He saw it out of the corner of his eye, on the carpet next to his chair. It looked like a sterilization bead, the kind the girls at his dental practice used to prepare his instruments. He rolled it between his thumb and forefinger. Close up it looked more like a seed. Couldn't be. Young Dave was sixteen and had never been in any kind of trouble. Unless. That friend of his with the oily smile, Brett or Brad, the one that didn't look you in the eye.
He put the seed, or whatever it was, to his nose and sniffed. Nothing. He pinched his other nostril closed and took a deep breath. Still nothing, but when he opened his fingers, the seed was gone. He tried breathing through his nose again. “Shit.” He pinched the other side closed again and tried to force it out. He got up and grabbed a Kleenex and tried to blow it out. He tried again. He couldn't believe it. The fucking thing was stuck.
He went into the downstairs bathroom and found a rubber irrigation bulb in the vanity drawer. He shut the door and locked it, turned on the tap, closed the drain, and adjusted the water to warm. Young Dave would never get into drugs on his own. It had to be that kid—Brad, that was his name. Where else would he get the stuff? Langford had sensed trouble the first time he had met that kid. He squeezed the rubber bulb, filled it under the water, and tried to flush the seed out. He tried again. On the third try, the seed still didn't budge, but he managed to squirt water down his front, drenching his shirt. He studied his nose in the mirror, first the outside, then the inside, craning his neck to try to see up his nostril. Tilting his head back, he thought he could see the seed. He searched for signs of trouble and was relieved to see none, but he thought that his nose was a little sore to the touch.
Throughout the next day at work, he had the unnerving sensation that his assistant, Claire, was watching him. At the end of the day, she asked if he felt all right. He was in the outer office taking a quick look ahead at the next day's appointments. I'm fine, he said, with a vague feeling that she had been put up to this.
“Why do you ask?”
He started to put his hand to it, instinctively, but stopped himself. He turned and studied his reflection in the sliding window that looked out on the empty waiting room.
“I don't see anything,” he said innocently.
He could see her image in the window standing behind him, her tightly curled gray hair like wire.
“It's just that you keep touching it, like it's sore or something.”
“I think my allergies are starting up again. That's all.”
Over the next few days, he worried that his nose might be getting worse. At first he thought it was his imagination, but then it definitely hurt when he touched it. And it began to ache on and off, and to throb at times. He took 600 milligrams of acetaminophen every four hours. Sensing that Claire was watching, he concentrated on not touching it. He needed to confront Young Dave, have it out with him about the smoking and the losers he was hanging out with. But he decided it would be better to wait until the evidence wasn't festering in his nostril.
He thought about seeing his doctor. Bob Aarons was the club's defending senior champion and a key mover in both the Bach Society and the local chapter of the Diabetes Association, with one daughter at Yale and a second starting at Brown in the fall. What was Langford going to tell him? That his son was a pothead and he had a marijuana seed stuck up his nose? He told himself that the soreness was a sign his body was rejecting the seed.
Saturday morning, on the fifteenth green, his nose began to run. The discharge was green and thick, but there was no blood. “Just my damn allergies, he told the guys.”
By the time he got home, his nose was killing him—he thought he could smell the rot in his nostril—and it didn't help that he had to have dinner at his parents'.
“I don't see why I can't stay home,” said Young Dave.
“Because your grandparents are expecting you,” said Langford.
“Bradley's on his way over,” whined young Dave, as though that would help his case.
“I already told your mother that he might not be coming,” said Liz. “She said she understands—at his age.”
“He's coming,” said Langford, imagining his living room strewn with beer bottles under a silver-blue cloud of marijuana smoke.
“They don't care,” said Young Dave.
“Well, I do.”
On the way out the driveway, they met Bradley and his rusted out shitbox just pulling in, but Langford sped past him without stopping.
“David!” his wive scolded as they drove off.
“We're late already,” he said.
When they arrived, his mother made a big fuss over Young Dave, as though he were the guest of honor.
“I thought he wasn't coming,” she said, and looked to Langford, who was headed for the living room where his father and his younger brother, Gene, were having a beer. “I hope you didn't make him come, David,” his mother called after him.
“His plans fell through at the last minute,” Liz explained.
At dinner, his father started in on one of his pet topics: how Young Dave should get a job.
“Send him down to the plant,” he said.
When Langford was in dental school, his father had sold the family grocery to a regional chain and used the proceeds to buy a Dr. Pepper bottling plant. He took Gene into the business and together they had become wealthy. Langford explained for the umpteenth time that he and his wife wanted Young Dave to concentrate on his schoolwork.
“Kids have too much time on their hands these days,” his father said. “They spend it all in front of the computer doing God-knows-what. That's how they end up on dope. I saw in the paper the other day that eight out of ten high school kids had tried the stuff.”
Langford watched his son. The boy was smiling, his eyes on his plate. The last time they had had this conversation, Langford couldn't believe how stupid his father had sounded. His mother asked him what was wrong.
“You look pale.”
But the truth was his nose was throbbing, it hurt to chew, and he couldn't taste anything. He took a mouthful of chicken while his brother and Young Dave talked about their computers and compared notes on websites.
On the way home, Langford got into it with Young Dave. He had had a few beers and wondered what had kept him from confronting his son sooner. At first the boy acted startled. He denied everything, said he didn't know what Langford was talking about.
“Just because of that stupid stuff grandpa said about computers.”
When Langford pressed on, Young Dave got indignant. Langford's wife wanted to know what it was all about. He told her to stay out of it. He told Young Dave that he was only making things worse by stonewalling, that his so-called friends weren't worth protecting. As Young Dave stared out the window, Langford said that he was disappointed in him.
Langford spent most of Sunday in bed with his head propped up on a pillow. He tried to will the seed out of his nose. His wife acted as though he was malingering. She was mad about the ride home, the way he had spoken to her. Langford said he was sorry, he hadn't meant to be short with her. He should have talked to her about it first. That's what she wanted to hear, so he said it.
Monday, he went to work, and his first patient asked him what was wrong with his nose.
“Allergies,” he said.
“You should have that looked at. I've never seen anything like it.”
His second patient was a colleague: Lawrence Whitmore. He always told Langford what was wrong with his teeth and what to do about them, as though Langford didn't know himself. During the examination, Langford's nose started running. It caught him by surprise. He couldn't stop it, and he dripped viscous, foul-smelling discharge on Whitmore's white shirt. Whitmore was disgusted and angry, staring down at his shirt. He lost his temper and called Langford unprofessional. Claire's silence and shocked expression didn't help matters any. Langford apologized profusely, told Whitmore he would buy him a new shirt, all but genuflected.
When Whitmore was gone, Langford told his receptionist to call Bob Aarons and make an emergency appointment.
“Tell him there's something wrong with my nose. I think it's infected.”
Of course when he got to Aarons's office, the receptionist asked him why he was there. He told her the same thing his reception had told her on the phone: his nose, he thought it was infected. When the nurse showed him to the examination room, she asked why he was there. He told her. When the doctor finally arrived, he asked the same damn question.
“Bob,” Langford said, “I told your receptionist—twice–and then I told your nurse. Shouldn't someone be writing this down somewhere?”
Aarons bristled. This wasn't the way Langford wanted to start. He apologized. He was in a lot of pain, he said, edgy. Aarons said he understood, but he went about the examination without his usual chitchat. He had a salt-and-pepper flattop, a large, fleshy nose, and bad teeth. He would have made a gold mine of a patient, but he saw Noah Schiller, a fellow musician from the Bach Society. Schiller had been an outstanding dentist in his day, but he should have retired years ago.
Langford lay back on the hard examination table, the fresh tissue paper crackling beneath him. He felt exposed and vulnerable on his back, upset with Young Dave for getting him into this. But he was glad he had had it out with his son the way he had. Such scenes are bound to be untidy. Aarons looked up his nose with an otoscope.
“It's infected all right. There appears to be some kind of blockage,” he said, and asked Langford if he had any idea what it was.
“No,” said Langford, as though shocked. “No idea.”
Aarons inserted a pair of long tweezers up Langford's nose, dismissing his pain—“You need to hold still, Dave”--and extracted the seed. He turned to the sink and held the tweezers under running water. He turned back to Langford and asked, “How the hell did you get a popcorn kernel stuck up your nose?”
Langford looked at the silver metal tweezers in Aaron's hand. There it was. It was small for a popcorn kernel, he thought in his defense, and unusually rounded, but there was no doubt about it. Not much like a marijuana seed at all, actually, now that he studied it in the bright light of the examination room.
He laughed and told Aarons the story. He laughed so Aarons would understand how silly it all was.
“But, Dave,” the doctor said, stepping to the trashcan in the corner and putting his foot on the pedal, “a marijuana seed doesn't look anything like a popcorn kernel.”
He flipped open the steel lid and dropped the offending pellet into the can.
“Why didn't you come in right away?” he added with a laugh of his own. “Did you think I would alert the narcotics squad? And why did you tell me you had no idea what it was?”
He wrote Langford a prescription for an antibiotic and had his nurse come in and stuff some cotton up his nose.
That night, Langford told his wife about his visit to the doctor, except he didn't tell her that it was a popcorn kernel. He said it was a marijuana seed. And he didn't laugh while he was telling her, the way he had with Aarons.
“That's why I acted the way I did on the way home from my parents. And why I was sick. I'm sorry if I was curt with you.” He had already apologized once, but he know that gratuitous penance was money in the bank.
“I understand,” she said. She moved to kiss him, but he retreated instinctively.
“Poor thing,” she said. “Does it hurt?”
“Still a little sore.” He put his hand to his nose but didn't touch it. “It's those guys he's been hanging around with. That Brett kid, or Brad.
“Bradley,” his wife said.
“I don't want him here any more. He is strictly off-limits from now on.”
“As for Young Dave. . . .” Langford paused. He drew a deep breath through his nose—it felt good to breathe freely again—and let out a strong sigh. “We're going to have to search his room.”
Photo by Eleanor Bennett
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Laura, Toucan Editrice
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Laura, Toucan Editrice