Bernie Among the Nightingales

It was Arty from Philly who first told me about the project. A pilot. One hour. Written by a guy named Lonstein, a playwright I worked for back when I was a kid. Lonstein was as queer as a priest in Paris, but the sonofabitch could write. I asked Arty if there was a part for me.

“Read it,” he says.

I did and there was. The role of an offbeat Jewish attorney with an attitude. Had my name all over it. “And here’s the kicker,” says Arty. “It’s already picked up for thirteen.”

In layman’s terms, that meant if I booked it, I’d get thirty grand for the pilot plus another thirty for each of the 13 episodes guaranteed by the network. That meant $420,000 for four months “work,” a sum roughly equivalent to my entire net worth times 420,000. Plus I knew the playwright. I dare say the bastard even owed me one for saving a piece of shit he had running off-Broadway some fifteen years back. Things were looking good.

I called my agent’s office first thing on a Thursday to tell him to get me the audition. Amy, his half-wit assistant, picked up the phone.

“Put Bernie on,” I says.

“Can’t.”

“Why not?”

“He’s in the hospital.”

“What’s he doing there?”

“Don’t know.”

“Oh Christ,” I says. “Who’s covering the Lonstein project?”

“Beats me.”

Amy was a sensational fuck up. For five years she’d been in that office, and she still couldn’t work the copier. Or the fax. Or even the fucking water cooler. At least once a week, I begged Bernie to fire her, but the old man wouldn’t do it.

“Amy,” I says real nice and slow, “can you please find out who the casting director is?”

“Sometimes,” she says.

“Look at the breakdown.”

“Nothing’s broken,” she says. “Except the water cooler.”

“I know nothing’s broken,” and now I’m struggling to stop myself from going down there and smacking her across the head. “I’m talking about the breakdown — the description that comes over the computer and tells you about the project.”

“The computers don’t tell me nothin’,” she says. “They only talk to each other.”

This was going nowhere. I hung up the phone and called Arty from Philly, thinking maybe he knew who the casting director was.

“Cheryl Zuckerman.”

“Oh nuts,” I says. “You think she’ll remember?”

“What do you think?”

Years ago, at a rave, Cheryl Zuckerman bought $200 worth of ecstasy off me before blowing a pair of Persians in the bathroom. Though she initially blamed the incident on the drugs, the fact is I sold her aspirin, and by the time her friends told her she’d been had, Cheryl Zuckerman was already a Hollywood punch line. The woman swore an oath of vengeance against me, a vendetta that fueled a massive increase in her weight and a meteoric rise from the mailroom of Buchwald to the casting office at CBS. At 250 pounds of angry Jewish flesh, Cheryl Zuckerman stood as a formidable obstacle between me and the $420,000 I’d get if I booked that pilot. There was no way I’d get the audition through her, so I scoured an old address book to see if I still had Lonstein’s home number. I did. I called it. Disconnected. I tried information on Fire Island, but they had no listing.

If ever there was a time I needed Bernie, it was now. So I picked up a box of rugelach at Canter’s and headed over to see him at Cedars Sinai Hospital. His wife was in the hallway when I entered.

“My Bernie, my Bernie,” she cried, as I asked how he was doing and shoved the rugelach in her gut.

“We don’t know yet,” she says. “They’re still doing tests.”

She walked me into the room where my agent was propped up on a bed with tubes running in and out of his nose, IV’s hooked up in his arms, and hoses stuck up his ass pulling away his shit. He looked terrible. Thin, pale, and Semitic.

“Good God,” I says. “What the hell happened to you?”

The old man shrugged as his wife started weeping into my shoulder. Tears and snot fucking up my shirt. For fifteen minutes I held her until finally she excused herself to take a leak. With the room clear and the door closed, I knelt down next to my agent’s bed and asked him if he’d seen the Lonstein script.

“What?” he says. “Who?”

“Lonstein,” I says. “The playwright. Queery guy who won a Tony.”

“What about him?”

“He’s got a pilot,” I says. “And there’s a part. Offbeat Jewish attorney with an attitude. Got my name all over it.”

“Who’s the casting director?”

I tell him.

“Oy,” he says, and now one of the machines starts making a racket. I smacked it a few times ’til it stopped.

“I tried calling Lonstein,” I told him, “but I couldn’t find his number.”

“Producer,” he moans. “Who’s the producer?”

“I don’t know.”

Bernie motioned for a phone. I handed him my Nokia C-100 then stepped back to watch him work. The old man came to life with a phone in his hands. I suspect it was the only medicine he ever truly needed, though certainly not the only medicine he ever took. The quacks who ran this brothel would never know how to treat a man like Bernie. There was no cure for his illness in the operating room or the hospital pharmacy. No test for it. No research papers published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Bernie was an agent first, and a human being if he had the time. And with this Lonstein project hanging over our heads, mortality would have to wait.

No sooner did Bernie get his contact from CBS on the phone than a nurse runs into the room full of piss and vinegar.

“What are you doing?” she says. “No cell phones in the ICU!” Then Bernie’s wife was back, carrying on like there’s no tomorrow. She takes the cell phone out of her husband’s hand and slams it against the wall.

“Whoa, whoa, that thing cost me 200 bucks,” I says, but by then security was escorting me from the room. “I’m taking the cost of that out of your commission!”

When I got home, there was a message on my machine. It was Bernie.

“Here’s the scoop,” he says. “I spoke to the director, he spoke to Lonstein, and everything checked out. You’ll go straight to producers. You don’t have to worry about that fatkakta Cheryl Zuckerman. I’ll call you Monday with the appointment.”

Things were looking good. I got a haircut and sent my best suit to the cleaners. I went over the script a couple of times on the shitter and laid out by Arty’s pool to even out my tan.

“How far along are they?” I asked him.

“Word is they want to go to network by the end of the week.”

I could smell the money. $420,000 for a job a monkey could do. Good God, you got to love television!

All day Monday, I waited to hear what time my appointment would be, but Bernie never called. I tried the hospital but couldn’t get through to his room. The old man’s cell phone wasn’t answering either. Finally, I called the office. I got Amy.

“What’s going on?” I asked. “Where the hell is Bernie?”

“Dead.”

“What do you mean dead?”

“He had a heart attack in the hospital.”

“Just now?”

“While I was talking to him on the phone.”

A shudder went through my legs. The horror. The last voice my agent heard, the last sound on Earth, was that of the office idiot – a woman who every day Xeroxed blank sheets of paper so they could have extras should they need ’em.

“Amy,” I says, raising my voice to emphasize the importance of what I was about to ask. “Before he died, did Bernie tell you when and where my appointment was for the audition?”

“What audition?”

“The Lonstein project,” I says. “Offbeat Jewish attorney with an attitude.”

“Sounds familiar.”

I was losing my patience. “Listen to me, you inbred shiksa. You find out when and where that audition is or I’ll put your face through the paper shredder.”

“I’ve tried that,” she says. “My face won’t fit in the shredder.”

It was hopeless. Even with Bernie alive, the broad was a waste. Now that he was dead, there was no point to her at all. She’d probably still go to work every day, wondering why her paychecks didn’t come in the mail. Eventually some building manager would have to deal with her. Or maybe the next company to move into the office would hire her out of pity. If they did well, she could ride their coattails all the way to the top. In the great tradition of Hollywood, she could fail upwards and someday end up the head of acquisitions at a major studio. Would she remember my insults when she had a position of authority above me? Probably. I’d have to put her name on the long list of people I have to kill.

Two days before the producers of the Lonstein project were to bring their choice to network, I put on my suit and drove to Beverly Hills for the funeral of Bernie Epstein. His wife embraced me when I entered the parlor. Courtesy of one giant dose of Atavan, the ugliness from the hospital had been shoved to the nether regions of her memory. Her daughter, Jenny – she was there too. She’d flown in from Brown for the occasion. I hadn’t seen Jenny in years, but I could tell from the way she hugged me that there was a lust behind her grieving, a fire that needed dousing before it spread to her vital organs.

“How long you in town for?” I whispered, grazing my lips against her earlobe.

“I have finals next week.”

“Get a dean’s excuse.”

Bernie’s wife asked me if I could say a few words during the service on behalf of her deceased husband. Luckily, I had something prepared. How could I not, when there were countless agents, managers and executives in the room, any one of whom could get me work? It was like having my own private showcase. So I wiped at my eyes, as if there were tears in them, then walked to the podium, where I gestured with an open hand to the laid out corpse resting in the box to my side. It was a nice box. Sturdy. Mahogany I think.

“Was Bernie Epstein a good man?” I asked. “Was he a good father to his children? Husband to his wife? Son to his mother?” I took a dramatic pause in order to be dramatic. “Who the fuck knows?” The room goes silent. “I sure don’t. And I never cared to either.” I stepped down from the podium in order to show that, unlike most actors, I could walk and talk at the same time. “The man never offered anything of himself, and quite frankly, that’s why we got along. Sure, I’ve had agents who were… family men. Who went on vacations and spent time away from the phones. Who coached little league and paid their alimony checks on time. Bunch of fucking bums if you ask me.”

“Here, here,” cried a voice in the crowd.

“It disgusted me to see them out on weekends, contorting themselves in a yoga class, or walking their dogs in the park while they coulda been getting me work. I assure you Bernie Epstein never wasted his time with such mishegoss, and that’s why he was the best agent I ever had!”

Not a dry eye in the house.

“Whether the part was right for me or not, Bernie Epstein did what it took to get me in the room and get me my chance. Nah, he never closed the big deal. Never got the big client to stay with him. Never attached himself to a rising star. But it was never for lack of trying. And if there is a big office in the sky, one with a desk and a phone and a secretary with a nice set of tits… then I know Bernie Epstein’s sittin’ there now. And he’s got St. Peter on the line. And he’s telling Pete how good I was in that play at the Geffen — the one where I got rave reviews in the LA Times and was nominated for a drama desk award in Backstage West. And I also know that if Bernie were alive today, he would want that all of his clients were well taken care of, by his friends, in the business, of whom he had so many. He would want his legacy to be that his clients achieve the kind of success he had always imagined for them. So while I have you here today, allow me to offer those of you who are looking for new talent to take what’s left of his clients’ pictures and resumes as you leave. It’s what Bernie would have wanted. And there is still a month left in pilot season. Amen. ”

I made quick work of his daughter in the limo on the way to the grave site. She made a mess of my suit. I’d have to get it cleaned again before the audition.

At the shiva, Steve Schliewen took me aside before anyone else had a chance. “I liked your eulogy,” he says. “Bernie would have been proud.”

Schliewen used to be the kind of big shot agent who never returned my calls and ignored me when we saw each other at a premiere. I guess that all changed after a drug problem led to an embezzlement charge that got him five years in Club Fed. Good behavior and a 12-step program may have gotten him out in two, but his ruined reputation prevented him from getting back in the game.

“I ain’t the kind of girl you need to sweet talk,” I told Schliewen. “Tell me what you know about the Lonstein project or take a hike.”

He answered me in that slow, tortured speech pattern you often find on a recovered drunk. “I know they’re taking a kid to network on Friday,” he says, as I shook up the ice in my scotch. “But I also know Lonstein’s partner spends Thursday nights in a bath house in West Hollywood.”

“You know which bath house?” I ask.

“I might.”

Schliewen worked the phones all day Friday from his office at Galpin Ford. He started a whisper campaign that the kid they brought to network was a Holocaust denier. It worked. Come Monday morning, the network cut him loose. Schliewen got me an appointment to audition in front of Lonstein and the producers the following week. Came pretty close to booking it too, but at the last minute, they changed the script and made the character a woman.

I decided to keep Schliewen though. Signed with him for one year, ten percent across the board. I figure if the fucker can stay clean, maybe he can be the guy who takes me to the next level. Which reminds me. About a month after the funeral, Amy, the office idiot, called me looking for a job. Can you believe it? Balls on her. I gave her Cheryl Zuckerman’s number and told her to use my name as a reference.

About Judd

I'm a writer, screenwriter and director in Los Angeles. For years I had a column called Filth that was published by Rudius Media. Now you can read it here. You can also click a link to preorder my new novel, Love in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Enjoy.
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