by Joe Fassler, recommended by Electric Literature
EDITOR’S NOTE BY HALIMAH MARCUS
“Night Music” is a story about a dentist, so run through your attendant associations quickly to get them out of the way. Your Steve Martin jokes and your Seinfeld references, your own painful memories of time spent in that gravity-defying chair. Don’t be shy. Dr. Lee has heard it all, and is not without sympathy. Just recently his former classmate, Dr. Engman, couldn’t take the pressure and turned to laughing gas. “Everyone’s suspicious of dentists,” Dr. Lee explains. “We look at parts of you that you yourself can’t see. And when our fingers play with things inside your mouth, we violate a dark, stone-age taboo that still lurks somewhere within us.”
Replace dentists with authors and you’ve got a fairly accurate portrait of what it is to be a writer (minus the fingers in the mouths bit, I hope). I intend the comparison as a great compliment to Fassler, because unlike stories that speculate ineffectually about other people’s minds, “Night Music” peers into their mouths: the place from which we gossip and scream; the place from which we are hungry, and if we are lucky, the place where we are fed.
In “The Scene Beast is Hungry,” C.J. Hribal writes of students who fear their work is boring: “They knew there was a reader out there expecting to be fed.” I love this conception of readers as beasts who crave not just stories but storytelling, who feed on the moment when the preamble is over and things begin to happen.
I won’t tell you what happens when a cavity-riddled, homeless woman shows up in Dr. Lee’s waiting room with a gun, but I will tell you that Joe Fassler most certainly feeds the scene beast. Serves it up multiple courses.
So please, bon appétit.
Editor-in-Chief, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading
by Joe Fassler, recommended by Electric Literature
A few days after my old friend Erick Engman went to jail — for the awful thing he did to that poor woman’s mouth — Violet and I invited guests for dinner. Frank Keck, who’d done his dental residency with Erick and me, came over with his lovely wife Maureen. We talked about Engman, how sad it was, how weird, him of all people. Frank saw a picture of him on the local news — haggard and old in his mug shot, his hair wild, his eyes dark buttons, uneven stubble caked like wet sand across his face.
“It didn’t look like him at all,” Frank said, shaking his head, holding his wine glass by the globe. “More like his homeless evil twin. But then, it was so — him. The same guy we knew. I have to believe he’s still in there somewhere.”
Next to me, Violet wrapped her fork up in a corner of the tablecloth, a bad habit she slips into when she’s nervous. I touched her leg under the table. It was like my fingers hit a latch, and her trapped words flew out:
“How does someone like Erick,” her voice shrill with anguish, “go so bad?”
No one could answer. For a brief, terrible minute, we sat and chewed in silence, a bleak note hanging in the air. I got another liter of sparkling wine and popped the cork, started filling everyone’s flutes, and somehow the good, old chatter flew up from the bottom again, like the bubbles in our glasses. We spoke about our children, their big, wide-open plans, and the hopes we dared for them. By desert, I’d had four more glasses of wine, poured by Frank’s heavy hand. Drunk heat beamed in my cheeks. I got nostalgic for the old days.
“And the big, black fly kept buzzing around the OR,” I said, laughing. “The patient, who’s about to go under, says, ‘can’t you do something?’ — but with her mouth all set with clamps — ‘ken shoe hew humping?’ So Erick gives this big sigh — and without blinking — ha ha — without blinking, he zips the fly out of the air with the suction hose!”
My face glowed warm, and I over-talked. At the end of the night, I hugged them both too close, too tight, with sloppy wistful words streaming from my mouth.
“We’ve let it go too long,” I said. “Let’s promise, let’s keep in better touch.”
Frank put on the Oliver Twist cap he uses to cover his bald head. I handed him his coat and took him by both shoulders.
“A promise?” I said.
“A promise,” he said, but his smile was hung on fraying strings, and his eyes were sad and dim.
We said goodnight and closed the door. Violet collapsed on the couch.
“Dr. Lee,” she said, and this is how she chides me. That was when I started crying. I held my palms over my eyes, stumbling blindly to her. This surprised us both — there was no need, really. I hadn’t seen Erick in years. But I thought he’d been a good man, and I knew him, and the strangeness of it took away my breath. I fit myself into the cradle of her arms and wept.
I woke in the night, in that terrible zone between drunkenness and consequences, my mouth dry and sticky as Scotch Tape. Through our arched window, a full moon cast a bright, blank cuspid on the wall. And then I heard a sound: a soft, whispery drone, like flutes.
I sat up in bed, squinting at the dark in wine-stunned peevishness. Violet didn’t wake. It was there — two fluted tones, holding notes in an endless chord. A round sound, a blown sound, like breath across the lips of two deep bottles. I plugged my ears and the music dimmed — it wasn’t in my head. It was somewhere out there in the world.
I fit my feet into my slippers and padded across the hall to the bathroom. Raising the window screen, I stuck my head out in the night and peered down at the curbside bins. The street was empty, ash-bright in the moon. The music, if you could call it music, wasn’t loud — but it was there.
I moved through each of the rooms of our house, tilting my ear towards the floor and ceiling. Downstairs, the music held its volume. In the hallway, I quietly plucked about for the root note on our Yamaha upright. Violet likes to play Debussy on it sometimes in the evening. The heavy low note was two octaves below middle C, paired with the G above it. A perfect fifth.
I wandered out into the street in my pajamas, the night warm and murky all around. As I walked down the middle of the road, the sound grew louder, harder to miss — playing from speakers, surely, somewhere in the neighborhood. I looked down the hill out and out over the city, suddenly nursing a strange urge to venture out, to see the dark alleys flooded with shadow, the crouching black forms of lurking bums. The pinhole stars shone bright, and an odd magnet tugged at my heart, beckoning me forward out and down the hill. But I had no idea where to go.
I sighed and walked back to my stoop, closing the door behind me. I generally sleep well and own no earplugs, but all dentists keep plenty of cotton balls on hand. I stuffed the little cloud-wads in my ears, and then I stumbled back to bed.
Through the news, through other dentists that I knew, I learned Engman turned to drugs. I saw him on local television in garish prison robes, scruffy and haggard, his eyes dancing twin pools of dark ink. The clip they played and replayed showed Erick before the judge, claiming that he suffered from terrible migraines and that only straight nitrous oxide gas helped. “The drugs put me to sleep,” he said, gaunt on the stand, laving his hands. “Nothing else could.”
Gradually, I learned more. Once his assistant found him on his lunch break, unresponsive and drooling in his chair, with the mask on. Another time, he chased a terrified kid across the waiting room with his arms outstretched like some huge winged bird, sounding a high squeal with a crazy grin on his face.
“What are you doing?” a terrified mother screamed, using her arms to shield her wailing child.
“We’re only playing!” Engman exclaimed, and, grinning, and he stopped to cheerfully flutter his fingers on her knee, as if to sprinkle dust. Whistling, he swept himself back to his office. In addition to the N20, he was downing Vicodin and Diazepam. He gave his patients unneeded fillings on healthy teeth, and pocketed the cash.
I wince to think I missed a chance to intervene. Even though Engman and I had fallen out of touch years before, sometimes, as a kind of professional courtesy and a funny way of saying hello, I referred endodontal patients to his practice. Once, to my surprise, a woman I’d set up for a root canal called my secretary, Val, asking for another recommendation.
“What’s wrong with Erick?” I snapped.
“I don’t know,” Val said, cupping the receiver. “She only tells me he’s too weird.”
I was stunned. My Engman? I knew him to be a skilled doctor, honest and scrupulous. Quite frankly, I envied his skill throughout our time in school — he that precise with the scraper and drill. He wired braces like he was born to do it. I thought of him as a kind of dentist MacGyver whose veins ran with icy Viking blood.
I chalked up these first few reports to the weird enmity the world has for our field. Everyone’s suspicious of dentists. Our masks scare people. We look at parts of you that you yourself can’t see. And when our fingers play with things inside your mouth, we violate a dark, stone-age taboo that still lurks somewhere within us. The civilized mind thinks: “It’s okay, I’m only at the dentist.” But the caveman brain hisses, “Don’t fuck with my teeth.”
This must be why dentists commit more suicide than any other kind of doctor. Violet says its because we spend all day staring into people’s mouths, “a vicious orifice that reeks of death,” she calls it. No. It’s because our work makes people snappy and anxious, and they treat us like torturers, and project onto us all their nightmares. There’s a whole unhelpful section of the movie store for dentist slasher flicks. They don’t floss for months at a time, and they project their guilt on us. When you see dozens of people a day, as your very presence swells them full with hate, it starts to wear.
Then an old patient I’d sent to Engman returned to my office. She’d switched to him because his practice was closer to her home.
“You’ve come back to us,” I said, pulling my OR mask over my nose and mouth.
“Yeah,” she said. “Things got a little weird over at Dr. Engman’s.”
“I don’t know. He spoke too softly, then he spoke too loudly. He was always muttering to himself. And sometimes he’d buzz his lips,” she demonstrated, revving her lips once like an engine. “Just like that.”
I wound floss around my gloved index finger.
“I guess I just didn’t trust him with my mouth anymore,” she said.
“I’m so sorry to hear that,” I said. “Open up.”
And then I saw it: a sloppy filling between 7 and 8 that had clearly chipped her marginal ridge. The amalgam had fractured, likely at the time of setting. Bad, amateur work, like something one prisoner performs on another with a soldering iron.
“You’ve seen no one but Engman since you last came in?” I said, flossing her.
“Thass rah,” she said. Tiny tides of blood swelled from her gumline up washed up on her teeth.
That night I picked up the phone and held it against my ear, listening to the dial tone drone. I started to dial Engman. I hung up.
A few months later — was it a year? — he was on the news. A woman had called the police. Her mouth felt weird and after her procedure she went to check it out in the office bathroom. He’d plugged a filling right between her tooth and gumline. She was still numbed up, she couldn’t feel the messy silver starfish straddling the white and pink, but at the sight she screamed and screamed.
The strange music continued, ruining my nights. At first, I sprung from bed, maddened, determined to find the source. I looked under my kitchen table, opened drawers and cabinet doors, waded into the dense smoky jungle of my coat closet. I’d become the hero of a film, doomed night after night to play out the same taut scene, the ominous drone of perfect fifths spurring me towards my task. The music was distinctly there, like the movie moment when the hero is about to find a new clue in the night. I was supposed to lift the rug or open a drawer, and find — what? And what rug, and what drawer?
One night, I woke Violet.
“Honey,” I said, “do you hear that?”
She reared her head, her features jumbled with sleep.
“Do you? A noise, like music?”
She cocked one ear and listened.
“Nothing,” she said, “I hear absolutely nothing.”
She lunged back towards her pillow and slept.
And it went on that way, the open root and fifth, pulsing slightly, maybe with other low wandering notes right at the low threshold where I could no longer hear. It was music from a scene when the hero’s going to open a secret letter, or a nature documentary lets us watch the whole blue world glow from space, slowly zooming in. I began to slip into my clothes to wander the streets, walking in the middle of the road between the rows of two-story houses, each one lofted over its garage. Cats slunk behind car tires and trash scuttled along on the wind. Everywhere, the two low flutes droned on the air. Overhead in the swirly blue-black, the stars held themselves in clusters, salt spilled across a midnight table. Sometimes a crescendo swelled, louder and more urgent, as I turned a corner or crossed a street. And sometimes, just as quickly, the quavering drone dimmed. I remembered playing Marco Polo as a child, or endless blind games of “Warm and Cold.” The twin flutes seemed to call me towards the sea. I stood at the wharf and stared out at the wide ocean. There was nowhere else to go. It was only at dawn, while the sun came up at the edge of the world, that the music finally petered out. I straggled home in perfect silence.
“Thank you,” I thought, with every quiet step. “Thank you. Thank you.”
But the notes still droned the next night. And the night after that.
I’m a reasonable man.
I went to the doctor.
He looked inside my ears. There was nothing wrong.
I went for an MRI, spent an hour inside the buzzing, clucking tube, strange lights combing my skull. Nothing.
At brunch with Violet, I admitted that the noise had not gone away. She ran her hand along my arm.
“You’re so exhausted,” she said. “You’re haggard. I’ve never seen such circles around your eyes.”
My wife keeps her hair cut short and parted in the middle, so her head looks something like a button mushroom. When I look at her, I usually feel my chest fill with tenderness, the placid feeling that everything will be all right. But in that moment I could not feel a thing but panic, tightening like forceps against my throat.
“This is ruining my life,” I said. “I’m exhausted all day at work. I’m going to make a mistake. I haven’t had a real night’s sleep in weeks. I can’t see patients on no sleep, night after night after night.”
“You did it in dental school. We did it when we had Hal,” our son, she said. “This will pass, just like your studies did, just like his crying passed.”
But nothing changed. I stuffed the pillow over my ears, my temples pounding in frustration. When I looked at Violet’s peaceful slumbering form, I wanted to tear the sheets. I began to make a strong nightcap, two, to try to get me through the night. But then I just woke drunk, the wretched music swimming in the air, and me silently weeping with anguish and fright.
One exhausted evening, prowling the streets in the search, the sound seemed to lure me to a beaten-down all-night bodega. I aimlessly walked the aisles. In one ratty display, jutting with bare hanging hooks, I saw a single packet of children’s balloons. The festive packaging, the many-colored rubber grubs inside, were at perfect odds with all I felt. I bought them at the register, and I brought them home.
I took a gum-pink balloon to work with me and toyed with it in my pocket all through the day. The assistants changed into their street clothes and left.
“I’m going to catch up on some paperwork,” I told Val, our wonderful Russian secretary, who is built like an opera soprano, and calls everyone darling. “Go ahead home, I’ll lock up.”
“Ok, darling,” she said.
The office empty, I finally took the balloon from my pocket. I held it to the N20 nozzle and watched the pink rubber swell like a lung. I took it home in my briefcase.
That night, while Violet was flossing in the bathroom, I took the balloon from my briefcase and sucked it clean. I pattered up the stairs again, the walls burbling a little, and didn’t tell my wife. When she emerged from the bathroom in the lamplight her eyes were frighteningly white. I closed my eyes so I wouldn’t have to see her. The room felt womb-like, warm. For the first time in a month, I slept through the night.
But in the morning, when I saw the pink, deflated worm inside my briefcase, my stomach turned. I took the little balloon and drowned it in the toilet. I swore that I would never touch the drug again, no matter how many sleepless nights I suffered. And I haven’t.
I was on the final wisdom tooth when I heard a scuffle in the office.
“Go see what’s going on,” I told Annie. I pulled, and the molar came away with the wet sound of tearing roots and the crunch of bone. Annie stepped back into the room again, green about the gills.
“Oh my god, oh my god,” she whispered. “There’s someone with a gun. In the lobby.”
The patient, a young man, looked at me goggle-eyed with his bloody mouth agape, his face fattened with Lidocaine.
“Stay here,” I whispered, though I knew he couldn’t hear.
I crept down the hall to the window that looks out onto the waiting room. A ragged woman was brandishing a pistol at my secretary. Behind her stood a little boy, wearing a baseball tee-shirt and pants so short they almost looked like capris. His cheeks were smudged with grit and his hair was greasy and long. He had a gun too, and the bravest look he could muster on his face.
“Call the police,” I whispered to Annie, and she nodded, her eyes bright and scared.
We’d gone over; it was the end of the day. A stubbornly impacted molar had kept Annie and me longer, but the other techs had gone. There was only me and Annie — and Val, who stays until we close. I am not brave by nature, but I was so tired that my fingers had gone numb. I stepped into the room.
The first thing that hit me was the smell — like rot, like piss, like a hundred feral cats. I had to cough, and my eyes teared. The woman turned and looked at me, waved the gun in my direction. It was then I saw that her right cheek was badly swollen and painfully inflamed, like she was smuggling a golf ball inside her mouth.
“I need this tooth out,” she snarled at me. “My god, just take it out.”
“The guns aren’t necessary,” I said.
“Can I see?” I said.
“Don’t try anything,” she said. “I’ll blow your brains out.”
“Keep the gun on them, baby,” she told her son. ”And keep away from that phone,” she told Val, who was murmuring brisk prayers in Russian.
I approached her with my hands in the air, walking along an invisible tightrope on the rug, one step at a time. I caught a whiff of them, the homeless smell that burns like kerosene. When I was close enough to touch her, I waved at my own mouth, asking her to open hers. She gave a stubborn look and dropped her jaw. A wave of stench rolled out, the smell of pus and infected blood. Her gums were spoiled with rot.
“I’m going to look inside your mouth,” I said. “I may touch you.”
She nodded. When I gently pushed her chin down for a better look, her eyes went wet with pain. Her lower right second molar was terribly abscessed. The gum had swelled to the girth of a banana.
“You’re in rough shape,” I said. “You need this tooth out right away.”
She nodded, her mouth trembling.
“What’s your name,” I asked the boy.
“Don’t tell him nothing,” she said. “Don’t tell them not a thing. Just have a seat and aim your gun at the secretary.” It must have seared her jaw, but she laid a light kiss on the center of his head.
“I’m Dr. Lee,” I told the boy. “I’m going to help your mother in the back. You need anything, just come and knock.”
I gestured to the woman.
“Let’s go,” I said. We walked through the door. As soon as we were through she pushed me roughly against the hallway wall and began to back away, the gun aimed at my chest. “You stay right there,” she said.
She peeked into the second room.
“Get out here,” she said. Annie stepped into the hallways her hands in the air.
“Go stand with him,” the woman said. She came and joined me. We stood against the wall together.
“That guy can’t move, can he?” she said.
“He’s in surgery,” I said.
“No,” Annie agreed.
The woman walked backwards, looking into each of the rooms. Then she walked back to the door to the waiting room.
“You okay, honey?” she said.
“Yeah,” her son said. He still had a little boy’s voice.
“Okay,” she told me. “Get in there and let’s get this over with.” She gestured with her pistol. Annie and I walked into the Room #3.
“Lie down here and get comfortable,” I said. She kept the gun trained on us from the couch. The whole room filled up with her smell, a pent-in putrid smell, strong enough to burn the eyes.
“I’m going to ask my assistant to sit down,” I said. “Is that all right?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Annie, please have a seat,” I said. She sat.
“Let me see your mouth again,” I told the woman. She opened up and the rank smell hit my nose again. She had stage five gingivitis, and her gums were mottled with occlusions. Half a dozen cavities spread dark fingers along her ridges.
“This is going to take trust on both our parts,” I said. “I’m going to need to put you to sleep.”
“No way,” she said. “Just do it. Do it now and get me out of here.”
“Have you ever been to the dentist before?”
“Only once, when I was a little girl,” she said.
“Okay,” I told her. “First we need to do something for the pain. I’m going to turn around for supplies.” I went over to the N20 machine and readied it. I could feel the gun aimed steady at the center of my back.
“Turning around now,” I said.
I wheeled the chamber over to the bed.
“Put this over your nose,” I said, handing her the mask. “Breathe. It will help the pain.”
I helped her put the mask on. She closed her eyes, breathing eagerly.
“It’s not doing anything,” she said.
“It will. Just wait a minute.”
I readied the tools at my side table: a bridge, syringe with Lidocaine and epinephrine, elevator, cowhorn forceps.
“Oh,” the woman said. “I feel as light as air.”
“Yes,” I said.
“You’re a good doctor,” she said.
I turned around, and swiveled my tools over to her. She was getting woozy.
“I’m going to take good care of you,” I said. “What’s your name?”
“Jeanine,” she said.
Jeanine was loose and pliable.
“And what’s your boy’s name,” I said.
“He’s Mikey,” she said.
I started working the gun out of her grip.
“Here we go Jeanine,” I whispered. “Just like that.” I pulled the gun free.
“Thank god,” Annie whispered.
The weapon was light, not heavy and cool. I looked more closely. It was a police-caliber decoy, made of plastic, and spray-painted gun black.
“Did you reach the police?”
“No,” Annie said. She started crying. “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it. I ran in the room and hid.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “It’s all going to be fine.”
“Are you crazy?” she said, pushing tears off her cheekbones with both hands. “A gun-toting tween is in our waiting room.”
“Everything’s okay,” I said. “This gun is made of plastic.” I let her feel it. “I bet the boy’s is, too.”
“What if it’s not?”
“We have to sneak next door and finish on Jacob,” I said.
The two of us crept along the hallway floor, below the window where the boy stood.
Jacob sat terrified in the chair, his open mouth full of blood, his eyes bugging out of his head.
“I’m so sorry,” I whispered. “I’m so terribly, terribly sorry. We’re going to fix you right away. Everything’s okay.”
“We’re being held up for dental services,” Annie said.
“But we’re going to be all right. Annie’s going to finish you up here,” I said. “Don’t worry. It’s just a kid in the other room with a fake gun.”
I stepped into the doorway to the waiting room.
“Mikey,” I said. “Don’t shoot.”
He was still standing in the center of the office, holding his pistol two-handed, the muzzle aimed at Val. As I opened the door, he swiveled his aim at me.
“Where’s my mom,” he said. “Don’t touch that phone!” he yelled at Val. He swiveled back and forth between us.
I raised my hands.
“Look,” I said. “The police are on the way already. You need to listen to me very closely.”
“Fuck!” he yelled, stamping his little foot. A strangled scream cut the air.
“If you give me that gun,” I said, “I’ll hide you where they won’t find you. And I’ll fix your mom’s tooth.”
“I’m not giving up the gun,” he said.
“The police are going to be here any second,” I said. “They won’t forgive you, but I will. I need you to listen to me. Give me the gun and everything’s going to be okay.”
“How do I know you’re going to fix her?”
“I promise,” I said.
He looked at Val.
“Give him the gun, honey,” she said, her voice cracking between two notes.
The boy put the gun on the floor, and stepped away from it. He burst into tears. I reached out my hand and he took it. I gently pulled him close and held him.
“Thank you,” I said.
Val started screaming, long screams of pent-up terror, her hands clasping both sides of her cheeks.
“Val,” I said. “Val. It’s ok. We’re ok.” I bent and picked up the gun — the same fake. I went over and put a hand on her shoulder. She put her hand over my hand.
“These guns aren’t real, are they?” I asked the kid.
“Not real?” Val said.
“Not real,” I said.
“Oh,” she wept. “Oh, darling, oh, oh, oh.”
I reached my hand out to Mikey again. He took it.
“Let’s go on back,” I said, and pulled him through the door.
“Your mother’s in there,” I told him. I let him look in on her. “She’s asleep. She has to be asleep when we take her tooth out. So, you’re going to go sit in the room at the end of the hall.”
I walked him back to Room #1, set him up with Little Fly Fisher, a tiny LCD game with a winding reel that the kids seem to like best.
“Just sit right here,” I said. “I’ll be right back.”
I went in to look in on Val. She was sitting at her desk dumbfounded, staring at the wall with glazed eyes.
“Oh my goodness, Dr. Lee,” she said.
“I’m going to fix this poor woman’s mouth,” I said. “Take a minute. And then go home.”
I finished the surgery with Annie. We sewed Jacob up. I told him that if he promised to never to speak about the holdup, he could have free cleanings with us for life. I sent Annie home, and then I was alone with them. I opened the shades in #3 to let the light in. Then I strapped on clean gloves and gave her a full cleaning. Top and bottom. I scraped away years of hardened plaque, taking all the care I with the nooks and crannies of her ridges. Mikey’s glittery game music echoed in the hall. I took out the woman’s stricken tooth and let the pus drain. I also pulled another molar, and a ruined bicuspid. Then I sewed the gaps. Finally, I water-drilled eight cavities away and filled them in with amalgam. I did it all without an assistant, choosing my own tools, my nozzle in one hand and the drill in the other. When I looked up, the kid was standing in the door.
“Is she okay?” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Do you want to see her tooth?”
“Okay,” he told me.
“It’s kind of gory,” I said.
The pulled teeth were lying on the table. I picked up the molar and held it out to him in my gloved hand.
“Why does it have those legs?” he said.
“Those are the roots,” I told him. “They attach the tooth to the jaw.”
He peered at the little molar in my hand. His face was as smooth and round as a filthy bean.
“You’re lucky,” I said. “I got it out all in one piece. If you want, I’ll put it in a little envelope, and you can keep it.”
“No,” he said. He shook his head so hard that his hair blew out like a skirt. “I don’t want it.”
“I always tell my patients to take their teeth,” I told him. “This is a part of your mom. She lived with this tooth for almost her whole life.”
“No,” he said.
I wiped the tooth down and put it envelope.
“It’s here if you want it,” I said. “Let’s wake your mom up.”
I switched on her oxygen.
“She’s going to be fine,” I told him. “But she’s going to be a little loopy. I’d like you two to stay here a while.”
“Okay,” he said.
“Have you been to the dentist before?” I said.
“No,” he said.
“It’s not so bad,” I told him.
“Oh,” his mother woke up. Then she screamed.
“It’s okay,” I said.
“I forget where I am,” she said. “I don’t know where I am.”
“You’re here, at the dentist,” I said.
“Dentist?” she said.
“Yes,” I said.
“Ha,” she said. “Haha. That’s right.”
“Your tooth is out,” I said.
She looked at me. She held her hand up lightly to her jaw, and smiled.
“Thank you,” she said. “Oh, it’s my baby. Hi, hi, baby.”
“Hi,” Mikey said.
“Come here, honey,” she said. She reached out for him and he came to her, and held him.
“I’m going to take off your mask,” I said. I lifted the nasal mask off her nose.
“Jeanine,” I said. “Do you mind if I clean your son’s teeth?”
“I can’t pay,” she said.
“Jeanine,” I said, “you tried to hold up my entire office.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “It just hurt so bad.”
“I know,” I said. “I just mean — it’s all right. The money’s not an issue.”
I looked at the kid.
“Mikey?” I said. “Can I clean your teeth?”
“I guess,” he said.
“It would mean a lot to me if you would let me clean your teeth,” I said.
“Stay here and rest,” I told Jeanine. “There’s a cup of mouthwash by your side. Swish with it when you feel ready, will you? You can spit into the sink.”
I took Mikey to the room next door. I worked over each tooth as carefully as I could. He had no cavities and a strong straight layout. Let him choose a fluoride flavor and he picked cherry.
“Don’t swallow,” I told him.
As he sat there, the treatment in his mouth, his mother appeared in the doorway.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Wait with him here a minute,” I said. “I have something for you.”
I called in a prescription for amoxicillin and hydrocodone and had Sam bill it to my office. I took sixty dollars from my wallet, and put it in a letterhead envelope. I took two new brushes, two packs of floss, and several boxes of toothpaste and put them in a bag. Went back into the room and handed them to her.
“You have a bad infection,” I told her. You must go to the pharmacy on Valencia and 14th. Ask for Sam. He’ll give you antibiotics and you must take them every day.”
“Mikey,” I said. “Will you make sure she takes them every single day?”
Mikey nodded. I realized I forgotten to give them brochures, that would explain the daily responsibilities, what to do and not do to.
“Hold on a minute,” I said. I went back to my office for the info sheets. But when I returned into the room, the two of them were gone.
I still go to my office on working days. I meet suspicious patients who spread for me their angry mouths, the rank smell on their breath, their teeth streaked with plaque. I spend my hours wrenching on their molars, which cling with the stubbornness of life; my days hang heavy with the sound of crunching bone. They won’t floss, they guzzle soda by the liter, they smoke and barely brush, and pay for all their crimes — though they blame me for it. The mouth is a dank cathedral where the work is never done. But now I have something I never had before. Yanking at their damaged ones until I sweat, going after dark threads of rot with my whining drill, I know I had one tooth, one tooth in a lifetime of mouths, that was meant for me. I don’t know why, I don’t know how, but that fouled cuspid, blighted in its bed of blistering gums, called to me across the night. I’m thankful that they came to me, or I never would have found it. I don’t know what would have happened to me then. I don’t like to think about it anymore.
That evening I went home and collapsed onto the couch. Violet let me sleep through dinner — I lay so still, she said, she held a mirror to my mouth to check for breath. When she woke me for bed, and I stumbled up the stairs and fell to my pillow like a fainting victim. A deep, night-long dive into comfort, silence, blankness. For the first time, no music woke me. A blissful week passed with no trouble, another sweet one followed on its heels. The marigolds bloomed in their window boxes, a typed-up letter came from my son that he signed, “love.” At work, I’m alert and crisp, coffee quickening my veins. Annie wears a diamond ring her new fiancée bought her, which throws a tiny spray of light when she peels off her latex gloves. It’s only rarely, at the mirror before bed, as I floss, and brush, and rinse, that I catch a dark note in my eyes, and find my mind aiming its spotlight into the rank night alleys with their rows of garbage cans, wondering whether the infection spread inside her wounds, how far it went — but I don’t let it keep me up at night. I worry less and less now. I’ve always made my way with what I have. I did the best I could.