The Cleaning

By Ben Mitchell

The first time is fixed in my memory more vividly almost than sitting here now at my kitchen table as I write this account. I don't even know why I'm writing this but I feel that some things need to be documented. It wasn't that it was the first time, or the pain, or even that we were breaking so many of the very taboos that bind our society together. Rather, it was that I was finally experiencing something that for years I believed would never happen for me: all the self-pity and expectation boiled down to one hour's worth of gratification.

She met me in the coffee shop around the corner. We'll call her Jennifer because to disclose her real name would not only betray her confidence but most likely would land her in jail. I'll never forget the image of her as she walked through that door on that very first night. Fine black hair pulled back in a pile. Something in the mixture of confidence, discretion and solid determination made her footsteps seem almost inevitable as she approached me at the counter. She wore strangely casual street clothes -- snug blue-jeans and an ivory colored top. She was prettier than I expected, hardly the image of a person one imagines when thinking of this sort of thing.

"Are you Peter?" She said and she turned her head to the left, keeping one eye, always on the door.

"Yes." I responded, "Jennifer?"

"We must be quick about this," she said as she turned back towards the door. I peeled two dollars out of my wallet and left them on the counter to cover the coffee which was only half finished. I had to scramble to catch up with her out in the dim streetlight. She walked for two blocks south on New England Avenue and turned sharply down the alley between two large brick tenements. I followed and found her standing next to a dark green door.

"Wait here," she said as she pulled down the iron ladder of the fire escape; it squeaked menacingly but she seemed quite practiced, and in a flash she was gone. I waited in a state of disembodied anticipation -- eager to finally be getting this done. The ally seemed to shimmer with a faint panic. High above I could hear someone coughing through an open window, coughing in the late summer twilight. It must've been nearly three o'clock in the morning and yet I felt vividly awake -- as if my whole life leading to this moment had been only a dream.

The green door opened, and she stood before me dressed in a long, white robe. She wore gloves now and a mask, and she said, "Quickly, please, we haven't much time." She led me down at dark passage toward a door with faint blue light. The full lighting would arouse suspicion, so we kept it to the minimum. She led me to a reclining chair and asked me to lie on my back. As soon as I was in position she began to ask me questions, personal questions, things I had never told anyone, and she asked without the slightest hint of embarrassment.

Next she stretched a piece of fabric over me, covering my body up to my neck and another around my arm which she then manipulated in such a way that it began to hurt, all the while staring idly at her indiglow wristwatch. Then she inserted her right index finger into my mouth and began to mutter what seemed like strange incantations, "linea alba, lingual thyroid nodule, leukoedema, leukopliakia." She systematically explored my mouth recording observations on an orange plastic clip board. She counted from one to 32: I could hear her making quiet mental notes to herself, "an amalgam on the distal occlusal side, a class 2 DO amalgam."

Finally, she began probing my gingiva with a Florida probe. It sounds sexy but it felt like she was jabbing toothpicks between my teeth and gums and I could feel them bleed. She told me any reading beyond 3mm is considered a sign of gingivitis, any beyond 5mm is indicative of periodontitis (bone loss). Mine were mostly between three and four. She stopped, took her fingers out of me and looked me square in the eye.

"You have not been flossing." She looked at me with eyes that could freeze salt water. "You need Radiographs, but they could be here a soon as fifteen minutes, so we have no time." Using an explorer -- a Columbia 1176 - she determined the degree and location of calculus.

Next she started scaling with a Columbia universal curette, and after some violent struggle she moved to the Columbia sickle scaler. This was one of the most painful experiences of my life. It was like she was scraping chunked paint off brittle clapboards, only the clapboards were my teeth and the paint, chunks of foul tasting debris that had been eating my bone structure for years. She worked furiously scraping my teeth, occasionally slicing my gums or stabbing into one of my cheeks. She would scrape at a large chunk until it broke free with a seemingly audible "pling," at which point she would ask me to rinse my mouth with water out of a blue plastic cup and spit into the sink next to the chair. Occasionally she grabbed a strand of dental floss and worked it between the teeth; it clicked as it broke through the clods of detritus.

Finally, she stood back, her eyes furrowed intently on my bleeding mouth. She produced an orange flashlight in the shape of a cartoon tiger and aimed it at my mouth. The flashlight roared quietly as it clicked it on. She looked carefully into my mouth and then pulled her gaze back to include my face and my wide panic stricken eyes.

"Do we dare try the polish?" she asked but more of herself than to me. I tried to use my eyes to express that I felt we could live without any more work for today, but just then the squeal of tires in the front of the building broke her concentration.

"Come quickly." She commanded. She pulled the paper apron from my neck and quickly bound all the tools, her gloves, even the white robe into a single ball which she stuffed into a yellow Biohazard bin near the door, and I scrambled after her into the hallway. Rather than moving toward the dark green door through which we had entered, she led me around a sharp right turn, down a long passage to a fire door with a bright illuminated exit sign.

On the other side was a grey metal stairway and I followed her up one flight, two flights, three, four; she was in much better shape, and it was all I could do to keep up with her. I could feel the blood pooling in my throat, and my mouth felt lacerated as if by shrapnel. At the top of the stairs a door opened out into the dim glow of early morning twilight.

She turned to me, placing her pointed index finger to her lips with a stern expression. I stopped whimpering. She motioned for me to follow her behind a large rusty ventilation duct which jutted up from the tar roof and bent over like a question mark. She knelt down in the space beneath it an pulled me down next to her. Warm air flowed over us from the duct, soothing like summer rain.

"Umph, my arm hurph." I tried to complain, but she put her hand over my mouth and jabbed me with her elbow to silence me. In the next moment I heard the heavy door through which we had only a moment before passed slam open, followed by the click of a large flashlight. I could feel her hold her breath silently next to me and I tried to do the same. The flashlight arched past our question mark revealing the contours of the rooftop around us, and she stiffened slightly next to me.

There silently holding my breath, crouched against the light that searched the roof for us, for the first time in years, I ran my tongue over the fronts of my top row of teeth beneath her silencing hand and was astonished by what I felt: my teeth were clean. Rather than the familiar mossy fabric of mucus and grime that had coated my mouth since I left the protection of my parents health insurance fifteen years before, they were smooth like a fine china, like the rim of a clean coffee cup. It was infectious. The more I explored them, the more I needed to feel them. They ached, and my lips were torn bare, but for the first time in years, I could feel my own, human teeth. Tears streamed from my eyes and I relaxed against Jennifer's alert and silent body, surrendered completely beneath the rusted metal question mark.

Now, of course, I am part of the network: I study a person for a week or so and then approach, only if they seem both desperate and trustworthy. Obviously, we can't do fillings or crowns or other serious restorations, but if things get bad there is a guy on the west side who will pull a tooth for fifty bucks. He does it in his kitchen, uses what ever he can get on the street for an anesthetic. No office, no chair, no questions. Some of them are gentler; some are quicker; you get who ever is available, and they are all, literally angels of god. Still, I will never forget Jennifer. She was my first.

Copyright 2005 Ben Mitchell

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