To Rise Again at a Decent Hour: A Novel, Page 2Joshua Ferris
“I have effected emptiness to the extreme,” he told me. “You just have to remember: though you lose the body, you do not die.”
His canine, in an advanced state of decay, was stained the color of weak tea but was still rooted to active nerves. No dentist in his right mind would pull a tooth without at least applying a local anesthetic. I told him that, and he finally agreed to the local. He resumed his meditative position, I juiced him with the needle, and then I went at his canine with a vigorous swaying grip. Two seconds into it he began to moan. I thought the moaning part and parcel of his effecting emptiness to the extreme, but it grew louder, filling the room, spilling out into the waiting area. I looked at Abby, my dental assistant, sitting across the patient from me, pink paper mask obscuring her features. She said nothing. I took the forceps out of my patient’s mouth and asked if everything was okay.
“You’re making noise.”
“Was I? I didn’t realize. I’m not actually here physically,” he said.
“You sound here physically.”
“I’ll try to be quieter,” he said. “Please continue.”
The moaning started up again almost immediately, rising to a modest howl. It was inchoate and bloody, like that of a newborn with stunted organs. I stopped. His red eyes were filmed with tears.
“You’re doing it again,” I said.
“Moaning,” I said. “Howling. Are you sure the local’s working?”
“I’m thinking three or four weeks ahead of this pain,” he said. “I’m four to six weeks removed.”
“It shouldn’t be painful at all,” I said, “with the local.”
“And it’s not, not at all,” he said. “I’ll be completely silent.”
I resumed. He stopped me almost that very second.
“Can I have the full gas, please?”
I put him under and removed the tooth and replaced it with a temporary crown. When the gas wore off, Abby and I were in with another patient. Connie came into the room and informed me that the man was ready to leave but wanted to say goodbye first.
I should have fired Connie after she and I broke up. All she did for me was write the patient’s name on a card with the date and time of the next appointment. That was all she did, eight hours a day, longer on Thursdays. That and help Mrs. Convoy with the scheduling. And some billing, she also did some billing. But I had an outside service for billing. She never did enough billing that I no longer needed the outside service. And oh, right, the phone. Eight hours, sometimes more, of filling out little cards, inputting names into the schedule, doing not enough billing to save me from paying an outside service, and answering the phone. The rest of her time she spent glued to her me-machine.
“Where is he?” I asked.
“Over there,” she said.
My patient stood as I entered the waiting room.
“I just wanted to say… thanks! Thanks for everything. This is the last time you’ll see me. I’m off to Israel!”
He was slurring just enough that I thought he might still be feeling the effects of the gas.
“Are you sure you don’t want a few more minutes to rest up?” I asked him.
“Oh, no, I’m not going just yet. I have to take the subway first. I just wanted to say how much I’ll miss you. I’ll miss everyone here. Everyone here is so nice. That lady’s nice. She’s super nice. And she’s super hot. I mean she’s really just, like, oh, fuck me. I would fuck that lady.”
He was pointing at Connie, who was looking on, as was the rest of the waiting room.
“Okay,” I said, “you need to recuperate a little longer. Come with me.”
“Can’t!” he cried, shrugging me off. “No time!”
“Then we’ll be seeing you.”
“No, you won’t!” he said. “I told you. I’m off to Israel!”
I started moving him toward the door. Connie handed me his jacket.
“But I’m not going to Israel because I’m Jewish. That’s probably what you think, isn’t it?”
“Let’s just get you in this other sleeve here…”
“But you’d be wrong!”
I opened the door. He got up close and whispered to me with a sour anesthetic breath.
“I’m an Ulm,” he said. “That’s why I’m going to Israel. I’m an Ulm, and so are you!”
I patted him on the back and then gave him a little prod.
“Congratulations. Good luck.”
“Good luck to you!” he said.
Gas makes people say funny things. I didn’t think another thing of it.
SIX MONTHS LATER, THE morning of Friday, the fifteenth of July 2011, began uneventfully. Cosmetic consultations and a gum graft and one hideously black tongue. “Nowhere Man” played softly four different times, or I was in four separate exam rooms while it played once. Later I caught myself humming it during a crown lengthening. Connie’s chignon slowly dried into the afternoon, filling the office with the scent of her hair. Mrs. Convoy suggested a new solution to the file overflow. Abby was silent.
You don’t have to do much to be a good dental assistant. Commit the instruments to memory and hand them off in anticipation of my needs. It’s not cardiovascular surgery. But it’s not all fun and games, either. Victims of car crashes and bar fights would come in with their mouths wrecked, and in addition to committing the instruments to memory and handing them off when I needed them, Abby had to be a steely professional when they first opened their mouths. You don’t want to be the victim of a car crash. Sure, I can get you eating and drinking again, but you’re never going back to the way it was. You’ve had your run of luck, and now it’s over. From this point forward, it’s all a compromise. From now until death it’s a matter of the best we can do.
To be honest, you can’t get a damn thing done without a good dental assistant. And Abby was very good. She would even hold a patient’s hand. But I thought she had management issues. If she had a complaint or a suggestion or simply wanted an afternoon off, she wouldn’t come to me. She’d go to Connie or Mrs. Convoy. She said it was because she was afraid to disturb me. Afraid to disturb me? We sat across from each other all day long! She probably would have preferred someone else to sit across from, like one of those cheery dentists who love people and make winning remarks that entertain everybody—which is all I’ve ever wanted for myself. I wanted her to stop sitting across from me in silence, constantly judging me. Maybe she wasn’t judging me. Maybe I just couldn’t read her behind that pink paper mask always obscuring her features. Maybe she was simply waiting to hand off the next instrument with the professionalism I required. But you try having a dental assistant follow you around all day and sit across from you when you’re not feeling witty or cheery and see if you don’t feel judged.
“Are all the rooms prepped?” I asked Abby first thing when I came in that morning.
I wanted nothing more than to say good morning first thing in the morning. Saying good morning was good for morale, conveying to everyone in their turn, Isn’t it something? Here we are again, wits renewed, armpits refreshed, what exciting surprises does the day hold in store? But some mornings I couldn’t bring myself to do it. We were a cozy office of four; three good mornings, that’s all that was ever asked of me. And yet I’d withhold my good mornings. Ignoring the poignancy of everyone’s limited allotment of good mornings, I would not say good morning. Or I would in all innocence forget about our numbered opportunities to say good morning, that horrifying circumscription, and simply fail to say it. Or I would say good morning sparingly, begrudgingly, injudiciously, or tyrannically. I would say good morning to Abby and Betsy but not to Connie. Or to Betsy but not Abby or Connie. Or to Abby in front of Betsy, and to Betsy in front of Connie, but not to Connie. What was so good about it anyway, the too-often predictable, so-called new morning? It was usually preceded by a long struggle for a short drowse that so many people call night. That was never sufficie
ntly ceremonial to call for fresh greetings. So instead I’d say to them, “Where’s the day’s schedule?” If I said, “Where’s the day’s schedule?” I was saying that to Connie, who worked the desk. Or I’d say, “Are all the rooms prepped?” as I said that morning, the morning in question, and that would be directed at Abby. I’d say that first thing, at the start of the day, as if I expected the rooms not to be prepped, and for the rest of the day, Abby would sit across the patient from me mutely breathing inside her mask, soberly handing off the instruments, and silently judging me in the harshest of terms. Or I’d say to Betsy, “You’re alone today,” meaning that she would have no help from a temp hygienist, and she would reply, “Somebody’s in a foul mood.” And I wasn’t, in fact, in a foul mood, despite coming off another futile attempt at a good night’s sleep, and seeing again all too soon my same three employees from the day before. I wasn’t in a foul mood until the very moment Mrs. Convoy said, “Somebody’s in a foul mood,” which would invariably set the course for a day spent in the blackest of moods.
But good morning! good morning to ye and thou! I’d say to all my patients, because I was the worst of the hypocrites, of all the hypocrites, the cruel and phony hypocrites, I was the very worst.
Among my patients that Friday morning was a man I’ll call Contacts. Contacts was in for some cosmetic work. More patients were coming in for cosmetic purposes than ever before. They wanted whiter smiles, straighter smiles, less gummy smiles, gum bleachings and lip repositionings, smiles whose architecture was remade tooth by tooth, millimeter by millimeter, until every bad memory from childhood had been eradicated. They wanted George Clooney’s smile or Kim Kardashian’s smile or that beefy knock-kneed smile of Tom Cruise’s, and they brought in clippings of lesser celebrities whose smiles they hoped I could give them so that they, too, could smile like celebrities and walk the streets like celebrities and live forever and ever in the glow of celebrity. These were patients who could afford to indulge themselves, lawyers and hedge-fund managers and their spouses who had no more appetite for imperfection, and socialites who made the rounds of museum galas catching the light of every flash. And then, in contrast, there were those who, with no insurance, came in from complications from a self-pulled tooth yanked with pliers in the kitchen of a rent-controlled walk-up after putting away half a bottle of Jim Beam. They dealt with their growing toothaches not with dental exams but with aspirin, whiskey, and whatever scripts they could get from their disability docs. Some of them had to be immediately referred to the emergency room. These were the same people who were often resented in life for being closed off and hostile because they never smiled, but they never smiled not because of some personality flaw but from a lifelong embarrassment of their yellow stains, rotted grays, and dark edentulous gaps. If, after years of torment and slow savings, they came to see me before catastrophe struck, they often broke down in the chair, men and women alike, and then out it came, everything: their terrible nicknames, their broken hearts, their blown opportunities and arrested lives. All on account of some fucking teeth. There were days I considered myself singularly ill suited to my profession, which required the daily suspension of any awareness of the long game, a whistling past the grave of every open mouth. I spent all my energy on the temporary, the stopgap, and the ad hoc, which made it hard to convince myself that a patient’s biannual maintenance was anything more than a necessary delusion. But when I got to work on those chronic unsmilers, and they came back after the sutures healed and the anchors held steady to thank me for giving them their lives back—indeed for giving them any life at all—I felt good about what I did, and damn the long game to hell.
Anyway, I was bonding a new set of incisors to Contacts when he took out his me-machine and began scrolling through his contacts. It was a simple bond job, it wasn’t brain surgery. Still, it required a little focus and some patient cooperation. Let me tell you something. If brain surgery could be done without anesthesia, you’d have the brain-surgery patients scrolling through their contacts, too. The array of activity people found acceptable in the chair never ceased to amaze me. Mrs. Convoy once had a patient unscrew a bottle of nail polish one-handed during a cleaning and begin to paint her nails. That provoked a passionate sermon on the deplorable state of respect in contemporary society, from which the poor girl could neither escape nor, with Mrs. Convoy’s scraper in her mouth, offer any rebuttal. I asked the guy with the sudden pressing need to scroll through his contacts if he might put his phone away, which he did only after firing off a text. He got me thinking about a certain time in my life. When the Prozac stopped working and my Spanish stalled, I started going to the gym. My friend McGowan had encouraged it. Together we would lift things and put them down again. That was something that was almost everything for about a month and a half, the gym’s racks of shiny weights and promises of sexual prowess, until the dismal lighting got to me and I took up indoor lacrosse. I remembered telling McGowan how I’d been flicking through all my contacts the night before when it occurred to me that many of them couldn’t be considered real friends. I decided to delete a whole bunch, even if they were people I’d known forever. It bothered McGowan that I would do that. “Those are your contacts, man,” he said. “Yeah? So?” “Don’t you care about your contacts?” “Why should I?” “I just don’t get why you do stuff like that,” he said. “I wish you wouldn’t do stuff like that. It’s depressing.” I didn’t see why it should be depressing to him. They were my contacts. He avoided me after that. Then one day I got a call out of the blue. “Hello?” I said. “Hey,” replied the voice on the other end. “Who is this?” I asked, not having the number in my contacts. It turned out to be McGowan. We haven’t talked since.
When I looked up from Contacts’s mouth, Mrs. Convoy was standing there. Most of the time Mrs. Convoy looked like an unhappy docent. You got the impression you were about to go on a boring tour of something edifying and that she would make it as punitive as possible. Part of that impression came from her flesh-colored turtleneck, which was tucked severely into her slacks and fit tightly over her splayed AARP breasts, and part of it came from her silvered crew cut, and part of it came from her pale facial down, which stood straight up on her neck and cheeks as if trying to attract balloons. But on this occasion she was beaming at me.
“What?” I said.
“You did it, you!”
“I thought you were dead set against, but you did it.”
“Tell me what you’re talking about, Betsy.”
“Our website,” she said.
I swiveled away from my patient and snapped off my latex gloves. “We don’t have a website,” I said.
Turns out I was in for a surprise.
Betsy Convoy was my head hygienist and a devout Roman Catholic. If ever I was tempted to become a Christian, which I never was, but if I was, I thought I would do well to become a Roman Catholic like Mrs. Convoy. She attended Mass at Saint Joan of Arc Church in Jackson Heights where she expressed her faith with hand gestures, genuflections, recitations, liturgies, donations, confessions, lit candles, saints’ days, and several different call-and-responses. Catholics speak, like baseball players, in the coded language of gesture. Sure, the Roman Catholic Church is an abomination to man and a disgrace to God, but it comes with a highly structured Mass, several sacred pilgrimages, the oldest songs, the most impressive architecture, and a whole bunch of things to do whenever you enter the church. Taken all together, they make you one with your brother.
Say I would come in from outside and go straight to the sink to wash my hands. It didn’t matter which sink, Mrs. Convoy would find me. She’d sniff at me like a bloodhound and then she’d say, “What exactly have you been doing?” I’d tell her, and she’d say, “Why do you feel the need to lie to me?” I’d tell her, and she’d say, “Scrutiny does not kill people. Smoking kills people. What kind of example do you think you’re setting
for your patients by sneaking off to smoke cigarettes?” I’d tell her, she’d say, “They do not need a reminder of ‘the futility of it all’ from their dental professional. When did you take up smoking again?” I’d tell her, she’d say, “Oh, for heaven’s sake. Then why did you tell everyone you quit?” I’d tell her, she’d say, “I do not see how the occasional show of concern is ‘utterly strangulating.’ I would like to see you live up to your potential, that is all. Don’t you wish you had more self-control?” I’d tell her, she’d say, “Of course I will not join you. What are you doing? Do not light that cigarette!” I’d put the cigarettes away with an offhand remark, she’d say, “How am I a trial? I am not the trial here. The trial is between you and your addictions. Do you want to ruin your lungs and die a young man?” I’d tell her, she’d say, “You are not already in hell. Shall I tell you what hell will be like?” I’d answer, she’d say, “Yes, as a matter of fact, any conversation can turn into a discussion on the salvation of the soul. It’s a pity more don’t. What are you doing at that window?” I’d tell her, she’d say, “We are on the ground floor. You would hardly manage to sprain an ankle.”
I’d come out of the bathroom and she’d be standing right there. “I’ve been looking all over for you,” she’d say. “Where have you been?” I’d tell her the obvious, she’d say, “Why must you call it the Thunderbox?” I’d tell her, adding a few details, and she’d grow severe, she’d say, “Please do not refer to what you do in the bathroom as ‘making the pope’s fountain.’ I know the pope is just a joke to you. I know the Catholic Church is nothing but a whetting stone for your wit. But I happen to hold the church in the highest regard, and though you can’t understand that, if you had any respect for me you would mind what you say about the pope.” I’d answer with an apology, but she’d ignore me. “Sometimes I honestly wonder whether you care about anyone’s feelings but your own.” And she’d walk away. I’d never learn why she was standing outside the Thunderbox unless it was to bring grief to us both.