Office manager Imogene Jackson rushed to her employer and assured him that she would find the perfect replacement. Imogene took persnickety pride in making sure the highly-respected dentist had every single thing he required. The bovine, gravelly-voiced Imogene was a formidable figure, overseeing the office like a modern-day Stalin.
After hiring, then soon firing Donna Zeigdansky who refused to wear a standard white uniform because it wasn't "her color" (she dressed in black, which unnerved some patients), Imogene escorted Rosalie Sterling into Calvin's immaculate office. A silky-haired stunner in a peach-colored halter dress, Rosalie reminded Calvin of a refreshing summer dessert. Not only did she display chalk-white teeth, glowing gums, and impeccable posture (as if she could balance a hardcover copy of Dental Anatomy on her head while walking), she boasted degrees from Vassar, the Sorbonne, and the University of Wisconsin at Stout. Her vast knowledge of periodontics was as impressive as her ability to speak fluent French, German, and Farsi. (She was raised trilingually.)
"I really like your office," Rosalie said. "And your teeth."
"Thank you. The style is New England," he told her.
"Your teeth?" she asked with a sly grin.
Calvin chuckled. "When did you first become interested in dentistry?"
Rosalie explained that she had always enjoyed putting her fingers in people's mouths. As a young girl, she giggled at the warm, wet feel of teeth and tongue. As a teenager, a human mouth was a mysterious cave, a complex, intriguing region begging for exploration. Even as an adult, she loved to slip on a plastic glove and probe inner cheeks, seeking blisters or canker sores that might be contagious. Overwhelmed by Rosalie's interest in all things oral (and ecstatic that he found someone as fascinated with tooth care as he was), Calvin offered her the position on the spot.
Imogene was proud of herself for discovering Rosalie. She'd perused more than two hundred resumes of recent graduates of dental schools before scheduling appointments with just three candidates. Of the three, Rosalie had the most thorough training. Plus, she had just moved to Whitefish Bay and didn't know a soul. This worked in her favor because Imogene desperately wanted to forge new friendships after ending her ten-year association with Jo Marie Gurwitch (a purchaser for a local bread factory). Jo Marie had accused Imogene of harboring romantic feelings for Dr. Flack, and this was not acceptable.
The first question Imogene asked Rosalie on her first official work day was an unexpected one. "Do you have a boyfriend?"
"No," the new employee said, taken aback. "I just moved here from Ipswich."
"Calvin is married, you realize," Imogene stringently stated. "His wife Hedda is the head of Housekeeping at the Whitefish Bay Elegance Hotel."
"Any children?" The question squirted out of her mouth like toothpaste from a full tube.
"They've been trying and trying, but so far no luck. They're giving it another six months before resorting to radical fertilization procedures." Rosalie was startled to hear such personal, unrequested information. "Hedda took me to lunch last month," Imogene announced with a peculiar sense of pride. "She was impressed that I carried a bottle of mint flavored mouthwash in my Dolce & Gabbana bag."
"Who wouldn't be?"
Imogene flashed Rosalie a wide grin. "Would you like to smell my breath?" she asked.
"Could I take a raincheck?"
Imogene nodded. "That's Pearl," she said, pointing to a framed photo of a Siamese cat displayed on her desk.
"Sweet," Rosalie responded, concluding that this woman was a strange bird, one that should very possibly be extinct.
From Imogene's eyes, Dr. Flack was a pure-bred, perfect-toothed prince, but she considered her feelings strictly platonic. She also knew the dentist didn't think of her in any way except as a loyal office manager, and he wouldn't think of her in any other way until she lost sixty pounds, did something with her unruly mess of red hair, and had the oval mole on the right side of her neck surgically removed. Sometimes Imogene would think about her dentist-prince as she drifted off to sleep, and he would invariably make an appearance in a dream, often in his crisp white uniform, sometimes only in sky blue boxers.
"When's the next patient?" Calvin asked Rosalie late one morning during her third week at the dental office.
"Not till three o'clock," she told him. "Wes Codling cancelled."
"Any interest in grabbing a bite at The Last Resort?" The Last Resort, with its gorgeous view of Whitefish Bay's colorful lily garden, was one of the top two restaurants in town. The other, Dipsy Lime, didn't serve lunch.
"I'd love to," Rosalie said.
Imogene wasn't ecstatic about her colleagues trotting off without inviting her, but she was accustomed to being left behind. Just six weeks earlier, Jo Marie Gurwitch canceled their dinner date at Dipsy Lime because a widower at the bread factory invited her to a performance of the Whitefish Bay Ballet. Jo Marie didn't even suggest rescheduling.
At The Last Resort, smartly-dressed patrons crowded the hostess stand, eagerly waiting to be seated. The scent of sizzling pork permeated the place, making mouths water and stomachs gurgle. Calvin and Rosalie were led to a deep leather banquette next to a pastel-colored fabric wall, and a spiky-haired waiter named Finn took their food order. The cumin-crusted sturgeon with yucca puree, poached quail egg and banana fingerling potatoes tempted Calvin, but he went with the T-bone steak served with oxtail-stuffed baby squid on a bed of butternut squash and balsamic emulsion. Rosalie was in the mood for the veal shank with saffron cream sauce, but she opted for a small cucumber salad.
When the waiter left the table, a cloud of nervous, sexual tension hung in the air. Calvin couldn't deny an intense attraction to Rosalie; she brought a sense of vibrancy to his life as well as his work. His heart palpitated, adrenaline pumped. He'd never felt this way, not even during the early, heady days with Hedda.
"It's astonishing that the majority of people have some form of gum disease, don't you think?" Rosalie asked, fiddling with her silverware.
Calvin nodded. "Eighty per cent of the population, and they don't even know it."
She slid an inch closer to him, so nonchalantly that he didn't notice. "Imogene is quite a character."
"Yes," Calvin agreed. "But she has a good heart."
"If you say so."
"I do," he said, looking into Rosalie's alert eyes. "Do you know what they say -- whoever they are? Dentists have the highest rate of suicide of any profession. I've never thought about ending it all, have you?"
"Oh no. Why would I want to kill myself when I have so much to live for?"
"Exactly!" Calvin exclaimed. "We're so lucky -- to take care of people's teeth and get paid for it."
"I feel the same way."
"You know what we should do? Count our blessings."
Calvin's expression suddenly turned serious. "Come to think of it," he said, "a colleague of mine did hang himself. Dean Crookshank."
"Awful," Rosalie said. "Actually, one of my classmates in dental school slit her wrists during sophomore year. It was the talk of the campus."
"Tragic. But it's not like dentistry is the only field with a high suicide rate. I'm sure the automotive industry has its share."
Calvin became sullen. "In Kale County, an oral surgeon jumped off the roof of a downtown skyscraper. Plunged five stories to his death. Believe it or not, his name was Frederick Molar." Rosalie merely shook her head, mystified.
After the entree, neither was in the mood for dessert despite Finn's strong recommendation of the Creole cream cheese pecan pie.
When the couple returned to the office, Imogene was rustling dental insurance forms on her disheveled desk while chewing the last of a chocolate eclair. "How was lunch?" she asked.
"Excellent," Rosalie said.
"Their food is to die for," Calvin added as he hurried down the hall.
"Well," Imogene said, "my Swiss cheese on pumpernickel was pretty tasty, even though I was in such a frenzy to get out of the house this morning that I forgot to spread condiments on it. If I'd known that when you zoomed off, I would've asked you to bring me a small tub of mayonnaise."
"I would've been happy to," Rosalie said. "Why didn't you ring me on my mobile?"
"I didn't want to disturb you," Imogene explained, cold as ice on room temperature teeth. "May I ask what you had for dessert?"
"We skipped dessert," Rosalie said. "We didn't want to be away from the office for too long."
"Then you should've ordered in," Imogene barked. "I have menus from all the local places right here." She grabbed a half dozen paper menus from her desk drawer and brandished them in front of Rosalie. "Sotirakos is outstanding. Try the charcoal lamb chops with a side of ostrich kleftiko," she suggested. "And a honey-dipped spiral pastry for dessert."
The following afternoon, Calvin and Rosalie were performing Myrtle Cash's root canal when Imogene announced she had to scurry home because Pearl had just gone into an early labor. "If anyone wants a kitten, let me know," she excitedly said.
One hour later, work on Myrtle Cash was complete. (Calvin was proud of the job he did, though it wasn't his undisputed achievement. That honor went to his porcelain-fused-to-gold-alloy crown on Smilla Thun-Hohenstein.) Calvin and Rosalie found themselves alone in the cozy examination room, each thinking about the previous day's conversation, specifically how death in dentistry hovered over every cleaning, filling, and wisdom tooth extraction. "Would you do me a favor?" Calvin asked.
"Of course," she replied.
"Floss my teeth?"
"It would be my pleasure."
Calvin stretched out on the gray leather reclining chair while Rosalie stood behind him. She began to floss, one upper tooth after the next. Then she instructed him to rinse. In order to plunge at his bottom set in the firmest manner, she stepped around, and with the flexibility of an Olympic gymnast flung her right leg over the dentist's torso, straddling him. Then she went to work on his bottom teeth. The blood tingled through their bodies. After Rosalie finished flossing and Calvin finished rinsing, neither budged. With her legs wrapped around him, they ardently discussed creative tongue treatment and policies on tooth bleaching. Surrounded by suction hoses and sinks, shiny metal instruments and mouthwash, the sexual tension that had been building for weeks came to a frantic boil as did their desire to drown out their profound fear of death. Very soon their clothing was off and Rosalie was doing the dentist on the rich dark leather, swooping down for the occasional kiss like a seagull diving for food.
The schedule fell smoothly into place: After Imogene went home at the end of the day, Calvin locked the office door, then he and Rosalie marched into the examination room and she flossed him.
A few weeks into the clandestine affair, Imogene felt a change in the air, as if some strange seismic shift had occurred. She couldn't put her finger on it, so she called the dentist's wife for a friendly chat to see if she could sense anything. Hedda expressed concern about her husband's long hours. "Has there been an epidemic of cavities?" Hedda asked.
"Cavities are always on the rise," Imogene said, "especially in today's fast food, sugar-coated culture. May I ask you a personal question?"
"How often do you floss?"
"Two or three times a week," Hedda told her.
"Do it once a day, dear," Imogene offered. "Men stay married to women with good teeth."
"You're a living doll. Let's have lunch again soon."
One week after that pleasant telephone exchange, Imogene had an epiphany.
It was a little after midnight, and she had trouble falling asleep despite swallowing two tranquilizers with a forty-ounce bottle of beer. A half moon hung in the starless sky like a half-eaten cheesecake. Imogene tried to see the cake plate as half full when she could only see it as half eaten. Suddenly, she saw her entire life on a large, slowly revolving globe that she could push to the right to revisit her past, push to the left and look into her future. The future looked particularly bleak.
The following Friday evening, Imogene arrived home from a long day dealing with a parade of particularly prickly patients. As if struck by a pellet of inspiration, she turned around and climbed back into her dented Dodge Avenger. The car never completely lost the odor of fish from the time she bought smoked sturgeon and couldn't resist opening the package and eating a few slices on the ride home, so she drove with the windows down.
As the sun set in broad violet strokes across the sky, Imogene barreled down the highway. She parked a block away from the dental office, in front of Lupino's Pet Supply where she had recently purchased a couple of catnip chew mice. She ruthlessly, defiantly headed down the street like a warrior heading into battle. "I'll never lose sixty pounds,"she muttered, her tone a combination of anger and self-pity. "And I'm not having a bad hair day," she said. "It's a bad hair life." The volume of her voice increased along with her pace. She lifted her right hand and caressed the mole on the side of her neck. "This damn thing is the size of Utah. Removing it would be painful as hell." A concerned nun listened to Imogene as she quickly marched past. "What would he do without me? His slut would have to run the practice and that would be disastrous, the absolute end of everything."
Imogene silently, furtively let herself back into the office as disturbing sounds
floated over her desk directly into her head. She followed the suspicious moaning down the dim, white-carpeted hallway toward the examination room. With each step, the gasps and groans grew more savage. Fearful of what she might find, Imogene braced herself. Then, with a quivering hand she opened the door. In two dizzying seconds, three sets of eyes formed a debauched circle of deceit, rage, and abandonment. Everything became so clear so quickly. The devastation in Imogene's face -- the unsparing disappointment, the frenzied anguish -- told a tale with one stunning conclusion.
With the speed of a professional, Imogene pulled a shiny pistol from her faux-leather purse. Calvin and Rosalie shuddered with bone-chilling horror as an audible gasp escaped from Rosalie's lips. But Imogene stunned the dentist and his hygienist. Instead of aiming at the cornered couple, she opened wide and pointed the pistol in her very own mouth. "Imogene!" Calvin shouted. "Don't."
"Don't?" she asked tenderly, hope burning in her eyes. "All right," she said. Imogene turned the gun toward Rosalie, and a booming shot slashed the air. Then she aimed at Calvin, and another resounding shot rang out. A third shot blasted, this one into Rosalie's gums, causing her to fall from the dental chair, onto the floor. Her bright red blood splattered on the plush white carpet which had just been shampooed early that morning. The red on white was not only aesthetically striking (resembling dots of raspberry liqueur on a blanket of snow) but phosphorescent. Calvin collapsed on the actual chair, his head leaning back on the gray leather as if primed for a dental examination.
Imogene realized the colorful mess on the carpet needed attention, but more pressing was her need to rush home. She had five hungry kittens to feed.