By Ray Morrison
He lies awake, unable to sleep, and listens to sleet battering the bedroom window. The room is dark and cold, the darkness cut only by the green glow of the digital clock on the table next to him. Beside him, Liz’s soft, rhythmic breathing counters the sharp patter of the ice against the glass. He looks toward her, but she is invisible in the dim light. He leans close and catches the scent of her, a mix of her own natural smells and a flowery trace of soap. It helps dispel the uneasiness taking hold of him and he lies back down and closes his eyes.
He slips into a light sleep and for the fourth time that month has the same nightmare. In the dream, he is leaning over a boy, a dark-haired kid with a crewcut, whose wide, dilated eyes expose his fear. He tries to smile. Everything’s fine, he says. He steps on the drill and touches it to one of the boy’s teeth, but as soon as he does he senses something is wrong. The tooth shatters, tiny pieces of enamel shoot against his face, stinging him. The boy does not move. He touches the drill against another tooth, then another, again and again, until all the teeth have exploded, leaving the boy’s mouth full of empty, red pockets. He stares at the mess and hears himself ask, Where’s the blood?
The room is still dark when he awakens. He twists his upper body to the right to check the clock. 5:08. The sleet is still hitting the window, but seems to have lost some of its intensity. He sighs and rolls onto his back. Above him, shadows move across the ceiling. He can’t tell if they are real or imagined, the remnants of his bad dream.
He knows there is no point in trying to sleep anymore. He slides out of bed and dresses quietly. It is a few minutes before six when he opens the front door and steps onto the icy porch. The neighborhood is quiet beneath the dark, frozen clouds. Snow has begun to mix with the sleet. It’s a short drive to the office, but he decides to walk, despite the weather.
He turns left onto Westview, three blocks from Stratford Road, taking care as he walks on the slippery sidewalk. All the houses he passes are large and expensive and dark. The leafless branches of the trees lining the way droop under the weight of a thick coating of ice. The streetlight reflects off the icy branches, lighting them like living chandeliers. He is glad he decided to walk.
When he reaches Stratford Road, he turns right and is a little sad to leave the peacefulness of the residential streets. Bright business signs seem especially glaring in the gloomy, wet morning—the green of Heyman’s Jewelers, the blue of Blockbuster Video, the golden arches—incongruous in the muted, monochrome of the winter storm. Behind him, he hears the rattle of tire chains, and turns to see a city truck pass as it drops a slurry of sand and salt.
A block later he reaches his office and fishes the key from his pocket. He glances at the sign above the door as he unlocks it. A blue square with white letters. “Family Dentistry. Eric S. Crowder, D.D.S. and Gina Blalock, D.D.S.” Simple, the way he likes. Until five years ago, he had a nearly identical sign with just his own name that was the original sign he’d put up when he opened practice thirty-five years before. Stepping into the warm office, he marvels at how long, and yet how short, the time has seemed. Up until the past month he’d been excited about retirement, but now that his final day has arrived, he isn’t so certain he’s not going to miss it, after all.
He walks through the door separating the waiting area from the rest of the building and goes into the reception area to power up the computer. As was his routine for years, he next heads to the office’s small kitchen to start the coffeemaker before going to his private office at the very back of the building.
When he switches on the light, the sight of the empty office hits him with an unexpected and profound sadness. He’d spent the past week packing his personal effects and books and moving them to the house, but he is still unprepared. In front of him sits his desk, cluttered for dozens of years, now bare except for a telephone. It seems at once unreal and frightening in its starkness. Two large bookcases, their shelves devoid of books, sit like skeletons against the walls on each side of the office’s sole window behind the desk. He scans the walls in a slow arc, but these, too, are bare.
He walks behind the desk and opens the slats of the window blind. The sleet has picked up again and bounces off the frozen ground. Light from a tall lamppost reflects off a smooth sheet of ice that glazes the empty parking lot behind the building, its amber light filtering through the blinds to make wide stripes across the ceiling. He stares at the heavy sleet for a moment and wonders if they’ll even open the office that day.
On the floor next to the desk’s chair is a cardboard box he’s filled with the last of the office’s contents. he sits down and picks up a photograph poking from the box. He smiles at the young bride and groom, squinting against the sun. Surrounding the couple are the groomsmen, their tuxedos with wide lapels and even wider ties, and bridesmaids, all with matching Farrah Fawcett hairdos. He turns the photo over and reads the inscription. “Dr. Crowder, Thanks for making my wedding pictures perfect. You saved the day! Love, Lisa.” He smiles, remembering the frantic phone call, and then meeting the distraught bride-to-be two nights before her wedding to repair a broken incisor. Somehow three-quarters of the tooth had broken off during an unexplained accident at her bachelorette party. He replaces the photo in the box amid an assortment of gifts, children’s drawings and Play-Doh sculptures.
The smell of coffee drifts in from the hallway. Before carrying the box out, he decides to recheck the drawers of the desk. The large side drawers are empty. He pulls open the narrow middle drawer above the leg well. A scattering of paper clips and rubber bands litter several sheets of letterhead. He pulls the papers out and drops them onto the desktop. An envelope, yellowed and wrinkled, slides from among the sheets. Eleanor Roosevelt smiles from the faded 5-cent stamp in the upper right-hand corner. The envelope is addressed in an elegant script with a fountain pen. The ink was originally bright blue, he remembers, but is now a faint purple.
He turns the envelope over and reads the return address on the flap.: 976 Sylvan Road, Winston-Salem, No. Carolina. There is no name above the address, but he knows, just as he had the day the letter arrived, who had sent it. A gust of wind rattles the window behind him and he jumps. The ice striking the glass picks up in intensity, as if it is frantic to get in. He flips the worn flap and pulls out the letter. The letter is long, four pages, and he hasn’t read it in two years, but it is as familiar to him as the day he received it. He hears the distant sound of the city’s truck passing back in the opposite direction on Stratford Road out front. He begins to read.
“Dear Dr. Crowder,
My husband and I wish to thank you for your sweet letter. We are grateful, too, for the kindness and compassion you have shown us since our sweet Jimmy was taken from us.”
He lets the pages fall to the desk and leans back. For several minutes, his eyes fix on the orange bars of light crossing the ceiling, then close. In an instant, he is standing in his old exam room, where the kitchen is now, and he is looking at Jimmy Toscano, eight-years-old and terrified at his first visit to the dentist. He smiles at Jimmy and tells him everything’s fine, even rubs the boy’s crewcut head to calm him. “You’ve got a badly infected tooth that needs to be pulled, Jimmy,” he says. “But I promise you won’t feel anything. We’re going to let you sleep through the whole thing. How will that be?” The boy looks at him with eyes that remind him of a trapped rabbit. “Will it hurt?” the boy asks. He smiles and assures him it won’t.
The scene freezes, like it is painted on the office’s ceiling, and he looks away. His eyes drift around the empty walls, the ghost outlines of picture frames barely visible. He reaches to refold the letter, to slide it back into the envelope, but when he picks it up he finds the place he left off.
“I have heard from a friend that you have chosen, in light of Jimmy’s death, to give up your practice. Please, Dr. Crowder, reconsider this decision. What a tragedy it would be, indeed, if this unfortunate accident led to the end of two lives.”
He has read the letter many times, but still his hand shakes as he holds it. Images flood his mind, unbidden, the same images that always come to him as he reads its words, as though they are the script to a movie he has seen over and over to the point of knowing each line, each action. Jimmy Toscano’s small, frightened face relaxing as he administers the anesthetic. He turns away to arrange his instruments on a tray. He selects a root elevator, turns back to the boy and is frozen by the sight of Jimmy’s pale blue skin and purple lips. His voice echoes as he yells for Colleen, his only assistant, who doubles as his receptionist. They work frantically to perform CPR while they wait for the ambulance. When the paramedics arrive they have to drag him off Jimmy so they can work. He stumbles back and sees Jimmy’s mother standing in the doorway, her hands over her mouth, her eyes mirroring his own shock.
The memories speed up. He sees the months that followed Jimmy’s funeral—his inability to work, his accelerated drinking, the investigation by the North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners and their final ruling that he was not at fault, that Jimmy simply had an unanticipated adverse reaction to the anesthesia. And his decision to quit. Last, he remembers Liz bringing in the mail one day, handing him the letter from Valerie Toscano.
He turns the pages over and traces his finger along the elegant script. His eyes follow its path until it stops on the final paragraph. He doesn’t read the words, doesn’t need to. The words, spoken in the soft, pained voice of Jimmy’s mother, come to him anyway.
“Neither of us can change what God has chosen for Jimmy. Although his life has ended, yours is, in a great sense, just beginning. Live that life fully and well, Dr. Crowder. It is ironic to me that in life we are rarely able, no matter how hard we work toward them, to guarantee our successes, yet can quite easily choose our failures. Please use my sweet Jimmy’s death to inspire you to always provide the best care possible for your patients. May God bless and keep you always.”
He stands and turns to the window. He holds the letter at his side. The sleet comes down in silver streaks, and as he watches it he knows he’s already worked his last day.
With his free hand he reaches between the blind slats and touches the icy glass with his fingertips. Karen Sizemore, he whispers. She moved to Winston-Salem from Texas with her husband who had taken a job with Reynolds Tobacco. Mrs. Sizemore is in for a routine exam and cleaning and was unaware that she was his first patient after Jimmy Toscano’s death. Everything went well with the exam, and the entire day. He took his work day-by-day for many months, and was able to slip into a routine that allowed him to run his practice.
He twists the rod and closes the blind. He folds the letter, replaces it in the envelope, and then slips it into his pants pocket. He phones his office manager and tells her to call the rest of the staff to inform them that the office will be closed due to the weather. The office manager is disappointed because they’d planned a small retirement party, but he promises that he’ll come back soon so they can celebrate.
He stands in the doorway to his office and hesitates before turning off the light. He goes into the kitchen and switches off the coffeemaker. A large mug, shaped liked a molar, sits next to it. The mug is a gift from a client, but he can’t remember which one. He picks it up and puts it in the box cradled under his arm. Once up front, he powers off the computer. Only then does he remember that he’s walked to the office. He pushes the box of mementos under the desk in the reception area and scribbles a note that he’ll come by to pick it up the following week. In the quiet office he can hear the crackle of the monitor as it shuts down. As he sticks the Post-it to the desk, the computer finishes shutting down but the crackling noise continues. It takes him a moment to realize he’s hearing the light tap of the sleet against the front door.
When he walks outside, there is little time to contemplate the finality of leaving. The wind blows hard and he struggles not just to get his umbrella opened, but to keep it open. He points it in front of him like a shield against the sharp bite of the ice stinging his face. During his brief time inside, the sky has lightened and some people, by choice or necessity, have ventured outside. He moves forward against the wind, lifting the umbrella to check his path and get his bearings. It takes five minutes to walk the one block to Westview. When he makes the turn, his thighs ache, but he’s relieved to be out of the headwind. His house is three blocks away, too far to see, but he stops and looks down the street. Despite heavy clouds, the early morning sky has muted the streetlight enough to diminish their magical effect on the ice-covered trees.
With the umbrella angled to his right, he plods along the wet, messy sidewalk. The portions of his pants below his coat are soaked, clinging to his legs. He is shivering and miserable and unsettled. An SUV passes from behind, surprising him, and sprays slush around his feet. He hesitates, but when he looks up he sees his house only a block away.
He crosses the street with renewed energy, hoping Liz is still asleep so he can crawl back into their warm bed and snuggle her awake. His boots are soggy and in his haste he nearly slips walking up the brick path leading from the sidewalk to their front door. He rests the umbrella’s handle on his shoulder and wiggles his fingers into his wet pocket for his keys. He feels the damp envelope and pulls it out. Several large drops of water splash onto it from the eave overhead. The ink runs in purple streaks along the paper. In seconds, the entire envelope is soaked. He drops the umbrella next to his feet and attempts to remove the letter. The pages are heavy and wet and the writing is blurred. He hunches over them, to shield them, but rain fall from his hair, large drops which explode against the paper, sending purple streams down the sheets. He peels them apart, but they tear in the process. His fingers are covered in ink. His eyes find isolated words—compassion, darling, failures—but these disintegrate with the rest.
He holds the sodden mass, no longer readable or salvageable, in his palm. It feels heavy. He straightens up, shivering as sleet hits the back of his neck, and then wads the remains of the letter in his hand.
In the entryway, he removes his coat and boots and drops them on the floor. The house is dark and quiet; Liz is still asleep. He goes into the kitchen and lets the warmth of the house soak into him. At the pantry, he stands for a moment looking at the remnants of the letter in his open palm, and then drops it into the trash can.
He walks across the room and, for the second time that morning, he measures coffee and fills the coffeemaker with water. He presses the start button and hears footsteps through the ceiling. He takes two cups from the cabinet and waits for the coffee to brew. He fills the cups, adds sugar and cream to Liz’s, and heads upstairs to change into dry clothes.
Ray Morrison spent most of his childhood in Brooklyn, NY and Washington, DC but headed south after college to earn his degree in veterinary medicine and he hasn’t looked north since. He has happily settled in Winston-Salem, NC with his wife and three children where, when he is not writing short stories, he ministers to the needs of dogs, cats and rodents. His debut collection of short stories, “In a World of Small Truths” (Press 53), was released in November, 2012. His fiction has appeared in numerous journals and magazines, as well as several fiction anthologies. He won First Prize in the Short Story category of the 2011 Press 53 Open Awards and he has twice won Honorable Mention in the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition.
Ray comes to CCD from the Winston-Salem Writer’s. Find out about this vital local organization HERE.