My dentist died a long time ago. We weren’t close. I mean we were, inasmuch as he had had his fingers in my mouth, but apart from that, I only knew him as a pleasant man who was good at small talk, who always remembered a comment I once made about becoming a cop.
“What do you think you want to be?” he asked me when I was thirteen.
I considered the point with a pure and recently developed countenance of total objectivity. In the late hours of the night, as I lay in my bed, looking up at the glowing star stickers I had stuck to my ceiling, I had come to understand the implications of my future death, as well as the implications of a burgeoning atheistic materialism.
“I used to want to play for the Brewers,” I told him, implying with a wry grin that this was something very young, very stupid people believed, as though we weren’t both talking about me from the year before. “But cop’s not bad.”
“Oh yeah?” he asked, nodding. “How come?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I like detective books.”
At that point in my life I was wary of dentistry. Four years earlier I had come in for a routine cleaning and been told that I had eleven cavities from drinking Coke, and that I would have to come back to get them filled in a week. I knew that these weren’t the teeth I was always going to have. I tried to tell him that it didn’t matter if they rotted in my head, that they weren’t really my teeth anyway. What was wrong with going six months without any, knowing that the good ones were on the way?
“Trust me,” he said. “You don’t want to do that.”
“Oh,” I said. “I think I do.”
“For the sake of your social life, Jay.”
“I won’t smile.”
“What about eating?”
“What about talking?”
“Through the nostrils.”
He crossed his arms, then uncrossed them to remove his glasses. “Have your mom set up an appointment with the receptionist,” he said. We walked down the hall, and he gave me a toothbrush and a toy car.
His name was Dr. Fenton. He was tall and husky—he must have weighed two-hundred and fifty pounds—and he had a face like a red apple. He had silver hair that was once brown and liked to wear glasses with small magnifying lenses attached to the frame with a clip. He could flip them up and down, depending on what he was looking at.
“Here we go,” he would say to me, storming into the room after I’d spent twenty-five uncomfortable minutes with the dental assistant, trying to answer her questions about my life with a sharp metal scraper crammed up against my gums.
“How are you, Jay?” he’d ask. Then he’d flip down the lenses. Flip.
I remember a very long, very white coat, with his name, Dr. Fenton, written in embroidered blue cursive on the chest pocket. I remember rubber gloves pulled with a stretch onto his gorilla hands the first time I ever went to him. Fifth grade. At this point AIDS officially existed, and I was being indoctrinated by competing medical theories at school.
“You get it from trying to blow yourself,” said Greg Lumberton, out on the playground.
“You get it from having your sister blow you,” said Chris Jones. “And you can get it if you touch somebody who already did it. The only cure is to have his sister blow you.”
“You get it from using public telephones,” said Brent Husley. “If you dial the wrong number.”
“You get it from falling off of high places,” said Neal Benthe. “And not getting up fast enough.”
“Now. Listen. One can only contract the HIV virus, a precursor to AIDS, from direct blood contact with someone who’s already infected,” said the teacher, Ms. Joppster, slapping at a pull-down poster of the human body with her long pointer stick. “Do you all hear me?” She turned to us and crossed her arms. “Nothing else. I’ve heard what you say to one another and I’m here to tell you that it just isn’t true.” She was an old lady. I have to think, in hindsight, that she was often drunk during class.
“I have AIDS,” I said to my closest friend, Steve Nestor, as we were walking home from school one day. “I woke up this morning coughing blood all over the place.”
“I thought it was blood,” I said, my voice squeaking. “I was convinced it was blood until I looked.”
“Then it doesn’t count.”
“You don’t have it?” I asked. “Do you?”
“No. But I think you might.”
“I know!” I yelled, nodding. “I do think I might have it.”
Dr. Fenton didn’t have AIDS. Neither did I, but I had a different problem. It wasn’t quite hypochondria, it was more just wanting to have something happen. Anything. I spent whole afternoons wishing that my friends would die so I could go to their funerals and deliver a speech from the podium. I knew that I was small, and that they would have to adjust the microphone for me. Probably give me something extra to stand on. But being seven would multiply the impact of my words. I knew that the younger you were, the more willing older people would be to inflate the profundity of your statements. I had once been camping with my dad and gone into the bathroom hut with him to pee. Instead of regular urinals, there was one long urinal, like a bathtub. Inside of it, there were pink cakes and drains, but there was also a salamander. A tiny brown salamander, standing around. My dad and I both peed on it, and while it was happening—the salamander didn’t move, it didn’t even blink—I said, “It’s a hard life, isn’t it Dad?” He broke out laughing. He told the story to all of his friends. I never understood why it was so funny, but I could tell by the tone of his voice and the grins that I was on to something big. If Neal Benthe happened to get run over by a semi chasing a kickball across the street, it would be tragic, but not that tragic. I would get to give my speech. Big things would be happening, and I would be at the center of a swirling commotion.
Unfortunately for me, nobody who I knew died until I was sixteen. Then, of all people, it was Dr. Fenton. When they finally figured out what had happened to him, and published a diagrammed article in the paper, I licked the top row of my teeth and remembered the last time I had seen him.
I had grown cool the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school. Very withdrawn and blasé about my future, which was the only topic Dr. Fenton was capable of addressing, other than, of course, mouths.
“Still want to be police officer, Jay?” he asked. “Work as a detective here in town?”
“I don’t know,” I said, leaning back in the reclining dentist chair. I put my hands behind my head. “I don’t really care how things turn out.”
“Oh no?” he said quickly, studying my X-Rays. “Let me ask you something, then, Jay. Do you care about plaque, Jay? Tartar? I’d like to think that you’ll care a little more how things turn out when you’ve got a shooting pain back there and you can’t take any liquids. How much Coke have you been drinking lately?”
My façade of cool fell apart. “A lot,” I said. “I can’t stop.”
He frowned at the X-Rays. I looked over and saw that the assistant was staring at me, shaking her head.
“He says he hasn’t been flossing, either,” she said.
“Hm?” asked Fenton. His magnifiers were flipped down and he was deeply engrossed in the negatives. He never listened to his assistants. Whenever I came the last one had been replaced by a new one that looked slightly different.
“I said he hasn’t been flossing,” she repeated, raising her voice.
“You know, Jay,” he said, ignoring her. “You have a great set of chompers here. I have to say.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Really. But that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook with the flossing.”
“I know,” I said. “I know.”
“Any gum sensitivity?”
“None whatsoever,” I said, desperate to please him.
Because Dr. Fenton had that magic to him, something fatherly and expert but also kind and harmless. Very simply, he would save you and your mouth if anything bad happened.
My coolness had arrived all at once, as though it had been delivered by the UPS man. Suddenly my hair was a little longer and I wasn’t chubby. My voice wasn’t high and I had pubic hair and I even had a job at the grocery store. I touched breasts. I learned how to smoke cigarettes and then I learned how to steal my mother’s cigarettes and then I learned how to steal whole cartons of cigarettes from the store when there weren’t any managers up in the office, doing the books and looking at the video monitors. My dad taught me how to drive and then gave me the Jeep Wagoneer to use. I smoked weed and had a CD player. I sometimes listened to Pink Floyd and explained to my friends how the music related to the meaning of the universe.
“Big,” I would say, caught up in the ecstasy of it all. “Space! Huge!”
“Listen to this Comfortably Numb solo,” my friend would say, very serious. “Just listen. Pure beauty.”
I was actually out, being cool, the night Dr. Fenton died. When I read about it in the newspaper a week later, after he had let me down for the first and only time in our well-established professional relationship, the profundity of it shook me and forced me to reevaluate my atheism. I wanted to wrap my coolness up and send it back.
I had been over on the west side of town, driving through the snow, trying to find Chrissy Conlinson’s house. Her parents were away, and she was having a few people over. When I finally found the right address I parked and ran across the street with my hands in my pockets, shivering. Part of my being cool, for some reason I can no longer remember, involved never wearing a jacket.
The party was much more than a few people. It was out of control. There was a girl in the kitchen wearing a bra and a pair of jeans, waving around a bread knife and yelling at a small crowd. There were four or five people upstairs on the balcony, drunkenly singing along to the Brady Bunch song coming out of the stereo. Someone was asleep in the bathtub. My friends were outside on the porch. I said hello to them, then went inside. The girl with the knife had moved away from the fridge, and I opened it, and I made myself a rum and Coke.
Across town, Dr. Fenton was leaving Magnum, a new restaurant beside the river. His friends said he had ordered steak. His wife was in Atlanta visiting their daughter, and Dr. Fenton’s buddies had arranged a guy night. They were disappointed when he stood up after just one drink, apologetically explaining that he had heartburn, and hadn’t been quite right all week, and felt as though he just needed to get into bed and get some rest. They understood. In reality, it was angina. They said goodnight and shook his hand, one by one. He and Dave Kelly, a local real-estate agent, made plans to play tennis.
Dr. Fenton walked across the restaurant with the ticket for his coat held in the palm of his clammy right hand. He gave it to a woman named Martha Pepstein, who later told the newspaper that he had a certain greenish look about him then, not quite pale, but not natural at all.
“His shirt looked too tight,” she said. “He looked like he couldn’t breathe.”
She found his coat and he tipped her well. He looked across the dining room one last time and nodded at his friends, who waved and smiled before returning to their conversation.
The road to Magnum ran alongside the river, bending and twisting with the shoreline. To the left, there was the uphill slope of a steep ravine; to the right, the ravine continued down towards shore, where it eventually met the frozen river. The snowstorm had been gaining momentum all night, and now, at around 9:30 P.M., the plows had fallen behind, and the road was covered in an inch of snow. Since there was a Winter Storm Warning that night, and Brad Spakowitz, the town meteorologist, had broken into Cheers reruns to show us all the approaching blob of scattered green light on his radar screen, not many cars were out. The road was only lit by tall amber lights spaced out every quarter mile.
About two-hundred yards from Magnum, Dr. Fenton’s cream Cadillac DeVille went off the road. It very quietly slipped down the ravine through the woods, knocking into small trees and bushes, plowing very quietly, creating a clear path of speckled whiteness and broken branches leading back up. It whispered away. It made no noise as it descended. It nicked a rock. The car finally came to rest with its hood against an oak tree, its back tires spinning slowly, frictionless, against the drifts of snow.
It didn’t take long for the tracks that led from the road to the ravine to be covered up. It’s hard to believe that nobody drove by in that small window of time, that the road was empty for fifteen or twenty minutes. But sometimes when you’re driving you see curious things and you imagine that whatever has happened, it has been taken care of. You see incredible black marks on the highway that veer left and then right and then left again, implying that a car has sailed off of a bridge and exploded, just impossible angles for speeding vehicles, and you somehow convince yourself that nothing extraordinary has happened at all. Or, if something extraordinary truly has happened, you believe that the authorities were there to help, they came, and that whoever was driving is now home safe, playing Scrabble in front of a fire.
Back at the party, I was bored. It turned out, like so many parties in high school, to be nowhere near as decadent as it initially appeared. The girl with no shirt had put it back on, slid the knife into a drawer, gone upstairs, and started singing with the Brady Bunch group. I’d stopped drinking. There was a moment with my friends out on the porch when we all stopped talking at once. It was because we had nothing to talk about. I took that as a cue to go home and fall asleep under the glowing green stars on my ceiling. They were still there. I’d tried to peel them off when I turned cool, but the glue had been too strong.
I said goodnight to the people I liked and vaguely nodded at the people I didn’t, then left through the front door, amazed at how much snow had fallen in the few hours I’d been inside. I put my hands in my pocket and just looked at the white sparkling street, the white sparkling street that was actually amber from the lights. There were no tracks. It gave me a giddy feeling. No car tracks, no human tracks. I shoved my hands in my pockets and hopped off the porch, towards the street.
I misjudged where I was. I thought I was going down the driveway, but really, I was in the yard, moving across dead grass instead of concrete. When I came to the curb, I wasn’t expecting it, and my right foot went down further than it should have, and I lurched forward, yanking frantically with my shoulders to get my hands up out of my pockets in time for the fall. The problem with the falling reflex, though, is that your hands try to go straight out, away from your body,not up out of a pocket, so I was fighting against a few million years of evolution in the space of maybe two seconds. The watch on my left wrist got caught up. I got the right hand out, but not by much; my body, realizing it was the best choice of many bad choices, turned a bit in that direction, and I took most of the fall on my right shoulder and forearm.
Not all of it. My mouth was open for a little yelp of surprise and a quick, bracing inhalation. The snow slowed my face down as it hit, like a strange freezing pillow, but my top right canine nicked the cement underneath. It cracked in half.
I was more mad than hurt, although it did hurt. Blood dripped down into the snow. I reached up gingerly to touch my mouth, and when my finger scraped against the jagged nub of the tooth I yelled, “Ah!” and then, “Oh!” at the silent street. After I got to my feet I wiped down my shirt and my pants and thought about going back inside for help. Instead I went to my car and found the scraper. While I wiped away the snow and sucked up air and swallowed the blood in my mouth, I thought about how at least something was happening. I would have a story to tell when I got home. I would have something interesting to tell my friends. I would have to make a special visit to Dr. Fenton. And for the rest of my life I would have something artificial in my mouth to go along with the story. Proof. I’d always have something to say to new people.
It’s possible that Dr. Fenton also broke off some of his teeth when his Cadillac DeVille went down the ravine, but I doubt it. There are coincidences, and then there are coincidences. Granted, I’m relying on my imagination, but when I see that car sliding down through the trees it’s going as slow as the snowflakes around it; it’s just barely moving, this diagonally moving boxy thing that has the density of balsawood. Inside, as seen through the glass of the passenger window, there is a man breathing heavily, blinking rapidly, holding onto the wheel, and leaning forward, into his seatbelt.
I took my time driving home. The Wagoneer had four-wheel drive but it was a monster of a car, and it didn’t have anti-lock breaks, and I was happy to revel calmly in the emergency of it all: a frantic, wounded trip home through a dangerous storm. I pulled into my driveway behind my dad’s car, a bigger, newer SUV. I made sure to walk to the house without my hands in my pockets.
“Lemme see,” my dad said when I showed it to him. “Take your hand away.”
“Ow,” I said when he touched it. “Why would you do that?”
“Have you been drinking?” he asked. “Rum?”
“A little bit.”
“Brush your goddamned teeth before your mother smells it.”
“Find a spray,” he said. “Do something intelligent.”
“Should we call the dentist?” I asked. “Should we get Dr. Fenton on the phone?”
“It’s 11:00 on a Friday night, Jay. Don’t you think he has something better to do?”
“Aren’t dentists on call?” I asked. “Isn’t this a tooth emergency?”
“No,” said my dad. “You can make it until tomorrow. They’ll fix it like new.”
“You say that now,” I said. “How humiliated will you be when you find your son has bled to death overnight? From his gums?”
“We’re not calling the dentist,” said my dad. “Go to bed. Go do something other than talking to me.”
“What are you watching?”
“I’m watching Predator.”
“Can I watch it with you?”
“Fine,” he said. “Fine.”
“Then why are you worried about her smelling my breath?”
“Because sometimes she wakes up.”
“Dad?” I asked.
“What will happen with my tooth?”
“They’ll fix it. They’ll make it look new. Welcome to adulthood, where all your parts are fake or broken and you get sore on certain evenings.”
We watched Predator. I jealously listened to my father eat his popcorn. When I couldn’t stand it any longer, I walked across the living room, took a handful, and ate it piece by piece on the other side of my mouth. The metallic taste of blood mixed with the salt and the butter. I can’t say it was very good.
I think Dr. Fenton was probably dead by the time I got into bed and looked at my stars, although the coroner was never exactly sure, since it took eight days to find the body. He might have made it through the night. But his heart attack was of the explosive variety. A full blockage. The atherosclerosis had begun around his twenty-ninth year, shortly after he injured his knee playing basketball with his son. The injury forced him to quit his regular exercise routine, and he gained thirty pounds. His smoking picked up. After the knee-surgery, he’d been forced to wear a brace and take two months off of work. He was depressed. Back then, a torn ACL was murder. They didn’t have lasers.
When I called in the morning they told me that Dr. Fenton wasn’t available.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“He won’t be in today,” said the secretary. “I’ll schedule you with somebody else. We have an excellent cosmetic dentist on staff.”
“I want Fenton,” I said. “I’ll wait until Monday for Fenton.” I would wait until the Armageddon. He was my meat and potatoes guy, and I was going to stick with him.
“I’m going to schedule you with Dr. Veldspar. We’ll have it taken care of in no time.”
“Well,” she said. “We don’t know.”
She sounded concerned.
Since my dentist was missing, I went to Dr. Veldspar, and he had a weird little nose and contact lenses. He was too young. He had an alternative haircut and talked to me about baseball. He hardly said a word about my tooth, even as he fixed it. He just kept talking about baseball.
“You must like the Brewers then,” he said, responding to nothing I could remember saying. He didn’t know me.
I didn’t nod or shake my head. I opened my mouth wider and stared up at the strange black hourglass symbol that is imprinted on every dentist light I have ever been beneath. I waited for his tools.
As the days passed, and stories about Dr. Fenton’s disappearance showed up on the front page of the newspaper each morning, I thought less about my new tooth and more about where he was. Had he left town? Run away with another woman? His poor wife was in agony. There were photos of her crying. I remembered more things from our shared past. Our shared past of ten years probably amounted to two total hours of face time.
“Jay,” he’d once said to me as we walked down the hall together, back towards the waiting room. “Are you sure you want to be a police officer? Why not a doctor instead?” He leaned down and opened the cupboard full of free toys. We always made a stop here when I was finished. It was his way, I think, of getting me to take a new toothbrush. He made it look like a toy.
“I don’t like science,” I said, digging around, looking for a yo-yo. “And I don’t like blood. Why would I want to spend time with sick people?”
“Why would you want to spend time with criminals?” he asked. “And don’t you think you’ll run into blood if you’re a police officer?”
“Maybe,” I said. I had the yo-yo. I didn’t care.
“Blood’s not so bad,” he said. “Everyone has it. Really, it’s small red packages of oxygen.”
This made me look up at his round red face. He was enormous, and what he said sounded just as true as anything else I’d ever heard in my life. There are always moments when dentists lock on to something huge, something too true to chuckle away. They ask you about your jaw, and you say that it’s sore in the mornings, and they tell you that you’ve been grinding your teeth. The only way to fix it, they tell you, is to remove the stress. They say it as though your divorce and the death of your parents falls into the category of dental problems, and when they say it, you believe them.
At that angle, I could see up his nostrils. There were black hairs sticking out of them. His face looked like it was miles away. He put his hand on my shoulder, smiled, and handed me a new green toothbrush.
“Take this,” he said. “Brush regularly.”
Dr. Fenton’s engine died when he hit the final tree. I haven’t been honest about the speed of the descending car. It was going much faster than a snowflake, because when they finally found it—when the sun came out for a whole day and enough of the snow melted to make the cream paint on the roof of the car visible from the road—the whole front end was mashed in. The airbag was deployed. His teeth were probably fine.
Since his car had stopped, all of his lights had gone out. His heater had died. He had some gray light for a half-hour, and maybe even the amber glow of the streetlamps back up on the road coming in through his rear window.
But soon, it was all blackness inside of his car. The temperature dropped. He was half-conscious, confused and weak. Maybe even lying forward with his face in the airbag like a pillow. There was no light. Just a black box, and inside of it, the sound of a man wheezing. Maybe the sound of a man crying out. Wheezing, and the occasional scrape of a Gore-Tex coat across a leather seat. Panting. There was a vast pain in his chest, but his brain was bathing in endorphins. The death-bath of endorphins, when you feel like you’re floating on air, or you see things, or you take your death casually, like you don’t care. It was pitch black. It was dark. True, all of space is big, but for a moment it fits inside of your mind, and you get to be incomprehensible for a change.
I didn’t even finish college. And I’m not cool, I’m definitely not cool, thank God. That ethos, whatever empty, cold planet it comes from, sucks. Because what’s the point? Why? There are better things to think about.
For example: I don’t live very far from where I grew up, and I see lots of old faces around town, each carrying a little added fat and skin, so despite this vast break in time, this embarrassing absence of youth, when we see each others’ faces and wonder what exactly has happened to us all, I leave. Magnum’s gone, but the road is still there, and at night, after work, I go out of my way and drive down there along the river.
If someone had been behind him, Dr. Fenton would have made it home. That’s clear. So I see myself that night, behind him in my big Jeep Wagoneer, towering over him on the road, far away from, say, a cocktail party, watching him go home. I just watch him to be sure.
This is important: in this slight fantasy, there is nothing happening. Nothing at all. There are absolutely no events to speak of. When he turns on his blinker and stops the Cadillac in his driveway, I keep going. I remember that I am busy with other things. I tap the horn once and nod. He doesn’t know I’ve been behind him, and he doesn’t even hear it, but this is just me saying so long anyway.
© Patrick Somerville
This electronic version of "So Long, Anyway" appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the author and Michael Koch at EPOCH. It appears in the author's collection Trouble, published by Vintage Books, 2006; and first appeared in EPOCH, Vol 55, No 1, the 2006 series. Book ordering for Trouble available through amazon.com and amazon.co.uk
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Patrick Somerville 's first book of stories, Trouble, was published in September of 2006 (Vintage) and named 2006's Best Book by a Chicago Author by Time Out Chicago. His writing has appeared in One Story, Epoch, GQ, Esquire, and Best American Nonrequired Reading, and his first novel, The Cradle, is out March 2009 from Little, Brown. Right now he's serving as the Simon Blattner Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Northwestern University.
See also the author’s short story The Cold War from issue 57
Author website: www.patricksomerville.com
Book ordering for The Cradle at Amazon.com