By Adele Elliott
The office of Dr. Otis Anderson, DDS, was a calm oasis separate from the world. A huge tank, a replicated tropical reef, hugged one of the muted pastel walls. Crayon-colored fish with spiky fins glided in and out of sand castles and skirted around the bubbles that floated from the tiny chest of “treasures.” Thick draperies closed over the windows, masking the view on the other side of the glass. There were no patterns on the upholstery or deep carpets or heavily lined curtains. This room was a dense cloak, serene and still.
Patients flipped through magazines with glossy photos of golf courses, and resorts, and lush, green countries, distant and lovely. The room smelled like snow. No one showed the stress of waiting in a dentist’s office. They sipped clear, cool tea from crystal glasses with long stems.
“Mrs. Webb, please come in.” The receptionist rose slowly from her desk. She placed her pen gently next to a tiny Bonsai tree that was perfectly formed; a miniature of what should have been a massive oak. No one would have been surprised to see an elf napping under the branches.
“Thank you for fitting me in. I been waiting a long time to see Dr. Anderson.”
The receptionist lowered her eyes and smiled like a Madonna. She wore loose pants the color of a baby’s blush and a matching shirt of a fabric that flowed around her legs like silk eddies. She looked less like a dental worker, more like someone going to lead a meditation.
The old woman sunk into a plush recliner in the exam room. The walls were painted with soft earth tints, browns and grays, the color of bark, blended into each other. The strains of violin music could be heard very faintly.
“Ah, Mrs. Webb; so nice to see you today.” The doctor greeted all his patients the same way. His voice was slightly high-pitched. It tinkled like the clink of ice against glass. He peered into her toothless mouth, showing no reaction to the cave of raw gums.
“Doctor, I know you very high up in here. I just come into some money. An’ I want you to work your magic on me.” She was a fragile coffee-colored woman, with a tight perm of silver curls and a double-knit dress with a frayed hem that covered her knees. The reds and greens of the plaid print distorted as the fabric stretched across her bony thighs.
“You probably don’t remember me. I was a patient in your very first practice.”
He winced slightly. The reminder of that office in the back rooms of a shotgun structure in the Bywater section of New Orleans was not a favorite memory. Otis Anderson had come a long way since then. That first office was in the rear of a bakery. The rooms always smelled like bread and sugar.
“You a big success now. Today, I was the only black in the waiting room. So differnt from those early days. Anyway, ah am proud of you.”
This was indeed much different. Here, anyone who looked out of the windows would see the streets of New Orleans far below. No one ever did, just as they never questioned the odd magic that gave them perfect teeth.
Not only was that environment and décor miles away form that other practice. The patients, too, had changed. Once he had treated housekeepers and cooks. Now his patients, his “clients,” as he referred to them, were their employers. These days, you might see a television personality or model in the waiting room. And they were not all local. Some very famous people came from Los Angeles or Washington to have him fill their mouths with flawless teeth. Those patients waited in a different room, one with a private entrance.
“Thank you,” he said. He was trying to remember her. There was something familiar and unsettling. He was not sure why she made him uncomfortable.
“Just relax. This won’t take long.”
An assistant in pale coral clothing handed her a goblet of ice tea.
“I remember when you always had a pot of coffee and chicory on a table in your old office. Oh, how I love my dark roast.” Mrs. Webb revealed a toothless smile.
So many things about Dr. Anderson helped to make these new patients feel comfortable. There were no needles (that they were aware of), and, amazingly, no pain. They drifted into a soft sleep and awakened when the process was all over. Peculiar, perhaps. However, there was no reason to question something so wonderful. Brilliant science, no doubt.
Another thing was odd. They left his office looking just as they did when entering. The same gaping breaches remained, but not for long. Within a few days, small white lumps began pushing up from the gums. Eventually, they grew into perfect teeth with roots clamped securely to the bones.
Mrs. Webb opened her eyes, feeling as if she had been floating. This must be what heaven feels like, she thought, or maybe what it is like to take drugs.
“Back with us?” the doctor said.
She nodded. Her head, her vision, became clearer. Now, she could focus on his tight smile and his emerald eyes. “Dr. Anderson, do you remember my little grandbaby, Pandorable?”
“Why, yes.” He did remember her, now. Pieces of memory, once scattered, re-formed into the image of a little girl with a head full of short braids, each ending in a tightly knotted red rubber band.
No wonder he did not recognize this old woman. She had aged very badly. Her brown skin was now faded. It was creased with lines so deep that they could have been etched with a knife. Her eyes were dark and dull under drooping lids.
“Why, yes. I do. A beautiful girl. You were raising her, I believe. How is she?”
“Dead.” The old woman said this without inflection, as if she had accepted and understood the death of this child.
Dr. Anderson blinked. The rapid flutter of his eyelashes did not alter or filter this sad news that pierced the small room. “I’m so very sorry. What happened?”
“She got into drugs. Dead at sixteen.”
“You must miss her terribly.”
“I am all alone.”
“So sorry,” he repeated. “She used to call me the tooth fairy.”
How could he forget Pandorable? She once gave him her tiny baby tooth as a gift. It was unflawed, like the tear drop of a porcelain sculpture. Then, he received the offering with the same show of gratitude that he would have if it had been carved from ivory.
The memory of that day was still clear. The room smelled like apple turnovers. The laughter of the bakery workers filtered through the thin walls and into his office. Baking sheets clattered against the racks of the giant oven.
He had taken the little tooth and stuck it into the dirt of a sad and wilted potted ivy. “There,” he told Pandorable. “I will plant it right here.”
“Will it grow?” She looked at him through her long eyelashes. So serious. So trusting.
“Maybe. Maybe it will turn into an apple tree and the bakers next door can use the fruit to make a hundred pies.”
“Will they give us one?”
“Oh, I think they should give us all of them. After all, it started with your tooth.” He couldn’t imagine how this bright child had evolved into an addict or why her life had ended in sadness and tragedy.
He looked at the old lady who now sat in his chair, and tried to sense how much she must have suffered, still suffers, probably.
The doctor whispered to the assistant, “Charge her half price.”
“Mrs. Webb, it was nice to see you. And again, my sympathy for your loss. She was a delightful child.”
Dr. Anderson stepped into the hallway and entered a room filled with tubs of small potted trees. There were grow lights on the ceiling, bright and garish, splashing their beams on branches of dark green leaves. White buds peeked from the tips of each plant’s limb. At one long table, a woman in a stiffly starched lab coat ground leaves with a mortar and pestle. A giant ice machine, like the ones in hotels, hummed. The room smelled like freshly mowed grass.
He leaned over a pot simmering on an industrial stove. “Lots of clients today,” he said to the woman. “Be sure there is plenty of tea.”
“Yes, doctor,” she answered without lifting her head.
“The plants on the far wall are ready for harvesting. I’ll need fifty or so seeds before the day is over.”
Of course, he had been surprised, no, dumbfounded, when he saw the first sprout. About a week after he had planted Pandorable’s tooth, a slender shoot peeked from the dirt of his ivy. It kept growing, forming one perfect, pearly droplet of ivory at the end of each branch.
Even then, he did not make the connection. But, soon, he realized that the plant was growing teeth.
Dr. Anderson loved teeth. He saw them as miniature sculptures, in the colors of cream and clouds. These were lovely, at first. However, if not pruned, the shoots continued to grow. Uncut, the teeth transformed from perfect baby teeth into spiky deformities.
He quickly discovered that he could pinch the newest buds and plant them into a patient’s mouth like seeds. Within a few weeks, they took root and grew. Real, living teeth emerged from the barren gums.
It wasn’t long before he learned to brew a tea from the leaves. The tea produced a state of serenity in the patients. It was more effective than valium. Secretly, he called it “emerald opium.” To the patients, and even his staff, it was just dubbed “green tea.”
There were some early mistakes. The new teeth had to be kept cool in the mouth for three weeks. It prevented them from growing too quickly. Each client received a booklet with elaborate instructions on keeping them cool. No hot drinks. No warm food. Frequent rinsing with ice water. These were not easy rules to follow, but truly worth the effort. Patients’ exit packets included an envelope of ground leaves to make his prescribed iced tea.
Mrs. Webb slipped off the chair, glanced at her packet of tea leaves and parting instructions. “Oh, Dr, Anderson, I don’t think I can go three weeks without my French roast coffee.”
“Mrs. Webb, you will have to. It is the only way your new teeth will grow.” He placed his hand on her bony back, almost pushing her out of the door. “When you come back for your follow-up, you will have the smile of a movie star.”
Keeping the mouth cool to ensure growth wasn’t exactly the truth, but close enough. Better that they did not know what would happen if the new shoots got too warm. Dr. Anderson felt no guilt about this little lie.
At one time, he did have twinges of self-reproach on keeping this lucrative secret. There were brief moments of remorse. He had some initial thoughts that Pandorable, and her grandmother, should probably share in this good fortune. But, those thoughts evaporated when he reasoned that he had done all the real work. Who made the early mistakes? Who had the upkeep of the practice? This office in an elegant high rise looking down on the city was much more costly than the little space behind the bakery. The staff, the malpractice insurance, the list of expenses is endless. He deserved it all. Now, that made so much sense to him. Why, what if that child had received some of the wealth for her bud of a tooth? She probably would have destroyed herself sooner. Yes, he certainly made the right decision to keep this his secret.
Dr. Anderson told himself that he was a good man. His work made the world more beautiful. It is common knowledge that doctors, dentists, and other medical monarchs deserve riches. After all, they paid their dues with years of school, demanding internships, and intense studying. Wealth and worldly goods were their right. This practice was his gift from the gods of fate.
After his perfection of the process, it all became so easy. The clients followed instruction very well. And why not? They were motivated by vanity. These were people accustomed to suffering for beauty. Most had rigorous routines of diets, workouts, cosmetic surgery, primping and pampering. Compared to all that, keeping their mouths cool was almost effortless. For the most part they didn’t eat, anyway. The majority subsisted on diets of cocktails and salads with no dressing.
Days and weeks blended into each other with a comfortable sameness. One day his receptionist told him that Mrs. Webb had not returned for her follow-up. She had attempted to call, but Mrs. Webb had no phone service.
“No reason for concern,” he told her. “I’m sure everything is just fine.” In fact, he was relieved not to see her again. A bit pleased, too, that she would not be seen by the other clients. There was something unsettling about her presence.
After a month or two, Dr. Anderson had completely forgotten about Mrs. Webb. His life was filled with ski trips to the Alps, the design of his custom-built yacht, the cultivation of his crop.
Every day, his receptionist gave him a stack of messages. His clients were like babies. He often thought that they needed the attention of a nanny, not a dentist. He returned very few of the calls himself. Most could be handled by the well-trained staff. That’s what they were paid for.
This day, there was a message from Mrs. Webb. His heart beat harder, once or twice, against the inside of his silk shirt and his unwrinkled lab coat. The thumps were a dull thud that echoed in his ears.
“Doctor,” said the receptionist, “She claims to be in pain. I tried to help her, but, she will only talk to you.”
“OK. OK. I’ll talk to her this afternoon.” Damn.
“Mrs. Webb,” he spoke softly into the phone. “Are you having some problems?”
“Yeath. My moufh hurt.” She sounded like a child just learning to speak.
“Alright. Can you come in around six this evening?”
Dr. Anderson never treated clients after hours. He hated to be alone with them. This one was different. Better not to have other patients, or even his staff, know she was in pain. She probably had not followed directions. He could fix it, but not easily.
He felt a stab of disappointment when he heard the door into his reception area open and close with a quiet click. He had hoped that she would not come.
He peeked into the hall and saw her. Jagged stalactites and stalagmites, chalky and dull, protruded from her bloody mouth. Thick, red drops dribbled down the front of her dress and seeped into the plush carpet.
His first inclination was to slam the door, to run away. She was here. If only she were not.
The doctor had a flash. She was alone in the world. No one to miss her. In a way, killing her would be a blessing, and easy, too. She could once again be with her precious Pandorable.
He prepared a syringe of morphine. Death would be a welcome relief for the old woman, a ticket to her reward. After, all that was left was to dispose of the body. Medical waste, nothing more.
He walked toward her with the needle held behind his back.
She leapt toward him, teeth bared like an animal, and sunk her fangs into the flesh just behind his ear. Blood oozed onto his shoulder and down his chin, leaving a scarlet stigmata over his white coat.