Crocodile Dentist

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.

Household Words 10

The night at the end of Christmas is always hoarse and muffled.  My mother fell asleep during “Notting Hill,” which was one of her gifts.  Because Monique was there, the overflowing trash got immediately evicted.  We still had lights, wreaths, and a poinsettia on the mantle, but the shiny paper and ribbons were out.  Next to the Christmas tree, I sat watching the end of a “Cosby Show” rerun.  That was fine, but “Friends” followed, so I turned off the TV.  With that monster asleep, the Christmas tree’s lights reflected in the window burst back at me.  I reached over to unplug them.  Now I could turn to the real view: the unlit presence of the frozen lake.  Only four lights peered from the other shore.

I knew the entrance to the attic was in the garage, which meant I should be out of my parents’ hearing.  In the unheated garage, my breath showed.  I yanked on a dangling rope, and a ladder flopped down.

Up there, I found lots of cardboard boxes, some Rubbermaid containers, a few giant yellow garbage bags, a broken chair, an abandoned coffee table with a glass top, a lamp with its neck snapped.  I looked through the labeled boxes: Summer, Summer Clothes, Lake, Jerry Kindergarten, Jerry 1st, Misc, Misc, David K-3.  I pulled David K-3 out from the bottom of a pile and opened its flaps.

A stack of worksheets, paintings, and Mother’s Day cards.  I had successfully matched various animals to their respective homes: bird to nest, frog to lillypad, dog to doghouse.  This earned me a sticker of gold and yellow stars.  I had practiced an enormous flock of Ds, which was good, since I’d need both an upper- and a lower-case one for my name.

But I couldn’t feel my fingertips, suddenly. They were fat and dumb.  Maybe I’d find a box marked “Kids’ Books” tomorrow.  Where else would the Pinnochio book be?  It was mine.

Household Words 9

The emergency room wasn’t the panicky place I expected—there were no red buttons, wailing alerts, or breathing machines huffing. There was just my mother on a bedlike contraption, with a blue bag on her elevated knee.  A loose curtain on metal hooks was drawn to separate her from everyone, though the next exam space was empty.

“Hey guys,” she smiled.  My dad had gone back there first, alone, and now we were allowed to join them.  She kissed us on our foreheads, Jerry’s under a Braves cap, and mine edged by the worst haircut of my life.  We let her.  We didn’t see Louie before he went up to surgery.  His spleen had to come out, and probably they didn’t want to scare us.

My dad kept his hand on my mom’s arm as we tried to talk to each other.  He told her about the spaghetti.  He told her he had turned the burner off.  She said it was enough excitement for one day, without a house fire.  Jerry asked when Louie would be done, and they said they didn’t know, maybe a couple of hours.  He played with the flap on the top of the hospital water pitcher.  Louie was allowed to take his pitcher home, and my mom put it in our kitchen cabinet and filled it with her tea bags.

I thought about Louie’s Star Wars pajamas, long-sleeved, cotton, the ones that had been mine.  He put them on after his bath.  They had a red Jell-O stain on the left sleeve that was my fault, and a spot of cocoa that was Louie’s, on the white ribbed sleeve cuff.  I thought of the Bon Jovi tape he had stolen from me, the one I bought from a cardboard box in our neighbor’s garage sale.  I knew he had taken it, and I’d held him down and hit him until he admitted where it was.  He didn’t bleed, but I bruised him.

I studied all the unused hospital gadgets while my parents kept talking.  “He just came out of nowhere,” my mother repeated, a little defensively, a little guiltily.

There was a tall metal rod on rollers, for IVs, I guessed.  A cabinet with some charts heavily decorated in pharmaceutical ads, and a cart of some sort, full of plastic bag packages– probably the souls of dead babies, or broken spleens.  I wondered if there were teeth and amputated fingers in the “Biohazard” bin, or just syringes contaminated with AIDS.  What does Louie look like inside?  Is it easy to fix him?

“We’ll just wait.  It’s pretty routine, really,” my dad said.  “They do ten of these a week.”

Household Words 8

I was setting another table, in another dining room, when I heard my father on the phone with the hospital.

I had been playing Risk with Jerry, who always got to be red, Jerry,who always won.  We had played ten times in the last week.  The game had been a Christmas present, but overlooked in favor of Atari tennis.  It wasn’t until February that we rediscovered it.  Jerry was studying the board, which was set on the thin dust-blue carpet of his bedroom.  I was studying Jerry.

“David! It’s your night to set the table!”  my dad yelled from the kitchen.

“It’s not!  It’s Louie’s night!”

“Yeah, well, Louie’s not here!”

“It’s not my night!”

Jerry moved a few red pieces from Europe to Asia, his dirty fingernails looking offensive next to the brilliant red of the new plastic x’s.

“David, get down here!”  And next he was going to say, “Damnit, David, now!”

I tumbled down the stairs, toward the sizzling of the skillet.  He was browning ground beef to make meat sauce.

“I don’t want to hear your whining about this.”

I didn’t say anything, just grabbed five plates from the cabinet and threw them in front of each chair.


Our plates were the Corelle ones with the earwax-colored flowers ringed around.  They would outlive us all.  Our glasses would, too: they were plastic, with blue stripes.

“Done!” I said.

“Yeah, silverware?”

The phone rang.  He covered the pan and reached to answer it.

Although I was just as sloppy with the silverware, dumping a fork and knife on every plate, my dad’s reaction surprised me.  He suddenly stood up straighter, put down his potholder, and assumed a tone of voice I didn’t even recognize.  “Yes, this is he.  Okay, how are they?”

I held the remaining silverware.

“And he’s—“

I stood still, and a car drove down our street, headlights, taillights.

“I’ll be right there.”  He hung up.  “Your mom and Louie are at the hospital,” he said.  “They’re okay.”  He turned off the burner on the stove.  He went upstairs to tell Jerry.  I thought, my dad is a grown-up man.  This is what men do.  The next morning, he dumped the cold ground beef down the garbage disposal.