There once was a guy from St. Loo,
Who had not one ego, but two.
He could feel light as a cloud,
Or sad as a shroud.
Oh, why? He wished that he knew.
To popular, mostly upbeat Byron Merkle, it almost seemed like he had a yang twin living inside his yin body: as a small fry, he relished the camaraderie of a neighborhood game of kick-the-can, yet his gut muscles sheep-shanked whenever he had to be around the relatives during holiday potlucks. He reveled in his role as class clown, yet enjoyed his time alone in his closed-off room dashing off bad limericks.
His senior year, he decided to become a doctor, but because Yang Byron convinced himself that he probably wasn’t smart enough to make it all the way through med school, he enrolled at Saint Louis University’s Center for Advanced Dental Education, earned his degree in no time, and hung out his shingle in the suburb of St. Charles, Missouri.
Dr. Merkle, promising painless visits every time!, steadily grew his practice as a trusted, calm, competent, and friendly strip mall dentist. In the blue days that acidic, bummed-out Dr. Yang showed up at work, he would keep his morose alter-ego in check with an imagined injection of novocaine, and go on merrily making money off other people’s pearly whites.
One morning, the pretend anesthetic must not have fully numbed Donny Downer down yet, because after her final rinse and spit, the patient asked if he was feeling okay because he seemed kinda quiet this morning, like he might be worried about a sick cat at home, or something.
He fudged, at first; then, because she was a long-time patient who helped make the payments on his Mazda Miata (maybe, if I worked a little harder I’d be making payments on a ‘Vette, but that’s beside the point . . . ), he confessed, sheepishly, of his personality dichotomy, and sighed. She replied that she dabbled in astrology, asked for the particulars on the date he was born, and told him she’d be back with his horoscope reading at her six-month cleaning.
The wet-noodle effect of a Mississippi River summer mercifully faded into the cool relief of a leaf-blazing mid-American autumn, and the starplotter was back with some plaque behind her molars, and a manila envelope stuffed with enlightening information: Byron was born in the 8th House of Gemini, with the ascendent Mars rising in opposition to Venus (this alignment, the reason for the mood swings). “Your sun sign, here, reflects your core essence,” she pointed out, matter-of-factly. “When you were born, the sun was in a rising retrograde, hence your confidence, determination, sociability, and outgoing personality,” she explained.
“Yet, like day, there is night. The cusp of the 6th House of Cancer with a major descendant in Saturn loomed large at your birth, and your moon sign, representing your inner life and emotions—the side of yourself that you try to hide from others—was in transit, thus the part of your psyche that’s troubled, pessimistic, introverted, and just wants to be left alone. That fit about right, Dr. Merkle?”
“Perfectly.” The dentist was fairly amused and hoped he gave the impression of being impressed—this revelation was like a humorous introductory handshake with himself: “Hi, I’m Cloud Byron, howya doin’? Sure is a beautiful day.”/“Oh, a little down in the dumps. Looks like rain. My name’s Shroud Byron, now leave.” Gee, if I could learn to integrate the competing factions, maybe I can stop lugging the dead weight of my anesthetized soul around, he thought sarcastically, and rolled his eyeballs where his patient couldn’t see them.
She eased out of the chair after a bubble-gum-flavored tooth polishing, donned her Cardinal windbreaker, and whispered a warning that she was not very anxious to reveal. “By the way . . . because it was in a major descendant the moment you were born, the way I read it, Doc, you’re smack dab ready for a pretty heavy Saturn Return.”
“A . . . ?”
“Saturn Return. When the ringed planet approaches the same point in the sky as it was when you were born, usually between the ages of 27 and 30, and again around every three decades after that, some of us believe that calamity and chaos will follow. It’s associated with learning lessons the hard way, unfortunately. You’re young, so know thyself, Dr. Merkle,” she advised him, and left for the receptionist desk to make her spring appointment.
Byron, a man of science, not of pseudo-science, brushed off her astrological mumbo-jumbo like flying saliva–statistically nearly ten percent of all Americans have a bout with melancholy now and then, so it was a pretty broad and general pseudo-psychoanalysis, he thought as he snapped on his latex gloves for the next appointment. Besides, I’ll be thirty in nine months, so Saturn can return, all right. Right up Uranus. He laughed, and welcomed the next rotten tooth.
On the morning of June 28th, Byron Merkle woke up on the wrong side of the bed. Today was the finish line of his 29th lap around the sun. Tomorrow he would be thirty, and Shroud slumped in a day early to remind himself just how miserable he really was.
“Had I become a surgeon like my original intent, I’d be on my way to work saving people’s lives right now, instead of being the beneficiary of their stinking pie holes,” he lamented, stuck in traffic on 70 West. “Dealing with patients knocked out cold and quiet, instead of ones blubbering on with an orchestra full of dental instruments jammed between their flaps.”
He parked, slumped into the office, faked a chipper “good morning” to his receptionist and dental assistance, prepared for another crummy day, and intercommed to send in the first (bad-breathed, blabbering) patient.
Oh, great way to start the day–Angela Green. You could park half a double-wide in her mouth and still have room for a carport, Dr. Merkle thought as the Fox News acolyte began bashing the Democrat president even before her double-wide ass in skin-tight sweatpants hit the chair. He played the professional and welcomed her with canned pleasantries.
“Open wide,” he instructed in a fake lilt, happy to shut her up for a minute, unhappy that she had to burp out the onion and anchovy pizza she must have eaten for breakfast, maybe even on purpose, just to “get her money’s worth in annoyance.” He poked and picked and fumed and had an insatiable urge to yank the racist old bitch’s tongue out of her mouth with his extracting forceps, and then fork it down the middle with his razor-sharp scraper, but kept the impulse to himself. “Everything looks fine” (on your crooked teeth–the ones still hanging on, brown from decades of sucking cheap cigarettes, you red, white, and blue bigot), he assured her with a fake friendliness. “See you in half a year, Mrs. Green.”
“You bet. If ‘murica’s still around by then,” she blathered, loud enough for the front desk to hear, sans paging system.
Next in the chair was 17-year-old Jeremy Dunkin, whose breath implicated him in some pot-smoking on his way here (but that’s okay because he’s got three beautiful cavities–cha-chinggggg!).
The two engaged in garbled chit-chat as he was drilling and filling the boy’s potholed canines, but the dentist, trying to be nonchalant, was not, inside. I was his age when I made the entirely wrong decision to get into this hangdog profession, what a dumb ass, he was thinking as they were yakking about the upcoming big league All-Star game. Keep your emotions in check and know thyself, he thought between suctions. Yet, I’d love to chain this pimply little fucker to the chair and drill high-speed holes in his head ‘til he came to his goddamn senses, he fantasized, imagining it was he, himself, who was being bound and tortured, watching his own sap run out.
“Gotta go with the National League this year, young man,” Dr. Merkle told the numb-lipped lad as he finished the procedures and walked him to the door. “And lay off the sugar.”
Next under the lights was Jim Benedict, who must have lathered up in Ben Gay before his appointment. The dentist, fed up with the bad body odors that too often accompany bad breath, had to tamp down his urge to remove the periodontal probe from Ben Gay’s gumline and scrape the old man’s eyeballs out of their sockets with it, instead. Teach him to choose a better cologne next time. “You’re far away from dentures, sir,” he chirped phonily, politely. “I’ll see you in six months.” (note to self–buy nose plugs by then).
Next, to Janet Farquar: “You’ve got a lovely smile.” (I’d love to nail you down to the breakroom table and Dremel that horsey-looking grin of yours down to a nub.) “Have a nice afternoon.”
He had one last set of rotten chompers to fix before bean time, those of a new patient, an older transient on Medicaid, sent here by the state welfare agency with the semi-emergency of an abscessed tooth. “This is going to take a while, so go ahead and take lunch, ladies. In fact, take a nice, long, leisurely lunch.” (I’ve got some deep digging to do.)
After their nice, long, leisurely lunch, the satiated staff crept down the hall to find out why their boss wasn’t responding after repeated buzzes of the call button. They found the victim lashed to the chair with the doctor’s smock, pincushioned with empty Novacaine syringes; every thirty-two of the man’s teeth foceptibly pulled out by the roots, his tongue laid out on the silver service tray like it was a delicacy in a Gordon Ramsey restaurant. His face was skinned with the ultrasonic scaler that was meant to remove tough tartar from enamel.
Dr. Byron Merkle had been mutilated almost beyond recognition by this maniac who seemed to be suffering through his own, more menopausal, Saturn Return. The desperately disturbed man with a history of mental illness and a lifelong hatred towards dentists because his sexually abusive father was one, a drifter named Chester Harrison Hyde, surrendered to a SWAT team three blocks away. Hyde was booked and convicted of 1st-degree murder, and was sentenced to the Fulton State Psychiatric Hospital for life.
My educational background includes a BA from the University of Nebraska School of Journalism and an MS in Instructional Technology from Western Illinois University. I’ve written professionally as a program research analyst for the NBC television network in Los Angeles and for Tamarind Art Gallery in midtown Manhattan.