Les Poissons Toxiques (fiction from Boot)

wadin' boot

Donny, you're out of your element...
Dr. Werner Knight, DDS showed no concern for my Vth cranial nerve. Branches of which end in the tooth known as #26, the first upper left molar. This molar needed a crown, on account of vertical splits from enamel to marrow that made hot or cold foods hurt to eat, let alone chew. And now, with the high velocity spin of his drill, the very end of which was capped with a diamond bit he told me was called the double inverted cone, Dr. Knight confirmed, at my expense, cranial nerve V worked very well.

He couldn’t hear my anguish, in part, because of the zizzle of the drill, the suck of the vacuum and the treacle of music piped in to supposedly calm nerves. The most memorable tune playing that day was Bob Dylan’s Hurricane, a wordy treatise on injustice, incompetence and pain with a few lines in it that spoke of imagined peace. I anticipated them. But so did Werner Knight, DDS. And just as they came, he silenced his drill and sang along in his sorta Germanic monotonous brogue conducting with the drill and double inverted cone in his steady hand:

It's my work, he'd say, and I do it for pay
And when it's over I'd just as soon go on my way
Up to some paradise
Where the trout streams flow and the air is nice

I knew what would come next. Werner Knight, highly regarded practitioner of the Dental Arts (his office, after all- was in “THE DENTAL ARTS BUILDING”) while drilling walls of enamel off of #26, having sung the word trout, would segue into one- or perhaps more- fishing tales. This would occur as he exposed a stable pedicle of my tooth’s nerve-containing core so that it later may be encased in a fake cream-colored carapace known as a crown. The pain was extraordinary. And the story was unlikely to distract me in a good way. I was sure his tale would involve steelhead and flyfishing and there were about even odds I’d heard it before.

See the first time we met he told me of an excursion to Washington’s Grande Ronde river in pursuit of the migratory behemoth of rainbow trout, the Steelhead. At our first visit, the one where he recommended the crown, he told me of his two-handed spey rod, the Scandi heads, his D-loops and snaps, and ultimately how he abandoned the swinging of streamers under the beautiful canyon’s half-light, for his one-hander and a setup involving bead “flies” dead drifted under an indicator.

“They are efficient and deadly.”

“But so much mending, always mend, mend, mend with that method…still, even with mending just so… it’s so effective for me… yes?”

I nod but it’s apparent with the dual inverted cone’s bite into my tooth, with it's high frequency spin, my left VIIIth cranial nerve, the auditory nerve, was ringing. And with that tinnitus, I misinterpreted Werner Knight's last sentence to perhaps relate to his dental artistry, not a stylistic critique of his preferred fishing methods.

This is what I heard (or wanted to hear):

“The medicine is not so effective…you need more…yes?”

“I find swinging is boring."
"So you like to swing?”

I cough a little, but say nothing. Dental conversations are absurdities, lopsided, one-way treatises. He moved on, nodding his head like we we had agreed a dislike of swinging was our strongly cured bond. (Just for the record I am absolutely fine with Swingers and swinging.) So he moved on, back to the story, which was, pretty much exactly the same tale I’d heard two weeks earlier.

You could basically tell me the story it's so goddamn predictable. The indicator vanished. The fish, initially thought to be a snag, shot off like a rocket and did all sorts of acrobatics, like a runaway train, tricked the dentist into thinking he lost the fish, but no, he was still on, and not so long after his reel was screaming, the magistry of the fish was subdued by the strengths of Dr Knight, the fish was won over, tailed on a gravel bar. Doc said it was 33 inches and 25 pounds. A head nod away, mounted in a small frame above a tray of talon-like surgical instruments is a grinning Werner holding this beast of a steelhead that in reality, in my un-anesthetized sober reckoning, is perhaps 20 inches long and at most six pounds. It’s not quite a broomstick of a fish, but it is about right for a survivor of 2015’s Pacific Blob. About perfect for a warm-water summer migratory run past the eight dams between the Pacific and the Grande Ronde to what was, admittedly, a spectacularly lit backdrop of that desert canyon. Werner Knight, DDS, looked about as pleased as could be in the photo.

There’s no way though that fish was 25 pounds. The only thing remarkable to me was that he even caught a fish. Well scratch that, the canyon in the gloaming, you can't fake that beauty.

After the first visit to decide what to do about my failing #26, the deliberate exaggeration of the steelhead tale bothered me. See, I don’t mind if a clearly spruced fishing tale comes from a kid or a young man or woman one-upping their friends around the campfire in the context of drinks and amiable bullshitting, but a health professional who sees all manner of the public and in themselves is reasonably competent at sorting frivolous, exaggerated and ultimately important facts in the description of symptoms is a different mark. A Doc’s currency is truth, their skills for diagnosing and fixing a problem is entirely reliant on this. Yeah, I know, kinda goofy, but bear with me, see the float of my logic raft ends with only one idea: the truth of your Doctor’s fishing tale should parallel their competency.

On his advice, and despite the mental flashing orange light of admittedly unscientific and unvalidated theories of procedural (and diagnostic) competency in relation to the believability of fishing tale, and in light of increasing pain and decreasing response to pain medications, I chose to mend this tooth, #26, to get this crown. And to have it done, for the sake of convenience by Werner Knight, DDS. How I rued that decision now. He never mentioned that at most he would use 1cc of some kind of astral-caine numbing oil injected for pain. He never once mentioned how if he dosed any more I might anaphylax and stop with the breathing except right as he injected what was to be a vastly insufficient dose into the left upper quadrant of my palate.

Worse yet, today’s effort would be only a tease, a temporary hold, stage one, and would not be tooth-colored at all. It would be metal, a sort of a cutthroat gold in color. He reassured me this was safe as can be, no mercury, no lead, and so long as you don’t eat metal, you won’t suffer potential galvanic jolts that were most unpleasant. I don’t think he meant to imply I had pica or some desire to eat metallic clays, yet he sure sounded familiar with it. In the meantime, before my gold-ish crown was seated, he’d take a mold of the tooth’s core, send it to a tooth-building factory in Spanaway where they would fabricate the new cream white #26 cap, which, he assured me, would arrive in two weeks and would be a piece of cake to place.

I no longer eat cake and have never been a metal eater, though I could not realistically tell Werner Knight, DDS that due to both the pain he was subjecting me too and the fact that my mouth was full of instruments. A pair of curved rake retractors held my orbicularis oris muscle as wide as can be. My tongue was obscured and suppressed with a drum of verdant nitrile stretched between my bottom teeth. My lips smeared with a version of grease that would, he reassured me:

"Zuppress chapping and could, in a pinch, float a dry fly, no problem, no problem at all."

“You ever skate dries for the Steelheads?”

There was no talking with Werner Knight, DDS during oral surgery.

“Ja…Me neither…I will skate some this fall, on the Skeena, in Canada. I will skate dries there.”

All those beautiful rivers with perhaps still some steelhead in them to be harassed by men with means and dental grease smeared on a moth pattern. I was conflicted. Sure, would I like to fish the Skeena with anything, let alone dries? Would I bead it if I wasn’t catching squat?


But on the other hand, why? What reasonable or ethical stance could I justify pursuing a fish that was in rapid decline in terms of numbers, but had come to assume mythic proportions in the minds of fishermen fly or otherwise? .I closed my eyes and thought of those greasy turquoise waters and dull Canadian west-coast rain.

But the DDS kept talking, I opened my eyes, through the worst of the pain, and despite watts of surgical lighting, I could see lenses of small sweat mushrooming out of some of his broad forehead pores.

I looked past him though, past his facemask, past his steel tray of terrifying tools. There was a poster with a French title, Les Poissons Toxiques, affixed to the ceiling tile with a series of pushpins. On it were fish, or more specifically box, toad and pufferfish.

Werner Knight, DDS saw the direction of my gaze, continued his monologue.

“Those fish….are not for the fly fisherman…”

“Zuction please !!!”

It's just me and Werner in the room, but he said it like a weary dental assistant would hand him what he wanted. Habit betrayed an absence of staff, which might mean....

“Those fish, they can kill you…”

An explanation delivered through intermittent stabs of pain, the hum of the vacuum pump, the gurgle of evacuating spit, and the smell of smoldering just-drilled tooth, where the deep inverted cone bit can’t be cooled by lukewarm irrigants. Oh what I would give for an escape, for more xylocaine, for a complete nerve block, percocet, valium, and the reassuring bosom of a dental assistant pressed into my shoulder. But there was none of that.


His accent and a way of almost shouting it made Fugu sound like a curse, made me think I had somehow jeopardized the surgical field and frankly startled me.

“You know- Japanese Pufferfish- if you eat it from the Zushi chef…if he’s too young…. doesn’t know what’s up…serves you some fish liver or whatever…you eat it, the toxin gets in you… that paralyzes you…tetrodotoxin…first your tongue tingles…”


“then you die in minutes….nothing moves… motor paralysis. Worse than anaphylaxis ”

He is gesticulating with a new instrument that ends in a metal hook in one hand, the clear plastic suction tube in the other. He puts down the curved implement and does a double-haul like move to pull more suction tube from parts unknown, it clanks like a rickety hose-reel, free spooling with Dr Knight’s forcefull pull. The suction gurgles some apneic little farts before it synchs up to the compressor pump, pulling my spit, the lukewarm irrigant, my blood, my fragments of ground tooth towards the sea, towards this year's new Pacific blob.

“It’s fascinating, those fish, the teeth, they always grow… they never need root canal! Never need a crown like your #26 here….”

He laughs. I can feel him tap it with one of his talonic tools, like a used car dealer kicking a tire, only his boot is a tiny needle of titanium. It’s an absurd moment and even if my jaw was mobile and my tongue free, there’s nothing to argue about. Contemporary veterinary practice does not include fish dentistry. And goddamn it #26 smarts something wicked and the whole bizarre-o moment of lecturing a patient on the risks of an ingested paralytic death while operating on an open mouth added a kind of existential fear to the pain I was already under.

“But still…”

“You are a fisherman, yes?”

I nod. I have told him this before. Confirmed it even earlier in this very visit.

“I like the steelhead. With my flyrod. You flyfish?”

I nod. Knowing full well exactly what is to come. Werner Knight, DDS is going to tell me for a third time how he floated an egg pattern under an indicator on the advice of an October guide he hired on the Grande Ronde several years ago. The second time this he's told the same story today, like 5 minutes earlier....He is going to talk me through it, again, while drilling off the remaining inadequate and fissured enamel, the 25 pound steelhead he caught, the battle, the sight of the fish in the net, the canyon in the setting sun, the cool breeze from the west.

It occurred to me that Werner Knight, DDS didn't need a guide on the Skeena so much as a competent Neurologist versed in memory decline along with an office management team to help usher him to the professional equivalent of Psalm 23's still waters...

But what are you going to do with the new crown still being made out in Spanaway still two weeks away? I will hear the steelhead tale for a fourth time during stage two of the crown, a couple weeks from now. Incremental inconsistencies will creep in and combined with an absence of comedy, irony, risk, timing, wisdom or kindness, it’s linear plot, my mind wanders. I’ve come to some conclusions. The first remains that most fishing stories shouldn’t be told. The second, after the final seating of fake tooth around the core of #26 I would need a new dentist who doesn’t fish, preferably one that doesn’t even talk, maybe one in their early 40's. Old enough to see it all and young enough that their brain is still good and their hand steady and their empathy still present. And the final idea? Out there is a whole family of ridiculous looking fish that could kill you that people don’t fly fish for and that have spectacular teeth.

I stare hard at that poster. Through the pain, I concentrate on Orbicularis diodon, the prickly bottlefish.

Years ago I’d seen small ones chase my fly through tropical waters, they struck at my mock crab. I tried not to hook them. All line pulled in, I dangled just my leader, and swirled the fly around them, playing with them, watching them chase. These warm-water fish, as weird as they looked, could move forward and back, up and down, and turn on a dime. Steelhead don’t do that. One of the two species would still be here in 100 years, and I reckoned it wouldn't be the steelhead.

Later that day I'd walk that tropical beach down high-tide line, washed up among detergent bottles, chunks of coral and cuttlefish blades were two pufferfish, dried up and expanded on the sand. Their last failed act of attempted survival to puff up and intimidate. They remained stuck in their rictus, their death tetany, bleached in the sun, big as rugby balls, their weird flat heads crowned with Jesus rafts of messy seagrass impaled on their most dorsal spikes. Even the flies avoided them. Big eyes not yet greasy or pecked by seabirds.

Their teeth though, four of them, the tetraodons, two up, two below were magnificent. Big chicklet-shaped things, bright white, strong, built to munch algae off of coral, to crunch shells, cut flesh off of carcasses, crack crabs open. Their teeth look human. And yet they continuously grow like those of rats, rabbits and mice, creatures that would no doubt survive the apocalypse.

The story I would imagine while doing the last stage of the crown, maybe still more work with the inverted cone bit or whatever ever Werner Knight, DDS would use to pry the metal cap off of #26, was not how the Skeena steelhead would rise to a skated dry, but instead, how those two bloated Orbicularis Diodon met their unheroic end and whether or not their teeth would continue to grow long after they were dead...
Last edited:


Active Member
Good stuff Boot. Had a PTSD moment remembering a pediatric dentist I had when I was in grade school. He was skilled and efficient, but didn't believe in stopping once he got going on a cavity. It's amazing how much heat and smoke can be generated by drilling a tooth. In that part of Wisconsin he could easily have been of German descent, but no accent. What I do remember clearly was his office being filled with memorabilia from his service as a Marine. No stickers, toys or candy from this doc, just a pat on the back on the way out and telling my Mom I was a "trooper".
Man, what a crazy story.
I broke a tooth during deer season that was a root canal, gold crown, and now I have an implant and the new tooth coming next month.
I offered to teach my dentist and his sons how to fly fish, and after reading this great story I'm hoping he doesn't take me up on my offer.
I can hear him now, "The one that got away, bla, bla, bla. 10 lbs bla, bla, bla
Thanks "boot"

Latest posts