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“You may have chosen me,” says Doctor Krill, “because my ad in the Yellow Pages said I used laughing gas, but this is no laughing matter.”

A response more eloquent than “um” is difficult. Gobs of cotton batting are wedged between my gums and lip, and there’s a plastic device spitting into my mouth, bubbling like an infernal hookah. Besides, more than twenty years have passed since the last time I found myself tilted back in a dental chair, oral cavity propped open, knuckles white from gripping the leatherette arms, and I’m paralyzed with terror.

“It’s a lucky thing you cracked that tooth with a jackhammer,” says Doctor Krill, “a blessing in disguise.”

I steel myself for a lecture on the periodontal perils of living the dentist-free life. Perhaps if I raise my eyebrows in the right way, he’ll turn up the dial on the nitrous oxide a notch.

“Now there’ll be x-rays, records.”

For example, let’s imagine I’m butchered by Hell’s Angels, say for a drug deal gone sour or just for a lark, and they burn me and my house to cinders to destroy the evidence. There’ll be a way to positively identify the remains. That’s the beauty, according to Doctor Krill, of accurate dental charts. A filling in a canine or the contour of an incisor offer much more permanent guides to who you are than the whorl in a thumbprint.

“Imagine a television mystery series featuring Perry Dontal, a raffish, devil-may-care wizard of a dental technician.”

He peers into my mouth at the future forensic evidence, digs at rotted pulp with a miniature pick-axe. It feels as though he’s excavating a site about the size of Vesuvius. Volcanoes also intrigued the Greek thinker and physician Empedocles. He took a swan dive into Etna’s smoking crater. Except Empedocles, as far as we know, didn’t visit a novelty shop to purchase a Groucho Marx disguise before making his famous leap, a ludicrously large nose with a bristly mustache and glasses with thick, black frames. And it’s unlikely that Empedocles favored an after-shave reeking of aggressive roses.

Doctor Krill wants to know if I’ve ever noticed, by the way, how the malefactors are often apprehended during a routine traffic stop for a burnt-out tail light or expired plates. That’s when the alert peace officer notices the unregistered revolvers and the semi-automatic rifle on the rear seat, the doobie big as a cigar still smoldering in the ash tray, the packets of suspicious white powder spilling out of the glove compartment, a pool of blood on the floor boards. Break one law, break them all must be the philosophy those numbnuts follow.

“What a hoot! Of course, it could be something less sinister.”

I’m wondering how Doctor Krill can look so deeply into my mouth without tickling my tonsils with his extravagant proboscis. I’m wondering if he has, in fact, secretly dialed me up a more copious supply of nitrous oxide.

I could simply suffer a heart attack, expire in a stroke or an avalanche. Weeks might go by before I’m discovered, decomposed, unrecognizable, the result of what the newspapers he reads delicately term “advanced insect activity.”

“Dental records. Starting with today’s. That’s how they’ll figure out who you are. Or were.”

If I weren’t a monster of ingratitude, I would thank my lucky stars. A mere few days ago I was a potential nonentity working on a landscaping job with my boss Zoltan near the top of Potrero Hill. The client wanted the cement pad some fool had poured in her back yard replaced by a lush, terraced green lawn. Zoltan busied himself with constructing a brick retaining wall while I was manhandling the jackhammer to break up the cement. More accurately, the jackhammer, so heavy I could hardly move it from place to place, was manhandling me. I held on gamely, clenching my jaw to keep my bones from jolting apart, my brain from being pureed by the shaking. Thunka thunka thunka thunka went the jacka jacka hammer. Crack went a molar on the lower right.

“Ready for some real fun?”

Doctor Krill, the overhead spotlight turning his glasses into gleaming mirrors, reaches for the swing arm of the electric high-speed drill. He inserts a bit, then stamps a floor pedal to gun the drill a couple times, sort of like a drag racer at a red light.

“Change one letter in my name and it would be perfect for my profession. As it is, my mother should’ve named me Jonah. For whale food. Get it?”

The drill whines. I swear I can see smoke as tooth turns to dust. I can certainly smell the acrid stench of enamel and compromised dentin in a losing battle with whatever metal coats the tip of the drill.

“The great thing about root canals is you really get to know the patient.”

The dentist with the almost-perfect name is clearly delighted that this is no measly little amalgam job, no wham-bam thank you ma’am drill and fill quickie.

He’s soon regaling me with details of his most recent amorous exploit, repeated mountings of a lithe young filly in filmy red lingerie. Doctor Krill’s elaborate narrative resembles a Japanese shunga, one of those erotic prints in which an impossibly endowed samurai lover jackhammers a geisha chewing the sleeve of her ornate kimono, a gesture meant to convey ecstasy indescribable, perhaps even unendurable. And, as in many of these “spring pictures,” there is an observer of the carnal carnival. In this case, the voyeur, or voyeureuse, is Doctor Krill’s wife. Best as I can make out, she’s still a lollapalooza at fifty, pert and trim and blessed with various organs that can perform anatomically improbable feats.

“Well, naturally she wants to up the ante and make the twosome a threesome.”

While I’m blocking out the picture of the wife joining the Groucho look-alike and his dolly in their folly, I’m also thinking about the gargantuan Samoan Zoltan hired to replace me on the jackhammer. Once, worried that the machine was out of order, he lifted it up near his face with one hand and turned it on to check out the pulsating blade. It jiggled the tattoos on his beefy bicep a bit, but his arm didn’t budge an inch. The jackhammer might as well have been a jim-dandy mechanical toothpick ordered over the Home Shopping Network. I’m thinking about how much he would charge to come sit on Doctor Krill. On the whole threesome, for that matter.

It’s a good thing the oral excavation is over. The laughing gas appears to be losing its effect. Twinges shoot into my brain as Doctor Krill probes with a pair of minute tweezers in the place formerly occupied by a decrepit tooth.

“I had to buy both of them new outfits. Ah, frailty, we know thy blessed name only too well.”

Have I heard the joke about Adam in the Garden of Eden? One day he hears a loud voice booming in the sky. Yo, it’s God. He’s come down to learn how the hominid He created from mud is faring in his fancy digs. Any complaints?

Adam replies that there are no really big ones. A few minor problems, maybe. He’s happy, for instance, with all the ripe breadfruit hanging on the trees waiting to be picked, the constant supply of fresh strawberries, succulent mangoes, papayas. But once in a while he gets a craving for a home-cooked meal. Roast beef, say, with mashed potatoes and gravy. Spareribs and hot cornbread muffins, even meatloaf. Understand?

God naturally understands Adam perfectly. He lets him know there’s a convenient remedy for his dinnertime longings. Anything else?

Well, far be it from God’s minion to complain about the weather in Paradise, the constantly blue sky and brilliant sun. Sometimes, though, the sunlight is just a mite too much, and it gives Adam a wee migraine. He’s sure it would vanish if there was only something that would douse cool drops of water on his temples, and then maybe rub them gently till the headache was coaxed away.

God can take care of that, too.

And then, it’s hard to talk about it, but Adam occasionally gets this peculiar sensation in his loins, kind of a tingling, warm, feverish even, and…

Before Adam can say another word, God promises to deal with the tingling feeling, too. Is that about it?

Far as Adam knows. God can really help?

Sure. He’s God, after all, isn’t He? Of course, God informs His first man, He can’t fix everything for nothing. It’s going to cost Adam something.

Cost? How much?

An arm and a leg, thunders the voice in the sky.

An arm and a leg? Adam is nonplussed.

The home-cooked meals, God reminds him, the headaches, the tingling. Adam’s asking for an awful lot.

Gee. Adam sits down on the back of a friendly crocodile. An arm and a leg. He rubs his chin whiskers and meditates on God’s offer. Time, which some claim doesn’t even exist in Paradise, passes. At last Adam speaks. He wants to know, chuckles Doctor Krill, what he can get for a rib.

“And there you have it,” grins the dentist, taking the tweezers out of my mouth.

They’re squeezed on something that looks like a sliver of gristle. He gazes at it with apparent awe, and seems to expect me to do the same.

“The nerve! Amazing, isn’t it, that such a small thing can cause such pain.”

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