Story Time With Hank | At the Dentist
I’m the Customer of the Week at the Starbucks down the road. Every morning, I’ve sauntered up to the counter, been handed a free coffee and gone about my super-important business. I don’t know how they know who I am—there’s no picture that I can see and most of the staff is new—but they do, every day, without my mentioning it. Except for one day. Today, actually. Today, I ordered a double tall latte and I wasn’t told that they’d have that right up. I was told it would be $3.84.
Now I’m a humble guy. I didn’t want to big-time anybody—to be all, “Don’t you know who I am?”—but I also didn’t want to pay for what should have been a free drink. I took the high road, though. Paid the full $3.84. I did not, however, tip. That’s where I drew the line.
Except on my way out, I thought, she seemed nice. What if she has kids? So I ran back and threw a dollar in the jar. Headed for the exit again. But then I thought, what if I have kids? Not right now, but someday. I can’t afford that. I should save up. So I ran back again and took my dollar, another dollar, then all the dollars, the whole jar, and I ran for the door with the jar in one hand and a latte in the other and I lowered my shoulder to push my way out, but it was a puller, not a pusher, and I crashed into it. Hot coffee and spare change everywhere. My shirt was soaked, my neck and chest and the underside of my chin scalded. I left the jar where it lay, walked out to my car with a mostly empty cup in one hand and drove away.
I have two days of free drinks left.
I went to the dentist this week as well. Just the standard, bi-annual cleaning, no big deal. But I knocked it out of the park. Every time I see my dentist he tells me, real quiet so no one else hears, that I’m the best patient he has.
I know he probably doesn’t mean it. He probably says it to everyone he works on. That was a joke. Obviously I’m the best. Nobody knows how to sit in a reclining chair and open his mouth like I do. His other patients probably always forget where they are and shut their inbred mouths on his goddamn fingers. Not me.
When I’m in the chair, it’s barely even a doctor-patient kind of relationship. What we have is more like a partnership. I get good and comfortable in that recliner, and Dr. Thomas walks in. We shake hands—two quick, firm pumps—and exchange nods. He snaps on his rubber gloves and pulls his mask up over his nose, and I clip on my bib. We lock eyes. Then I break the gaze. I look up into the light dangling from the ceiling, open my mouth without being asked and we get down to business.
Two minutes later it’s over. Dr. Thomas leans back in his chair with the little wheels on it and sighs. He sets aside his equipment, removes his protection. I remove my mine and we stand. Embrace. Place hygienic pecks on each other’s cheeks. I leave some money on the counter on my way out.
And yeah, I’m not a child, I know he sees other patients when I’m gone. But I like to think that when he probes into the gaping maw of some cross-eyed yokel, he closes his eyes, and in his mind he’s probing mine.
I’m an old hand at the ortho-dental game. From grades six to eleven I had more metal in my mouth than Ernest Hemingway. Complicated systems of brackets and braces and rods and tubes and screws—not to mention rubber bands—whose names I no longer remember.
In my earliest dental memory, I’m … I don’t know. Six or seven? Eight? I’m no good with years. Pretty young, though. And it doesn’t start out as a dental memory at all, actually.
It was autumn. The sun was easing itself beneath the horizon, but there was still a little light left, that last bit of liquid-gold washing over the world before darkness starts to creep in around the edges. My dad and I were out in the backyard tossing a frisbee, just killing time until dinner.
It was a Michael Jordan frisbee from McDonald’s. For a while, I guess they put child-sized, MJ-approved sports paraphernalia in their Happy Meals. (Thirty seconds with Google tells me this was ’91 or ’92, so I was actually about five when this all happened. Told you I was bad with years.) Anyway, there was a tiny football, a rubber basketball like you might shoot through a Nerf hoop and a baseball. Some other stuff I don’t remember. And a frisbee. It was light blue, with Michael Jordan leering up at you from the center. That’s what my dad and I were throwing.
We were having a good time, too. Or at least I was. Few things in life are better for a kid of that age than chasing down a slow-moving frisbee and snagging it out of the air just before it hits the ground. Little kids are just dogs with less hair. So I was having a blast, ripping around the yard diving after frisbees, catching one every now and then, and whipping them into the dirt five feet to my right when I tried to throw them back.
But the sun was getting lower and lower and dinner was getting more completely cooked, so my dad said it was time to go in. I begged him for one more throw, and he caved immediately, the softie.
He lofted a frisbee in my general direction, but wide and to one side.
The way we were standing, the house was at my back, a deck area protruding off of it like a rickety tumor to my right, a tall, wooden bird-feeder directly behind me and a couple of wheeled trash cans four or five yards to my left where the house ended. The frisbee was headed towards the trash cans. I turned and tore after it.
I pumped my little arms and legs as fast I could and I followed the arc of that frisbee against the orange sky with complete concentration. I stretched out a chubby hand. And I dove.
Now the thing about these trash cans is they weren’t the kind that sanitation departments tend to dole out these days, all plastic and gentle curves. These were the kind of trash can with metal bands around their waists, there to be gripped for better leverage when tipping a bin back on its wheels.
So when I dove for the frisbee—and in my head it was a beautiful dive—it was one of these rigid bands that I smashed mouth-first into with the full-force of a sprinting toddler.
I didn’t make the catch.
Somehow or other I wound up inside the house. I don’t know if I walked or was carried. But I remember standing in the kitchen, feeling … a little dazed, but otherwise not too bad. Calm. I may have made a feeble joke. Then my mom turned from the oven where dinner was finished, and she looked at my mouth and totally lost her shit. I cried. A dentist was called. And after a brief delay during which my dad watched what I hope was a very exciting finish to a UK basketball game, I was put in a car and taken to have two teeth pulled.
I don’t remember the procedure. I was given as much nitrous oxide as a boy of five could want. What I do remember is the six-foot bear that loomed over the dentist’s shoulder as he shoved his gleaming tools inside my mouth. It was fuzzy and brown and its mouth hung slack in an idiot’s grin, peppered with dull, plastic teeth twisted at obscene angles. It winked one eye. And then the other. Its bass-drum heart throbbed with bad intentions.
I do not like the dentist.
Hank Henry loves bears, though. If you are a bear, then smash your ungainly paws against a keyboard and roar with frustration as you try, and ultimately fail, to send your bear-thoughts and bear-feelings to [email protected].