Tickling the teeth, the tongue, the lips, Dr. Rabinowitz-Drillstein would jab various metal objects into my mouth during my visits to his dentist office. Though the majority of dentists will have at their most depressed of times the faint scent of Scotch or some strong digestif, my humble tooth doctor lacked this characteristic, and quite mysteriously so.
Tragically born without a smell and finding few inclined to taste him, Rabinowitz-Drillstein had to compensate for his personal lack of sensation with the three remaining senses. But even then this strange, odorless man escaped detection by sight as he managed to hide himself from his patients, showing only two bloodlessly pale and hairless hands. When you began to turn to look from the back-wrenching chair, he stuck you in the side with his bony fingers, his pink pinky managing its way between ribs. You could sometimes move your eyelids back as if a sunroof and catch sight of his copper colored beard, cleanly cut and with sharp bristles, but even then you would get the poke in the gums. Though most children have nightmares about witches, ghosts, robbers, and giant German cucumbers, I feared and writhed, writhed and prayed because of the added assault to the bicuspids lying in wait if I insisted upon an upward turn of the chin from the chair and a quick snap of the neck which gave a view of his thick bottom lip swimming in a sea of facial hair and the underside of his nose with nostril hairs aplenty.
While applying fluoride, Rabinowitz-Drillstein distracted patients with Disney movies and, at certain times, would recite entire dialogues, extemporaneously sing whole songs with appropriate character voices to boot. He masked his voice such that you never knew how he actually spoke, never knew how he sounded, and he drilled and chiseled into cavities to block out what I imagined to be a rather cadent tenor, with a swooping adagio. I couldn’t catch him off guard with interrogation to provoke his voice, because when not speaking himself or drowning sound, he stretched out your mouth and cheeks, picking between your gums, asking if I had finished my Halloween candy. His voice probably had a sterility to it – a tolling bell in the tundra of Siberia, a heavy rock plunking in an azure lake and sinking, sinking deep in his chest. His voice became high and slurred when imitating Donald Duck, low and sonorous when changing to the genii from Aladdin, and floating and flying like a sparrow as Snow White.
His decisions struck me as rash, such as when, for no reason at all, he would put down the fluoride and tickle me with his fingers moving as fast as if performing a tin-pan-alley song on a clavichord. Cleanly struck, his fingers swam across the whiteness of my ribs under my Polo shirt, which I wore, for Mother told me that one is less likely to be accused of something (especially not flossing) when one dresses himself nicely. His Adam’s apple, decidedly large, though never seen, rumbled with his hacking laugh that had the shrill bite of a eunuch and the strained chuckled residue of a smoker. I could not see his yellow teeth, his sallow finger nails, just as I couldn’t see his blackening lungs. He masked himself, shrouded his own sounds with plinks on my ribs.
Before an upcoming appointment, Mother, over grilled cheese and tomato, commented that it’s amazing a dentist with such a successful practice keeps himself in such awful, horrible shape: she described in much detail the sagging of his stomach over his waist such as to hide the buckle of his belt, the jowls under the trimmed stem of his beard, the redness of his checks when he cackled. But his Hansel-like fingers belied all of his gluttony, all of his butter-ball frame.
After all appointments, in one voice or another, he said, “Don’t forget to raid the Treasure Chest.” There would be a clink, a clank, or a clunk, and he would disappear to his office, some obscure corner – this man without a face, too sophisticated for the banal puff of smoke. A female dental hygienist would replace him and, with her milky white coat, block my view of the escaping Rabinowitz-Drillstein, the whispered bangs of his footsteps just audible over the onscreen impromptu dance of Shirley Temple.
And so, I would make it to the Treasure Chest to take my complimentary tooth brush, my free floss, and my finger puppet; however, I always hoped to catch him even out of the office – a feat I have yet to accomplish to this day.
And how common it was in my youth in Princeton to see doctors for a Sunday stroll on Nassau Street – your pediatrician, one of the few people in the world to have had an extended look at your penis, would be with his wife enjoying the spring sunshine, your child psychologist wouldn’t say hello (yes, yes, this follows the agreement of confidentiality), but he was still in sight, able to be seen, a person outside of the darkness of that spic-and-span office.
You would think that someone who moved so quickly to disappear would sweat, yet Rabinowitz-Drillstein left no trace, no redolence, no scent, not even a mere whiff. If he perspired, I’m sure it would smell like something, for even further than asking what is nothing, I would propose a more appropriate question: “What does nothing smell like?” How with all of that supposed fat could he not smell doughy? Were his arms so long that he never once rolled that belly to rub against my shoulder, my elbow? I look back to consider what type of Houdini he really was, what type of illusion he continued to portray, to live. He was a man without any senses.
I wonder about him the same things I wonder about everyone else. How many languages does he speak, and does he have a native accent in each? Which wine does he prefer, white or red? What does he read when lounging on the beach? What does he do at night before bed?
I wonder about him the same things I wonder about every person. Does he take his caviar red or black? How is his Slavic soft “L”? Does he occasionally set his alarm for p.m. instead of a.m.? Does he pee in the middle urinal? Does he eat broccoli? Has he ever confessed his love to a woman?
If I ever encounter him, I promise you (mark my words!) I will take a big chomp out of his beefy cheeks. Maybe he has a taste, a salty one.