I am not comfortable with dentists. Not even my own, Bruce Costello, whom I’ve been seeing since I was a kid. He’s a storyteller, this guy, and some of his tales have proven to be less than factual. I’ve even found a couple, recapped almost word-for-word, on an “urban legends” website.
I’ve stayed away for over two years. Besides the physical discomfort, there’s the expense accrued thanks to no dental plan. But that day at work when I bite into a pistachio and suddenly feel an unfamiliar sensation in one of my back teeth, I quickly pick up the phone and call Westport Dental Clinic.
At the clinic, Dr. Bruce — as he insists on being called — tells me I’ve cracked a molar. He says he can give me a temporary cap, but that I have to come back a week from tomorrow for the permanent. I apologize for being away for so long, but Bruce doesn’t seem to care. He shoots me up with Novocain, straps what looked like a miner’s light to his forehead, cranks back my chair. There’s an attractive middle-aged dental hygienist named Holli — a woman I’d never seen before — assisting.
“So,” he says. “How’s things?”
Things have been shitty. Shittiest of all is the fact that my girlfriend has moved in with some veterinarian and taken my dog with her. The dog I can take or leave. My girlfriend I want back.
“Things are good,” I say.
“That’s cool,” Dr. Bruce says. “A lot can change in two years. Hell. A lot can change in a day.”
Holli gives me a look like hold-tight-for-this-one.
“You ever drive on the Merritt Parkway really early in the morning?” Bruce asks. “Six-fifteen, sun just coming up? It’s like a ghost town. You might not see another car between here and Greenwich.”
His eyes shoot over toward Holli.
“When was it? Last week?”
“Wednesday,” she says.
Dr. Bruce pulls up a stool and takes a seat next to me while Holli arranges instruments on a stainless steel tray.
“So I’m driving north on the Merritt, lonely as a clam, when out of the corner of my eye I catch something. It’s a car. A Kia. This weird color. Yellowish-green, like a lanced boil.”
I think to myself, doesn’t he have another patient he can look in on until this Novocain kicks in?
“It’s pulled off on the shoulder and I’m like, ‘Hey. Thank God for cellphones.’ Am I right?”
I make a noise that I hope sounds like agreement.
“Except it hits me. We’re on the Merritt. A dead spot every three miles. So I try my own phone and there it is. No reception. I think to myself. What’s the last thing I need? A headline in some newspaper saying Medical Professional Blows Past Stroke Victim. So I pull up behind the car and I walk up to the driver’s window which is tinted almost black, and I tap.”
Dr. Bruce stops here and turns off his forehead light either to preserve the battery or add an element of foreboding. I’m not sure which.
“The window rolls down and there he is. Broad forehead, wide-spaced eyes, teeth gaped far enough apart he could floss with rope. We’re not just talking ugly. We’re talking circus ugly.”
“I’d have taken off running,” Holli says.
“Which is what any sane person would do. Not me. I ask the guy if everything is all right and he tells me he’s run out of gas and asks if I can give him a lift to this service station up at the next exit. He says he knows the guy who runs it.”
Bruce is on his feet now, his hands going, acting it out.
“Immediately I’m thinking about those stories. You know the ones. Shovel to the back of the head, wallet lifted, shallow grave in the woods. But I’m also scared to say no.”
“The road to ruin . . . ” Holli says.
“Next thing I know we’re back on the road. The exit he wants is maybe three miles north, and we get there in no time. The guy gets out at the service station and he asks me if I mind waiting for a second. He pops inside and he comes out with this.”
Bruce takes out his wallet and removes a piece of paper folded in half.
“It’s a lottery betting slip and it’s already filled out. ‘Play this on the sixth,’ he tells me. ‘Not before, not after.’ And he turns and starts back inside which is when I notice for the first time . . . ”
“Wait for it,” Holli says almost to herself.
” . . . that this guy is not wearing shoes and that he has no feet. He’s like a goat. He’s got these cloven hoofs he’s walking on.”
“Probably just the angle,” Holli says.
“I know what I saw.”
For a few seconds, all I can hear is the gurgle of the spit sink.
“So what are the numbers?” I say, my lower lip already swelling to the size of a breakfast sausage.
Dr. Bruce smiles and returns the betting slip to his wallet.
“Oh, I can’t tell you that,” he says. “Because suppose these numbers do come in. Suppose I tell all my patients who decide it’s worth a chance. The more winning tickets sold, the lower the individual payout.”
Bruce raps on my back tooth with the handle of one of those pokey things they use. I feel nothing. He looks over at Holli and she sticks that saliva sucker in my mouth as Dr. Bruce flips his light back on. They hover on either side of me.
The sixth, I realize, is two days from now.
The morning of the seventh, a Saturday, it’s all over the local news. One of winning tickets was sold at The Beverage Boutique out on Old State Road. The winner has yet to step forward, yet to collect just under four million dollars. I figure there’s no way, but I call the clinic where voicemail informs me that Dr. Costello isn’t in, please try again during regular business hours, call 911 if this is a dental emergency.
I hang up and go outside to run the weed wacker.
Monday morning, at work, I get a call. My appointment for the permanent cap needs to be rescheduled. The receptionist says she can set me up at 4:30 on Friday with Dr. Addis.
“I always see Dr. Costello,” I tell her.
“Dr. Costello is no longer with us,” she says.
“Where did he go?”
“That information is unavailable,” she says, and I get the impression this isn’t the first time today she’s delivered this update.
“May I speak with Holli?”
“Holli is also no longer here.”
So I reschedule.
Later, on the way home, when I stop at Gulliver’s to pick up a take-out dinner, I see the headline on the front page of The Evening Advocate: AREA DENTIST STRIKES GOLD. And there’s this picture of Dr. Bruce grinning and holding a gigantic check with Holli standing maybe two feet off.
My girlfriend, Kimberly, calls me that night. I’m hoping that she’s going to tell me that she’s figured things out, that this whole deal with the vet was just a senseless fling and that she wants to come home. Be that the case, I won’t hesitate to forgive her. But it’s not. What Kimberly wants is half the money in our joint checking account. It isn’t much — a little over a thousand bucks — but she has it figured down to the dime.
I go dramatic. The spurned ex-lover from some Lifetime TV movie.
“Is that what this is about?” I ask. “Money?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “Partially, I guess.”
She wants to know if I can write a check and leave it in my mailbox. She says she’ll buzz by for it tomorrow while I’m at work.
I work as a claims adjuster for this grade-Z insurance company. You’ve seen our commercials. The giraffe on the motorcycle? We stick our neck out for you? That’s us. My job keeps me on the road, and the morning after Kimberly tries to shake me down, I myself am driving north on the Merritt Parkway heading toward Stratford. It’s raining and it’s just after eight and traffic is heavy. I’m on my phone when bam. Call dropped, GPS goes blank-screen.
And immediately, I see it. A yellowish-green Kia pulled off on the shoulder up ahead. We’re moving slowly enough that I have no trouble throwing on my flashers and pulling over behind it.
Please, I think to myself.
I get out and approach — the rain beating down soaking my suit and flattening my hair like a wet shag carpet — but that’s not what I care about. I can see white exhaust and the model name — Soul — in chrome-plated script. I can see that the car is minus tags. I’m close enough to almost reach forward and touch the tinted rear window.
And then it takes off. Just pulls into traffic and in seconds disappears. I want to call out, but what would I say? All I can do is stand there looking.
Follow it, right?
Except that when I get back to my own car, it won’t start. I pump the accelerator furiously, but nothing. A state trooper finally spots me and stops. I tell him the story, but of course, not the whole story.
“Try it again,” he tells me. But the shitbox I drive refuses to turn over. “Flooded,” he says. “Give it ten or fifteen minutes and try it again. I’ll come by later and make sure you got off okay.”
He leaves and I wait and sure enough, the engine fires up.
I ease into traffic. I’m shivering, confused. My bad tooth is throbbing. I don’t even have a goddamn dog anymore. I know who I am, but for a second — just for a second or two — I forget where I’m going, why I’m here, what I’m looking for.
Z.Z. BOONE‘s fiction has appeared in Jersey Devil Press, New Ohio Review, PANK, Berkeley Fiction Review, The MacGuffin, Potomac Review, and other terrific places.