“Listen, Fred, I know you think it’s beneath you—but it means two thousand bucks in your pocket . Less my commission of course . Easy money for us both! Only a fool would turn it down . Are you a fool?”
They—Tilly Turner, her father Fred, and his agent Mr . Bernstein— were all having lunch at the counter of Eisenberg’s, on 5th Avenue . It was July, and it was very hot . If the ceiling fans were doing anything other than ticking at slightly different intervals from one another, Tilly couldn’t tell . There was no breeze whatsoever, no breath of air that didn’t feel like it had come straight out of someone else’s lungs .
Tilly had ordered an egg cream and, at the urging of her father, a reuben . He had ordered his usual, a liverwurst and onion . She could smell the onion in the heat of the deli and it made her want neither the egg cream nor the reuben .
What she really wanted to do was get out her book and read . She had just gotten to the part in Atlas Shrugged where Robert Stadler was going to try to seize control of the Xylophone, the big death ray that the bad guys had made based on his work on sonic physics . Exciting stuff .
But her father had forbidden her from reading at the table . Tilly didn’t think that was fair . It was her summer vacation, after all, and she should be allowed to read if she wanted to, especially if she was going to get dragged to some crummy lunch meeting with her father’s agent . She would be sixteen in January . If she was old enough to roam around the Upper West Side while her father brooded over his typewriter all day, she was old enough to stay home while he walked a few blocks for a free sandwich on the hottest day of the summer .
Well, two free sandwiches . That was it, probably—by making Tilly come along, he’d get her fed and watered on someone else’s dime .
Tilly wanted her rapidly drying reuben even less now . The hypocrisy of it all turned her stomach . Probably her father was already gearing up to ask for a doggie bag for her leftovers!
“I dunno, Saul,” said her father, through a mouthful of liverwurst .
Mr . Bernstein was only having coffee, black, and plenty of it . His turtleneck was black, too; she didn’t know how he was enduring this heat . She was sweating through her tee shirt and shorts .
“You dunno what?” Mr . Bernstein talked faster than anyone Tilly had ever met, even here in New York City .
“Well it’s just that I’m trying to finish up my edit on The Chaff of Life on time, and—”
Mr . Bernstein rolled his eyes, something Tilly was not allowed to do .
“On time,” he said . “Since when do you care about on time? And we both know what’s gonna happen with that book of yours, no matter when you turn it in .”
Tilly’s father winced and dropped his sandwich crust down on his plate, but he did not protest either the aspersion upon his professional character, or the probable fate of his latest effort .
Alfred Turner’s second novel, Seven for a Secret, had done pretty well . What that meant exactly, Tilly didn’t really know . But she did know, from overhearing conversations like these, that none of his other books had done as well, or even “well” at all—and people were starting to wonder if Alfred Turner’s “promise” had been merely that .
“Come on, Fred,” said Mr . Bernstein, but his tone was gentler . “It’s easy money, and quick too . They want it in a month . What’s a month? You take that long to get contracts back to me .”
“Yeah, well if it takes me that long to get a contract back to you, when will I have time to write it?”
“It doesn’t have to be good . They just want something . This is a rush job. The first guy, my client Jake, he got two weeks in, and bailed.”
“Said it was making him drink too much . But he got a few chapters done . I have them . You can take ’em or leave ’em . But you don’t have to . They don’t care .”
“What do they care about?” asked her father .
“Making money, of course .” Mr . Bernstein waved the waitress over and indicated she should refill his coffee. “That’s what it’s all about. This sort of book, it’s a sure thing for publishers, no matter what it is . They know people will buy it because they liked the movie—why I can’t imagine in this case, but there’s no accounting for taste .”
“What’s the movie?”
“Orchard of Sin,” said Mr . Bernstein . “Also being released as The Apples of Sin are Sweet, for the European market . It’s a chiller . Schlocky stuff; Bayonet Productions is isn’t known for their, ah, subtlety . They do a lot of historical stuff; they bought some farm in Maryland a while back, with a big old house and a barn, so most of their stuff is set in some time where you’d ride a horse to get around . I read the treatment, and this one’s pretty much a Yankee Doodle-era soft-core Invasion of the Body Snatchers .”
Tilly looked over at her father and found him looking sidelong at her, the lenses of his thick glasses flashing in the light. Mr. Bernstein coughed into his fist before extracting and lighting a cigarette, to cover the momentary awkwardness .
“And the advance is two thousand bucks?” said her father .
“Two thousand bucks for forty thousand words—tops . They made poor Jimmy Muir cut something like seven hundred lines from his novelization of The Witching Year—another one of these Bayonet turkeys—so that they could fit some ads in the back.”
Tilly had learned to observe people very closely—she’d had to, to survive the upheavals of the past year . Her father was starting to consider the idea .
Mr . Bernstein saw it, too . “He blinks in the sunlight after being dragged from the cave!” he declared, pitching his voice a bit louder and gesturing to the other patrons of Eisenberg’s with his cigarette .
No one looked up, not even any of the waitresses . New York City was really something . Back in Connecticut, that sort of behavior would be enough to get them thrown out into the street . Or the jail… “All right, all right,” said her father .
“You’ll do it?”
“I dunno, Saul, I mean… what, they’re gonna put my name on the cover? How will that help? Probably they’d be better off using a pen name .”
“They definitely want a pen name .” Mr . Bernstein smirked at her father’s grimace . “Oh come on, Freddy! It can be open if you want, and anyways, everybody knows your style . It’ll shine on through, like… I dunno, like the sun through clouds . Probably some lady fan of yours will see your truth through the charade and then, bam, you’ve got yourself a second wife .”
“Better ask for more than two grand if that’s how it’s gonna be,” said Tilly’s father .
Tilly sighed into her egg cream . She didn’t mean for it to be so loud .
“Poor kid,” said Mr . Bernstein . “Sorry, Tilly . But the length of this lunch—it’s all your father’s fault, as I’m sure you’ve noticed . When he gives in and says yes, you can leave . Until then…” he shrugged . “If I’m going to buy two sandwiches and that egg cream, I need it to be worth my while .”
Tilly had had enough . “Dad, can I please read at the table?”
“No, Tilly .”
“Why not?” said Mr . Bernstein . He grinned at Tilly, but she didn’t feel like smiling back . “Why shouldn’t one of us have a good time? Whatcha reading, kid?”
Usually, Tilly would have a Philip K . Dick or Jack Vance paperback in her back pocket, but her latest obsession didn’t fit.
Too big .
“Atlas Shrugged,” she said proudly .
“Atlas Shrugged!” Mr . Bernstein laughed, to her surprise . She had assumed he’d be impressed . “Jeepers, Fred . Do you need me to get her a copy of something more, I dunno… wholesome? The Bell Jar, maybe?”
Tilly bristled, but before she could reply, her father held out his hand, calling for quiet .
“Her mother gave it to her,” he said to Mr . Bernstein, in a tone that made Tilly wonder if he knew it had actually been her mother’s new boyfriend, Daniel, who’d passed it along . “Tilly’s really enjoying it .”
She was . She liked the feel of the book—all those people striding about, being brilliant inventors or executives, uttering only sharp, devastating rebukes or luscious speeches of praise . The moral ambiguities of her favorite paperbacks were nowhere to be found—black was black, white was white . Characters were either admirable or otherwise, which certainly made things less confusing .
“Enjoying Rand!” said Mr . Bernstein . “Well, I didn’t even know such a thing was possible . What is it you enjoy?”
“Saul, she’s just a—”
“I like that Rand writes about people not just as they are, but how they ought to be,” said Tilly grandly .
Mr . Bernstein stared at her in apparent astonishment .
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