What People Do

by Michelle Ross


The new hygienist asks me questions while her hands and her shiny instruments are in my mouth. The previous hygienist did this, too, it’s true, but the previous hygienist and I had a rhythm. We’d been together for years. The new hygienist, who didn’t even offer her name before poking at my teeth, asks do I have kids, am I married and after I manage a “one” and a “yes” between pokes, she says, “What does your husband do?”

She never asked whether I was married to a man, mind you, nor has she asked what I do, only the kid question, the marriage question, and how often do I brush and floss.

I recall reading somewhere that this question, “What do you do?” with its emphasis on productivity, is an American question. People in other countries aren’t so preoccupied with work.

These are hardly my only objections, though. Take the question literally, and there are a million ways to answer. My husband uses no fewer than three butter knives each morning, and he leaves all three balanced on the edge of the sink so that the dully serrated ends with the residue of butter and jam and coconut oil project over the sink basin like diving boards.

But this is not what the hygienist means, of course.

I say to her, “Not enough.”

The new hygienist laughs. She reclines my chair farther so she can better reach my molars, and I yawn.

The new hygienist says, “Oh, I know. We moms are always tired.”

I say, “My being tired has nothing to do with being a mom.” This is the most I’ve said to her, and she startles.

Perhaps prompted by my brusqueness, she finally asks what I do. I tell her I’m a writer. She asks the usual, awkward questions: are-you-published and have-you-written-anything-I-would-have-heard-of.

Yes. No.

As she pokes at my receding gums, she tells me her grandmother wrote a book. “It’s about things my granny did as a kid.”

Without warning, the hygienist tells me a terrible story about what her granny did to gopher snakes, a story so awful I won’t inflict it on you the way the new hygienist did me.

The new hygienist laughs. The pointy metal stick in her hand stabs the thin skin at the base of one of my molars. “Isn’t that the most awful thing you ever heard?”

Some, like my husband when he reads this story, say that what I do is awful, too.


Michelle Ross is the author of three story collections: There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You, winner of the 2016 Moon City Short Fiction Award; Shapeshifting, winner of the 2020 Stillhouse Press Short Fiction Award (forthcoming in 2021); and They Kept Running, winner of the 2021 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction (forthcoming in 2022). Her fiction has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, Electric Literature, Witness, and many other venues. Her work is included in Best Small Fictions, Best Microfiction, the Wigleaf Top 50, and other anthologies. She is fiction editor of Atticus Review. www.michellenross.com


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This story originated in my dentist’s office where I was saddened to discover a few months ago that my beloved dental hygienist had left the practice and had been replaced by a new hygienist who asks annoying questions and tells truly horrifying stories, without trigger warnings, while she’s cleaning your teeth.


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