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The Devil and Lester Filbin
“95 dollars?” Dr. Silas Martz hooted.
I stared at him and said nothing.
“You’re serious,” he said. “That’s it? That’s all the money you have? Nothing in savings? You have to have savings. At least two grand for an emergency. Something.”
“Seriously? Or are you just being melodramatic?”
I shook my head and said, “95 dollars.”
“You poor bastard,” he said, still chuckling.
“I’m trying to find virtue in poverty,” I said, and lit the cheap cigar. There is a reason I never discuss personal finances with anyone.
Circumstances had, for a while, been, well, manageable. Words like “comfortable” or “copasetic” are states I’ve been aspiring to. I’d had several minor victories over the last few months, such as paying bills before disconnect notices were delivered, keeping a non-negative balance in checking for more than 30 days and being able to buy generic, rather than sub-sub-generic food at a grocery store where you rent a cart, pay for bags and have to pass by two armed guards on the way to your car. But I’d recently suffered a minor reversal of circumstances that moved me from that lofty position of “nearly on time” with my payments to “irretrievably and utterly screwed.”
“And what virtues are you finding?” Dr. Martz asked, pouring himself another drink from my bar.
That when you’re broke your friends will continue to drain your home of food and drink? “So far, the virtue I find most compelling is humility.”
“Really, any idea when you are going to try that one out? It’s not a virtue I’ve ever known you to express or demonstrate.”
“Did I mention that I managed to use the word ‘fuck’ 94 times in my latest book?” I asked, apropos of nothing.
“You don’t say?”
“If I’d added the speech where the character says ‘Fuckamus, Fuckorous, Fuckorialis, I came, I saw, I was fucked’ it would have been 98, but the editor cut that bit.”
“So humility? Care to expand upon that?” Dr. Martz asked, swirling the ice and alcohol in his tumbler.
“Well, no matter how horrible the daily struggle to maintain the illusion of being middle class, it cannot be compared to the circumstances of the working poor.”
“Well, you certainly are being all magnanimous on the subjects of pain and stress,” he said.
“I was standing in a check cashing office off Cleveland Avenue when. . .” I began only to be interrupted by my cellphone.
The caller identification said that the call was coming from the sheriff’s office. “This is Cusper Lynn,” I said.
There were, on any given day, at least half a dozen reasons as to why someone from the county sheriff’s office would call me; only a couple of which would result in my incarceration.
“Cusper, I need your help,” the voice on the other end said.
“Lester?” I asked.
“Cusper, I’m in jail! I need you to help me out!” he said.
“I’ll be down there in a few minutes,” I said.
“Thanks Cusper. The duty officer will tell you what you need to do.” He said.
I hung up.
“Who was that?” Dr. Martz asked.
“Not a who, more of a what. Lester Filbin,” I said getting my wallet and car keys.
“The Lester Filbin?” he asked, impressed.
“The one and only.” I walked over to the door of my home and looked at Dr. Martz with an expectant gaze.
He sipped his whisky and said, “Don’t let me slow you down.”
“Lester is in jail. I have to go help him out,” I said.
“Tell me all about it when you get back,” he said, and picked up a magazine from the coffee table.
“I will,” I said and left.
I returned four and a half hours later Dr. Martz was still there. Most of my bar wasn’t.
“What happened to you?” he asked.
“$5,” I said.
“What?” He asked.
“I now only have five dollars left,” I said. Then I scrounged up one of the partially burned cigars from the ashtray and relit it.
Dr. Martz let me smoke for awhile before pressing me for details of my afternoon.
“His bail was $800,” I said.
“So that’s why you only have 5 dollars left,” Dr. Martz said.
“Yup.” I looked at the bar; Martz had annihilated it. I sighed.
“So, Lester Filbin. . . “ Dr. Martz said.
I let the question hang. There are some things, that when you do them, you end up paying for them, forever. Lester Filbin was one of those things. Sometimes I wonder if I had done something else on that day, say robbed a bank or killed someone, if my life would have turned out better. Of course that didn’t happen. I didn’t rob a bank or kill someone. I went to work that day and did what I had trained to do. I was early in my career as a consultant and speaker. I was working with some of the big names in the professional speaking and get rich quick circuit. I wasn’t playing the main stage, I wasn’t even doing the side venues. I did what I was told I should do first, I presented to a group I knew, about what I knew. I was doing professional speaking for doctors about practice management and life fulfillment.
Anyone else would have played it safe that day, given a button down presentation to a bored group of physicians, given safe advice and been entirely unmemorable, and gotten steady, if mediocre gigs based on the strength of that. But I didn’t want that. I was on fire and I was going to set that group on fire. So I gave them my “One Second to Live” opening. I’d been working on it for two or three months, auditioned it for some of my mentors, and despite them saying “Cusper it’s great for when you play the main stage, but when you work a small room, especially with professionals, you’ve got to dial it down.”
I took that advice and I ignored it. And so I opened with, “Doctors, it’s Monday morning. You’ve put all of this weekend and its noise behind you. You are in your office with your staff. In a few minutes you are going to see your first patient of the day, and then you feel it. It’s your heart. You know the symptoms; you know that what you are feeling is not a mild message. It is the big one. It is the last thing you are ever going to feel in this life, and you’ve only got one second to live and it’s in your clinic.”
From there I showed how the focus of imminent death places staffing issues, procedures and proper practice management in perspective. Because if you were about to die you wouldn’t care about the feelings of others when it came to doing things properly. You would focus on making sure everyone was doing them properly. You would never accept mediocre performance from yourself or anyone else because your last second on the planet would be trapped in the presence of your own mediocrity. On the whole I had felt the presentation had gone well. I stepped down from the podium buzzing with serious speaker’s high and an appreciative audience lining up to personally thank me. But then two things happened. One was that I didn’t get another gig with that group. The second thing, which I should have realized was the more important and certainly the most immediate was. . .
“Lester Filbin?” Dr. Martz repeated. “The guy who went to your first and last ‘One Second To Live’ speech?”
“Yes, him,” I said.
That day that I gave that speech, Lester had been part of the crush of people wanting to see me. A small man, about five four, balding, with jug ears and thick glasses, he had elbowed his way to the front of the line. He’d gotten ahold of my hand and was pumping it hard and fast.
“Dr. Lynn I’ve got to tell you that was the most inspiring presentation I’ve ever heard in my 37 years,” he said, in that slightly high and cracking voice of his.
I thanked him and tried to move on to the next person in line. Lester continued to pump my hand and tell me what a terrific speaker I was. I thanked him again. The thing is, I didn’t really listen to what he was saying. If I had, I might have realized that I was in serious trouble. “That moment, standing in the office. The way you said it, I was there. I think I’ve been there before almost every day since I got into practice. Like I was going to die. Just die and this was going to be it, my life, my life in that miserable office.”
“Well, if you listened to me, then you know you can change all that. You can make it all you want it to be,” I said absently, trying to break away from him.
He stopped pumping my hand and instead held it, with both hands and looked me in the eye. “You don’t understand I don’t hate my office.I hate everything to do with practice. It’s not what I want to do. I never wanted to do it.”
“Was there something else you wanted to do?” I asked, trying to extract my arm from his grip.
“Yes,” he said, eyes glazed over.
And you don’t want to do what you’re doing now?” I managed to get my arm free as his grip slackened.
“No,” he said, and his arms dropped to his side.
“Then go do what it is you want to do,” I said and moved on, the crowd closing in behind me.
“Lester Filbin who you told to close his outrageously successful, multi-million dollar a year dermatology practice and pursue his dream to be a famous author?” Dr. Martz said, putting the verbal boot in.
“I never told him to do any such thing. And yes, that Lester Filbin was in jail today.”
“Assault, battery and kidnapping,” I said.
“Cusper strikes again,” Dr. Martz laughed.
“This is not my fault,” I said.
“Tell his ex-wife and two kids that.”
“This one is not on me, at least not entirely,” I said and took another drag on my cigar.
The officer on duty at the sheriff’s office had been pleasant enough. He’d allowed me to visit with Lester while we waited for the bondman to get the paperwork done.
“Thanks Cusper,” Lester said, taking my hand with that same manic devotion he had nearly ten years earlier.
“It’s $800 bond,” I said. “We should be out of here in an hour.”
“I’m so sorry to trouble you with this, I really am,” He continued to shake my hand.
“Jack Petty?” I asked. Lester dropped my hand and looked downcast.
“I’m not proud of what I did,” he said.
“He’s a lawyer. What were you thinking?”
“I’m sorry, but I had no choice.”
“He was your lawyer.”
“Yes, and he was very good.” Lester said, and began to twiddle his thumbs.
“Okay, let’s leave that for now. What about Don Baxter?”
Lester looked up at me, eyes wide open and defiant. “I’m not sorry for that. That I had to do.”
“Don’s a critic.” I said.
“Exactly. He reads books and publishes his opinions.”
“So he trashed your novel?”
“Do you know Gordon Blackfoot?”
“Gordon Blackfoot Book’s Workshop?” I said, reaching through my mental directory of authors and speakers in the area.
“That’s him! I went to his workshop on Longboat Key and do you know what he said?” Lester planted his hands on his thighs and was quivering with the manic excitement that drives the inspired and the insane.
“What did Gordon say?”
“He said the world is now flat. We are all the same. Every one of us! We all have to do whatever it takes to fulfill our life’s mission.” Lester grinned and I backed away from him.
“You’re not getting off that easily, Cusper,” Dr. Martz said. “Lester would never have met Gordon if it weren’t for what you said at that meeting.”
“Actually it isn’t entirely Gordon’s fault,” I said. “Don Baxter is responsible too, he wrote a note to Lester. He meant it to be an insult, but he clearly wasn’t aware of how Lester processes information. “
“All I wanted was a review,” Lester said.
“Cusper, people ignore each other, every moment of everyday. Gordon says you have to make yourself relevant. That no author can succeed until they are so relevant that they cannot be ignored.” Lester nodded in agreement with what he had just said.
“But he didn’t tell you to. . .”
“Don sent back my book with a note. It said, ‘You would have to chase me down, sit on my chest and read it to me to get me to waste a moment of my valuable time on your book!’”
“He what?” Dr. Martz said.
I nodded. Lester Filbin, MD, formerly the owner of one of the most successful dermatology practices in the state of Florida had lain in wait for, did tackle, restrain, drag into the park, sat on the chest of and read the entirety of his novel to, professional critic, Don Baxter.
“You’ll be in prison for years!” I said.
“The judge released me on my own recognizance.” Lester said, unimpressed.
“Jack said it was because he was a good lawyer,” Lester shrugged. “But I think it was because Don trashed her last novel in his column.”
“Okay, I get it,” Dr. Martz said. “Gordon says ‘Be Relevant’ and Baxter tells him what it’ll take to get him to listen to the book. But what happened to you? And what the hell happened to the lawyer?”
“I had several hours to consider that,” I said, puffing my cigar. “The last thing I remembered was saying goodbye to Lester, then everything went black.”
“Preface. When God and the Devil test the soul, both find it wanting. For God despairs that humanity rejects the human and the Devil despairs that humanity finds redemption in suffering. Chapter one, page one. The three Devils. . .”
“Lester,” I said, looking up and seeing that the pressure on my chest was not a heart attack, “Why am I here?”
Lester put a bookmark in his book, closed it and looked at me. “I asked you,” he said, “If you would read my book. Do you remember that?”
My mind went back through what I could remember of what Lester and I had spoken about. “I think I do.”
“And you said?”
I searched my memory, but it was a blank. There was ‘goodbye Lester,’ and then just the darkness. I had no idea what I’d said. For that matter I wasn’t entirely certain I remembered him asking me to read his book.
Lester became impatient. “Cusper, it’s going to be dark soon. If I’m going to get this read to you I really do need to continue on with this.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “Bit of a bump on the head I think, not able to recall much.”
Lester sighed. “You said ‘yeah, sure, sometime.’”
I shuddered. I’d done it again. I’d ignored Lester. “I’m really sorry Lester,” I said sincerely.
“So was the attorney,” Lester said, and pressed the duct tape over my mouth and returned to reading.
“He read the entire book to you?” Dr. Martz asked.
“Yes, he did.” I tapped off some ash. “Then when he was done he untied me.”
“You called the police?”
“No. I gave him my frank opinions on his book. Its strengths, its weaknesses and it’s obvious references to the story of Job.”
“That’s it? That’s all you did? He knocked you out, dragged you to the park and read to you for over three hours and that’s all you did,” Martz said.
“No,” I said, getting up. “I also told him that if he were going use his current audience development technique he might need to switch to short stories so he can reach more people.”
“Sure I did,” I said, and went to the fridge to get an ice pack.
“So you left an angry deranged. . .”
“He wasn’t angry,” I said. “For the first time in his life he was sure at least three people had been through his entire book. He was in an excellent mood.”
“But is he. . .”
“Waiting in the park to find someone else he can force to listen to his book? I expect so,” I said, applying the ice to my head.
“You should call someone!”
“He’s a danger to himself and to the community!” Dr. Martz exclaimed.
I thought about this. “I didn’t tell you the other thing Gordon Blackfoot tells all of his workshop graduates, did I?”
“You can only succeed through an aggressive marketing program and having high confrontational tolerance.”
“He said that. . . to Lester?”
“Yep. So I figure, as long as he doesn’t use a gun or a knife to market his book, we should be happy. Besides, now he’s Gordon’s problem.”
# # #
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