From Problem Contest by Zack Kopp
“I saw Cher the other night! Seventy-some years old, and she looks better now than she did when she was in her twenties!”
I couldn’t respond, with the dentist’s gloved fingers crowding my mouth with sharp picks and drills and his female assistant’s smaller gloved fingers also looming close, holding up an orange plastic screen of some kind, possibly to protect against Covid fumes if any came out of the mouths she worked on.
“Talk about the best plastic surgeon,” The dentist continued. “That would be Cher’s plastic surgeon. The worst plastic surgeon, that would be Michael Jackson’s.”
“Like the two ends of the spectrum?” encouraged his assistant.
I was probably expected to react to these famous names in some predictable way, based on whatever most people were expected to think, but I didn’t say anything. There I was, a guy who’d never taken care of my teeth, captive audience to a discussion about celebrities’ plastic surgery between two dental techs, on my back in the dental chair where I washed up every few years, subject to the reality of material decay and rotting teeth.
“I think you’re at a crossroads with this periodontal disease,” my new hygienist had commented a few days before in her soft, charming voice, “where it’s either gonna get better or worse. It has progressed since your last visit.”
There had been a pandemic lockdown since my last visit. I’d started eating ice cream and gummi bears every day along with all the other things I ate, just brushing my teeth when it suited me, living like a prince. I’d known there would be repercussions, and I’d been feeling something lately. “You mean regressed?” I asked. “Gotten worse?” What an asshole I was.
“Yes, regressed. That’s a better word for it.”
Not really, though. Just my correctile dysfunction acting up again. All my interactions with the medical profession were fraught with the same linguistic-semantic disconnect, like when they asked, “Where does it hurt?” I might say, “Well, it’s not really pain, per se.” But I was an optimist. “I think it’ll probably snap right back!” That’s how it had always been.
My beautiful new hygienist had given me a tube of special paste that day and recommended a special mouthwash I was unable to find at Safeway but replaced with another fluoridated brand. I’d started brushing and washing my teeth with this stuff a couple of times every day for the full two minutes, as she’d recommended, thinking maybe this time I’ve got it. Maybe my lifelong battle with dental care is finally over. Now I was back in the chair, they were giving me a couple of fillings. First the dentist had to drill around the edges of the holes. Stop drilling, start filling, I thought.
All these blue latex fingers were in my face. The assistant’s fingers were much smaller than the dentist’s. “You know what I’ve been reading lately,” he said, “which I never thought I’d end up doing, always kind of looked down at, still do, in a way, is spy novels. You ever read any spy novels?”
“Aaah,” I said. They took their fingers out. “No,” I clarified. Then they went right back in. It went on like this, with him asking me questions and both of them taking their fingers out until I’d answered before replacing them in my mouth.
“A good example is John LeCarre. You ever read any John LeCarre?”
“What’s he written?”
“A good one is Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.”
I’d heard that title somewhere. “Isn’t that James Patterson?” I said, with my lopsided, anesthetized mouth. But what did I know? “I don’t know a thing,” I admitted, lying on my back in the dental chair, at the mercy of untold electrical spikes.
“You might be thinking of Robert Ludlum.”
Everyone’s fingers went back in as the dentist continued scraping and drilling and she moved the vacuum tube to another corner of my gaping mouth to suck up all the spit that had collected there. The dentist knew I was some kind of writer and was always talking about writing, especially John Updike. Whenever he brought up that name, I remembered a scene from Seinfeld where one of the characters says it and another replies, “I don’t need your whole life story,” which I thought was funny, but I’d forgotten the context, so I never brought it up. Just something flashing behind my consciousness at every interaction with this dentist.
“Now Updike. I get the feeling he can just sit down and really write a perfect sentence without even trying too hard. That’s something I have trouble with myself. Have to sit there and sort of hack it out.”
I didn’t say anything, unable to relate. Presumably, this had something to do with the dentist’s approach, the kind of writer he was trying to be, what he wanted to sound like. As a dentist, he probably wouldn’t understand my instruction to just start writing, which is what I’d always done, just let the voice come out. Well, I couldn’t explain it to him. Maybe read more John Updike. Model your stuff on that style since you like it.
“But LeCarre can really write, even though it’s a spy novel, it has a high literary quality. Then there’s a local guy named Vince Flynn, from Colorado Springs, who has a real talent for writing fast-paced action scenes, which is something I think would be not that easy to do.”
The dentist started putting in the first of two fillings. “Then at the other end of the spectrum is someone named Brad Thor. So bad. Every page, every paragraph is so bad I can’t help but wonder, ‘How is it possible this guy even has a following?’”
Brad Thor? I’d never heard of him.
“Not only that,” the dentist continued, “but is that really even his name? ‘Brad Thor.’”
“Nnnnghh,” I agreed.
“I think the answer might be that some government agency is marketing and publishing Brad Thor because he helps them spread their propaganda.” He took his fingers out and his assistant followed suit.
“Yes. I’ve heard that happens,” I pronounced, thinking about Jackson Pollack, then all the fingers went back in, performing their various functions.
“You ever read any of the Harry Potter books? I’ve been reading those to my kids before bedtime, and I’ve noticed there’s always one character or another who seems like they’re in extreme danger every chapter, that something bad’s about to happen to them, but it never does. I’m starting to learn that in Harry Potter, everyone is all right.”
“Guess you haven’t gotten very far into the series,” observed his assistant. “What book are you on?”
“We made it through Book Three.” The dentist started putting in the second filling. I wondered how much metal there was in my mouth after all these years. The front was still all natural, maybe some porcelain.
“Well, it doesn’t really start until Book Four.”
“Oh. Okay. I stand corrected.”
“Yeah. It gets more violent.”
Somewhere in here, a third party appeared, an old man looming over me along with the dentist and dental assistant. I got the impression he was a party in the dental enterprise, possibly the founder looking in on his former apprentice. “Ha ha,” he observed, when my dentist filled him in on the technical aspects of whatever he was doing. “That reminds me of something a celebrity used to say: Farrrr Out! Do you know which celebrity that was?”
Nobody knew, and the old man said, “Well, I don’t either. Thanks, Cub!” then took his leave.
“Might have been Peter Brady from the Brady Bunch,” muttered my dentist, before removing the picking instrument from my mouth.
“Sonny and Cher?” I hazarded. My dentist laughed. Everyone giving their views on pop culture, and that old man had been a visitor from another pop cultural vantage who had happened by to complete that picture. “I saw Cher the other night,” he responded, and you know how it went after that.
At the end of the appointment, the dentist said. “Looks like we’re all done.”
“It’s good you read to your kids,” I said, doing my part. “That’s a good thing.”
“Been doing it since day one. I think if you don’t read in this world, you’re basically at the mercy of whatever they want you to think. If all you have is television, you’re basically brainwashed.” Even the dentists had started dispensing advice against thought control lately in this upside down world.
“That’s very insightful,” I said, though I was open to writing for television, too, if it paid. Well, I’d keep brushing my teeth for the full two minutes a couple of times a day and hopefully everything would be all right by my next appointment in a few more months.
Sometimes clues on how to make a living writing popped up in the most unexpected places. Maybe I’d assume a new form, become an Action Writer, churning out books on spies for the Goon Squad under the name Nick Beowulf, if it paid. Maybe there was an office downtown I could visit. That would be an adventure. Some people became a certain way, then hardened, never changing. Maybe it was all people in danger of finally doing that, but I still felt immune. Anything might always happen.
Words and photos © 2020 Zack Kopp