Bernstein lays down his copy of Book Review and phones his agent, Lucia Lortel.
“Lortel Literary Agency,” a deep, fake voice on the other end of the line says.
“Uh, this is Woody Bernstein,” Bernstein says.
“Bernstein, precious!” Lucia says. “I’m expecting Hollywood, darling, and Felice had a spat with his boyfriend so I’m my own receptionist this morning.”
“That didn’t sound much like Felice,” Bernstein says. “That sounded like Marlene Dietrich.”
“So does Felice,” Lucia says. “What’s up, Bernstein? Are you starving? You in arrears with your rent? You’re not blocked again, boy, are you?”
“No,” Bernstein says. “It’s only that, well Lucia, I just read the review of Doris Schwartz’s new book.”
“In Book Review?”
“Yes,” Bernstein says.
Lucia sighs. “I figured,” she says. “Starvation, financial ruin, and writer’s block were just pipe dreams, Bernstein. Let me switch over to the service so we can chat.”
Two minutes later with Lucia back on the line, Bernstein is saying: “I just don’t understand it, Lucia. I mean she’s the worst. It’s a dog’s breakfast of a book. Oh, it’s a handsome enough product, I guess, but all Pinkus Press books are.”
“You bought it?”
“Read it at work,” Bernstein says, “at the bookstore.”
“I love Pinkus,” Lucia says. “Pinkus is one dandy of a house.”
“Then why did they take that book?”
Lucia sighs again. “We’re regressing, Bernstein. We’ve been all through this, remember? Doris Schwartz was having an affair with Murray Goldman’s cousin, and Murray is her editor at Pinkus. Need I spell it out again, sweetness?”
“But the review, Lucia. The review was good.” Bernstein almost whimpers.
And Lucia says, “Now don’t get weird on me here, Bernstein.”
“You said it wouldn’t be a good review, Lucia.”
“Bernstein,” Lucia says, “who am I? God? What I said was that it wouldn’t be a good review if the reviewer had any taste.”
“He called Doris Schwartz “A rising star.” I gagged, Lucia. I almost became physically ill. Sylvia had to bring me a glass of water.”
“How is Sylvia?” Lucia asks.
“Of the opinion that jealousy doesn’t much flatter me.”
“A good woman, Sylvia,” Lucia says.
“It’s just, Lucia, that I’ve always believed it comes out in the wash. I’ve always believed those with talent prevail. Now I’m not so sure.”
“Well I’ve always believed it wouldn’t hurt you to schmooze a little, Bernstein. I’m not suggesting you cheat on Sylvia or anything, dear—perish the thought—but a writers’ conference every decade or so wouldn’t cause the sky to fall, Bernstein. It wouldn’t hurt when I start showing your novel in the fall, either.”
Bernstein begins to breathe a little faster. “You know I can’t function at those things, Lucia. You know the constant sound of typing causes me to hyperventilate.”
Lucia smiles into her end of the receiver. “You’re an absolute mess, Bernstein darling. If you weren’t such a damn good writer, you’d have driven me over the brink long ago.”
“Besides,” Bernstein says, “Doris would probably be there. She’s been attending literary conferences since she could walk.”
“Crawl,” Lucia says. “That woman’s a schmoozer from way back.” Lucia cackles. “On the other hand, Bernstein, you probably wouldn’t make a very good impression, anyway, hyperventilating and gagging your way through the week.” Lucia thinks to herself a moment. “Say I start you off a little more slowly, Bernstein honey. Say I happen to run into you this afternoon at the Algonquin.”
“What?” Bernstein says.
“Say,” Lucia says, “that I just happen to be meeting Binkie Jenkins there for drinks at five. And, why sakes alive, Bernstein baby, there you are!”
“Who, pray tell, is Binkie Jenkins?” Bernstein asks.
“Binkie Jenkins,” Lucia says quickly, “has just been hired on at Pinkus Press with carte blanche. Binkie Jenkins, Bernstein, will be buying a book a week for the next eight months—or until Pinkus discovers how stupid she is, whichever comes first.”
“But what good would meeting Binkie Jenkins do me?”
“I’ve a better question,” Lucia says. “What harm would it do you, Bernstein?”
Bernstein considers this. “I don’t know,” he says.
“Listen, Bernstein,” Lucia says louder. “The man who reviewed Doris’s book has known her for three years. She’s had lunch with him four times that I know of, which actually is below her average with most men in publishing. With women, her average is around three times. Let’s face it: she’s a flirt—and probably, if need be, a feminist. Anyway, she reads the jerk’s poetry. She tells him he’s talented.”
“How do you know that?” Bernstein says.
“I’m an agent,” Lucia says. “I’ve always got an ear to the ground, Bernstein. Information is power. Think about the Algonquin.”
Bernstein does. “I’ll be there by four-thirty,” he says softly.
At three-thirty, Bernstein lays down his pencil and begins to dress. He knows he’ll need a jacket at the Algonquin, and he owns only one, a brown plaid sportcoat with padded shoulders that thank God is back in style. Bernstein’s always liked himself in this coat; being a small man, the false shoulders help. He has a couple of ties, but neither goes with the jacket. So Bernstein decides not to wear one. On her way home from work yesterday, Sylvia picked him up a new white dress shirt—albeit a size too small. So the shirt’s tight, accentuating what chest muscles Bernstein’s developed lugging around books at the bookstore where he works on weekends. Bernstein slips on his loafers and scrutinizes himself in Sylvia’s full-length mirror. He decides he doesn’t look half bad.
The subway is slow and crowded with noisy teenagers heading home from school, but Bernstein spots a seat and quickly sits. Suddenly a tremendous roar goes up all around him. Many of the kids are looking at Bernstein and smiling, others laughing at him outright. Bernstein is confused, but he smiles and laughs, too. “Hey mister,” a girl with a safety pin through her ear finally says. “You like chewin’ gum?”
Bernstein continues smiling, terrified. “Love it,” he says.
“You like orange chewin’ gum, about the color of these seats?”
Bernstein nods and thanks God his is the next stop. “Orange gum is my favorite,” he says.
“That’s just fine,” the girl says, “cause you’re sittin’ in some!”
Another roar goes up as the subway car pulls into the stop. When Bernstein stands, he feels his pants cling for an instant to the seat. But still horrified by the uproar going on around him, he manages to keep the smile frozen on his face. Bernstein feels like a toothpaste ad in the eye of a hurricane.
A number of people are getting off at this stop, and Bernstein is the last one. The conductor, in order to keep things moving, periodically closes the subway doors halfway, then opens them. But before Bernstein is completely through the door, the conductor closes it shut. In one fell move, the door catches Bernstein’s right loafer, which he steps out of, flips it back inside and the train moves on. The last that Bernstein sees of his shoe, it’s being held in the air by the girl with the safety pin through her ear, who is laughing uproariously.
The Algonquin is more oppressively formal than Bernstein’s remembered. The high mahogany walls seem to encroach upon him. Bernstein can’t recall the last time he’s seen a floral arrangement other than at a funeral, and the massive sprays of gladioluses and birds of paradise in the hotel’s lobby somehow intimidate him. The waiters in their tight red waistcoats look at Bernstein with downright disdain and mumble foreign-sounding phrases to one another. Bernstein places his hands behind his back in order to hide the gum stuck to his pants. He begins to breathe more heavily. His stomach rumbles. Suddenly someone taps him on the shoulder.
“Might we be of assistance?” a man in a black tuxedo, his hair greased straight back and a menu in hand, asks.
“The bar,” Bernstein says. “I’m looking for the bar, please.”
The maitre d’ glances down at Bernstein’s right foot.
“Sprained,” Bernstein lies.
“Come,” the maitre d’ says.
Bernstein limps along after the maitre d’ to the coatroom. “This gentleman,” the maitre d’ says to the coatroom attendant, “will need the tie.”
“Oh,” Bernstein says. The attendant reaches into a drawer and pulls out a wide pink and blue madras tie and hands it to Bernstein, who holds the tie up against his brown plaid jacket and thinks: This is the ugliest tie I’ve ever seen, and this guy is going to make me wear it to punish me. “Might you have something slightly thinner?” Bernstein asks. “In a brown, preferably a solid?”
“We are not a haberdashery, sir,” the maitre d’ says, and he starts back to his station. “The men’s room is downstairs, the bar to the right of the registration desk.”
Downstairs, Bernstein cringes and puts on the tie, and the ancient men’s room attendant with thick but tasteful glasses pulls what gum he can locate from Bernstein’s pants. This attendant inquires after Bernstein’s right foot and kindly gives him a new white shoeshine sock to pull on over his own for warmth. Bernstein hands him a dollar. The attendant stares at the bill, then through his Coke-bottle glasses at Bernstein, who has allowed himself only five dollars for the afternoon, and Bernstein prepares himself for ridicule. But the attendant only looks Bernstein over and hands the dollar back, with a smile that’s nothing short of pitiful.
Back upstairs, Bernstein finds a spot at the bar where he can keep an eye on the main entrance, and he orders a soda water. The bartender hands Bernstein his drink and mixed nuts to boot and rings up three-fifty on the register. Bernstein hands the bartender four dollars and has a few nuts and a swig or two of his soda—then reconsiders and begins to nurse the drink along.
Bernstein hears Lucia’s voice before he actually sees her. “I’m absolutely thrilled you decided to come here, Binkie,” she is saying. “The literary history of the Algonquin. This hotel’s ambiance. The vodka stingers!” Lucia is wearing a huge black hat and is glancing about for, Bernstein knows, him. Behind her walks a small woman with a pageboy haircut and large glasses; a wire trails from her right ear down to a small black box clipped to her waist. “Woody!” Lucia says when she spots Bernstein at the bar. She looks him over from head to toe, pausing at the tie, the foot. “Woody,” she says more softly. Then: “What are you doing here?”
“Just popped in for a drink,” Bernstein says, and he nods to the woman with the pageboy hairdo.
“This is Woody Bernstein,” Lucia says. “This is one of my best writers. Woody, this is Binkie Jenkins of Pinkus Press.”
“Hello,” Bernstein says.
“Charmed, Woodsy,” Binkie Jenkins says.
“Table for three, Miss Lortel?” the maitre d’ asks, and he gives Bernstein a look.
Lucia bats her eyelashes. “Well yes, Maurice. Why not? Woody, would you care to join us?”
“I’d like that,” Bernstein says, and he smiles at Binkie Jenkins.
“Lovely,” she says.
As Binkie Jenkins follows the maitre d’ through the Algonquin, Lucia slips Bernstein a ten-dollar bill. “Make sure Maurice gets this,” she whispers. “I tried for five, but since we had to spend time rehearsing over the phone, he demanded ten. I’m taking it out of your first royalty check.”
Bernstein touches the tie and says, “He gave me this to wear.”
“I should have made it 15,” Lucia says. “And your shoe?”
“Lost it on the subway. I’m faking a sprain.”
“You really shouldn’t be allowed out, Bernstein,” Lucia says.
“Is she hard of hearing?”
“Who? Binkie? Oh, no. That’s a radio. She just wants to keep up with what’s going on in the world. Says that’s how she gets most of her book ideas.” Lucia smiles. “I said she’s buying, Bernstein. I never said she was sane.”
When they are all settled, Lucia orders drinks and smiles and says: “Well isn’t this lovely?”
“Lovely,” Binkie Jenkins says. “Oh,” she adds, concentrating on her earphone, “it’s going to rain tomorrow.”
Lucia reaches over and pats Bernstein’s hand. “Woody here,” she says sweetly, “is at work on a fabulous little novel.”
Binkie Jenkins’ eyes light up. A sort of hungry look, Bernstein thinks, seems to come over her. “Do tell,” she says.
“Well,” Bernstein says, “it’s set during the Spanish Civil War.”
Binkie Jenkins’ eyes fall. “Oh,” she says, “in Spain?”
“In Spain,” Bernstein says.
“I love Spain,” Lucia says hopefully. “My receptionist, Felice, he’s Spanish.”
“Is something wrong?” Bernstein asks Binkie Jenkins.
“Oh, no,” Binkie Jenkins says. “It’s just that, well, Hemingway’s already done Spain, Woodsy—and, I might add, Spain during that time period. And just how,” Binkie Jenkins asks, “does one compete with Hemingway?”
“Good point,” Lucia says, and downs half her vodka stinger.
“But I’m not trying to compete with Hemingway,” Bernstein says.
“Perhaps,” Binkie Jenkins says, “you should set this novel in Israel. Did you know that the largest book-buying audience in the free world are middle-aged Jewish women?”
“I knew that,” Lucia says.
“Did you?” Binkie Jenkins asks.
“Of course,” Lucia says. “I’m an agent.”
“Or maybe you could set it in Africa, Woodsy,” Binkie Jenkins says to Bernstein. “Hollywood is ripe for movies on Africa just now.”
“Oh, movie deals,” Lucia says sweetly, “absolutely send shivers up and down my spine.”
Bernstein, whose stomach had calmed considerably after drinking his soda water at the bar, now listens to his midsection gurgle. He begins to breathe a little faster. “Look,” he says almost angrily, “I don’t feel—” Suddenly a dull ache shoots up his right leg. Lucia, Bernstein realizes, has just ground the toe of her pump into his shoeless foot.
“You don’t look so hot, either,” Lucia is saying.
“What?” Bernstein says, still in pain.
“Perhaps,” Lucia says, “you should head home and elevate that sprain.”
Bernstein’s stomach rumbles louder. He’s a little confused, disappointed. He gags slightly.
“I hope it’s nothing serious,” says Binkie Jenkins. And to show her concern, she switches off her radio.
“I’m sure,” Lucia says, tapping around beneath the table for Bernstein’s other foot, “that Woody will catch on, I mean catch it, in time. Maurice!” she yells to the maitre d’, who is visiting with a well-dressed couple at the next table. “Will you please help Mr. Bernstein into a cab?”
Maurice nods. “With pleasure,” he says.
“I’m sorry,” Binkie Jenkins says, patting Bernstein on the shoulder, “that we didn’t have more of a chance to discuss your book, Woodsy.”
“Oh, I’ll fill you in, Binkie darling,” Lucia says, “as soon as I get Woodsy here on his way.”
“Because, Bernstein, I could see you were going to blow everything!” Bernstein has been home scarcely an hour when Lucia calls. “Bernstein,” she says, “be open to criticism.”
“Oh please, Lucia,” Bernstein says. “That wasn’t criticism. That was unadulterated murder.”
“You should agree with anything any editor says—at least until you sign a contract.”
“Lucia,” Bernstein says, “I don’t believe Binkie Jenkins is the editor for me.”
“Of course she is,” Lucia says. “Binkie Jenkins is the editor for everyone. Why, she adores you, Bernstein. She’s even invited you to a little cocktail party she’s throwing tomorrow night.”
“Oh, no,” Bernstein says.
“Oh, yes,” Lucia says. “Binkie says a lot of writers will be there. Doris Schwartz will be there, Bernstein. I told Binkie you were friends.”
“Oh, no,” Bernstein says.
“I’d come,” Lucia says, “but tomorrow is Felice’s birthday and I promised to cook dinner for him and his new boyfriend.”
“That didn’t take long.”
“Felice is resilient,” Lucia says. “You could learn something from Felice, Bernstein.”
“I don’t know,” Bernstein says.
“Bernstein,” Lucia says, “just pretend everything is wonderful and anything anyone says is brilliant. Darling, you’ll have a marvelous time.”
“In other words,” Bernstein says, “be on drugs.”
“Just be your lovable little self, Bernstein. And wear that cute white shirt you had on at the Algonquin. Mind you, don’t wear anything else you had on at the Algonquin, but the shirt was nice. And I recommend two shoes.”
A pause. “Okay,” Bernstein says. “But don’t expect much, Lucia. I’m no schmoozer.”
“Live and learn, Bernstein,” Lucia says.
Bernstein tries to talk Sylvia into going with him. “Not on your life, Woody,” she says. “You hardly know this Binkie person. Besides, talking with Doris Schwartz makes me feel absolutely dirty. I never mean to tell her anything, but by the time she’s finished with me I’ve told her everything I know about everyone I know, myself included.”
“It’s called rape,” Bernstein says.
Sylvia leans down and plants a kiss on Bernstein’s forehead. “That’s why I love you, Woody,” she says.
Bernstein takes a cab to Binkie Jenkins’ large apartment on the Upper West Side. “Woodsy!” Binkie Jenkins says to him at the door. “I didn’t think you’d come.”
“Me, either,” Bernstein says.
“How’s the dog?”
Bernstein looks inquisitively at Binkie Jenkins. “I don’t have a dog,” he says.
“Ha ha, Woodsy,” Binkie Jenkins says. “Ha ha. Your foot. How’s your foot?”
“Oh,” Bernstein says, “functioning.”
Binkie Jenkins is wearing a black turtleneck sweater-dress. The same small radio at her waist remains plugged into her ear. She says, “There are so many fabulous people here for you to meet, Woodsy. Fabu, fabu. Fruit ripe for the picking!”
Bernstein smiles and listens to his stomach growl. Across the room he spots Doris Schwartz in a bright red dress and glued-on smile. He takes a deep breath.
“Woody Bernstein!” Doris Schwartz says as she pushes her way mercilessly across the room to him. “Woody Bernstein. How the hell are you?”
Binkie Jenkins says, “I’ll let the two of you chat.” And she walks away.
“Thanks,” Bernstein says sadly.
“How’s it going, Woody?” Doris Schwartz asks.
“Great,” Bernstein says. “I’m logging my four hours a day at the typewriter.”
“I just bought a new Prune word processor,” Doris Schwartz says. “You absolutely must get one. Now I’m producing twice as much work as I used to.”
Bernstein represses the moan he feels coming on. “Sylvia and I’ve discussed it,” he says. “But on our budget—”
“Where is Sylvia?” Doris Schwartz asks.
“At her mother’s,” Bernstein says. “Her mother’s ill.” Bernstein immediately feels guilty for lying. He feels his stomach cancan around his midsection.
Doris Schwartz raises her eyebrows slightly. “What’s wrong with her,” she asks.
“Everything,” Bernstein says. Then: “By the way, Doris, I loved your book.”
Doris Schwartz beams.
And Bernstein feels about two inches high. “Quite an array of quotes on the old jacket, too,” he says. (Lucia told Bernstein that Doris Schwartz had sent galleys of her book to 13 writers Lucia alone represented. There were three quotes on the jacket, each with a smattering of ellipses.)
Doris Schwartz increases her beam voltage. “And no bad reviews,” she says.
“I’ve only seen Book Review,” Bernstein says, choking down a gag. “How many reviews have there been?”
“Book Review is very important,” Doris Schwartz says. “I personally don’t believe one can consider oneself a serious writer until one’s been reviewed there.”
Bernstein smiles a slightly sick smile.
“Did you hear, Woody, that also I’ve signed with Big Time Publicity, Inc.?”
“Nice,” Bernstein says. “I personally believe one should have one’s own publicity agent.”
“How old are you now, anyway, Woody?”
“How old are you?”
“Why?” Bernstein asks.
“Just curious,” Doris Schwartz says.
“Thirty-one,” Bernstein says. “Just last month.”
“I haven’t hit the big three-O yet,” Doris Schwartz says almost gleefully. “To me, thirty is a milestone.”
“Or a millstone,” Bernstein says, “that some of us lug about around our necks.”
Doris Schwartz really lets lose a howl. Bernstein thinks she’s having a fine old time. She’s in her element, he thinks. She should have worked at Auschwitz, he thinks. “Woody, whatever happened to that short-story collection you were working on. I think I heard one was published in some obscure literary journal in the Midwest someplace.”
“The Cider House Review,” Bernstein says, and swallows hard. “Lucia tried but couldn’t sell the collection. She says the short-story market’s depressed. I’m now working on a novel set in Spain.”
Doris Schwartz shakes her head. “Hemingway’s done Spain,” she says. “How is old Lucia, anyway?”
“Still a blowin’ and a goin’,” Bernstein says.
“She cuts quite the comic figure, doesn’t she, floating about with those big hats on.”
Bernstein says, “I like her hats.”
“I guess they’re entertaining,” Doris Schwartz says. “And she does handle some good older writers. But everyone agrees she’s got no one worth mentioning under forty.”
Bernstein nods. His stomach does a two-and-a-half gainer. The room feels hot. He can’t seem to get enough air. Suddenly it’s all just too much. Bernstein takes a deep breath and tries to think of waterfalls, waterfalls, but all he can summon up is Mount Vesuvius.
“Oh,” Doris Schwartz says and begins to edge away. “Here comes the director of publicity for Pinkus. See you later, Woody.”
Again Bernstein nods—then all but dashes from the room.
In the bathroom, he splashed cold water onto his face and sits down on the commode. He takes deep breaths. He decides to go home. As though in answer to a prayer, on the wall facing him is a telephone. Bernstein picks it up. He calls Sylvia. “Woody?” she says before the second ring.
“How’d you know?” Bernstein says.
“How’s it going, darling?” Sylvia asks. “How’s the tummy? Are you breathing okay? I should have gone with you.” Then more cautiously: “It doesn’t sound like much of a party to me.”
“I’m in the bathroom,” Bernstein says.
“It’s going that well, huh?” Sylvia says.
“Hello?” Doris Schwartz is suddenly saying from the other side of the door. She knocks, then bangs. “Hello!” she says again. “I need in there!”
“I’m in here,” Bernstein says.
“Woody Bernstein?” Doris Schwartz says. “Woody, I need to use the bathroom!”
“I’ve got to hang up,” Bernstein tells Sylvia. “I’ll be home soon.”
“If that’s who I think it is knocking down the door,” Sylvia says, “I suspect you will be.”
Bernstein hangs up and, almost enjoying himself, slowly steps over and turns on the water in the sink.
“Woody!” Doris Schwartz shrieks on the other side of the door. “You can wash your hands in the kitchen, Woody!”
Bernstein then wanders over and casually unlocks the bathroom door—which Doris Schwartz quickly forces open. She pushes her way past Bernstein and on into the bathroom. She lunges for the telephone. “I need to use this,” she says. “The only phone in Binkie’s apartment is in here. Can you believe it?”
“I guess,” Bernstein says.
“Binkie doesn’t like to waste time,” Doris Schwartz says. “So she does all her phone work in the tub. Says she’s never crawled into the tub with a manuscript that didn’t somehow get wet.”
Bernstein starts for the door, but Doris Schwartz reaches over and closes it. “I need your help, Woody.”
Bernstein turns. “What?” he says.
“I need your advice.” Now Doris Schwartz is feverishly punching in a number on the phone. “The head of publicity at Pinkus says the best way to launch a book is through some sort of publicity stunt. I need a gimmick, Woody.” Doris Schwartz smiles. “I’m going to pick your brain.”
“Uh,” Bernstein says, accompanied by the drum solo his stomach’s banging out, “look, Doris, I shouldn’t be in here with you. I mean, I’m a married—”
“Hello?” Doris Schwartz says into the telepone. “Is this the answering service for Big Time Publicity? This is Doris Schwartz, writer and now author. I need to speak with Benny Varoom.” Doris looks at the phone. “He can reach me at Riverside 5—7236. Or at home after midnight. What? Of course this is an emergency! This is a big-time emergency, lady!” Doris Schwartz slams down the phone. “So Woody,” she says sweetly, “what do you think?”
“What?” Bernstein says, still mesmerized by Doris Schwartz’s ferocity.
“A stunt, Woody. Something that will hit the papers soon. Yesterday, for chrissakes.”
“A stunt,” Bernstein says.
“Well,” Bernstein says, “you could say I was holding you hostage here in the bathroom.”
“Be serious,” Doris Schwartz says.
“You could say,” Bernstein says, reaching for Binkie Jenkins’ electric razor on the edge of the tub, “that I’m armed and dangerous. You could say a failed writer is jealously holding a successful young novelist prisoner in her editor’s apartment. That should lift a few eyebrows.”
“Oh, please,” Doris Schwartz says. “Binkie’s not my editor.”
But now Bernstein is almost enjoying himself. He’s rolling. His stomach is idling nicely. His breathing is rhythmic. He reaches over and locks the door. “Look, Doris,” he says. “Since I seem to have your undivided attention now, there are a few things I’ve been wanting to say to you in private for some time.”
Doris Schwartz studies Bernstein. She eyes the door. “Why did you lock that?” she says.
“Doris,” Bernstein says.
“Look, Woody,” Doris Schwartz says. “If you think making a pass at me is going to help you get your silly book published. . . .”
“It’s not a silly book,” Bernstein says.
Doris Schwartz moves toward the door, but Bernstein steps in front of her. “Out of my way, Woody,” she says.
“One minute, Doris,” Bernstein says.
“Help!” Doris Schwartz yells.
“Stop that,” Bernstein says. “Now, Doris, for years—”
“Help!” Doris Schwartz hollers. “I’m being held hostage in the bathroom!” She picks up the phone.
“Shhh,” Bernstein says, and with determination: “For years, Doris, I’ve—”
“New York Post?” Doris Schwartz says. “A sucessful novelist is being held hostage by a perverted hack writer in her editor’s apartment. In the bathroom. He’s armed. He’s dangerous. One thousand Riverside Drive, apartment 5C.” Doris Schwartz hangs up and punches in another number—from memory, Bernstein notices. “Daily News?” she says.
“Stop it, Doris,” Bernstein says. “Please listen to what I have to say. I’d like to have my say.”
”. . . held prisoner by a mad, two-bit writer,” Doris Schwartz is saying.
“I’m simply not any good at this,” Bernstein says as Doris Schwartz dials yet another number. “I’ve always been socially backward. But I’m a good writer, Doris, and this book is not silly. It deserves—”
“What’s going on in there?” a voice on the other side of the door asks.
Doris Schwartz places her hand over the phone receiver. “Nothing,” she says.
“I need to use the bathroom,” the voice says.
“Doris Schwartz the novelist is being held hostage,” Doris Schwartz quickly whispers into the telephone.
Bernstein sits down again on the commode. Doris Schwartz is punching numbers and talking so fast that he’s almost dizzy.
“Doris?” Binkie Jenkins says from the other side of the door.
“Yes?” Doris Schwartz says innocently.
“Doris, are you being held hostage?”
“Yes,” Doris Schwartz answers.
“She is not,” Bernstein says, reaching to unlock the door.
Doris Schwartz slaps his hand.
“Ouch!” Bernstein says.
“Who’s that?” Binkie Jenkins asks.
“Woody Bernstein,” Doris Schwartz says.
“Is Woodsy holding you hostage, Doris?”
“I’m not holding anybody hostage!” Bernstein says, and he quickly sets down the electric razor he’s still holding.
“That’s not what they’re saying on the radio.”
“I’m the one being held hostage!” Bernstein says. “Heeee, aheee, aheee!” he adds, gasping for air, and he lowers his head down between his knees.
“You heard it on your radio, Binkie?” Doris Schwartz asks. “WNEW or WNYC?”
“Both,” Binkie Jenkins says through the door.
“Thanks,” says Doris Schwartz happily.
“Any time,” Binkie Jenkins says.
“Good Lord,” Bernstein adds from between his knees.
Doris Schwartz smiles down at Bernstein. “Why don’t you go now, Woody?” she says.
Bernstein studies her an instant. He doesn’t move. “Not yet,” he says.
“Suit yourself,” Doris Schwartz says. “I guess the more time we give things to jell, the better.”
Bernstein stands up. “Hello?” he yells at the door.
“This is Woody Bernstein, terrorist.”
“We hear you,” says a voice, the same one that earlier had asked to use the bathroom.
“I’ve decided,” Bernstein says, “to leave the fate of Doris Schwartz, schmoozer, up to you.”
“That wasn’t very nice, Woody,” Doris Schwartz says.
“On separate pieces of paper,” Bernstein continues, “each of you write down the fate Doris Schwartz deserves. Slip your answers under the door. You have three minutes.”
“Right-O, Woodsy,” Bernstein hears Binkie Jenkins say.
There is a slight commotion on the other side of the door. Bernstein notices that Doris Schwartz, now sitting on the edge of the tub, is eyeing the doorknob. Again he picks up Binkie Jenkins’ electric razor. “Don’t even try,” he says.
Two minutes later, torn bits of a Chinese take-out menu appear from beneath the door. Bernstein picks them up.
“What do they say?” Doris Schwartz asks, and she gets up and steps toward Bernstein.
Who lifts up the razor. “Back,” he says, and Doris Schwartz obediently sits back down.
The first piece of paper reads: “You are five floors up. There’s a window. Have her walk the plank.” “Interesting,” Bernstein says.
“Let me see,” Doris Schwartz whispers, but Bernstein doesn’t.
The next: “Consider Hitchcock’s Psycho as a teaching tool.” “My, my,” Bernstein says.
“What?” Doris Schwartz says.
“The fate she deserves,” Bernstein reads to himself, “is for the world to read her awful book.”
Bernstein skims through the rest of the 20 odd pieces of paper, all of which hold similar sentiments—except one, which only begs to use the bathroom. Periodically, he glances over at Doris Schwartz, who, he thinks, now oddly looks small and somehow vulnerable. Then Bernstein lifts open the toilet and drops the pieces of paper inside. He flushes them away.
“Hey,” Doris Schwartz is saying, “what did they say?”
But Bernstein just steps over and unlocks the bathroom door.
Doris Schwartz smiles, throws back her head, and pushes past Bernstein to the door. She opens it to the flash of camera strobes and a slight applause. Binkie Jenkins and others embrace her as a young policeman, his gun drawn, makes his way in to speak with Bernstein.
It’s three days before Bernstein returns Lucia’s phone calls. “Lortel Literary Agency,” Lucia says in a deep voice.
“Hi, Lucia,” Bernstein says.
“Bernstein!” Lucia says. “Oh, Bernstein!”
“Where’s Felice?” Bernstein asks.
“The little number threw his back out,” Lucia says. “He was doing a fancy Carmen Miranda routine in celebration of your new-found success. Bernstein,” Lucia says more seriously, “we’re famous. Did you read the papers?”
“Yes,” Bernstein says, “but first I had Sylvia cut out the articles about Doris and me.”
“That Doris,” Lucia says, “is one big-time schmoozer.”
“I’ll say,” Bernstein says.
“And you’re no slouch yourself, Bernstein honey.” Then: “How long were you in jail, anyway?”
“An hour,” Bernstein says.
“Oh, that’s nothing,” Lucia says. Then: “Is what they say about jail true, Bernstein? The drugs? The homosexuality?”
“I believe that’s prison, Lucia.”
“It’s all the same to me, Bernstein,” Lucia says.
“Besides,” Bernstein says, “I kept my eyes closed the entire time.”
“Bernstein,” Lucia says, getting down to business, “I’ve had at least a dozen editors call about your book!” Lucia’s voice rises with each new word. “I’m going to do a multiple offering and an auction next month. Bernstein darling, we’re talking buckarinos!”
“Right,” Bernstein says,
“I’m so proud of you, Bernstein,” Lucia says, “I just knew you could do it. You, Bernstein, are a first-rate schmoozer.”
“Oh, right,” Bernstein says.
“But don’t let it go to your head, Bernstein. Keep writing.”
“Of course, Lucia,” Bernstein says.
“Because you’re a writer, Bernstein precious,” Lucia says. “You’re my best writer. And writing, we both know, is what a writer does.”