Something to sink your teeth into

By Clyde Edgerton

I went to a new dentist last week. The old one recently retired. I sat in the waiting room reading a magazine until called into the room with the chair and drills. That room had new equipment and I noticed that the seat-chair-bed-thing that you sit on and that they lean you back in, felt very comfortable.

I needed a crown. The new dentist came in. The reason I was using a new dentist is that he took over the patients of my old one. 

Isn’t it funny what all we don’t check up on. You may be different but I ask friends about where to eat. I go online and check prices and comments about shoes I might buy. And in the store, I try on several pairs before buying. I go into Dick’s for a basketball and look at a whole rack with prices under each basketball and I pick up several and dribble them there in the store. Then I decide.

But I go to somebody who is going to operate on my head, inside my mouth with drills and needles and cement, and I don’t do research. Maybe you do. But somehow I’ve never shopped for a dentist. My mama took me to the first one and then that dentist retired and turned over his office to a distant cousin of mine — and I went to him because he was kin — and then he turned his office over to another dentist. I continued going to that one for years . . . 

Then I moved to Wilmington and I have no idea how I ended up with my first Wilmington dentist (15 years ago), since I didn’t inherit him. (I had no complaints.) And now, when that one retired, the office people didn’t change and I kind of knew them, and all of the sudden I was in the long, reclining seat when the new guy came in. I had no idea of whether or not he could tell a bicuspid from a bicycle. He looked to be about 12, 13 years old.

Things went fine. I liked him. He wore gloves with a grape smell. On purpose. Honest.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that people in our culture tend to be silent about the price of a dentist’s or doctor’s bill — when you pay, that is. If it’s your car and your oil has been changed and you’ve gotten a new battery, you say to the cashier, “How much?” and the cashier tells you and you pay. If it’s a doctor, the cashier says, “That’s a $30 or $70, or (now) $90 co-pay, please.” And you pay it. The end.

What I don’t say is, “How much was the total charge for today’s visit?” Maybe you do.

Actually, for a short while about three years ago, I did ask the receptionist/cashier about total bill numbers, and something like the following is what usually happened:

“That’s a $40 co-pay,” says the receptionist/cashier.

I reach for my billfold and say, “Can you tell me how much the bill is?”

“Forty dollars.”

“No, I mean for the entire visit. You know — the whole bill. I’m just curious.”

“For the entire visit?” she asks, looking up at me for the first time. She’s looking me in the eye.

“Yes, Please. Thank you.”

“Well, let’s see,” she says, and she looks down at the piece of white paper she’s about to file, having given me the yellow copy. I look at my copy. It has 200 tiny squares with something medical written in beside each, something like “Quadra florientine xerox procedure.”  Or “Hymiscus of the vertebrae test.” Of the 200, nine are checked off.

She goes to a closet and gets an adding machine, one like my father used to have in his grocery store in the ’50s. She brings it back out, places it on her desk, and puts the white piece of paper down beside it. “Hang on,” she says. “This might take a minute or two.” She turns to the computer while holding her finger on that first check in the top little block on the white piece of paper. With a mouse under the other hand, she finds what she’s looking for on the computer from a website and puts a number into the adding machine, and pulls the handle. She sound is sort of: Cha-chank.

“OK,” she says. “Let me see here.” She places a finger on the second check, finds a different website, and finds what she’s looking for. She puts a number into the adding machine. Cha-chank.

She makes a phone call and says, “Yes, I can wait.” In about two minutes she says, “Yes, can you give me the price of a crankshem rebotolin frisk? . . . . OK, thanks.” Cha-chank.

She’s back on the computer. This goes on for a while. Shadows, from sunlight coming through windows, lengthen across the room.

“Okey-doke,” she says. She tears off the strip of paper from the adding machine, pulls a curtain around her that hangs from a curved rod, looks over my shoulder, leans forward, looks left and right, circles the bottom number and places it up on the counter in front of me. $489.23.

I say, “Thank you very much.”

Now, I’m waiting for the day there is a co-pay on the co-pay. And that time is not far off, probably about the time my dentist turns 16 or 18.

Clyde Edgerton is the author of 10 novels, a memoir and most recently, Papadaddy’s Book for New Fathers. He is the Thomas S. Kenan III Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at UNCW.

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