The Tell-Tale Tooth
It started in a mini-mall.
Dr. Nick had a small upstart dental office sandwiched between a Ralph’s and a Big Lots—a place where you could get your teeth cleaned, and then grab a Pick’n Chick’n and a 32-ounce Coke for $6 next door. My dad started going as soon as he got our family’s dental covered through work at the lumberyard. Later, he took my brother and me there with him.
It took 19 years to learn what my dad was hiding.
There were warning signs, sure. But after a trip to the dentist my dad would always assure me, “Your mouth heals faster than any other body part.”
I don’t know why I believed him. In the back seat of his car I moaned and shoved cotton balls in my mouth to stanch the bleeding. Why was there so much blood? Dad informed me that, actually, much of the gum mutilation took place before the procedure, while Dr. Nick was counting my teeth.
Much later I learned my dad was one of the very first patients of Dr. Nick (who I assume graduated from the “Hollywood Upstairs Medical College”). I also didn’t find out until later that Dr. Nick once gave Dad a root canal, and drilled a hole straight through his tongue. During a visit years later, Dr. Nick looked in his mouth and said, “Man, you have some major scarring on your tongue. Are you stress-biting or something?” All this, and my dad continued to see Dr. Nick.
Unsurprisingly Dr. Nick began having problems with customer retention—so he started a program that would set up appointments over text. I stopped going entirely for a while, but every so often I’d get a reminder I was due for an appointment.
For half a semester of my college freshman year, my tooth ached—I ignored it. When I came home for winter break my mom told me her work insurance now covered dental and she could help set up an appointment with her dentist in a few weeks.
But just then I got a text reminder from Dr. Nick—you up?
I responded—yes. And the appointment was set.
I thought I’d surprise my mom, so I got her insurance card and bussed over to Dr. Nick’s the next day. I didn’t worry (though I should have) when my lab partner from high school biology brought in the anesthetic and told me the doctor was her dad. I didn’t worry (though I should have) when Dr. Nick said I had three cavities, but no problem, it’ll be covered by my insurance. So I calmly drifted in-and-out of sleep to the sound of drilling and Jimmy Buffett.
When it was all done I was bleeding profusely—much more than usual. Dr. Nick hurried me to the front desk, where the receptionist handed me some forms and told me that the insurance didn’t cover anything after all. I was crying. I tried calling my mom, but I couldn’t talk. I mumbled and spit out more blood, before remembering I could text her. We ended up having to pay for it all on credit, and the wound in my mouth didn’t stop bleeding for nearly a week. I haven’t been back since.
Even today, in the back of my mouth, there’s a leathery lump from where Dr. Nick missed my tooth and drilled through my gums. I sometimes wonder if my dad thought about his scar when he told me how fast your mouth heals.