The second instalment in a new series where we ask authors to revisit the opening sentences of their stories. David Searcy talks us through the first lines of ‘The Hudson River School’, his story from the latest issue of Granta, and the terror and comedy of the dentist’s chair.
I’m in the dental hygienist’s chair and she’s a new one, although very much the same bright, cheery presence as the last, which works for me.
That first line is me submitting, I think, giving up a bit of dignity – formality or something – as one does, of course, in the dentist’s office – somehow more ridiculous (think of all the cartoons, the Laurel and Hardy moments) than any other sort of medical intrusion I can think of. Almost any. Let’s just see what’s in there, shall we? How absurd that seems – just lie back, open up, and let’s peek in. It’s such a set-up. How can comedy not emerge? But as it turns out – and I hope it’s not too cute, because it’s true – I am submitting in another sense to what I feel is the need (right here at the start – I really feel it) to report on this straight up, as it were. Not make some kind of fable of it (which can lead to strange, unpublishable novels put away somewhere in a drawer), just notch it down and take it easy, speak directly, simply, follow it on out wherever it goes. Here’s me in the dental hygienist’s chair and she’s a new one. And this terrifying story she comes out with like it’s nothing. And I’m aware of myself releasing myself to go a little slack as I write it down, to let us talk the way we did and let me feel a little silly. Just to stay out of the way, submit, and see what’s really here. What might emerge.
This is the first of a series of essays to become a book next year. Don’t call them essays, says my editor. Call them something else. Like what? Conjectures? Zettel? Anyway, it’s how I write now. And right there, for whatever it’s worth, is where it starts. It starts in the bright and cheery moment in the dental hygienist’s chair. Laid out and opened wide. It’s really quite symbolic, I suppose.
When I was a kid, my family doctor, right through high school, was this wonderful, funny guy with a little Boston Blackie moustache who looked a lot like Burgess Meredith. He was always clear and practical and kind. But very funny. He had these caricatures of himself and his nurse, Betty (Bette? Bettye?) on the wall. Quite good ones too, not like those formulaic sketches people bring home from the fair or the mall. But good ones, quite expressive, drawn by a friend of his, I think. Each in its own frame. Side by side right there in the waiting room for as long as I could remember. On the right was Mac, my doctor, in a red-stained surgical smock with bloody handprints, bloody scalpel to his faint, contemplative smile. He’s saying ‘Next’, and on the left was Betty beaming. She was beautiful, even in that wild exaggeration you could see it. But, my God, the smile was crazy. You could lose yourself in the madness of that crazy cartoon smile, it seemed to me. What it implied. Sometimes I’d stand there while I waited, meditating on the terror of it. Come right in. Let’s have a look. My goodness, such a lovely day to open up and let the truth come out. I think it might go back to that.
Image courtesy of David Searcy