Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Yesterday Mrs. Bernadette came in for a cleaning. She won’t let me call her by her last name — Mrs. Walsingham — and I can’t bring myself to call a woman old enough to be my mother by just her first name, so it’s “Mrs. Bernadette.” She’s seventy-two and has most of her front teeth left and only partial rear dentures. I’ve been cleaning her teeth for ten years.
Ninety-nine percent of dental hygienists are women. If, like me, you’re a man in the teeth profession, you’re supposed to be a dentist. But I figured out years ago that I didn’t want to work that hard, and I could keep flexible hours and make a good living cleaning teeth. At first I enjoyed being surrounded by women at work, but later I found they didn’t respect me, because I wasn’t a dentist. Which is ridiculous. Why would they need me to be anything better than they are? I just don’t understand women, especially both my ex-wives, but that’s another story, or two. And I don’t get along with most dentists, because they’re having affairs with the cute hygienists.
Mrs. Bernadette’s husband died when she was sixty-five, and she hasn’t remarried. He was an English painter who came to visit Taos, New Mexico, in the sixties and never left, except to bring some of his things back from England. She’s from a Mexican family, and she told me the hardest thing she ever did was give up her maiden name, Archuleta. It still makes her think of the smell of sagebrush. She took her husband’s name because she wanted her children to have the same name as she did, but then she and her husband couldn’t have children. She thought about going back to her maiden name when her husband died, but that would have been too much trouble. She is romantic and passionate about life, and I like this in a patient, as it gives us something to talk about — although a dental hygienist has to be tactful when carrying on a conversation, because the patient’s mouth is crammed with fingers and instruments. There’s an art to it. You can’t be in a hurry, and you have to ask a lot of yes-or-no questions.
One peculiar thing about Mrs. Bernadette is that she demands nitrous oxide even for a cleaning. “Laughing gas,” she calls it, because that’s what everybody used to call it. As a rule dentists avoid it these days because prolonged exposure (for the dentist, not the patient) can have hazardous side effects. But Mrs. Bernadette is seventy-two, and I’m a pushover. Besides, I don’t give her enough to knock her out — just enough to lighten her mood.
Once, Mrs. Bernadette described the effect to me: “Have you ever seen a crow in flight, and you saw its feet pulled up under it as it rowed itself to wherever it was going? When I get the laughing gas, I feel like those helpless feet being carried along underneath that beautiful bird. It’s nice to let something else take over for a while. The world is too much with us.”
After that poetic explanation, who was I to deny her? Anyway, on Tuesdays the dentist works in Santa Fe, and I have the clinic to myself, except for the receptionist.
I should mention that Mrs. Bernadette is wise to the ways of laughing gas. When we administer nitrous oxide to a patient, at the end of the procedure we switch the gas over to oxygen to clear the patient’s head. Mrs. Bernadette somehow knows when I do this, because she’ll hold her breath until I take the mask off, so she can maintain the high a little longer. Once, I saw her stagger merrily down the hallway to the receptionist’s desk. Since then I keep her in the chair and talk to her till I see the clarity come back in her eyes. I don’t want any broken hips on my conscience. And she’s a good talker, so we always have a nice chat before she goes.
Yesterday Mrs. Bernadette was the last patient of the afternoon. As she was coming around from the nitrous, I told her about my house and my plans for early retirement. I’m fifty and trying to be done with the teeth business in the next five years. She’s always interested in my latest home-improvement projects, and I’m always happy to talk to her about them. Lately I’ve been building an outhouse on my property, because I’m planning to rent my main house to tourists during the summer while I stay in a little cabin I hammered together down by the river, sheltered by the cottonwoods. Right now I go back there to practice my keyboard. I’m in a band, and we play at parties and weddings, mostly folk and bluegrass standards. I figure I can live in the cabin for a week at a time, but it doesn’t have running water yet, so I’m building this outhouse.
I told Mrs. Bernadette how, while I was gathering up the scrap wood to build the outhouse door, I’d had an idea: one of my friends in the band had joked with me that I play the keyboard “like crap,” so I thought it would be funny to make the door on my outhouse look like a keyboard. I was even going to paint it black and white. Mrs. Bernadette said she wanted to see the outhouse when it was done. She also said she’d love to hear me play the piano, even if I did play like crap.
“Yeah, you should come out to my place sometime,” I said. “But it’s a wreck right now. You know, the life of a bachelor.”
“Am I your last patient of the day?” Mrs. Bernadette asked.
“Indeed you are,” I said.
“I have an idea,” she said. “Why don’t you come over to my house this afternoon for a drink. We can sit by the river and talk. I like talking to you. You cheer me up.”
“You don’t seem like you need cheering up,” I said. “You’re always chipper.”
“It’s not a mile from here. You could follow me. Or maybe you’re busy? I don’t want to keep you from your outhouse.”
We both laughed at that.
“You know,” I said, “I think I deserve a drink right about now.” I helped her out of the chair. “Sure, I’ll come over.”
After she’d taken care of her bill, I turned off the lights and set the security alarm, and we walked out together behind the receptionist, who rolled her eyes at me as if to say, Good luck. It made me mad, but I just smiled.
I got in my car and followed Mrs. Bernadette to her house. She seemed excited to have a visitor, and I was pleased to be doing something spontaneous. Her house was on a hill overlooking a dozen acres along the Red River just south of town. There were two Adirondack chairs by the water, and I pictured Mrs. Bernadette and her husband sitting there in the evenings — only now Mrs. Bernadette must have been going down there alone to watch the river pass by. I was sad for her, but Mrs. Bernadette seemed happy. I thought I should ask her the secret to her happiness. Older people like when you ask those kinds of questions, because it gives them the sense that you respect them and think they are wise. And I do respect old people. Though, if I think about it, I’m getting old myself, and I can’t imagine anyone thinking I’m wise.
“Vodka tonic?” Mrs. Bernadette asked.
“Indeed,” I said, looking out the kitchen window. “What a gorgeous property. Your husband painted landscapes, didn’t he?” This was small talk. I knew he did.
“Yes,” she said. “Go have a look in the living room. Most of those are his.”
I went into the living room and stood before each one. The paintings were the size of casserole pans, out of sync with the latest New Mexico art trend, in which the artwork had to cover half a wall. The rivers, cliffs, and mesas were all familiar, and the colors were almost impossible but still believable. Shadows were his strength.
A monstrous piano took up a quarter of the living room. It was a Chickering square grand, an elaborate antique you don’t see very often. Handing me my vodka tonic, Mrs. Bernadette said the neighbors had given it to her when they’d moved to Minnesota ten years ago.
“Have a seat,” she said. “Maybe we’ll go down to the river later.”
“The world is too much with us,” I said, offering a toast.
She raised her glass. “Amen.”
“Your husband was a fine painter,” I said.
“Yes, he was,” she said. “It was a living.”
“A living,” I repeated, nodding my head, but then I was sorry I’d said it.
“Tell me about your daughter these days,” she said.
“Ella’s twelve now. She’s a good girl, but I keep thinking she’s going to run away any day for no good reason. Her mother’s got her during the week. I keep her on the weekends. She plays the drums. Sometimes we jam together in the practice room. We make a racket.”
Mrs. Bernadette smiled.
“I don’t really think Ella will run away,” I continued. “It’s just something I say. The divorce puts a strain on everything. She’s got good friends and bad friends. I try to push her toward the good ones. I didn’t pressure her to play music. She asked me for the drums.”
“I’ll bet you’re a wonderful father,” Mrs. Bernadette said.
“You need to tell my daughter that.”
“You bring her over,” she said. “And we’ll all talk about how great you are.”
“Seriously,” I said, “she thinks I want to pry into everything. And I’m pretty easygoing, as fathers go — at least, the ones I know. If I don’t put my foot down now and then, she’ll be pregnant by fourteen.”
“You think so?” asked Mrs. Bernadette.
“It happens to kids around here. It’s not just on 60 Minutes.”
“Well, you’ve got to listen to her. Keep listening,” Mrs. Bernadette said. She jiggled the ice in her glass.
“I listen. I do. But she doesn’t. Not much. She pays more attention when I’m jamming with the band. She treats me decent then, but other times it’s like she thinks it’s my job to wreck her life.”
“I don’t know if I ever told you, but I couldn’t have children,” Mrs. Bernadette said. She looked out the window to the river.
“I remember you saying that.”
“I wanted a daughter, but I would have been happy with a boy.”
“It’s a chore,” I said, “raising a child. But I wouldn’t trade my girl for anything.”
“I garden to pass the time,” Mrs. Bernadette said. “I take care of some fruit trees, and I fight the weeds on behalf of the vegetables. That’s no substitute for having a family, though. Does your daughter play with your band?”
“She’s near good enough, but no, we have a drummer. She does hang out at our practices.”
“Do you sing?” she asked. “For your band, I mean?”
“No, we have a lead singer, but I sing backup now and then.”
“Will you sing me a song?” she asked. “The piano is out of tune, but not so bad that you couldn’t play it. Please?”
I couldn’t remember the last time anyone had asked me to sing. I have a ragged voice, but it was just Mrs. Bernadette, so what did I care? I told her I’d sing one song, just one. She sat forward in anticipation as I situated myself at the piano bench. I tested out a few chords, then played a tune I’d written called “Two Birds.” It’s only a lullaby for kids, but she seemed to enjoy it and even clapped at the end.
“Do it again?” she asked.
“I said only one.”
“But it’s the same one,” she said.
“OK, but this is it for singing.”
“I’m just going to sit back and relax for a minute,” she said, and she set her drink down on the floor beside her chair. “Going to the dentist wears me out.” She laughed at her little joke and tilted her head back into the cushion. “Go ahead now, but this time lentamente.”
I sang the song twice more, leaning my head back and closing my eyes. After I was done I played some exercises and parts of tunes, just to keep a quiet mood. When I looked up, I saw I’d sung Mrs. Bernadette to sleep.
I sat there for a while, finishing my drink and thinking about how strange life is. I was a man who was building an outhouse that looked like a piano, and in the afternoons I sang old women to sleep after drugging them with nitrous oxide and vodka tonics. I figured I had two options: wake Mrs. Bernadette and tell her I had to go, or just let myself out. I got up and reached to shake her shoulder, but then I saw she had the slightest smile on her lips, and I stopped.
Her face was the face of God.
Her skin was tan and wrinkled. Her closed eyes seemed a little wet at the corners, and her thick white hair was pulled back from her forehead by two black combs on either side. In the sun’s last light coming through the old, violet-tinted windows, she looked like a New Mexico landscape. She had been a beauty in her day, I was sure of it, and I wondered if her husband had ever painted her. If only he could see the landscape of her face now, I thought. I wanted to kiss her on the cheek, to comfort her. But how do you comfort God?
I’m not a religious man, but this was the third time in my life I’d seen God’s face. The first time was the birth of my daughter. My wife and I hadn’t found out if we were having a boy or a girl. I didn’t care either way. “Ten fingers and ten toes,” as they say, and in truth I wouldn’t have cared if there were eleven. When Ella was finally out, I said, “It’s a girl!” and we cried. The doctor wiped her off and handed her to me, and I looked into my daughter’s face and saw my own. And I saw myself seeing this reflection of me, loving and being loved, and that’s when I realized God sees himself — or herself — in us this way. I realized my own face was some infant version of God’s. I could almost see those eyes forgiving everything I’d done and might do.
The second time I saw God was in Kenya. My youngest brother is a preacher and runs a missionary group that brings doctors and nurses and builders to Africa to set up clinics. He asked me to go, and I had a vacation coming up, so I agreed to help with the building and do some dental exams — but I wasn’t going to attend church. He said that was fine. A few of the missionaries witnessed to me while I was in Africa, but I told them I wasn’t a religious man, and they respected that. After the mission team had returned to the U.S., my brother and I stayed on an extra three days, because I wanted to see some lions.
The game park was in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro, but the day was overcast when we arrived, and though we could see where the mountain rose off that expansive plain, we couldn’t see the top. We also didn’t see any lions.
That first night, we set up camp inside an electric fence, where a few other safari groups had already established themselves. I woke around three in the morning needing to take a leak, so I walked about twenty yards from the tents. I felt as if something was watching me. Knowing there were lions about, I broke into a sweat and tried not to make any sudden moves. The clouds had lifted, and the stars were out: the thick paste of the Milky Way stretching overhead and a quarter moon descending in the west. I looked around but didn’t see any movement in the bush.
And then I noticed the mountain. There were stars everywhere except for where the mountain stood. It was funny, because I could tell where it was only because of the absence of stars. I guess that’s the way I feel about God, or whatever we mean by God. I could feel my sweat cooling, and I said to myself, OK, God, there you are.
Before I turned to leave Mrs. Bernadette, I asked her out loud to bless me. I wasn’t really asking her. I was asking God, who seemed to be coming to me through this sleeping old woman. “Bless me,” I said. And I expected her to wake with a sudden snort. But she kept on sleeping there, enthroned in her chair. The dust motes hung in the air, turning as the world turns. I felt at peace about my failed marriages, and a great depression lifted like a cloud. I felt forgiveness.
I wanted to sustain this feeling. Remembering what Mrs. Bernadette had said about “a crow in flight,” I drove to the dental clinic and let myself in. You may think this is pathetic, but bear with me; I’ve done this only once, and I don’t intend to do it again. There were security lights, so I didn’t have to turn any overheads on. I sat down in the examining chair and put the nitrous mask over my face, adjusting the flow to less than it would take to make a patient comfortable. I didn’t want to overdo it. I just wanted to let something else take over for a while.
I sat there thinking, I’m a good father. I knew I’d never be a great piano player, though I wished I could write one really good song, a song good enough to record, a song that my daughter would be proud of. One day, maybe when she was in high school, she’d put the song on and press PLAY and close her eyes and let the dark wings of the melody carry her.
© William Carter