Locating the Pain

Jamie Callan

I wrote this a week after September 11th. I was trying to go on with my life—taking my daughter to school, teaching, writing. I’m actually very good at denial, and I thought I had put the horror of the bombing in some dark corner of my brain. Honestly, I never turned on the TV during the whole time. But, the weird thing is, my teeth started killing me. I went to the dentist and he told me he couldn’t “locate the pain.” This was the jumping off point for the story. I never did locate the pain. And eventually it went away. Except, that it didn’t. Really.  



It’s funny how pain can have a shape. Have you ever noticed that? I mean, there’s pain that’s very straight-forward — you stub your toe and there’s a straight line of pain that shoots from the tip of your foot to the back of your heel. Back and forth, straight as an arrow. And then there’s the kind of pain that zigzags. A headache. A migraine. It goes back and forth from one side of your temple to the other, zapping across your forehead like something on fire. 

And then there’s the pain that curls. That’s what I have. It’s my teeth. On the left side. Don’t ask me which tooth. It’s not like that. It’s all over. Pain, curling upward and down and over and across, a circular ping-ping-ping somersaulting inside my mouth with increasing intensity. It started on Tuesday morning and by Wednesday afternoon, I swear I wanted to blow my brains out — that’s how bad the pain was. 

But you know, things are not so straightforward, not so simple as you think they are — as you’d like them to be. 

I go to the dentist. Dr. Pinkert looks depressed. That’s because the World Trade Center was attacked by terrorists the day before. Now there is no more World Trade Center. There is only death and rubble and smoke — lots of smoke — curling upward out of a gaping hole, a gap, a cavity, where something grand once stood. 

“It’s not your teeth,” Dr. Pinkert tells me.

“Then what is it?” I ask.

“It’s your nerve,” he says.

“Do I need root canal?” I ask. And I am thinking “say yes, say yes — let’s rip those nerves right out of my mouth, let’s take the bite out, the feelings, the tenderness — let’s make everything numb. Who the hell wants nerves? Who the hell wants to feel anything anymore?” 

Dr. Pinkert takes x-rays. Comes back from behind the screen. He looks even more depressed. “Sorry,” he says. “We can't locate the pain.”

I say — “just yank out everything. Just make it stop hurting, for godsakes!”

But instead, he sends me home with a mission. “Locate the pain. Put ice on the teeth. Drink scalding hot liquids. Chew tough steak on one side. Figure out where the pain is and then come back.”

On the homefront, I suck on ice. I drink scalding hot black coffee. I chew on steak from cattle grown in Kansas. On the news, the death toll rises. There is talk of war, but war against whom?

I sit and watch and wait. I try to locate the pain, but it curls upward, away from me, circling around, impossible to locate. Its just there, and I feel it.

Bio: Jamie Callan’s fiction has appeared in Story, American Letters and Commentary, and The Missouri Review and elsewhere. Her short story, “Talk About Sex: An Orientation,” recently appeared in Best American Erotica 2002, edited by Susie Bright (Simon and Schuster). Jamie has taught fiction and screenwriting at NYU, Yale and Wesleyan. She’s currently on a writing fellowship at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, New Mexico.

forum index

table of contents