REALITY CHECK: My next book is going to fix everything … or else
Last summer, as some of you may remember, I checked myself into the emergency room. Four days later, I exited the hospital one gall bladder shy of what I went in with.
The hospital gave me some lovely parting gifts; hand lotion, a plastic bedpan to be used for regurgitative purposes, a bottle of Vicodin and a bill for $25,000.
It was that last item that nearly put me right back in the hospital again.
At the time, I had no health insurance. I do NOW, oh, you betcha. Now that I’m perfectly healthy and likely to remain that way for the next 20 years or so. But I didn’t then, and that’s what counts.
The folks from the hospital’s billing department were as nice as could be; they did everything imaginable to work out payment arrangements. But it soon became apparent, to both the billing department and me, that I just don’t have enough income left at the end of each month to make the minimum payments their bean counters require in a situation like this, for a bill of this magnitude.
The bill was referred to a collection agency. As many of you already know, these places are not typically staffed with the sort of folks one would invite to a summer barbecue. Not unless one were a mob boss who needed someone greased for squealing to the feds.
Collection agents take their job seriously and are willing to skirt right up to the very edge of what the law allows in order to rake in those bucks owed. If the law permitted the breaking of kneecaps, I’m pretty sure there are agents out there who wouldn’t hesitate to wield a Louisville Slugger in the requisite manner.
Fortunately (for me and my kneecaps) they’re not supposed to do this.
Now, before you get the idea I’m complaining about the hospital, collection agency, or any of their representatives, let me assure you: I am not. I received excellent care during my time of need and I owe that $25,000, fair and square. I wish with all my heart I had the money to pay it. I just don’t.
I’m not proud of that fact (and my mother would turn over in her grave if she knew I was talking money in a public forum; it is, after all, terribly gauche), but this is simply the way things are for me right now, the reality within which I am obliged to live.
At any rate, one of these collection agents called the other day. My caller ID read “unknown,” which is cell-phone-speak for “bill collector.” I answered anyway, hopeful that, this time, we might arrive at some amicable arrangement, even if that meant the bill wouldn’t be paid in full until my 95th birthday.
The collector was a nice enough woman. She told me to give her money. I told her I would love to, but I didn’t have any. She asked why not. I told her. This was a familiar conversation for us both and we were mostly going through the motions.
“Well, I’m looking at your website,” she said.
“Yeah?” I said.
“It says here you wrote a book,” she said.
“Yeah, a while back,” I said.
“Couldn’t you sell more books to make some money?” she said. She was serious. Bill collectors are serious people.
“Um … well, I could, if anyone would buy them,” I said. “But I wrote that book a couple years ago, and I think pretty much everybody who wants one already has one. Some people — those with wobbly tables with one short leg — may even have two.”
“Oh,” she said, still thinking. “Well, couldn’t you write another one?”
I admitted that, yes, I probably could. I then pointed out that Random House had not recently attempted to kick down my front door in order to present me with a quarter-million-dollar advance on my Next Big Novel.
Like a lot of folks — more than you would believe — the nice collection lady assumed every author is a SUCCESSFUL author. I tried to explain that the difference between me and Stephen King is roughly $26 million a year.
It took her a minute to accept my abject poverty (it has taken me considerably longer), but in the end she agreed I was a likable enough deadbeat and could anticipate many long and fruitful conversations with her and her colleagues in the near future.
My fault, not hers, so no hard feelings. And who knows? She may be right. Maybe my next book is the one that’s going to propel me to the New York Times bestseller list.
So I’ve started working on it. It’s a fictional work about a group of rogue bill collectors who finally flip out from dealing with deadbeats like me and go on a killing spree.
If it makes enough money to pay that hospital bill, I’m going to mention the collection agent on the dedication page.