Gold, with a Cross
Jesus had been weighing the decision for days, sawing his tongue in and out of the gap, considering the possibilities. He had finally decided what he wanted: gold, with a cross. The cross would be on the front, carved in lightly so you might have to look twice.
He had knocked the tooth out against the grainy bottom of a swimming pool two weeks before, diving deeper than he meant, losing himself in the moment of cool, chemical blue. Slamming into the concrete felt like being punched in the face. He came up yelling, the thick, iron taste of blood in his mouth.
The gold had been his brother Edgar’s idea, since Edgar was the kind of guy who wore three gold necklaces at a time. But the idea of having the cross was all Jesus’s own. It had come to him, of course, at church. Ever since the accident, Jesus had developed a habit of inspecting people’s teeth when they spoke, of imagining the shape of them hiding behind closed lips. When Father Gutierez took the sip of the blood, Jesus pictured his teeth—crooked, overlapping like shacks leaning on a hillside, deep black grooves between them.
Dr Hibart’s first thought when he saw the kid in the doorway was that he looked like a young hooligan. The slicked hair and thin beginnings of a moustache reminded Dr Hibart of the groups of teenagers who loitered at the bus stop near the garage where he parked his clunker Toyota every morning. In baggy jeans and sports jerseys, they yelled into cell phones, their arms around girlfriends in tight skirts, wearing shirts that looked like they were made of fishing nets.
Dr Hibart thought these kids spent too much of their time on the street corner, looked too much like they were waiting for something to happen. This particular kid in the doorway looked too young for that group, though, surely no older than thirteen. And despite his longish hair shining with gel and his oversize t-shirt with a graffiti-style logo, he had a nice way about him. The missing tooth gave him a loopy look that Dr Hibart found endearing. He remembered his own young self, talking back to his parents for the first exhilarating time when he was eleven, not caring that his father would beat him with a belt for saying the word ‘bullshit.’ He had wanted the beating, actually, perhaps had even provoked it, so that his brother couldn’t call him a sissy anymore. So he could finally be a man, a guy who gets hit with a hard strip of leather and doesn’t cry, not even once.
Jesus looked at the dentist looming over the chair, his teeth small and straight, his eyebrows raised in alarm when Jesus pronounced the word ‘gold.’ The gold front tooth with a cross in it would be the exact opposite of what the dentist would want, which was partly why Jesus wanted it. The dentist surely thought it should be white and plain like every other tooth. The dentist was white and plain, too, and had a paunchy belly and flying snatches of balding hair above his ears. Jesus suspected the dentist did not approve of gold, that he bought his wife only fussy, silver things studded with diamonds.
Jesus thought it best not to mention the cross to the dentist, since he knew this guy named Suarez, one of Edgar’s friends, who could carve it in for him later, after the tooth was in his mouth. Jesus imagined that the dentist did not approve of putting religious symbols on front teeth, gold or otherwise.
But being religious wasn’t necessarily the point. The cross would be more of a symbol of the faith that held his family together than it would be of God himself. The family of eight attended mass every week at Iglesia de la Virgen on Route 15, where Jesus had been baptized in the fancy font and taken his first communion just last year. He was glad of that now, despite his wavering sense of God, because he wanted to know how people lived life where he had come from, where he was born. He had no memory of his native country, but his parents still lived immersed in a squeezing nostalgia for the valleys and cities in which they had grown up. The cross in the tooth would say: El Salvador.
And the cross would describe in the merest glimmer the rhythms of his current home, a poor, gang-addled neighborhood on the outskirts of this brutal and dirty American city, an area where his little sister Irma could only play safely inside, allowing her dolls on pretend picnics to run through imaginary grass. The people of his neighborhood were bonded together by their burning dedication to God and Jesus and the Virgin Mary, able to bear up under the pressure of continual violence and crushing poverty because they were buoyed by the certainty of a divine and perfect love. Their ability to endure was just as inspiring as any God that Jesus could have found in the wide, blue sky.
The dentist said, of course, that he did not work with gold. ‘I do replacement teeth in white only,’ he pronounced slowly, as if Jesus would not understand his English. ‘I don’t do gold teeth.’ Gold teeth seemed to him, no doubt, to be related to mobsters and gang members. ‘Low-lifes,’ he would call them, alone in his parlor with his needle-nosed wife.
‘I guess I’ll go somewhere else, then,’ said Jesus casually, waiting with a thrilling sense of anticipation for the shock on the dentist’s face.
‘Honestly,’ said the dentist. ‘You don’t really want a gold tooth in the front of your mouth. No one will take you seriously. I’ll put in a white one. You’ll be on your way in no time.’ He rapidly clipped an aquamarine paper bib around Jesus’s neck and swung the light on its hydraulic arm into place above the chair.
‘Gold or nothing,’ said Jesus, allowing a note of challenge to creep into his voice. ‘Quiero solo oro.’ He almost hated himself for provoking the poor man that way, allowing the statement to slip out in Spanish, to become some kind of taunt. It was the same way he heard Edgar talk to the teachers at school. The dentist blinked in what Jesus took to be a dense and uncomprehending way.
Dr Hibart felt he was losing stamina. He didn’t know how many more times he could calmly examine mouths studded with cavities, lance the abscesses of poor oral hygiene, put up with the attitudes of burgeoning gang members. It was all so noble, but it was exhausting. When he had set up his storefront twenty years ago, bursting with the charitable spirit, he had never imagined that the people he was trying to help would resent him, find him suspicious, demand discounts on services that should rightly be twice as expensive as the prices he was asking. The people of this forgotten corner of the city seemed to feel entitled to what he was so generously offering. Inexplicable, he thought, how people didn’t realize he was doing them a favour.
And now here was this kid, asking for a gold front tooth, like Dr Hibart was some kind of ghetto jewellery store. He thought about his wife Clara, just last night, insisting over dinner that he move his practice to the suburbs.
‘Just think,’ she had said, ‘we could go on another cruise next winter. With the money you’d make.’
And to be honest, it didn’t sound half bad. He could picture himself on the deck of an ocean liner, a gin and tonic balanced on the arm of his chair, the great blue iron of sea and sky pressing the wrinkles out of him.
But, even so, he didn’t know if he could. He had spent so many years being the good guy, giving back to the world, fulfilling his responsibility as a son of privilege. It was what he was supposed to do, the role he had always played, and the people here depended on him. He was needed in a way other people weren’t.
Even if at times the need did overwhelm him. It got exhausting, always coming to their rescue. Old Mr Santos, with his twelve teeth, five poodles, and one pair of shoes. Mrs Palmero, whose son was a crooked cop taking bribes from the gangs to neglect patrolling his own mother’s block. Little Ricky Lindo, with the biggest smile around and teeth so prone to cavities he was in the office every other week. At times he desperately wanted to close his office door and leave them all to fend for themselves. He could be on a cruise ship while they went on living their miserable lives, which he was never going to be able to fix anyway. But there were only two other dentists in the area, neither of whom properly sterilized his instruments, and Dr Hibart knew he would never forgive himself for selling out.
‘I know you feel an obligation, dear,’ Clara had said. ‘But honestly, how many more years? It was really a youthful fling, wasn’t it? And what about us? I was thinking it would be nice to go to Venice again.’
Listening to this punk kid talk about putting a gold tooth in his mouth, Dr Hibart suddenly felt an incredible fatigue. Venice, he thought. Canals and gondolas and cobbled alleyways. Pasta and wine and cannoli. Venice would be very nice.
‘No oro,’ the dentist said, picking up a sharp instrument as if to threaten with it. ‘Blanco o nada.’
Jesus blinked. He could feel his mouth fall open. The dentist had spoken in Spanish, the foreign words lurching through his pallid lips. They sounded almost unrecognizable, floating in the air over Jesus’s head, waiting for him to grasp them. Blanco o nada. White or nothing.
‘Dios,’ Jesus finally said, staring hard at the dentist, wondering if perhaps he had heard wrong. The man’s pale blue eyes did not look like the kind that would open up onto a lush foliage of foreign language.
‘Blanco o nada,’ said the dentist again, brandishing his gleaming tool, a pointed hook.
‘¿Conoce Español?’ Jesus asked. Maybe the dentist only knew a few words. Perhaps this same argument had occurred before with someone else.
‘Todo sobre dientes,’ responded the dentist, picking up the small mirror on its silver stick. Tooth-Spanish was what he knew. He had learned it during a semester as a guest lecturer at the Escuela de Odontología in Buenos Aires. Sitting there with Jesus staring up at him, he thought fleetingly about the joys of dancing Tango with beautiful dentistry students in the sultry Argentinian air. Those were younger days, when Clara had been willing to learn the steps from handsome men after three margaritas, exchanging seductive glances with Dr Hibart as they wheeled by each other on the dance floor in the arms of strangers, gorgeous and coordinated partners who laughed with affection at their gawky, North American ways.
Jesus didn’t know the words for the different teeth; was unfamiliar with language in Spanish for things like fluoride, cavity, root canal. The dentist, it seemed, knew things in Jesus’s own language that he himself did not. He looked away from the dentist, toward the slat-blinded window.
Blanco o nada. He turned the question over. He had set his heart on the tooth with the cross carved into it. But he knew that in neighbourhoods other than his own, people did not have gold front teeth. White kids, the ones at he sometimes saw from afar who wore striped polo shirts and played baseball after school, did not have such teeth. Would he be making a fool of himself? Not that he wanted to be like them. He wanted to be him, Jesus, Salvadoreño. But he didn’t want those kids to laugh at him either. He thought for a moment about how the boys on the all-city soccer team he had qualified for that year called him ‘Holy Ghost,’ joking that he should go crucify himself when he missed a shot. ‘Hang it up, Jesus,’ they said, laughing. ‘Don’t you know how to cross the ball?’
‘But the thing is,’ Jesus told the dentist. ‘The thing is, I wanted to get something carved in the tooth. With gold, you can carve it.’ The gold he could forgo—after all, that wasn’t even his idea. But the cross, no way. He needed to have the cross.
‘Carve it?’ asked Dr Hibart, not sure the boy had spoken correctly. ‘What do you mean, carve it?’
‘Well, actually, a cross,’ said Jesus, tracing it with the tip of his finger on the space where the tooth used to be. ‘Católico,’ he said, touching the graffiti logo on his chest.
‘A cross on your tooth?’ The dentist considered for a moment, studying his own face in the mini tooth-mirror he held. ‘Ah, because you’re Jesus,’ he said finally, nodding as if he had figured out a riddle. The name sounded awkward in the dentist’s mouth, Hey-Zeus, the syllables distinct and separated, like two different words.
Jesus, in fact, hadn’t even thought of that connection, hadn’t realized that the cross on the tooth would be a symbol of who he was in a more literal way than he had imagined. Like a nametag. For a moment he felt that the dentist understood, that he might tell the dentist that his grandfather’s name had also been Jesus. His grandfather, who had grown coffee beans in El Salvador for thirty years until he was killed by a guerilla during the fighting in 1984.
‘Oh, well, yeah,’ Jesus said. ‘And just, you know, because my family’s Catholic and all.’ He couldn’t express to the dentist that he wanted the cross because he was afraid of losing himself in the battering bustle of life in the United States. The cross would create an invisible golden thread that could tie together his two cleaving halves.
The dentist nodded, pursing his lips and looking curiously at the space where Jesus’s front tooth used to be. He imagined the ridiculous look of this child with a gold tooth gleaming in his mouth, the unfortunate error to be regretted ever afterwards. But the boy had looked at him with such an earnest expression, laying bare on his face his desire to do something special, to impress the meaning of his life on his body. Perhaps it was something like the desire for a tattoo, Dr Hibart thought, which was an idea he had toyed with back in Argentina. The desire to change oneself to show the inside on the outside, to bear a small piece of your identity to the world.
‘Well,’ said Dr Hibart slowly, pausing, not quite sure he wanted to follow his own trail of reasoning. This reasoning might lead him places he didn’t want to go. But why not? A cross, so pious. A statement of this boy’s own true self, so honest. ‘If we do a white one, I can leave a cross-shaped indent.’ He paused again, reconsidering if in fact this was a good idea. What would Clara say about this new adventure?
Jesus did not want to hurt the dentist’s feelings, but he was not quite sure this scheme would be good enough. How would anybody see the cross carved into a white tooth? He needed to be bold. This tooth could not be a namby-pamby, white-man tooth.
‘Well, you see,’ continued the dentist quietly, as if he were telling Jesus a secret he was afraid his dental assistants would overhear. ‘If there’s a groove in the tooth, someone who works with gold can fill up the groove with gold. You could have a gold cross in a white tooth. Would be very good-looking, I imagine. Of course, you’d have to find someone else to do it. As I said, I don’t work in gold.’
The dentist ducked his head after he had finished speaking, shocked at what he was proposing to this kid. Was this a dentist’s office or a carnival? He could see Clara’s face in his mind, that shrewd look of hers over the tops of her half-glasses burning the inside of his stomach. But he could just imagine it, could see the process by which he’d shape the tooth, could picture the subtle shine of the finished product. Inside of Dr Hibart somewhere an artist was hidden, covered over by years of enamel. His wife did not know this part of him.
Jesus also had not suspected the depths of this dentist. The guy looked like every other white guy with a bad comb-over, but here he was, envisioning the exact tooth that was destined to fit into Jesus’s mouth. Like the dentist, Jesus could picture the beautiful finished product. He could see the way the tooth would look normal if glanced momentarily. But there would be a glint, a special gleaming, that would cause people to pause and look again. Then they would see it: a simple, gold cross, a statement of himself, Jesus.
‘Bueno,’ he said to the dentist, grinning, the gap with no tooth making him look lopsided and silly. ‘Diente blanco, cruz oro. Gracias.’
Dr Hibart smiled as he pressed the button to lean Jesus’s chair back. The boy looked like a young child with the tooth missing from the front, much less like the surly ruffian who had appeared half an hour before. Briefly, the dentist thought of his own son Charlie, estranged, living halfway across the country, he and his efficient wife in their house with the pleated draperies.
‘De nada,’ Dr Hibart said to Jesus, poising his mirror and his pointy hook as the kid opened wide for his inspection. AQ