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“I’m sorry?” He let go of her jaw.
He went in again with a tiny mirror, his blue eyes terrifyingly close. “Your dad says you work on Wall Street. What do you do?”
“Quantitative analyst? Interesting. I hope you’re enjoying your vacation.” Vacation? “I imagine you need it. The market has not been easy, has it?” Helen shook her head. “How soon you have to go back to the city?”
How to answer that? Had Dad been lying about her status? Dr. Steloff smiled, inches from her face, just another workday, hanging on cheerfully for a Friday that was surely coming. His fat wedding ring was studded with diamonds under the latex glove.
“I go bhack nextht week,” she said, before she could stop herself.
“But you’ll be able to come back here regularly to continue the orthodontia?” He pulled his fingers from her mouth, then ripped the gloves off, tossed them in a foot-controlled bin by his feet.
Helen stretched her jaw. “Sure,” she said. Why had Dad lied?
Steloff had rolled over to the counter, was looking in her chart, probably at the full-head x-ray from that mysterious booth Helen had sat in half an hour before. “I’ll just hop on Metro North,” she said. “A good excuse to see my folks.”
“Good girl.” He rolled back over and handed her a Dixie cup of water. He pulled off his face mask, rubbed his beard thoughtfully, looked at her straight on, like one would a peer. “Say, you would not believe what has happened to my stock portfolio.”
“I probably would.”
“I’m getting creamed. Bought a bunch of internet stocks, like an idiot. And now this terrorist thing.”
Helen didn’t answer. She knew better than to invest in tech companies with no foreseeable revenue. And she really didn’t feel like thinking about this terrorist “thing.” But she had lost money too.
Dr. Steloff wasn’t done talking. “But I keep thinking, there has to be something. If you don’t mind my asking. Your dad says you’re a real crackerjack. Isn’t there some way to invest, given the terror attacks? Awful, I know. Awful.”
“It’s a normal question.” Maybe it was a normal question, or maybe it was a horrific question, or maybe she just wanted him to think she was smart. “Aerospace-defense maybe,” she said, thinking aloud. “Or, this other new industry … “
“What? Tell me.” He rolled his chair closer, looked down at her with an intensity and desperation that she had seen plenty in her macho colleagues, day-trading addicts, glorified gamblers, everyone ready to pounce. The cartoon tie kept her talking.
“Well, security. Biometrics. There’s this company I like, RetImaging Systems. They’re developing those retinal scanners.”
“Oh yeah, I’ve heard of that, for identification.”
“Yeah, only these guys have patented a lot of the technology. And they also are developing the database aspect of it too, like a plug-in package you can use for, say, a corporate office or whatever. Building security. You know, or for secure computer logins.”
Dr. Steloff was sold. “What did you say they were called again?” His pen at the ready.
“RetImaging Systems. R-E-T-I-M-A-G-I-N-G.” Helen rinsed her mouth, spit into the bowl. Steloff wrote the name carefully. “They’re on the NASDAQ.”
“Wow. Superb. You’re my new favorite patient.”
Helen dug her old painting stuff out of the cabinet in the basement. She found a small canvas she had stretched and gessoed nearly twenty years ago, dusty but decent, and a box of paints, still alive with the addition of a little linseed oil. She set up a studio on a tarp on top of the pool table, laid the canvas under the hanging tavern light, and got to work. First, an undercoat of deep blue, then she scratched in the outline of five figures around a table: portly, authoritative men in business suits. Some had cards laid out on their felt tabletop, others held them to the breast. At the end of each jacket’s sleeve, she sketched in the paws of a bulldog or mastiff or collie or Saint Bernard. She giggled to herself as she mixed lead white, burnt umber, alizarin crimson, and vermilion with shiny oil on her glass palette, seeking the perfect shade of whiteboy pink for each of the faces of her five CEO’s.
Dad stepped out of his office on the side of the house, and through the sliding glass doors into the basement. “Whatcha doin?” he said, peering over her shoulder.
“Don’t you recognize it?” Helen giggled again, feeling the ache of the new spacers between her back teeth. “It’s the Dogs Playing Poker!”
“They don’t look quite like dogs.”
“No, but that’s what they really are.” Helen had forgotten the heady smell of the pigments and the linseed oil, the squishing of the paint under her palette knife. A feeling welled up with each squish, a release of something.
“Hmmm.” Dad said with a bemused shrug. “Interesting.” He headed for the stairs, for his punctual lunch in the kitchen, then turned. “Have you made any progress on that résumé?”
“Not really.” She did not look up.
He squared back. “How long are you going to do this?”
Until you stop lying to my orthodontist? She didn’t have the balls to say it. “I don’t know.”
“Your Mom needs help with the Christmas party.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll help her.”
“You can’t do this forever. You’ve got to stay on your game.”
Helen didn’t answer. She had found it, in the squish under her knife, the exact hue she had been looking for to shape the nose of her favorite CEO.
Dad turned, finally, and walked up the stairs.
“Well, how’s my favorite patient?” Dr. Steloff beamed and wheeled his stool over to the reclining chair. Bugs Bunny tie today. “Ready, Brace Face?”
“Ready.” She opened her mouth wide for him and he swabbed her gums dry with cotton, then wedged several pieces in to catch the spit. He was trying bands on her molars, for the right fit, then setting the winners on the tray beside him. The lamp was hot and she couldn’t look at the kitten poster. She closed her eyes.
“I’ll be putting some cement on your teeth here, so try not to swallow.”
“Okhay,” she said through the cotton.
“You know, Helen, I owe you a debt of gratitude. I bought RetImaging Systems at sixteen, the day you told me about it. Today it’s at twenty and a half! I can’t believe it. You found me the one stock that is going up.” He stuck the suction tube in her mouth. “Close your lips for a second. Okay, open.”
She felt a surge of pride in her good suggestion. Then a surge of something else. She thought of Virgil and the haunted cafeteria, the silent firemen eating their gift lunch. Mettlesome, mad, extravagant city! Paint squishing her glass palette. Blood money. Lunch. Lunch, squish, lunch.
“So what should I do now, boss, huh?” Steloff said. “Bite down on this stick.” She could feel the steel band closing around her tooth. “I love this stock! Should I double down?”
She hadn’t been following the story, but it didn’t sound right. There was no way the price could hold up. “I dhon’t know,” she struggled to say. “I habhen’t reawwy researthed it.” He held the stick again for her to bite down. Her jaw ached. “I think you thould thell.”
“Sell? It’s just getting good.”
“Trutht me.” She was annoyed at herself, at the phony confidence of her cotton-addled voice. She didn’t know. She was only following her gut. Lying to this innocent person in Looney Tunes attire. It violated every professional standard.
He backed away, set down his hands on his lap, still holding a pair of skinny pliers and that painful biting stick. “You sure? Sell? Hmm. Okay. Okay, I trusted you before. Okay. Okay, I’ll do it.”
“You won’t bhe thorry,” Helen said. She tried to smile as he inserted the suction tube again.