When I had braces, we never visited an orthodontist. Such an animal hadn’t yet evolved. Mine were crafted in an automotive machine shop and so bulky, we were charged by weight.
To get my teeth adjusted, I remember pulling up to a gray cinderblock garage where a clanging ding-ding sounded as we drove over a black hose in the parking lot, announcing our arrival. Mom mysteriously had another engagement and peeled rubber in a hasty escape. I stepped gingerly across the threshold, past a glowing blue and yellow NAPA sign in a dust-filmed window. The sulfur scent of hot oil blended with the ashen fragrance of burnt metal. Jimmer greeted me, wiping grease from his claws with a blue cloth.
“What you want?” he said with a jerk of his chin. This man’s knuckles had oil ground into their crevices, bearing a close resemblance to carved granite. Was he a mechanic or a mafia goodfella?
I smiled, peeling lips back from razor sharp hardware. Immediately his eyes brightened, sighting the glimmer from the stainless steel cemented to my teeth. Jimmer never did the dirty work, of course. He wasn’t keen enough. But being a sadist, he would rest upon a wooden bench outside the door while the real brains of the organization coaxed screams from patients.
Jimmer yanked the stub of a cigar from his mouth and, with a broken-toothed smile, pointed it to a cracked wooden door hanging from a single hinge on the back wall. I crept toward the opening, past rusted hulks of pickups with cords and cables draped beneath. A mechanic’s boots protruded into my path, the rest of the man hidden under the vehicle. Grating sounds screeched from below and light flickers flew like Fourth of July sparklers upon my shoes.
I rapped on the door, curious whether the stains on the floor were oil or blood. Probably both. Inside, sitting straight-backed atop a metal bar stool was Pidgeon. I never would call him that, of course. But with his ever-present jewelers’ glasses, grey suit, black bow tie, salt-and-pepper beard, and yard-long nose, he bore a striking resemblance to the bird. He motioned, not to a dentist’s chair, but to wooden crates forming a rustic work table. Or a sacrificial alter, considering this is from where the wet works flowed.
He yanked down a splash shield and reached to the workbench next to him, where the tools of his trade were sprawled: pliers and rotary grinders and a MIG welder. He selected a pair of forceps and with thin lips cackled, “Let’s see our progress, shall we?”
Jimmer helped me settle in. Read that strapped me down. Pidgeon was well ahead of his time regarding anesthesia, preferring an all-natural, homeopathic route. “Open up,” were the last words I remembered, soon after which my body’s pain defenses took over and I passed out.
I woke to Pidgeon’s wicked smile, stumbled to the front of the shop, sparks still blanketing my path in wavering light. Mom tore into the parking lot and we were off like a covey of quail at the shot of a gun.
But now, someone changed the rules.
My son’s braces are so small and discrete, without the smack on my wallet every month from the orthodontist’s bill, I might not even notice he had them. And the payments rival any Ivy League school’s tuition bill. Each appointment he visits a tidy brick office where lattes are served in the waiting room and the doctors sport Rolexes, hiding condescending laughter behind surgical masks, with photos of their kid’s Princeton graduation ceremony hanging on the wall behind them.
These guys have evolved. But even if life’s cadence changes, it’s still set by the same drummer.
This last Christmas morning, our family was blessed to have a few extra guests. So, just as the sun cleared the horizon, I drove off on a hunt for extra eggs and bacon. I pulled into our local convenience store and on a bottom shelf of the back corner cooler I found my prey.
“I didn’t even know we sold this,” the checkout said with a grin. I quickly flipped the chilled package over and glanced at the expiration date, relieved it was only a month overdue. As I stepped toward the door, I gave the attendant a smile. “Merry Christmas.” Beaming, he returned the greeting.
We all can spout clichés regarding how the world is changing, and progress is debatable. But true life’s cadence hinges on relationship, one person to another, one at a time. Holidays. Guests. An entrepreneur, opening the door of his convenience store on Christmas morning to sell year-old bacon to an unshaven dad in his PJ’s.
This holiday season, remember your most important relationships, family and otherwise.
With sincere apologies to Mr. Bagley Walker. You were a great orthodontist!