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issue 52: March - April 2006 

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Steven GullionOld Maids
Steven Gullion
 
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 didn’t notice at all the way her purple silk blouse clung, rain-soaked, to her chest.
      Perhaps, he thought, she’s 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, he’d 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. That’s 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 make?
      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 dendih?"
      He pushed himself upright. "Yes," he said. "I’m a dentist. I’m Dr. Baehr. Let’s 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. "You’re not supposed to eat the old maids," he said. "Those kernels are harder than you think. Number one cause of cracked enamel."
      She rolled her eyes. "An oo ick it?" she asked.
      He nodded. "Sure, I can fix it. You’ll need a crown, though." He looked at her tiny mouth, too small for his huge hands. "Gina," he called over his shoulder. "I’m going to need your help."


 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, you’ll hurt people. But teeth beckoned. He wasn’t sure why. He just thought teeth were interesting, more animal than human, and not only the canines. Teeth weren’t just for chewing; unsheathed, they promised havoc and mayhem, the ripping of flesh, the spilling of blood.
      And yet, showing one’s teeth had evolved into a gesture of friendliness. He understood even in college that the smile was the dentist’s 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: You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile. Smile Though Your Heart is Aching. Smile – It’s 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, You’re On Candid Camera. But patients didn’t 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 idiotic.
      Bart’s 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 teeth.
      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 wasn’t 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 girl’s 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 Gina’s 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 ballerina’s 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.
      "We’ll send the impression out so the crown can be made," he told her. "You’ll have to come back. That’s 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. "I’ve 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. Some tackle."
      "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. "Aren’t quarterbacks the biggest wimps? So afraid to get hurt. What would they do without brave guys like you? Well, I’ve got a dozen three-year-olds in five minutes. I’ll pay you later," she said, and gestured to her lack of pockets.
      "Uh, okay," he said. "I’ll 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 didn’t 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. "I’ll 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 who what?"
      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 couldn’t 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 couldn’t 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 couldn’t 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 he’d 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 didn’t 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 didn’t get what it was about women, and getting it wasn’t something he could practice in the mirror.
      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 don’t be an idiot; even if she liked him, she was so small! She was a miniature, a Shetland Woman. They’d never be compatible. Forget about sex; just walking together would be a freak show. She’d look like his daughter. He’d 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 closed.
      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 woman’s 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 squeezed.
      Ingrid had been in Bart’s 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 wasn’t what he was after, but it was something.
      He hadn’t 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 didn’t 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? It’s 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. "You’re married?"
      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 Sammy’s 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 they’d just bought and were planning to build on, how their practice was just "too damn busy, but that’s the way you want it, right?"
      They got off the elevator and stood looking at each other. "So," she said. "How’s my Bart? Still playing the field? Still not ready to settle down? You always were such a playboy."
      Bart just looked at her. He didn’t 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 lab’s delivery truck.
      Late in the afternoon of the second day, a white van from Whitmire’s Dental Supply dropped off a foam container holding the crown. "Gina," he said, "Why don’t you go next door and tell that lady with the cracked tooth we can finish her now?"
      Gina’s put her fists on her hips and cocked her head. "Oh, I’d love to, Dr. Baehr, but I’m 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. "I’ll 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.
      "I’m 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. "There’s room for one more," she said. "Join the class."
      He snorted and looked at her feet. "I just… your tooth… the crown’s 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 tugboat’s 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 standard—The 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 toddler’s 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.

       

Steven Gullion 2006

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author bio

S GullionSteven Gullion lives in Houston, Texas, USA. He has spent much of the past year in the chair of his dentist. His other fiction has appeared in Night Train, The Adirondack Review, In Posse, Smokelong Quarterly, StoryGlossia, BoundOff and Opium (Print #1 and Opium.com), among others. His short stories "Stray Dogs" and "The Bone" won the 2003 and 2005 Sherwood Anderson Short Story Contest (Smyth County, Va.).
      Author contact: Click here
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issue 52: March - April 2006 

f i c t i o n

Kit Reed: Grand Opening
R.D.T Byrd: Fooling God
Terry DeHart: Chasing Angela
Steven Gullion: Old Maids
Patrick Cole: California Stop


    
picks from back issues

Adam Haslett The Beginnings of Grief
Neil LaBute Time Share

q u i z

American Lit and Culture of the 1960s
answers to last issue’s quiz, Harold Pinter

b o o k   r e v i e w s

The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch

r e g u l ar  f e a t u r e s

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