The Florinese Painter

I never expected to spend my latter years entrenched in litigation. Literally entrenched, I’m afraid, as each day brings ream after ream of progressively ridiculous claims. Surely, no other could produce such an outpouring of irrelevant and painstaking detail? Morgenstern has his heir – in brevity if not in wit – and my last thoughts will dwell on this parody of justice.

Helen cleaned me out, of course, during the divorce proceedings. Her own expert witness, she chronicled my daily failings in the marriage, fatherhood and bedroom departments, dictated with a clinician’s dispassionate ease. I spent the trial immersed in memories, which probably worked against me. The judge called me distant, vapid, and I was too preoccupied to disagree.

The whale went with her, which was a relief. For a time I was almost happy. It wasn’t joy, exactly, but the loss of a vast, oppressive force, leaving a kind of booze-soaked peace. That was before my lawyer, Charley, called.

“We have a problem.” He began. That was his usual opener, but this time it lacked a jovial tone. “It’s The Princess Bride.” I swear, that’s how it came out; the man could italicise his speech.

My father’s voice intruded on our conversation at this point, repeating words that had buoyed me over the years. “Most dreadful treachery,” he said in my head. “And miraculous of loves.” I muttered in automatic agreement to Charley’s legalese, but he caught on.

“Christ, Bill, are you listening?” That got my attention. Charley wasn’t a religious man – “What lawyer is?” asked my father – but a judicious convent school had beaten the blasphemy out of him, for the most part.

“I’m listening.” I offered, chasing my father’s ghost from the bedroom of my memory. “Litigation… costly… S. Morgenstern…”

“Junior. S. Morgenstern Junior. The bastard had a bastard, can you believe it?”

“No,” I answered. I’ll claim preoccupation, or too many mojitos, but I was a little slow on the uptake. “I can’t believe it.”

“Well he exists and he’s suing you, claiming you abridged his father’s work without permission and defamed his family name.”

The words hung in the air, and my father’s ghost re-entered the room and playfully rearranged the letters. They still made no sense.

“Suing me?”

“That’s the short version. He’s… His father’s son.”

What does that mean? I wondered. “What does that mean?” I asked.

“His brief isn’t.”

Truer words were never spoken. I don’t begrudge the son’s depth of feeling over a father’s legacy; I couldn’t, since that’s how I came to adapt The Princess Bride. But to recount, verbatim, the passages whose omission had most offended him, the alliances and intrigue and endless bloody hats. Only a Morgenstern could manage that.

The case came to nothing, but only because I was broke. Rights and royalties were handed to Morgenstern Junior, and the tabloids once again wanted my picture. I made my peace with it – or would have, but the correspondence continues. Summons and synopses and the paper parade that follows me no matter how I make my address.

It might be his line now, but I’ll borrow it at my last: life really isn’t fair.

This piece was written to a Write On prompt celebrating the announcement of Harper Lee’s second novel: “In 500 words, write a story featuring your favourite literary character at an earlier or later point in their life.”

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