The Psychic Dentist

Chip Livingston

I wouldn’t sing “wretch” in “The Old Rugged Cross” and I wondered if pride was the reason my fillings didn’t turn gold. We were having an old-fashioned hymn sing in the doublewide trailer of my boyfriend’s wiccan teacher and, even though I didn’t cotton to throwing away twenty-five dollars each, I had a mouthful of dental problems I was willing to let some traveling psychic dentist wave his hands over — or whatever he’d do to warrant the crowd squeezing into Sister Donna’s living room.

The Reverend Jim Dingle looked straight out of the seventies, a skinny white dude with a bushy brown mustache, wire-rimmed eyeglasses, and an acoustic guitar on a wide rainbow strap across one shoulder. He wore a cheap tan leisure suit and, beneath the jacket, a light blue dress shirt unbuttoned at the collar. Dingle said he was from Jackson, Tennessee, just a simple preacher with a gift for healing teeth.

He introduced his fiancée, Jenny, who would accompany him on the flute. She wore a denim skirt and a white sweater, a thin gold chain with a polite gold cross. Her straight blonde hair was pulled back in two barrettes.

I was disappointed when Dingle said there’d be no hocus-pocus, just “an hour and a half of singing hymns and praising Him.” He paused to strum the guitar. “Whom without there’d be no life or wife or miracle.” Dingle strummed again. My boyfriend and I couldn’t afford to pay this much for poetry. My boyfriend was taking Sister Donna’s “Exploring Psychic Phenomena” class, so he was eager to see something phenomenal. I’d been suffering toothaches and had already been to the university dentist who recommended two root canals, a broken crown replacement, and three cavities filled at a projected cost of around $6,000; this was the only reason I’d thrown my cash into the offering plate Sister Donna held by her front door. I’d come for the hocus-pocus. I hoped the Rev. Dingle would pull me up to the front of the room and say, “Look at this mouth of fracture and decay. I’ve got the power in my hands to heal this man.” Instead he passed out hymnals.

We started with “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Sister Donna and the other pagans sung with the fervor of Southern Baptists. Jenny dropped her flute and her eyes rolled back. She stood up and started swaying. I hadn’t seen someone speaking in tongues since I was a kid and had gone to some kind of evangelical church with my great-grandmother in Biloxi, Mississippi. Dingle smiled and nodded like we were experiencing a blessing. He didn’t miss a lick of the guitar or a note of his song and, when we finished that first hymn, Jenny reached behind her without opening her eyes and found her chair. She eased back down as spiritually as she’d risen up and then opened her eyes and leaned over to retrieve the flute from Sister Donna’s linoleum.

“How Great Thou Art” was followed by “Shall We Gather at the River” and then we sang “Rock of Ages” and “Kumbaya.” Jenny went into a kind of trance and usually stood up to quietly dance and mumble to herself at least once in almost every song but a few times she just nodded back and forth in her chair. As the songs picked up in tempo, I felt my teeth begin to tighten. I noticed a couple of other people rubbing their jaws. Our volume seemed to increase naturally. Jenny stood up with a tambourine. My boyfriend was sweating.

He was letting his hair grow out and loose strings stuck to his face. In the pause between songs, I reached over and pushed a strand behind his ear. He opened his mouth and flashed his pearly whites.

After a rousing rendition of “When They Ring Those Golden Bells,” Dingle said the Holy Spirit was present in Sister Donna’s home and busy working on our teeth. We might have begun to notice His presence, Dingle said, adding that it wasn’t uncommon for people with healthy metal repair work to leave these meetings with their fillings inexplicably changed to gold. Jenny touched his arm and he said that, in some meetings, gold flakes had come out of people’s mouths, so if we felt something metallic and loose on our tongues, not to swallow it without first looking to see if it was really yellow gold.

And then “The Old Rugged Cross.” I hated that hymn. My paw-paw had picked it out for us to sing at his funeral. How could we sing that line, “save a wretch like me,” and feel in any way that we were loved by God? I didn’t believe in a creator that created wretches. But even as I hummed along, I could feel something working on my teeth. The only way I can describe the sensation is that it felt like I had a dentist pushing and prodding at me with firm determination. It felt like a clamp was holding my jaw in place and that my mouth was getting a solid overhaul.

We sang for another full hour and then broke for refreshments. My boyfriend said he felt cheated because he didn’t have an enlightened experience. I said maybe it was because he had perfect teeth, but that for someone like me, I felt like I’d had my mouth open in a dentist’s chair for ninety minutes. Could be I just wasn’t used to singing for ninety minutes, he told me and raised his mug of coffee. I raised my shoulders in a shrug. He raised his eyebrows and we both laughed.

Others were excitedly looking into each other’s mouths with flashlights, hoping to find some gold. I watched Jenny take a bite of a blueberry muffin. A crumb stuck to her lower lip and then her tongue darted out to remove it. She brought her hand up to her chest and touched the cross necklace.

“What a waste of time and money,” my boyfriend said in the car. “I mean, Jesus. We can sing hymns at home for free.”

“But we don’t,” I said. “We don’t sing hymns.” I got no reaction. “I was surprised Sister Donna served coffee and cookies for a dentist.” I laughed but I told him I really did think something happened to my teeth.

“Go back to the real dentist and find out,” he said.

“I am,” I replied. “I already have an appointment to get started on the fillings this week.”

You may have guessed by the single fact of my writing about this experience that the dentist was shocked when he saw my teeth. A change had taken place indeed.

“What did you do?” he asked. “Where did you go?” Dr. Rosenau pulled my head to the side and shined a light toward the worse corner of my mouth. “I can’t even see the evidence of these repairs and yet …” He raised the light from my face and turned to the folder of my dental records. “I’ve got the X-rays right here with the exam notes.”

“Are you saying my teeth are fixed?” I asked. They hadn’t hurt at all since the singing at Sister Donna’s. “I went to a psychic dentist,” I told him. I raised my hands in innocent defense. “But he didn’t touch me.”

Dr. Rosenau put down the X-rays and picked up the metal reflector. I opened my mouth as he leaned toward me.

The porcelain crown I’d broken was still broken, but everything else, it seemed, had been miraculously corrected. Another set of X-rays provided certainty. The new crown would cost me $950 and Dr. Rosenau took the tooth’s impression to get started immediately. I asked if I could take the before and after X-rays home to show my boyfriend.

“This … ” The dentist struggled to find the word he wanted and settled on preacher. “This preacher, he didn’t even look at your mouth?”

I enjoyed Dr. Rosenau’s resistance to the unexplainable. I couldn’t deconstruct what had happened with science or logic, but we had some sort of proof there in my dental records. I shook my head. “You saw how wretched my teeth were.”

I believed in the power of positive thinking, that the mind can heal any ailment in the body, and yet I hadn’t focused on healing my teeth with any direct consciousness. We’d only sung hymns, Christian hymns, and I considered myself a kind of pagan humanist, a smart guy who was spiritual, intuitive. And intuition had led me to have faith in everything. I believed in magic and miracles and the power of suggestion.

“I believe in everything,” I told Dr. Rosenau. “So maybe it’s just the power of believing it was possible.”

“Or maybe the power of music?” the dentist said with a hesitant laugh.

“The X-rays,” I reminded him.

“What do you say I trade them for the playlist?”

“The hymns we sang? Sure, I’ll bring it next week.”

Dr. Rosenau unclipped the paper bib around my neck and I stood up after he raised the chair. I brought my hands together in standard prayer position, made a quiet nod. “Kumbaya,” I offered.

He handed me my X-rays, last week’s and the current ones, and mimicked my bow. “Kumbaya,” he said.

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