Bernard tries to find out the identity of the writer inputting hit scripts into his computer. 2,144 words. Part One. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Spending money was time-consuming as well as challenging. After a five-day buying spree Bernard Berry found that he still had over a million three in his bank account. He could replace the Benz with something newer and quieter but he was fond of the aging diesel. It smelled like a car, not like an airport. And he was bored.
A week passed and still Bernard had not hooked up his new computer. He missed the online companionship: the junk emails, the chat rooms, the porn sites. So he took the new machine out of the carton, wired it, loaded the new software and booted up. The familiar glow of the screen and the pulsing of the cursor greeted him like the comforting sight of an old friend. Hey, how’re you doing? Been a while…
Clicking on his e-mail program, he discovered that in his absence 59 emails had accumulated. Sent at different hours every day, all were from the same sender. And all said they same thing: “HOW’D THEY LIKE THE SCRIPT?”
Bernard didn’t reply right away. Instead he walked outside the poolhouse. There were leaves floating on the surface of the water. He sat down on a rusted recliner and blinked a few times. He was not dreaming, and this was not a movie. This was his life. His silent partner, somewhere out there in the cyberether, unfortunately wasn’t very silent. Nor did he appear to be going away. On the contrary.
Bernard reentered the poolhouse, sat down and replied to the email. “THEY LIKED IT A LOT. I SOLD IT FOR A LOT OF MONEY. WOULD YOU LIKE SOME OF IT?”
In less than a minute, a new email floated in. “NO.”
“WHAT DO YOU WANT?”
The answer was just as quick. “NOTHING. I LIKE TO WRITE.”
While Bernard was considering a response to this, a new email arrived. “CHECK OUT YOUR MASTER CARD BALANCE.”
Oh Jesus. Here it comes. The guy had hacked into his credit card. Of course. This whole thing was a scam, the brainchild of some screenwriting student in Lagos. Bernard logged on to his Master Card account and took a deep breath before clicking on Balance Due. For a long moment he just gaped at the screen.
The balance was zero.
Bernard’s life improved significantly. He wrote checks to his creditors, pleaded on the phone to his cleaning lady to come back and clean the mess his house had become since she stopped showing up, and hired a new pool service. He went out to Santa Anita and bet a hundred on the nose in each race. To complicate his life, a 23-1 shot came in, and he went home with more money than he came with. He made an appointment with his endodontist, promising to pay for the entire procedure in cash up front. And he stayed off the computer.
He had enough money for the foreseeable future. But what if the alien hacker decided to take a flight from Nigeria to visit him? A million and a half up front for a scam was fucking ingenious.
Time ran heavy on Bernard’s hands. But ignorance was, if not blissful, at least peaceful. There were things that he was better off not knowing. He had stopped getting his cholesterol checked years ago and had never, in spite of his doctor’s suggestions, undergone a colonoscopy.
His peace was shattered by a phone call from Katerina Dimnimova at the bank.
“Your account is overdrawn, Mr. Berry.”
“What? It can’t be.”
“I regret that it is. There was a wire transfer out of your account for one million two-hundred thousand dollars this morning.”
“To a bank in Basel, Switzerland.”
“Do you know the name of the account that sent the wire transfer.”
“It has no name, just a number.”
Bernard felt the flop sweat hit him as he realized that the Nigerians had gotten their hooks into him. Big time.
“How much time do I have to pay the overdraft?”
“Until 5 p.m. this afternoon.”
Bernard went right to the computer and signed on. There was just one email this time. It said, “NOW THAT I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION…”
“SORRY,” Bernard typed. “I HAD TO GO OUT OF TOWN.”
“OKAY. COULD YOU PUT THE MONEY BACK INTO MY ACCOUNT?”
“THEY NEED IT BY 5 P.M. TODAY.”
“DON’T BE A STRANGER.”
The money was back into the account that afternoon. And later that day and every day after that, Bernard sat at his computer and had lengthy ALL-CAP dialogues with the Nigerian. They were rambling discussions covering a range of topics, from modern screenwriting theory, to politics (the guy was right of Trump but left of Rush Limbaugh), to travel (he liked Bangkok), to sexual techniques (he was partial to the woman on top)…
They discussed just about everything except personal matters. No matter how subtly Bernard phrased a question that might have given some insight as to who this guy was and how he wrote so well, the answer was evasive. If Bernard asked,“HOW DID YOU GET THAT IDEA?” then the response was some sort of zen-like feint. “I HAVE NO IDEA.” Never a complete non-sequitur, but always clever, verbal, slightly mocking.
As the days passed and Bernard continued to spend hours every day in what he considered pointless chat, he began to wonder why the Nigerian, or the alien from Neptune, didn’t put his own name on the script and cut out the middle man. That issue was addressed when Bernard received a peremptory request: “I WANT YOU TO PUT A PEN NAME ON THE SCRIPT.”
“WHAT PEN NAME?”
“ART F. PERLMUTTER.”
“IS THAT YOUR REAL NAME?”
“IF IT WAS, IT WOULDN’T BE A NOM DE PLUME, WOULD IT?”
When Bernard called Harv Borodin to demand this retroactive deal point, the agent was not at all happy. “We’re closed.”
“There’s no such thing as a closed deal.”
“They’ll say no.”
“They won’t. They don’t give a shit whether Bernard Berry’s name is on the script or Art F. Perlmutter’s. Neither one is going to put asses in the seats.”
“It’s my maternal grandmother’s maiden name. It’ll make her happy.”
Bernard googled ART F. PERLMUTTER and came up blank. There were a couple of Perlmutters, including an artist named Jack, recently deceased, and a lung specialist named Barry, but there were no Arts or Arthurs.
“CAN I CALL YOU ART?” Bernard asked him that evening.
“IF IT MAKES YOU HAPPY.
“WHAT DOES F. STAND FOR?”
And that was as far as Art F. Perlmutter was going to go. Bernard tried a website with an extensive database of people who work or worked in the industry. There were 20 Perlmutters but no writers and no Arts. He asked the Writers Guild to run a search on the name. There were thousands of writers who worked in TV and film, made money, but never got a screen credit. There was an Arthur Francis Perlmutter who was a member from April 1979 till April 1986, at which point he was relegated to Associate Membership status due to lack of employment. He had only one job: in 1981, an episode of a TV series called “Barnaby Jones” that was never produced. In 1987, Art F. Perlmutter failed to pay his $25 minimum quarterly dues and was dropped from membership.
“Is he still alive?”
“We don’t know. We only keep mortality records on writers who have produced credits. In case we have to forward residuals. Why are you looking for this guy anyway?”
“I owe him money.”
“You’re trying to track down a guy you owe money to?
Bernard turned on his computer and typed a question.
“YOU EVER SEE A TV SHOW CALLED BARNABY JONES”?
It seemed to Bernard that the guy’s answer took longer to appear than usual. “GREAT SHOW.”
“YOU EVER WRITE FOR IT?”
“WHY WOULD I WRITE FOR IT?”
“JUST A WILD GUESS. IF YOU LIKED THE SHOW AND YOU’RE SUCH A GOOD WRITER, I THOUGHT MAYBE YOU TOOK A WHACK.”
“I DON’T TAKE WHACKS.”
Then in one of Art F. Perlmutter’s lightning fast non-sequiturs, he said, “I’VE GOT AN IDEA FOR A ROMANTIC COMEDY.”
“What’s it about?” Bernard’s agent asked.
“Two men fall in love with the same woman, who happens to be a man. Jules Et Jim meets Tootsie.”
“I don’t get it.”
“You don’t have to get it. Just sell it.”
“When did you have time to write this one?”
“It was in my trunk.”
“How much do you want for this one?”
“Bernie, romantic comedies aren’t tentpoles. I can get you 750, maybe eight, if you throw another draft…”
“Harv, we’ve already had this conversation. I don’t rewrite. Call me back with two million by Friday, or don’t bother calling at all.”
The agent called back in three days with a firm offer of two million dollars with five adjusted gross points. “Not bad, huh?” Harv boasted, beginning to get some ego gratification from his deal-making. “You like the backend position?”
“I’ll never see it.”
“It’s adjusted gross…”
“The key word here is adjusted, Harv. Wire me the money.”
A million eight was deposited into his account on Friday, causing a new problem. The bank sent him a 1099 INT form for the accumulating interest. He called his former ex-accountant and explained this predicament. Bernard was told he had to make quarterly estimated tax payments to cover the lack of withholding. Bernard didn’t like this news. After all, the IRS hadn’t heard from him in a while. Why not let sleeping dogs lie?
“This type of money, you’ll hear from them. Believe me,” the accountant assured him.
It was certainly an improvement in his life to have a clean house and to be able to go to his mailbox and answer his phone without fear of creditors. But Bernard had to admit that his life was a lot simpler when he was broke. He didn’t have to file estimated tax returns and he didn’t have to spend hours on the computer every day having pointless ALL-CAP conversations with a brilliant but overlooked writer who, for some reason, had chosen Bernard to be his front.
Somewhere within Bernard a writer still lived, and that writer desperately needed to understand how all this had happened. He was unable to let it go. So he went to a computer café, out of the purview of his fairy godmother, or so he thought, and searched the newspaper obituaries for the last twenty years after keying in Art F. Perlmutter. The obituary was pro forma and was dated July 11th, 2006: Los Angeles screenwriter Arthur Francis Perlmutter was found dead in his Los Feliz apartment of unknown causes. Perlmutter, 57, according to a neighbor, had written for the television show Barnaby Jones and at the time of his death was working on several screenplays. He has no known relatives.
Bernard stared at the screen. Of all the computers of down-on-his-luck screenwriters this town, why did Arthur Francis Perlmutter have to walk into his? A writer with a grudge against the business, no less. A writer who had died alone and brokenhearted in some crummy apartment east of Highland. A writer who now wanted posthumous justification for his life.
Bernard drove back home in the Benz with its clogged fuel injectors, went out to the poolhouse and turned on the computer and found an email waiting. “THE TRUTH IS NOT ALWAYS COMFORTING.”
“I CAN RUN BUT I CAN’T HIDE?”
“A BAD LINE OF DIALOGUE, BUT IN YOUR CASE BASICALLY TRUE.”
“CAN YOU ANSWER ONE SPECIFIC QUESTION?”
“WHY ME? WHY NOT AN A-LIST GUY?”
“C’MON, BERNIE. WOULD YOU WRITE THAT STORY? THERE’S NO SECOND ACT.”
It was nice for Bernard to know that he had nowhere to go but up, at least according to the dead writer in his computer. Victory over tribulation. The downtrodden hero triumphs in the end. Fade out. That’s all, folks… “SO, DO I AT LEAST GET THE GIRL?”
“I’M WORKING ON IT.”
“I WAS THINKING ABOUT A MUSICAL.”
“HOW MUCH DO YOU WANT?”
“HOW MUCH DO YOU NEED?”
“I WAS THINKING ABOUT SCALE PLUS TEN.”
“FUCK THE AGENT?”
“YOU GOT IT.”
“WHAT ELSE IS THERE?”
“ALMOND HAZELNUT SWIRL?”
“DON’T DO THIS TO ME.”
“YOU CAN’T TASTE IT ANYMORE?”
“IF I COULD, YOU THINK I’D BE WASTING MY TIME WRITING?”
Later, Bernard sat in his kitchen polishing off a pint of Haagen-Dazs Almond Hazelnut Swirl with a soup spoon. True, he had high-income tax bracket problems and a dead writer in his computer. But at that moment, licking his tongue over the spoon and thinking about the expression in his agent’s voice when Bernard told him about the musical, life couldn’t be a whole lot better.