We sat, the six of us, on two black, vinyl settees facing each other and waited in the waiting room to be interviewed for the orthodontic apprentice technician position. A clock ticked on a wall, a cheese plant slouched by a window, old magazines were splayed on a glass-topped table. The nearest publication had a catamaran cutting across a deep blue ocean on the cover. I picked it up and pretended interest within, licking my thumb occasionally. Every so often, a woman in a lab coat, a blonde bun balanced on her head, would appear at a slant in the doorway, never quite revealing all of herself and, checking a clipboard, read out a name with hopeful brown eyes and a smile. Her teeth were as white and as large as the sails on the cover. By this method, one by one, she emptied the room.
The orthodontist sat on a chrome stool. He directed me to climb up into the dentist chair, where, studying me through a pair of rimless, lozenge-shaped spectacles, he introduced himself as Tate Lisle. He was an old and hollow-voiced man, with yellow hair and pared nails. He wore a white shirt and a neatly knotted slim tie with diagonal blue and white lines beneath a buttoned lab coat medalled with a collection of pens protruding from the breast pocket. Tate Lisle tugged briefly at a worsted knee and crossed this leg over the other. He commented on my youthful jaw before embarking, with a series of clicks and smacked lips that punctuated his discourse, a cursory description of his work and of what would be required of me should I be offered the position. His foot tapped a measured beat on the air. I sat awkwardly in the chair.
Tate Lisle told me how, over many years, he had been developing a method for correcting a phenomena he called English teeth. To illustrate this, he called the name Monica over his shoulder and the nurse appeared from where she was secreted behind a tall screen that separated one corner of the reflective room. She handed him the clipboard and disappeared behind the screen again.
He showed me two photos of David Bowie pincered on the clipboard. The first was a close up. A carelessly scissored, well known image of the singer from the previous decade – his teeth, within that hideously made-up and lopsided grin, was a tumbled graveyard of stained enamel. The second picture was of the same star, but neatly removed from a more recent and glossy pop publication. The lope grin was gone revealing a dazzling collection of uniform and gleaming gnashes within a near wholesome mouth, smiled out at me. The orthodontist balanced the clipboard on his crossed leg, unclipped both photos and held them up, one in each hand. To further demonstrate his point, he, fluttering the former, announced, “English” and with a similar gesture, nodding at the latter, said, “American.” I studied the photographs from my recline, nodding slowly as if to suggest that there was much here for me to take in. From behind the screen a faint and far-off noise, a brief throat clearing, momentarily evolved.
Tate Lisle had not actually worked on the star’s teeth (he wanted to make this clear); the illustrations were merely an example, a possibility, of the corrective work that he was developing. His method was quite revolutionary. The traditional (“English and European”) corrective orthodontic techniques involved a resin plate embedded with a construction of wires and tiny elastic bands that, over time, corralled the teeth into some sort of order by means of continued constriction and coercion. “This has always been the way this side of the Atlantic,” he said. His wife, he told me, was a Texan (“Twice crowned beauty of Rydell County 54 and 56” – though no photos emerged to corroborate this claim and I took him on his word) who had undergone corrective orthodontic work in the States where a method was employed that allowed the teeth, over time, to “spread and settle.” This procedure produced a more aesthetically pleasing result. “She has a winning smile,” he said. That throat was cleared again from behind the screen.