An early February snowstorm raged tonelessly outside the office of Carl Drubner, patent attorney, swirling white hills and humps across the stretch of roof outside his window. The snow had begun as long ago as Drubner could remember, which was that morning when he woke up. He recalled that it had been a frightening drive to Burlington. Otherwise his mind was a temporal blank. It was generally easier that way.
The blue computer screen on Drubner’s desk flashed the word MESSAGE across the top. That meant the litigators were after him again. Everything that crossed their mind was so very important. It wasn’t bad enough they garnered all the new business with their quick firm handshakes and soaring egos. No, they had to confiscate his attentions as well. Why couldn’t they just leave him alone—dole out the work and get lost? Even in Burlington, in the satellite office, Drubner couldn’t offload them.
He knew the flashing would soon drive him crazy if he didn’t yield to the litigators and read his electronic mail so the message bar would disappear. Four years of mechanical engineering at MIT, three years at Georgetown Law, all so he could pay servile custom to the firm’s headliners—the ones who publicly enforced the patents prosecutors like Drubner anonymously wormed through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The litigators received all the glory, all the recognition, and therefore all the clients and most of the firm’s profits. They boasted of their courtroom cunning; they joked of their ignorance of PTO practice and rules; and they raked in new business by the boatload. Then, like Kafkaesque Arabs tossing bits of meat to the hungry desert jackals who detested yet utterly depended on them, they dispensed prosecution work to the likes of Drubner.
His phone began to ring just as the pulsing message text appeared on his screen. Drubner stopped himself from picking up the handset when he noticed it was only the direct line to his secretary back in Boston. She would be calling to remind him about the unread electronic communication. This, he was sure, merely furnished her opportunity to insinuate Drubner’s incompetence and sloth, to see if he had even bothered to show up at the office despite the dearth of work to be done, and to dash the hopeful tinge his voice always had when he answered a call.
He returned to his screen. The blinking message said: SPECIAL PARTNERSHIP MEETING FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 5 AT 9AM, RE FINANCIAL PERFORMANCE. PLEASE CONFIRM AVAILABILITY BY RETURN MESSAGE.
So that was their game! Slice and dice. Death by economics. A meeting scheduled with so little advance notice he would have no time to prepare a response. The days of the Burlington office, Drubner’s brainchild, were numbered. The countdown had begun.
Drubner stared intently at the screen. Time had become his enemy. Time was his inventory, what he had to sell, and no one in Burlington was buying. Time was running out on the satellite office’s lease. Time clotted in him, sat on him, accumulating in a steady drive of feathery seconds and sodden minutes like the snow outside. Drubner sagged under its weight. Just when he began to wonder if he should unlatch the lead-paned window, climb out and shovel the roof before it collapsed, the loud factory-style entrance buzzer startled him an inch out of his seat.
Drubner released the door with the switch mounted under his desk. His visitor brought the storm in with him. Radiating snow from his trenchcoat and the floppy brim of his tam o’shanter as he shivered, the man rubbed his gloves together and glowered at Drubner. He barely stirred when the piston-operated closer smacked the door shut behind him.
“I’m looking for Helene. Is Helene here?”
Something was wrong. “She doesn’t work here anymore,” Drubner replied.
“What? Helene been fired? That what happened?”
“No, no. She wasn’t fired.”
“She quit on you then?”
“Nothing like that. She works in the firm’s main office in Boston. She was only out here for a month.”
“So is there anyone else here?”
“And who are you? You one of the lawyers?”
“Well that figures. I should have known,” said the man as he disrobed onto one of two faux velour gray seats that served as a makeshift reception area. Drubner hated them, they looked like fat formless blobs with little rump cavities, but they had come free with the renovated mill space. So had the industrial-strength buzzer that served as a doorbell. The man’s white hair shot in all directions as he peeled the wet hat away from his head.
“Coffee?” Drubner inquired, and at the man’s brisk nod asked, “How do you take it?”
“Black. Like my soul.”
Drubner realized that the grizzled little man with the crazy hair and round face encircled by a thin gray beard, presently installing himself on one of the metal chairs in front of Drubner’s desk, was not the client he had been expecting. That client was to have been a former Kodak employee striking out on his own, and like so many others, he wasn’t going to show. The visitor looked and sounded more like an aging pirate sans parrot.
“So,” Drubner said, extending a steaming Styrofoam cup over his desk, “what can I do for you?”
“First off, you can cut the polite crap. Listen. Everyone’s got a little part of their brain that’s sort of nuts, right? You agree?”
“Well, I’d never thought about it in those terms, although I suppose …”
“But sometimes that crazy part turns out to be genius, right? Am I right?”
“Let’s say you’re right.”
“Fine. So why don’t you come down off your high polite horse and assume for argument’s sake that my idea—what I’m here to tell you about—is a good one.”
Drubner wasn’t used to the hostility. Most of his clients loved what he did: listening to or reading their hopelessly inarticulate disclosures, turning them into compelling technologists’ screeds, filling in the absent details, creating a literate, even eloquent testimonial to the inventor’s genius that would, hopefully, stoke his ego and convince a federal bureaucrat in Washington to allow a patent on the thing no matter how stupid or trivial. “All right. So tell me.”
“Not so fast. How much is this gonna cost me?”
“Well, budget a few hundred for the search. Then we’ll have to spend a little time taking a look at it, evaluating your invention’s potential, giving you a written opinion …”
“Forget the search, I’ve already been to the public library and done my own checking. And you can forget the writing, too. What do I need with a lawyer’s paper anyway? Just forget about that. So what’s next?”
“If we decide to go forward with an application, your budget escalates from the several hundreds to the thousands …”
“Thousands?! For what, for some form? For some lawyer’s form?”
“For the text. You saw those patents in the library, right? They all have text describing what they’re about. We write that. People pay us to write the text.”
“And that’s what you do for a living?”
“Ever make you guilty?”
“Just tell me what you have already!”
“It’s a fishing lure. For bass.” He produced a small cylindrical tube, domed and shiny at both ends. A flat fin extended from the middle. Drubner picked it up. He kneaded and twirled it between his fingers. He examined it from every angle. It was completely smooth. There were no concealed hooks or snags.
“All right, I’ll bite. How’s it work.”
“You won’t need to bite. Neither will the bass. Those ends are silvered, they’re mirrors, see? You ever fish?”
“I could have guessed. You’d make a terrible fisherman. A man like you would use a ten-pound line for a four-pound fish. You’re a lawyer. All you lawyers want to win any way you can, sportsmanship be damned. You’re always thinking, turning everything around, anticipating. You’d try to outthink the fish like you outthink each other. But the fish aren’t thinking, see? They’re too smart for that. So they’d beat you every time.”
The man’s modest entertainment value was beginning to disappear beneath the press of his insults. Drubner grew impatient, but then thought of the upcoming partnership meeting. “All right. So how do you exploit the fact that fish can’t think?”
“Did I say they can’t think? No. I said they don’t think. What’s a fish need to think for? Eat, swim, don’t bump into rocks. That’s a fish’s life. What’s to think? But they’re certainly capable of thinking. Especially bass.”
“So hold one of the shiny ends an inch or so away from your nose. What do you see?”
Drubner hesitated at the grotesque, distorted image of his face that emerged as he drew the lure closer. His tiny mouth now lay buried far beneath a huge, flattened nose. Tiny beady eyes hovered above boiled, featureless cheeks like ravens patrolling a marsh. And his receding hairline had now retreated finally and fully behind an infinite pink hemisphere. What a horrible little device.
“Thank you for demonstrating my product,” the man said, snatching the lure out of Drubner’s hands and slapping it on the resoundingly hollow desk. “Thank you for confirming its mode of operation.” He leaned back and folded his arms smugly.
Drubner sat quietly and began to rub his eyes. His hands stole a furtive dash up his forehead, feeling for the continued presence of hair.
“Look. You obviously don’t understand my invention. The bass swims up to the lure because it’s shiny, see? It catches the light like an insect or a guppy would. The keel keeps it steady in the current. And then mister bass sees himself. Well, not himself, exactly, he doesn’t know what a mirror is. But even the most primitive life forms are capable of autorecognition. So he freezes. He observes his reflected identity, up close, for the first time. I am bass! My life equals eat, swim, avoid rocks! A terrifying realization of self. He goes nowhere. He just stays there. He stares and thinks.”
Drubner looked at the pouchy red cheeks and the trim encircling beard and the electric hair sitting across from him. The man’s eyes were growing wider, the whites mostly yellow and crisscrossed by bloodshot. “And then?” Drubner asked.
“You walk over and scoop him up. You can use a net, although I prefer my own two hands.”
“Of course. You’re a sportsman.” It had only just begun to dawn on Drubner that he was talking with a candidate for institutionalization. Last week a maniac had shot up the Burlington post office, killed one of the inspectors before blowing his own brains out. Drubner was trapped in an isolated cubicle, sitting across from a demented madman, and analyzing his invention as if it were business as usual. Maybe it was, he supposed.
“Well, it is more sporting, don’t you think? Oh, sorry, I forgot—you’re a lawyer.”
“Enough with the lawyer remarks. What have you got against lawyers, anyway?”
The man muttered something about lies and deceit but Drubner wasn’t listening. The words of a patent claim had begun to march unconsciously across his mind: A fish lure of generally elongate dimension having first and second reflective, rounded ends and a stabilization fin depending transversely from a central portion …
“Anyway,” he heard the man conclude, “what do you think?”
Drubner drew a meaningful breath. The fear had receded. He had a new client. “I like your invention,” he smiled.
But the man only tensed. “I’m not interested in your personal tastes! What I want to know is, can I protect it?”
The question provoked a thought. “Let me ask you something. Why not use a spherical mirror instead of this ovoid arrangement? That way you’d get 360° performance, a bass could approach from any angle …”
“See? There you go, thinking too much. Why don’t you just stick to my invention? To what I came in here to discuss?”
“But what if a competitor uses a different shape to obtain the same results?”
“You can’t be sure.” Drubner heard the mechanical, boilerplate sound of his rejoinder. Where was this guy ever going to get competitors? Who would compete with such nonsense? “Anyway, it’s part of our job. It’s what we do. If we didn’t, you’d be upset later and point an accusing finger at us. You’d think we failed you.”
“Thinking, thinking. Cover my ass. Bill more hours. Always thinking.”
The repressed rage suddenly welled up in Drubner and he was about to violently cleanse his office of this lunatic’s presence when the renewed thought of the partnership meeting weakened his knees, and then another thought occurred to him.
“So you’re telling me that a sphere is outside the scope of your invention. You’re expressly disclaiming any fully spherical embodiment?”
“That’s right. So where do we go from here?”
“Give me your name, number and address—”
“For billing purposes, of course,” the man interrupted as he rose from the chair.
“And I’ll get back to you with an estimate.”
The man absently recited the requested information as he replaced his coat and hat, then walked out.
Drubner swiveled his chair and faced his keyboard, preparing to type. This was a five-hour job, max. He could see his reflection as the skeleton application template spread across the screen, with its array of blanks to be filled in and space for the narrative. The reflection in the screen had hair and strong eyes. Drubner wondered whose patent application to begin first. He typed FISH LURE in the [Title] space and felt an unexpected spark of excitement.
That Friday, ten minutes before the partnership meeting, Drubner sat in his mostly empty Boston office with Edwards, who was examining the fish lure. Edwards, Rossi and at least one other partner fished; Drubner was nearly certain of this. They were his best hope.
Edwards inspected the lure carefully, much as Drubner had. Drubner explained the theory of operation. Edwards looked at him dully. “So it’s sort of an existential thing, then?”
Drubner tried to think of a response to the obtuse Edwards, who obviously hadn’t a clue. He decided to risk everything. “Now what would you think if I made it into a sphere? Omnidirectional capability. Independent of stream current. Symmetric force displacement, easily manufactured.”
Edwards nodded, fingering the lure. “Know what I’d do? Turn it inside out. Make the humps into shiny parabolic bowls, and stick a little hook in each of them. Then the bass swims up, sees a miniature real image of himself when he reaches one of the focal points, thinks it’s a baitfish, and chomps.”
Drubner was stunned at the crassness of her suggestion. “And then you just reel him in?” he asked derisively.
“With a ten-pound line, I suppose.”
“Whatever it takes.” Edwards was quizzical. “Look, I’m just trying to help.”
Drubner’s phone rang unexpectedly. He was pleased to appear sought-after before Edwards.
“Drubner,” he said into the mouthpiece.
“So. How long until I have a patent?” It was the crazy inventor.
“Oh, figure about two weeks from the time we receive your retainer for me to draft the application, then another eighteen months—”
“Eighteen months! What is this, a major piece of litigation?”
“That’s how long the Patent Office usually takes. It’s not our fault. Just your federal government at work.” He winked at Edwards.
“Fine,” said the man, and hung up.
Not more than a moment passed before the phone rang again.
“Listen. Something I want to know. Are you going to bill me for that last call?”
“No. But I am going to bill you for this one.”
Instantly the line went dead. Drubner knew this was the last time he would hear from his newest client.
“You have any idea why the old man called this partnership meeting?” he asked, turning to Edwards.
A chuckle. “He’s your father. I thought you’d know.”
“You don’t think they’d kill Burlington, do you?”
Now Edwards sighed. “Business is flat all over town, Carl.”
“Exactly!” Drubner exclaimed. “That’s just the point—we’ve got a chance there, patent prosecutors like us, a chance to unflatten ourselves! You see that, don’t you Helene? Burlington is alive with startups who need what we have to offer. Maybe right now it seems like a hopeless dream. But watch. Soon we’ll be originating our own clients, creating our own business on our own terms!”
“Carl,” Edwards said sadly. “You won this fight already. We opened the office. We hosted small-business seminars and no one came. We mingled with entrepreneurs over lunch at the Holiday Inn, and so what? What can we do for Burlington that we already haven’t done?”
“But just look in your hands! What you hold is evidence for optimism! We never would have gotten that client without Burlington. More will follow. And you know,” Drubner said, lowering his voice, “a patent lawyer can do well for himself even without many clients—as long as they’re the right clients. The trick is to find an inventor with no money and a stupendous idea. Or better yet, to come up with an improvement to such an idea.” He wondered desperately if Edwards understood.
“I suppose,” she said, fingering the lure, raptly studying one of its shiny bulbs. Drubner struggled to read her expression. “But it’s all the same, really, isn’t it? There’s always an algorithm, a sequence of tricks you can use whether you’re protecting inventions or making them. Extend. Oppose. Invert. Combine. Plumb the underlying logic, and generalize: make an orb from the capsule-shaped fish lure. Then individuate. Differentiate the new from the previous, the whole from its parts. Creating, protecting, even understanding—it’s all the same when you peel away the conceit.”
Drubner stared ahead blankly. “Don’t you see?” Edwards asked him. “Nothing is really new. Not the patents, not the inventions, not what we add to them. We rearrange—Carl, we live according to scheme. Work, bill, get paid, eat. That’s a life’s algorithm.”
“Eat, swim, don’t bump into rocks,” Drubner heard himself admit.
“And if you can’t grow the revenue, slash expenses. The irrefutable accountant’s algorithm.”
Now it was Drubner who understood.
His secretary peeped into the open door. “You’re going to be late for the meeting,” she said. Always accusing. Why did she have to accuse?
Edwards extended a courteous hand out the door, inviting Drubner to precede.
A stab of fear struck him as they walked. It drove through him so quickly it outran his thoughts, Drubner had to struggle to reconstruct the string of ideas that summoned the wave of panic. He focused on an image of the conclave he would encounter in the conference room. Edwards asking about the dip in last month’s cash flow. The old man, still firmly in control at the head of the table, suggesting that Edwards review her fluid mechanics if she had trouble with flows. A litigator proposing sharply reduced expenses to loosen resistance. Drubner, flaunting the lure, pleading for patience and faith. The old man embarrassed. Another litigator elaborating on the quantitative relationship between time and money. Numbers marking time, time belching money, numbers flowing across a sea of hostile faces, dreams swirling in a storm of numbers. Irrational numbers. Real numbers. Imaginary numbers. Complex numbers. Revenue numbers, income numbers, an avalanche entombing the Burlington office.
As Drubner reached for the chrome handle to the tall oak conference room door, he looked over at Edwards and pictured her name in boldface type atop a patent with the same title as his own, and whose numerical identifier exceeded his by exactly one. His heart was racing again. It was perfectly clear which would generate a fortune.