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Thank you, Dr. Melkonian

Dentist provided more than one kind of bridge

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I swear, I thought it was normal to have dreams about your teeth falling out. I thought those kinds of dreams were a universal norm, like the ones in which you're naked on the college campus with nothing but a potholder to hide your naughty bits. "You mean you don't have the missing-teeth dreams?" I asked Daniel.

"It's just you," he said. "You're probably traumatized from the time Grant found the jar of teeth at the crack house."

Hell, yes, I'm traumatized by the time Grant found the jar of teeth at the crack house. Who wouldn't be? He just drove up one day and laughed. "Look what I found at the crack house," he said, and reached in the backseat of his truck. He thrust a crusty jar near my face and shook it. Inside were 30 or so nicotine-tainted human teeth, their roots winding upward like calcified worms.

"Jesus God, get that out of my face!" I screamed, but he shook it like a little demonic musical instrument and laughed. He had paid $10,000 for the crack house, and at the time he was in the process of renovating it into a real home, and he had found the teeth in a mirrored medicine cabinet in the bathroom. I remember that bathroom from before he started the restoration. I'm so glad it wasn't me who found the teeth, I would have shot out of there like a rocket, not even bothering with doorways, just ripping up walls if I had to in order to get out. So thank God it wasn't me who found the teeth.

Because Daniel's right, I'm hinky about teeth, especially my own. My mother had a habit of leaving us bowls of Halloween candy for breakfast before she left for work in the morning, so by the time I was 7 I had a baby molar rotting right out of my head. Our family dentist at that time was a nasty ape who always stabbed me in the gums with a needle big enough for cavemen to kill bison, then he used the drill like he was perfecting a Cambodian torture technique. He would literally plant his knee on my chest to secure me to the dental chair. I'm not kidding.

It wasn't until I was a teenager and went to another dentist that I realized you weren't supposed to feel the drill during a dental visit, let alone your dentist's knee on your sternum. That's what the needle is for, to administer Novocaine, not to simply punch holes in your patient's head for sick pleasure. By then I had a hundred cavities, and when my mother heard the news, she called the new dentist, Dr. Melkonian, and told him he'd have to hire me so I could pay off my own damn dental bill.

So he did. He made me the assistant to his receptionist, who was a kind, old woman with big earlobes covered in soft whiskers. The light from the setting sun in the office window behind her would sometimes illuminate her lobe fuzz and make it look like wispy smoke was coming from her ears. She was the nicest woman I'd ever met, and she used to tell me she could see the goodness in me even though they had to ask me to stop wearing halter-tops to the office. I worked there every day after school for almost two years. It's where I learned to type, and I became so deft at typing Dr. Melkonian's name that I used to do it over and over so I would look busy. It's an unusual name and you almost have to be a concert pianist to punch it out on the keys. Dr. Melkonian. Dr. Melkonian. Dr. Melkonian.

The typing practice served well as a bridge to get me through my shift so I could get on with the mess of my life. Because during that time my family fell apart like a piece of stale coffee cake. This was in Torrance, Calif., and my mother had moved out of the apartment where we lived and then forced my father to leave before she would move back. Only she didn't move back right away. She'd become too attached to the condo she was renting in the Land of Swinging Separated People to move in the middle of her lease. So the result of this was that my little sister and I actually lived alone for a few months. We were 14 and 16, respectively, and I immediately began dating a very handsome heroin addict whose parents were wealthy psychiatrists. But luckily I had that fear of needles, and luckily every day after school -- or after I cut school -- I had my job at Dr. Melkonian's office, where I hit the typewriter. Dr. Melkonian. Dr. Melkonian. Dr. Melkonian.

It's hard to miss, that name, so when I saw it in the paper yesterday, it caught my eye. It was in the obituary section. This couldn't be my Dr. Melkonian from Torrance, I thought. But I read on. He'd come from Torrance about two decades ago to teach at Emory. He'd died suddenly in his sleep having lived for so long not 10 miles away from me, and probably not even knowing how he had been the bridge for me so long ago and half a hemisphere away. He was the bridge that kept me from falling into a moat of lost hope that threatened my future. I wish I had thought to thank him for giving me a place to go, a place with a sweet old receptionist under a fuzzy, sunlit halo and a kind dentist who paid me for doing little more than typing his name.

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