“Are you comfortable?”
The indexer lies nearly prone, a lead vest heavy on his chest. A hard plastic retainer shaped like a goalpost props open his jaws. Directly above him, a small rectangle of reflective metal in the middle of a lamp acts as a mirror. In it he can just see his white molar poking through a square of green latex--a “rubber dam,” he was told it is called--that matches the green of the endodontist’s gloves. The latex smells slightly of peppermint. The indexer imagines a drawer filled with color and scent coordinated gloves and dams, perhaps organized by day. Blueberry for Monday. Green peppermint for Tuesday. Red cinnamon for Wednesday.
Dams, scented. See also Gloves, scented
His cheek and lip and tongue are heavy and dull with lidocaine. He will have a headache tonight from the pressure on his trigeminal nerve. He remembers the name of the nerve from a manuscript about migraines he had worked on two years ago.
“Good. Let’s get started, then.”
No, that’s not quite right. He already has several root canals, at least one for every tooth, in fact. He’d done enough Internet research to know that. He is neither getting nor having a root canal. He is getting three root canals in one tooth cleaned out, hollowed, filled. A root canal procedure. Yes, that’s it.
Root canal procedures. See also Endodontics.
He almost didn’t show up. The itch to cancel had nagged him all the way from the south side. On the drive north he thought about how nice it would be to spend the day working at home after he left Sarah at the airport, trying to convince himself that working was the responsible thing to do. When he took the downtown exit he thought about how he really should finish his two current projects by the end of the year. As he turned onto Wisconsin Avenue he thought about how he just wanted to sleep, to pull the drapes shut and turn off the lights and not wake up until tomorrow.
Sitting in his parked car outside the dental office, he remembered how he had rescheduled several times already, that the new year was two days away, and he did not want this expense to count against next year’s deductible. He was ten minutes early, so he sat in his car and waited. The predicted snowfall had already started. Large, heavy flakes arranged themselves like obstacles on a survival course. Men and women on their way to work navigated tire runs of ice-free patches and climbed white mountains left over from last week’s storm with the agility of boot camp graduates. But here there was no one to cheer or goad them on, no one to high five them as they kicked the snow from their feet and made their way through revolving doors into the warmth of office buildings. Earlier that morning Sarah had leapt from the passenger seat over the slushy curb to a cleared spot on the airport sidewalk without so much as getting her pumps wet or splashing water onto her wool coat. Before doing so, she had unbuckled her seat beat and turned to face him.
“Take care of yourself,” she said finally.
“Thanks. You, too.”
Ex-wives, taking leave of
“I am going to drill through the crown of the tooth now. You should feel pressure, but no pain.” The endodontist’s slight southern drawl pulls him back to the moment. His glasses are equipped with magnifying lenses that look like miniature binoculars. His lab coat is the white of high quality bond paper and entirely free of wrinkles. This is probably no joy ride for him, either. The appointment slot is for two hours.
Root canal procedures, passing time during:
advice for patients advice for practitioners
The ceiling tiles are tan with irregular, pitted dots arranged in no recognizable pattern. His eyes travel to the whorl of a fingerprint that graces the glass of the lamp that shines on his face. The peppermint smell now mingles with the scents of the endodontist’s sport deodorant and pulverized amalgam filling. The green of the rubber dam--still reflected in the metal to the left of the fingerprint--is not close in shade at all to the endodontist’s gloves. He sees that now.
When Sarah had called to tell him she would be in Chicago for her annual conference, he was the one who suggested she fly out of Milwaukee for the return leg of the trip, that he drive to Chicago to pick her up, that she could stay at his place and leave early the next morning, that he could take her to the airport. He hadn’t seen her in over a year. They were, as others often told him, moving on. At least she was. This morning, at the airport coffee shop, between sips of a frothy cinnamon soy latte that left the hint of a mustache on her upper lip before she wiped it away with a brown paper napkin, she told him about the job she had interviewed for yesterday, an associate professor position in Colorado. If she got it, this would be her third move since their divorce, each time to a larger, more prestigious university. Her ambition had always been palpable, even sexual. But this morning, for the first time, he saw that it also makes her truly happy.
The endodontist shows him his digital x-rays on a computer screen, explaining that two of his root canals cross each other, which will make cleaning them out more difficult. In the x-ray, his tooth looks like tangled tree roots.
“Your teeth are otherwise healthy,” the endodontist says. “Often root canal problems occur in a tooth that has had repeated dental work or untreated decay. The other common cause is trauma of some kind, such as habitual chewing on ice or a sports injury, even an injury from several years ago.” He repositions the computer monitor and slips the blue paper mask back over his mouth. “I need to tell you that there is always the chance, while slim, that one of the files I use might break deep in the canal tip or that we won’t be able find all the branches of the root. Also, a small percentage of root canal therapies fail, for a number of reasons, in which case the dead tooth will need to be extracted. I don’t expect that will happen in your case, but I want to explain again the potential complications that were outlined in the release form you signed. Do you have any questions?”
The goalpost still holds open his jaws, and the dam covers his tongue and lips. Will you know if a file breaks? If it does, what happens then? Who is “we”? How can something that is dead hurt so much?
He manages to shake his head. No.
He first noticed the problem several months ago, when a drink of cold water brought a sharp, piercing pain that left him breathless. As a member of the fluoridated water and sealant generation, he had never had a cavity, so, not knowing what one felt like, at first he chided himself for having been lax with his brushing and for snacking much of the evening in lieu of a proper dinner. Then, at this next cleaning, his dentist told him that he needed a root canal--a root canal procedure--and referred him to the endodontist whose green thumb and forefinger now move the tiny files up and down, up and down quickly inside his dead molar.
He feels the tickle in his throat and an urge to cough before he smells or sees the thin line of smoke that snakes from his mouth. The endodontist is talking. “This instrument is like a hot glue gun that fills all the spaces in your canals to minimize complications and infections.” The hot glue gun presses into his molar, held firm by those green gloved fingers. Last week he read about a man who tried to melt the ice from his third story duplex with a blow torch hooked to a twenty pound propane cylinder, but the man was distracted by a noise and, when he turned to look, he turned the blow torch as well, setting fire to the entire building.
Dental procedures, distractions during:
coughing earthquakes fire alarms hiccups sneezing See also Botched dental procedures; Dental procedures, accidental deaths from
When people find out that he indexes books for a living, they often rant about everything they don’t like about book indexes. The page numbers are wrong. The terms don’t make sense. There are too many subentries, or too few. The most common complaint is “Why do indexes make you go to other entries rather than listing the page numbers right there? ‘See also’ makes me crazy!”
For a long time he patiently tried to explain the beauty and art of cross-referencing; that good indexers do limit how often they use “see” and “see also,” but that cross referencing makes the index more rather than less useful; that the tone of the index should be in keeping with the author’s text, and the indexer tries to think of alternative terms and phrasings that readers might use but that aren’t part of the author’s style or vocabulary, resulting in a need to point the reader toward the author’s preferred word or phrase; that publishers allot a specific number of pages for the index, and cross-referencing allows more terms to be included without adding several lines of text; that indexing brings order to an otherwise chaotic manuscript. In time, he learned simply to shrug his shoulders in a “Yeah, it’s annoying, but what can you do?” kind of way.
The endodontist snaps off his gloves and pulls the paper mask off his mouth.
“You will need to make an appointment at the desk for next week to get your permanent crown. In the meantime, be careful not to eat hard foods or sticky foods like taffy. You can brush and floss.”
When the indexer sits up, he feels dizzy for a moment, disoriented. His feet on the floor are unsteady for the first steps, as though he’d woken from a long, deep sleep.
Outside, the cold air feels good on his face. The snowfall has slowed to a lazy sprinkle. Can snow sprinkle? What is the equivalent word for sprinkle when what is falling is snow instead of rain?
He walks past his car and the parking meter, which has thirty remaining minutes, toward a downtown coffee shop. Hot beverages are forbidden for the rest of the day, but the thought of a cup of steaming coffee sounds good. Maybe he will have tea and sip it slowly, or one of those frozen slushy mocha drinks that Sarah likes so much. Or hot chocolate with enough whipped cream to cool it down.
He stops walking when a child’s scream draws his eyes to a crowded municipal ice rink, and he sees not the rink but Sean in the rearview mirror, sitting in his booster seat. A winter day like this one. Driving to preschool. Late, as usual. Taking him out of the car and walking him to the door. He doesn’t remember kissing and hugging him, but he knows he did, because he always did. Being at home when the preschool teacher called to say that Sean fell and hit his head during outdoor playtime and should probably be taken home. His relief upon seeing Sean sitting with his teacher in the entryway, waiting for him, smiling, okay. Wondering if they should drive to the pediatrician’s office across town. Deciding to see how Sean felt after a few hours. Making macaroni and cheese for lunch, which Sean didn’t eat. Putting him to bed for his nap. Sarah’s coming home from teaching. Their sudden realization later that Sean was still sleeping, so much longer than usual. Too long. Trying to wake him.
She didn’t blame him, not at first. At first they didn’t talk enough for blame or much else to find a space to breathe. They lived as mute shadows, staying out of each other’s way, somehow going to classes and grading papers and talking with students, accepting condolences, wanting only for time to stop. When the blame and guilt and grief did arrive, all of it ripped them apart as surely and permanently as if they had been sliced in half.
The scream is joined by other screams, happy screams, he realizes, and laughter. A group of young children dressed in heavy coats and thick mittens is by turns skating and falling and laughing in that uncontrollable way that only children that age can laugh, before self-consciousness prevents it, before they begin to name and categorize and organize their experience in ways that others might judge, before they are aware that one moment can be linked forever to a million other moments, so that it becomes impossible to stay here and now without also being sent someplace else, to some other time.
The phosphorescent snow swirls around him, and his lips tingle. The numbness is wearing off, but there is also the old, familiar tingling, and he pats his pants pocket before he realizes that with the change to his morning schedule of taking Sarah to the airport, he had forgotten to bring a spare lorazepam. He feels his way to a bench on the side of the rink, sits down, places his right hand under his coat and on his lower chest, and reminds himself to breathe.
abdominal to abort panic attacks re-learning how to
Would the better term for the sub-entry be “abort” or “prevent”? “Techniques for management of?” Most of the meditation and stress-relief books he reads have no indexes at all, a fact that at once frustrates and fascinates him.
He opens his eyes when a boy wrapped in thick snow pants and a parka and wearing an orange hat and a matching orange and blue scarf climbs beside him. The boy is panting and his legs swing hard enough for the backs of his skate blades to hit the bottom of the bench in an uneven rhythm.
He turns to the indexer and asks in a burst of air, “Are you someone’s daddy?”
The boy’s eyes are round and the color of maple syrup. They are barely visible beneath the orange hat, which looks as though it was knitted by a grandmother or doting aunt, the stitches bulky and uneven.
The boy nods, he legs continuing to pump as if generating all of the energy he needs.
“My daddy is at work, but my mommy is here.” He points with his mitten to a woman who is looking at the two of them as she leads a group of young children around the rink. She raises her hand and waves stiffly, unsmiling. The indexer realizes he still has his hand on his chest, under his coat. He moves a bit farther from the boy to reassure her that he is no child molester, slowly removes his hand, and puts his glove back on.
The boy is still talking.
“…used to be a really good skater, like the kind you see on tv. She could do spins and everything, but…”
This boy is about the age Sean had been the first time he went in a swimming pool. By then, he had already begun in earnest to work on anything but his dissertation, so he and Sean spent the days at the hotel while Sarah attended sessions and nurtured budding professional relationships at a conference.
He stood in the water, and Sean stood on the lip of the shallow end, tugging on his trunks that were a tad too big for him and shifting his weight from foot to foot.
“I don’t want to!” His voice was high and thin.
“Just once, Sean. Here.” He put out his arms. “Jump and I’ll catch you.”
Sean shook his head.
“You can do it. Just once, then we’ll get some ice-cream before we meet Mommy.”
Sean continued to shake his head even as he was getting ready to run. In one jerky, swift motion he not so much jumped into the pool as hurled himself forward. He screamed and laughed and cried and tried to wiggle free, the bones of his hard, tiny body sharp against his father’s arms and chest.
“Great job, Sean! You did it! Now let’s get that ice-cream.”
But when they climbed out of the pool, Sean said through his tears, “Again!” Two hours later, Sarah found them still in the water, puckered and tired. Sean said to her over and over, “See, Mommy! See what I can do!” and the only way they could coax Sean away was to promise him to return to the pool tomorrow.
The boy has stopped talking and is looking at him, and he is reminded of something else, someone else from his distant past, not Sean, but the memory refuses to collect itself and rise to the surface, and he finds himself falling into the boy’s round eyes.
“What did you just say?”
“I’m going to show you!”
Before the indexer can ask what he will see, the boy pushes himself off the bench and bounces toward the rink with the padded awkwardness of an astronaut walking on the moon. If he were to look back, which he doesn’t, he would see the crying man leaning forward with both hands on the edge of the bench, willing himself to breathe in the scene, waiting for the ache he knows is coming.