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Dentists always want to pull teeth, as surgeons want to cut flesh and car salesman want to sell cars.



Hurtling past 40, with a wife and two, I thought I might need dental work, and so contrived to see a dentist "on barter."

The trade paper that employed me belongs to a barter exchange. There are at least two such exchanges in Chicago, each with hundreds of members, from public-relations firms to fabricators of machine parts. An exchange functions as a broker, allowing member businesses to barter among themselves without needing to barter directly with each other. Each member has an account. When you make a deal for something, your account goes down. When another party makes a deal for what you offer, your account goes up. The exchange takes 10 percent of the cash value of every transaction from both seller and buyer. The buyer pays the sales tax.

You barter away what you can't otherwise get rid of, whether it's a page of ad space or last year's Xerox machine, and with luck get in return something close to what you want, all without paying cash. It can be a good deal if you have "excess capacity."

A newspaper always has excess capacity for running ads, and I found two young dentists who hadn't been practicing very long, and they had some excess capacity too. I talked them into joining the exchange and, using the paper's barter account, was able to take my dental work as a form of bonus.

The first visit was a long inspection. One dentist would pause and study the X ray, his stainless probe hanging loose in his hand like a chopstick. Target memorized, he would turn and begin to poke and pluck, until his head came up and he'd call out a number.

"Number three. Recurrent decay."

Then his partner would make a mark on a diagram of my teeth.

So it went, worse than I expected. Years had passed since I'd seen a dentist, and at some level I had kept referring to his clean bill of health, like an old calendar stuck on a basement wall. Now they were finding teeth that were starting to rot under the existing fillings, some of which were almost 30 years old.

I would need lots of new fillings, along with a root canal and a crown. They also recommended pulling two wisdom teeth. For a moment I wondered if I had become in my connivance an economic icon, a textbook case--to wit, a sink for two fledgling dentists' excess capacity. For as long as I could remember, dentists had been telling me to have my wisdom teeth pulled, but I had always declined, on the theory that dentists always want to pull teeth, as surgeons want to cut and car salesmen want to sell cars, and that they should all be resisted.

Then there was the theory that when I got old and started losing teeth, I might want those wisdom teeth.

Now the two young dentists explained why my theory was flawed. With all that recurrent decay, I was in no position to argue.

A second visit was scheduled, to pull the wisdom teeth. As the time grew nigh I found myself in a macabre, jaunty, somewhat reflective mood.

Teeth have always put me in a reflective mood. Years ago I worked in the Wyoming badlands on a fossil-hunting crew, and sometimes we found, right on the surface, perfect 40-million-year-old teeth, looking as if they could have fallen out yesterday, but for the fact that some geological replacement process turns their enamel an iridescent purple-black. A sharp eye can detect them in a field of rubble by their texture alone, by their glint, at 30 feet. I still have a little box of them--the die-sized molars of an early ungulate, the fine little teeth of some miniature protohorse. I sometimes ponder my own teeth, or the teeth of a person telling me about his life-insurance package or where he just ate his lunch: are they alive or dead, these emblems of mortality?

Once in the chair for my second visit, I considered the pain that I was about to be spared, and I found myself trying to imagine the pain that someone somewhere at that moment was surely inflicting on another: pain boundless and malevolent, inflicted not by cautious sweet-breathed professional minimalists in smocks, but by beasts in the skin of a man, playing with other humans like rag dolls, already dead or barely live enough for sport. There was the Guatemalan woman I'd read about recently, a death-squad victim who had been raped and partly skinned and had all her teeth pulled out--by what means, I wondered--before giving up the ghost. "Alleged," I thought. Alleged death squad, alleged pain. Didn't somebody once say all pain is alleged, except one's own?

The dentists appeared suddenly like two actors from the wings, already bustling about as they said hello, calling me by my first name. One of them stuck a needle into the soft tissue above my tooth, and the area quickly grew numb.

There was a short wait. I studied the well-made pull-down lamp, the acoustic ceiling tile, the holes in the ceiling tile. Then I closed my eyes and thought of yesterday's walk with my four-year-old daughter.

We had passed a car sitting on its brake drums, empty sockets where headlights had been; hood, bumpers, and seats gone; windshield smashed out. Oddly, the windshield wipers remained, leaning into the car's interior slightly, resting in thin air, as if in this terminal event they could relax for the first time. There was broken glass on the dash, on each curved ledge of the instrument panel, on the floor, and on the exposed formed sheet metal under where the seats had been. To me this remnant blocking half the crosswalk appeared unmistakably sinister, a spectacle of naked disharmony and violence.

What is it? she wondered. I told her it was an abandoned car. She knew the word from a game she liked to play called "abandoned baby": she would run ahead as we climbed the stairs and lie down in front of our door, as if someone had left her there. Then, according to her script, her mother and I would have to talk it over and decide to take her in.

"Somebody put purple diamonds in it," she remarked.

For me, there was nothing to it: number 1 and number 16 went gently into that good night. The dentist worked quickly, first loosening ligaments, then commencing a slow, firm, circular tug, then moving abruptly into an intense, direct pull, his upper body tightening against me. Then he paused and stepped back.

I felt like saying, "Problem?" but settled for, "How is it going?"

"It's out," he said.

None of the complications detailed on the consent form came to pass from these wisdom, the most unpredictable of teeth, with roots deep or shallow, straight, twisted, or branched. No crown broke off. No roots left behind. Minimal hemorrhage.

Between teeth we spoke briefly of the barter exchange. I managed to push out some basic words of advice, despite anesthetic and a mouth stuffed with cotton:

"Make sure you get what you want and not what they want to get rid of."

They were thinking of bartering for an office rug, he said. Nobody barters dental supplies.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.

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