garrett rowlan

Garrett Rowlan lives in Los Angeles. His website is garrettrowlan.com


by Garrett Rowlan

Rowe hadn’t expected a modern building, but this shingled, two-story structure on a high street in northeast Los Angeles looked ramshackle at best. It could use a coat of paint and a nail or two, the high dark windows looked like a pair of eyes, and the wooden porch boards creaked as he approached the door whose hanging sign said ORGANIC DENTISTRY.

What really troubled him, however, was the cockroach. He saw it just before he opened the door. It waited at the porch’s edge, its feelers pointed in Rowe’s direction and swaying as if receiving transmitted waves. When he took a step toward the roach, firmly intending to crush it, the insect disappeared into a crack. Rowe thought cockroaches were nocturnal, but that one almost seemed to be sunning itself.

He stepped inside the dentist office and stood on a large throw rug supporting two couches and a chair. The walls were bare; no images of sunsets, flowers, or clients with clean, perfect, bared teeth.

A frosted glass window squeaked open to his left, and behind it a seated woman smiled. She must have just finished her lunch, for Rowe saw a bit of salad lodged between her teeth. She looked up and smiled. One molar was cracked.

“How can I help you?”

“My daughter recommended this place. She couldn’t find your phone number. She just gave me the address.” There was no office phone, as far as Rowe could see.

“We do accept walk ins,” she said. “How can I help?”

“My teeth are bothering me,” he said. “That’s putting it mildly. I have trouble eating.I have to eat foods of a certain firm consistency. It gives the digestive system something to work with.”

“I see,” the receptionist said. Beside her was a jarful of lollypops.

“Anyway,” Rowe said, “my daughter Denise said this would be the kind of dentist I like. She said it’s organic.”

“Yes,” the receptionist said. “If you’ll have a seat we can get you started with an evaluation. You’re lucky you caught us on a slow day.”

“No x-rays,” he said, “no needles. I don’t want to pollute my body with radiation or pierce it with poisons, even if they kill the pain.”

“Yes,” she said, “we do have a dentist on staff who is sensitive to cases like yours, and luckily he’s here today.”

“Doctor Toft?”

“That’s the name.”

“My daughter recommended him. I didn’t know this place existed.”

“Most of our business is word of mouth,” she said. Was she making a joke? Her finely nuanced lips made a sine wave of a smile.

Handed a clipboard with a sheet of questions, Rowe sat opposite a slender young man with short-cropped hair, a brown suit, and dark circles under his eyes. The receptionist closed the sliding window of opaque glass. Rowe gave the relevant information—58, widowed, no insurance, and a health history more characterized by imaginary ailments than real ones, though he didn’t write that down.

The questions seemed innocent enough, though as Rowe checked boxes he had the sensation that the questions themselves were not a deciding factor. He was being watched, he felt. He glanced around and thought he saw something—another cockroach, maybe—dart through a crack between wall and baseboard, but he couldn’t be sure. He turned to the skinny man and was going to ask his opinion of fumigation, the question of getting rid of vermin versus introducing poisons into the environment, but the man had closed his eyes.

Rowe finished the first page. Toward the bottom of the second page one question asked, “Who have you inflicted pain on?” The next question said, “If yes, how?” And below that, “Is this person still alive?”

Rowe tried to get some idea of why he had to answer a question like this, but there was no one at the desk. When he returned to his seat the skinny man had his eyes open.

“What do you know about this?” he asked, after reading the question.

“Standard,” the skinny man said. “It’s how they process the pain at this place.”

“I don’t understand.”

The man said nothing. He had a scar near one eye.

“So you’ve been here before?” Rowe asked.

“I’m on my last treatment.”  He closed his eyes again.

“Did you answer this question?”

“We all answer that question,” the man said, without opening his eyes.

Rowe wrote, “My ex-wife.” To the question, If yes, how? he wrote what he told his daughter and the police. “I was unfaithful in my marriage,” which wasn’t true but was better than saying “I made her fall down the stairs.”

Is this person still alive? Rowe checked the “no” box. Questions were asked, of course, when the police noticed the sloppy way the stair was nailed back. He had even hired a lawyer in case charges were brought, but none were. He hadn’t visited her grave since the service.

He handed in the questionnaire. “About this last question,” he said. “About inflicting pain? Can’t I just decline to answer?”

The receptionist smiled. “It has to do with the billing,” she said.

“I don’t care if you bill her,” he said, “but she is already dead.”

“Yes,” the receptionist said, “we do get a lot of spousal input.” She looked on her computer screen. “I believe your daughter recommended you.”

“Yes,” he said. “We don’t speak much since her mother was…since her mother passed.” He wanted to change the subject, and the flash of pixilated light on her face reminded him of something. “By the way, are there any microwave ovens on the premises?”

“Only in a secured location,” she replied, which comforted him.

“I can only pay in cash or check. I never declare anything. Or only enough so that the feds won’t get me. The more the government knows about you, the more they can mess with you. I want to keep my mind and my body pure. My wife wasn’t pure. She abused her body. She smoked cigarettes. And you should have heard her mocking me when I scrubbed the shower at midnight. Do you know how much bacteria there is in a cubic inch of air?”

“We can help you with that,” she said.

He returned to his seat. The skinny man was not there. He must have been summoned while Rowe spoke to the receptionist.

Alone, he sat and thought of his ex-wife flat on her back. Blood was leaking from one ear. Before the ambulance arrived, he managed to nail back the wooden step.

An assistant opened a door and called Rowe’s name, lifting her chin as if she were addressing a roomful of people. She was a slender woman in blue scrubs. Her teeth were slightly too big for her mouth. She stood aside and waved him down a short hall. “First door on the right,” she said.

“I don’t like x-rays or needles,” Rowe said, as they entered the small room where he saw little of the apparatus Rowe associated with a dentist’s office, only a tray and an old-fashioned porcelain cuspidor.“The radiation builds up in your system. Think of transmission towers, radio waves, and as for needles don’t get me started.”

“I assume you have no objection,” she said, tying a paper bib around his neck, “to keeping your mouth open.”

If she were joking, it didn’t show in her expression. Maybe she’d heard this before.

She inclined the chair backward, dimmed the lights, and pulled from a cupboard a high-intensity flashlight she turned on and shined in his face. Its beam blinded. He closed his eyes. Someone entered the room, maybe more than one person.

Only when she moved the beam aside did he blink and see black, bulging eyes that examined Rowe’s open mouth, lit by the flashlight the assistant held and moved as he made grunted commands. Something probed. It didn’t feel metallic. It touched Rowe’s teeth and gumline in a softer away, almost like a tongue or proboscis that extended from the dentist’s open mouth. Of course, this couldn’t be true, but for someone concerned about his body’s purity, it was an uncomfortable few minutes for Rowe, especially as the doctor’s breath had an unpleasant faint, brackish odor. Rowe saw lumpy, bottom-heavy features.

“I’m Doctor Toft,” the man said at last, “and every mouth tells its own story.”

The doctor added, “They say the eyes are the windows to the soul. Whoever came up with that idea never looked into an open mouth for any length of time. There you see truth. Forget the eyes. False lashes, mascara, tinted contacts; those are the appurtenances of deception. Ah, but the mouth,” he added, almost rapturously, “you can’t hide the corruption of the open mouth.”

“Speaking of which,” Rowe said.

“Three cavities and a cleaning,” the dentist said, almost snappish. “I’ll return once you sign the paperwork.” He turned and left the room as the receptionist arrived. The receptionist, like the business half of a tag team, stepped up to Rowe.

“Two hundred dollars,” the receptionist said. “That’s not the down payment, that’s paid in full.”

Rowe had expected to pay much more, even though his daughter said the place was reasonable. “Why only two hundred?”

“They’re not one size fits all when it comes to billing,” she said. “Each case is evaluated individually.”

He dug his checkbook out and wrote the check. Though he suspected the methods of this dentist’s office were unusual, he was assured there were no shots, x-rays. His body wouldn’t be polluted.

“You’ll need to sign a consent,” the receptionist said as she handed him two pages he had to initial where indicated in yellow marker. The assistant had adjusted the chair upward so he could see better.

He thought he heard a distant yell, but he wasn’t sure. The receptionist didn’t act like she’d heard.

“Very good,” she said, when he was finished. She turned away to unsuccessfully staunch a sneeze as she left.

“Is this going to hurt?” he asked when the dentist returned.

“Oh,” the dentist said, “I suppose a little.” Someone must have told him about his bad breath, for it now was better. Mitigated, Rowe assumed, by a minty mouthwash that left a bluish tint on his small, sharp teeth.

“I mean,” Rowe said, “you have to drill, right? So I’m wondering, what do you do about the pain?”

“Only bugs really know pain. When you’d been sprayed, squashed, drowned, burnt, and poisoned for centuries, you develop a tolerance.” On the metal tray the assistant set down a black-coated jar like the kind used to contain jam.

“What are you talking about, bugs?”

“A group of cockroaches is called an intrusion,” the dentist said, like a lecturer in a science class. “That is prejudicial language. They were here before us. From that point of view, we’re the intrusion.”

Rowe felt a prickling of dread on the back of his neck. “And that means?”

“You have to get in touch with your inner cockroach.”

“Wait a minute,” Rowe tried to say, but suddenly the chair canted backward and the assistant pushed in a biting block. He tried to sit up but realized that his arms were strapped to the chair.

“Therefore,” the dentist said, after he reached in and adjusted the block, “I believe I speak for all the cockroaches when I say, ‘When we all hurt, we all hurt less.’ Do you see my point?”

Rowe continued to struggle fruitlessly as he realized the assistant had secured an adjustable strap around his ankles. The assistant lifted one of the jars, and Rowe noticed something move inside; something he couldn’t see clearly because of the tinted glass.

“If we can share their pain,” the dentist said, “then we can bear ours.”

Rowe tried to speak, but the biting block made his words a grunt. A strong arm kept him down as another strap was secured, this one across his forehead.

Another person had entered the room. Perhaps the receptionist; he recognized her perfume. It had a coy, cheapish scent.
The assistant unscrewed the jar and an insect, maybe more than one, fell into his open mouth.

Shocked, Rowe fought but they held him down as small insect feet crawled on the inside of his cheeks. He wanted to gag but couldn’t. There were three of them, he realized, moving around as if inside a velodrome.

Each had a purpose. One nibbled into his gums, one drilled, and one sprayed some sort of noxious substance. For someone as concerned with body purity as Rowe was, it was hard to bear. He fought as best he could, but his limbs felt sluggish in spite of his panic, almost as if paralyzed. They had secured his elbows so that he couldn’t raise his arms. He didn’t know when they did this.

“Did you explain about the sections he initialed?” Dr. Toft asked the assistant.

“Doctor,” the assistant said, in a tinny voice, “it never seems to do any good.” She was unscrewing another jar.

“Honestly, Lori, you can at least try.”

A fourth insect, Rowe realized, wasn’t in his mouth but in his ear. It whispered visions to him. He closed his eyes and saw himself crawling on dirt, his limbs scuttling as he avoided a march-of-time montage of crushing feet from the Paleozoic forward, from hoofs to sandals to boots, all with the same results, carapaces cracked and insides splattered. Then there was a rain of poisons, spit out by a nozzle from an aerosol can.

“You feel the pain,” Dr. Toft said. Rowe saw, but couldn’t believe it, the doctor’s features turned insectoid. Antennae sprung from the low forehead and they waved in the air. “You feel the history of pain. The pain we’ve known. You stretch that history; you’re absorbed in it.”

The cockroach whispered in his ear, mitigating the pain by connecting it to history. Meanwhile, the bugs worked together in his mouth, biting into his gums, removing decayed tissue.

When he opened his eyes, he saw how Dr. Toft, with tweezers, plucked out insects out as they completed their assigned tasks. He worked with the precise motions of a musician, not the sawing of a violinist or the strumming of a guitarist, but with almost dainty motions, like someone striking a triangle at certain key moments. The plucked insects were dropped back into the jars that the assistant lifted for his convenience.

“What is the pain level?” Toft asked. “Ten is the highest. Use your fingers.”

Rowe didn’t know if it was his body or mind that hurt, but he raised ten digits.

“To be expected,” Toft said. “If you couldn’t raise your hands, I’d worry.”

Rowe closed his eyes and his thoughts fled to the image of his wife lying at the bottom of the basement stairs. The broken bones and the pain now radiated through his body, her body, their body. He understood, then, the odd question on the intake. He had to share her pain to feel less of his own. And there had to be pain because there was blood. The assistant spooned it out of his mouth and put it in another jar as the bugs bit, filled, and scraped. He sensed drone ants, a line of them, carrying the material that was packed into the drilled spaces in his teeth. He became aware of time. How each moment could stretch and yet yield to another.

When he opened his eyes, he saw Dr. Toft was plucking more bugs out of his mouth than he was putting in. Some had bellies that looked swollen from the blood they had drunk. “Looking good,” he said, as he put a mask over Rowe’s face.

When Rowe woke, Doctor Toft had left the room and the assistant was swabbing his gums with something that dulled the pain. “How do you feel?” she asked.

“My teeth are sore,” he said, as the biting block had been removed.

“Take some ibuprofen,” she said. “That should deal with the pain.”

“What happened?”

“Nothing happened,” she said. She released the straps around his ankles. “Three cavities filled and a cleaning. Not a deep clean, for that we use the worms.” She undid the strap around his forehead and the bib around his neck. There were spots of blood on it.

“Now, remember to brush and floss. Much as I’m sure you’d like to, we can’t have trained cockroaches crawling around your mouth every day. Do you need to rinse?”

“Yes,” Rowe said weakly. He wasn’t a sore as much as mentally drained. What the hell had happened? He was handed a paper cup whose minty contents he swished around his mouth. When he spit them into the cuspidor, he saw the pained face of his ex-wife as she circled the drain, her features pulled in by the thin layer of swirling water. He handed the assistant the cup and sat up.

“Better?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said. “Feeling a bit sick.”

“It will pass,” she said. “For the rest of the day, it’s best that you eat just soft foods. Yogurt, or soup, a piece of pie, waffles, even a hamburger would be okay, but certainly not anything sticky or hard, no nuts or caramel, anything like that.”

“If you could make a list,” Rowe said. “I have special dietary needs.”

The assistant pulled a face and Rowe remembered how his wife would look like that until one day when she had taken his plate, because he wanted his second dish to be on a separate, clean plate, and dumped his dinner on the floor.

“I just mopped it and it’s clean,” his wife had said. “That should suit you.”

That was the moment when he decided to kill her.

“I’ll have the receptionist give you something,” the assistant said.

She helped him to his feet and showed him the door. Disoriented, he turned the wrong way, down a hallway. He approached a half-open door. He heard a muffled scream. He was sure it was the same sound he’d heard earlier.

He stopped beside a door that was partially open. He pushed on it. Inside, he saw the same young man he’d seen in the reception area. At least, he assumed it was the same man by the skinny body and the brown suit he wore, because something covered his face, something with a gooey exterior the size of a pancake and looking like it was sticking something down his throat and sucking the life from him.

Rowe pivoted and ran out to reception. There was no one at the desk. The office had gone dark. He didn’t care, he was just glad to get out of there.

As he stepped outside, it was getting near dark. He must have spent hours in that office, although it seemed like minutes, though long minutes. He ran for a time and stopped. He wanted desperately to get to his car but he’d forgotten where he’d parked. The branching streets here on the hill’s summit seemed to ride a ridge into the sky or twist downward into infinity. His feet, he noticed, felt strange, as if they belonged to something else.

He stood on a corner at sundown. He didn’t know which way to turn. All of him was hurting now except his teeth. He felt as if they could chew through anything. He turned and tried to orient himself, but the buildings had condensed into one blurred mass. He couldn’t tell one from the other.

Dismayed now, and beginning to panic, he turned and heard the rattle of a trash can. A woman dumped a bag of household garbage.

He walked as best he could, for his legs were beginning to bend in an unnatural way and he hobbled. He approached the woman and tried to tell her about the horrible place up the hill but the words were garbled, not words at all but a grinding sound like rocks being crushed.

She looked at him and shrieked in horror and ran inside.

He began to walk on and stopped. He discovered he was hungry, almost ravenously so. He turned to the garbage can and knocked aside the lid.

He leaned his head down and ate, shoveling the offal into his mouth with his pincer-like hands. The food, he figured, was at least organic.