THE ART OF MAKING ANGELS
by Marilee Dahlman
I’ve seen two angels and both were named Reginald.
The spirits appeared as a consequence of my life’s work: dentistry. I came by the profession naturally, as my father was a blacksmith in a small Missouri town. Before heading west, people needed help with their teeth as much as they needed wagon axles. And Pa was no butcher. As a child, time and time again, I witnessed his God’s gift with pliers.
“Nice ‘n slick,” he’d mutter from the side of his mouth, one hand gripping a customer’s jaw, his other hand wielding the steel tool. I’d have both palms on the customer’s sweaty forehead, pinning the head back against the high-backed chair. Pa’s knuckles would whiten and I’d close my eyes tight. Seconds later, I’d hear the pebbly sound of a tooth hitting the concrete floor, and the rattle of the pliers landing on the workbench. I’d tilt the head to let the blood stream down the chin.
I’d asked once, “What happens if the bleeding won’t stop?”
“They become angels,” Pa said. “Most of them.”
I was about twelve when I saw the first angel, Reginald Cooper. He had a wide head, a sandpaper voice, and eyes darker than a rabbit’s. When he sat back in the chair, he spit a stubby cigar to the floor. I tried to avoid touching the wart on his sweaty temple.
“I want it done quick,” Reginald said.
But it must have been a sticky one because Pa wrestled with that tooth for a while. Reginald fainted dead away after eleven minutes. His head felt damp and heavy. I held him until Pa grabbed my shoulder and said, “Leave him be, now.”
Mrs. Cooper showed up and so did the undertaker. Mrs. Cooper gave a few coins to the undertaker and a few more to Pa, even though Reginald had already paid. Pa flipped me a silver three-cent piece. That evening, I walked into town and stopped in front of the undertaker’s. Slowly, above the building, Mr. Cooper himself appeared, his outstretched arms shimmering, his whole body floating straight up to the stars. It was late and I’d had no dinner, but still, I saw what I saw. The next month, Mrs. Cooper married my father.
I must have turned the three-cent coin over in my pocket a thousand times, but I never spent it.
Five years later, I secured a position with the Army, Union side, assisting a doctor. Afterwards, despite my considerable skills and experience, the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery rejected my application. I reckoned I could set up a shop anyway and make a success of it. I settled in Chicago, and found that I didn’t mind a big city where I could blend in like a drop in a river. My trade card said: “Painless, perfect, prompt tooth extractions! Always reasonably priced! Patients treated like angels!”
When I first started, I employed a strong lad who held down my patients. The patients were mostly stockyard workers, women from factories, and prisoners in chains. I took advantage of scientific advancements, experimenting with laughing gas (never worked well), ether, oil of cloves and a cocaine solution injected directly into the gum. Such products made it easier to work alone. I bought a drill operated by a foot treadle. I imported the finest gold leaf to push into cavities after extracting rot. I acquired a reclining chair, the latest design, a pump-type hydraulic.
My customers became wealthier. Some fathers, on the occasion of a daughter’s 18th birthday or wedding day, would pay to have all of her teeth removed and replaced with beautiful false teeth that would never give her trouble. I gave them exactly what they wanted.
I regularly advertised in the Tribune—Enjoy gentle dental surgery by polite professional!
Other dentists fill their offices with carnivore taxidermy, scientific diagrams of blood vessels and nerves, and even human skulls. Not me. I have oak-framed pictures of Apollonia, the patron saint of dentists, and keep fresh-cut flowers in painted porcelain vases. Vials and instruments stay locked in a cabinet until my patient is in the chair. I do keep a variety of books on the shelves, to lend my office a scholarly look, including my favorite text, Skinner’s Treatise on Human Teeth. The metalwork is all matching bronze—the handles on drawers, the gaslight sconces on the walls, and the lock on the door.
Last spring, a new Reginald—Reginald Dupree—opened a dentistry across the street. His advertisements claimed that he graduated third in his class from the University of Michigan’s dental school. One day, Reginald Dupree visited my office, a hand to his cheek. No warts on him; his young skin would feel smooth to touch.
“Can’t do it myself,” he said.
“I’ll treat you like an angel.” I smiled. “Now?”
“Ha! Too many customers today.” Reginald patted a gold watch into his vest pocket. “I’ll set an appointment for tomorrow at two.”
Before leaving, Reginald tapped the doorknob a few times, and turned back to me. He tilted his head and smiled, like an adult might if he sees a child do something wrong. “You practice without the proper education, madam.”
I didn’t answer.
“There’ll be laws soon. And no exceptions.” Reginald put on his hat. The ring on his pinkie flashed. “But perhaps I could use you in my office. We’ll see.”
That evening, I walked along the lake. I enjoyed the weight of my wool suit against the night cool, and the way a copper nodded politely as he passed. I rubbed my thumb against the old three-center, looked at the stars, and thought about throwing the coin into the water. Pa was no butcher, I decided; nor was I. It was just that, now and then, you meet someone who’s better off an angel.
Marilee Dahlman grew up in the Midwest and studied English at the University of Minnesota. She spent ten years studying and practicing law in New York. She currently lives in Washington, D.C. When not writing or working, she enjoys movies, art museums, and getting outside on the hiking trails or her bike. Her other short stories have recently appeared in The Colored Lens, Five on the Fifth, Metaphorosis, and The Saturday Evening Post.
Image Credit: “Historic Dentistry” by Clive Varley on CCSearch