By Lou Gaglia
It wasn’t just his aching tooth that made him call twenty different dentists in the hope that one would see him on a Sunday. It was his chance to show that he was no chicken when it came to sitting in a dentist’s chair—that those days were over.
He drove two hours to Cortland, to the one dentist who’d called him back after an entire morning of desperate tries, all resulting, it seemed, in friendly female voice-mail-voices telling him in their own pleasant ways to stuff it, to suck it up—that he was calling after business hours—and to take his toothache like a man and make an appointment three or four months ahead like anyone else with a toothache. But the Cortland dentist had called back, so off he hurried, not caring about the two hour drive, not caring that his wife gave him a look. “Cortland?” the look accused.
It didn’t matter. Cortland or no Cortland, toothache or not, he was going to be a new person: cool, tough, unflappable—maybe just like (he searched his mind briefly) Steve McQueen.
He drove faster than usual, even over slushy back roads, scolding himself for hurrying to a dentist, of all people, nevertheless celebrating that he was about to face one of his greatest fears (besides sharks and airplanes and hippos and groups of large angry people with clubs): dentists with sharp tools—and doctors in general, or anyone who wore white, really.
But as he rolled through a small town, when he had to slow down to 30 mph (he cheated and only slowed to 35), he heard the squealing drill in his mind, and felt palpably the memory of many root canals.
No. He was still going to be brave. He was, but he needed a little help; he needed to pretend, maybe the way he’d done as a kid. And so he could be Steve McQueen (after first reluctantly rejecting Brando and Newman and DeNiro, and chasing away a Don Knotts image). He’d be McQueen, cool and tough—never showing fear, only surprise.
He was only a little late, pulling into the driveway of a large house with a side office. McQueen-like, he coolly got out of his Elantra and closed the door with a forefinger.
The doctor was behind the receptionist’s glass, his back turned, and it took a few knocks on the wood paneling to get him to turn around. He was an older gentleman with a friendly, wrinkled, pockmarked face. He led McQueen through the office and into the examination room, handing him a clipboard with information to fill out.
“I know my mouth needs a lot of work,” he said, “but it’s just one tooth killing me, right here.”
“All right. We’ll have a look,” the doctor said from behind.
“I think it would be better to just pull all my teeth and get it over with. Get fake ones.”
“Would you want me to cut off your leg and put on a prosthetic?” the dentist asked him, and he forgot he was Steve McQueen for a second and looked back, wide-eyed.
The doctor x-rayed the one throbbing spot but took forever to develop it, and so he looked around at the old x-ray machine, and the rusty radiators, and the torn dentist’s chair. The spit sink had some rust on the metal part too.
“Uh, do you have a nurse?”
“Of course, but it’s Sunday. I like to take emergency calls like these. It’s a challenge.”
He was McQueen again, nodding. But he saw no equipment, no Novocain needles, no laughing gas machine. The doctor pushed forward a squeaky no-back swivel chair and sat; but then there was an “Ohhh!” and a crash from behind, and he looked back in time to see the doctor finish his hard fall, his head almost hitting the cabinet. Steve McQueen jumped out of the chair and took the doctor’s arm.
“It’s all right, I can get up,” said the doctor, accepting help anyway, struggling to stand.
“You all right?” He used McQueen-like strength to lift the doctor upright.
“I’m all right.”
“Maybe it’s the chair,” he said helpfully, pointing at the loose swivel. He settled into the dentist’s chair again, took a deep breath, and looked out the window. “You didn’t land on your backbone, did you?”
“No, no,” the doctor said, drifting into the next room. “I’m all right…” Then he added, “That always happens.”
Steve McQueen fled immediately, and he looked wide-eyed out the window, his shoulders pulled up and frozen. Yes, Steve was gone and may even have taken his car.
The doctor talked to him casually from the next room—about politics, education, dentistry—but he couldn’t listen. He stared at the empty, lit x-ray clip mounted on the wall, waiting for the doctor to finally develop the damn x-ray and clip it into the light and give him the damn verdict.
“Well, you don’t have a tooth problem,” the dentist said finally, returning. “Just your gums maybe. I’ll give you a good cleaning on that side, and some pain killers.”
“Will it hurt?”
He winced when the doctor sat down in the swivel chair again but there was no crash. The doctor knocked on his teeth. “That hurt?” No. “That?” No. “That?” No.
Then the doctor felt at his teeth with a pick.
“That was a cavity.” He poked it again.
“See? It’s a little one. We can take care of that another time.” He poked one more time.
“Yes, that’s a cavity.”
Stunned, he looked out the window as the doctor got up to get his cleaning instruments. You stupid stinking coward, he told himself. Little cleaning is all, no drilling at all, you wuss. Don Knotts came to mind. Buddy Hackett, Harvey Korman…Steve McQueen, though, was off racing a car somewhere, or standing up to torture, wearing only a grimace, tops. You stinking cow—
The dentist sat carefully in the squeaky swivel chair and cleaned his teeth, using a whining steel instrument first. Each time the thing scraped past his sore gums or the small cavity he winced and lifted one leg. Then the old doctor polished his teeth, hard. Too hard—wait! He braced for the entire bottom row of his teeth to break off and fly out of his mouth.
When it was over, he went with the dentist up front, pulling a check from the Faulkner book he held (Faulkner was probably chicken about dentists too, he tried comforting himself). But the doctor talked on and on while he figured the bill, offering more opinions about politics and insurance companies.
“Were you in the military?” the dentist asked.
“I was stationed down in Florida with the astronauts for a while. I spent most of my shift in the officers’ club.” He chuckled. “Those astronauts got whatever they wanted.”
He smiled. The old dentist had been nice not to drill his teeth, nice not to hurt him too much, nice not to tell him what his previous root canal dentist had told him (“I know guys that were stationed in Iraq who wouldn’t even take Novocain for a root canal.”) He had nodded and smiled at that dentist, thinking, You’re a jerk.
But this old fellow was nice, and so he stood there and let the doctor talk. Maybe the old man was lonely in that big house.
“You know, some people retire, and they go crazy,” the dentist said when the subject shifted to pensions. “I knew a man, Dr. Crosby. He had a pension from the military…”
“Oh yeah?” He was himself again, relaxed, smiling, impressed ahead of time by Dr. Crosby.
“Then he worked twenty years in the Cortland school system and got a pension from them. Then he worked over here at the college, was a professor there for several years. Got a pension from them, too. And…he had his social security.” The old dentist smiled, and he smiled back warmly to the old dentist. “Did pretty good for himself.” He nodded slowly to the doctor, impressed.
“Then he died,” the doctor added with knit brows, suddenly serious.
Steve McQueen wasn’t outside near the car waiting for him when he finally got away with his bill. Nor was he in the car while he drove carefully along the highway in the right lane. He was off in a French prison, maybe, eating bugs. You wouldn’t even have made it to the bug-eating stage, he scolded himself. And Don Knotts, two hands on the wheel, nodded staccato-like in agreement.
Copyright Gaglia 2013