In Search Of The Last Cavity Creep

by Kevin Depew

“With regard to precipitous heights, if you are beforehand with your adversary, you should occupy the raised and sunny spots, and there wait for him to come up.”
The Art of War, Sun Tzu (1772)

One morning in 1978 three men, painted entirely in black and crouched atop a crudely fashioned raft, floated down the pale-blue river that spills down from the Fluoristan mountain range. The current carried the men swiftly, bringing them ever closer to the gleaming white walls of the floating city. Once there the men set to work with sledgehammers and pickaxes. Discovering them, a sentry called out to the city’s protectors, who, with the aid of a giant toothbrush, forced the men off the walls and back down to the river below.

And the citizens of Toothopolis cheered.

Toothopolis. This is your floating city. To say it lies at the end of the world would be to mistake the beginning. Your beloved high white walls are simply porcelain veneers. The grinning white fortress of the seducer’s mouth, lips half-parted, a sickly whisper of mint obscures the decay within. In Toothopolis, your floating city, nothing ever dies. No one ever leaves. The white never yellows or fades. Who are these men who would bore holes in this floating paradise? And to what end? Had they come to stain us? Or worse, perhaps our being already stained, had they come to bore holes in our vanity?

On that morning in 1978, it was a sentry outfitted in a militaristic red uniform, perched high atop the white walls of Toothopolis, who first gave witness.

“The Cavity Creeps!” he shouted.

And the violators of our vanity suddenly acquired both name and purpose.

These violators, these Cavity Creeps, would soon return.


It is no longer 1978. It is many years later. I am standing inside the shell of a hollowed-out suburban split-level house in what was supposed to have been the pre-fabricated manifestation of a twenty-first-century dream. The man I am looking for is not here. For thirty-two days I’ve been looking for him, in vain, and my editors are growing impatient. He is the last one, they say. The last of the Cavity Creeps.

But no one has been here for a very long time. What is here is of very little value. This is no floating city. There are no high white walls. And the ruins of this dream are distinctly modern in that they present only an absence; an absence of kitchen appliances, an absence of light fixtures, an absence of plumbing, everywhere an absence. I step through a hole in the drywall and into another room filled with still more absence. I relieve myself in a hole on the floor where a toilet once stood, a proud, if trivial, act of defiance.

To start at the beginning, as thirty-two days earlier I had, one must first locate the end. And that’s how I find myself here, at the end, so very far from your floating city, looking for a man, a hero or a devil, it’s impossible to say which. The last of the Cavity Creeps. I have much to ask.


“I have yet to learn that any living organism has any power to bore a hole in the enamel of a tooth, and to use the theory is as absurd as to assert that the sun revolves around the earth, causing day and night, and is quite as far from the truth.”
 — American Society of Dental Surgeons, F.J.S. Gorgas, M.D., D.D.S. (1888)

“We make holes in teeth.”
 — The Cavity Creeps (1978)

The first toothbrush was nothing but an animal bone with pig bristle attached. Like all things that become so worthwhile in their utility that they are sunk into oblivion by our rote inattention, it was invented by a prison inmate. If that strikes you as a cure of such severity that it trumps the disease, consider that there is not one thing on the face of the Earth that a man has not at some point put into his mouth for either pleasure or penance.

This is why I want to find him. This is why I want to meet the last one standing. For truly this is about nothing less than the core of all religion, pleasure and penance, the quest for purity, for Hygieia, the goddess daughter of Asclepius and Epione, cast down from the heavens and into the cavity, sentenced to remove an impossible stain. The beloved walls of your city were never pure.

This is why I want to find him, the last one standing, hero or devil.

There’s a pain in my jaw that began on the flight here from that other place. It’s a dull ache that ebbs and flows in rhythm with my pulse. In a grim, silly irony, what I need is a dentist. All I have is whiskey.


“That the impact of your army may be like a grindstone dashed against an egg — this is effected by the science of weak points and strong.”
The Art of War, Sun Tzu

It’s 1979. As the sun rises on Toothopolis, the men, the Cavity Creeps, return. They attack the high white walls of the floating city. Their number has increased. There are five now, again dressed entirely in black. They have jetpacks. And pickaxes. They want to make holes. They want to make holes in the city wall. They want to make holes in teeth. It takes a security team comprised of seven young people and a barking yellow dog less than two seconds to repel them with some kind of gel containing a substance called ‘fluoristat.’

And the citizens of Toothopolis cheered.

The Cavity Creeps would return. Fuck your fluoristat.


“Line the cavity with crystal gold; first go around the border of the cavity; then build across until the cavity is lined with a basket of gold; upon this foundation a solid gold plug may be anchored of any cohesive gold without danger of its falling out or of decay around it.”

Catching’s Compendium of Practical Dentistry, Benjamin Holliday Catching (1896)

A cavity is, technically speaking, the hollow of a body. In the literature, such that it is, that comprises our many years of dental learning, a cavity is a hole in a tooth. A hole, simple and plain. I have one, he explains, pointing to what he insists is a tiny black speck on an X-ray. To me the black speck is invisible. But only a fool argues with pain. He says he will fix the tooth right now for $100. Cash. Otherwise, it may take days, perhaps even a week to get back in to see him. Incidentally, he tells me he knows where to find what I’m looking for.

“Let’s fix the tooth first,” he says, pulling on latex gloves. “Then we’ll talk.”

I can smell the latex as his fingers go into my mouth. He pulls my jaw open wide as the needle goes in. “This will feel like a pinch,” he says. And it does. A deep one. The pain turns warm and recedes. I fixate on a subtle imperfection on a ceiling tile overhead and run toward it. The sound of a machine chases after me. Too late.

I pay the man for my tooth and he hands me a piece of paper with an illegible script, possibly in Latin. “Take this across the street and give it to the man behind the counter,” he instructs. Soon.


“The rule is not to besiege walled cities if it can possibly be avoided. The general, unable to control his irritation, will launch his men to the assault like swarming ants, with the result that one-third of his men are slain, while the town still remains untaken. Such are the disastrous effects of a siege.
The Art of War, Sun Tzu

It’s 1983. The final siege begins, as so many do, with an opponent’s feigned weakness. “They must be out of Crest,” the Cavity Creep commander murmurs. A team of five men, dressed in black, wades through the river toward the floating city’s high white walls. Their crude pickaxes have been replaced by 60-pound jack hammers. The technology of warfare marches ever onward. Their goal is now a chant. “We. Make. Holes in teeth. We. Make. Holes in teeth. We. Make. Holes in teeth.” They scale the beloved high white walls and begin to make holes. Less than two seconds later they are blasted from the high white walls by a giant laser.

And the citizens of Toothopolis cheered.

This time, the Cavity Creeps would not return. Years later, a search would begin. But not today.


Last night I had a dream. I held a little heart-shaped pebble in my hands. It was white and smooth all over like porcelain. Beautiful. I turned it over in my hands and rubbed it like a worry stone until I noticed a speck of black the size of a single grain of pepper appeared. I tried to rub the speck away but the more I rubbed it the larger it became. I panicked and began rubbing the little white pebble harder which only made the black speck worse until eventually the entire pebble turned black and brittle and crumbled in my hands like a piece of charcoal.

I wake up covered in sweat. The ache in my jaw has returned. On the nightstand is the little brown plastic bottle the man’s friend has given me in exchange for the slip of paper, in exchange for my tooth. Everything is an exchange. I take a pill from the bottle and chase it down with what’s left of the whiskey. Like a hero, like a devil. At some point, whether we’re ready for it or not, the world comes to us and speaks its name. All this time. All this wasted time. I was looking for myself.

Previously: Rocktober: An Oral History

Kevin Depew is a writer and editor living in New York City. He is available in all the usual locations, and sometimes writes a comment here at The Awl under the alias Screen Name.