American Consequences - September 2018

Inside the office, a wooden curtain separated the surgery space from a waiting area and its three cushioned chairs. The décor was spartan, with two live songbirds in a cage, though Colton didn’t knowwhat sort. He found Wells in a dentist’s chair, swinging his arms and jabbering as if in debate with the fellowwho crouched at the hearth and worked a bellows to draw a healthier flame. Wells’s jacket lay open, and his shirt was unbuttoned to below his sternum. That crab-apple lump still swelled between cheek and gum. Beside him stood a taboret, on which rested a polished silver pitcher and a silver cup sitting atop a book.

Colton sparked a match and lit his cigar. “Do you have oxygen on hand?” Wells’s look showed his confusion. Colton said, “Haven’t you read Davy’s notes? On nitrous oxide?” “I’m not a chemist, Dr. Colton.” Colton spit a tobacco leaf. Provincial men. “Oxygen speeds recovery from the effects of the gas,” he said. “Should you breathe too much and your life become endangered, oxygen could save you.” Wells lifted a hand as if to scratch at his cheek, then lowered it. “We don’t have time for that,” he said. “Let me repeat my warnings. You could become violent,” said Colton. “Your intellectual capacity could be permanently limited.” Wells nodded. “And you,” Colton said to Riggs. “Davy’s studies weren’t exhaustive. We can’t fathom

“Colton!” said Wells, pointing across the room. “We have the Holy Book for my oath, and here: your ten dollars.” The man who worked the fire wore an apron. His eyes were deep-set and heavy with what might have been concern or religion or both, and he wore something on his face that wanted to be called a beard but wasn’t quite. Trimmed and shaved in a strange way. All chin and no chops. Some new fashion. Colton wouldn’t dare it. “Hands on the Bible, then, both of you. Swear that my name not be connected with you tomfools.” So they did. Then Wells introduced the man in the apron, Dr. John Mankey Riggs, Wells’s one-time student, who now owned his own practice. “Riggs’s progress in periodontitis is excellent,” Wells said. “I trust him in all things. He will remove my afflicted molar while I lie here entranced through the properties of your gas.”

30 September 2018

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