By David Daniel
The dental hygienist wants to talk about music, which is issuing quietly from the speaker in the laptop open on the counter. The screen displays my most recent set of x-rays. But x-rays seem incidental; she’s going on about singers she likes—Nora Jones and Billie Eilish and Lana Del Rey. I say what I can around the mirror and the stainless-steel instrument in my mouth, but this is doomed to be a one-sided conversation. She’s new since my last visit.
She holds the mirror in her left hand, pinky out, like someone at high tea. “I used to sing,” she says, as if she’s heard my unasked question. “Friends’ weddings. They’re all married now.” Her laugh is rueful. I guess her to be late thirties, tall, pretty in the eyes, though maybe a trifle sad, too, but it’s hard to read much behind the mask.
I have the idea to tell her that my daughter, who is thirty, used to love Avril Lavigne—tell her how my wife and I took her to see the singer at the Garden, in Boston, when she was thirteen, and the audience was ten thousand other thirteen-year-old girls all wearing white shirts and their father’s loose-hanging neckties. I settle for: “Amy Winehouse?”
“Love her. I know every song. And John Mayer.” Who is playing now.
I could make a joke and mention his song “My Stupid Mouth.” It’d make her smile. But the timing is wrong. I’ve got my own stupid mouth just now. I go, “Unhh.”
Soon she’s singing softly in my ear. I don’t know if she’s even aware. Her voice is agile, if not always her command on the stainless-steel instruments she’s wielding. I feel the occasional pinch, see a faint sluice of pink in the suction tube. But there’s a comfort there in the cubicle. Even decked as she is in PPE, her nearness has intimacy. It might not work for a root canal, but for this, it’s fine. I let my mind drift.
Walking to my car, I’ve got an earworm, a small bit of enchantment I can’t name. My gums feel a little ragged but my teeth have that whisper-clean feeling. It can’t last; what can? Still, I’m smiling.
I recline in the dental hygienist’s chair while she practices her craft. It’s been six months. A different person this time. No music, no singing. Above, a light panel in the ceiling depicts a clear tropical sky, edged with fronds of palm trees. In reality it’s New England winter outside, February, with snow piling up fast.
“You’ve been flossing,” the hygienist says through a pale blue mask and plexiglass face shield. “Your gums look great. I’ll just polish your teeth, we’ll have the Doctor pop in for a quick look, and you’ll be done.”
Before she begins, I tell her of an idea that has just come to me. How in the future, that overhead light panel won’t present just a static image; a microprocessor will create virtual weather up there. The palm branches will move with trade winds, and the occasional seabird will slant across the digital sky, and maybe a storm cloud.
“You’re so imaginative,” she says.
It just makes sense. The way technology’s going, everything’s possible. Everything’s changed. A visit to the dentist these days is a far cry from in my childhood, which seemed … I don’t know—long ago.
Our family dentist was Russian with a name full of syllables that even my parents weren’t confident with, so we addressed him politely as Dr. K. A sober and conscientious man, he spoke awkward formal English in a voice that sounded gruff. He always wore a crisp white tunic. Classical music played in his office, and on the walls were framed diplomas and certificates with unreadable Cyrillic lettering but with impressive gold seals on the bottom. He worked alone, no assistant or hygienist, doing it all himself. No mask or Nitrile gloves in those days. No compressed-air high-speed drills. I was always a little afraid when I went to see him.
He had very large hands. “Almost too large for a dentist,” I overheard my mother tell my father once. Dr. K was missing his left index finger. As a young man he had been a soldier on the frozen Eastern Front when Hitler stupidly imagined that taking Stalingrad would be like eating ice cream.
Dr. K’s nine remaining fingers, as if to compensate for the loss, had grown fat. He would cup a rubber mask over my nose and mouth and turn on nitrous oxide for a moment. When he took away the mask, my tension had evaporated. I felt happy all over. He would say, “Open wide to have a look”—look sounding as luke, no urgency in his voice. “Let me to luke at your toos”—his word for “tooth”, singular and plural.
I would soon find those fat fingers, like Russian sausages, in my mouth. Thankfully, they were very tasty sausages, and as Dr. K worked I would nibble, gnawing them down to small stubs. “Unhh” I’d mumble, my mouth stuffed with dental tools and chewed sausage fingers.
“Ha ha ha,” he would laugh, like a man being tickled. “That is how I would do wis my carbine to the Cherman soldiers, taking zem down, one after ze other.”
When he was done in my mouth he would hold up his hands, blood speckling the starched white front of his tunic. “Ha ha ha,” he’d laugh with good nature. I’d laugh too.
On return visits, the sausages were back on his hands, all but the missing trigger finger (that had been left behind in the tragic blood-stained snows of Stalingrad). “Open wide,” Dr. K would say in his deep voice. “Let me to luke at your toos . . . ”
“See you in six months,” the hygienist says now and hands me a little packet with a new toothbrush, toothpaste, and floss inside. Outside, I wade through the inconvenient snow of New England to my car.