Help from Above
Dan’s literary agent called from New York at three in the afternoon, Seattle time. He usually emailed.
“I’ve got a huge surprise! ‘Shut-in’ Berger will not be providing a blurb!”
“Very funny, Robert. Hilarious.”
“I’m sorry. But we knew it was an impossibility.”
“We knew,” Dan allowed. “But I was hoping. What was the actual response?”
“The actual response was... hang on... um... tell you what: I’ll type it up and email it to you. It’s brief. Look for it in about ten minutes.”
“Type it up? Just forward me the message.”
“Oh, no, Dan. The answer came by letter, which I had to sign for. Very old school, these guys.” These guys were the agents at the firm that for time immemorial had represented the author Sheldon Berger, whose (in)famous reclusiveness had earned him his unflattering nickname.
“How did you send the request?” Dan asked.
“Email! I guess I took a big chance that someone there would know how to use a computer.... Listen, Dan, are you sure he’s not dead? Berger, I mean.”
“He’s not dead, Robert. He’s got a new, young, third wife.”
“Then he’ll be dead soon.”
Dan put up water for tea. When the water boiled, he’d check his email. While the water boiled, he checked the Internet to make sure that Sheldon Berger was still alive. He was. He was very old, but not dead. Dan was surprised that he’d lost track of the other man’s age.
Daniel Bick (ironically not a pen name) had unapologetically admired Sheldon Berger (from afar, by necessity) for decades. It was not an exaggeration to say that Sheldon Berger was Daniel Bick’s hero. Daniel Bick was never so arrogant to suggest that his own writing was like that of Sheldon Berger, but he was, of course, thrilled whenever anyone else made the comparison. Dan considered his own work to be an homage to that of his hero, the last of which to be published had been some thirty-five years earlier. Dan’s stories had been described by third parties as “irreverent, comical, reminiscent of Sheldon Berger.” Dan had hoped against hope that the icon himself would have had something to say about Dan’s first novel, soon to appear on shelves.
But Sheldon Berger, though known to live in New York City and reported to have continued to write every day even after deciding that no more of his writing would be made public (or not before his death, anyway) had been inaccessible before his last book had appeared; since, he had become impenetrable. There had been, in other words, no way in hell that he’d have provided a blurb for the cover of Dan’s book. So now Dan could only hope that his hero had enjoyed reading the advance copy that Robert had had Dan’s editrix (also in New York; everyone involved but Dan himself was) send to Mr. Berger’s representatives.
Actually, Dan hoped that his hero had at least read the advance copy. But what if he had read it and hadn’t liked it? Damn, Dan thought. I’ll never know.
With a mug of tea, Dan returned to his computer. Three minutes later, he was on the phone with his agent again.
“Let’s put that on the cover,” Dan was suggesting.
“The refusal! It’s so stiff it’s funny!”
“Seriously! It would be... ‘irreverent, comical...’”
“‘...reminiscent of Sheldon Berger,’” Robert finished the quotation.
And the closest I’ll ever get to a kind word from the mentor I’ve never met, Dan thought.
“I like it,” Robert said. “I’ll talk to Jane.” Dan’s editrix.
Robert didn’t call Dan back. He emailed:
Jane says OK, as long as we don’t use the name of the agent who sent the letter.
Do it, Dan wrote back.
Robert responded after another minute: Good to go! The designers are finishing the cover this week. The book goes into production this month. It’ll be quiet until the July 1 release date. Jane’ll keep us informed re: orders, etc. Meanwhile, try not to think about your first book. Think about your *second*....
It was March 12.
On April 1, Robert called at ten a.m. Dan’s time. “I’m sorry, Dan,” Robert said.
“Oh. Sheldon Berger died.”
“Is that a joke?” Dan asked, mindful of the date.
“I’m afraid not.”
Dan went online and saw that, in fact, his hero had passed away, peacefully in his sleep. Various articles recounted the venerated author’s accomplishments and eccentricities, none of which was news to Dan. Only the man’s death was.
Later in the day, as early as would not have seemed somehow unhealthy or inappropriate, Dan poured himself a beer, brewed locally, and raised his glass in memory of Sheldon Berger.
April, May, and June took forever, in any case much more than three months, to pass. In the interim, publicity for Dan’s novel began in earnest—though not too far in advance of the book’s scheduled release date. Some things could be done early: The final cover, for example, had been finished in mid-March and had been provided to online booksellers immediately, to facilitate the taking of pre-orders. Press releases went out in June. Other things—radio interviews, for example—would come after publication.
It was, naturally, all Dan could do not to think about July 1. His thoughts about the present were limited to wishing that pre-publication sales were better. The numbers were... okay, but not great. Other than going door-to-door in Seattle and spreading the gospel of Daniel Bick, though, there was nothing he could do about it just then.
Dispensing with even trying to divert his own attention, Dan surfed to the most popular online bookseller and pulled up the page for his novel. He clicked on the cover image to zoom in on it. He read the blurb again.
Thank you for your recent correspondence and entreaty for an
autograph/interview/endorsement. Due to Mr. Berger’s unflaggingly demanding schedule, he is regretfully unable to fulfill your request, but wishes you success in your endeavor.
—Sheldon Berger’s people
Dan laughed. How such an inventive, charismatic writer could let his “people” send out such a heart- and soulless brush-off like that was beyond him. Dan didn’t take it personally, but he wondered if another “entreator” might, and that saddened him some.
On June 25, Robert informed Dan that due to a minor production delay, it looked likely that Dan’s novel would not be in stores on July 1. What did that mean? Dan wanted to know. For sales? Probably nothing, Robert assured him, unless it was a significant delay, which it wasn’t expected to be. He would keep Dan posted.
On June 29, Robert reported that there would be but a single day’s delay in getting Dan’s book on shelves. It would be available to the public on July 2. It would make no difference at all in sales.
On June 30 and July 1, though, Dan wasn’t at all too happy with the advance sales figures and his book’s pre-release ranking online. Maybe his hero was punishing Dan’s hubris from beyond the grave?
On July 2, Dan’s phone rang at six a.m.
“Get online. Check the entertainment news,” Robert recommended.
Dan couldn’t help but first check his book’s rank, though. It was in the low four figures. Damn.
“Do you see it?” Robert was asking on the phone.
“What am I looking for?”
“Search for your name.” Dan did.
“What the fuck?!”
“Yeah. You see it.”
“I see it. Is this for real? When did this happen?”
“Today,” Robert said, “I gather. Just this morning. First thing this morning. It’s not in the papers, but it is on every paper’s website. Jane’s got legal looking into it already.”
“Let me... let me call you back,” Dan stammered, distractedly, and hung up the phone without waiting for Robert’s response.
He stared at the computer screen. He read. He re-read. He read the news one word at a time, starting with the headline:
NOVELIST BICK SUED BY ESTATE OF SHELDON BERGER
court papers filed on day of release of first book
New York—Lawyers for the estate of the late author Sheldon Berger, who died on April 1, this morning filed suit in federal court against first-time novelist Daniel Bick and his publisher, alleging that their reproduction on the cover of Mr. Bick’s novel of the text of a form letter from Mr. Berger’s representatives without permission constitutes copyright infringement and is otherwise actionable....
No, Dan thought. No!
I can not be on the wrong end of a lawsuit brought by the estate of my dead hero.
And, also, there is no way that putting the form rejection on the cover of my novel constitutes any cognizable legal harm. That’s ridiculous!
And Dan knew this for a fact because before he had become a novelist, Daniel Bick had been for twenty years a copyright lawyer. In fact, Daniel Bick’s first novel was a humorous legal caper-of-sorts, the unlikely story of a teenage girl poetaster whose work is condemned (in the legal sense) by the United States Postal Service, for possibly nefarious use by an officer of the USPS who is also the member of a secret——No! It’s not copyright infringement or invasion of privacy or representation of another in a false light or libel or anything! It’s frivolous and sanctionable, is what it is, and it will never survive a motion to dismiss...!
Dan forced himself to stop thinking like a litigator for a moment. When he did, however, his thought as a writer was, Fuck. This is going to kill my book, isn’t it?
And then he remembered why he’d left the practice of law for writing: because lawyers are despicable. And Dan had no doubt that it was the lawyers alone who had made the decision to sue. There was no way—no matter how lame a rejection letter he let his agents write to his fans—that Sheldon Berger would have permitted such an action. Sheldon Berger, for all his... quirks, at least had had a sense of humor.
Something occurred to Dan then: Sheldon Berger couldn’t have instructed his lawyers to bring the suit. Sheldon Berger had died before Dan’s book had come out——
No, wait. The blurb was on the cover, and the cover had been made public not only before the book was, but also before Sheldon Berger’s death. It was possible, after all, that Berger had seen the cover and the blurb.
But then why hadn’t they sued sooner? Why had they waited until Dan’s book—in its cover—had reached store shelves? If they’d truly been offended by the blurb, then why hadn’t they sued as soon as the cover had been posted online and sought an injunction...?
Something didn’t add up. Dan called Robert back.
“How is it,” Robert asked Dan the former lawyer, without even saying hello upon answering, “that the news media could know about the lawsuit before you did?”
“That’s easy,” Dan explained. “A suit gets filed before it gets served, in the typical case.”
“And the reporters are waiting at the court clerk’s office for the exciting cases to be filed?”
“Sometimes,” Dan said. “But——”
“Well,” Dan said, thinking, “it all happened much too quickly, much too... efficiently. The media had to have been——”
“Yeah.” Despicable, Dan thought. Douchebags, really. Unless... “Robert?”
“Have you looked at the book’s rank today?”
“No,” Robert confessed. “I’ve been completely preoccupied——”
“Don’t apologize. That’s not why I’m asking. Can you look it up now?”
“This morning,” Dan mentioned, “it was at two thousand something.”
Dan in Seattle heard Robert typing in New York.
“Dan, you’re going to want to look at this yourself, because you won’t believe me if I just tell you.”
“No, really. Pull it up.”
“I’m not going to like this, am I?” Dan asked as he walked over to his computer and punched up——
“Oh my God. Oh my God! Robert... it’s number one!”
“It’s number one, Dan.”
“My book is number one!”
And Daniel Bick’s first novel stayed at number one, well past the end of its first week in print, when Dan’s doorbell rang and a serious man in a suit handed him a manila envelope, saying nothing.
The lawsuit, Dan thought. Dan knew. There was no avoiding the suit, at least not the beginning of the suit, though he couldn’t deny that the publicity had been a boon rather than the bane he’d expected it to be. He took the package and closed the door of his home, the silent suited man having already departed.
Unquestionably curious to see firsthand the allegations contained in the complaint, spurious though they would be, Dan opened the envelope he’d accepted. He withdrew, to his surprise, not a thick sheaf of pages but a single sheet, styled Notice of Discontinuance. He scanned it. He smiled. The lawsuit had been dropped, summarily, without his even asking.
There was something else in the common manila envelope—a smaller envelope, of a much warmer hue and finer stock. Dan opened that envelope and withdrew a note card. From the Desk of Sheldon Berger, the card was embossed at the top.
Someone—and Dan was sure he knew then who—had crossed out “Desk” and written instead, in blue ink, “Deathbed.” Dan wanted to laugh, but he didn’t, yet.
Below, in the same hand, were penned two words, a heartfelt message sent from above, above, Dan thought, and beyond:
About the Author
Matthew David Brozik (Esq.) knows something about wrangling, legally, with the estate of one’s hero. His e-book WHIMSY & SODA (formerly WODEHOUSEBROKEN) ruffled some feathers... but ultimately was cleared for sale. The book is available at Amazon; the story of the wrangling can be read here. Other short fiction and humor from MDB can be found at imdb.name.