It’s the familiar voice that first alerts Carl that Dr. Allen has arrived at the funeral home. A garish, midwestern honk—as if a tiny amplifier were lodged in the man’s sinus cavity. Carl hears it from around the corner where the line disappears and, according to several sources, snakes out the door into the parking lot. His father may have been a popular man in town, but Carl did not expect the family dentist to put in an appearance.
“Is that Dr. Allen?” he whispers to his mother, who stands next to him to receive the mourners. She’s dressed in black, complete with a veil that covers her tear-puffed face. At the moment, having taken a Valium, she has it under control, though she moves slowly and occasionally slurs her words when responding to the endless condolences.
“He did your father’s root canal not long ago,” she tells him. Then she goes back to thanking people Carl only half recognizes.
The viewing room is the largest available at Schreiber & Sons. The walls are red, the carpet is red, the curtains are red. Carl feels like he’s standing inside a huge mouth. In between shaking hands with old pals of his father’s—former law partners and clients, neighbors from way back when—Carl keeps glancing at the doorway, waiting for Dr. Allen to appear. He hears the voice again, and though he can’t quite make out the words above the buzz of the crowd in the viewing room, the tone is unmistakable. This is the voice that greeted Carl as a child every six months like clockwork with, “Okay, kiddo, open up, and let’s take a peek at those teeth of yours!” The terror he would feel at that moment, and for the succeeding half hour or so, comes rushing back to him.
“I think I need a break,” he tells his mother, and even through the veil he can detect her distress.
“Please don’t,” she whispers. “Don’t leave me alone.”
It’s just the two of them here to receive the guests. Carl’s older brother, Richie, remains missing, possibly dead himself from an overdose or some other unsafe behavior cooked up by his unwell mind. His father had been an only child, so there are no aunts or uncles to stand here in front of the coffin with them, no cousin to take a break with, to share a slug of booze with in the parking lot. Just Carl and his mother and all these people feeling sorry for them.
His father, sixty-seven, died suddenly of a rampant infection after knee-replacement surgery. A heavy drinker, and sedentary since his mandatory retirement two years ago, he was not able to fight off the infection that ate away at his compromised kidneys and liver, and then his lungs, leaving only his strong heart to hold the fort. It ticked away for a full week while the rest of him lay in a coma until, finally, it gave in. That was four days ago, and Carl still has not cried. He feels as numb as the man in the open coffin behind where he and his mother stand shaking hands and saying, over and over, “Thank you for coming.”
Dr. Allen’s voice grows louder as he nears the viewing room doorway. “I did all their teeth,” Carl hears him saying, “for years and years.” That voice—it cuts through the air like the hiss of a drill. Carl shivers, suddenly back in the dentist’s dingy office: the sticky faux leather chair, the adjustable overhead lamp aimed directly into Carl’s eyes, the tray lined with sharp, shiny metallic instruments. Even the smell returns to him, a combination of alcohol, mint mouthwash, and mold.
“So sorry for your loss,” a man says as he clasps Carl’s hand. It’s Mr. Fletcher, one of his father’s partners, but Carl only remembers him because he wears an eye patch—Richie used to call him Mr. Cyclops. Most of the faces here have started to blur together. Carl didn’t even recognize Mrs. Caserta earlier, their neighbor for many years. She had aged so much, which for some reason surprised Carl. He wonders if maybe he hasn’t lived long enough himself to accept such profound changes in people’s appearances. He watched his own parents age gradually and never noticed the difference—until this past week. His mother was always active, lively, involved in charities—the Visiting Nurse Association, the Red Cross, the ASPCA—and yet here she stands, wobbly and white haired. An old lady. When did that happen? Would Dr. Allen look that old?
Of course, the dentist had already seemed ancient at the time—as did anyone his parents’ age. He remembers the man’s failed attempts at youthfulness—the wire-rimmed glasses that replaced his thick, black frames, the grown-out hair that replaced his military buzz cut, the striped trousers beneath his threadbare lab coat, the sad effort to grow a mustache. Carl also recalls the parade of pretty, mini-skirted young assistants who would stand to the side and hand Dr. Allen whatever he needed (“Hand me that curette, will ya, hon?”). None seemed to last from one six-month appointment to the next, but Carl always liked them, even before puberty pushed his eyes toward their cleavage as they leaned over him to hand Dr. Allen the chalky toothpaste. At the end of each appointment, the assistant would open a flat box filled with plastic rings, each in its own foam notch, from which Carl and Richie could choose. Richie favored the hologram rings that, when you moved your finger slightly, showed Tarzan or Superman lunging at some villain. Carl preferred the animal rings—dogs, cats, rabbits. He looked forward to these prizes, though they never truly made up for the torture he’d just endured at the hands of Dr. Allen.
He can’t remember any overt sexual abuse. Just the occasional hand on his thigh, maybe an inch or so too close to his crotch, while the dentist asked how he’d been and if there were any teeth bothering him lately. Once, while examining a cavity toward the rear of Carl’s wide-open mouth, he seemed to linger a strangely long time with his face just a couple of inches away. Carl wondered for a moment if the dentist was about to kiss him. These weird moments were not worth reporting to his mother, he decided, since by that point she would have achieved maximum exasperation due to Carl’s pre-appointment whining. By the time the doctor’s visit ended, she would be all too ready to hustle her boys out of there with zero tolerance for more complaints of any kind.
Unbelievable as it is to Carl now, Dr. Allen never used Novocain. Until he went to college, finally escaping his long-time dentist, Carl didn’t know that a local anesthetic was even an option. Dr. Allen would simply announce to his assistant that the patient had a cavity, and she would break out the drill and filling material while the dentist asked Carl in a suggestive tone whether he had a girlfriend. “No,” Carl always replied, nearly shivering in fear of the pain to come while Dr. Allen chuckled and squeezed his thigh, saying, “What? A good-looking lad like yourself? I don’t believe it. Do you, Heather?” And the assistant would say, “Not at all. If he was a coupla years older, I’d be his girlfriend,” and Dr. Allen would laugh and tickle her while she set out the instruments of torture.
The hiss of the drill, the feeling of bone being ground away inside his head, the wandering hand—no wonder the dentist’s voice gives Carl the willies even after all these years. And there he is, in the doorway now, looking remarkably the same, though perhaps shorter, a bit rounder, and only slightly less intimidating in a gray suit rather than the faded white lab coat. He’s honking away to another guest about the Indians’ chances at breaking even this season. “Not likely,” he announces with a rueful laugh. “Not this year or next, I’m afraid.”
Carl keeps one eye on Dr. Allen until he’s just a few people away in line. By this point, he’s finally clammed up, perhaps out of respect for the grieving family. Carl wishes Richie were here to stand with him. Yeah, maybe crazy Richie would know what to do, what to say. Maybe he’d confront Dr. Allen and publicly shame him for his behavior. Is that what I should do? Carl wonders. But he knows his mother would flip out if he made any kind of scene. And his father might just rise up out of his coffin, waxy and poorly made-up, to upbraid Carl for embarrassing his poor mother.
“My sincere condolences,” Dr. Allen, now standing before him, says in a voice so soft that Carl barely recognizes it. The dentist extends a hand, and after a quick glance at his mother as if she might object to his grasping the same hand that once touched his thigh, Carl takes it, and the two men shake. Then Dr. Allen moves over to his mother, who thanks him for coming and for all the help over the years, including that root canal. She still has no clue, Carl thinks. She never had a clue.
“It was my pleasure,” Dr. Allen says.
And then the next person in line arrives, takes Carl’s hand, and says how deeply sorry she is.
After the line of mourners has finally exhausted itself, a number of people stick around to chat in the viewing room. Dr. Allen stands among them, his voice back to its foghorn level. Carl escorts his mother to a seat and excuses himself to use the restroom. On his way out, he glances at the coffin and remembers the moment a few weeks back when he visited his father in the hospital after his knee surgery. His father had managed to use the bathroom but was unable to pull up his pajama bottoms. “Do you mind helping?” he asked in a small, weary voice, and after some hesitation, Carl leaned down to pull the pajamas up over his father’s bandaged knees and drooping genitals. He felt like he’d crossed a line into some new territory, and he still feels that way, lost and clueless.
In the men’s room, Carl stands at one of the two urinals, relieved to be away from the crowd, from his mother, from his dead father. The room is blessedly empty—until the door creaks open and Dr. Allen parks himself at the next urinal.
Carl shuts his eyes and concentrates, but he cannot manage to pee. Dr. Allen, meanwhile, unzips, sets one hand on the wall, sighs, and lets loose a horse-like stream.
Carl stares straight ahead. He considers leaving but does not want to go through the pantomime of pretending he’s successfully urinated—the wiggle, the zip up, the casual washing of hands. He’s decided to wait this out, to let Dr. Allen finish up and go. But now he can sense his former dentist, midstream, looking at him. Carl turns his body slightly to the left, away from Dr. Allen, in case the old man tries to check out his junk.
“I feel like I owe you an apology,” Dr. Allen says once he’s stopped pissing.
“Uh . . .” Carl says. “Excuse me?”
“All those years,” Dr. Allen says as he zips up, “I didn’t use Novocain on you poor boys.” He remains at the urinal next to Carl. “But I want you to know that it wasn’t my idea.”
Thoroughly confused now, Carl fully gives up. He zips his fly and turns to Dr. Allen, who suddenly seems small and insubstantial next to him, an old man in a wrinkled, cheap suit.
“It wasn’t?” Carl asks.
“It was your father. He asked me not to use it.”
Dr. Allen chooses this moment to move to the single sink, where Carl watches him wash his hands thoroughly—as if he’s about to examine someone’s mouth.
“He said he wanted to toughen you boys up,” the dentist says. “That you needed to know pain.”
“And my mom went along with that.”
“Apparently. Though I definitely used it on her. Several times. And on your father.”
Carl doesn’t know what to say. He recalls how his father would get exasperated if he complained about the drillings until, finally, Carl stopped talking about it, which was probably the goal all along.
“I always felt bad for you boys,” Dr. Allen says. “Maybe I should have ignored him, but then he’d see it on the invoice, and, well . . .” He shrugs.
Carl notices how Dr. Allen keeps referring to “you boys,” and he wants to say, “What do you mean, ‘you boys?’” when it was always just Carl getting a filling, sometimes two, which he considered profoundly unfair. He was diligent about brushing his teeth, unlike Richie, who often skipped brushing and yet seemed to never have a cavity.
But then an old memory floats up. Once, when Carl told Richie about Dr. Allen’s hand on his thigh and how strange that made him feel, his brother said the dentist had touched his penis, which was “even weirder.”
“Did you tell Mom?” Carl recalls asking. But Richie just shrugged and said, “Nah. She probably wouldn’t believe me.”
Carl hasn’t thought of this exchange in ages, and he wonders how he could have forgotten such a thing. But then Richie hated to be outdone and would sometimes make patently outrageous claims. If Carl said he’d done ten push-ups, Richie would insist he’d done a hundred. If Carl rode his bike around the block no-handed, Richie rode a mile. At a certain point, Carl simply stopped believing his brother. But now—standing here in the bathroom with this old man—he asks himself, what if he was telling the truth? Though Richie was years away from his mental deterioration at the time, perhaps Dr. Allen could somehow detect his as-yet untapped madness and knew the boy wouldn’t care all that much. Or maybe he just favored the happy-go-lucky brother with the good dental genes over shy, awkward Carl.
Dr. Allen puts his hand, still wet from the sink, on Carl’s shoulder. “No hard feelings?”
The door opens and Mr. Fletcher enters the small restroom.
“Get your hands off me,” Carl hisses at Dr. Allen.
“You heard what I said.” Carl turns to Mr. Fletcher. “This guy just tried to grope me.”
The lawyer swivels his one eye from Carl to Dr. Allen.
“What?” the dentist says. “I did no such thing!”
“Get out of here, you pervert,” Carl says, “before I call the police.”
Dr. Allen steps back as if struck. Mr. Fletcher says to him, “I think you’d better go.”
Staring at Carl, Dr. Allen opens the door. “I-I understand,” he whispers. “You’re grieving.” And he exits.
“Are you okay, son?” Mr. Fletcher asks.
“Yes. I’m fine.” After washing his hands for a very long time, Carl returns to his mother. Most of the guests have gone, including Dr. Allen, he notices. He sits down and finds he’s shaking.
His mother is looking off toward the casket. Carl, too, stares at his father’s profile, at the frown that the mortician was unable to rearrange. This is the last time, Carl realizes, that he will see what remains. The idea of his father’s body lying six feet beneath the surface of the earth—in the pitch black—his thinning hair continuing to grow and his teeth—the teeth that Dr. Allen drilled with the aid of an anesthetic—remaining intact for decades . . . it knocks something loose inside Carl. He feels as lonely as he’s ever felt.
He reaches over and takes his mother’s hand. She squeezes, gives a tired smile, and says, “I wish your brother was here.”
“Me too,” Carl says. “Me too.”