My novel, Balls, is a book in which the protagonist contracts testicular cancer. I’d done an extensive amount of research, but I still wasn’t an expert. I needed one, lest I publish a work that didn’t get it all right. The fear of this had me up at night and fretting during the day.
So I called my uncle, who was a doctor and knew many urologists. He gave me the number of a Dr. William Collier, whom he described as a fine man, with a passion for literature.
“He likes books then?” I asked.
“Well, that’s great.”
Asking anything of a stranger excites the nerves. You’ve got to dial him, introduce yourself, tell him what you’re after, and hope, in the end, that you haven’t offended his ego by requesting that he use his precious time on the likes of you. But knowing Dr. Collier affirmed the written word did take some of the pressure off.
I called him on a Tuesday evening in late July. Dr. Collier said he was pleased I’d called. His voice was warm, instantly soothing, and before I could say much of anything about my intentions, Doctor Collier was discussing Thomas Mann, Emerson, the Marquis de Sade, and Warren Buffet. Books written by these men, it seemed, made up his summer reading. Mann, he told me, was for the strengthening of his mind; Emerson, his heart; Sade, his loins; and Buffet, his wallet.
“Well chosen,” I said, trying flattery.
“A person should want to know everything. I do and always have. I’m an older man now, almost seventy, and I tell you a powerful curiosity will keep you living.”
He had so many questions—on my writing, yes, but also about my lineage, upbringing, schooling, health. Dr. Collier told me he was semiretired, a sometimes painter and poet, a golfer, a swimmer. His wife was a schoolteacher. His daughter lived in Maine. She, too, was a teacher. There were grandchildren.
Eventually, I interrupted him—he would have talked all night otherwise—and began to speak to the doctor of my novel. I told him how much I’d appreciate his looking through the medical parts and making sure my facts were correct.
“I’ll do you one better, Julian; I’ll read the entire book.”
“Well, that would be great.”
“Mail it to me, I’ll read it, and we’ll speak after Labor Day.”
What relief I felt; he had been so kind and easygoing. Sure, he yammered on a little long. But as far as its medical facts went, Balls would know what it was talking about. The doctor would take care of everything. My anxiety was gone. Collier had cured me.
The following day, I printed out the novel, paper-clipped a letter to the first page in which I thanked the doctor for taking the time out to perform this service for me, went to the post office, and mailed it off. I went about the next weeks not thinking even once of Dr. Collier. Then Labor Day passed, and my phone rang. Not recognizing the number, I didn’t answer. But then the caller left a message.
Ah, it was the doctor.
“I’ve read your manuscript,” he said. My heart rate increased with anticipation.
“I’m sorry to say, but we’ve got problems. Real problems. Call me back.”
At my bedroom window, looking up at the United Nations, I went weak. Problems? What kind of problems? The medical parts made up less than ten percent of the full novel. Stooped over my bed, surrounded by the scattered pages of manuscript, I became convinced that the whole book was ruined. It was done. Kaput.
Or not. After all, maybe I only needed to correct the inaccurate medical information. That wouldn’t necessarily be difficult at all. But then, why big problems? His voice had been ominous. No, clearly the novel was not well. Not well at all. I had to know. Frantic, I dialed Collier.
“Doctor, it’s Julian Tepper.”
“Julian,” he said, “how are you?”
“I’ve been better,” I answered, before remembering my manners. “First of all, thank you for reading. I’m very grateful. Not many people would have agreed to it.”
“That was nothing. Nothing at all. But I wish I had better news to report.”
“Tell me,” I said, my head swelling with grief, “so what’s wrong with the book? What did you find?”
“Frankly, Julian, it’s not the kind of thing you want to say over the phone. I think the best thing to do would be for me to leave the manuscript in my lobby. You can come by and pick it up today. Look at the suggestions I’ve made. Then, you can stop in at my office and we can discuss it.”
By this time I’d sat down on my bed, unable to stand. I felt sick. Nauseous. I choked out a response.
“Good. So I’ll pick it up and we’ll talk.”
“I’m sorry, Julian.”
“Yes, okay. Thank you, doctor.”
I hung up. Collier lived in the 70s off Lexington Avenue. My place wasn’t so far that I couldn’t walk. And I planned to. Yet when I stepped outside into what was likely a pleasant September day for most everyone else on the street, my legs felt paralyzed. I took a taxi, mentally repeating the dirge, “Two years of work, all for nothing.”
In front of the doctor’s building, I stuffed money into the cabbie’s hand and rushed from the taxi into a handsome old marble lobby. Upon seeing me, the doorman, a tall, broad fellow, flashed an odd look. “Can I help you?” he said.
“Yes, I’m here to pick up a package left by Dr. Collier.”
“And your name?” he asked suspiciously.
He nodded, clearly not quite convinced that this sweaty, pale, frantic man was a worthy recipient. He produced a manila envelope from a drawer. I snatched it and rushed blindly out the door and across the street to the nearest brownstone, taking a seat on the third step from the bottom. I tore open the envelope, prepared to flip ahead in the novel to the protagonist’s first visit to his general practitioner, where I assumed Collier would have started.
I stopped short. What was this? Here, on the title page, written in red ink, were the words:
1. How much autobiographical?
2. Why is Henry so passionate about songwriting?
3. Unless the novel is only going to be read by the cognoscenti, upper-class Manhattan references such as ‘Bemelmans at the Carlyle’ have to skillfully be clarified.
What the hell? I thought. I turned to the first page. Red ink everywhere. I noted that the fourth sentence, which began, “And with legs hung over the bed, a tired, stooped, pale-faced man … ,” had been crossed out and rewritten as, “And with legs hung over the bed, a fatigued, stooped, pale-faced, worried man …” On the next page, nearly illegible for the red ink, the phrase “deep-emotional strain” had a solid line through it, above which the doctor had written a note to me: “He hasn’t gotten this far yet emotionally.”
Not much further down the page was the sentence, “He was once good-looking, but now he never slept.” It seemed Collier preferred, “Once good-looking, he was now haggard from lack of sleep.”
Dr. Collier’s edits went on and on. My favorite was the point where I’d written the simple sentence, “He took money and rented a house near Woodstock, New York.” Collier had struck an X through Woodstock and written Rhinebeck in its place.
Dozens of pages had been heavily edited by Collier, hundreds of words swapped out for others. I could only assume the urologist had spent weeks rewriting my novel for me. I read on in disbelief. It seemed the brook behind that house in Rhinebeck was better off as a lake.
As for the medical information, that was perfectly fine. Not one problem.
The relief I experienced walking home from Collier’s under a clear blue September sky was short-lived, though. If Collier weren’t my uncle’s colleague, I would have never felt any obligation to communicate with him again. But since he was, and given their relationship, I was going to have to say something more to him, at least acknowledge his efforts.
I resisted. I considered writing Collier a letter. But I couldn’t. It bothered me for months. Just write him something, I would tell myself. Anything! Yet I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Neither my brain nor my hand would go through with the action. So I didn’t.
It still occurs to me on occasion that I should drop a postcard addressed to Collier in the box on the corner. I get edgy. I think that I’ve wronged my uncle. I want to apologize to him. I never even told him what happened. Then I conclude, again, that I don’t have to, and that it’s best to never bring it up again. Sometimes when this happens, I return to Collier’s copy of Balls. I look through those pages. I contemplate his edits, and I immediately begin to feel better. It is a beautiful thing to behold.
Julian Tepper is the author of Balls.