In the House of Nice People
I knew my sister-in-law wanted me to take the bird, but sending her son to deliver it was a surprise. She and I didn’t really get along. Maybe if I knew my brother was going to die so young I might have been less of an asshole over the last few years, and maybe then we’d have a different kind of relationship. The kind built on trust, and respect, so that if I told her I didn’t want my brother Gabe’s fucking bird to take care of she’d say, sure, Victor, I trust your judgment. If you say you don’t want the bird I’ll let it drop. Instead my nephew showed up about three o’clock on a Saturday with a big white cockatoo.
“This is from Mom,” he said, holding it up to my screen door. The bird was in a big wire cage, and he had to hold it with both hands. It didn’t look very happy.
“I don’t want it.”
“Well I’m not taking it home,” he said. “I can’t.”
My nephew, Brian, had mysteriously developed an allergy after my brother died. It happened fast. Just a couple weeks after the funeral, when I was still vulnerable to questions like, What would Gabe have wanted? But the day after we buried him I changed my mind and made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that the bird was not to come live with me.
“Take it to a pet store,” I said. “What’s she doing sending you here with it anyway? Is it safe for you to drive with birds in the car?”
“I left the windows down.”
“So leave them down when you go back to PetSmart.”
“Mom said to leave it on the porch if you weren’t home,” said Brian, and he set the birdcage down. It’s a lucky break that he doesn’t look anything like my brother. My family’s got dark hair, dark complexions, and a real natural charm that’s either in the genes or easily learned. Brian’s got his mom’s gangly limbs and blonde hair, and I suspect he probably peaked at twelve, since for the last five years he’s just really come full on into dorkhood. So far as I can tell, his social life is lived entirely through the headset mic he wears playing Call of Duty. In the real world he can barely dress himself. Right now he was wearing baggy white cargo pants and a black t-shirt at least two sizes too large for him, so that he looked kind of like a sentient laundry pile.
“Well I am home, Brian,” I said, “so get that thing the hell off my property.”
He looked dubiously at the cage, then back at me. He’s a real people-pleaser, my nephew. Gabe told me once, over a couple of beers, that he wished the kid had more backbone. So the question wasn’t whether he’d do what he was told. It was whether he’d listen to me, or to his mother Sarah.
“Maybe you should call my mom.”
He took a couple tentative steps down the concrete steps. I’d answered the door in sweatpants, but I live in a nice neighborhood. It’s one thing to answer the door like that, it’s another to run half-naked across your lawn, chasing a seventeen-year-old, while your neighbors cut grass and set up kiddie pools.
“Brian, take the fucking bird.”
“Sorry, Uncle Victor,” he said, taking a few more steps toward the driveway. “When you need to feed it, the food is from PetLand on Eastgate.”
He made a break for his car, and I slammed the door. From the porch, Gabe’s parrot started to squawk.
When my brother got sick—the fist time, in college—he started in on these juice cleanses. My philosophy was less pragmatic back then. I thought juice was stupid, and that he shouldn’t put his faith in something he found on the internet. I was seventeen, same age as Brian is now, but I was as angry as he is apologetic. If anything I said upset Gabe, though, he didn’t show it. He just told me to shut the fuck up, and when the cancer finally went into remission he was smug like you wouldn’t believe. If it works, it works, he said. Yeah, well. Ask him about the benefits of carrot juice now.
On weekends I don’t go out much, but when I took inventory of my freezer and realized I only had enough vodka for two, maybe three drinks, I decided to make a run to the store. Indiana still has blue laws, and there’s not a lot worse than waking up on a Sunday morning and realizing you’ve got nothing to drink, and that the only way to get properly buzzed is by going out to a bar like some sad sack. It was late evening now, but it still shouldn’t have surprised me that the bird was still on my porch. It was still there when I got back from the liquor store. This time of night, it was too late to go out to PetLand and see if they’d take her. The bird’s name is Cecilia. I brought Cecilia inside.
First thing on Monday morning, Dr. Vashti asked me into her office. I was in my blue scrubs, clean and pressed, because if you’re going to make a habit of going into work hungover you can’t look like a slob.
“How are you?” she asked. The way she said it, I knew Dr. Vashti was really asking. I get uncomfortable when people mean their questions, but I decided to tell her the truth.
“Stressed,” I said. She nodded, waiting. “My sister-in-law got me a bird.”
“I thought you told her no bird?”
“I did,” I said. “You can see the problem.”
She smiled, like she used to smile at me when I got hired five years ago. I was a mess, always something going wrong with my house or my car, but it never seemed as bad when I told her about it because she always laughed. Dr. Vashti was married with two kids. I’d run away with her if she asked.
“What will you do with a bird, Victor?”
“I don’t know. Feed it to something bigger, I guess. Circle of life.”
She laughed, and right then I knew she wouldn’t press me any further. We were both going to pretend the bird was the worst thing on my plate.
“If it were a fish you could put it in our aquarium,” she said. “But I have never heard of a dental office with a bird.”
“We could be the first.”
“I don’t think so,” said Dr. Vashti. “Have you considered a vacation?”
“For the cockatoo?”
She handed me a sheet of paper, one of the forms she used to track vacation and sick time. “Your rollover days expire at the end of the month. You have three. I encourage you to use them.”
“I could do that,” I said. “But then who would you talk to? Because, and I hate to bring this up again, but it turns out this office is full of idiots.”
“Take some time off, Victor.”
I tried to pass the sheet back, but she wouldn’t take it, so I promised her that I’d think about it. I hoped she understood I was lying.
The thing about being a dental hygienist is that it’s disgusting. The best case scenario is that the patients you see are doing what they should and you only have to scrape six months’ worth of plaque off their teeth, and try not to think about how much drool you vacuumed up that day. The worst case is something I don’t choose to think about in my free time. But the job pays well, and it’s respectable, and before Gabe died this job really seemed like proof positive I could keep my life from spinning apart.
By five o’clock my hangover had lifted, and it was time to go home, and when I smiled at Dr. Vashti on my way out the door my face actually matched my mood. She reminded me, again, about my vacation time. I pretended I didn’t hear her.
On the way home, I stopped by PetLand to buy a little birdseed, but all the bags were way too large. I only needed a couple days’ worth. I went up to the girl at the register.
“Do you guys seriously not have anything smaller?”
“For pets?” she asked. “Or for outdoor feeders?”
She showed me the outdoor supplies, and I bought a small feeder cone of pressed seed. I stopped short of telling her I’d be back with the bird itself, since I didn’t want to admit the cone was for a pet cockatoo.
When I got home, Brian was sitting on my front porch. It wasn’t until I got close that I saw his black eye.
“Jesus, what happened?” Besides the black eye he had a split lip, and his shirt was torn at the collar.
“I got in a fight.”
“You got in a fight?” I asked. “Or you got your ass kicked?”
He stared down at the ground, and it took me a second to realize he was trying not to cry.
“Fuck. Can you… look, can you hold your breath for thirty seconds and come inside?”
He was already holding his breath, I guess, so he shook his head. I went in without him, ignoring the fact that Cecilia had managed to squirt shit through the bars of her cage and across my living room floor. I filled a sandwich baggie with ice cubes, then went back out to see Brian. The only other thing in my freezer was the bottle of vodka.
“Here,” I said. He took the baggie and held it against his face, wincing. I tried to think what my brother would say, but he never had to tell me when to fight back. When you’ve got an older brother, you have to be told when to stop fighting.
“You think anything’s broken?” I asked. He shook his head. “See? You’ll be fine. Hey, look at me. You’re going to be fine.”
His eyes were rimmed with red. With his free hand he touched his lip and checked his fingertips for blood. He looked miserable.
“Please don’t tell my mom.”
“I think she’ll notice your sudden lack of symmetry, Brian.”
He whimpered. It’s a bad instinct, to get angry at somebody when you see they’re hurt like that, but that’s what I did.
“Jesus Christ, dude, it happens. If you don’t want it to, you have to fight back. What do you expect, that everyone’s going to be nice to you? People are shit.”
He jumped up, dropping the ice pack on the ground. Before I could say anything else he was in his car again and pulling away. I should have felt bad about what I said, and I guess I did, a little bit, but it was the truth. If he hadn’t learned it from Gabe, he’d have to learn it from me.
I’ve never been married, or engaged, or had anything else that could pass for a serious relationship. Growing up I always fell in with big groups of guys, got into trouble, and wondered at the mysteries of women. Gabe was the opposite. He’d had the same best friend since second grade, a guy who was best man at his wedding and gave the first eulogy at his funeral. I gave the second. But my lack of experience didn’t keep me from trying to talk him out of marrying Sarah.
“I just don’t see it,” I told him one night, maybe a week before the wedding. I’d skipped his bachelor party, but took him out later to make up for it. There was this Indian place he wanted to try. The night didn’t get any wilder than the two beers we had with dinner, but I don’t need to be drunk to run my mouth. “No offense.”
“So who do you see me with?” he asked. It wasn’t a serious question. He was grinning like I was about to deliver a punchline.
“I don’t know,” I said, bristling. “Someone like Kylie Ping. Do you still talk to her?”
Kylie Ping was his girlfriend in college, who dumped him a week before he got diagnosed.
“I liked her,” I said. “I could have a conversation with her. Sarah always looks at me like I’m from another planet.”
“She looks at you like you’re an asshole,” said Gabe. “You could try a little harder.”
“Well maybe if I knew you were going to marry her,” I said. “It’s too late now. Just, I just want you to know, you know, if you wanted to back out of it, if you needed some place to stay for a while or a little money or something, I could help you. If you’re not sure-”
“I’m sure.” He wasn’t grinning anymore. A waiter came by and refilled our water glasses, and Gabe asked for our check. “Be happy for me, Victor. Be a good brother.”
“I’m a great fucking brother,” I said. And then, you know. I spent a lot of years proving otherwise.
The cockatoo must have gotten comfortable, because it was chirping a lot now. I gave it the cone seed, and that just really set things off. I couldn’t tell if it was making noise because it was happy, or if it was complaining about slow service.
“Shut up,” I muttered, and went into the kitchen to make dinner.
The things I said to Brian nagged at me. I couldn’t concentrate on what I was doing. I quartered some sweet potatoes real unevenly, so I knew they wouldn’t roast right, and my brown rice came out undercooked, all wet and chewy. I ate and watched Jeopardy!, the volume turned up to drown out the bird, and after I botched the final question on the Hessian empire I called Sarah.
“How’s Brian?” I asked. “Did he tell you he was here?”
“He did,” said Sarah. “He’s okay. A little shaken up. He’s working on his homework right now.”
“I feel like I told you guys this would happen,” I said.
“Is that why you called? To say ‘I told you so?’”
Cecilia started to screech bloody murder, so I stepped outside to sit on the front porch. I hoped she couldn’t hear it in the background.
“No. I called because I thought you’d listen to me now.” Across the street, a couple kids were running around my neighbor’s yard in swim trunks and shooting each other with neon colored squirt guns. “Let me show the kid how to throw a punch, or take him to Karate lessons or something. I can help you guys.”
“I’m talking to the principal tomorrow,” said Sarah. “The school has a strict bullying policy. Zero tolerance.”
“Yeah, that’s great, because Brian’s got a hundred tolerance.”
“A hundred tolerance.”
“You know what I mean. The opposite of zero. You can’t teach him to just let stuff like this happen.”
“I’m not teaching him to hit people,” said Sarah. “That’s not how Gabe and I raised him.”
Hearing her say my brother’s name was like a punch in the gut, a reminder that he’d chosen her over me. I know that doesn’t make sense. It’s just how it felt.
“Great,” I said. “Gabe’s legacy is saved. I hope it works out better for Brian than this bird you gave me.”
I hung up on her mid-sentence. God I felt terrible. I hung up on Gabe a million times, but that was normal, that was brothers. I loved Gabe. This was different. This was me not having anyone to tell me to back off, to quit, to unclench my fists. This was me without my brother.
I only had a couple drinks that night, so I felt pretty good at work the next day until I saw my first mouth, the chaw-stained ruins of someone with a heavy Skoal habit. Sometimes I’d see these mouths and wonder how people could let them get so fucked up, how anyone could possibly imagine that that’s how teeth are supposed to look. How can anybody not understand that a mouth is important?
I left after the cleaning to let Dr. Vashti know the patient was ready. I gave her fair warning. As usual, she was unperturbed.
“I have probably seen worse,” she said. “If they come here, we help them. We do our best.”
I thought about Brian showing up on my porch. Did I do my best?
On my lunch break, I sent him a text. Forget yesterday. Uncle Victor drinks. Come back today.
Brian didn’t respond.
I stopped by PetLand on my way home again. The trouble was they didn’t open early enough in the morning, so I couldn’t just throw Cecilia in the car and drop her off before work. I definitely couldn’t leave her in the trunk until five. I’d probably have to take her there on the weekend—if I took her at all. Because another alternative had occurred to me, and I asked the checkout girl about it as she rang up another seed cone.
“How do cockatoos fare in the wild?”
“They do fine,” she said. “They’re not endangered or anything. There’s lots of them in South America.”
“No, I mean, like if they got loose or something. Like if they got outdoors in Indiana.”
“Oh,” she said. “Then they die.”
I paid for the seed and went home.
Brian was there on my porch again. I was surprised at how relieved I felt, the euphoria of a second chance.
“B-Money,” I shouted. “Hey. You look good.”
He did look good. Better than the day before, at least. New shirt, and the swelling was down. You could see, though, that the dark yellow around his eye was going to bruise something nasty once the blood blackened.
“My mom talked to the school today,” he said. “I got suspended.”
I stopped cold. “What?”
“The other kid said I started it, and I said he started it, and we both got suspended.”
“What the fuck,” I said. “That’s bullshit.”
He shrugged. He wasn’t exactly a stellar student, so maybe missing school didn’t mean that much to him, but I wondered if maybe he was trying to put on a brave face so I wouldn’t say something shitty. I felt bad about that. He never had to act brave around Gabe.
“Jesus,” I said. “I mean, it’s not your fault. I’m not mad at you. I’m mad at the school.”
“Mom is too. I don’t know. I’m not sure what she’s going to do.”
“You want to come in?”
“I probably shouldn’t,” he said. He gestured at my PetLand bag. “Is that for Cecilia?”
“Yeah. Just enough food to keep it alive until I can take it back this weekend.”
“Are you really going to do that?”
“Brian, look, I don’t know what your mom was thinking, but I don’t want a bird. If I keep it, it’s going to die. There’s a reason I don’t have any pets.”
“She’s used to living in a house,” said Brian. “She’s used to people.”
“Yeah, but what if what she really wants is some alone time?” I asked. “Can’t really ask her, can you?”
He just stared at me, unsure how to respond. Finally I told him to wait, that I’d go in and change and we could grab a bite to eat. Inside, I gave the bird the second seed cone, even though there was still a bunch left from the first. I must have known that when I left this morning, but I guess I forgot. God knows what else I was thinking about.
We went out for burgers, and as we ate I got him to tell me the name of the other kid, the one that beat him up. It sounded sort of familiar—turns out it was this kid who’d hung around a lot when they were both little, a former friend. The idea that some kid who’d shared pizza and birthday cake with my nephew would start kicking the shit out of him six months after his dad died was almost too much, but I excused myself to the bathroom until I could calm down. When I went back out, Brian was sitting rigid, his phone on the table but off, a paragon of human discomfort. I hated to think it, but I could see why he’d make an easy target for a certain kind of person.
When we got back to my house, I realized that his car wasn’t around.
“Did you walk here?”
“Yeah. Mom didn’t want me going out while I was suspended, so I left the car at home.”
“To buy you what, the thirty seconds between when she gets home and goes in the house?” I glanced at my phone, expecting to see a message from her, but there wasn’t one.
“I don’t know,” said Brian. “She might think I’m in my room.”
“Look, I’ll drive you home. I’ll tell her it was my idea.”
He seemed grateful, but really I was glad for the excuse to go over there and try again. For one thing, I was less likely to make an ass of myself if we were talking face to face. For another, things just felt different. I’d made things up to Brian, I thought, and that gave me a little hope I could do it with Sarah, too. I don’t really think people watch you when they die, but I wanted to do right by Gabe, and that meant figuring out what he’d tell me to do if he was still around.
Sarah seemed surprised to see us. Maybe she really did think Brian was upstairs. He wriggled out of the conversation with a quick apology and the announcement that he had to pee, then disappeared, leaving me in the foyer with his mom.
“I felt bad for him,” I explained. “I thought, you know, he’d like to talk to his uncle.”
She shrugged it off. “He’s not grounded. I just don’t want him driving all over town during school hours. It looks suspicious.”
“Yeah, but he’s one of the bad kids now,” I said. “He’s going to raise a little hell.”
“So what did you two do, set a bathroom on fire?”
“We ate french fries,” I said. “He got a chocolate shake.”
“Look, I’m sorry for being shitty,” I said. “I’m not sure what I should have said, but I know I said the wrong thing.”
Sarah gestured for me to follow. The house was a mess. Not like a disaster-zone, just piles of shit everywhere, papers strewn across the dinner table, stacks of half-empty boxes, innumerable pairs of Brian’s socks lying everywhere. She didn’t seem to notice it. She didn’t even offer one of those reflexive apologies you toss out when somebody sees how you actually live because you didn’t expect company. We went out to the back yard and sat down on a pair of yellow lawn chairs. Sarah reached into a sweater pocket and pulled out a lighter and a long pack of Capris.
I’d never seen her smoke before, but it wasn’t something to question, anymore than I thought she’d question me if she saw the number of empty vodka bottles in my recycling.
“Victor, what should I do?”
She waited until I smartened up. I tried again.
“I don’t know how to answer that,” I said. “You guys aren’t going to move are you?”
“No,” said Sarah. “Or maybe. I can’t seem to think that far out. I think about the future, and it’s just… blank.”
“Me too,” I said. I rubbed at my face, pressing the heels of my hands against my cheeks and chin, feeling for the bones. “Too bad you guys had Brian. Me and you could have jumped off a bridge together.”
“It’s crossed my mind,” she said.
“Should I kick that kid’s ass?” I asked. “I got his name. I bet I could find him, and I don’t think he’d recognize me.”
“All I can seem to do is get through a day,” said Sarah. “And then the next one follows, and the next one. But it doesn’t feel like coping. I don’t know what it is.”
“Would you call me? Like if you guys needed help or something? I don’t mean to sound shitty, I can see why you wouldn’t. I’m just asking.”
“No,” said Sarah. She didn’t offer an apology, or explanation, and she didn’t need to. My feelings weren’t a factor in her considerations.
“Okay,” I said, and I repeated the word a couple more times so she’d know that I heard her answer, and that I understood she saw me as a certain kind of person. The kind that Gabe did not want me to be.
Adam Goode was in our system.
All day I’d been waiting for Cayla, our receptionist, to walk away from the computer a minute so I could look him up. And now there he was. I opened his file to make sure, but it seemed legit—the patient we had was sixteen, his home address just a couple streets west of Gabe and Sarah’s. This was the kid.
I jotted down the home phone number and stuffed it in my shoe. Scrubs are great for a lot of things, but I can never seem to get shit to stay in the pockets, especially with all the up and down during teeth cleanings. I spent the rest of the day feeling like a POW or something, nervous I’d get caught, that Dr. Vashti would announce a surprise shoe inspection, but the hours went by without incident. At five o’clock, I asked her if I could lock up.
“My home internet is out,” I said. “Is it cool if I pay a couple bills here before I leave?”
She raised an eyebrow, but let it slide. One more stroke of bad luck in my charmless life. After everyone was out of the office, I picked up the phone.
“Hi, Mrs. Goode? I’m calling from Trailside Dental in regards to Adam. We’d like to have him back in for a check up.”
They’d been in a month ago, she told me—was something wrong?
“Well, it might be nothing,” I said. “But we noticed something in our notes about a spot of discoloration, and it looks like..” Here I pulled up his file again, to make sure I was right. Details are important in this kind of lie. “Yep, looks like we did not do any x-rays last time. It’s probably nothing, but you really don’t want to wait around with this kind of thing.”
She asked if this kind of thing meant cancer. The word didn’t even slow me down.
“I’d hate to speculate, but certainly that’s part the reason we see this as urgent,” I said. Mrs. Goode scheduled the appointment for two days later. I told her, as reassuringly as I could, that we looked forward to seeing her son.
The checkout girl at PetLand asked if I had a receipt. I did not.
“I’m not sure we can do anything, then,” she said. “Let me call a manager.”
A heavyset guy with muttonchops came to the register from the back of the store, carrying what looked like a large cow femur. I pointed at it.
“Business or pleasure?”
“I need you to take a bird,” I said. “It was an unwanted gift.”
He set down the femur and eyed the cage intently, like maybe there was more to the cockatoo than met the eye. Cecilia fluttered, chirping and cocking her head at us, the remains of two partially eaten seed cones lying on the bottom of her cage.
“Who gave it to you?” asked the manager.
“My sister-in-law,” I said. “She’s not well.”
The checkout girl and the manager exchanged a dark look before he shook his head.
“If it’s not from here, we can’t accept it. There’s too much risk of disease. You’ll have to surrender it at a shelter.”
I had no idea where the nearest bird shelter was, or even if there was such a thing. And given how long it had taken me just to get to PetLand, I didn’t like my chances of finding one any time soon.
“Stop being stupid and just take the bird,” I said. “I don’t want it.”
“Sir, we can’t take this animal.”
I started walking toward the door.
“Sir, we can’t take this animal,” the manager repeated, and he picked up the cage in both hands and started coming toward me. I ran for my car, but the guy was faster than he looked, even encumbered by the bird cage, and while I struggled with my keys he caught up to me.
“Sir, you can’t leave this in my store!”
“Get off me, you fascist,” I said, trying to shove him away. I had to reach around the cage to make contact with him, and it was a weird angle. I couldn’t put any force into it, and he kept coming right back up on me. And now there was the checkout girl, who was now crossing the parking lot and carrying the cow femur. Jesus, was she going to club me with it?
The manager hooked at my leg with his foot and I twisted to shove him away, but slapped the cage instead. It spun out of his hands and landed on the pavement, the plastic tray beneath the cage popping free like a Tupperware lid. The bird was out and gone before either of us could do a thing about it.
As I drove away, the manager picked up the wire cage and threw it at my car. It bounced off the roof and onto the pavement. I hope it made him feel better.
The day of Adam Goode’s appointment, Dr. Vashti noticed his name on our appointment listings and asked me about him. She had a good memory for patients, and knew he’d just been in.
“Oh, yeah, I spoke to his mom,” I said, trying to figure out how to phrase things so that I wasn’t lying. I hadn’t given my name, but it wouldn’t exactly be hard for them to figure out who she’d spoken to. “There was some concern, I guess, about a discolored spot? I don’t know, seemed safe to get it checked out.”
“I don’t recall anything.”
I shrugged like, what can you do? “I just figured we should see him. Be on the safe side.”
She could tell I was rattled about something, and I doubted she’d buy the idea that I was profoundly worried about our young patient. I needed to volunteer a reason.
“I lost my bird,” I said. “My brother’s cockatoo, I mean.”
“Oh no,” said Dr. Vashti, covering her mouth. “Victor, what happened?”
“I went to take it to the pet store, and the guy dropped her cage,” I said. “It just popped open.”
“So is she loose in the store?”
I shook my head—slowly. Sadly. “It happened outside.”
“I know. It was bad. I think I should put some signs up.”
I was used to her laughing at me, but this time she seemed genuinely distressed, and I didn’t know how to handle it. Devil-may-care seemed like the wrong way to go. I didn’t have anything else. If I’d never shown her emotion about Gabe, I wasn’t going to cry about my lost bird. My feelings for her suddenly seemed very, very small.
“It’s okay,” I said. “She’s big. She’s used to people. Somebody might catch her. Just gotta hope for the best.”
That afternoon, Adam Goode’s parents brought him right on schedule. Both mother and father—I guess I really worried them. I could have told you the kid was an asshole even if I didn’t know who he was, just by the way he carried himself. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do yet, but I figured when I had a bunch of metal hooks in his mouth I’d think of something.
I didn’t recognize him from Brian’s childhood birthdays, and I didn’t think he recognized me either, but I kept my face mask on when I went to summon him from the lobby. His mother forced a smile at me, but looked anxious. I gave her a friendly wave.
“Don’t worry, I’ll take good care of him,” I said, and clapped Adam on the shoulders for good measure. I led him back into one of examining rooms and had him sit down before I clipped a paper bib around his neck. “This is just for all the blood,” I said. He didn’t laugh.
“Am I okay?” he asked.
“You will be,” I said. “Sit back.”
I adjusted the chair, then swung the light up and over, keeping it in his eyes instead of properly aimed at his mouth. From the tray I picked up a mirror and a stainless steel pick, a fresh one from a new pack, as sharp as it would ever be.
“So. Do you like school, Adam?”
He unh-hunhhed that he did, wincing a little when the pick scraped along the gum line of his back molar. I scratched my way across the plaque, probing at his teeth as I did so—the tops of his molars, the edges of his canines and incisors, looking for soft spots, the beginnings of little cavities. I didn’t want to tell him who I was yet. I had to find the sweet spot first, the sensitivity, if there was one. I paused a minute to wipe plaque onto a blue paper napkin, then reached for the water. I’d made it as cold as possible.
“Going to do a quick rinse and spit, okay?” I said, positioning the saliva receptacle closer to his head. I aimed the water carefully, hitting teeth in sequence. He finally jolted when I hit him just behind his bottom incisors with a shock of the ice cold water.
“Little sensitive?” I asked. He nodded, and I clucked at him through my face mask. “Well, we’re going to have to try it again. You moved the first time.”
He shuddered each time the water struck his teeth, oversensitive nerves passing bad information to his brain. There was nothing dangerous or damaging about a little cold water on the backs of his teeth. The sensation of a knife prying his teeth out by their roots was just in his head.
Whether from the water or the light, Adam’s eyes were starting to water. I took out the hose and reached for the pick again, but I was done scraping. I just needed him to have a pick in his mouth to make sure he wouldn’t bite down, because if he bit down he might feel safe from the pair of pliers I now picked up off the tray. I held them up so he could see what I had before slipping them carefully over his tongue to lock down on one of his molars.
“You beat the shit out of a kid named Brian,” I said. I spoke carefully, calmly, the same tone of voice I always used to talk to patients his age. “Right?”
There was a long pause. Adam’s universe had shrunk to the inside of his mouth, where the stainless steel tip of a dental pick was pressed just at the edge of his gums and a pair of dental pliers held fast near the edge of his throat.
Gently, carefully, I rocked my wrist. Teeth seem like such fixed objects, but they’ve got more give than most people realize. Adam’s pupils dilated despite the overhead light as he felt his molar roll slightly in its socket.
“Buddy,” I said, “Focus on my voice. Answer my question.”
He mumbled something in the affirmative, but there were other noises, whimpers maybe, and a tear rolled from the corner of his eye down toward his ear. I leaned a little closer.
“I know who you are. I know where you live. And if you fuck with Brian ever again, I will find you and pull out your teeth.”
I kept still for a little longer—maybe fifteen seconds for me, whole lifetimes for Adam—then slowly, slowly relaxed the pliers and removed them along with the pick from his mouth.
“I’m going to tell Dr. Vashti you’re ready for her,” I said. “But I’ll just be on the other side of that wall. It’s a small office. I hear everything.”
I spent the rest of Adam’s appointment trying not to throw up. Even as I attended to the next patient, I kept glancing up to see if I could catch sight of him or Dr. Vashti. And then suddenly I did, as she led him out and toward the x-ray room. I couldn’t help staring at them, but neither looked over at me, and the patient I was working on cried out when I accidentally nicked her tongue.
“Sorry,” I said, glancing down again, and I forced myself to focus. If there was anywhere Adam could feel safe telling Dr. Vashti that I’d threatened him, it was in the sealed x-ray room while she draped him in a lead vest.
Finally, finally, they emerged again, and I abandoned the patient I was with under the pretense that I was finished scraping her teeth. I caught up to Dr. Vashti just as she took Adam into the lobby again to meet his parents.
“Hey,” I said. “So. How is he?”
To his mother, Dr. Vashti said, “Adam is fine. There is nothing unusual to be found, and his x-rays are perfect. He has a very healthy mouth.”
Mrs. Goode started to cry. Not heavy, wracking sobs, not any kind of wild keening. I just mean that she cried quietly and looked at her son, then put out her arms and hugged him. Mr. Goode didn’t look much better. He looked like a worried father. He looked like Gabe, talking to me about Brian.
“I’m sorry,” said Mrs. Goode, once she let go of her son. “Oh, god, I feel ridiculous. I knew it was nothing, but.”
She shook both hands on either side of her head. I understood the gesture. That is the very mildest way to communicate what it feels like when your mind shakes apart in your skull.
“You have nothing to worry about,” said Dr. Vashti, smiling her smile. “He could even eat something sweet tonight and his teeth wouldn’t suffer for it.”
I lingered in the doorway until they were gone. Dr. Vashti stopped smiling when she looked at me.
“Victor, are you feeling okay?”
“I’m think I’m going to be sick,” I said, and then I was.
Two days after my appointment with Adam Goode, I lost my job. Dr. Vashti called me at home an hour before my shift.
“You can not step foot in the building,” she said. “If you have any personal possessions here, I will mail them to you.”
I couldn’t even manage a feeble protest, or pretend like I didn’t understand. It was crazy to think Adam wouldn’t tell his mother what happened, and mostly I felt stupid for ever thinking otherwise.
“I’m sorry,” I said, hating myself for it. Not the apology, but for not being able to come up with anything better. No matter how I felt about the job, Dr. Vashti had been the one person I looked forward to seeing for the last six months.
“I am so disappointed, Victor.”
I almost said I love you, but that wouldn’t have been any better than the apology. The right sentimental ballpark for how I felt, but also completely wrong.
It took me a couple hours to get up off the couch after that. There was vodka in the freezer, and it was a weekday, so if I wanted to stock up for a bender there was nothing stopping me. Instead I put on my jacket, got in my car, and drove over to Sarah’s.
As expected, Brian answered the door. He was dressed in sweatpants and a hoodie, bleary-eyed and unshowered. Did he seem surprised to see me? Not especially. He let me in, and showed me where the coffee pot was. It was switched off but still warm from that morning, so I poured myself a cup and stood in the kitchen drinking it while Brian watched.
“Are you off today?” he asked, as I went for a refill.
“Yeah. I’ve got some vacation days saved up,” I said, because it wasn’t exactly a lie. “Thought I’d come see you.”
“Cool,” said Brian, nodding. “Okay.”
“So what do you do all day?” I asked. His black eye looked a lot better, I noticed. “Jerk off?”
He blushed and shrugged his shoulders, looking away. “I don’t know. Play X-Box.”
“What games have you got?”
I followed him into the living room and he opened up the entertainment center. Gabe never let him have a television in his bedroom, which kept the family room central to domestic activity. As Brian rattled off games I stared at the back of his head, wondering how he could look so little like my brother.
“That one,” I said, recognizing a title. “It’s two-player, right?”
“Yeah,” said Brian, popping open the case and taking out the disc. “You know how to play?”
“Sure,” I lied. It was a fighting game, two characters on either side of the screen trying to beat the shit out of each other. I knew it from commercials, but once we got the game started I was clearly outmatched. Somehow, the harder I tried the worse I played. Any hits I landed came through sheer button mashing.
We played for a few hours like that. Brian never got tired of it. We played, and we played, and we kept playing, even when we heard the garage door open for Sarah’s car.
“Here, hold still a second,” he said, and I lifted my thumbs from the controller. Brian executed a complicated maneuver that ended with my head getting pulled off my torso, spinal column waggling in the air like a tadpole.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” I said. “That’s disgusting, dude.”
“Ha, yeah,” said Brian. “Hang on, I’ll show you another one.”
I heard Sarah coming in through the kitchen, and I knew she could see us. I raised a hand to wave at her without glancing over. As Brian enthusiastically proceeded with another execution, I found myself filled with a strange calm. It was a nice couch to be sitting on, in the house of nice people.
Sarah came and stood at the edge of the living room, watching me die.
“Brian, give your uncle a fighting chance,” she said.
“Nah,” I said, leaving my guard down. “It’s cool. He’s showing me something.”
As if on cue, Brian tore off my arm and clubbed me with it. We all started to laugh—the whole thing was so gross, so ridiculous, there really wasn’t anything else you could do.
“Okay,” I said, finally. “For real this time.”
And Brian just nodded, like he didn’t already know how hard I’d been trying.