Poor Ben never thought his Teeth Money would get him killed. Never even considered it wouldn’t fulfill its teeth-purchasing destiny.
When the clump of ore with a golden, glimmering vein skittered off to his right, Ben saw hope—or at least the ability to purchase it. For Ben, hope came in the form of perfect teeth so he could find a girl and marry her. That was all, really. If he had been given a second choice, he would ask God not to curse his children with buck teeth, but that was an afterthought.
In the span of three seconds, Ben snatched up the rock, stuffed it under his filthy shirt, and picked up another rock to toss in the ore cart. He didn’t dare look at anyone—not Edward, not Spencer, not Calvin, not Shorty.
Ben finished the job of unloading rocks from the hornet ball and then the cart full of freshly tumbled rocks moved off down the make-shift tracks to the assayer’s office. The horses pulled the thousand-pound concrete ball back to the base of the mine. Shorty said the ore-tumbling-hornet-nest-looking ball was a torture machine. He said it was haunted by the Negros like him who were tossed and tumbled to their deaths “in the ol’ days.” The tumbling of ore inside echoed the sound of their broken bones. Shorty was also drunk.
Ben escaped to the bunk house while the others washed for supper. He lied that he was getting his tobacco. He put the rock in the Prince Albert tobacco can, and didn’t even look at it until 3 a.m., he guessed. Ben wasn’t one for “tellin’ time.”
In the hot, dark room he studied the rock one match flame at a time. The brownish-orange parts were dull, but bound to it was a mix of white quartz and his Teeth Money. It was different than iron pyrites—that fake hope, that beautiful disappointment. He knew that new rock had value; therefore it was dangerous.
Shorty coughed. He always coughed. Damn Negro will kill us all. Ben tucked the rock under his pillow and held it every night for a week.
Edward had told him gold was soft; Edward seemed reliable. One night when Shorty was coughing too hard and he couldn’t sleep anyway, Ben headed outside with the rock. He picked up another random stone lying near the trees. In the dim moonlight, with his heart pounding like a jackhammer, he banged the rocks together. He tucked the Teeth Money under his shirt again and curled up in a ball on the ground, invisible. He lay that way for an hour, he guessed.
The next day he found a dent. A perfect little dent in the gold—proof!
That was also the day the flying shoe knocked over his Prince Albert tobacco can that had obscured the Teeth Money. Shorty had been trying to juggle and entertain. Ben launched himself from the bed and splayed his body over the spilled can, oblivious to the newly torn skin on his belly. His only concern was the bruise-inflicting lump of ore. He pretended to cry so the others would think he was loony and leave him alone. The old man, Richard, was the only one who kept staring. Old man doesn’t know anything, Ben reasoned, can’t even see that well anyway.
Ben had to find a new place for his Teeth Money. He rotated it from under the mattress, under the Saturday Evening Post, under the pillow, and then under his spare hat—the one he found when he moved into the bunk house. Shorty had told him it was left behind by the fella whose head got lopped off in the mine lift. Shorty even showed him the obit from the newspaper.
Ben had more gold questions for Edward, but Edward met a girl and stopped going to the mess hall after work. Damn Edward. Damn Edward and his perfect teeth. Ben stared at the assayer’s office through the mess hall window one night. He played checkers with Shorty, but only half-heartedly. Shorty beat him and laughed. Shorty said next time they would play for money; Ben didn’t laugh.
Ben couldn’t fall asleep until after old man Richard fell asleep. The old man would read in the straight-backed chair and would put his head down on the table until he was tired enough to crawl into the wood-framed bed. He claimed his back hurt. Ben told him everyone’s backs hurt.
Every morning, Ben lingered in the bunk house until he was the last one out of the room. One day in the mine, old Richard excused himself, abruptly. He set down his shovel and walked to the lift, bent over and moaning. Ben retched. He wasn’t even faking. He doubled over and someone tossed him a rag. He grabbed it, pushed it onto his face, and stumbled to the lift where Richard eyed him closely.
Richard mumbled several expletives, but Ben expressed no words, only gulped and gagged into the rag. They both retired to the bunk house. Richard was asleep within minutes, and Ben stayed curled up on his bed with his right arm stretched underneath his pillow, his hand clutching the ore. He had nothing else to do but think. Damn Edward, he cursed again. I’ll figure it out alone. ‘M always alone anyway.
Ben sneaked out of the bunk house each night. His first goal was to peek into the assayer’s office just to look. Step two was to actually break into the assayer’s office, use whatever he needed to extract the gold, and then make his way north on a train out of Culpeper. The third and final part of the plan was to turn his gold into the bank and set out with his money to buy teeth.
But on the first night he didn’t even get close to the assayer’s office. He crouched by the mess hall and waited for complete silence. First the cook stumbled out of the mess hall, threw up near the well, and crawled into the next house. Ben didn’t even know if that was the right one, but the cook never came back out. The cicadas chirped. Then crickets. Then the wind distorted other sounds. He finally quit.
The next three nights were similar, and he was delirious. The fourth night when the moon was full, Ben finally reached the back window of the assayer’s office. The moonlight came in the windows just enough for Ben to make out the bottles and equipment inside. Ben swore the balance was moving up and down inside its enclosed glass container, devoid of any item to invoke the ghostly see-saw. Suddenly the British assayer burst through the door. Ben dropped to the ground, huddled, and trembled. His eyes squeezed tight, and he prayed he was invisible. He heard the assayer cursing. The assayer left again, slamming the door.
Ben waited for an eternity and then lifted himself to the window. The door was slightly ajar. Ben stopped breathing. He stared at the crack of moonlight the door allowed, a gift from God himself. He stepped around the building in a trance. Slowly, he went inside.
Ben couldn’t see very well. Ben couldn’t read very well, either. He lifted the top of the glass box on the counter, removed the balance, and set his ore inside. He grabbed the biggest bottle—that must mean it was useful—and poured it on the rock. The liquid was thick and dark, but he couldn’t see anything.
He found a lantern and a match by a pile of books; he lit it and set the lantern beside the glass. The liquid had changed the rock, slightly. The orange parts seemed smaller, but the whole piece didn’t look different. He poured more. He peered in through the top of the box, breathing furiously. The gold parts turned silver. Ben cursed. Ultimately, he took the rock back to bed.
The next day Ben felt sick. By the end of the workday, Ben had dropped his pick four times. He stumbled when he walked, and he promised Shorty he hadn’t “stole” his brandy. Shorty said he’d prove it. Ben spent a lot of time sitting outside the outhouse, thinking about his now-silver gold underneath his mattress. His hands shook uncontrollably.
He fell asleep in the grass, too weak to move, and never went to the bunk house again. That night, he saw three figures emerge from the bunk house. They talked excitedly; Ben picked out phrases in the darkness—“how much,” “sorry,” and, “gonna die.”
Those were the last words Ben heard in his short life. The next day, workers pulled his lifeless body from out of the hornet ball. The cause of death was listed as “mercury poisoning” in Ben’s obit. Some say the mercury had turned him mad.
“Mad enough to crawl into the hornet ball,” Shorty often mumbled between swigs of fine brandy.