The Office

Everyone said that my father was handsome, and I guess he was, in a neat dapper way with his curly hair flattened with pomade, his trimmed moustache, and his beautiful teeth. What I remember most was how he laughed--often at his own jokes--until his eyes were squeezed into teary half-moons.

What I don’t remember is ever having a real conversation with him.

Instead of talking we’d play the same scenes over and over. He’d come home from the office, and I’d be reading the funnies on the living room floor. He’d lean down and pry the front section of the paper out from under my hands and knees.

“How’s school, Josephina ?” He hardly ever called me Joanie.


“Your mother and Jill are at it again.” He’d chuckle and we’d both listen to the sounds of battle.

“‘Guess so.”

I’d hunch down over the funnies, and he’d clear his throat over the front page. Sometimes Mother would call from the kitchen in a voice tinny with irritation, “Dave, take out the garbage.” And when my father rose from his chair obediently, I’d hunch down further on my elbows and knees until I could smell the newsprint and see each separate dot in orphan Annie’s face.

One Sunday when I was nine, my father and I got into his Dodge sedan to drive across town to the office. He was going to fill cavities in three of my teeth. (Family members rated weekend dentistry once or twice a year.) During the half-hour drive along the quiet streets, we listened to the radio. He tapped and whistled. I sat still trying to think of a way to start The Conversation.

As we pulled up in front of the drug store, I glanced up at the white glass sign with black letters hanging in the curve of the second story window:



It was an impressive sign, viewable from four of the five streets that met at this intersection. As I climbed the steep stairs to the office, I breathed in mysterious dental smells--medicines, wax, and plaster dust.

We entered the dark, high-ceilinged cavern that was my father’s waiting room. Three enormous couches, four large wooden rockers, two throne-like upholstered chairs, and several long mahogany tables stacked with wrinkled Life Magazines barely filled the space. An oil heater sat dark and square in a corner, its crooked pipe snaking upward through the ceiling.

Switching on the light, my father hung my parka on a hook and exchanged his sweater for a white coat. Then he walked into the main treatment room, startling in its contrast to the waiting room.

It was completely white--the walls, the ceiling, the cabinet with its rows of tiny instrument drawers, the grinning plaster casts, and of course, my father’s coat—all white. But the chair, which he pumped up with a large pedal and released with a small one, was black. The x-ray machine and drill hung like great black spiders from the ceiling.

To make fillings, my father used mercury (and other ingredients I cared less about). Mer-cury! That morning he pulled the dropper from its tiny vial and squeezed the contents into the palm of my hand. I held it cupped there, careful not to spill any. In its shiny surface, I could see miniscule reflections of myself and all the lights around me in the room. I gave it a tentative jiggle. It rolled just a little, leaving a cool trail on my palm.

While my father was setting out the drill bits, I walked around, holding my hand as still as possible. If I dropped the circle of silver, it would fly into fragments and disappear without a trace. I poured my treasure into a clean ashtray and pressed it into separate round parts. Then I rubbed a dull gray dime with it until the dime looked newly minted. There was a loud knock on the door. My father ushered Mrs. Grosinski into the white office.

“I’m sorry to come so early,” she said, cupping her cheek with a veiny hand, “but I had Morris drive me down right away. This must be your daughter. How nice.” She smiled, winced, and turned back to my father. “I’m so worried. What could cause such pain? And the sweIling.”

My father patted her and helped her into the chair. I watched from the waiting room door, holding my dime and my ashtray. I couldn’t hear the words over the sound of the pedal and the whooshing of the water in the basin, but I knew my father was telling a joke. He laughed until his eyes were wet, all the while poking around in her mouth, adjusting the light, turning his angled mirror this way and that. Then, still jiggling with laughter, he gave her a reassuring pat on the arm and filled the syringe. Slowly, turning and twisting the huge needle, he injected Novocain.

Soon she was laughing too, as best she could around the rolls of cotton in her cheeks. Ob-viously, Mrs. Grosinski thought my father was wonderful. They chatted for a few minutes about mutual friends.

“Hey, Josephina, how about giving me a hand over here.”

I jumped in alarm, spilling the mercury onto the floor. It flew in a million directions and disappeared.

“Don’t worry. I’ll get you some more later. Here, hold the the mold while I pour the gel in. You can be Lyda.” Lyda was his dental assistant. Lyda-Iike, I held the mold and set the timer for the impressions.

Then, very gently, “Mrs. G., your tooth will have to come out.” He turned to me, “You don’t have to stay for this part, Joanie.”

I walked into my father’s laboratory and sat there absently bending and shaping thin sheets of orange wax into balls and squares. No one else in the entire world seemed to have trouble having conversations with my father. I flattened a soft square with one bang of my fist.

When Mrs. G. left, it was my turn to climb into the black chair and get pedaled up to the proper height. While he peered into my mouth, I stared up his nostrils. Then he kicked the small lever on the floor that sent the drill into action, and I turned my attention to the white design on the ceiling. I hardly felt the pain, glad to be physically unable to speak. It was his responsibility now.

“Rinse. First one’s almost done. You’re my best patient, Joanie, and no Novocain either. I wish they were all like you.”

I leaned over the white porcelain basin, watched the bits of old filling swirl down the drain. As he packed silver into my tooth, my father told a few chicken-crossing-the-road jokes and then whistled all the songs from South Pacific winding up with “Some Enchanted Evening.”

An hour and a half later, my jaw muscles were aching. I finally heard him say, “I just have to smooth these off and then we’re done. Rinse.”

There was a tentative knock on the door.

I closed my mouth carefully. My father went through the waiting room to see who it was. I heard mumble mumble mumble and then my father’s voice rise to an unfamiliar pitch. Who could it be? Trying not to bite down on my new fillings, I slid off the chair and walked into the waiting room. My father was talking to a black man with a very swollen jaw.

“But you’re a DENTIST and your light was on and I have a toothache.”

“I’m sorry, I work by appointment only.”

“But it’s Sunday,” the man was pleading, “Look, I’m in a lot of pain.”

“Sorry, I’m very busy. You’ll have to find someone else to help you.” He started to shut the door.

“I live right down the street. You’re the only dentist around here.”

“Sorry.” He closed the door.

Sliding guiltily back into the chair, I heard my father approach muttering under his breath something about the neighborhood and finding another office.

“Who was that?”

He laughed, “Oh, just someone who didn’t have an appointment.”

The whiteness of the room suddenly became unbearably bright, and I shut my eyes. My father ran the polisher over my new fillings.

“Well, that’s it, Josephina. Cut out the sweets and gum.” He began whistling again as he took off the towel and helped me down.

In a few minutes the office was clean and orderly again, instruments set carefully in disinfectant.

“How about some lunch?” he asked.

I put my hand to my cheek. “I’d rather go straight home.”

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