Sir Longballs — Part I

The doctor will be right in
sir longballs illustration
Illustration: Matthew DeLorme.

I couldn’t see. A half-dozen headlamps were blinding me. They were right in my face.

“Step back, dudes. I need to get a better angle.” Murphy shouldered through the crowd. He was holding a beer in one hand and a couple dental tools—that tiny, round mirror thing and the lethal, two-headed probe—in the other.

I was lying on a picnic table with my mouth open and a bottle of whisky by my head. “I finally gotcha where I want ya, old man,” he said. Someone in the peanut gallery hooted about a pretty mouth, that I should never kiss my mother with that thing, something, something ... blowjob. Everyone was having a great time. Everyone but me.

Lower left 19, a molar, was broken, damaged beyond repair, the gums around the tooth swollen and hurting like hell. The molar was kind of loose. It was sensitive to hot and cold. It got angry when I chewed on that side of my mouth, and when my tongue ran exploratory missions to check in on it, there would be electric, stabbing pain.

The tooth really hurt, but I didn’t think it was an emergency. I was used to it. My teeth have been a mess for a decade. In fact, for the last couple of years, Murphy has faithfully asked about what he calls my “poop tooth”—good ol’ lower left 19. I’d shrug and say, “Eh . . . it’s okay.” Truth is, it wasn’t okay.

My first excuse is that I am spooked by dentists. The thought terrifies. I get woozy thinking about the bleak white smell of a dentist’s office. The metallic drill squeal sparks shiver spasms. I’d rather just stay away; like lots of men neglecting primary health care, I hoped the thumping pain, the inability to chew, the jolting reaction to stimuli, would just fix themselves—that they would magically vanish as quickly as they’d appeared. I was wrong. Those miracles never happen. God never answers those prayers. I’ll admit to being in denial and falling for the tough-guy/pain-don’t-hurt narrative, but still, the poop tooth just creeped into my life. I didn’t go looking for this trouble, that’s for sure; it just snuck up on me.

My second excuse is the system—late-stage capitalism. Since giving up on my corporate nine-to-fiver, I’d been without dental insurance. Hell, I’d been without any insurance whatsoever and in a campsite beside Rock Creek, Montana, the peril of my situation came into sharp focus. One slipup while wading this river—a broken fibula or tibia, a cracked patella, a distal radius fracture, or even something simple, like a full-priced tooth extraction—could plunge me into years of debt. So, the excuses I told myself—daily—about why I was living with a decaying hunk of calcium barely covering a jangly tangle of raw nerve endings in my mouth distilled into two regrettable facts: I was too scared and too broke.

Something else was bugging me. I hated to think this dental setback was because of the onset of old age. I mean, anyone can have a broken tooth—or a mouth full of shitty teeth. Joe Strummer and George Washington had less-than-perfect clackers, and Shane McGowan, Madonna, and Steve Buscemi do, too. But still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this mouth pain signaled my inevitable, age-related decline. I could sense it—especially on the river.

Wading Rock Creek is tough no matter how old you are. It’s one of those rivers that’s always just a bit faster and a bit deeper than you think, and whose riverbed cobbles epitomize the term “greased bowling balls.” Still, I once took pride in my wading skills. I played ultimate frisbee and hockey my whole life. I raced mountain bikes. I consider myself a very groovy dancer.

Strong legs and good balance are the solid parts of my game. But these days, I never leave trout camp without a wading staff. Every year, I make sure I have fresh studs in my boots. I wade slowly, carefully. I tell myself that a more careful pace will scare fewer fish—that part may even be true. But the fact is, at my age, I just can’t afford a fall and a broken bone. At my age, I have enough problems to deal with. At my age . . . At my age.

“All right, you ready for this?” Murphy asked. I nodded. It was time for the main event. “Okay, open up, honey.” My fishing buddies hooted. I looked around, trying to find an exit route, but couldn’t see anything thanks to those headlamps shining in my eyes.

“Wait a sec ... just wait a sec ... I need to get a breath. Just gimme a minute.”

Everyone hooted and booed. Called me names. Pushed the whisky bottle in front of me, like they were doing me a favor—a last gulp for the dead man walking, straggling up to the gallows.

I’m not sure I really trusted Murphy as a dentist. I wasn’t even sure he was a dentist. I’d never seen him in scrubs and a white coat. He didn’t really strike me as professional. I’d only encountered him once a year at this late-season fish camp where he’d sit around drinking beer and smoking weed like any other fishing degenerate with a weeklong hall pass. I’d never even heard him talk about his day job. The only time he mentioned his formal training was when he recounted how he’d get jacked up on speed in dental school to stay up all night cramming for finals. When I heard the story, I thought, “Man, that’s commitment.” I never imagined he’d be poking around in my mouth with sharp tools and serious intent.

As it turned out, a toothache was the least of my problems. I had troubles in the basement, too—troubles I couldn’t conceive of confessing to my fishcamp crew. They had begun a couple years earlier when, at the age of fifty, my nuts began to grow. One day, I was just a guy with what I considered a generous set. The next, I could barely fit into blue jeans, and all my pals were calling me Sir Longballs. It was funny for five minutes, but then I really began to worry.

What could it be? Probably cancer. What were the remedies? Surgery? Chemo? Radiation? No matter what, it was certainly not going to be pleasant. And what about the prognosis? Like everyone else who has ever faced their mortality, I thought it was too early for me. And even if I did heroically manage to pull through, what would my quality of life be? Incontinence? No more sex? Every option was awful. I hated thinking about it, but I couldn’t stop myself. I signed up for Obamacare. No dental coverage, but the tooth paled in comparison to the situation with my testicles.

I’m terrified of doctors, too—of the cost, of the poking, of what they might find—all of it. The clinic blares harsh fluorescent lights, grimy white paint, colorless carpets, the smell of disinfectant. The day I went in, I immediately wanted to bolt, run back to my house, and google a folk remedy. Instead, a nurse stepped from behind a closed door and mispronounced my name. I felt myself rise and walk toward her.

river songs cover
Sir Longballs is excerpted from the upcoming book, River Songs: Moments of Wild Wonder in Fly Fishing.

My heart was thumping as the nurse began asking me the routine questions. She strapped the cuff to my arm and pumped up the sphygmomanometer. “It’s a bit above normal,” she said.

“Well, I’m really, really anxious,” I said.

“I get it. We see it all the time. Has it been a while since you’ve seen a doctor?”

She was good. She pegged me immediately.

“Guilty as charged,” I said. “Sorry.”

“So, what brings you in to see the doctor today?”

I was dreading everything about this visit, but I’d envisioned this part in my mind many times—the part where I’d have to talk to a complete stranger about my private parts. I’d been dealing with this for how long now? A year? Eighteen months? I couldn’t even put a timestamp on it. I couldn’t think back. All I could grasp was the fear of now and the desire for this moment to be over.

I reminded myself to be as clinical as possible with the nurse. I wanted to use all the correct medical terms and not resort to crude or clever synonyms for my junk.

“Well ... you see ... there’s something that’s not quite right with my testicles ...”

The nurse nodded and wrote everything down. I averted my gaze as I described my symptoms. My voice was a little shaky. At the end, I said what I was thinking out loud. I just blurted it out: “I’m scared.”

“The doctor will be right in,” she said.

“C’mon ... let’s get back to the poop tooth, dude,” Murphy said. “I promise you—as your friend and as a doctor—I will not hurt you. Remember, I took an oath.”

“Were you stoned for that, too?”

“Seriously, if you have an abscess, you want to know. Like I said, I promise I won’t hurt you and I won’t do anything without asking you first. Okay? Trust me.”

“Famous last words.”

Foghorn brought over one of those fully reclining camp chairs from the firepit. “Here ya go, buddy,” he said. “Nice and comfy.”

I edged for the chair. My oldest friends began chanting, “POOP TOOTH! POOP TOOTH! POOP TOOTH”

This is part one of Sir Longballs. Part two is here.

Sir Longballs is excerpted from River Songs: Moments of Wild Wonder in Fly Fishing (August 2024), published by Mountaineers Books.




I'm awaiting the next instalment as eagerly as a trip to the dentist! No, wait, that's not it.... ;-)