always, couch at the corner. Pushy people from the news bureau had sat there, demanding honesty. What’d they do, if they saw him, cameras flashing and headlines loud—“Spotted: Man With No Mouth!” He might be sent to an asylum or lab, under the mercy of a bevy of doctors, picking up scalpels to slit his face. For social, political, scientific reasons. “This isn’t just a matter of rent, my wife,” Nathan thought. Above, fluorescence shone on, real and brittle. Reality wasn’t compassionate to turn it into frost, set him back in bed underneath sand brown duvet, seashells on his pillow cover. In the painting the staircase did not extend from its frame to lead up and down, the woman at its top back facing the office room, her nape exposed. She might turn around, if this was a dream. If she did he might marry her, keep her hidden in this office that was his second home. Nathan had always wanted to know her looks.
But he’d rather she have no face. This way he could choose her brows and lids, segments of cheeks, angles of chin. Familiarity wasn’t fun, no. On the desk, the orange binder was open. At page twenty-three, in the margins was a spiral mark printed in pencil. He closed the file, pushed it away. To the side with a tray organizer and thick stacks of paperwork fastened with clips.
Bending, he picked up the trashcan, set it between his thighs. This was ridiculous, watching his fallen mouth nested with balls of tissues next to a silver wrapper of spearmint gum. He could use one now. The dryness strangling his throat had not gone away. As though static was attacking it, scratching. A stick of juicy gum would be nice. In the trashcan, mouth was smiling a whitish pink crescent. He’d not sent any signal to it. If he did it’d be a shocked O, but it was smiling without his consent. Tilting his head and rotating the can, mouth was upside down, frowning. Never before had he stared at his mouth so intently. It laid still yet alive as a garden slug, breathing and slimy, top and bottom lip slightly parted. Peeking through was a line of darkness that made him wonder what happened to his precious teeth, as much as it seemed to withhold secrets: Why was I torn from face, why did face abandoned me, why this aberration of separation, desertion, like the homeless of the streets? Has life betrayed them, or have they betrayed life? The voice he’d heard earlier, the declaration, “I am your mouth.,” was gone. There were no answers.
From nowhere floated memories of women he’d forced to smile. No, he had not forced, they just would, naturally like a switch or spark meeting fuse. His handsomeness was like a homemade dinner. Smiling was like a law—anytime there’d be policing, smile or quit, smile or get fired, get lost. Jean did not comply once and work jammed. Confusion followed. It was a price to pay. It was why she came in earlier. Why he slammed files on her desk and said, “Don’t you know the basic facts of life?” “What was that?” “Even the air smiles.” She no longer did. But whatever her deficiency none was severe as Nathan’s, an entire mouth lost. Was that it? he wondered. Women had come to collect from him a debt? So he could no more lie, kiss, suck, spit…he was relieved if so. If it was about women, he did not fear. Even if they were ghosts, or his mouth never came back, he did not fear, unless they screamed.
Gingerly his fingers reached into the trashcan. Hand apprehensive, his nerves taut strings of a violin—this was absurd, picking one’s mouth from a garbage can. Mouth was a crescent, a bracket smiling (or frowning), like fruit jelly lips, passive as a brown leaf. Not what he expected, for the pair to jump up and bite, an oyster clamping, Nathan pulling out like a crab’s pincers had caught him. He was surprised at its placidness, once again picking it by its corners, as though holding the tail of an anchovy.
He set it on the desk. He wasn’t sure what to do. He fingered his stump while contemplating. When on his face it’d seemed so easy, to spread balm or lipstick, now it was a conundrum, puzzle—what should anyone do with a pair of loose lips? Tickle, prod, glue it back? He stared at independent mouth. It seemed happy, corners upturned. Or it could be a figment of his imagination. A smile was really related to the Philippines, Jean knew, where her mother was born. Nathan’s was ambiguous on the cherry wood desk. It should be smiling, Nathan thought. After all this was a holiday, a bargain, a prisoner’s breakout from the cage of a face, if he were the pair of lips he’d enjoy. Who knew when the magic would leave, flutter away like a butterfly, and it’d have to be back on Nathan’s boring face. Owned and fixed like an arranged marriage, not given a chance to choose its parental face or favorite shape, which could have been better. Always better. Nathan remembered the good old days when teenage years caused a strange discontent and he wanted the perfect face, the pout of a star and a nose like Discobolus. He’d gone to the museum to pine after it. Alas, free from face’s control, after so many years of manipulation and molded smiles, it was a well-deserved separation, holiday. A gain in autonomy and power, like an irresistible snack.
Nathan prodded mouth with a pencil. It did not reply, “What do you want?” or “Please stop, I’m not a specimen.” It only laid rubbery and tadpole-like, dumbly parted as though Nathan was in daze or asleep, making him wonder again if he was in a dysfunctional dream, so tangible the fluorescence and pencil, so close and far away. If he did not wake soon, the meeting would start. He had no more time to spare for the report. He should have left the room to check reality, but he was transfixed and he had no mouth. He grew impatient and frustrated. He dropped the pencil and pried the pair with his clumsy fingers. They shrank at his touch, like anemones, the tentacles greasy and soft. He fingered the boundaries, the lower vermillion then upper, the cupid’s bow. He squeezed it, weighing it in his palm. It was feather light. He stretched it into a ring like a rubber band. He tried to fit it on his face. It dropped, lifeless.
The situation was an agony. If it were not his mouth he’d have hit it with a hammer. It reminded him of when he went to symphonies, the misery of the music trembling in his eardrums. Each time with a different woman he’d doze, but he could not shout at mouth now, “Tell me what you want!” Listless, he watched. There seemed no solution and he did not feel ill, or death’s sudden visit to end this all. For all he knew this might be a passage to hell. He might have died an hour ago, when he saw the pencil mark of the spiral in the margins. Perfectionist and foul-tempered as ever, he had pulled the drawer hard. He might be unconscious now, his old swivel chair finally broke and he’d knocked on the sharp edges of the drawer. Even though this was unlikely, he weighed 132 pounds, but death was mysterious and didn’t like to explain. Except to give him a final clue with his sundered lips, before knocking on his office’s door. He’d miss his loft. The fine suits, the wineglasses from Brussels. The panel tv he adored, the French movies with exotic women. The coffee table, glass-topped, cleaned of fingerprints by Nana, whom he once groped to content himself on the sofa. There was nothing she could do about it.
At that thought, mouth came alive. It stretched, opened into a black hole, and laughed. At first in Nathan’s voice, his usual guffaw, then it went out of tune, became female. A cawing, a choking, a horse whinnying, tire screeching; a bitch barking, glass shattering, “Hahaha,” it went, “I am your mouth.” It flipped on the desk like a dying anchovy; it screamed for the futility it was a rotting mouth; it laughed at Nathan’s guile and selfishness, dirt and cruelty; it screamed in laughter at the people who loved watching others’ misfortunes, as proof of their innocence. The men and women who told her she deserved it, the woman in the abstract painting turned to hear laughter, but Nathan didn’t get to see her face. He got up and bolted for the door. He couldn’t care if he had a stump on his face, he had to save his eardrums. Still, he did not know it was Nana’s last laugh.
Meiko Ko’s works have been published by the Blue Lyra Review, the Hayden’s Ferry Review, the AAWW, The Margins, The Literary Review, the Columbia Journal, Epiphany, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Litro Magazine, Heavy Feather Review, Five:2:One Magazine, Breadcrumbs Magazine, Crab Orchard Review, Scoundrel Time (Pushcart Prize nomination), failbetter, Juked, and elsewhere. Some of her reviews can be found at Tupelo Quarterly and Entropy. She is a finalist for the 2020 Puerto del Sol Contest for prose, and have been long listed for the Home is Elsewhere Anthology 2017 Berlin Writing Prize. She is currently attending Bennington College for her MFA.