Margaret ran her hands across the lap of her dress, taking great care to smooth its pale, pink surface of even the smallest of wrinkles. Her fingers, lined with their own wrinkles that she cared not to smooth, quivered slightly as she did. This was not unusual, and so she took them, one in the other, and placed them down into her lap. It was cold in the small waiting room, the rumble of the unseen air-conditioner giving the cold a constant voice, but Margaret wasn’t surprised at the chill. It was always cold here. At her feet sat her purse, inside of which she knew were the gloves Beth had bought for her for just these kinds of situations. Margaret, however, was stubborn. Beth liked to joke that age had made her mother stubborn, but Margaret knew she had always been this way. This morning she had woken up early to dress, to draw her makeup, and to paint her nails - pink as well to match her dress. She wasn’t about to cover them with gloves, however nice those gloves might be. Today was an important day.
A phone at the desk rang, a loud clattering ring that to Margaret had an air of musicality to it. Of laughter. It reminded her of the way the kookaburras had laughed in Australia, and how they had made little Beth laugh until she looked about to be sick. It was until then a hard trip, as it was their first with just the two of them. It had been the kookaburras that had brought the laughter back, and reassured Margaret that even if things would never be the same, that maybe they would still be alright. The ringing cut off abruptly, and the receptionist answered in a voice nearly as musical.
“Dr. Carruthers office, please hold.”
The waiting room, small as it was, was busy, with nearly every seat filled and a man and woman in line at the desk. The time of her appointment had come and gone fifteen minutes ago already, but that didn’t bother Margaret. She was used to waiting. The doctor was a busy man, and she had already waited six months to the day: the minimum amount between appointments. She didn’t mind waiting a few minutes more.
From across the room, a young girl in overalls and a bright yellow shirt, her hair pulled up into small pigtails, tottered towards Margaret. Her steps were big and ambitious, and her arms windmilled about reflexively to keep her steady as she swayed towards Margaret like a sailor missing her sea legs. Other patients quickly pulled all manner of bags and limbs out of her way, as she gave no indication of waiting for them to act. With a burst, the young girl closed the distance and latched onto Margaret’s dress, pulling a meaty fistful of the once-smooth fabric to steady herself. In her free hand she held a toy school bus, as yellow as her shirt. She beamed up at Margaret as she rolled the bus across her knees, leaving brief tire imprints in her dress.
"Beep beep, Nana." The wheels on the bus clattered as it drove around in a wide circle. "Beep beep!"
"Why hello there, darling." Margaret said, smiling down. The girl smiled back up at her, her auburn hair reminding Margaret of the deep red colour that Robert's hair had been. Beth's too, before it had darkened in adolescence. The colour of autumn leaves, of sunrises and sunsets. The young girl's smile was as wide as it was fearless, and it was punctuated by a gap in the upper middle where one little baby tooth was absent. Just behind the young girl trailed her mother, straddling another little child on her hip, wearing a weary smile as she looked apologetically at Margaret.
“I’m so sorry. Kayla, come. That isn’t your Nana.” She took the girl’s hand in hers, gently prying the tiny fingers from their tight grip on Margaret’s dress. “She hasn’t seen her Nana in so long I guess she’s forgotten what she looks like. Sorry to bother you.”
“Never you mind,” Margaret said. “Reminds me of my own, although that was some time ago. My own has her own now.” She turned her attention down to the child who, now realizing that indeed this was not her Nana, was hiding behind her mother’s leg. The bus made nervous back-and-forth movements on her thigh.
“What happened to your tooth sweetheart? You seem a bit young to be losing teeth. What’s the rush?”
The girl’s mother rolled her eyes as she placed an affectionate hand atop her daughter’s head.
“She’s a rambunctious one. Took a tumble off the couch and knocked it right out. Popped right back up though, and didn’t cry one bit. And now she’s convinced this means she’s a grown up, and the tooth fairy is going to come visit her. But I told her we needed to see what the dentist said first” She smoothed the girl’s hair. “Isn’t that right, Kayla?”
The girl peeked out from behind her mother’s leg, giving another bare glimpse of her gapped smile. Margaret smiled back, and thought about how much time would fit into that gap, before the new tooth would come to replace it. Bedtimes and birthday parties and visits with friends. How funny it was that sometimes a period of time could be defined by an absence.
“Well you be careful,” Margaret cooed to the shy girl. “No point rushing into growing up too fast. The tooth fairy won’t like that. Plus, when you’re my age you want to make sure you keep all of your teeth.” She smiled and rapped against one of her front teeth with the nail of her index finger, as if proving its authenticity.
From somewhere behind the mother, in the direction of the front desk, a woman cleared her voice and called out, “Margaret? You can come back now.”
Margaret stood, pressing her palms against both armrests to help steadily push herself into a stand. She collected her bag, gave one final smile to the young girl and her mother, and began carefully walking off towards the desk. The dental hygienist stood waiting for her, holding her clipboard to her chest, but Margaret did not rush. No sense taking a tumble, not now.
Once back in one of the examination rooms the hygienist helped her down into the seat and asked the standard series of questions, which Margaret happily answered, before beginning the standard cleaning routine. It wasn’t pleasant exactly - how could it be - but Margaret still felt a certain satisfaction as she sat open-mouthed, getting poked, prodded, and polished. She thought of the videos Beth had shown her on the computer of art restoration. How the restoration artists would wash and peel and scrape layers of gunk off of the paintings, making them look like the day they were painted, full of bright dresses, rosy cheeks. Surely Margaret had nothing quite as bad as that layer of gunk, but she felt some kinship to the paintings nonetheless. The hygienist even complimented her, saying that she had very nice teeth, catching herself before she followed it with “for someone your age”.
After thirty minutes, the hygienist finished, leaving Margaret to wait on her own for Dr. Carruthers. The muffled sounds of drills and suction hoses drifted into her room, but Margaret paid them no mind, softly humming a tune to herself. Shortly thereafter, there was a knock at the door and Dr. Carruthers entered. He looked fatigued - unsurprising given how busy the waiting room was - but happy to see her.
“Maggie, has it been six months again?” He said, his smile and voice muffled by the mask he wore across his face. Margaret was thankful when he pulled it down under his chin. “I wish all my patients were as dedicated to taking care of their teeth as you are.” He sat on the stool beside her, and began looking through her dental records.
“Well everything in your chart looks good. I’ll just have a quick look for myself, and then you’ll be able to get out of here without taking up too much of your day.” He put his mask back on, and began searching for some particular utensil when Margaret interrupted.
“You know it would have been my fiftieth anniversary today.” Margaret said, facing forward, her hands idly smoothing at her skirt.The doctor pulled his mask down again.
“Gosh, you’re right, Maggie I’m sorry. Today must be a difficult day for you.”
“Oh no, don’t worry. I didn’t mean to make you feel sorry for me. It just… just gets you thinking is all. Robert always said he liked my smile. You know that was the very first thing he ever complimented me on? Came up to me at a dance, when I didn’t know him from Adam, and told me I had the prettiest smile he’d ever seen. And then he asked me to dance, just like that. I’d never met a boy so bold. And see, all those years later, when he got sick he used to say he thought he’d miss my smile the most. He even joked that when he saw me next, the angels would get upset at me for ‘upstaging the pearly gates’. I guess that’s why it matters so much to me, keeping them in good shape and all. We’ve been waiting a long time, you see, and I don’t want to disappoint.”
The doctor paused a moment, his hands balanced over his array of tools.
“Well thank you for telling me that, Maggie. I didn’t know that story. Well, let me go ahead and take a look, but I already know what I’m going to see. You’ve got a wonderful smile, and there’s no way anyone could be disappointed.” He picked up the small mirror, and wheeled forward.
“Doctor? Could I ask just one more thing?”
“Yes, Maggie, what is it?”
“That song we danced to. It was that song, Smile. From the Chaplin film, but the Nat King Cole version was popular at the time. Do you think you could play that for me? While you work?”
“Of course, Maggie.” From behind her head, Margaret could hear the doctor taking out his phone, and begin typing. After a few moments, the sound of strings swept up as the music started. The doctor set the phone down on the tray beside him before wheeling around, repositioning the light above Margaret’s face.
“Alright, Maggie. Let’s take a look.”
The doctor worked silently, checking over her teeth as Margaret laid back, the lamp like a sun filling her with warmth and light. The music played and filled the room, and as the dulcet sounds of Nat King Cole’s voice began to ring into the room, she felt her feet tapping and swaying along to the beat.
If you smile
Through your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You'll see the sun come shining through for you