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“Missing Teeth” by Bryan VanDyke

“Missing Teeth” is an absorbing piece built around Bernie Patton, a character who is quietly unpalatable while remaining completely compelling. Bryan VanDyke’s prose doesn’t hurt the story one bit either.

Bernie’s sins are ethereal, floating well below the surface of his singular mission: to make it to Ground Zero on the evening of 9/11 so he can render aide. His intentions are so noble, in fact, it feels wrong, maybe even unpatriotic, to write that Bernie is not a noble man. But it’s true, and it’s this dichotomy that makes “Missing Teeth” so thought provoking.

The story begins with Bernie attempting to gain access to the site, only to find his services as a dentist are of little use. He’s turned away, as is Chuck, a man who plans to get there by hook or by crook to take some pictures for personal profit. Bernie’s appalled at Chuck’s lack of altruism, and who wouldn’t be? VanDyke describes the scene with all senses intact, a product of living it and having the talent to write it as well.

The umbrage Bernie takes to Chuck’s self-serving plight stems from his “relentless humanitarian impulse.” After all, Bernie’s managed to parlay altruism into a living. He’s been to Cambodia with Doctors Without Borders, mentored at the community center, served meals at the homeless shelter, and worked for a group that drilled wells in Gabon. This list isn’t even comprehensive. The man is a non-profiteering machine.

So once again, on paper, Bernie looks infallible, and typing the words “he’s selfish” seems disingenuous. But the concurrent storyline about the dissolution of his marriage extracts Bernie’s true character. His affinity for charity began as an attempt to fix his failing marriage, then turned out to be at the expense of it. While hoofing it to Ground Zero, he recalls how his family, which now includes an orphan he rescued from Cambodia, came to its current state of disrepair. He just couldn’t stop giving to everyone else but them.

Along his way through the fallen Twin Towers’ wake, his path keeps crossing with Chuck’s. Though at first glance, you expect Chuck to be a foil, he starts to become an explicit, funhouse reflection of Bernie. Chuck’s unscrupulous, obvious intentions highlight Bernie’s understated ones. Both men, each in their own way, are“Missing Teeth” appears in the Spring 2014 issue of Carve thinking only of themselves. At one point, Chuck is in need and Bernie is reluctant to help. It’s poignant because of the irony – a man who has built his life around serving others refuses to do just that.  There is an uncomfortable union between selflessness and selfishness in Bernie, leaving no room for those who want to love him.

It’s not a spoiler to say neither Chuck nor Bernie accomplished anything particularly heroic at Ground Zero.  Bernie’s distant hopes for a family reunion suffer a similar fate, while his wife shows some of her own selfish stripes.

But the story leaves the reader with excellent questions: Is the goodness of an act nullified when the motivations behind it is marred? Can pure altruism ever really exist?  Are we all selfish at our core?  And if so, can we overcome it?

Bryan VanDyke toys with these questions deftly up to the very last sentence, but you’ll have to read the story to fully appreciate it.