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The Dentist Chair

by Kay Sundstrom



Almost every afternoon, they wrestled and swarmed to be the one to sit in the dentist chair. For whomever sat in the dentist chair was ruler, monarch, benign dictator, the physical manifestation of the will of the people. That was the decree.

Leanne and Shara's father found the chair in some castoff furniture auction. He dragged it home on a whim, and added it to his collection of bar stools, fake maple cabinets and pastel dish strainers. "They may come in useful," he told his wife surveying the things gathered hodge podge in their back yard.

Perched on a battered picnic table, the dentist chair paid court to bales of wire, spare tires and a broken refrigerator, door sprung open and sagging with rust and tree sap. The sun had cracked its leather seat; and stuffing burnt the color of pale goldenrod poked through the ripped leather. "Scarecrow fingers," the kids would yell and pull it into wisps that floated, light as dandelion fluff.

Every afternoon that summer, Leanne, Shara and their friends played until dusk, surrounded by elms, pepper and orange trees, the ground coarse with pebbles, golden poppies, spiky leafed weeds and matchbox cars. They played until the clear light dulled into blunt night.

Caught in the falling light, they played all types of games: tag, hide and seek, London Bridge, dodgeball, and hopscotch with squares scratched neatly in the dirt. They played counting games and jacks, eenie meenie minie mo, catch a tiger by his toe, if he hollers, make him pay fifty dollars every day, you are not it.

But eight year old Leanne was always "it", the smallest, weakest, the last and the least, the last to be picked or asked. Catch a tiger by his toe; but Leanne rarely caught anything, neither balls nor people nor jacks. But they belonged to one another stitched together by the knowledge that this is how it always was and always will be. Hemmed in by the sound of their mothers' voices calling them home, they flew around each other like fireflies drawn by the heat and light of each other's bodies.

But of all their games, the dentist chair was their favorite. They laboriously printed on the back of one of Rebecca's misguided spelling papers, "Will get to be King and tell everyone else what to do." Then each one signed with a prick of blood.

On another hot muggy dusty summer day a very long time ago, a Georgian doctor saddled his gelding, tightening the straps so slowly the horse wondered at what his master was doing. The doctor had just signed a treasonous document separating himself from his divinely appointed monarch.

In this existence, he possessed only a few things; a wife, five children, his honor, his blunt thick hands and a chestnut gelding with a rosette fetlock. And he wagered them all on the belief that no man should be held subject to the whims, fancies, complaints and humors of one man no matter how divine his blood and lineage. In the sunlight, the doctor's hair glinted the same pale yellow as the dentist chair's stuffing.

Leanne turned ferocious whenever she scrambled her way to the chair. She bit and scratched, leaving marks red as spider bites. Her small tennis shoe shod feet sent the other kids tumbling from the table and all the King's men couldn't .... But Leanne could.

Her sister Shara just stood in awe watching her, Leanne usually so quiet and biddable, the other kids picking on her, teasing her until Leanne cried hot and dazzled with frustration. "Crybaby, crybaby."

Sometimes they threw the dodgeball so hard, Leanne gasped, her breath having no place to go. On Saint Patrick's day, they scribbled green crayon hearts and trees on her blue plaid skirt. Then they pinched her anyway, fingernails hard as black beetle pinchers. But they believed they liked her. She was one of them.

Shara never thought of protecting Leanne. She knew it would simply make it worst, draw the line, pick sides, declare war, duck, duck, duck, goose. Leanne needed to learn how to belong, adopt the chameleon game, accept her place.

But now Shara started to wonder. She was approaching thirteen, adolescence being some unknown land where perhaps monsters dwelt with scales intricate as a Damask rug. She was beginning to question the warp of their lives, the pecking order, the idea that they will always be what they are, a thread dyed a single color. She was changing so why couldn't the world?

"Those upstart colonies," tongues wagged in 18th century London; but the traitorous doctor simply wanted to create a new world. But in their eyes, he belonged to them, a second class colonist, a goose among ducks. There was no place for a new world in the folds of the old. Hierarchies and patterns had already been determined.

The doctor glanced up at the swinging wooden sign above him, a carved rooster vainglorious with plumage who trumpeted the name of the inn in bold dark letters. When he was a young boy in England, he sighted a hanged pickpocket, thirteen-ear olds, crow-pecked eyes, the strands of his hair plucked for nests. They let the pickpocket hang until his bones were scoured by sun and rain and frost. He served as a reminder, the sin of wanting more than what the world had rendered you.

But in the presence of the dentist chair, something surfaced in Leanne. At first, Shara murmured bewilderedly, "Leanne, what are you doing." She caught herself almost saying, "Don't play so rough." But startled by this taint of mother in her voice, she clamped her mouth shut with the abruptness of a snapping turtle or a gallows trapdoor.

Leanne was the youngest; her initial entrance into their games was a favor, a gesture of grace. There was protocol in games, hierarchies of privilege; but Leanne wanted transformation, desire budding beneath her skin like hard tight wings. She didn't want to be poor weak Leanne anymore. She wanted to be what her tormentors were, offhand and treacherous with power.

Sometimes some of the others would stare at Shara with narrowed eyes as though Leanne's fierceness was an infection, some taint in their family's blood; they were sisters after all.

The others usually let Leanne rule once she fought her way to the chair. It wasn't worth insurrection. Besides it was their rules that embodied, emboldened her. Once enthroned, Leanne usually just perched there, itchy and restless with satisfaction while the others jumped rope, played jacks or freeze tag. Maybe it was the prick of summer's ending, a narrowing of light or life; or maybe the seeds that had drifted into the chair's stuffing took root and bloomed, sending strange pollen into the air; whatever.

But today when Leanne acquired her throne, she opened her mouth then closed it and then pronounced ... "I can tell you to do anything," she said, her voice slightly wondering, as though she wasn't certain of the world the words were leading her to.

"What?" Eileen peered up from a scattering of parrot bright jacks.

"I can tell you to do anything, it's says so here," Leanne repeated pointing to their proclamation thumbtack to the chair's back.

"I guess," Richard answered with a shrug.

"But you all signed in blood."

They started to shift nervously and nod their heads, bobbing marionettes all in a row. They had signed, their bloody signatures dry as dead twigs.

"So you have to."

And they had to; they signed. They consigned their selves, their fortunes and their honor.

After signing his name, the Georgia doctor thought briefly of hiding his wife and children in case this liberty thing became a bloody pratfall. But he had pledged them, had pledged everything to rid himself of a king, King George III, who wasn't even that bloodthirsty just stubborn, mad and German.

Startled by the firmness of Leanne's voice Shara paused in her dayreaming. Her knees brittle with scabs and bruises, she had been leaning against the fence, peering through the wooden slats at two high school boys working on a Mustang.

"Bring the milk crate over here," Leanne ordered.

No one moved.

"Bring the milk crate over here," and her voice became even more assured. Dragging his feet, Richard snagged the blue latticed milk crate disturbing hard winged beetles that scuttled from the light, black as grapeshot.

"There," Leanne said pointing at a patch of weeds in front of her; and there it went. Shara almost halted the game; but then she stopped. The game had already started, a game both new and inevitable.

With growing imperiousness almost prim in its control, Leanne ordered Tom to find a piece of square metal, an old cookie tray,, serving platter or tin shutter.

"Now the executions will begin," Leanne announced both frightened and exhilarated. For a moment they all stared at her, bewildered as internal hierarchies shifted, hidden and profound as an earthquake. You have to maintain a hierarchy, a pecking order; with ranks and reputations sharp as beaks.

When Eileen questioned her bloodthirstiness, Leanne answered that if God commanded the dogs to eat the marrow of Jezebel's bones, she could order heads to be chopped. And she smiled, her body burnished and tingling as though she was riding a roller coaster plunge. The others just shrugged or sighed. They all remembered Preacher Dowlin telling of the Jezebel feast, telling them about sin and blood thick as blistered paint.

The doctor knew another story about an old world thick and stiff with arrogance, tradition, with the way things always were. On maps, they drew fantastical monsters in the land beyond known boundaries. But to escape the monsters of the old world, his family braved the monsters of the new by boarding a ship when he was eleven. The doctor wanted a new world possessing neither guillotines nor kings, which is why he was willing to catch a tiger by the toe and ride it even to the gallows.

And today, the kids had discovered a different world. They were snared in Leanne's excitement, little woodcocks and sparrows; besides they had signed in blood. They promised. So they lined up to be executed, a line orderly as a classroom line, Leanne calling out their names, a roll call of grace.

The blue plastic milk crate performed as execution block, a dented cookie tin played the guillotine blade. Tom the tallest kid, served as the guillotine. He whistled through his teeth, a sly wishing sliding scraping noise whenever he brought the blade down on a bent neck.

The executions of the moment approached the block like real executions. Tom tied all their hands with hunks of old baling wire before he resumed his post of executioner. Now that he had been appointed executioner, Tom presided solemn-faced with the gravity of his station, heavy and solid as a falling apple, except for that whistle.

Jeanne had to be dragged pleading and crying across the sticky prickly ground. She was the crybaby now. Others darted disdainful looks at their king, grumbling silently she was only a stupid baby; but they still lay their heads on the milk crate, the weeds stitching a rash on their knees. And when the cookie sheet guillotine grazed the back of their necks, they death gurgled, screamed and rolled twitching, a pantheon of hammy stage actors.

Except Eileen who simply put her head down on the crate, somersaulted over, scrambled up an elm and refused to come down until she was pardoned. "I ain't gonna die," she said, shaking her head until her braids slapped the net of interlaced elm branches.

Leanne consented to mercy; touched Eileen's head with a grubby gentle hand. "I forgive," she said and then corrected herself, "We forgive." And Eileen spun chanting, "I don't have to die, I don't have to die, but you do," until she collapsed from dizziness, the world blurring in her eyes.

Shara's name was never called. She stood by the chain linked fence and watched. "You didn't change anything," she wanted to tell Leanne. It wasn't a new world, just a new game. Leanne simply inverted the world. And the wild rawness of Leanne perched on her throne frightened her.

No one person should have that power, the doctor thought remembering the sway of the hanged pickpocket, his body stretched by its own weight. They called his king "Farmer George." A farmer could wring a chicken's neck so why couldn't a king snap a subject's neck? But he shouldn't.

The doctor offered his gelding an apple, the horse's soft nose snuffling the palm of his hand. He watched the sun slowly fall from the sky, swallowed and lost in a horizon of trees and church spires. The doctor knew if he and his friends lost their revolution, they would be beheaded, hung, shot at dusk; surrounded by watching crowds; their shadows interlaced; the ground hard and prickly; chicken pecking at the gravel; their wrists raw from the ropes.

"Off with their heads," Leanne ordered serene in the world she has created.

The last shall be first. And only through blood would things be equal. Catch a tiger by his toe and if he hollers, make him pay. And Leanne was going to make the world pay for all the teasing, baiting, pulled hair and balls thrown too hard.

She took all the cruelty inside until it became for a moment her bones and blood.

Shara stared intently at her sister knowing that they had left each other behind, a continent filled with mythical monsters between them.

The blood wasn't real, but it was. Death was being tagged "It", the pause, hush, gasp between one game and the next. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down; but then we rise from the dead. Even though the twisted wire left engraved lines on their wrists that lasted for days.

The doctor created a new world. But like a horse needing a bridle, his new world still needed order, rank, blood and falls from grace. Was the possibility of his death real for him, real as the ink blot on the palm of his hand, the quill pen softer than rope or wire. This new world would be the death of something, perhaps the death of him.

Or did he believe in the magic words, "We forgive?" Olly Olly oxen free, you are not it, click your heels three times. Whatever he believed, he still shivered thick with excitement, passion and wonder; watching as something died and something became; and it would never be as it always was even if they all died.

He did wonder if everything would blur before that moment of death or would the world be sharp as a washed blade, the executioner whistling "River in the Pines," each pebble bright as a sun, death a clear line between now and soon. But soon is always a death, the present dying, an old world, we all fall down.

All summer, the days scattering like beads from a broken necklace, Leanne had watched Shara slip away from her into some land she couldn't even see.

"Hurry," Leanne cried out in a high wild voice as she watched the sun slide into the mountains. Perhaps now Shara would come back to her.


Kay Sundstrom was a Stegner Writing Fellow at Stanford
University and has published poems and short stories in
Threepenny Review, Berkeley Poetry Review, and several
other small magazines. "I am also sporadically working
on a one woman show which I performed as a work in
progress at Climate Theatre in San Francisco years ago.
I exist as the devoted feeder and caretaker for two guppies
named Fin Rot and Floater. Floater tends to be the more Zen
serene of the two.
"

 

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