Commentary Magazine


Dentist
A Story

Doctor Harris had his office on Amsterdam Avenue, in the Upper Eighties of New York City. His office was on the second floor, over a drugstore, and his premises possessed north and east windows, through which the light streamed so blindingly that he had to angle his Venetian blinds all the way down until noon. His walls were painted a soft pale green because he had once read in Reader’s Digest that this was the softest and easiest hue to live with.

“In hospitals catering to nervous cases, that’s the color they paint the walls,” he was fond of telling his wife and two grown children.

“But you don’t cater to mental cases,” his wife reminded him. “All they want, your patients, is a comfortable chair and a good man to fix their teeth.”

“No one is nervous coming to his dentist?” he smiled. He glanced at his children, a son and a daughter, for support. “As I get ready to drill a tooth, or to make an extraction, the color scheme is important in its function to soothe the patient.”

Mrs. Harris frowned and changed the subject. She loved her husband, who was a successful dentist, a good craftsman, but in her opinion he talked too much; he was always ready to give his opinion on any subject, and he would speak warmly, almost heatedly, on more topics than any other man she had ever met. This ability of her husband to discourse with intensity, at the drop of a hat, sometimes made her nervous; even after thirty-five years of marriage to him, she felt herself tighten inside whenever he entered into a discussion on a controversial, or even an innocuous, subject.

“Sidney,” she warned him sometimes, in an undertone inaudible to friends or guests in their apartment on West End Avenue, “you’re talking too much, give Mrs. Gordon a chance to get in a few words.”

He would pause, glare at her venomously for a moment, bite his lip and lapse into silence. But after a minute or two, swept up into the current of a fresh argument or conversation, he would begin talking more fluently than ever, with no ill feeling toward his wife.

In his office Doctor Harris was very popular with his patients. His collections of anecdotes and stories based on observations and personal experiences seemed to be inexhaustible; the best of them he polished year after year, and his memory was so phenomenal that he recalled who had heard a certain story of his and under what conditions he had told it. His uncanny feeling for the dramatic and the warmth of his narration moved most of his patients strongly, even when his tales took on a humorous twist.

“Doctor Harris, you should have been a writer,” many of his patients told him. “Really, the way you have of telling a story! Why, what you said would make a wonderful movie!”

Flattered, the stocky, graying dentist would shake his head and smile. “Thank you, but what do I know of writing? Of its construction, its style? No, I’m thankful to be a dentist, just a good dentist. Tell me, do you like it when I use the high-speed drill, or the regular one?” He always sent them out of his chair with a smile which he accompanied by a low half-bow; his manner may have been a trifle too ironic, too humorous at certain times, but it was always anchored solidly in humanity and warmth. His patients returned to him year after year; more than half of them now had their children coming to him for their dental problems; he even boasted that he was taking care of some of his oldest patients’ grandchildren.

Doctor Harris’s children, unlike their mother, did not criticize the dentist’s storytelling habits. In their childhood they had listened with fascination to his tales and now, despite the occasional boredom they felt upon hearing him relate a familiar story for the first time to a guest, they merely sat back and smiled. Both of them loved their father. Marvin, the son, who was a lawyer and lived with his wife and one-year-old daughter on Central Park West, was especially tolerant of the old man.

“Why should I criticize him when he bends people’s ears?” he said to his mother whenever she made the comment that “Papa talks too much.” “He paid my way through law school, he made sacrifices for me, didn’t he?”

“Marvin’s right,” the daughter said. Ethel, recently divorced from an interior decorator, and childless, also took her father’s part. “When I was going through my worst period with Cecil, Pa always listened to me and gave me comfort.”

“Did I say he wasn’t a good man?” their mother asked. “Of course not, he’s a prince. But if only he wouldn’t tell the same stories over and over.” She sighed. “But I guess I have to take it.” Her children smiled, and Marvin came over and patted her cheek gently.

“You wouldn’t want to change Pa and you know it.” Then they got down to business, discussing what to buy the old raconteur for his sixtieth birthday—a wristwatch, or a portable hi-fi radio set for his office.

“Let’s get him the hi-fi,” Marvin suggested. “You know how he loves music.”

“I was looking at a wonderful Swiss watch the other day,” Ethel began.

“No, let’s buy the hi-fi, by all means,” said Mrs. Harris. “He can tune it down low while he’s working on his patients’ teeth.” What she really meant was that if he had a radio in his office, Doctor Harris would listen to the softly played classical music and do less talking.

_____________

 

They bought the hi-fi set and presented it to him during a dinner party his wife gave in honor of his sixtieth birthday. About a dozen people, including his children, his daughter-in-law Ruth, and his closest friends, were present. Mrs. Harris had hired a woman from a catering service to assist her. There were candles on the dining room table; the woman from the catering service, in a white apron and cap, served drinks in the living room, and before they went in to eat each guest, followed by Marvin, Ethel, Ruth, and Mrs. Harris, proposed a toast. The dentist, listening to the various testimonials in his honor, was visibly affected. Staring at the festive board in the next room, with the candles lit for him, he felt so emotional he couldn’t speak for several minutes. He cleared his throat a half a dozen times, and still the words did not come.

“What’s the matter?” his wife laughed. “Can’t you say something? Now of all times?”

He smiled at her, then at the others, after which he cleared his throat again. “Thank you, thank you one and all,” he said, somewhat hoarsely, “for this nice dinner party and for your wonderful companionship this evening.” He paused, still somewhat overcome, struggling to speak. “I wish I had a cough drop. But I want to say from the bottom of my heart I appreciate all the fine speeches, and I’ll remember them for the rest of my life.”

“Hear, hear,” cried Marvin, raising his glass. “Listen, here’s to my father, the best dentist on the West Side.”

“No, in all of New York,” his mother corrected him, and the others, lifting their glasses, agreed with her. Again, Doctor Harris was so overcome he could not speak; he gulped half of his Manhattan, his hand shaking.

“Dinner is served,” the hired maid said quietly.

The guests finished their cocktails and rose from their chairs—Doctor and Mrs. Feldman, Mr. Weiner, a widower, Mr. and Mrs. Hochner, Mr. and Mrs. Reilly, and Mrs. Leftov who had lost her husband last year. They went into the dining room followed by the immediate family.

Soon, eating at the table, the dentist found his voice. He had dug up some new stories for the occasion, anecdotes which even his wife had never heard, and in a few minutes he became the center of conversation. The stories he related were good ones and created large bursts of laughter, but after a while, noting the flush on his face, his wife said, “Eat, eat, your meat is turning cold. Besides, you’re talking yourself hoarse.”

He waved the words aside. “It’s only a little cold.” He cut off a small piece of meat but before eating it said to the company, “Say, did I ever tell you the story about Mrs. Ronson, a patient of mine years ago, may her soul rest in peace? The way she cured her husband of staying out every Saturday night playing cards with the boys?” Still not eating, he began giving them the full details. Toward the end of the story, despite his efforts to make himself heard all around the table, his voice died down to a raw whisper. At the finish, his listeners laughed uproariously.

“You’re making ‘em more dramatic than ever,” Mr. Reilly told him. He turned to the others. “Oh, he can tell them, can’t he?”

The birthday party was a huge success. The gifts from the dentist’s family and his friends lay on the sideboard. He tested the small hi-fi radio and was enthusiastic over its tone. When his wife suggested that he put it in his office, he readily agreed to do so.

“I’ve got a place for it, a nice place for it,” he told everybody. “Right next to the sterilizer, on the metal table near the door.”

The party broke up at midnight. When the dentist saw the guests to the door, he cleared his throat again, several times.

“Thanks, thanks for coming. And for all the lovely presents. I’ll remember this evening all my life.” He helped them with their coats.

“Take a drink of brandy for your cold,” Mr. Reilly told him. He glanced toward Doctor Feldman, for support. “Isn’t that a good suggestion?”

Doctor Feldman smiled. “It can’t do any harm.”

The guests filed out, and Doctor and Mrs. Harris, sighing and feeling slightly tired, closed the door. The rest of the family stayed on another twenty minutes, to tell their parents what a successful evening it was and to examine the other presents; then they, too, departed. Doctor Harris went into the bathroom, stared at his tongue, gargled his throat for a few seconds, and went to bed. His wife was in the kitchen, paying the catering woman her fee and thanking her for her expert assistance.

_____________

 

The dentist’s throat felt a lot better the following day and his voice regained its strength. But at the end of the week the huskiness returned, and he could not shake it off. One evening he felt himself straining to make himself heard.

“It’s one of those late spring colds,” he told his wife.

“You’ve been working too hard,” she said. “You talk too much to your patients, too.”

He disagreed with her. “I haven’t changed my working habits. You can’t be a clam while you’re bending over a patient in the chair. You have to divert them, amuse them, otherwise they tense up.”

“Yes, but—”

“I just divert them, I’ve been doing it for over thirty-five years.” He coughed twice and cleared his throat. “It’s a little phlegm. One of those stubborn spring colds. I’ll go into Springer’s place tomorrow and get something for it.”

The next morning he went into the drugstore under his office and spoke to Springer, the proprietor. Springer gave him a bottle of raspberry-colored liquid which, he said, he had been using himself for colds for years. He informed the dentist of its ingredients, adding that it contained wild cherry bark and codeine. Doctor Harris nodded. “It sounds good, it ought to do the trick.” He took the bottle upstairs (Springer would accept no money for it) and after swallowing small amounts of the medicine in the morning his throat indeed felt much improved. But the huskiness remained, and toward evening he felt himself straining again as he spoke to his patients. He came home one evening soon afterward, looked reflective, then said to his wife:

“I’m going to take an hour off tomorrow and see Doctor Feldman.”

“I’m glad, Sidney. I’ve been telling you for a long time, you’ve been pushing too hard. You need a rest.”

“Maybe you’re right.”

The next day the dentist went to see his friend, Doctor Feldman. Doctor Feldman gave him a thorough examination, shone a light down his throat, palpated his neck and behind the ears carefully, and after the examination was silent for a moment.

“Sidney, I’m going to send you to Doctor Shiel. You look okay but I’d like him to examine you just to make sure.”

“Something’s the matter with me.”

“I don’t know. Doctor Shiel is a wonderful throat man. We’ll both feel better after he looks at you. I’ll phone him and make an appointment for you.”

“Something’s wrong with me.”

“I didn’t say that. Now you’re acting like some of the old women who come here complaining of aches and pains because they have nothing else to complain about. Say, that was some birthday party you threw. And some haul you made.” He was looking in his black book for a number. “I’ll call Shiel now.”

The next day the dentist went to Doctor Shiel’s office in Park Avenue. Doctor Shiel, using a bronchoscope, took a biopsy of his patient’s throat and told him to return on Friday when the report on the slide would be in. When the dentist came in on Friday, Doctor Shiel informed Sidney Harris he had cancer of the larynx. It wasn’t far advanced and he advised immediate surgery.

“What about radiation treatments, doctor?” the dentist asked, his face clammy.

“Not in this case.” Doctor Shiel did not feel put out because his patient had questioned his procedure. “Doctor Harris, your chances for a successful operation are excellent. This isn’t a complicated case.”

“You’re not kidding me, doctor?”

“I’m not kidding you.”

The dentist looked into Doctor Shiel’s eyes unwaveringly for a long five seconds, as if reading his destiny. “Okay, I’m in your hands, doctor.”

_____________

 

Three days later, Doctor Shiel removed most of the dentist’s larynx, in a highly successful operation. In two weeks, Doctor Harris was home from the hospital. He was ordered not to speak until the fifth week, and to pass the time he read a lot in bed, newspapers, paperback mysteries, and a book about the Arctic region that his son Marvin had brought over. Mrs. Harris was a good nurse and cheerful companion, masking her anxieties in her husband’s presence but going to pieces when she was with her children.

“So silent,” she wept. “He lies there so silently. It’s not like him, he seems like another person.”

“But Mom,” Marvin said with a smile, “it’s the doctor’s orders. In a few more days he’ll be talking a mile a minute again.”

“Sure, Mom,” Ruth said cheerfully. “Wait till the five weeks are up, you’ll see. Doctor Feldman said Doctor Shiel did a wonderful job. You heard him say that yourself. Wait until Saturday, Mom.”

The children came over Saturday, to be with their mother when the dentist was to be allowed to speak again. Doctor Shiel was closeted with his patient in the bedroom and in fifteen minutes he emerged with a smile.

“No complications. He’ll be all right.” He hesitated. “Just be patient,” he said. He put on his coat and hat and left.

The family went into the bedroom to see their husband and father. When the dentist spoke, they fell silent. He had uttered a series of croaking noises. They stood aghast, trying to conceal their collective anguish. He attempted a smile and pointed to his throat as he saw their despairing eyes. At last, their stares riveted on his lips in a kind of horrified fascination, they understood some of his words. He was trying to tell them what Doctor Shiel had just said to him a few minutes ago, that he’d have to relearn how to speak, due to the loss of most of his larynx. The process of relearning wouldn’t be too difficult, but it would demand a lot of patience and effort, from the patient and the entire family.

Twenty minutes later, when the family withdrew to the living room, Mrs. Harris said, wringing her hands, “He’s so brave, we’ve got to help him, we’ve got to help him.” Then she broke down and cried. Her children, overwrought themselves, looked at her without speaking. It was best for their mother to get a good cry out of her system as soon as possible.

_____________

 

Doctor Harris returned to his dental office in two months. In his absence a young dentist had taken over, a Doctor Wayne; some of the practice had slipped away while he had been filling in for the older man, but that was to be expected. Doctor Harris went over the books with his substitute, listened to a lengthy report, glanced at the appointment book, and thanked the young man for his help. He paid him generously for the time he had expended and they parted amiably. After the young man had departed, Doctor Harris put on his white starched dentist’s jacket and waited for the first patient to arrive since his return. Waiting, he wondered why the young dentist had looked at him so strangely while he had been talking to him. He smiled. It had been his voice, of course. Young Doctor Wayne should have heard him five or six weeks ago, then he would have been surprised.

The first patient arrived, a middle-aged housewife who had been coming upstairs to Doctor Harris’s office for years. She was taken aback when he greeted her. Though she had heard he had undergone an operation on his throat, she wasn’t prepared for the sound of his voice as he began describing his late illness. He worked on her teeth with his usual skill, however, while he continued his monologue, and at the end of her visit she was laughing with him as he explained how he had had to relearn how to speak. “Imagine, at my age,” he told her. “Just imagine, like I’m a baby!” The patient laughed with him as he made his guttural noises, because he was so open and utterly unself-conscious about it.

Doctor Harris did not lose much of his practice, right away. Most of his patients had long since grown accustomed to his talkativeness and they made more than the usual allowances for the sound of his voice at first. They felt he would calm down after a while, when he had exhausted his stories about the hospital, the nurses, and the fine job Doctor Shiel had performed on him.

But when, after a few months, he returned to his favorite topics, world events, philosophy, and the mediocrity of television programs, many of his patients lying back in his dental chair began to listen uneasily to his strange, croaking, almost incoherent sentences uttered directly above their faces. As was his habit, he spoke rapidly and this made his words even more unintelligible to his captive listeners. Gradually, some of them began cancelling their appointments.

It was Mrs. Reilly who alerted the dentist’s wife. Going one day to Doctor Harris’s office to have her bridgework repaired, she underwent an experience similar to that of the other patients who, lying back in the chair, had listened to the dentist’s animated conversation as he worked inside their mouths.

“His hand is just as steady as ever, Bertha—but it’s his voice that gets you after a while.”

“His voice?”

“Well, I didn’t want to tell you, Bertha, you know how much my husband and I love him. But as you He there in his chair and he keeps making those noises you get nervous. Finally you want to jump up and leave.”

“But I told him to whisper. That’s what the doctor told him, too. His words are clearer, then. They sound better, too. Why doesn’t he do it? Just whisper, I told him. Thanks, thanks for phoning me, Grace.”

When the dentist came home that evening, his wife spoke to him about it. “Sidney, I know why your practice is falling off. I just learned today. Someone, whose name I won’t mention, called me and told me how you speak to patients.”

“Speak?” The dentist looked puzzled. “Of course I speak to them. I’m a human being, so I speak to them, and why not?”

“You’re raising your voice again. And when you do that, Sidney, even I have a hard time understanding you. And I’m used to it by now.” Seeing his face had paled, she went over to him and held his hands warmly, compassionately. “Sidney, you’ll have to control yourself in the office. I know it will be hard. But don’t talk much. If you have to talk, whisper. Otherwise you’ll drive your patients away.” She put a handkerchief to her eyes. “I didn’t want to tell you, but I had to. I had to.” He looked at her a long, pale moment, then bowed his head and nodded. A little later, when they ate dinner, he seemed to have recovered his good spirits.

“What’s on TV tonight?” he said in a raw whisper. “Any good program? A good Western?” He smiled, and she smiled back at him.

_____________

 

For the next two weeks, he followed his wife’s advice. He did not talk very much as his patients sat in his chair, and when he did he always tried to remember to speak in a whisper. But after a spell of comparative silence, he could hold himself in check no longer. Gradually, he resumed his habit of conversing at length to his patients. All his life he had been a talker; conversation to him was as natural, and as necessary, as breathing. He tried to check himself but he failed miserably. The more he held himself back, the more violent was the torrent of words that spilled out of him when he could contain himself no longer.

Hearing the strange, animal-like sounds that issued from his lips, some of his patients grew frightened. During one week two of them, women, struggled up from his chair in the middle of their visits and hurriedly left his office. That sobered the dentist. He kept quiet for a few days after that, rarely talking above his rough whisper, but by the end of the week, unable to control himself, he was once more speaking volubly about the latest East-West crisis, juvenile delinquency, and the growing and dangerous influence of gangsters in legitimate business.

By the beginning of June, three months following his return to his office, Doctor Harris’s practice had dropped 50 per cent.

“Don’t talk to your patients!” his wife cried out again. “You’ll end up with nothing—nothing!”

“What can I do? Be a dummy? After all these years?”

“Yes, yes, yes! Be silent! I see now that that’s the only solution.”

He whispered hoarsely. “But how can I?”

“Sidney, your patients still love you. But you just have to control your conversation.”

“How? How?”

“When you feel like talking—write. We’ll buy you pads of paper. We’ll get you a dozen ballpoint pens. That way you’ll save your practice!”

He looked at her incredulously, then bowed his head again.

The next day he purchased some pads of paper and a bunch of ballpoint pens which he brought to his office. A day later, he tried to commit suicide. Springer the druggist had given him a bottle of sleeping pills and then, suddenly becoming suspicious, had run upstairs and found him in his lab, on the floor.

This experience threw the dentist’s family into tenor and perplexity. “I must have been crazy,” the dentist told his wife, afterward. “It’s not your fault. Believe me, it won’t happen again.” And he spoke with such simplicity, such conviction, she knew he meant it.

Doctor Harris, as good as his word, did not make another attempt at suicide. But the rumor concerning his try at it had somehow gotten around. As the weeks went by, his practice dwindled further. Doctor Harris wasn’t a poor man; he had been a successful dentist for a long time and had invested his earnings in a small apartment house on West End Avenue and in blue-chip stocks; but as he witnessed his career collapsing he grew deeply depressed.

The one thing that sustained the dentist was the small, excellent hi-fi set in his office. As his practice had declined, he became addicted to listening to the classical music coming from the FM stations. In the long intervals between patients he sat in the waiting room, in one of the chairs there, hearing the work of Beethoven, Mozart, and Schumann, hour after hour. Concertos and sonatas had become his favorites. He acquired the habit of humming the themes and variations to himself. When he grew tired of sitting near the hi-fi set he went to stand at the windows that looked down on Amsterdam Avenue. The neighborhood had changed during the last few years. It had “gone down,” as the real estate people said; a poorer class of people had moved in, the advance echelons of struggling minority groups, who lived huddled together in small, cut-up apartments. The dentist, long familiar with all the landmarks, still gazed with affection at the buildings, the store fronts, and the life in the street.

_____________

 

Really, he thought one morning, he had no cause for complaint. “Well, I have lived over sixty years,” he told himself, almost cheerfully. “I’ve raised a family, I’ve gone on some wonderful vacations, and I have nice friends.” As he stood staring at the window, he heard his door open as his first patient of the day entered.

“Hello, Mrs. Really,” he whispered. “How nice you look today. Is that a new dress?” he asked in his rough whisper as she stepped into his chair with a smile. He placed the napkin around her throat, efficient, businesslike, cheerful. “Of course it’s a new dress,” he whispered huskily, his words competing against the sound of the music coming from the next room. “That means your husband put through a good deal last week, right?” Mrs. Reilly, pleased at the attention he was giving her, laughed.

“Sidney, you notice everything, don’t you? Now I want you to fix that back filling. That job you did on my bridge was wonderful. I haven’t had a bit of trouble with it since.”

“Of course not,” he whispered hoarsely, with a smile. “When Doctor Harris does a job, he does a job. You think he’s a butcher?” As he gripped his instruments, he noticed, with annoyance, that the music had become somewhat loud because the theme being broadcast had developed breadth and depth. He cleared his throat and raised his voice. “By the way, did you see what our State Department is doing today, over the latest Berlin crisis!” He hadn’t had a patient to talk to for two days; now his words tumbled out, most of them unintelligible. Mrs. Reilly lay back in the dental chair, her fists clenched tightly. Despite her determination to relax, she still felt frightened at the strange noises coming from the dentist’s mouth. With her jaws extended to his probing instruments, she forced herself to sit quietly, though her abdomen had hardened.

Later on, when he was finished with the woman, the dentist’s voice dropped back to a whisper. He had had his release for the day.

“Thanks for being so patient,” he whispered gratefully. “You’re not only a patient, you’re patient.”

The woman got up out of the chair nervously, her palms wet, her big back aching from suppressed fear. She saw the dentist’s eyes come to rest on some small pads of paper and a dozen ballpoint pens stuck upright into a drinking glass.

“Mrs. Reilly,” he said in his raw whisper, “what shall I do with these pads and all these ballpoint pens? A salesman came up and sold them to me, and I have no use for them. What shall I do with them? Huh?”

Mrs. Reilly came over to the table and looked at the merchandise. The pens were good ones, not the cheap kind featured in the windows of dime stores. She could give them to her small grandchildren, she thought. Her grandchildren would love to draw pictures on those nice pads, too. Then she remembered something; she suddenly recalled the taxing telephone conversation she had had with Mrs. Harris two weeks ago, during which the dentist’s wife, distraught, had told her she had ordered her husband to communicate with his patients in writing to avoid frightening them with his guttural, animal-like noises.

“I—I couldn’t take them, Sidney,” she blurted out, without thinking. “Really—you can make better use of them than can—”

He stared at her, white-faced and speechless; and in his eyes she now saw his despair, his utter loneliness. She made her exit awkwardly, as quickly as she could.

A few seconds later, Doctor Harris went to stand at the windows, watching Mrs. Reilly’s matronly figure moving up the street toward the bus stop. He saw her get into a bus and ride away. Then he turned and faced the hi-fi set, which was playing louder than before. It was one of the Beethoven quartets, and the music filled the office with its full, blasting, resonant tonality. Still white-faced, the dentist stood before the instrument, his blood pounding. As the music swelled out fuller and deeper, he felt his temples throbbing with defeat and anguish. “No, I can’t keep silent!” he told himself. “When I’m dead, yes! . . . I can’t! I can’t!” The composition ended, abruptly. In the sudden silence, which seemed to suck up his physical reserves like a giant sponge, the dentist heard the lament of his voiceless outcries re-echoing throughout the office. He sat down tremblingly in a chair in the waiting room, his knees weak, his face covered with perspiration.

That night when he came home, Doctor Harris was unusually quiet at the dinner table. He ate sparingly but his wife was so pleased at his subdued demeanor, which told her he was learning to control himself down at the office, that she did not call his attention to the special manner in which she had prepared the broiled chicken, just the way he liked it, until later.

“Sidney,” she smiled, her mouth half full of food, “isn’t the chicken good? Isn’t it delicious?”

He was staring at his fork, his face pale, his eyes blank.

“Yes,” he whispered hoarsely, “yes.”

_____________

 

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