When I was younger, I wanted more than anything to pull a light down and close to a crocodile. To ask him politely to open his mouth. To have him comply. To grasp my little mirror and hook and start pressing and scraping , ivory surface, white surface, bits of maybe-brown that I would have to tell the crocodile about in the tenderest terms. Looking and inspecting to give a crocodile the help he needs. That was my dream.
Here’s the problem: crocodiles don’t need dentists. There are these little birds who fly into their mouths to do their teeth cleaning, even yank a tooth out when a tooth was truly troubled. My mom was reading me a pop-up book when I learned this. I pulled a tab on the edge of the page, and the bird flew backwards out and the crocodile opened his mouth wide. His muddy green hide floated in a river in the jungles of deepest Africa, and he opened to the bird that was coming. I shoved the tab back in, and the bird flew forward, the crocodile closed his mouth around the bird. Not, of course, that the bird was in any danger. He was doing his job. No one could be more suited. Not even I. “Mom,” I said. “Mom, my life is over.”
“What?” she said.
“Nothing,” I said.
I wasn’t thrilled about human teeth and human dentistry, but what was left to me? Where else could I go, once the promised land of crocodile dentistry closed to me? Like Moses, all I could do was overlook its abundance, while I tried to accept the desert. I memorized my way through Human Tooth Anatomy and Tools of the Dental World and Fillings 101 and 102. I got an A in Covert Injection Administration, an A in Fluoride Swishing Direction, and an A plus in Dumbing Down Wisdom Teeth. Sure. A’s. But my heart wasn’t in it.
I opened my own practice on the corner of Disappointment Avenue and Consolation Street. From the first day, it was full of nervous kids and cranky adults—humans all, with their fuzzy, slick human skin, and their giant human eyes, their tiny human teeth. Whatever, I thought, day after worthless day. Dreams must die. They must die.
Then one day, a man in a khaki jacket and khaki pants appeared in the doorway of my examining room. I was holding a syringe full of novocaine, and my assistant was holding a spit-suckage tool which gurgled mournfully.
“Pardon me,” the man said. “But I have great need of a dentist!”
“I am indeed a dentist,” I said, “however, you can see that my hands are in use. Man, what causes you to interrupt at such a time?”
“Please do pardon me, but I bring news of great emergency, and there are so few who might be called to such a task.” He looked down at his muddy boots. “I am not sure if you might be the dentist that I need. I need not merely a dentist…” he took a deep breath. “I need a crocodile dentist.”
My mouth of wimpy human teeth fell open. “Sir! That is I!” I dropped my syringe to the floor and followed the man.
The man in khaki led me to the zoo. We followed the windy paths until I could see the reptile house in the distance. Of course, I had spent many hours there, gazing through the glass at the three dumb faces of the zoo’s three beautiful crocodiles. They snarled without snarling, and they stared without staring.
The man had a key to the back door, and he held the door for me. “It is our baby,” he said. “The bird, she cannot fit into the mouth of this tiny one, and his teeth are troubled.”
And then I saw the baby, a crocodile child only a foot long, so newly hatched that his skin was still developing bumps and toughness.
“Can you do it?” the man asked.
“I can,” I said. I touched the baby just above his eyes. His gaze held a mournful suffering.
“He bit into a Tootsie Pop,” the man said, “and it was too soon. Too soon.”
I fluttered my hand just far enough from the baby’s mouth that he could see it. He understood. He opened his mouth, as he would for a bird. His little tongue flopped around nervously.
“My mirror, and my hook, please,” I told the man.
My fingers attuned to the tiny teeth of humans, I easily located the cracked tooth of the baby crocodile. Instead of a razor edge, it was a comb of bumpy stickers.
“My child, do we need anesthesia?” I asked the baby.
The crocodile shook his head. No. Proceed, his eyes told me.
“The pliers, my good man,” I said.
I secured my pliers, and, taking one step forward, I pulled once, hard. Out it popped.
From that moment on, I was a crocodile dentist much in demand. I closed my human practice and began traveling the world to meet the dental needs of baby crocodiles. My home, if I have one, is a modest place next to the Nile. Could anyone have known how true my dream would become? Could anyone argue that the dreams of your heart are impossible? Remember, from my story, that crocodiles come in all sizes.