Dentist of the Wild West
by Deborah Vlock
Right while I’m getting my braces, and saliva I can’t swallow is pooling in the back of my mouth, Doc Hallowell tells me about square dancing.
“I do it every Saturday with Linda,” he says, “and after we’re done we go to Bobby Ray’s for a nightcap.”
I can see Linda holding “Mr. Thirsty” off to the side, and I silently curse her for not using him.
“Yep,” he repeats, “Bobby Ray’s for a night cap.”
Alrighty, then. Bobby Ray’s for a nightcap. This guy is nutty, and I don’t want to think about him square dancing with Linda and whatever they do afterwards. I don’t like that visual. He seems to expect a response, but I can’t answer him because the spit tide is rising in my mouth, so I roll my eyes and grunt.
Doc Hallowell wears a blue lab coat and has severe body odor. I think he never washes his clothes. Other dentists I’ve used have worn button down shirts or sweaters—one even wore a bow tie. But this one is always in the blue smock, and it always smells like B.O.
For a dentist he’s fairly good looking, but not in a way that makes you feel insignificant. Linda is his lax assistant—she doesn’t even consider using Mr. Thirsty until I’m drooling onto my pink paper bib—and I think she’s his girlfriend, too. What with the square dancing. She has bad breath, I’ve noticed, so probably they are a match made in heaven, The Couple That Smells.
He makes you call him “Doc Hallowell,” never “Doctor Hallowell,” when you are sitting in his chair and have a question or need to get up and use the bathroom (which I’m sorry to say has happened to me twice before; something about the atmosphere in this place makes me have to void). This makes him sound like a dentist from the Wild West, but it’s what he prefers so I say it even though it’s embarrassing.
“Square dancing,” he tells me while tamping a molar band down on my wisdom tooth, “is a fine art. It’s very complicated, and if you are not careful, you can lose yourself.”
I wonder what he means by lose yourself. I lose myself when I read—all right, I’m just going to say it—romance novels. Anything by Olivia Hartwicke. I forget my name and the fact that I have to cook supper or wash my dishes, take out the trash. I can see losing track of the sequence of steps, which seems rather tricky, while square dancing, but I can’t really see floating off into the ether, which is what happens when you lose yourself in the heaving bosoms of Regency England. At least, that’s how it is for me. But then, the last time I square danced was when I was in junior high school and we had to, for gym. My partner was always The Boy in Plaid, and he had moist palms and on his cheeks severe acne that was itself a sort of plaid.
I realize I am old to be getting braces—thirty-eight, with a ribbon of gray off my right temple—but last month I decided I’d lived long enough with this chaotic smile, so here I am in Doc Hallowell’s lime green dentist chair, getting acquainted with Mr. Thirsty.
“Square dancing,” continues Doc Hallowell, breaking my reverie, “is the Sin of My Old Age. I’m forty-nine.” He winks and pulls down on my chin so he can get a better look in there. I drool.
“Ung,” I say, thinking: where the hell is Mr. Thirsty?
“Linda has a great costume. Brown calico skirt with a frilly petticoat beneath. I think her shirt is purple. Linda?” he calls out. Linda has left the room and can’t see that I’m about to gag on my own spit. “Is the shirt purple or red?”
Linda’s voice, thin as a strand of her lank gray hair, answers: “It’s mauve. Mauve.”
Brown and mauve don’t go so well together, Linda.
Doc Hallowell pats my shoulder and tells me I can spit at the little fountain near the chair. My saliva is pink.
“It would be fantastic,” I say, avoiding his face, “if Linda would vacuum the spit out of my mouth occasionally, so my shirt doesn’t get wet.”
“Your shirt’s wet?” he asks, with honest surprise. I present my shirt. He frowns and shakes his head. I notice that his eyebrows meet in the center. “Next time we’ll double bib you.” This guy’s almost worth the price of admission. The three thousand dollar ticket.
“Brackets next month!” he sings in a shaky tenor, and then I go out to make my next appointment with Grace, the receptionist out front.
“Poor Doc Hallowell,” I say sarcastically to no one as I get into my car. What a loser. It seems the two most exciting things in his life are square dancing and the brackets he’s going to glue to my teeth next month.
I’ve taken the afternoon off from my job as receptionist at Vlad’s Cut N’Curl. I am the only quasi-educated employee there, what with my two point three years at Skidmore College. I guess I’m the poster child for unrealized potential. And so what? Vlad’s Cut N’Curl is better than the last job. Ten years as a cashier at Animal Universe, where I also filled the vending machines with llama pellets. Vlad’s is certainly a step up, even though Vlad has a face like a feral dog. I think he may be a descendant of the Impaler—a good reason to take a little work holiday.
I will spend my half day going to bookstores to look for an Olivia Hartwicke romance among the new releases, and if I score, reading said romance. I used to only borrow from the library, because Vlad is the stingiest beautician in the whole Leatherstocking region and I didn’t want to spend five dollars on a book, but now I mostly buy, because the last time I took a Hartwicke out of the library—it was one of the Regency Romances, Highland Lover, I think—I found, written in a man’s scrawl, the words “Gina your a cunt and it smells like bad tuna.” Then I lost my appetite for the library.
There is no new Olivia Hartwicke. I go home, disappointed, and make myself a bowl of pasta and a green salad for supper. While rummaging in the crisper I find something black and curled and apparently dead under the bag of radishes. I pick it up in a napkin and flush it. The cucumber was not in contact with the black curled thing so I peel its skin off in snaky strips that my cat Figlet will fish out of the trash and store under the hall rug. Then I sit down in my comfy chair, Figlet and his sister, Meat Foon Foon, parked on the floor next to me with two bowls of Fancy Feast, and watch the six o’clock news. There is nothing interesting happening here, besides the mayor’s arrest for cyber stalking a junior varsity cheerleader. He emailed her a picture of his naked ass, simply a picture of his ass, and now he’s holding news conferences and crying over humiliating his wife and kids. The ass turned up online and went viral. I notice he has a sacral dimple like I do. How nice that we have something in common.
Doc Hallowell has a column in the Herald Gazette. Once a week he writes about orthodontia—how it can make your life better—and at the end he invites you to come by for a free consultation. He makes it sound like you can just drop in off the street and he’ll take a look in your mouth—come on down!—although the truth is it took me three weeks to get in there and have my teeth seen. His picture is above the column—Doc in his blue lab coat, but with a tie underneath, and without his glasses. Every week I read the column, because there is simply nothing worth reading in that paper, and once, when it was devoted to adult orthodontia, I cut it out and taped it to my refrigerator as a joke. Now he looks at me every time I go in for a coke or a piece of pie, and sometimes I salute before I open the door and peer in. Once I even gave him the finger, just tried it out to see what it felt like, disrespecting him like that, and I immediately felt bad about it. There is something about that man that makes me feel like a rat.
At my brackets visit, the waiting room is full to bursting. Every buck-tooth kid in town is sitting on Doc Hallowell’s Naugahyde office furniture, thumbing through magazines and elbowing their siblings and picking their noses. I try to ignore them. I am the only person of a certain age here who isn’t the parent of a buck-tooth child.
I wait for Linda to come out and call my name, lead me into the treatment room, but after ten minutes someone else, a heavy bleached blond woman with a large, shelf-like rear end, brings me back. “Miss Bernard?” she asks, fanning her flushed neck with my chart, and then I get up and follow her to the lime easy chair.
While I wait for Doc Hallowell, I pass the time by looking at the plaster teeth lined up on shelves in a glass case on the wall. Most of them are crooked and look like crap. I wonder which one is mine, and whether I could take it home with me, maybe paint it with tempera paints. I could see doing pink gums and a gold front tooth. After I’ve studied each plaster mouth in turn, I sit back and close my eyes, fantasizing about my impending new teeth, which I will own in about two years’ time. I reach beside me for Mr. Thirsty, without opening my eyes, and feel his smooth shaft and the stark edges of his oval orifice.
The first thing I notice when Doc enters the room is his lab coat. It’s green, not the usual blue, which must mean the blue one’s in the laundry. Not a moment too soon. I am about to ask him about Linda when he says, “Have you met my new assistant, Betty? Linda’s moved on and Betty’s come on board, all in the past month!” Betty, who has materialized out of nowhere and is looming over me, smiles. She could use braces herself. I say hello, and ask Doc Hallowell whether he is still square dancing on Saturdays. He looks sad.
“I haven’t got a partner anymore. Now Linda’s gone. I guess I’ll have to find another girl, pronto.” I think it’s funny that he says “girl”; Linda must be fifty. He smiles weakly beneath his mask and fixes the blinding overhead light so it beams directly into my eyes. I squeeze them shut.
“Read any good books lately?” he asks with a look of deep concentration as he probes around in my mouth.
I try to nod and he steadies me by pressing on the crown of my head. Mistress of the Moors, I try to say, but my mouth is propped open, and I am engaged in swallowing the saliva that pools in the back of my throat. I make a sound like “ung ha ga” and gag on the saliva. Betty swoops in with Mr. Thirsty and vacuums me out.
Doc Hallowell has not noticed that my spit almost killed me. “I like mysteries,” he remarks. “Anything with a corpse and a lot of suspense.”
I must be frowning, because he raises his eyebrows and says, “No?”
I shake my head. “Okay,” he says. “When your brackets are bonded you can tell me what you read.” This seems a bit intimate, considering what’s happening here is basically a cash transaction—purveyor of orthodontic service meets consumer, and straight teeth ensue. Although he is friendly enough, and in a different context I might confess how much I like the feel of Mr. Thirsty under the pads of my fingers.
My braces hurt. I have called Doc Hallowell’s office and demanded that he see me this afternoon. Grace put me on hold for five minutes and then told me okay. Three-thirty. Vlad will have to answer his own phones from three to four-thirty, as the walk is twenty minutes each way. I eat my salami sandwich carefully at the reception desk, trying not to dislodge the four lumps of wax in the back of my mouth. But one dislodges anyway, and I roll it around in my mouth and spit it into my napkin. “Barbara, you do a shampoo!” calls Vlad from the sinks, and I wipe my mouth and go grudgingly to the back of the shop. “Mrs. Feingold,” he tells me. “Wash the color out.”
“Where is Martha?”
“Out,” he says shortly. I shrug and go collect Mrs. Feingold. Vlad never tells me anything, but he pays me the big bucks so I guess it’s my duty to wash the dye out of Mrs. Feingold’s non-existent hair.
Mrs. Feingold is an old lady with osteoporosis—she is curved like a shell and has St. Vitus’ Dance, but she still gets her hair colored once a month, and wears clothes that must come from The City. There is no store here that carries such clothes, all silky and bright, much too fancy for an old lady, in my humble opinion. She must have a daughter in New York who dresses her. She smiles at me as I lead her from the styling station to the sink, her eyes bright.
“Barbara,” she says, “I see you have braces on your teeth. You’ll be fending off the men after your teeth are straightened.” Mrs. Feingold knows that I am single.
“I don’t know, Mrs. Feingold. Anyway, there are no men here I would go out with.”
“Oh, now, you’re too picky,” she scolds as I try to get her settled in the chair.
“Put your head back, Mrs. Feingold.”
“I like that,” she tells me, as I spray warm water on her scalp, running my hands through her thin hair. “Do you ever see the Barnes boy anymore?”
I slept with the Barnes boy on and off for six months last year, and now I avoid him like the plague. He’s seen me naked. “No, Mrs. Feingold. He lives in Amsterdam now.”
“Oh, Amsterdam. Have you ever been there? To the real Amsterdam? I have. Mr. Feingold proposed to me there in nineteen forty-eight.” She closes her eyes.
“No, I haven’t, but I’ve read about it. There’s a Hartwicke romance that takes place there. The heroine is a receptionist in a podiatrist’s office who saves up her money and travels to Holland.”
“And what happens to her there?”
“She meets a wealthy Dutch businessman and falls in love.” I know it’s dumb, but I just can’t help myself.
“Naturally,” agrees Mrs. Feingold. “And the Dutch are so germane.”
“Ah—sure,” I say, not knowing what she means.
“Barbara!” barks Vlad.
“Please, dry Mrs. Feingold with a towel and take her to the styling station. You work too slow!”
I pat Mrs. Feingold on the shoulder. “Time to get up.” She does, with difficulty.
“You listen to me, Barbara,” she says sternly. “There will be men, when those teeth are straightened, and you will take one of them.” She says this with finality, to let me know the conversation is over. I sit her down at the styling station and go back to the front desk. I spin idly in my chair for about six minutes and then I put my head down for a brief nap. After a while a violent snore wakes me and I look around to see if anyone heard, but Mrs. Feingold is under the dryer and Vlad is smoking in the parking lot. No one else is around.
At three o’clock I yell goodbye to Vlad and walk five blocks down Elm to South Main. A homeless woman and her child sit, as they always do, on the low step in front of the First National Bank. I can see her a block away. I watch a police officer walk over and nudge her with his foot. She moves around the corner. I stand still and watch some more. After a couple minutes she sidles back to her perch on the low step. Squatting down, she takes out a dingy breast for her baby, rocking like a boat while she feeds it. I fish in my paper bag and offer her the uneaten half of my salami sandwich. She grabs it out of my hand and I half run the rest of the way to Doc Hallowell’s office. “You have a good day now, Hon!” she calls out hoarsely after me, and the baby lets out a strangled shriek.
The first thing that happens while I’m sitting in Doc Hallowell’s chair and he’s fiddling with my wires is that I have to go to the bathroom. I sit for five full minutes without saying anything, because I’m embarrassed, and then, when it feels as though my bladder is going to burst, I raise my right hand and waggle my fingers back and forth. It takes him a moment to notice, and then he steps back and peers into my face.
“Everything okay?” he asks.
“Actually, no,” I tell him. “I have to use the bathroom.”
“That’s a thing with you, isn’t it? Sit in the dental chair and you’ve got to pee. Maybe it’s because the chair is the color of seawater.”
I shrug and smile weakly. “I’ll be right back.”
When I return to the treatment room Doc Hallowell is seated, face in hands, on a round, wheeled stool next to the green chair. He looks as though he might be crying.
Oh, Jeez. Jeezum Crow. I try to cheer him up. “I like the color of the chair. Seawater. Nice.”
He glances up at me. “Seawater, nice? You breathe in that stuff you’re going to last thirty seconds max. It’ll feel like your lungs are on fire.”
“Seawater.” And he drops his face back into his hands.
Oh. My. Jeez-um. I clear my throat. “Uh, Doc Hallowell?”
“Hmm?” He looks up.
“I have to find another girl for square dancing. Bobby Ray expects it.”
“You wouldn’t happen to—”
“Oh. No, I don’t square dance.”
“That’s what I thought,” he says, sighing. Then, suddenly chipper: “Okay, let’s bend those wires!”
By the time I leave the office the pain in my mouth has eased, and I have agreed to accompany Doc Hallowell to the Masonic Temple on Saturday.
I lie in my bed and try to remember square dancing from junior high school, but I can’t remember anything except the way the Plaid Boy’s pimples erupted with a kind of yellow crust on top, like dried lava, and that he looked at my feet, not my face, when he do-si-doed me. “Do-si-do” I remember—the word and not the step—and then, suddenly, “promenade” too, but that’s all. The rest is like white noise: something you can’t define but know is there in the back of your consciousness. And then after a while you don’t even know it’s there anymore, you just go on living your life in spite of it, and for all intents and purposes it has disappeared. Square dancing is like that for me. It was a part of my life once, and then it wasn’t—and if I try real hard I can dredge up buried pieces of it, like “do-si-do,” and the humid odor, like fungus, of the Plaid Boy as he promenaded me listlessly around the square. I get a little hot, in spite of myself, when I think about Saturday.
“I’m not a member,” Doc tells me as he holds open the glass door of the Masonic Temple, “but this is where they have the dancing.” I know the Masonic temple a little, having had a friend in high school whose father belonged, and having accompanied said friend to a Christmas party here in 1988. It was a party for losers, with a polka band so normal people couldn’t dance, but on the upside my friend’s brother backed me into a corner and French kissed me. And there was a gag gift someone got, a pair of boxers with hearts all over them, and the giver said “they’re the boxers with the hearts-on.” That was another upside.
I chuckle at the memory, and Doc says, “What?” which makes me blush.
The square dancing takes place in a large room lined with folding chairs around its perimeter. We seem to be somewhat late, as people are already squared up and chattering madly. Doc takes my coat off me and places it tenderly on a chair. Then he takes off his own jacket, sits down and replaces his street shoes with a pair of sneakers. Uh oh, I think, looking down at my strappy shoes. He notices them too, and says, “You’ll have a little trouble on this floor with those shoes. I should have told you to bring a pair of sneakers.”
“Oh. No big deal.” The truth is, I’ve got on the closest thing I could find to square-dancing clothes, a blue and gold paisley skirt with white eyelet lace sewn along the hem, and a white blouse, and there’s no way I was going to put on a pair of sneakers.
Then he takes my hand and leads me to his square.
“Marty, my man!” says one of the guys, an older man with a large belly and a western-style shirt paired up with a pair of Sansabelt slacks. So his name is Martin. Somehow I hadn’t known that. Then the others weigh in—so glad to have you back, love your shirt, never liked that Linda anyhow. And then they turn their attention toward me.
“What’syer name, Precious?” asks a woman whose face looks like a piece of driftwood, and whose stiff blond hair is in a mad state of confusion, pointing in eight directions at once.
“Barbara Bernard,” I say coolly. What a specimen.
“Welcome, Barbara Bernard!” she says in a cordial way, which I totally don’t deserve.
“Thanks.” I allow the corners of my mouth to rise the slightest bit possible.
“Barbara,” says Doc Hallowell, “is my star patient. She always wears her elastics, don’t you?”
“Barb,” says the tanned blond woman, “tell us. Are Bob’s fingers as clever as I think they are, what with all them elastics and wires and—small work?” She winks indiscreetly at me.
She’s obviously the boxers with the hearts-on type. The best way to deal with a person like that is to ignore her. I turn to Doc Hallowell and say, “You’ll have to show me the steps, as I’ve forgotten exactly how they go.”
“Piece of pie,” he replies, and smiles. He looks good when he smiles, not rugged or outdoorsy or elegant—not like in Olivia Hartwicke, and I must admit she’s spoiled me for real men—but decent and kindly. I start to think that Linda’s made a mistake, and that maybe her error could work to my advantage. I think that for a millisecond and then I remember the B.O. and the general goofiness and the fact that he’s almost fifty. And then I sigh and blow my bangs off my forehead and figure if I can just get through this date I will go home and read The Heiress of Bingsbury in my tub, make the water so hot my legs and stomach go dappled and the humidity makes my hair frizz.
I stand next to Doc Hallowell, thinking how the hell am I going to square dance? The driftwood blond is staring straight at me—I think she’s got her sights on Doc. The last thing I want is to look ridiculous in front of that mummy. As I’m fretting over this, a man with an enormous wattle under his chin—two chins, three chins!—and a stomach to match, sidles up to a microphone and greets the dancers.
“’Lo, Ladies and Gents. Another Saturday night. I see Gladys Pepper’s got her red skirt on tonight,” he says with a wink. “Way to go, Gladys. The Lady in Red.”
Assorted murmurings from the crowd. Gladys, a wizened old woman with red glasses to match the skirt, drops a curtsey. I sneer inwardly and try to appear icy. The frigid temperature in the hall helps—my fingers and toes and the tip of my nose are frozen.
The man with the microphone and the wattle inserts a tape in the boom box. “Right then, squa-are up!” he shouts. And our undisciplined group squares up.
It’s hard to keep track of my feet and listen to the fat man’s commands at the same time. And the rules of square dancing do not come back to me, although I feel again the moderate embarrassment of a girl paired up with a boy even lower on the social ladder than she, as if it were just this morning that the Boy in Plaid walked me through those complicated figures. But Doc Hallowell smiles and offers encouragement: that’s right—do-si-do!. . .Cloverleaf! Peel off there and hook up with Scotty on your way back! You’re doing great! Whew!
After fifteen minutes of this I am no longer cold and ready to call it quits, but the dancing continues for two hours. Then sweaty cups of beer and two bottles of scotch materialize. Before I know it I’ve drunk two beers and a shot or three, and need to sit with my face between my knees. Doc Hallowell, who has drunk two large scotches—neat, he calls them—trips over my right foot but recovers before he hits the floor. I look up and he looks back and our eyes meet and we laugh. Then I rush to the ladies’ room and hang over the toilet for ten minutes. When nothing happens I splash water on my face and go out to find Doc.
It’s ten o’clock by the time we walk out into the cool night. My bangs are stuck to my forehead; the wind on my damp hair and face makes me shiver. Doc smells like booze. I like it. He takes my elbow and guides me across deserted Main Street to the post office.
“It’s closed,” I point out.
“Yes, but we can sit on the steps and talk. Linda and I did this every Saturday after square dancing.”
We sit. The wind picks up my skirt, exposing my thighs, and I slap it down. Doc looks down at his own thighs with a half smile.
I have no idea what to say to him, so I ask if elastics come in different colors.
“Yes, I have almost any color you can imagine. Mostly it’s the kids who want the colors, though.”
“Although,” I say, “I wouldn’t mind fuchsia, to match my bra.”
Then we sit in a drunken silence.
“Barbara?” says Doc Hallowell after a while.
“There’s something I want to tell you,” he says. But he doesn’t.
“Go ahead,” I urge him.
“It’s a dark thing.”
“Because you’re drunk?”
“It’s dark any which way.”
“What is it?”
“It’s that— Shoot. I mean, you might change orthodontists after this.”
“You’re the only orthodontist in town.”
“Oh, right. Well, here it is. I once shot a man. I killed him.”
I am shocked. And also aroused. “Why did you do that?”
“It was an accident, more or less.”
“Did you go to jail?”
“No. Manslaughter, suspended sentence. It was a hunting accident. They took away my hunting license.”
“You’re a hunter?” I ask. Unbelievable. Isn’t there an Olivia Hartwicke novel about a hot cowboy who accidentally shoots some guy and gets charged with manslaughter, until his lover (the sheriff’s daughter) gives him a glowing character reference and the judge voids the conviction? Or did I dream that?
“No,” he says, his voice grainy. “I’m not really a hunter. Not a hunter per se. It was my first time. I got the license because I needed something to do on weekends.” He stares at his splayed fingers. “Wait, what was I saying?”
“You got your hunting license.”
“Yes. That was before I started square dancing. I hadn’t gotten the hang of the rifle yet and it went off when I thought it was locked. I told the guy it was locked, and he made a joke about walking into my line of fire. Then I shot him.” He snorts, and then the laughter turns to sobs. Jeezum Crow, I mutter, and he looks up at me wetly.
“What did you say?”
I dig a crumpled Kleenex out of my purse and offer it to him. “I wasn’t allowed to say Jesus Christ when I was a kid. I’d get whacked. So I made up Jeezum Crow. It kind of stuck.”
He starts to cry again.
“Hey,” I say. “If you want, I can get you twenty percent off a hair cut at Vlad’s Cut N Curl.” I know it’s lame but it’s the best I can do.
“Thank you, Barbara,” he says, wiping his eyes on his sleeve. “You’re a kind soul.” Then he jumps up, suddenly energized. “I almost forgot. Bobby Ray! Come on, we still have time!” And he pulls me to my feet.
Bobby Ray lives in the middle of nowhere. Doc mostly drives on the right, except around snaky curves, where he drifts a bit. I take this philosophically.
I ask where we are headed, and he tells me Salbury. “Salivary?” I ask, frowning, and he replies, “No, like Salisbury, without the I and the S.” We drive past open fields and trailers, dinky houses with dogs staked out front, cows and horses. By the time we pull up to Bobby Ray’s house, it is ten to eleven and the moon has gone under a cloud. The darkness is heavy.
Instead of knocking on the front door, Doc Hallowell goes round to the back, takes out a key and turns it in the lock. The house is completely dark, and he quickly flips a light switch next to the door.
“Is no one home?” I ask, and he says, “Jenny’s home.”
“Who is Jenny? His wife?”
As far as I can tell the house is empty. There is no sign of Bobby Ray or Jenny. Doc Hallowell goes about the house, turning on lights. I can see now the trophies—deer and moose and pheasants, mounted on the walls. A beaver sits expectantly on its tail on a table by the fireplace.
“I don’t like dead animals.”
“They died of old age,” he says with a short laugh, and I laugh too, but inside I think, shit.
“Is he a hunter, then?”
“Was,” he says ruefully, “He had to give it up.” He motions toward the couch and I sit down, smoothing my skirt beneath my legs.
“Jenny will be out as soon as she hears the can opener,” he tells me, and then I know that Jenny is a cat. Sure enough, as soon as the electric can opener hums in the kitchen, a black cat emerges from the dark hallway and snakes around his legs. She looks a little like Figlet, only Figlet is fatter.
Doc Hallowell makes kissing noises and reaches down to scratch her head.
“You’re looking better, Jen,” he purrs. “Not so skinny.” She eats the cat food in big gulps, and when she has finished he picks her up and holds her slung over his shoulder like a baby. I can see her claws kneading the back of his shoulder, the way Meat Foon Foon kneads my stomach in bed.
“Sad girl,” says Doc Hallowell, and, “Poor girl.”
“Where is Bobby Ray?”I ask after a while, but Doc doesn’t answer.
“Will he be mad that we came right in?” I persist.
“No,” says Doc. He looks at his watch. “Give me twenty minutes, just for Jen’s sake, and then I’ll take you home.”
I am quite uneasy. The recesses of this house are dark. And it’s filled with bad karma, what with all the dead animals. I wonder what Jenny thinks of living here with them, poor thing.
Where the hell is Bobby Ray? I snap my fingers impatiently. I remember Doc Hallowell telling me about visiting Bobby Ray after square dancing with Linda. Maybe Bobby Ray is a strategy for luring women into this house. That might be okay—I’m starting to find him attractive. For a dentist. I mull this over, and after a few moments he pushes Jenny off his lap and comes to me, sits next to me on the couch.
“Hi,” I say, and my heartbeat quickens.
“Hi,” he echoes softly, and after a moment of idleness his head drops onto his chest. I think about what to do, and decide an elbow to the side would not be ill timed. I elbow him and he snorts awake. Then he leans over and kisses me. It’s a sad, boozy kiss, and after I’m over my surprise I kiss him back. We’re stone still for a moment, and then he says, “Bobby Ray would have liked you. Jenny was his cat, you know.”
I nod and look around the room. Deer, moose, pheasant, beaver.
“Was it an accident, really?” I murmur.
He doesn’t say, just leans in for another kiss.