I wasn't blaming anyone but myself. I had bad teeth.
I could blame the numerous candy bars stolen from the grocery store across the street from my parent's house. I could blame my parents for being burned out, having five children before me, and not paying attention to a damned thing I ever did, much less making me brush my teeth. I could blame the mean orthodontist who scolded me too lightly for not brushing, not wearing my rubber bands, not changing my rubber bands often enough, sometimes letting them snap in my mouth from time to time. No, it was simply my fault, and I regretted my actions.
Having a root canal could be enough to convert you to a new religion. I'd always thought that death by dentistry would be the most awful way to go -- worse than being burned alive or drowning--some guy grinding a syringe into your jaw while you slobber all over yourself with that burnt clay taste on your tongue.
When I saw the Yellow Pages ad for the "Gentle Dental" places I was immediately swayed. My job gave me insurance and as much as I wanted to avoid it I knew it had to be done. I was popping about eight aspirin a day to combat my toothache, and had all but stripped any chewing duties from the left side of my mouth.
Once in the chair, I was given the option of wearing headphones. It was when dentists were doing these sort of "extra" things for patients and because I didn't want to have to make small talk with the dentist and his assorted assistants while they stuck their fingers and metal tools in my mouth, I said yes. One of the assistants, who looked like Joyce Dewitt of Three's Company and seemed to purposely rest her chest on my right arm as she scraped my teeth, eagerly told me about a new "virtual reality" system they just installed. Being pro-anything that would distract me from whatever pain I was about to endure I said sure. I wasn't sure what I was getting into, but I pictured skiing down steep slopes covered in soft snow or maybe parachuting out of an airplane. Instead what I had to choose from were A Motown Tribute to Smokey Robinson, a Final Four basketball game from three years prior, and a walking tour of Italy. The assistant fished out some embarrassing goggles and plugged them into a machine that looked like a VCR. I put on the headphones and goggles and wondered how the hell they were going to maneuver around them. I saw the stage at The Apollo in the goggles but it wasn't even 3-D and the picture seemed annoyingly fuzzy. I could hear the opening beats of Going to a Go-Go but it wasn't in my headphones. It was coming from elsewhere in the room and I wasn't sure what was going on. The dentist and his assistant started working on my mouth and, under the impression that I was being thoroughly entertained, pretty much ignored me. I wondered if they even numbed me yet and started to grow panicked. They stretched a piece of rubber around my ailing tooth and framed it with a couple of cold metal bars that rested on my face uncomfortably. I couldn't tell if it was Smokey Robinson on the stage or not, as the reception of the goggles was crap. The dentist sang slowly and menacingly along, thinking that I could not hear him. I grunted a few times and the assistant asked me if the goggles were working, if everything was okay. I couldn't say anything so I made a nuh-uh sound with my throat. She pressed her breasts into me and lifted my headphones from my ears. "Maybe these aren't plugged in," she said. I heard the dentist get up and leave and then her tinkering around with certain wires on the "virtual reality" machine. Finally, there was music coming from the headphones and she put them back on my ears. I squinted to see what was going on in the goggles and saw a close-up of Elton John, complete with feathery sunglasses. The music in the headphones was nice and clear but I instantly realized it was not going with the visuals. I heard mandolins, fiddles, some piano. Elton John was really getting into it, whatever it was, but I heard someone speaking Italian instead. It must've been the walking tour of Italy.
The dentist returned and patted me on the shoulder, I could see him under the bottom of the goggles. I grunted a little. "You want me to turn up your headphones?" the assistant asked. I lifted my hand slightly and pointed down. "Turn it down?" I nodded as much as I could and the volume went low enough for me to hear the Motown show playing on a small speaker somewhere else. The dentist was singing along again. This time with The Four Tops. I tried to drift off. I closed my eyes and concentrated on Joyce Dewitt. I always liked Joyce Dewitt more than the others. The rubber thing stretching across my mouth and cheeks was wet with my numb gum slobber. I was almost queasy. George Michael was singing a blue-eyed soul version of Tears of a Clown. I opened my eyes a little and noticed that he was wearing sunglasses too. "That George Michael can sure sing, can't he?" the dentist commented to himself. "Hhmmph," said the assistant.
Kevin Sampsell is brilliantly surrounded by towering stacks of books in Portland, Oregon, though his writing has lately been featured in several Chicago publications**. He is the publisher behind Future Tense Books, a micro-press (http://www.futuretensebooks.com). He may be contacted: email@example.com.
**Further evidence, friends, of our fine city's monkey-good taste, wouldn't you say? --ed.