My momma tells me that Paul Franklin, DMD, has been our family friend and dentist since before I was born. She says that he was my father's best friend in college and best man at their wedding. Some of our best vacations, she says, have been spent with the Franklins and their kids. Remember the Grand Tetons? Panama City? That time on Little Abaco when we got such a great deal on the beach house because of a man that Paul Franklin knew? We baked ourselves mahogany those two weeks, remember, and Paul and Daddy took the fifty-foot boat out and came back with a marlin almost as big as me. Some of the best times ever, she says, spent with Paul Franklin, DMD.
"So when you say you don't want to go in there and have him look at your teeth, honey, just what am I supposed to do?"
I will look out the car window and she won't see my face. I will bare my teeth in the side mirror, I will grin at myself. My teeth are healthy, even, white and strong. Any fool can see. I brush them twice a day at least. I floss when I have time, even though I hate the feeling of the floss, feeling like wire slipping beneath my gums and sometimes making them bleed.
"Who should I take you to?" she says. "Answer me when I'm talking. Who, other than him, ought I to take you to? Nobody."
"Nobody," I say. "Mamma, I don't need a dentist."
She makes a noise like humph. "We all of us need a dentist, time to time," she says. "What do you know, girl like you, sixteen. What do you know of the cavities starting in the teeth, burrowing them down like moles in the enamel. The teeth look fine, sure, but it takes a dentist to see beyond, to see the holes and fill them up. Before they rot up like cheese, go bad like that and fall out."
"I could want to take my chances," I say, but soft, my mouth against the cold glass of the car window, saying the words soft and my breath misting a little circle that I will wipe away with my hand. Ephemera. A word I learned today. The things that go away, the things that were not meant to last.
"You got till five, girl," says my mother, "to get out of this car and get your skinny butt in there." She is getting ready to be mad, now. Oh, am I making her late to her hair appointment or such?
"One," says my mother. "Two."
"Mamma. Let me come with you to that hair appointment. I think I'm ready, like you said, to get some kind of permanent wave in this hair. Look," I fluff my hair with my fingers. "Look, I am sixteen and old enough, like you say, to take an interest in my appearance. My teeth are fine and strong. I don't need him to tell me that."
"I'm glad you think a permanent wave," says my mother. "But I am already to four, honey. Get."
"Yes," I say. "All right."
I am out of the car, standing on the hot sidewalk with my glasses misting up after the air conditioning. I hold the car door open.
"Tell Paul that I will stop in and talk to him when I pick you up," my mother says. "After I get my hair all fixed up."
"Don't let all the AC out, honey, shut the door and get in there."
"All right," I say, and I push the door shut on her precious AC and she waggles her fingers at me as she drives away. If she was smart she would sit there in the car and watch me until she saw me go inside. No, but she is smart, and she knows that if I don't go in, Paul Franklin, DMD, will tell her so.
Do I remember the time on Little Abaco? Getting off the plane at a tiny airport with a landing strip that was just a wide place in the trees. Sometimes they have to chase the alligators off the strip. They like to bask in the hot sun, the pilot said. The house was right on the water, open the back door and step out into soft sand. Paul and Mrs. Franklin were there already, and Josie and Cara were splashing in the warm water near where it met the sand. Cara just a baby, wearing her diapers in the water, and Josie was five. Daddy and Paul took the fifty-foot boat out every day, with a cooler of dark beer and another of bait fish. At sunset they came back, salt crusted on their shirts and unshaven, and the cooler now with empty bottles rolling around, and sometimes a big fish hanging from the gaff. I, like the alligators, basked in the hot sun. Baby fat and twelve years old. I lay on my stomach mostly so I could read. I remember even what I was reading, East of Eden for my English class, and Paul Franklin came and sat himself down in the sand next to me. A sip of his dark beer for me. Tasting like mold, I thought, like damp coquina walls dripping into Spanish dungeons. He put his hand on my back, pressed it. Burned, he said. Look, the print of my hand stays white in your sunburn.
I see him sometimes look at Josie. His eyes are shaded by dark sunglasses. He is measuring her, perhaps. I asked her. One afternoon when Paul Franklin and Daddy were out on the boat, and Mamma and Mrs. Franklin were in the hammocks out front.
Josie, I asked. Does he ever touch you?
Who? she said. What?
She slipped her baby-oiled arms out of my hands and ran away. I don't know. I thought I saw a dark flick behind her eyes when she said Who? Like a fish slipping through the deep water far below, down where it's cold and the sunlight is filtered to black.
Burned, he said. Look, I will make it better.
Mamma. What should I say?
I am like the indios. When Columbus came, they danced and gave him food and women.
But I am stalling. Already I am late for the appointment, probably. There are very big glass doors on the way into the office. Stamped in gold letters on the glass, letters three inches tall, Paul Franklin, DMD, and the names of his associates. The receptionist lady is Belle. She is big and black and has gold fillings in all her back teeth. She shows these fillings to the small children, opening her mouth wide and bending down so they can see.
"That," she says, "is what happens when you don't brush your teeth right. Listen to Mr. Franklin now."
The children are fascinated and awed.
"Child," Belle says to me. "You have been away too long. How them pearly whites of yours doing?"
"Fine, ma'am," I say.
"He has been waiting to see you," she says. "You are one of Mr. Franklin's special girls."
She calls to one of the nurses to take me back. "Sheila," she calls, "we got a live one here for you to fix up."
I wish I could wait a little longer. Just a little bit. I could wait in the lobby and read the glossy magazines. I could flip through them slowly, languid, my gestures controlled and even. I wish I had some grass. Billy Nessman gave me some last week and we smoked it in the back of his truck. I inhaled the sweet-sour smoke and kept it way down inside of me. It made things a little better. Billy kissed me, tilting my head back, and when I closed my eyes I started spinning. First it was all of me, then it was tighter and faster, centering in a spiral in my brain, and everything else was still but I was whirling. A first kiss, from Billy. I knew what he wanted. Let him then. Maybe I will like it. Billy was fumbling, his breath like smoke and beer. Like mold , did I say? Then he felt me with his fingers in me and he was grinning, what I call the Oh-Shit grin because you know that something is going to happen.
You, he said. I thought . . . I thought.
Did you love me, then, Billy Nessman? I said. Am I a good girl? Did you think I was? Perhaps you are shocked, Billy Nessman.
His face closed up then, and he took me. He probably thought what the hell. But I will want to throw myself around and scream and cry, bang my head against the windows and thump my hands over and over into the dashboard. I will hug my arms around me and cry. Damn it all to hell and gone, my grandpa used to say.
Sheila is a new Dental Assistant. In capitals like that. She tells me as she cleans my teeth. Put the pink-grey scrubbing paste on the little round brush, and then it's open-your-mouth-wide-please-wider-that's-good. It whirrs and vibrates against my teeth until I think that it is my teeth whirring and vibrating and not the other way around. Sheila just got out of Dental Assistant School, and when her boyfriend gets out of accounting school then he is going to come down here and marry her. Sheila has bright- painted nails. She is glad to be working for Paul Franklin, DMD, because he is such a nice man. Not all touchy-feely like some she could mention. Open-your-mouth-wide-please-wider-that's-good. I will stare at the ceiling so hard that my mind will go blank. I will stare at that, there, that picture of the kitten with the big eyes stuck up a tree. I shoulda stayed in bed, it says. I will stare at that so long and hard that my mind will drift on upwards to the ceiling, and it will hover there like a cloud of smoke, and I will be able to look down on myself and laugh to see myself way down there so small and scared. Yes, laugh.
Mrs. Franklin is beautiful. She is. Six foot in heels, she will tell you with a smile. Legs up to you know where. Blonde hair, blue eyes, lips darkened with something she calls Framboise Matte Number 7. She let me try it. She used to like me a lot, I think. I used to baby-sit for Cara and Josie all the time. I liked that. We would pop popcorn and watch the TV sitcoms while Mrs. Franklin and him went out to dinner, or wherever they went. Hopefully I would only have to change Cara's diapers once while they were gone. But then I didn't like it anymore. She looked so beautiful, standing there in the bathroom doorway, her dress floating around her legs like mist off a waterfall. He stood up so quick he crashed his head against the underside of the sink.
Her leg, he said. She cut her leg, here, see? I have the peroxide. See?
She put her hand across her mouth. Oh, she said. Oh, Oh, Oh.
Whatever you are thinking, he said, don't. He took her out of the bathroom, with his arm around her, whispering, whispering. And I, I will pour this whole bottle of peroxide on my leg and it will foam its way all across the bathroom floor, into every corner and crevice. It will be the very flood of cleansing. My leg is cut here where he cut it, damn it. He will grab for me whenever I move away.
Old songs are the best. Patsy Cline.
Each time I see you again.
Mamma. I will have to end this somehow.
Sheila says my teeth look good and fine, no soft spots that she can see.
"Rinse," she says. "Spit." I do.
"Now sit you here and wait," she says, "and Mr. Franklin will be in here to see you shortly."
Then she is up and out of the room, humming and leaving a good smell behind her. A good clean scent like pine forests and bracken where a deer has bedded down. If you go up to a healthy pine tree, the right kind now, and if you put your arms around it an d press your nose against the rough bark and inhale÷well, it will smell like butterscotch. A good smell.
Maybe it is just the anti-bacterial soap that Dental Assistants rinse their hands with.
And I am here thinking about deer and butterscotch. Ha.
It is cold in here. My legs are blotchy and speckled with goosebumps. If he is going to come, God, then let him come now. Let this be over with. But please, God, let him not come at all.
But no, here he is. I hear the door click shut behind him and he says my name. My name. He says it in a different way than anyone else has ever done. And, please, ever will.
"How are you?" he says.
"Fine," I say. "Cold."
"Yes, we do keep it on the chilly side in here, don't we?" He is smiling at me. His hair is going thin on top, and gone to gray. I have noticed that before. He has shaved off the mustache he had last time. He puts his hand on my leg. "You are cold," he says.
I told him that. He doesn't have to touch me to find that out, but he will. I went to the National Gallery once. Class trip or some such thing. We traipsed around all over looking at soldiers posed beside their horses, or Civil War generals pointing at t he enemy, and shouting, all blood red and navy blue it seemed to me. Then we came around a corner and I saw a picture that I knew, and my eyes were filled up with springtime and flowers. It was by that man Van Gogh. Sunflowers. It was just hanging there o n the wall in front of me, not two feet away, hanging there just like my Mamma's copy of the Last Supper hangs on our living room wall. There was no glass to protect it, no rope to keep the people back. I could have reached right out and touched it. Caressed it. Anybody, seeing that, might want to touch it.
But they don't.
"I have missed you," he says.
He is all elbows and sharp shin bones. A stick man, jerking himself around on strings. A tall man. His knucklebones are big and red. He has missed me. When I go to college, will this end? He has called our house sometimes, and if my Mamma answers then he will talk to her of this and that, of the weather or a barbecue. But if it is me, oh, then he will say my name and speak to me of such things as I am sick to hear. I will say nothing and his voice will whisper its way into my ear and down my bones until it lies coiled in the pit of my stomach like a snake. I will say nothing, and my Mamma, if she is there, will ask, Who is that? I have thought to hand her the phone, softly, and let her listen to the voice that whispers there. Instead, I have hung it up and turned to look away.
Mamma, I have tried.
He will grab at me whenever I move away.
"I have missed you," he says. His hands are moving on me. His red knuckles bump against my chin. He pushes my hands away. "Your mouth," he says. "Your teeth."
"My teeth are fine and strong," I say. "Sheila said."
"I am the dentist and I will say whether or not," he says. "Open."
I am desperate. My breath is stolen, not my own. My hands will fly about in circles. My voice, my voice is a tight wire that this breath will set to humming.
"You," I say. "You are a stick man. Your hair is thin and gone to gray. Your knuckles are too big. You are all elbows and angles."
He is angry now. He has been angry with me for years. That part of him that used to cry out to me, and say that he was sorry, that is now like the dust blowing before the wind. Like the pretty pictures in colored chalks we used to draw on the hot black-t op road before the rain came.
"So," he says. "So. You may think whatever you wish but you will open your mouth."
I will turn my head away.
I am ridiculous, a fool. There is nothing he will do to me here, now, except look into my mouth and test my teeth. But it is the feel of his hands against my mouth, his fingers against my gums. His knuckles knocking against my skin. He will open up my mouth and look inside. He will have to do X-rays, and he will push the cardboard hard against my cheek, and I will bite down until my eyes fill up with tears. Perhaps I will be sick into the little metal bowl, like last time, or bleed upon myself. And he will say that I am dirty, and throw me a towel to clean myself. His eyes will be hard and laughing.
Mamma, he has shown me there is nothing I can say.
But there is a blackness within me now that will not be stopped from spilling out. It has turned in upon itself too many times. One day I will stand upon my feet and open up these lips and it will come rushing out. Out of my mouth, my eyes, the blackness will be visible for all to see. I will stand like a Civil War general and point at my enemy. I will see him stripped before the world. There will be a reckoning.
I am a fool, ridiculous. A child.
But I can wait.