I heard this story from an old man at a party on Berry Street in Brooklyn. He approached from the other side of the room and engaged me like he’d known me for years. He said once he was shot in the leg during a robbery, also that Emerson was a distant relative. He had lost no hair and grew up when the interstates were being built and more and more people’s eyes were locked on the television. I was struggling to write then, mostly character sketches and poems of unrequited love. I needed some inspiration so I listened to his tale.
At the time of it he was around my age. He had just written this wonderful short story. From top to bottom solid, everyone said so, even an asshole who worked for the Times. A routine story, it told of a husband’s awakening in a loveless marriage. The ambivalent ending where the character is wandering and lost, but reborn was inspired by Truffant’s early films. This man sent it to an important literary journal in Illinois. His money was low and they paid the most for accepted work. They answered a few months later: It’s a wonderful try, but something is missing. Holding the rejection slip he hunched over in pain. Needing cash he started to help a friend work on houses. He learnt a great deal and continued on with this lucrative business. He lost interest in writing. When asked about it he would reply, I used to be into that game, it was a while back. I was young.
Some years later he wandered around a library and picked up an anthology of short stories on relationships. He pressed his worn fingers down the table of contents. Sorry titles like ‘Heather’s game.’ None seemed too interesting. He opened to the first one and read. When he finished with the opening paragraph his blood burned. It was a little different, but it was his story. He read on. Themes and words were added, shifted, deleted, but the base belonged to him and yet to cry injustice had a price. This other person, though plagiarizing, had clearly improved the story and taken it to another level. The author, Paul Bernard, the bio in the back said, had worked in the literary industry for a number of years. This particular story, he titled it “Loose Ends,” was originally published in Harper’s.
At this point the old man went to get another drink. I was interested to see if he limped, if that gunshot wound truly existed. It didn’t seem so. He came back with a St. Pauli Girl and sat back down next to me. He spoke more slowly, but with no less brio.
Paul Bernard lived in the city. He found him at a reading for a new book of his. They went drinking afterwards. He spent close to one hundred dollars on shots for both of them. He carried Paul through Central Park while the unsuspecting man vomited every few minutes. It had all come out, the regrets, the highjacking of a few manuscripts to help him get started. With shreds of bile stuck to his cheek, Paul staunchly maintained it was only ‘a few.’ The man said little in response to his confessions until finally he took a bowie knife from his leg holster and in a sawing motion cut Paul’s right index finger off. Paul tried to resist but kept heaving. The man kicked him in the gut and left him crying on the cement.
As the old man finished the story I looked at the corners of his eyes, at the twisted skin, the deep lines like trenches in his gray face. He put the green bottle of beer in his lap and looked at me. “You said you’re a writer, didn’t you?”
I shook my head, a little jumpy, my mind not in line with my heart.
“Paul Bernard,” he said. “Look me up when you get home. If you’re a computer nut add this little tidbit into my Wikipedia entry,” he laughed shrewdly. “But any name will do. Make me taller—make it more of a struggle, like I could have given that terrorist a run for his money, even with all the booze in me.”
I looked around at the people at the party. His fingers wrapped loudly against the beer bottle. Half of the index was missing.
My features curled. “Why?” I said.
“It sounds better told by the viewpoint of the victim. More sympathy, more audience identification.”
I returned late to my apartment that night. As soon as I could I wrote it all down—making the story all my own, twisting it, giving the knife-welding man the name of Jake, paramour to a lengthy Japanese woman. Paul Bernard drank Scotch, his fingers yellow from too much tobacco and in all his published stories whether his invention or not, he added the word ‘vertiginous’ at least once. He was that kind of person—messy, unrealized and he didn’t need anyone to update his on-line entry, he monitored it nightly.
[Forever after at http://eyeshot.net/gerke.html]
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