The receptionist, Esther, was in a bad mood, and complaining to the dental hygienist about a string of canceled appointments. “Why can’t people just let us know if they’re not coming in?” she asked. “We only ask for twenty-four hours’ notice: it’s not that hard. I’m just trying to plan a day here, people.”
“On the plus side,” the hygienist, Laura, replied, fiddling with a dental mirror in her front pocket, “now we have time to hang out and bitch about it.” Some days, the reception area filled up so quickly they were barely able to say hello in the morning, but today the office was empty. There was only one patient, in the back with the doctor, discussing the price points on various crowns. Occasionally, a discreet chuckle could be heard, though it was unclear what might be so amusing about the relative merits of porcelain versus composite veneers. Laura leaned farther over the reception desk, picking up Esther’s coffee mug to take a sip, and Esther made a face, but let her. She knew the proportions were perfect, coffee to sugar to cream.
Esther sighed. “That’s true, it’s sort of a Catch-22. No cancellations, no time to complain.”
“Though I guess,” Laura noted, “also nothing to complain about?”
They looked at each other. Then they started to laugh, so hard and so fast that it threatened to turn into a fit, the kind that always ends in tears. Finally, Esther was able to take a deep breath and compose herself. She said, “You know we’d find something.” They started listing off complaints they’d made to one another in the past, from patients forgetting they’d changed insurance, to children peeing in the office plants. Laura observed that she, unlike Esther, also got bitten by kids sometimes. Once, she’d had to go to the emergency room and get the wound disinfected. Reception work was less cataclysmic.
From Esther’s point of view, the problem with dental patients was that they approached the office with a high-stress attitude. It was why they canceled so flagrantly; why they misbehaved. Their expectations were keyed up to needles and decay. Whereas the dentist’s work was focused on maintaining a healthy medium. Clean teeth. It was so straightforward.
The phone rang then, and Esther picked it up, while also gesturing at Laura to give her back her coffee.
“Hello,” she said. “Doctor Sparrow’s office. How may I help you?”
“Hi,” said a woman’s voice, apologetic, on the other end of the line. “I’m so sorry to do this, but I’m calling to let you know that I’m missing my appointment.”
“I see.” Esther rolled her eyes at Laura, and pulled up a calendar on the computer. “And who am I speaking with?”
“This is Helen Carter. I had the nine a.m.”
“Uh huh, I’ve got you.” With a click, Esther changed the appointment status from LATE to CANCELED. It satisfied her to watch the box turn red. “And can I ask, are you aware of our twenty-four-hour cancellation policy? Because we do let you know ahead of time that there’s a fee for no-shows. I don’t like to be a stickler, but . . . ”
“Oh.” Helen Carter’s voice got hazy for a moment. “Yes. I guess I got a text about that. But I was hoping you could make an exception, for me.”
“And why would we do that?” Esther asked. She knew her question, asked so baldly, could be seen as rude, but then again, so was no-showing the dentist’s office. People thought they could treat a dentist any which way, as though being scared of getting your teeth cleaned was a moral referendum on the person doing the cleaning.
She had actually been frightened of dentists herself, as a child, enough so that her mother had made a big joke about it when she took this job. She’d thrown tantrums over every appointment, and had terrible nightmares about mouthfuls of blood and getting the floss stuck in her teeth. In one especially memorable dream, a silver pick had been pressed, slowly, through her soft upper palate, until it poked out through her nose. Her mother had always loved to remind her of this, but by the time she was offered a position with Doctor Sparrow, Esther had learned to examine her fears, and see them as passing experiences. She had learned to appreciate the healthy medium.
“Well, it’s not that I forgot or anything,” said Helen. “There was a mitigating circumstance.”
Esther rubbed her face with her free hand. People always thought there was a mitigating circumstance. They thought life itself was mitigating. “Can you describe it for me? We only waive the fee in special situations. You have to understand, we’re running a business, and if you take an appointment, that means someone else can’t.”
Helen Carter sighed. “I get it.”
“So?” Esther pressed. Laura, still hovering in the background, laughed silently at her arch tone.
“The thing is, we had a gas leak this morning. Someone came out to change the meter last week, and I guess they messed it up.”
“Oh.” Esther sat back. She was almost disappointed that the excuse was so good. There had been a leak at the office the year before, and everyone had been forced to file outside and mill around in the parking lot until they got the all-clear. Apparently a blast could have been triggered by anything: static electricity, turning on the coffee pot. “I’m sorry to hear that. Did you get it taken care of?”
“Not really. I mean, we smelled the gas this morning, and then there was a big explosion.” Helen paused. “So I think I’m dead.”
“Excuse me?” asked Esther. She felt herself float off her chair, and then realized she’d stood up in surprise. She resettled herself.
“I mean, I can see the house, and it’s still burning, though they’re working on it. I guess it’s hard to turn the gas off once the fire is going. It just keeps feeding it. I can see how that would be complicated. I bet they’ll shut off gas for the whole street.”
“But I—m’am, are you okay?”
“No,” said Helen Carter. Though she didn’t sound upset. She was calm, matter-of-fact. “I died.”
“Why—” Esther looked at the caller ID. The number matched their directory listing for Helen Carter: her cellphone. She was married, but her husband went to a different dentist. A common enough situation, though Esther had always found it strange, and in this moment, distressing. Why not share a dentist? What was it that caused each person to trust someone different, with that particular kind of work? Did they talk about it at home? Argue, even? “Why do you say that? Can I send someone to help?”
“I can see it from up here. I mean, I’m too high, I think. I don’t think I was ever up here, when I was alive.” Helen Carter paused again. “It doesn’t hurt, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
Esther gestured to Laura, who came to meet her behind the desk. Esther scratched out a rapid note: Call 911. Gas explosion. Carter Residence. And then the address. Laura looked startled, but nodded, stepping away and pulling her phone out of the pocket of her scrubs.
“Ma’am, we’re going to call an ambulance for you,” Esther said. “You just stay where you are, and someone will be there to help you any moment.”
“Oh, there’s already an ambulance,” Helen assured her. “I can see that, too. It’s the strangest thing: I can see me. It doesn’t feel like I thought it would feel, to see that. I would think it would be upsetting, watching someone handle me that way, mouth-to-mouth and all that. But I’m actually kind of touched. Have you ever seen it? CPR, I mean?”
“No,” said Esther. “On TV maybe, not in real life.” She was struck by the memory of another dream she’d once had, that she was dead. Not a dentist-phobic dream from childhood: in this one, she was already an adult. Looking at her dead self, she had felt an urgent need to take the jacket off her body, slip it over the rigor mortis that crooked her dead elbows. All the while looking away, not wanting to see her own empty face. She’d heard that dreams where you died were transformational. In that they meant transformation, not death.
“Well they tilt your chin, and then they hold it, and pinch your nose. But they do it so gently. Urgent, but gentle: it’s almost a little”—Helen whispered the next word—“erotic. Just, moving me around, lifting my arms. Looking for the pulse. For how fast my heart’s pumping. All that.”
“Oh,” said Esther.
“And then it’s that move, like a kiss, but they’re actually breathing their own air into your lungs. Holding your face, and pressing your chest. You know, I don’t have kids, and my husband travels a lot for work, so there have been some whole weeks when I didn’t touch anyone. I would realize it after a few days, but what are you supposed to do? You can’t just ask people on the street to touch you.” She laughed. “Once I actually got a massage. I wasn’t stressed or tense or anything. I just wanted it.”
“That’s a good idea, actually,” Esther said, slowly. “Smart.” Though really, she couldn’t relate. She had a four-year-old, and there were no days when she didn’t touch someone. She could be peeing, and if she was at home, chances were she was touching someone. Still, she sympathized. Skin needs skin, she thought. And then: What’s happening?
Behind her, she heard Laura say, “Okay, thank you. That’s good to know.” She hung up, and came back around to the front of the reception desk. Gave Esther a thumbs-up.
“Really,” said Helen, “I think they could be doing anything, and I would like it. I just like seeing them touch my body, so I know that it’s real.”
“Maybe you should come get your teeth cleaned, then.” Esther said this without thinking, and then felt a flash of fear, a rush of despair. She had seen—also on TV—images of archeologists excavating skeletons from the dirt. Using soft brushes to clean off the earth, stroke after stroke, until the teeth gleamed in their permanent sleeping smile.
“I wish I could,” said Helen. “What time is it now, nine forty-five? I’m only kind of late.” She laughed. “Well, fairly late. But I don’t think I’m coming.”
Esther leaned forward, on her elbows. “How do you know?”
“I’m not sure,” Helen said. The connection crackled. An antique sound, one that Esther associated with literal wires, switchboard operators in old movies. When Helen spoke again, her voice came as if through a filter. “I’m sorry I didn’t call earlier. Obviously. I didn’t know. To call ahead.”
“That’s okay,” said Esther. “Given what you’ve told me, I think we can waive the fee.”
“I appreciate that.” Helen sighed—a sound of genuine relief. “I think I’m going now.”
“I guess—okay. You probably don’t want to reschedule.”
Helen laughed. “No. I may need to find a new dentist. Wherever I’m going.”
And it was comforting to Esther to consider that there might be dentists where Helen was headed. Or if there were not, that Helen felt the way Esther did, that dentists were basically decent people, and as likely as anyone else to be in heaven at the end of it all. Not every scary thing was something you needed to spend time being scared of.
When she hung up, Laura brought her a fresh cup of coffee, with too much sugar, and not enough cream. But still a very nice thought. “They said someone had already called it in,” Laura told her. “I asked if it was possibly some kind of hoax, but the operator wouldn’t go into it.”
“It’s not important,” Esther told her.
“So,” Laura asked. “Is she coming in?”
“No,” said Esther. “Not today.”