A New Nuclear

There is nothing like the smell of a nonvital tooth. First whiff is almost sweet, thinks Patty, like rotting fruit, then sour, then feral.  

“Dead,” says the dentist as he drops the tooth, which looks like a gray kernel of corn. It make a tinny plinking sound as it hits the metal plate Patty holds in front of her face. Gray and smooth as a pearl, with barely a root. “Dead for a long time,” he says. 

Two years a dental hygienist and Patty has long outgrown the gag reflex she used to hide behind her hand, or beneath one of the sterile white masks the patients hated her to wear. She is a veteran now, and the smells of this job hardly faze her: rancid breath, decay, disease, antiseptic, hot metal, burning bone.  

The dentist finishes up and packs the patient’s wet socket with gauze. He leaves the room, and Patty raises the chair back for the patient, an older man. Then she helps him to stand and takes him by the arm.  

Arm in arm, she steers him down the narrow hallway to reception. The gauze gives the patient a chubby-cheeked look. All of a sudden, Patty misses her teenage daughter, June, gone for the summer, but pushes the thought away. Soon, the hole in the man’s jaw will heal. But Patty knows missing even something as small as a tooth will change the landscape of his face, maybe even how he sees himself.  

He’s as tall as a tree, in his 60s, with a full head of white hair. He will not be getting any kind of partial or bridge, he has said, waving away the idea with one of his meaty hands. Anyway, he couldn’t afford it. Laid off from Cleveland’s Republic Steel, maybe, or GM to the east, or Whirlpool to the west. Employment in the toilet now, 1987. The dentist did the extraction for free. In lieu of payment, the patient’s sister made the office some kind of Polish cookies with jam inside, four dozen. The pastry is shaped like tiny swaddled babies. 

“Take care,” Patty tells the patient as she shows him to the door.  

He speaks carefully around his numb cheek and wad of gauze. He says he has never seen a dentist before today. He’s lived this long without seatbelts in his truck, without a wife. 

Patty says nothing about his sister with the cookies. “The ladies will swoon now,” she teases, patting his arm. “You can smile again.”  

It seems he doesn’t hear her, already turned away and striding down the stairs and toward his truck in the parking lot. Patty watches him go. He turns his head and sticks a finger in his mouth to hook out the bloodied gauze. He flicks it onto the paved lot, and it falls into a crack in the asphalt. Later, when Patty goes out to her car, she will see that the balled-up mess looks like a white and red carnation miraculously blooming where there is only blacktop. 

At four o’clock on this Friday afternoon, the receptionist leaves. Patty washes up for the last time and takes her notes from the dentist, Don. “Slow with the suction today,” he criticizes, saying it without a hint of a sly grin.  

Perhaps it’s only Patty who turns innocent comments into lewd jokes, only middle-aged Patty who is childish and lonely. As a dentist, Don prides himself on speed—patients in, patients out—and his office organizational techniques he pulls from books with charismatic-looking, white-teethed, suntanned men on the covers. Patty finishes where the receptionist, who works hourly and under the table, left off, phoning next week’s patients to remind them of the late and missed appointments policy. “We’ll see you then,” says Patty. We, she says, even calls them honey sometimes, feeling comfortable, maybe too comfortable, at this job where there is no way for her to grow. 

She locks the front door of the office in a historic brick building that used to be a bank. It has a cupula up top and a large clock on the front that hasn’t kept time for all the years she has lived in this suburb by the lake. She stands at the window looking out onto the lot they share with the lawyer in the building and the medical lab technicians and the gray-haired life insurance agent with the polio limp.  

So much sickness and decay starts in the mouth, Patty thinks. Since she began working in mouths, she watches extra carefully what she says. She runs her tongue over her teeth, which Don bleaches for free, and she thinks about saying nothing and leaving, not the job, just walking out, tonight. She dreams of changing the routine but doesn’t do it. The office is warm; Don is fastidiously clean; his hands are small and soft. 

As they do most evenings, Patty and Don meet on a reclined dental chair for sex. She tells herself it’s natural: a man and a woman unattached. Growing up in a roughneck neighborhood on the east side of Cleveland, Patty figured she’d get herself in a spot like this: husband gone, another man having his way. Only dentist is a step in the right direction. And though Patty’s skirt is pooled around her middle and her right espadrille has fallen onto the linoleum floor, as Don pushes his way inside, she tries to keep her chin up. 

He finishes. Patty feels, if not true affection for Don, some kind of attractive determinism—as if they were fated to find each other, to satisfy each other’s wants in a habitual, medicinal way. Her life at present is less sad than it could be; Don is smart and gentle, gentler than she wants him to be sometimes. She smiles as she sits on the toilet down the hall, letting his seed seep from her. It has been five years since she’s had to worry about getting pregnant, about taking the pill. She suffered terrible cramps each month for a year and then night sweats and then the bleeding was done. Only a barren landscape of a uterus that had once grown something beautiful in June, eighteen now—her only child, whom Patty can’t afford to keep home for her last summer before college. What might bloom now in such unfertile terrain she doesn’t know.  

She leaves the dental office bathroom, and there’s Don, spiffed up, tie on, looking ready to brighten a smile, cure a virus, or insure a life. It’s a husk, she thinks, those looks. The collar of his shirt is over-starched, a dry cleaner’s work, and his chin skin spills over. As Don does most evenings, he kisses her on the head as she moves to grab her sweater and purse. He asks her if she’s ready to go. To get a drink, he means, at the same chain place every time: the red, white, and blue spot next to the mall, where Don can sit at the bar and buy the other patrons—entry-level retail clerks mostly—a round of Buds and feel like the big man for a minute. 

Tonight, she tells him she’s tired. The dead tooth, the placating kiss, the day like every other: it has become both too much and too little. She walks to her car alone, anticipating the coming day. She wonders if the man with the dead tooth might have wanted to hear about it, because she knows Don wouldn’t. A bunch of old hippies, he’d say, protesting the nuclear power plant, protesting power and progress, protesting plain old sense.  

Her plans for the morning she doesn’t tell Don about. She doesn’t tell him she will rise early, dress in the last decade’s bell-bottom jeans, go braless and free under the yellow “No Nukes!” T-shirt her new roommate, Joelle, gave her. She will raise her voice: for something, against something, Patty isn’t entirely sure. But Joelle’s excitement for organizing voices is a seed planted in Patty, already a warming, growing thing she can feel in her chest. 

Back in the old neighborhood, when her ex-husband and their friends were finding their own causes, Patty was carting around her precocious elementary-age daughter. It seems to Patty that she lost a phase of life, marrying June’s dad young, going from girl to mother without considering what her own place could be, what she might plant and tend.  

Patty and Joelle don’t speak much the next morning as they drink coffee and eat toast.  

“You might get hot,” says Joelle, looking at Patty’s bell-bottoms she pulled from an old box under her bed. Joelle is in shorts and a tank top and wears an orange scarf over her close-cropped hair.  

Patty tells Joelle she likes her old jeans, soft with wear. Early summer, the humidity hasn’t yet blanketed this place.  

“We might be out there a while, is all.” Joelle says. 

Out there is the entrance to the local nuclear power plant, their twin cooling towers like stumpy giants Patty has never given much thought to before, other than that they hurt the lake view. Truth is, when Joelle started in, a couple days ago, on the No Nukes stuff, Patty thought: nuclear warheads, the stuff of fallout sheltering nightmares and duck-and-cover bomb drills back in elementary school in the 50s. 

Now, Joelle drives the two of them to the protest site in her old VW bug. The inside of the car smells like freshly turned dirt, so unlike the antiseptic smell of the dental office. It’s new and overwhelming, the dirt smell, and Patty lowers her window and watches the route they take along the lake. She thinks of seasons changing, the earth turning, turning, turning, and she hums that old song that says as much. 

On one of Joelle’s first evenings in the condo, Patty helped her new roommate hang framed pictures where June’s teenage girl posters had been. Patty held the level as Joelle hammered in the nail. In one picture, Joelle pointed out her mother dressed in a big church hat, among a crowd standing with Carl B. Stokes, “first black mayor of a major U.S. city,” said Joelle. Even Patty knew that.  

“Not long after the Hough riots, here,” Patty chimed in, “when Cleveland could still be called a major anything.”  

The new roommates talked a little more about their dead mothers and the city where they had raised their children without much help from their men, a city that looked to be dying more every year. 

“And here we are,” said Patty, “looking at it from the outside,” from a safe suburb, is what she meant. Patty had in mind the image of a snow globe, pressing her nose against the glass, looking in at Cleveland, the city where she learned to talk and bike, to swim and sing.  

But she decided that image was silly, since it was only summer, so it would have to be a sand globe. And Patty didn’t know if sand globes existed and who would do the shaking. She didn’t voice these thoughts, not wanting her new roommate to think her strange, but Joelle seemed to understand that Patty missed feeling a part of a bigger, shared something. Patty figured motherhood could do that to a person. Not actively mothering this summer, she has found a little door inside her has opened. 

“We can do more than look,” Joelle said.  “And we can do it from here. I mean, we all share the same air, the same water now.” Joelle half-smiled.  

Patty remembered the fights at the city pools between Blacks and Whites, growing up, and how she’d looked away. Because she, like June now, had loved nothing more on a hot summer day than to swim. History wasn’t really that long ago, she thought.  

“We’re all polluting the same sky, dumping in the same lake,” said Joelle, thumbing north toward the shore. “We can do something about it.”  

Now, farmland streaks by out Patty’s passenger-side window. By we, Patty figured her roommate meant her set of weekend activists, righting this wrong and that, cameras slung around their necks, tape recorders in their hippie backpacks, defending their serene adopted places from the dangers of big business and big power—and, yes, maybe a kind of progress. That was how Patty had seen it before. But now Joelle was inviting her. “Come with me, Saturday,” she’d said to Patty. 

Which is how it came to be that Patty is riding alongside Joelle now to a protest staged by a Cleveland chapter of an environmental organization to be held at the gates of the power plant. The night before, Joelle described for Patty the process of nuclear fission, the splitting of uranium atoms to release power, which Patty can’t picture. How can energy come from coming apart? 

A peaceful, symbolic protest is what Joelle promised Patty, who instead pictured loud, communal chanting from gaping mouths, tight fists raised to the sky. The last few minutes of the drive to the plant, Patty watches out the window at the green of early summer. She smells the lake air, can almost feel the dirty, warm sand on her feet. She hums a church hymn.  

Patty feels a melancholy peace, even as the car approaches the gate to the power plant. There, at the entrance, in front of a gate, open wide, stands a group of a dozen or so protesters. Joelle slows the VW to a stop. Patty stares forward through the windshield at the other cars parked alongside the road. Their bumpers are plastered with peace signs and old stickers saying things like “POWs Never Have a Nice Day,” “Ban the Bomb,” and “You Can’t Hug a Child With Nuclear Arms.” After a minute of silence, it’s Patty who rouses and tells Joelle to “come on,” so they can get a spot up near the gate, because she’s decided this is the summer she needs to make something happen for herself. 

Really, it feels to Patty a little like Mass, this peaceful protest. There is little talking, some singing, and enough kneeling. The smell of soil, like incense, will stick with Patty—and in Joelle’s car—for weeks. 

Both women carry a flat of flowers from the VW to the power plant gate, where the other protesters, also wearing their No Nukes! shirts, stand with their flats in arms. They look like a crew of middle-aged hippie landscapers. Patty is not the only one who resurrected a pair of bells. 

The protester in charge, a middle-aged woman with dark hair hanging to her waist, raises her voice above the others, thanks everyone for coming, and directs the protesters to their spot to plant in the grassy berm. If not for the hulking cooling towers in the middle distance, Patty could be at the entrance to a shopping center. A one-lane road in and two out. A guard post from which no guard emerges. A fire engine-red sign proclaiming this “private property.” Yet, here the trespassing protestors are, facing no resistance. 

Patty looks to the ground at her feet. She finds the holes in the soil for her plants have already been dug. She feels a little cheated. Still, she hums along when the group raises their voices in a “Kumbaya, My Lord,” before the protester in charge leads a prayer to Mother Goddess, whom Patty imagines as the Virgin Mother in robes of electric white. No one mentions the steam, rising from the towers into the bluebird sky. Patty thinks she can feel it on her skin and maybe smell it on the wind. 

Kneeling before the gate, she tries to remember the last time she’s been this close to earth, to green things. She looks closely at the white flower petals of the spiderwort plants, slightly fragrant, the shining green leaves wrapped around the plant’s stem, and the roots like arteries reaching beyond each clod of dirt. When was the last time? Living in that first apartment after getting married, growing tomatoes in pots out on the fire escape above the alley where the dumpster fires smoldered, even in summer. She’d grown something then: delicious, misshapen purple tomatoes she’d eaten whole, even before she’d grown June. Patty smiles to herself at her sentimentality and at this band of middle-aged do-gooders. Though she wouldn’t say it aloud, she thinks the misty air feels holy around them, and she wishes for a moment her ex-husband could see her here, that he might be proud, but then she’s glad he’s not and that this moment is hers. 

Joelle stoops beside her, and the two lift their clots of flowering plants out of the flats, set them into the earth, and pat the soil in place. For a moment, all is quiet, the protesters kneeling like penitents in a straight row at the gate. Patty plunges her fingers in the cool dirt one last time before standing. 

No power plant authorities have come to meet them, to stop this protest. No guards have walked down the drive with guns, as Patty pictured in her mind before sleep last night. None of the protestors snap a picture of what doesn’t happen, of evidence of no harm being done, of the industrial beautified by the natural. They have not halted progress today. Still, the group has planted their pretty flag, as it were, left their roots to wind their way through the earth of this place. 

When they finish planting, they brush their knees of dirt. Then the protestors clump in groups of three and four and chat like this is an office party. Patty stands alone, hearing snippets of conversation: tremors and quakes, energy leaks, air and soil pollution, cancer clusters. And white spiderwort flower petals that turn pink when exposed to radiation. Could any of it be true? Patty knows she should feel frightened at such possibilities, but they feel far away.  

Without June, Patty has felt too free this summer, maybe. But here, she’s done a small thing, tying herself to something by planting it in the ground. She looks at their handiwork, can’t help but admire the beauty, rows of flowers like a miniature bridal procession, a child’s strand of seed pearls, a perfect set of teeth she and the others have made, right here—beyond which the hulking towers loom. Flowers at the gate of power.

Photo by Ozkan Guner on Unsplash.

Rebecca Moon Ruark

Rebecca Moon Ruark's short fiction has appeared in CutBank, Carve, Flock, and elsewhere. A Northeast Ohio native, she is at work on a historical novel partly set along Lake Erie that explores the healing power of raised voices. She also runs Rust Belt Girl, a blog hyping the region’s poets and writers, from the home she shares with her family in Maryland.