The big dentist stood in the
window of his empty waiting room, watching the ice storm and trying not to think about
women. Hail rattled the metal awning over the sidewalk. In the parking lot, a woman
shielded her head with a rubber floormat and ran through the puddles, tiptoeing like a
halfback. The big dentist tried not to think about her. He ignored, for example, the way
her calves flexed as she ran, and he didnt notice at all the way her purple silk
blouse clung, rain-soaked, to her chest.
Perhaps, he thought, shes running from the pain
of an impacted wisdom tooth, or a failed relationship, and needs immediate dental care.
But as she reached the sidewalk, she veered away from his window and out of his view. He
sighed. She was probably on her way to the patisserie or Starbucks like everyone else.
Dangle a cinnamon roll or biscotti from your shop window and people would crawl through a
blizzard to buy it, but nobody seemed to care anymore about the relentless buildup of
plaque or the early onset of periodontal disease.
He glanced at his watch. Noon already. Teeth were a
tough racket, hed found; business had dwindled since the holistic health complex
opened next to the freeway. Patients were squeamish about getting their cavities filled in
a strip center. Especially a strip center with a potholed parking lot and a sign that said
For Sale, Will Develop.
He wanted badly to move into the new complex.
Thats where all the chiropractors were, for one thing, and he figured he could trade
a few fillings for some work on his sciatica (a legacy of his college football days). But
with a year left on his lease he was stuck.
He pressed his forehead against the window and put his
arms behind his back, stretching his spine and legs to form an enormous triangle of man,
carpet and glass. The pane cooled his brow. He considered going home and crawling into
bed. Gina could lock up. The appointment book was bare; what difference could it possibly
At that moment, a tiny woman in a black leotard
flitted past on the sidewalk, her hand clapped over her mouth. She jingled his glass door
open and said, "Ah dink ah boke a doot."
Still leaning against the window, the big dentist
stared from the corner of his eye at this hummingbird of a person. Her head, if she stood
on tiptoe, might reach his sternum. Her ribcage and her dollop-sized breasts barely
inflated her spandex outfit. A feathery wad of black hair complemented the leotard. He
stood wordless for a beat too long.
"Ehdo," she said, pointing her chin upward.
She snapped her fingers and spoke slowly. "Ah dink ah boke a doot. Ah doo a
He pushed himself upright. "Yes," he said.
"Im a dentist. Im Dr. Baehr. Lets have a look."
He led her to the examining room and pointed to the
dental chair. She clambered into the seat and he stepped on a switch that raised her mouth
to a working height. She pulled her lips back with her fingers, exposing a molar. As he
bent over her, he smelled her warm musky perfume, overlaid with the faint aroma of
buttered popcorn. He clucked. "Youre not supposed to eat the old maids,"
he said. "Those kernels are harder than you think. Number one cause of cracked
She rolled her eyes. "An oo ick it?" she
He nodded. "Sure, I can fix it. Youll need
a crown, though." He looked at her tiny mouth, too small for his huge hands.
"Gina," he called over his shoulder. "Im going to need your
When his knees gave out in college, he told his friends he was going to dental
school. No, they said, your hands are too big. Your fingers are like bratwurst, they said,
youll hurt people. But teeth beckoned. He wasnt sure why. He just thought
teeth were interesting, more animal than human, and not only the canines. Teeth
werent just for chewing; unsheathed, they promised havoc and mayhem, the ripping of
flesh, the spilling of blood.
And yet, showing ones teeth had evolved into a
gesture of friendliness. He understood even in college that the smile was the
dentists stock-in-trade. After he opened his own practice, he printed quotations on
his office printer and hung them in cheap black frames in the waiting room: Youre
Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile. Smile Though Your Heart is Aching. Smile
Its the Second Best Thing You Can Do With Your Lips. Some of these were,
perhaps, too sentimental, but it came with the territory. For a while, a quote had hung on
the inside of the bathroom door: Smile, Youre On Candid Camera. But patients
didnt appreciate his sense of humor. He was still embarrassed about that. Sometimes
he just did dumb things, things that he had thought clever but which, on hindsight, were
Barts dark secret was this: smiling was, for
him, unnatural. He had to remind himself to smile, and it felt like a magic trick he had
learned from a book: raise the corners of your mouth, tilt your head just so, crinkle your
eyes. Show the incisors, but not too much! He practiced in bathroom mirrors and car
fenders and shop windows. He had a repertoire: the damn-glad-to-see-you smile, the haughtily
amused smile, and so on. Sometimes he would glimpse his reflection unexpectedly, in a
puddle or the polished wall of an elevator, and see the face of a worried man, frowning
and intense. At such times he would slap on an all-purpose grin, a broad one that
showcased his fine oral hygiene like a billboard, one that invited people to say nice
When he tried to tell his college friends about
his fascination with dentistry, they scoffed. If you like teeth, they said, go to vet
school. Fill elephant cavities, floss a hippo. No, he insisted, he was a people person. At
this they laughed. He was the shyest football player in school. He wasnt unfriendly,
but in addition to a balky smile he had trouble talking to people, especially girls. He
never knew what they wanted him to say, so he said nothing. His football buddies set him
up; it was easy to get him a first date, a big burly guy like him, but then he would do
dumb stuff. He wore a tie. He brought daisies and heart-shaped boxes of candy. He recited
poetry and scrambled to hold doors open. He stared at the girls as if they were
linebackers. The girls, who wore jeans and T-shirts and preferred Tequila to candy, pegged
him as a dork right away. Some thought he was old-fashioned and cute, but they all got
weirded out sooner or later by his silent bigness and his confusing facial expressions.
Gina the hygienist, the only full-time employee he had
ever hired except Trixie (whose name still made him slump with shame), was a waifish Goth
chick whose dark hair hung to her shoulders. Gina didnt get many teeth to clean, but
she stayed busy with her side business, sanitizing her friends body piercings. Bart
let her use the office as long as it didnt interfere with the dental patients. At
first, the parade of grungy kids had grossed him out, with their lip studs and their nose
bolts. Once he had walked into an exam room while Gina was cleaning a girls nipple
ring. The girls laughed, but he had tripped over a nitrous tank in his rush to escape.
Over time, however, he grew to like Ginas customers, and would chat with them in the
waiting room. One day a girl with two silver lip rings suggested he get a tongue stud. He
covered his mouth and shuddered. He had suffered plenty playing football: a broken ankle,
the sciatica, knee surgery and rehab, too many bruises and sprains to count. But the idea
of jamming a needle through his tongue gave him the willies. Self-induced pain was
altogether different from the pain inflicted by others.
His fingers were too
sausage-like to navigate the ballerinas mouth, so Gina had to do the up-close work.
Their heads bumped as they huddled over the woman, him giving instructions and Gina
guiding the tools. He vacuumed saliva with the long-handled suction tip. Ten minutes
later, the mold of the cracked tooth was complete. He had applied some drops for the pain,
so at least she could speak normally.
"Well send the impression out so the crown
can be made," he told her. "Youll have to come back. Thats all we
can do today." She scooted to the edge of the elevated chair and held out her hand.
He wrapped it in his paw and pumped firmly. "Thanks for coming in," he said.
"I need a hand," she said. "To get down
from the chair."
"Oh. Sorry." Flustered, he grabbed her under
the arms with both hands, lifted her from the seat and set her on the floor.
"Well," she said, tugging her leotard down.
"Nice lift. Must have had ballet lessons." She looked him up and down, crossing
her arms. "You certainly are big for a dentist."
"No," he said, and jammed his hands in his
pockets. He felt his face frowning and raised one corner of his mouth, a wry smile.
"Yes. Maybe. I played football in college."
She nodded. "Ive taught football players to
dance. Good for balance."
Some guys on his college team had taken dance classes
to meet girls. "Probably receivers and running backs," he said. "Guys in
the scoring positions. I was just a lineman."
"Offense or defense?" she said, resting a
finger on her chin.
"Oh," he said. "Offense. Right guard.
"Good pass blocker?"
He drew himself to his full height and heard his back
crackle. "We set a record for fewest sacks in a season," he said. "They
called us the Wall of China."
She rested her fingertips on his arm.
"Arent quarterbacks the biggest wimps? So afraid to get hurt. What would they
do without brave guys like you? Well, Ive got a dozen three-year-olds in five
minutes. Ill pay you later," she said, and gestured to her lack of pockets.
"Uh, okay," he said. "Ill need
your name, though."
"Lily. I just started at the ballet school."
On her way out, she paused in the doorway. "Thanks, Dr. Baehr." She smiled a
small smile that grew slowly, revealing her perfect incisors. He didnt have a name
for that smile.
"You can call me Bart," he said, but the
door had already jingled shut behind her. He stood in the plate glass window for the rest
of the afternoon, trying not to stare in the direction of the ballet school, but his eyes
drifted there anyway.
As Gina was leaving for the day, he stopped her.
"Remember," he said. "Ill be in Santa Fe for the next couple of days.
Close up early if you want."
She stood next to him in the window and gazed at the
parking lot. "Before you leave, you know what you should do?"
"What should I do?"
"You should go over and ask her out."
"Hmm?" He looked at the sidewalk. "Ask
Gina sneered. "Dr. Baehr, for a big giant
dentist, you are a total wuss." She left. He watched her shaking her head as she
splashed through the puddles to her car.
He locked up and drove
home to his condo, ate a frozen Salisbury steak dinner, and sat down at the card table in
his bedroom to work on his latest project: building a ship in a bottle.
He had purchased the kit, a model of the USS
Constitution, on the Internet. It was his first model ship, even though the website warned
"Advanced Modelers Only. Not Recommended for Novices." It came with hundreds of
parts, many so small that he couldnt pick them up between his thumb and forefinger.
He found ways to work with the parts using modeling clay, tiny homemade clamps, and
magnets attached to dental instruments. The parts broke, they fell into every possible
crack and niche and pants cuff, they stuck to the underside of his forearm and fell from
there into the toilet. But he had persevered.
He unrolled his felt tool pouch, adjusted the
miniature components of the second deck of the ship, removed his tweezers, clamps and
Exacto knives, and moved the magnifying glass into position to begin his labors, as he had
every night for the past three months.
But this night he couldnt focus on the tiny
fittings and riggings. Instead, he stared at his fingers, brightly lit and twice their
actual size under the magnifying glass. He looked at the furrows and ridges of his
fingerprints, then turned his hands over and inspected his broad but neatly trimmed nails.
He thought about the way Lily smelled. He stood up from the card table and went to the
kitchen, where he zapped some popcorn and ate the whole bag standing in front of the open
microwave, staring glassy-eyed at the light. Half a dozen old maids rattled around the
bottom of the bag. He ate them too, grinding them between his molars.
The next day, Bart got on a
Southwest Airlines flight heading for Santa Fe and the Annual Southwest Conference of
Dental Cosmetics. Given the state of his practice he couldnt really justify the
expense, because the ASCDC was little more than a duded-up tradeshow. There was a slate of
speakers, but the papers were usually routine things like "Introduction to
Sealants" or "Implants and You."
On the plane, Bart ate three bags of pretzels and
drank a beer and thought about women. After he started his practice hed hoped his
luck with women would change; after all, he had become a professional, with a potentially
steady income and prospects for the good life. But he soon realized that the opportunities
to meet attractive, single girls dwindled once you were out of college; the only women he
met were patients, usually young mothers.
This scarcity of available women led to a terrible
blunder: needing a hygienist, he hired Trixie, not because of her resume but because she
was cute and blond, and immediately, in his loneliness, developed a crush on her. After
pining silently for a month, overlooking her distaste for scraping plaque and her personal
fondness for nitrous oxide, he professed his love in a stumbling rush one evening in the
parking lot. She told him sorry, she had a boyfriend and anyway, she had herpes and she
thought she was probably gay. She never returned, although she requested her final
paycheck in a letter, which Bart kept for a while because he believed, when he stuck the
flap to his nose and inhaled abruptly, that he smelled a trace of her perfume, or maybe
her deodorant. Or maybe it was just glue. Looking back, that whole episode was dumb. He
saw that now. He was lucky he didnt get sued. But he learned his lesson, and then he
hired Gina, who was just right, because he didn't get the whole Goth thing and never
would. But he liked her as a person.
He had tried an on-line dating service after Trixie,
but none of the women stuck, and he resigned himself to being alone. He didnt get
what it was about women, and getting it wasnt something he could practice in the
Behind all this thinking about women loomed Lily the
ballerina, whom he tried not to think about. But he did think about her, and then his
heart ticked a little faster, but then he told himself dont be an idiot; even
if she liked him, she was so small! She was a miniature, a Shetland Woman. Theyd
never be compatible. Forget about sex; just walking together would be a freak show.
Shed look like his daughter. Hed have to stoop just to kiss her, and with his
sciatica, how could that be good? And then there was the whole sex issue, the awkward
geometry of coupling between two people of such disparate proportions, the possibility of
which, he had to face it, was slim to dumb anyway. To take his mind off the whole subject
he opened the in-flight magazine with a flap and a rattle and asked the male flight
attendant for a fourth bag of pretzels, only to be told huffily that the pretzel bar was
He arrived in Santa Fe and checked in at La Fonda, a muy
southwestern, casual chic, adobe hotel which was hosting the conference. He entered the
elevator to go to his room. As the doors slid together, he heard heels clicking on the
terrazzo tile and a womans voice calling, "Hold that effing elevator!" He
jammed his fingers in the gap. The doors retracted and Ingrid stepped through, dragging a
swollen black suitcase on casters.
"Oh my God," she said. "Bart Baehr. How
the hell are you?" Smiling hugely, baring her gums, she grabbed his forearm and
Ingrid had been in Barts class at dental school.
They had dated, sort of. It was hard for him to ever figure out what their relationship
had been. She was nearly six feet tall and from Manhattan; she cursed loudly with her
mouth full and complained publicly about menstrual cramps. Once, after sitting at his
table during lunch in the school cafeteria, she had looked at her watch and announced that
she had a free hour before her next class. Did he want dessert at her place? Okay, he
said, and afterwards they had, from time to time, hooked up, but strictly for mental
health reasons, not because of any burgeoning love affair. Their sex life worked for this
reason. They got along fine in small doses, but he felt no desire to woo her with gifts or
recite poetry or otherwise win her heart. He just relied on her to raise a flag when she
was in the mood. It wasnt what he was after, but it was something.
He hadnt seen her in six years, since they
graduated, but here she was, sharing his elevator. He tried to improvise a smile
suggesting nostalgic affection, but it didnt feel quite right.
"Are you okay?" she said. "You look
like hell! Just kidding. Same old Bart. I just got in. What a place, huh? Its like a
parody of New Mexico, this place, huh? With all this mud and tile crap? So how are you?
Talk to me."
He talked to her and they caught up on all the old
schoolmates. She flailed her left hand as she spoke, flashing a huge diamond ring.
"So," Bart said. "Youre
Oh yeah, she said, she had married Sammy Wasserstein,
who had also been in their class.
"Wasserstein?" Bart said. "Little Sammy
Wasserstein?" As soon as he said it, he cringed. Why did he say these dumb things
without thinking? But Sammy Wasserstein had been no more than five-seven. Bart remembered
the part of his hair as seen from above: a perfectly clean roadway of scalp, unencroached
upon by follicles from either side. Bart had always admired the precision of Sammys
part, but still . . . Ingrid topped out five inches over him.
She frowned but otherwise ignored the slight and told
Bart about their two kids, boy and girl, the property in the Adirondacks theyd just
bought and were planning to build on, how their practice was just "too damn busy, but
thats the way you want it, right?"
They got off the elevator and stood looking at each
other. "So," she said. "Hows my Bart? Still playing the field? Still
not ready to settle down? You always were such a playboy."
Bart just looked at her. He didnt know if he was
smiling or not; he felt as if his face belonged to someone else.
For a couple of days
after returning from the conference, he stayed busier at work than usual. A few moms
brought their summer-vacationing kids in for checkups. People wanted their teeth sealed.
The security guard rode up on his golf cart, complaining of a toothache. Bart was glad for
the spike in business, but found himself watching the parking lot for the labs
Late in the afternoon of the second day, a white van
from Whitmires Dental Supply dropped off a foam container holding the crown.
"Gina," he said, "Why dont you go next door and tell that lady with
the cracked tooth we can finish her now?"
Ginas put her fists on her hips and cocked her
head. "Oh, Id love to, Dr. Baehr, but Im expecting a belly-button ring.
Can you go?"
Technically, this violated his rule that dental
patients always came before piercers, but he knew she was lying. He sagged.
"Okay," he said. "Ill go."
As he stepped onto the sidewalk, a flock of pink tutus
swirled around his kneecaps. A couple of babbling carpool moms followed, herding the lot
of them through the door into the ballet school, Bart shuffling along in the middle. Once
inside, the toddlers split off for their classroom, shrieking and giggling. A woman behind
the counter asked if she could help him.
"Im looking for, um, Lily?"
She leaned across the counter and pointed after the
pink tutus. "In room number three."
He lumbered down the hall past the moms, his eyes on
his shoes, and entered the room. A dozen little girls skittered around as Lily knelt under
the barre, fiddling with a boombox. She pushed a button and some jazzy dance music
started. When she stood up she saw him and smiled. He intended to tell her the crown was
ready and leave immediately, but before he could speak she turned back to the girls,
snapped her fingers, and said, "Stretches!" The girls jumped onto carpet
remnants spread around the room and mimicked her as she sat and leaned forward, touching
her forehead to her left knee, her hands sliding down her calf to her ankle. She sat up
and then touched her forehead to her other knee, her hands slipping down her right leg.
Her vertebrae showed through her leotard like a string of black pearls. After a dozen
repetitions, she rose, grasped the barre in front of the room-length mirror, and began a
series of deep bends, her knees apart, her hand and arm curled over her head as if
suspended by a wire. He gawked. After a moment he realized she was watching him in the
mirror. He blushed bubblegum pink.
She came over and stood nearly toe-to-toe with him,
looking up. "Theres room for one more," she said. "Join the
He snorted and looked at her feet. "I just
the crowns ready."
"Wonderful," she said. She took his hand and
led him toward the ring of toddlers. "But first, you must dance."
He wanted to run back to the office and hide, but the
touch of her fingertips across his palm was like a tugboats insistent pull on an
ocean liner. In the middle of the room the pink fluffballs gathered around, grabbing his
hands and giggling. Lilly went to change the tape on the boombox. The music was some
Christmas standardThe Nutcracker Suite, perhaps. The girls began skipping in
a circle, pulling him along. He had no choice but to skip, trying like hell not to land on
a toddlers foot. In the mirror he saw a huge man in a white coat hopping through a
mine field, his face pinched in the worried look of someone trying hard to do a thing
right. Then he saw Lilly looking at him from the barre with lidded eyes, biting her thumb
and smiling. The tension melted from his face. He looked back in the mirror. The man in
the white coat was smiling, too.