my father's fear

by M. F. Sullivan

my father has a phobia of dentists.

he also once felt

that if the house ran out of toilet paper

he would lose his job.

growing up, we never ran out of toilet paper,

and i had not been to the dentist

since the age of six

when the toothache began again,

that biannual occurrence,

one side or the other.

the wisdom teeth.

i had some money,

made the appointment,

and eight days later,

art drove me to the dentist.

it was a generic place

a factory dentist,

the sort of place with doctors they rotated

and oral surgeons who came by

once a fortnight.

the first doctor

a tiny asian in a white coat

charged eighty-five dollars to tell me

i needed a cleaning.

sure, after the wisdom teeth.

then after that he'd be able to do proper measurements.

fine. the wisdom teeth?

and they might need to do a deeper cleaning, too.

absolutely. but these wisdom teeth...

we waited twenty minutes,

art with his hand on my ankle,

until a squat latino in black scrubs

swarthed into the room

to tut at my x-rays.

'you should pull all four,' he lisped,

'or you'll have to go through this again.'

but we couldn't afford four,

so we did two,

and after waiting (alone, now)

for ten more minutes

in they came.

'you'll feel a pinch,' he sang

as i saw the glint of the syringe in his hand

and squeezed shut my eyes.

the pain burst through my jaw,

remained an ache,

even as the medication numbed me.

i felt like a rabid dog

being tranquilized,

two men holding me down to give

one, two, three, four shots.

the right side was fine

but i thought when they were gone

that they might not have done

as fine a job with the left.

twenty more minutes.

the clock was loud.

next door he tortured a small child

the same way he had tortured me.

behind me sat the instruments,

silver pliers, platinum needles,

of which, the assistant assured me,

the dentist would use maybe four or five.

i lay back

and thought that i had written scenes

where men killed each other with such devices.

back wafted the surgeon, with another nurse

and he said, 'you'll feel a push

but nothing will hurt.

raise your hand if i'm hurting you'

on the right side, nothing did.

but then the left side

and the squeal of the drill brought soft stinging,

until he made his mistake.

the drill slipped,

banged against my gum,

bounced off of the molar next door.

i squealed.

'am i hurting you?'

i shouted from behind a swollen tongue

and whirring drill

and jaw held open

and breaths taken through nose, not mouth.

'raise your hand if i'm hurting you.'

i raised my hand,

shook it.

the surgeon hummed,


turned away,

returned back.

i felt him crack the tooth apart

though without pain now,

and opened my eyes once to see

masked faces inches from mine

and silver instruments,


extending from my mouth.

they did not let me keep the teeth.

health hazard.

but they did give me a prescription for vicodin,

and antibiotics,

and instructions to avoid smoking.

art helped me into the car

and took us straightaway to the pharmacy,

because the pain on the left side was blinding.

my father is a man

who is wrong about many things.

but maybe when it comes to dentists

the man has a point.