SOME KIND OF RECORD
For several days Clyde explored the hole in the crown of a lower molar with the tip of his tongue, and one day when he and his mother were spending the night with his uncle Willard and aunt Ida Hamwit in Norwock his jaw became sore and began to swell. The six year old knew his mother was watching him as he lingered in the doorway of the living room.
“Clyde, have you had another accident?”
This was Ellen Stuart’s polite and euphemistic way of asking if the young master had daubed his pants. She wasn’t going to let her careless son forget the Christmas program at school where he had ruined the sheepskin chaps of her cowboy creation with a number two.
He shook his head as another burst of pain shattered up and down his jaw.
“The boy needs a laxative,” diagnosed his uncle Willard from behind a newspaper. “I don’t know why the Hamwit family is plagued by that condition.”
The pain in his jaw and the threat of his uncle’s favorite laxative¾ Epsom Salts¾ purged Clyde into revealing his desperation. It was a relief to let his sobs loose, finally, as his mother, uncle and aunt studied the decayed tooth with a flashlight and felt the swelling along his cheek and neck.
“I don’t like this at all, Willard,” said his mother.
“He’s got the Hamwit mouth,” marveled the uncle. “Just like Uncle Frank! We must rub some checkerberry on the gums, and keep a cold water bottle on his cheek.”
“Will it stop aching?“ worried Clyde.
“I’m sure your uncle Willard’s checkerberry will help numb the pain,” his mother assured him, “and the cold water bottle should take away some of the swelling.”
“That was Great-granny Paine’s remedy,” said Willard proudly. “Mother’s mother who lived to be ninety-two.”
Ida Hamwit, who was unimpressed with her husband’s curative suggestions, now offered the miracle of her faith. She had attended a few meetings and considered herself a practising Christian Scientist. “If you tell yourself it doesn’t hurt, it won’t,” she told the nephew. “Just say these magic words over and over, ‘It doesn’t hurt anymore…it doesn’t hurt anymore,’ and in the morning when you wake up, say to yourself, ‘It’s better…it’s much better…’ ”
“Teeth like that should be brushed religiously with salt and baking soda,” Willard Hamwit interrupted, dismissing his wife’s contribution with a supercilious smile. “The checkerberry and cold compress will give temporary relief,” he told Ellen while prying open Clyde’s mouth with a finger for the second time. “One can see that the decay is extensive, and probably nerves are exposed.”
“The boy has excellent teeth,” said Ida, trying to brighten the moment. “There is just that one little spot.”
“What do you think I should do?” asked Ellen, turning to her brother.
“He obviously needs to have the tooth out,” replied Ham-wit. “I’ll take him over to Doctor Gould’s office the first thing in the morning.”
Clyde spent most of the night pacing the living room floor while his mother and aunt Ida took turns staying up with him. It was nearly daylight before the pain subsided enough so he could stretch out on the sofa. He slept fitfully and woke whimpering from a bad dream. His jaw felt heavier now, and the pain had given way to a soreness that made it difficult for him to speak.
He sat at the table watching the adults have their break-fast, and the hot cocoa his aunt Ida gave him hurt his mouth. The grown-ups said little, but when they did speak their voices sounded far away, as if they were talking from a bottle. The ticking grandfather clock in the hallway could be heard measuring the passing seconds slowly and sep-arately. Clyde watched his uncle finish his coffee¾ he took each sip carefully with the same measured slowness. Then the boy saw his uncle’s hand disappear under the table to tug free a gold pocket watch. “It’s getting about that time, Ellen,” he announced. “Us menfolks better attend to the business at hand.” His mother and aunt nodded solemnly as they rose to wash and wipe the dishes.
There were no patients in the waiting room of Rodman Gould’s dental office, and the doctor was nowhere in sight.
“Uncle Willard, let’s go back,” urged Clyde. “My tooth feels better already.”
“Since we’re here,” replied Hamwit, “I think we better have the doctor look at it.”
Maybe the man wasn’t in his office, hoped Clyde as he slumped in a chair next to his uncle; maybe the doctor had gone home and the tooth would stop aching and the swelling would disappear and everything would be the way it was before he began touching the hole with the tip of his tongue.
But there was the sound of water running somewhere in the building. If I say I don’t hear it, I don’t, Clyde whis-pered to himself. Then the scrape of a chair could be heard, and the sound of footsteps approaching. An empty feeling swept through his stomach, and the back of his neck stiffened. The distant voodoo beat of pulses grew louder in his head as Clyde tried to make everything disappear.
“What do we have here?” he heard a voice ask, and the inquiry was accompanied by a squeaky laugh.
The tall man was dressed in the cleanest of white clothes. His thin white hair was parted in the middle and combed carefully to the sides. He smelled strongly of cloves, and his watery eyes were magnified by thick glasses. The den-tist had a way of looking up at the ceiling whenever he spoke.
“So this is a youngster with one puffy cheek,” chuckled the old man as he gently dented the swelling with a trem-bling finger. “We’ll have a look at that.”
He followed the dentist into the office, and his uncle helped Clyde into the biggest chair the boy had ever seen. His legs felt weak, and both arms were getting prickly as he tightened his grip on the ends of the armrests.
A tool disappeared into Clyde’s mouth, and the dentist rummaged along the painful gums and into the decayed crown of the molar. A searing throb of hateful force jolted the boy as the point of the instrument found raw nerve endings. He cried out in surprise, but the chair, the bright light above him, the mysterious instruments on trays, and the machinery around him were too imposing to struggle against.
“A tiny bit tender,” declared Doctor Gould as he turned to his instrument tray and looked up. “You should have come sooner.”
“Is it bad?” his uncle asked.
“The tooth must be extracted,” replied the dentist. “One this badly decayed is ulcerated.”
“I thought as much,” said Willard Hamwit.
Doctor Gould’s face wore a serious look, and Clyde re-membered what he had heard about gangrene. A leg could be cut off¾ didn’t a lot of pirates have peg legs? But what would happen to him if the gangrene spread through his jaw and into his head?
Clyde began to cry.
“Uncle Willard, I want to go home!”
The boy felt his uncle’s hand on his shoulder as his eyes smarted with tears and the glaring light above him moved closer.
The dentist’s voice was no longer squeaky.
“You hold him, Mr. Hamwit.”
Clyde tried to lift himself from the chair, but the sight of a big machine close by restrained him more than his uncle’s grip.
Doctor Gould was now holding a tool that had a long needle attached at one end.
The needle rested on the surface of Clyde’s sore gum, pricked through, went deeper, as if in layers, and then with a slow and blunt pressure behind it, the stabbing point blundered into tissues where the dull ache had been hiding from the beginning. Clyde pressed his head back, but there was no escape. The violation had to be met head-on.
A spray of cold water struck the raw nerve endings with force, and Clyde rolled his head on the headrest to shake the pain.
A drop of saliva stitched with threads of blood clung to the porcelain bowl for a long moment before the spittle was washed away with a gush of swirling water.
Doctor Gould looked up at the tiled ceiling as he spoke to his uncle.
“It’s like hoeing your garden,” he explained. “If you don’t get between the plants, they’ll soon be choked by weeds. Teeth are like that when they are denied a toothbrush.”
“I never heard it put quite that way,” admitted Willard Hamwit. “How long have you been gardening, Doc?”
“Five days a week, month after month. I’ve been weeding and pruning in this very office for nearly fifty years!”
“Has it been that long!”
“Your uncle, Frank Hamwit, was one of my first patients.”
“And he had bad teeth like all the Hamwits. Didn’t he, Doc?”
“Terrible,” replied the dentist. “Just terrible.”
“I think all those rotten teeth he had caused him to die of kidney failure fairly early in life. Don’t you think so?”
“Bad teeth can trigger a multitude of ills.”
The dentist turned to the instrument tray and then back to Clyde. There was a shiny metal object partly concealed in his hand.
The force behind the forceps shocked the boy, and there was a relentlessness of pressure which kept building. Clyde felt the wash of blood over his gums as he tried to escape the metal grip. But the man held his head firmly. Then the searing, biting scald of pain and the popping sound like a bone being wrenched from a socket.
His blood was brighter than he thought it would be. He watched it swirl away in the bowl, away from him.
A wad of gauze nearly choked Clyde as it was fumbled into place where a piece of himself was now missing.
The boy felt a rawness at the back of his throat, as if he had been screaming for a long time. Clyde realized now that there was no one who could comfort him; no one could make the soreness go away. Not Aunt Ida with her magic, not the warmth of his mother’s arms around him, not the manly squeeze of his uncle’s hand on his shoulder. The ache must have its way. In him.
“That Doctor Gould is a nice old man,” said the uncle as they came out of the office and into the sunshine. “And what he said about weeding between teeth sure makes sense.”
“Yes, Uncle Willard.”
“And you’re the third generation of the Hamwit family to have him pull a tooth. That’s some kind of record!”
“Yes,” said Clyde Stuart as he shifted the bloody wad of gauze in his sore mouth and followed his uncle up the street.