By Brittany Ackerman
Doc was the fattest man I’d ever seen. Dad said I needed my teeth fixed, badly, and his pal, Doc the dentist, volunteered to take me to his home office two hours north of where we lived in Illinois. He was sweating through his shirt on the drive. Chips crunched under his ass and in between the cloth seats. I wanted to throw up but I knew we didn’t have any money and dad couldn’t afford a nice dentist like the other kids at school.
On the way up north he had to stop at the Federal Penitentiary where he volunteered to clean and pull the inmates’ teeth. He refused to give them any Novocain. I stood at his flank while he propped his fat foot on the edge of the chair and pulled a man’s tooth, twisting his pliers and churning the rotted tooth inside his mouth. I felt my own mouth watering, the back of my neck sweating, my hands becoming warm and tingly with nauseous anxiety. “Ahh…ahh!” the man’s screams were muffled by the dirty instruments. Doc kept pulling, sweating, breathing heavy lethargic breaths onto the back of the inmates’ heads.
After, he took me to a diner and ordered himself a cherry pie. He slid a slice in front of me and began eating. The sugary red cherries glistened like the sheen on Doc’s forehead. The whipped cream melted off in chunks. I said I was too tired to eat, an excuse I often used at my own dinner table when I had a rough day at school and would rather stay in my room reading. He shrugged his lumpy shoulder and ate my piece.
He pulled four of my teeth, with Novocain. He gave me a set of braces with instructions on how and when to tighten them; a job for my dad that he hated because he knew it caused me so much pain. Doc’s daughter lived with him and he suggested we go to the Apple Festival. I could barely feel my face but he wanted me to go pick apples or bob for them, whatever was happening downtown.
Doc messed up my teeth though. His equipment was old and his methods were outdated. I never wanted to see a dentist again, and I didn’t until after graduate school. I was at the movies on a date and a piece of popcorn got lodged in my gums around my back molar. It hurt so bad I had to end the date early. The guy I was with took it personally, a blow to his ego because I wouldn’t go home with him after seeing Braveheart. He had snuck in that bottle of Jack Daniels for nothing. But this time I had to go to a local dentist, pay the copay, sit in the chair. An overweight woman walked in and plopped down in the swivel chair beside me. She had big red curls and a lovely smile with perfect white teeth.
“What happened, honey?” she asked, taking out her tools, clean and prepared and nothing like Doc’s.
“Popcorn” was all I could muster, the pain shooting down the nerve of my tooth and into my jaw. I pictured the nerves like cartoons, red and angry, fighting each other with electric lightening bolts.
“Don’t worry, we’ll fix you up. It happens all the time.”
After she dislodged a rather large kernel from my mouth, I thanked her and realized the dentist could actually save me. Bad dentistry was a punishment for the underprivileged, and I wondered where Doc was, if he was still alive, if he still enjoyed a piece of pie every now and then after a good extraction.
“I’ll never eat popcorn again,” I said rubbing the spot where the pain had lived for two days before I could get an appointment.
“Oh, sure you will, honey,” she laughed, her jowls bouncing, her round face lighting up in the fluorescent glow of the room. It made me think of Doc, his big cheeks chewing that cherry pie at the diner, which made me think of my dad, the way he always wanted what was best, even if it was the worst. And then I thought of the Apple Festival, all those bright red apples we picked that day and how they went to waste.
Brittany Ackerman is a recent graduate of Florida Atlantic University's MFA program in Creative Writing. She recently completed a residency at the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods, as well as the Mont Blanc Workshop in Chamonix, France under the instruction of Alan Heathcock. She will be attending the Methow Valley Workshop this May under the leadership of Ross Gay. She is currently living in Los Angeles and working on a novel of fiction.