Friday, January 20, 2006

Going to the Dentist

Looking back, I can see that the section of Pierson Road where Dr. McKenna had his offices was emblematic of Flint itself. At the intersection with Dort Highway, where Pierson Road began, there was a bar, a lawnmower repair shop, and a Laundromat. Then it ran up a short hill past other repair shops and electronics shops and package stores, all housed in little brown buildings. Pretty soon it hit a stretch where it was flanked to the south by an auto plant and to the north by the hospital; here Pierson Road was a strange mix of junk shops and pawn shops and respectable stores, of positive economy generated by the hospital and the negative economy generated by the plant, from which, by that time, most everyone had been laid off. Dr. McKenna’s offices were on the north side of Pierson Road. The hospital side.

We had to go down a short hill and park around the back of the building. He had a small, clean waiting room with ferns and the usual collection of inoffensive magazines; Good Housekeeping, People, Reader’s Digest. I was always taken into the examination room nearest the entrance, where the hygienist prepped me. Then Dr. McKenna would come in. He was an older fellow, probably in his mid-50’s, and he had crisply combed white hair, a thin nose, and large, soft, supple hands which smelled good and which he always put immediately in my mouth, all the time asking me questions about school which I, of course, couldn’t answer very well.

I was aware that Dr. McKenna was handsome, mostly because my mother mentioned this fact either before we came in or after we left: “He’s so handsome…he’s very handsome…a nice-looking older man…”

I was also aware, without any help from my mother, that his hygienists were pretty. They were tall, willowy, good-smelling, and blonde; they reminded me of the models from “The Price is Right”. It was like a television show in the office and I was the guest star. There was feeling of fashionable ease. Dr. McKenna always wore an impeccably white smock coat and gold-rimmed glasses, and the hygienists all wore v-neck scubs that showed off their gold jewelry and the faint freckles on their chests when they bent over to fasten me into the examination chair.

I loved going to see Dr. McKenna. I hated the dentistry and later the orthodontia which he talked my mother, who couldn’t afford it, into getting for me, but I loved the experience of going to see Dr. McKenna. There was something there, in the easy, clean life these people were living. There was something almost magical in the words Dr. McKenna used to describe his latest round of golf to my mother, or how he would tell the office staff to set him up a t-time or how in the dead of winter he would tell my mother that he was going on a vacation soon to Barbados or Paris, some place far away from cold, dirty Flint, and I thought that it must take a special kind of person to escape so easily from this town which seemed to hold the rest of us captive.

They piped music into both the waiting room and the examination rooms. I can remember a feeling of exhilaration that came over me as I lay there in the chair, with the examination lamp glaring into my eyes, while Dr. McKenna’s soft hands explored my mouth. The music played and I listened to the words:

Longer than there’ve been fishes in the ocean
Higher than any bird ever flew
Longer than there’ve been stars up in the heavens
I’ve been in love with you.

A penny for your thoughts
A nickel for a kiss
A dime
If you tell me that you love me

I dreamed that I was singing to a girl, some pretty girl with her hair tied back in a scarf. We were on the golf course together or on the deck of some sailboat in Catalina (which I thought was in Spain – I was dimly aware that Natalie Wood had died there), and the girl kissed me wither soft, glossy lips. These daydreams came easily and naturally at Dr. McKenna’s but were almost impossible to recall later in the attic bedroom that I shared with my brother. The attic, with its green carpet, paneled walls, and water-stained acoustic ceiling, was less congenial to romance, and as I lay there trying to recapture my daydreams the glow from Dr. McKenna’s office would slowly fade away.

Strangely, the “Dr. McKenna effect” never failed me, even as I went through puberty and entered high school. Dr. McKenna got a little older and a little smaller but he was still handsome and the hygienists were always attractive and the dental equipment was always clean and new. It was an escape from my life of studying worn-out textbooks in shabby schoolrooms with my pimpled and awkward classmates. My visits always left me hopeful that the future would be different and better, more like Dr. McKenna’s life and less like my own.

My mother was not always happy with Dr. McKenna, and several times she threatened to get a new dentist. She was particularly upset about our adventures in orthodontia. Dr. McKenna was a progressive thinker, always up on the latest in his field, and he suggested a treatment plan that involved a variety of retainers and other devices which he said would be much more pleasant, although a bit more expensive than, old-fashioned braces. My mother was not so sure; perhaps it would be better, she said, just to get the teeth straight and be done with it. I sided with Dr. McKenna because I felt that braces would push me finally and irrevocably into the bottom tier of my school’s social hierarchy, from which I was always plotting my escape.

My overbite was pronounced; mom said that something had to be done, and when Dr. McKenna offered to work with her on the cost, she consented to his plan. Then the process began. First there were retainers, which I inevitably broke or lost. Then there was a kind of mouthpiece which I didn’t wear enough, and finally (perhaps a desperate move by Dr. McKenna) there was a contraption that consisted of two pistons on either side of my jaw, anchored to my molars with some kind of cement, which forced the lower jaw, when I closed my mouth, to come forward. I’ve often wondered if Dr. McKenna didn’t invent that last one himself. Once I yawned in Sunday school and the pistons locked in the full-open position, so that I couldn’t shut my mouth and we had to make an emergency trip back to the office to get me unstuck. I finally destroyed this apparatus by eating a stick of taffy and uprooting the mounts from my teeth.

After several years and expenses that went far past what my poor mother had anticipated, she and Dr. McKenna finally agreed that I needed to go into braces after all. Of course, by then I was in the tenth grade and all my classmates had already had their braces removed. Still, through all of this, and despite her mutterings about the cost, my mother kept bringing the whole family, herself included, back to Dr. McKenna. Maybe the office had an effect on her, too. Maybe it gave her a break from the daily grind, maybe she saw the same clean and carefree future in her mind and it stayed with her for a while. When you live in Flint, Michigan, you can’t put a price on something like that. When you live in Flint, you take the good where you can get it. If you get it at the dentist, hey. At least you’re getting it somewhere.

I think I saw Dr. McKenna for the last time when I was home from college; by then I had long hair and a leather coat and I had philosophical convictions against men like Dr. McKenna and against clean, well-ordered offices. I don’t think he noticed my change of heart. I think he went on asking me questions with his soft hands in my mouth, the same as always. And I think the hygienists went about unfastening my paper bib and whipping away the examination light and telling me to have a nice day, same as always. I think they joked about his golfing and about their children, while their gold jewelry, which I’d decided was tacky, glinted on their tanned chests and fingers. I’m glad the feeling in the office survived my contempt. I’m glad they didn’t notice. That’s how it should be with something really good; it should sail imperviously on and on.
I like to believe, on the evidence of that last visit, that they’ve been going all these years without noticing how time was passing, and that if I went back it would still be the same.


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