Now That You've Asked
By Michelle Reale
Arturo Gennaro was the only Italian-speaking dentist in town. “Doc,” as he was called by nearly everyone, commanded a respect he didn’t quite deserve. After wife Vera left him after 44 years of marriage, having decided late in the game that living amongst the false teeth and other paraphernalia of a third-rate lothario dentist’s life was for the birds, he’d begun trying the patience of just about everyone; a meal here, cups of coffee there, filling the small kitchens on Garibaldi Street with the pungent stench of his Marlboros.
Doc’s dental office and home was right on Garibaldi Street. From his perch he watched the comings and goings of nearly everyone. Despite the squalor that surrounded him in his office, Doc managed to treat the infected, impacted, broken diseased teeth and gums of his “paesani, ” the people from the same town in “the old country” as his parents. Scrupulously clean, they tolerated the mess and stench of the office and the frequent puffs of Doc’s ever present cigarette dangling precariously from his mouth, only inches from the mouth he was working on. He spoke the language and could mock the people who came to depend on him with impunity. Convincing nearly all of them that insurance would cost too much, he overcharged them for his care and even treated sore throats, pink eye and other assorted ailments. It was rumored, but never confirmed, that he might have done a few gynecological exams and encouraged young women with a fatherly assurance that they need not be ashamed: he was like family. He and Vera never had children; they used to joke that they were both too selfish. No one knew the real reason, and no one would ask. Something about Doc was never quite right.
Doc rarely came knocking on Susan’s door since her husband Gus disliked him intensely, even though, or maybe because, his parents had dragged Gus, as a small boy, to Doc’s filthy lair. Susan opened the screen door wide and Doc barreled the length of the small home into the kitchen.
He quickly lit a cigarette and glanced toward Susan who was holding Belinda, a slobbering mess, at an awkward angle.
“Did I take you away from anything, Susie?” he asked, biting on the cigarette and not really waiting for an answer.
Though it was sweltering outside, Doc accepted Susan’s half-hearted offer of coffee. She attempted to fill Doc’s cup, but he pulled it away slightly when she got closer. This went on, back and forth, just one of Doc’s little games. Susan felt the walls begin to close in. The smell of Doc’s sweating body, like wet sawdust in the small kitchen, along with the coffee and the cigarette smoke, was stifling. Little Belinda’s small slanted eyes began to water from the smoke, which he spewed in malignant clouds, but Doc took no notice. He stared at Susan as if he could see through her, and Susan held tighter to Belinda, as if the baby’s presence was protection against anything. Susan thought that Doc must have waited for Gus’s car to pull out of the driveway before he came by.
“Pardon my language, Susie, but when the bitch left I felt a little relieved. She really didn’t know how to be doctor’s wife, you know what I’m saying? ‘Rough around the edges’ is what my parents used to say about her, God rest their souls,” he said, looking quickly up at the ceiling as if they hovered there nodding their heads in assent. For all of his happiness at her departure, Vera was Doc’s main topic of conversation.
“But you’d been married so long, Doc,” Susan said in her tentative way, shifting Belinda on her hip, twisting the printed summer wrap she wore and exposing a bit of a white, blue-veined breast.
“That’s life, sweetie,” Doc said, squinting through the smoke at the sweetly delicate but unintentional display. “Now don’t get me wrong, she had her good points, but I’m not crying over it. Do you see me crying, Susie?” It seemed as though he dared her to disagree. Susan listened for Gus’s car.
“I liked Vera,” Susan said softly. Doc took no notice.
“What about you, Susie?” Doc asked, suddenly.
“What about me, Doc”? Susan asked her face scrunched up, thinking hard.
“Life turn out the way you thought it would?” He swept his large arm around the small kitchen, his furry eyebrows raised, implying that if she thought it had she was nuts.
Susan shifted on one foot, then the other, felt perspiration drip between her breasts, the baby’s hand moist and wet on her chin. She started to think.
“That husband of yours,” Doc continued, not waiting for a reply. He laughed low and soft as if he were really amused. “Kind of messed things up, didn’t he?” He eyed Susan over the top of his large aviator frames. Susan looked sideways at Doc and began to feel her heart galloping. “Well, you know, Susie, two daughters, and one ain’t never going to be right.” He said this gently with a nod of his graying head toward Belinda who looked like she could barely catch her breath. He waited for Susan to agree, to conspire with him against her own husband, a good man.
“Belinda is a gift from God, Doc. My daughter Robin is too. We’re happy to have two daughters, actually,” reciting the robotic speech she used for all of the Italians who pitied her for the lack of a son and a child who might as well be a zucchini. She hated the sound of her own voice when she said it, wasn’t even sure she believed it, but thought herself a better person for saying it. Susan wasn’t of the neighbors’ ilk, didn’t understand the earthy bluntness delivered with an upturned flick of the chin. She didn’t know why she had to take it. There were things in life that made you feel half a woman, half a man.
“Gus,” Susan started to say, scrunching up her small feet on the linoleum.
“Yes, Susie?” Doc asked playfully, looking Susan up and down and lingering in her middle section. Susie returned the look, with genuine curiosity, as if seeing him for the first time. Her gaze stopped at Doc’s big square shoe, Doc’s club foot, the deformity that, had anyone else possessed it, would have been the target of particularly cruel teasing in the neighborhood. Doc looked up at Susan who was leaning against the kitchen sink, staring at his foot, which began to feel hot. A sheen of sweat formed on his forehead. He began frantically wagging his nicotine-stained finger at the sad baby Belinda, talking a baby nonsense he wasn’t good at, devoid of any real mirth or good intentions. Belinda’s tiny cracked lips puckered.
“Nothing, Doc” Susie whispered. Her lips curled into a small smile. She remained transfixed. The boxy foot twitched. The kitchen was in shadow, as the summer afternoon sun went in and out. A rare breeze kicked up, blowing the yellow ruffled kitchen curtains. Only the branch of the diseased pear tree hitting the kitchen window over the sink broke the spell. Susan suddenly wondered why they’d never had that pear treat cut down. How all that fruit lay wasted, crushed into the ground, a feast for the bees.
Lifting his girth out of the kitchen chair, Doc frowned and barely extinguished his cigarette in his coffee saucer. He gave Susan a small and awkward salute as he walked out the front door. She wished she could feel pity for the man, for his large body slouched and the limp more pronounced than when he arrived.
Susan held Belinda up to the kitchen window. Her small eyes fluttered at the light breeze and her giggle sounded like a piercing wheeze. Her open mouth revealed the tiniest of tooth buds, just coming through the surface. The kitchen was quiet, though the sounds of kids playing on the sidewalk were like soft music. Susan felt, for the first time in a long time, that something was possible, even for a girl like Belinda. She stood staring out of the kitchen window, the waves of heat and breeze like a meditation. She cupped Belinda’s little face and kissed her gently on her lips.
“When Daddy comes home, little girl,” Susan said with quiet finality, “we’re going to have him take care of that tree.”
Michelle Reale manages circulation services at a university library and is completing her MSLS in Library Science. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in a variety of venues.
Photo "Couple of Pears," courtesy of Ann Key, Nizhny novgorod, Russia.
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