The only light came from the dim, artificial glow of the street lamp across from Vince Bagwell’s kitchen window. He hadn’t really noticed when it had become dark, hadn’t realized that he’d been sitting at the table for close to three hours. Today’s mail lay before him, mostly unopened, scattered where he’d dropped it onto the wood-grained Formica surface.
Nobody in the world knew how hard it was to be Vince Bagwell. How difficult the struggle had been, dragging himself up from sub-mediocrity, from under the dour presence of a pessimistic father and a largely silent mother. He’d been steadfastly determined to make something of his life, to have a place in the sun, to mean something important to someone. At 45, he thought he’d finally made it. While periodontics and malocclusions weren’t exactly heart stopping adventures, he made a decent living and was fairly respected by patients and peers. He and Melinda had finally moved to the “hill” last year, and wasn’t she out driving the 2 year old Beemer with the “4MEL” vanity plate?
The stapled papers in his hand had grown moist with perspiration. Even when the room had been filled with the setting sun’s rays, he had not been able to read past the word “dissolution.” The realization that Mel was serious would not soak in. She was upset about the lawsuit; that he understood. Even when he tried to explain that the charges were unfounded, that the matter would surely be thrown out once the evidence was examined, she had only stared in stony, detached silence.
Hell, they were only allegations. Malpractice is an everyday occurrence these days, especially in Southern California’s infamously litigious climate. Maybe they should have stayed in Utah.
They hadn’t had children; perhaps that was it. Oh, the doctor had assured them nothing was out of whack physically; high stress was more likely a factor. Whose stress, Vince had wondered at the time. Was Melinda stressed? With her watercolor class, her acrylic nail appointments, her Women’s Club meetings?
Vince’s mouth drew into a weak, wry smile. Well, it certainly wasn’t him. After all, his practice was thriving. He’d lost only one patient this year, and that guy only left because, well, he’d died during a simple surgery. The smile faded as Vince relived the hellacious ten minutes he’d pressed away on Jack Cartwright’s chest, alternating with oral resuscitation until paramedics had arrived.
He’d worried about that one, later. He’d been around enough to know that people will sue you for anything. Just being in the room can make you a criminal. But Cartwright’s heirs were surprisingly sympathetic. This other matter, well, the details - or his innocence - didn’t matter. The girl’s father was an attorney.
Stressed? No more than any other dentist on the block. Why, Viola Mae Swallow hadn’t even called him today. Vince smiled again with mock joy as he thought about old Viola Mae and her incessant phone calls. He’d never looked close enough at her chart to notice, but figured she must be 90 if she was a day. Hadn’t had any real teeth for 20 years, but she managed to come up with a myriad of gum and denture problems with which to bug him. He shook his head slowly. Just this afternoon the girls in the office had joked that his “girlfriend” hadn’t called lately; perhaps the old gal had finally choked on her appliance.
A sigh escaped, unbidden. The morning’s Valium had long worn off, and he considered taking another to smooth out the edges. Maybe then he could figure out what to do. Or maybe, if he took several, he wouldn’t have to figure out anything ever again.
Vince frowned. He couldn’t remember when the last time was Viola Mae had called or come in. It now seemed like weeks ago; her companion nodding knowingly behind her back - a condescending grandson, perhaps - and she, precariously tottering toward the door, mouth working on the new adjustment when she turned and lifted a gloved hand.
“Dr. Bagwell, I want to thank you again for your kind attent-shun. You are the best - - You know, I always tell Roger, you must brush your teeth.” Another few “chews,” then: “All I ever want is a good dentist. I can always count on you. You take care, Dr. Bagwell.”
He’d promised to take care.
He didn’t need the light to find the small prescription bottle on the top pantry shelf. Sitting back down, he dumped the entire contents onto the face of the divorce papers, pushing the tablets around with a fingertip to align them neatly in a picket fence style. He guessed there were about 15 left. The street light cast 15 long, fingery shadows, giving the pills an ominous look.
Delicately, he picked out the middle one and pushed it into his mouth, chasing it with a half glass of water left from the morning. Next, he rearranged the remaining pills into a circle before picking out every other one and placing them end to end in a diagonal, fashioning a crude “NO” symbol like the one banning cigarettes on his waiting room wall. He chuckled to himself at the implication: “No Divorces.”
Even if he could get out from under the suit, his reputation would be marred. Public sympathy would be on the girl’s side, of course. He imagined his normally full waiting room cavernously empty; empty except, of course, for the devoted Viola Mae Swallow.
He looked down at the small doses of tranquillity spread out before him. Scooping them up, he rolled several back and forth between his palms, closing his eyes and wondering where Melinda was tonight. He wondered if the attorney’s daughter would perjure herself on the stand. He wondered if you really saw a white light at the end of your journey.
He wondered about Viola Mae. All she wanted was a good dentist. Someone to count on.
Dr. Vincent Bagwell gathered up the tablets and, cupping his hand around the lip of the amber plastic bottle, dropped them slowly back in.