It happened while I was getting a root canal. I had told them not to put me under, and they gave me something so that I didn’t even have to pretend it wasn’t happening. The root canal, I mean. I was pretty out of it, almost enjoying myself. This is when the phone rang. I mean it’s a small practice, somebody had to get it. Joy, the ginger who had been holding the little plastic tent in place inside my mouth, took her fingers out and slowly slipped off her gloves. Everyone took a little break. I turned to watch Joy pick up the phone and then I closed my eyes.
“Hello?” she said. “Oh,” and then a short heavy pause and then a breathless “My God.” God with a capital G, like she was still afraid of him. She put the phone down on the counter and looked out a window.
“Mary,” she said, giving a pause not nearly long enough for the doctor to answer. “Mary you’re going to need to take this.” Now everybody involved in the operation was taking off their gloves. I didn’t even care. I was high.
“Hello?” the doctor said. Some low gravely tones came out of the receiver and the doctor said: “Yes. Yes that is correct.” Somewhere a fly was buzzing. “He … Oh Jesus. Oh my. Yes, yes I can do that.” I started to wiggle my toes around inside my shoes. Nobody was attending to me anymore. When I opened my eyes again they were all huddling in the door way, whispering to each other.
What was he, twenty-two, twenty-three? More of them looked out of that same window.
It took me a while, or it felt like a while, before I understood why Joy was crying. One of the assistants left to go pull up an x-ray from somewhere in the filing cabinets and I watched Joy continue to sob softly in to her palms.
I later found out that I knew him. Not to speak to, but we had often had appointments one after the other. He had chronic halitosis that I could always smell right through the magazine. I’m positive we made eye contact.
For the next few weeks when I was driving to work, I would probe around inside my mouth with my tongue, feeling not only for my freshly inserted crown, but for the little uneven gaps and crooked bridgework as well. The idiosyncrasies if you will. Which would be the one, I would think, that they’d point to on the chart after everything had been pulled from the wreckage. After everything had been cleaned. Which would be one that they’d wordlessly point to so as to say, “This. This is him. There can be no question.”