In a Canadian dentist’s office, Terra the receptionist is so fed up with Dr Sharon Waverly’s overbearing rules and endless boasts about her dog, that she invents a puppy of her own; by Jerri Jerreat.
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Three months into my receptionist job, everything changed. Dr Sharon was invited by Dr Moore, ten years older, navy suit, to join her at a weekend workshop in California. To learn how to run the business end of dentistry.
Sharon returned reborn.
“I AM NOT AFRAID OF SUCCESS,” read the new poster in the tiny staff room. She had a podcast for the car, New Rules for a Sustainable Health Business, including silence for chatty Mary, our hygienist, and a script for me. Six pages long.
Sustainable is a pretty pink word, meaning nothing. New Rules stated that we were to open the vertical blinds of the clinic if our waiting room was full, close them if nearly empty. Nothing to do with sunlight or comfort. It was about staging; the appearance of being a popular clinic. I was now to book nearly double the patients, and check-ups were encouraged every six months rather than every nine to twelve. The best part was the shiny New Rule to greet a new patient. I was to stand up, come around to the front of the desk and give the person a two-handed handshake. (Gag.) In a sincere voice, I was to state, “Dr Waverly has helped many people. I’m sure you’ll find our team very helpful.”
I laughed out loud. That had to be a joke?
It said “sincere”, she noted. Surely it wouldn’t sound fake if I was sincere about it? And maybe the handshake would take too much time, but didn’t I think she was a good dentist? An effective dentist? And we were, after all, a team here, working together. She, the dentist, was doing her best, but needed to grow her patient base. Thus: the new guidelines. Also, she noted, Dr Moore’s receptionist was quite happy to learn these professional courtesies.
The thing was that I was good with people. I jumped up to help elderly patients through the door, walked them down the hall, asked about their grandchildren. I traded recipes with a few, and had picked up a colouring and Garfield book for the waiting room, on my own.
Giving me a script to memorize showed a lack of faith in my professional etiquette. It seemed royally unfair. Also, I’d been trying so hard to fit in, for the job.
The next day she asked me to address her as “Doctor Waverly”. “In front of the patients. Just to add a more professional tone to the office.”
I gritted my teeth. Weren’t we humans here? Not commercials, selling something?
I struggled with the New Rules for a month. I refused to stand up and shake with two hands, but I smiled more widely, like a Labrador puppy, to make up for it. If Sharon were around, I said something like, “Oh, it’s your first time? You’ll like Doctor Waverly,” which came a little more easily out of the mouth. Over time, though, it felt like Nazi propaganda.
There was no longer enough air in the office. Sharon had been friendlier when she’d hired me. (To be fair, I’d worn a dark skirt, small earrings, my rainbow hair dyed brown.) She’d seemed like a real person, keen to help people with their health, offering one spot a week for newcomers without a dental plan. I’d thought we’d get along fine, and we had. Between all the office work, reminder emails, and leading patients into the patient care rooms, tidying after they left, it had been busy, but fine.
Now my boss sucked in all the nearby oxygen whenever she entered the office area and I was straining to breathe.
I had just begun paying off my student loans and couldn’t leave the job. Yet. I complained to my friends, started job searching. Zero out there. How could I survive this nonsense and stay – me? That was the thing. How to survive this job with my integrity intact as a person who had a brain?
I invented Snoopy.
It was a spur of the moment idea. Sharon had purchased a five-thousand-dollar Samoyed puppy right after the New Rules were instituted. Earlier, she’d driven to Montreal for an interview to see if she was “fit enough” for them to take her money. Now, she talked about her puppy non-stop and was always running late because Cassandra needed a walk, or Cassandra had a cough. Sharon was “popping out to the pet store” to get a silk-lined collar that wouldn’t chafe Cassandra, or she’d been up half the night, soothing Cassandra. One day I had to carry a m-f box that weighed as much as my desk up the three steps then across the office because the postie had refused to carry it further. No wonder.
The box held a ramp intended to help a pampered dog climb into a luxury car.
“Did I tell you the cutest thing Cassandra did last night?” Sharon began as I opened up the computer one morning.
My mind cracked.
“Oh my god. You’re going to love my news!” I cut her off. “I got a dog last night!”
Sharon retracted her head like a turtle and blinked. “You – what?”
“I did it! I actually did it!” I flapped my hands like a beauty queen. “It’s really your fault. You’re so happy with Cassandra and you keep telling us the cutest stories. So, I’ve kind of begun thinking about it and then…”
She narrowed her eyes. “How can you afford a dog?”
“The pound, of course! This poor little mutt didn’t have much of a life and she only has three legs, but when she looked at me with her darling big eyes and her droopy ears…” I shrugged and smiled goofily.
That was the beginning of Snoopy stories. Every time she told me a Cassandra story, I invented one on the spot about Snoopy. I began telling the patients about my adorable three-legged dog, factory farmed, forced to bear litter after litter until she was rescued. These were an amalgamation of true stories I’d begun reading online. Soon, the patients started asking after her. One patient brought me a bag of dog biscuits, another, a dog bed, nearly new.
The patients asked me about Snoopy every time they came in. They weren’t interested in Cassandra. Could you blame them? A rich, spoiled purebred had no chance against a three-legged rescue who kissed her mirror image and had licked the neighbour’s cat.
These stories entertained me as well. At home, I was now busy researching videos of funny dog moments. I started a document for all my Snoopy stories, so as to not to mix them up. I could write a book, I thought. I could start a blog! Advertisers might want to latch onto my blog and pay me money!
Snoopy helped me to keep my sanity for months. I gave up on the New Rules script but I still had to fill out a new spreadsheet on top of my other work.
Then came the Ontario June heat wave.
The waiting room was sticky with humidity and my annual heat rash had appeared with a vengeance. Day Two I abandoned a bra but wore a cotton camisole under a loose cotton blouse. Day Three I dropped the black flats for Jesus sandals with cork soles. My boss gave me the raised eyebrow and a long look. I asked loudly, “Sure is hot out, isn’t it, Dr Waverly? Can I grab you an ice cap when I pop out at lunch?”
(The patients enjoyed seeing these fake moments of camaraderie; Sharon was annoyed because she’d recently given up coffee.)
I followed with, “My bad. Sorry. I forgot you’re trying to curb that addiction.” Then, I returned to the new spreadsheet: inputting statistics on time of day; sunshine in room; number of people waiting; wait time per patient; how much money each patient had spent; and how many follow-up appointments I’d booked. This ate up a lot of time, although the spreadsheet was supposed to be “only a minute’s work!” I’d begun to fudge a little to save time.
Day Four of the heat wave found me in loose capris with a sleeveless tank top (a second-hand shirt, modified with scissors). I had a cotton cardigan to throw on if she ever turned the air conditioner on. Hah. Making money and saving money was our only priority, not human comfort.
By Day Six, I’d cut my hair chin length, and shaved the left side. It felt great. Like my head was free. I wore another loose buttoned shirt, over long boy shorts. This shirt was a men’s small, with the collar and sleeves removed. Definitely more my style. I also casually left a pamphlet on my desk from the Ontario Labour Control Board, entitled “Your Rights in the Workplace” as well as a sticker from my fave pub, “Beers for Queers”. I was wearing my rainbow pin daily now. It was Pride month, but really, why not wear it all year?
Finally, I got the request.
“Terra, may I speak with you in the back office after the last patient, please?”
I nodded, wondering that it had taken so long.
“Here, at the office, Terra, we need to exude a polished, professional look,” began Dr Waverly. She, herself, wore a white lab coat open over a cherry pink silk blouse, black pants and heels, with heavy silver necklaces. It was as though she had a big date that night instead of TV with a spoiled pup. “Our patients need to respect us and feel confident in our ability to heal them. Your attire this week, though not, um…” Dr Waverly hesitated, unsure how much to say that wouldn’t break Ontario Labour Laws.
She tried a different tack. “What I mean is, you dressed so attractively over the spring, but now, well…” She forced a sympathetic expression. “When seasons change so suddenly, sometimes it’s hard to find the appropriate clothing for work, am I right? This happens to me.”
I wanted her to work for it. “I’m not sure what you mean, Doctor.” I waggled a foot forward. “My shoes are orthotics, so healthy for walking. This is a medical office dedicated to health, so I knew you wouldn’t want us to wear stiletto heels! What message do those send to patients, right?” I smiled as though we were in perfect harmony, then dropped into a chummy tone. “But I have been meaning to ask you something. Kind of related to this. My brother has offered to get me either a lip ring or a tattoo of Snoopy for my birthday this year, but I wanted your opinion. Not as a boss, you know. As a friend.” I paused. “Which do you think would be a better choice, Sharon? I mean, I know, everyone, even the Prime Minister I think, has tattoos these days, and facial piercings are so common, right? But I just can’t decide. Anyway. So. Which do you think would be more – professional looking?” I kept my face earnest.
She turned briefly purple, then back to tanning-salon white boss. “Oh, ho, those are quite the gifts! My! I wonder that he doesn’t offer you a gift coupon for a mani-pedi or something instead? That would be so much more attractive, don’t you think? And then you’d get to show them off daily, instead of worrying about, er, uh, maybe offending some of our elderly patients.” She glanced at the door, then back. “Many of our patients would be, well, could be put off by, uh, piercings and tattoos. Those older patients, are still, um, you know, quite conservative.” This was followed by a pained, forced smile. She continued, “And there are health risks associated with both. I read an article recently -”
“But I can’t say no to a gift,” I murmured. “And he is my brother.”
“Well, you could simply explain that, in your career, those things are a little out of place.”
I tilted my head thoughtfully. “We see many young people in here with piercings and tattoos so it wouldn’t be that out of place. Maybe a small tattoo. On my chest. For my aunt, who died tragically when I was young. We were so very close.”
Diverted, she asked what had happened.
“Subway accident. It took them days to clean up all the blood,” I ad-libbed, deadpan. “I never talk about it, but I’ve been missing her a lot lately. She was…” I looked away and blinked a few times. “Like a mother to me.” I paused. “Anyway, I know employees are allowed to wear these things under the law, but I’m just having trouble choosing. You know, because I’d want the tattoo or the lip-ring to be classy. And tasteful. Just like your jewelry, Sharon.”
“Oh. Well.” She seemed tongue-tied, and fingered her necklaces.
I rose. “Well, I have to get home to walk Snoopy. She starts to eat the sofa cushions if I’m late. You understand,” I added. “She may just be a rescue dog, but after years of abuse, she has a lot of challenges. Oh,” I tapped my cheek at the door and turned back, “I need some cream for her neck where the chain rubbed her hair off. It’s peeling again. Do you have a suggestion? Vet creams cost a fortune. You understand.”
I sailed home with a double iced coffee in hand, my thoughts already turned to Monday. If this heat didn’t let up I was going to lose the camisole next. I wondered if it might not be fun to dye stripes back in my hair. I’d wear my Pride tee and some of my many buttons for Time to Ban Plastics; Alternative Energies Rock, and the Humane Society. The last pin was a new one. I mean, I wore these outside of work, but why not at work? Honestly?
Besides, they would piss Sharon off.
Yes, I reflected, there’d been a tense time at work after that dreadful weekend course she’d attended. But things seemed to be humming along pleasantly again.
I picked up a small bag of chicken wings on the walk home. For Snoopy.