—-Free, for your reading pleasure, especially for writers. Maybe a glimpse of the near future. A story about ebooks and the ghost of publishing past. —-
I half expected the old man in the green eyeshade not to show. But when I stepped off the elevator on the twenty-fourth floor of the Acme Legacy Publishing building in New York a few minutes after midnight, there he was.
In his corner office with his shirtsleeves rolled up, nursing bloodshot eyes. The nub of a cigar protruding from the side of his mouth like a bad memory. On the ink-stained blotter behind him, a half empty bottle of Scotch flanked the empty glass in his hand.
There was something lonely, even heartbreaking about him, I decided. I wasn’t sure why I’d come. He regarded me with a cagey stare, even in his weakness. He was an industry icon. He was still chained to his desk.
“You’re late,” he said.
“What did you expect?”
“I don’t know what I expected, exactly. I guess I thought you’d be . . . with everything going on . . . a little more on top of things.”
“Well, I’m not. Sorry to disappoint you.”
“Disappointed?” That brought a guffaw out of him.
“I’m just a writer.”
“Just a writer, huh?” He twisted his lower lip, adjusting the angle of the cigar.
“What are you doing here at this hour, anyway?”
“I could ask the same of you,” he said.
“You invited me. Remember?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact, I did.” He turned and looked at the stack ofmanuscripts piled in his corner, before looking back. “But you’re the only one who accepted the invitation, my friend. Everybody else just wanted to do it by email.”
I couldn’t think of any response to that, so I kept quiet.
“You want a drink?” he asked.
“Here. Pull up a chair.” He beckoned toward the one empty chair in his office and reached for the bottle of Scotch. He produced another tumbler like his from somewhere, filling both glasses while I sat down. “Cheers.” He handed mine across to me.
The Scotch tasted good. We regarded one another for a moment.
“You’re some kind of spirit, aren’t you.”
“You might say that,” he said.
“I figured as much . . . when I got the message, I mean.”He took another long pull on his drink before rubbing his hand across the stubble on his chin.
“You know why you’re here, don’t you?”
“I think I do.”
“There’s no use sugarcoating it. We’re going to have to let you go. We aren’t offering you any more contracts on your books.”
“I know.” I took another sip of the Scotch. For ghost Scotch, it really did taste good.
“Of course you do,” he said. “You’ve been out there like everybody else, as soon as you could find an opening in your contracts or write something else, publishing for yourselves on those infernal electronic gadgets. Going straight to your readers.”
“Apparently, I have some.”
He paused for a moment. “You.” He smiled, pointing a bony finger at me that looked for all the world like Robert De Niro smiling and pointing at Billy Crystal in Analyze This. “You haven’t lost your sense of humor.”
He laughed, but his countenance suddenly darkened. “They’re all dead now.”
“The real, old-fashioned writers. They’re all dead, or worse, gone over to the dark side like you.”
“I’m sorry. I suppose that’s true.”
“We had them all back in the day. All the great ones. You could go downstairs and smell the ink flying off the presses before the books were sent to the bindery, just as the writers could smell the ink on the typewriters. It was magical, I tell you. That’s what it was.”
I nodded, not wishing to puncture his dream.
“Huxley had it right, you know.” He picked up a sheaf of papers from in front of him, snapping the sheets together against his desk like they were precious gems. “It’s all become a brave new world now. We’re going to need a lot of brave new writers.”
“I guess that’s one way of looking at it.”
“You plan to be one, kid? You plan to be a brave new writer?”
“I guess I am already.”
He smiled. “Well, I guess you are . . . one thing, though.”
“You won’t have me to kick around anymore. You won’t have me to blame for your rejections or your editing issues or your lack of marketing or whatever else. It’s all on you now. It’s all on you.”
“I get it.”
“You’ll have to do everything. Everything, you understand? From the copyediting to the book jacket, layout, publicity, tours . . . You not only have to write, but you have to figure it all out and make it work, and hope that they sell. Why you’ve practically got to become a damn superhero.”
“Well, I don’t quite think that—”
“Do you even know what you’re up against?”
“I hope so.”
He turned in his chair and looked out the window at the sparkling late night jewel that was midtown Manhattan. “It’s too dark out there for superheroes, kid.”
“I guess we’ll see.”
“But I sure could’ve used you, back in the day.”
“Wish I could have been there.”
He smiled once again at something, maybe the memories. “We could’ve told some good stories, couldn’t we?”
“That’s all it’s really ever been about, hasn’t it? The stories, I mean.”
“Kind of sad when you think about it though, isn’t it, kid? Sweet for you, I mean. Sad for me.”
“Sad and sweet for all of us.”
“Maybe,” he said. “You’re the poet, kid.”
“But that’s not the worst part of it,” I said.
“Oh, yeah?” He arched an eyebrow. “What’s that?”
“I’ve got a feeling the party’s just begun.”
He glared at me for a long moment. Then he leaned his head back and howled, a laugh so loud it startled me into a new awareness as both he and the glass in my hand dissolved into bright particles.
Coming fully awake, I found myself staring into my computer screen. 2014? 1984?
I looked around the room to make sure I was back in my own office. I was indeed. Turning to look at my bookcase as the personal book-sales-per-minute counter on the laptop in front of me bleeped another dozen downloads.
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