Our dentist, call him Dr. A., was a cheerful man. His smile reminded me of Howdy Doody, and from a certain angle it could look almost sinister. His office was in a Midtown Manhattan commercial building filled with other dental suites as though dentists flocked like birds. The framed art posters on the white walls of his office were tasteful and bland, and the patter we exchanged while I was in the chair was friendly and bland. The receptionist was a chatty woman who kept photos of her grandchildren and a bonsai plant on her desk. The dental hygienist was careful and serious; she had photos of her two children hanging on the wall next to the sink. On the video screen that was suspended over the dental chair, fish floated serenely by, and the music was the kind of classical that demanded no attention. During routine visits Dr. A. gave me sunglasses to wear—“pretend you’re at the beach,” he said. As I had never yet had a cavity, the dental procedures were prophylactic. Finally after a decade in his practice, Dr. A. discovered a small hole in one of my molars, and although the whine of the drill was as unpleasant as a continuous mosquito in the ear, the procedure was surprisingly painless. I attributed this to Dr. A’s skill.
One day Dr. A. introduced me to his new colleague, call him Dr. T., who would be examining my teeth after my cleaning that day, I was told. Dr. T.’s eyes were an alarming blue and his medical coat was a little too small. While he peered into my mouth, Dr. T told me he was a former Marine and that he lived in New Jersey.
The next time I arrived at the office, Dr. A.’s grandmotherly receptionist was gone and in her place was a young, blonde Australian wearing an enormous engagement ring and with breasts so large it took effort not to see them. She reminded me of Jessica Rabbit. A tall older woman named Joan who wore heavy mascara, a long black braid down her back and snakeskin patterned leggings had replaced the regular hygienist. Joan informed me that she was crowned Miss New York State in 1961. There was spittle at the corners of her mouth. Dr. A. was nowhere to be seen, and at the end of the appointment when I asked the receptionist what had happened to him, Jessica, as I will call her, said, “Didn’t he tell you? He sold his practice to Dr. T. He’s not here any more.”
At my subsequent visit, the office had been painted a garish purple, and Jessica was on the phone rather loudly describing the new waterfront condo she and Dr. T. had bought, their wedding plans, and the various options they were considering for a honeymoon trip. As she cleaned my teeth Joan told me tales of the famous people—and she named names—whose mouths she had explored in her younger days. She talked while I sat with my own mouth filled with instruments, able only to occasionally respond with a grunt or a nod. When Dr. T. inspected my teeth after the cleaning, he informed me that my one filling needed to be replaced and that he had discovered a new cavity in another molar. I dutifully scheduled an appointment for the treatments he suggested.
In the middle of the night I woke and couldn’t fall back to sleep. The purple dental office played in my mind’s eye: the muscle-bound former Marine in a white medical coat, his blonde, boob-job girlfriend with a rock the size of a wisdom tooth, and the aging Beauty Queen hygienist with blood-red fingernails. It occurred to me that perhaps there was nothing the matter with my filling and that maybe I didn’t actually have another cavity. My mouth and the mouths of Dr. A.’s other abandoned and unwitting patients were underwriting Dr. T. and Jessica’s new home and upcoming wedding. But it couldn’t be true. Who would do such a thing? Was I naïve? Was I paranoid? I was unable to decide. Nonetheless I called a friend the next morning for a referral.
When I saw Dr. M., a third dentist, for a consultation he told me that my filling was secure and that there was no cavity in my molar. Dr. T. would have pulled out a good filling and put in a new one. Even more appalling—he would have drilled a HOLE in a perfectly healthy tooth.
I thought of calling Dr. A., and went so far as to look up his phone number. It turned out he was still practicing dentistry, but his office was now in the Westchester suburbs near where I assumed he lived. What would I say if I called him? “You sold your dental practice to a criminal and left us at his mercy.” I thought of reporting Dr. T. to the Better Business Bureau. But I had no concrete evidence, and I imagined all the slippery stories Dr. T. might tell if confronted. So, shirking my responsibility to the other patients, I phoned Jessica to cancel my appointment and asked her to transfer my records to Dr. M.
A few days later Joan called to find out why I had left the practice. I was evasive—I was not going to tell her I believed that Dr. T. was a conniving swindler who was subjecting patients to unnecessary medical procedures for personal gain. But Joan confided, “They’re leaving the practice in droves. I think something fishy is going on here.” I was slightly relieved, but not entirely convinced, that she wasn’t part of the racket.