Fiction: “Routine Cleaning” by Cate McGowan


Routine Cleaning

Streetlights still gleam—their night-timers tick toward daybreak. You drive dawn’s early light, the rush-hour race. You park in a pot-holed lot, sit for a minute, delay entrance to your periodontist’s building, sigh at the drizzle, murky sky, construction cranes. Across the street, ambulances blurt horns as they enter a hospital breezeway. An empty freight train clackets across crooked tracks. 

In the bare waiting room, you read glossy cooking magazines, yawn; you couldn’t chew half that food if you wanted to. The chirpy hygienist, sweet as saccharine, fetches you, clips a napkin on your chest like a baby’s bib. The old periodontist, who retired from the navy a decade ago, steps in, asks if you still floss. 

“Any new pains, any complaints?” He doesn’t wait for a response as he leans you back in the chair, regulates the bright over-light. His gloved fingers pinch the mask over his nose, knobbed hands grasping a hose and scraper, and an assistant takes notes, poises to poke more tubes deep into your maw. 

You mumble small-talk from your pried-open mouth. “Some election, huh?”  

He winks, yanks your jaw sideways, adjusts the operating-light like an interrogator. “This president’s our man!” You don’t reply, though you wish you could, your mouth all jacked open, and you fall silent as he grabs your chin. 

You suffer through air drills, cotton swabs, tinny tasting blood—all for a routine cleaning that borders on surgery, and then your captive gaze settles on a faded poster: a black cat stares at a closed orange door. Outside the window, palm fronds slap the glass, and you grab the arm rest to dull the points of pain. 

After a while, he stops, polishes his star-spangled goggles, and states, “America’ll be great again, you’ll see.” You fake-smile, grimace, really, trapped with your bad gums and good teeth. It’s a dental irony that you’ve never had a cavity, but will inevitably lose every incisor, canine, premolar and molar.

He yanks floss between your cleaned-out gaps, which are so much wider now, tugs off his mask and rubber gloves, pats your shoulder with his powdery hand.

“All better now, right?”

Cate McGowan is the author of the story collection, True Places Never Are (Moon City Press), which won the Moon City Press Short Fiction Award and was a finalist for the Lascaux Review Short Fiction Collection Contest. A Georgia native whose work is anthologized in outlets such as Flash Fiction International (W. W. Norton) and Descansos: Words from the Wayside (Darkhouse), her stories, essays, and poems have appeared in many literary publications, including Glimmer TrainCrab Orchard ReviewShenandoah, and Vestal Review. She’s currently pursuing a PhD in philosophy, aesthetics, and art theory. More:

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