Green Hills Literary Lantern





Sophie had been a student in The Great Man’s undergrad creative writing class. Later, as a senior, she had taken his New Millennium Writers seminar. Then she’d stayed on at the university, a graduate student in the MFA program, an acolyte.
Instructing her outside the classroom as well as in, he gave her a reading list, his personal canon. He told her which films she must see if she wanted to be taken seriously. He invited her to coffee, to an off-campus black box theatre production, to an art opening, to his readings.
At one of his readings she was introduced to Briana, the woman he was living with. This came as a jolt, not that he was living with someone, and not even that the someone’s name was Briana—he had dedicated the second book of his New Salem trilogy For the amazing Briana—but the realization that she regarded this woman as her rival.
The first book in the trilogy, the one that had won the National Book Award, had been dedicated to Lindsay, his ex-wife who was not yet exed at the time of publication. Sophie never met Lindsay and was glad of it—she’d heard his wife had been impossible, a depressive prone to embarrassing public displays. “Maybe,” said Leo, another graduate student, “if you’re living with a creative genius and you’re not of that ilk yourself, the best you can do is create scenes.”

*  *  *

They had sex on the couch in his office. They couldn’t go back to the apartment she shared with two and a half other grad students (the half being the boyfriend of one roommate). And they certainly couldn’t go back to the house he shared with Briana even if she weren’t there. That would just be rude.
The office couch was covered in an abstract pattern. Sophie thought this helped to disguise its squalid history. She was pretty sure she could be labeled naïve, but not naïve enough to believe she was the first to leave a trace of herself embedded in those fibers.
Sophie wished she had slept with the G.M. before meeting Briana. Then the first time they made love she wouldn’t have been wondering if he preferred Briana’s blonde dreadlocks to her short shag, Briana’s ostentatious rump to her own washboard behind.

She looked up “rival” in the online Merriam-Webster dictionary. She’d been interested in its origins (from the Latin rivalis, meaning “one using the same stream as another”), but she sat before the screen transfixed by a foreboding that she was reading her single line autobiography: one of two or more striving to reach or obtain something that only one can possess.
He started introducing her as Sophia. He said Sophie wasn’t the name of a person who took herself seriously. Sophie wondered what Briana was doing on their evenings out.

*  *  *

She was struggling with a short story about a ten-year-old boy who watches his best friend drown after falling from a railroad trestle right after they’d escaped from an oncoming train. She perched on the edge of the patterned couch while The Great Man sat at his desk turning pages. “Well?” she asked.
“Well?” he returned, his eyes tunneling into her over his half-glasses.
“It’s too . . . soggy, isn’t it?”
“Waterlogged,” he agreed.
“It’s not any good.”
“Dry it out some,” he advised.
She nodded and left his office, left the campus. Sophie went straight to her room in the apartment and burrowed under the bedcovers. She had no earthly idea what their conversation had meant. Why, she wondered, had she said soggy? Why had he jumped on board with waterlogged? How did you dry out a story about a drowned boy? Why couldn’t they communicate? Why did words fail them?
She missed the rest of her classes that week. Straining over each sentence, she dried up the surviving boy’s tears, but worried she had not dehydrated the denouement enough. She tried excising moist ands and buts and replacing them with sere semicolons.
Finally he phoned her. Not to ask where she had been or how she was doing, but to invite her to his signing at the debut of the final volume of the trilogy. He had talked vaguely about galleys but she had assumed the publication date to be months away.

*  *  *

Aiming for invisibility, she showed up in jeans, an oversized sweater, and a knitted Andean hat with earflaps. They’d had to move the event from the bookstore to the cathedral to accommodate the crowd. She squeezed herself into a pew near a confessional.
Even before The Great Man stepped out onto the altar, a charge could be felt buzzing through the hallowed hall, a surge of static electricity as sweaters rubbed and heads turned. Sophie pivoted with the rest, craning her neck to share the view, before she realized the eyes encircled her. So much for invisibility. She wondered if Briana was standing on a kneeler, pointing in her direction. She thought about slipping out of sight, closeting herself in the confessional: “Bless me, father, for everyone knows I’ve sinned.” Tugging her earflaps down, she shrank back into the pew and opened up volume three. She would use Miller’s Anvil as her shield. The air around her thrummed.  She turned the title page and came upon the dedication:

 For Sophia, my muse

She would have wondered who that Sophia was if the crowd hadn’t already confirmed her appointment.
She couldn’t hear him speak. Rather, she couldn’t make out his words. She realized she was the only one thus afflicted as those around her occasionally laughed or gasped in unison.
When it was over, she remained wedged in her corner of the pew as people climbed over her knees. She had been teetering on the brink of devotion; the dedication sent her tumbling head over heels. A half hour later, surrounded by a dozen or so disciples, he was still holding forth on the rim of the sanctuary. At last she exited the pew and joined the trickle headed for the enormous wooden doors when Leo brushed past her. She called his name and he stopped in the aisle.
“Congratulations,” Leo said.
She blushed in reply.
“I wondered where you were the last three days. You missed Sánchez Padilla’s tutorial on the function of place in narrative.”
She couldn’t confess she’d been in hiding. She couldn’t protest that, no matter what anyone thought, she hadn’t spent the last days cavorting on the office couch.

*  *  *

After a confusing week of going to classes and the library and Starbucks and the apartment and nowhere else and staring straight ahead like a blindered filly, Sophie was cornered by The Great Man in Trefethen Hall. He told her that, out of respect for them both, he’d refrained from contacting her until Briana had moved out.
Relief washed over her: a decision had been made. In her favor. He told her to pack up her things and he’d send his teaching assistant around to collect them and install her in his house.
She actually trembled at his words.
His words. (His house.)
She anticipated a sort of honeymoon, the two of them holed up together now that they didn’t have to subsist on snatched moments and office couch interludes, but she found herself inundated with dinner parties. She was either going to them on the arm of the G.M. or she was giving them in his home. He told her not to worry, this was a temporary flurry of the kind that always accompanied the release of a book. Things would soon settle down.
She was certain the dinner guests were thinking, “And Briana’s side of the bed isn’t even cold yet,” as they smiled and shook her hand.
On the days when they hosted, she was torn between the paralysis of anxiety and the frenzy of anxiety. She was not a cook, good or otherwise, so she would pore over recipes in the cookbooks that covered the sideboard in the kitchen, searching for something both spectacular and foolproof.
He mentioned in passing that his ex-wife had been an accomplished French chef and that Briana could slide anything between piecrusts and achieve perfection. But in the next breath he assured her that the meal itself didn’t matter. “Half of them don’t have a working taste bud between them—you could serve Velveeta on Ritz crackers—as long as it’s accompanied by plenty of wine—and they’d be happy. The other half are foodies and nothing you prepare will impress them. So quit fretting.”
She understood that he was the appetizer, the main course, the dessert. But as she wasn’t either a wit or a presence herself, she had to morph into a cook. If she satisfied the foodies, then it stood to reason everyone would go home approving of his choice. She didn’t want them piling into their cars wondering how he could have dropped the accomplished Lindsay and the amazing Briana and ended up with her. “With her” elided into “wither” in her brain as it echoed.
She wished he would help with the food preparations though.
Her work was suffering. She knew it. But she wasn’t sure she was supposed to be a writer. She would never be as good as he was. Maybe being his muse was her real talent.
When they weren’t entertaining or being entertained, he was either teaching or writing—an essay on Sandburg, an article for Vanity Fair on the hottest spots in Chicago for eavesdropping on the famous and the soon-to-be famous. She wondered how and when he had done his research.
At breakfast one morning, he announced that he was embarking on a new trilogy. He was going to do the same thing for Dixon, Illinois, the boyhood home of Ronald Reagan, as he had done for New Salem.
They had their first argument.
She said he shouldn’t glorify the president responsible for polarizing America, for paving the way for extremists, for steering the country a hard right into corporatocracy. She said she thought he’d be making a horrible mistake to follow up his series on the Great Emancipator with one on the Great Deregulator.
He said only an idiot would see his novels as glorifications. He reminded her that the New Salem trilogy was not about Lincoln but about the abbreviated twelve-year lifespan of the village. The first book explored its founding as a small but thriving center of commerce. Abe didn’t even appear until volume two when he showed up as store clerk, railsplitter, postmaster, deputy surveyor, failed businessman, failed politician. And she should know as well as anybody that the third book was about the collapse of the village, focusing on its last three years when Lincoln had already taken up residence in Springfield. The doings of the new member of the Illinois General Assembly were only a minor theme. He also said she didn’t have a gift for coining words.
She was fighting back tears, but she managed to say, dryly, “Only an idiot would rather read a single volume—let alone three—about Dixon, Illinois, than about Plains, Georgia,” before retreating back into bed.
Relations between them cooled (more intimate relations had already cooled). Not that they didn’t speak (not that they didn’t have sex), but everything—words and gestures—seemed to mean less, or to mean more.
Sophie developed a few signature dishes and a couple signature stories from her childhood that got her through the dinner parties, something to serve up to her diners and her dining partners. Otherwise, she was an unobtrusive guest and appreciative audience. Everyone pronounced her “sweet.” He was declared “lucky.” She didn’t feel sweet. She wondered if he felt lucky.
They settled into their respective work. She surprised them both by taking up the fiction editor at Harper’s (whom she met across the chancellor’s dinner table) on his offer to look at some of her stories. The magazine published “Train Wreck,” the one about the drowned boy.
“Seems like I’m always congratulating you,” Leo said when they met at the cafeteria checkout counter.
“Thanks.” She didn’t pretend not to know her magazine debut was the current buzz in the department. “What’s new with you?” she added lamely, as if expecting him to counter with a forthcoming story in The New Yorker.
“Driving up to Milwaukee tomorrow.”
“Oh?” She knew he was from Pittsburgh. She was wondering if he had a fiancée stashed away, if he was heading to his prospective bride’s hometown to finalize wedding plans.
“At least we’re not in competition for the same position.”
She assumed when he said “position” that, in her case, he was thinking horizontal. He had a way of exiting before he finished a sentence, so that his last words trailed after him, hung suspended in the air like cigarette smoke.

 *  *  *

The G.M. had ripped through the first installment of the Dixon trilogy. Announcing that he’d never worked so well or so quickly, he shipped off a hard copy of the manuscript to his agent who, since Sophie’s story in Harper’s, had offered to be her agent as well. Sophie had read parts of the manuscript in progress, but was reserved in her comments. Neither of them trusted her to say the right thing and, after all, she had read none of the New Salem book dedicated to her until after its publication.
Some muse, she thought to herself. More like some amusement.
As he worked through the proofs and the galleys, she realized she wanted to be out of the house before the book came out. She didn’t have to see the dedication to know that it was over. One female per book, that was the pattern, his trajectory. He’d been so busy with the work, it was hard to imagine when he’d found the time to groom her replacement. She knew where he’d found the place. Fearful of turning into an all too private detective, she avoided visits to his office.
She wasn’t going to wait around for the page to turn. She no longer thought about dropping out now that she’d been validated with the Harper’s seal of approval. But she didn’t know where to go. Her room at the apartment had been taken over by a Sri Lankan engineering student soon after she’d moved out. She hadn’t kept up with her roommates anyway. And she was pretty sure she knew what most of the students in the Writing Program thought of her.
She found Leo in his carrel at the library. “Can I talk with you?”
Out on the quadrangle, he turned to face her, eyebrows raised in inquisition.
“Can I stay at your place for a little while? On the couch? I know it’s an imposition, but just until I can find something else?”
Leo considered. It looked like he could go either way. He wrote his address and cell number on the corner of her folder. “I’ll be back by nine,” he said. “You can bring your stuff then. Try not to be late. I like to get to sleep by eleven.”
She told the G.M. over dinner that she was packed.
“You’re feeling neglected,” he soothed. “I’ll have more time now that the book is finished.”
“I’m feeling emancipated,” she corrected.
“Don’t you think you’re taking yourself a bit too seriously?” he said.
He tried to talk her down off her high horse but she was enjoying the view from above.
“Where are you going?” he asked finally.
“To Leo’s place.”
“I see.”

“It’s not like that.”

“Like what?”

She phoned for a cab—she couldn’t ask for the loan of the car or of his teaching assistant.

“It’s better that I leave now,” she said, “before it gets messy.”

“I’d say you’re too late. I’d say you’re making quite a mess of things.”

“Look, we’ve both gotten what we could from this. I’ve learned a lot from you, met a lot of interesting people. I even got my first story published, thanks to your connections.” She didn’t balance the ledger with the meals she’d cooked, the dishes washed, the laundry folded, the adulation paid.

“And I have another book under my belt? A quid pro quo, hey?” His face closed to her, slammed shut, like the door he banged as he crashed out of the house moments later.

*  *  *

After she’d been at Leo’s for a week, she offered to start fixing his dinners. She congratulated herself that she had acquired a useful skill as well as an agent during her seventeen months as a concubine. “I’m actually a pretty good cook,” she said. “You should take advantage.”

He looked at her steadily, for what seemed a punitive amount of time. “You’re on probation,” he said, and she knew he didn’t mean as the apartment chef. If she and Leo got together, she would never have to worry about abstract patterned couches.

She was uncomfortable when she ran into faculty and administrators she had socialized with when she had been with the G.M. but everyone was polite. No one said she was sweet. No one said he was lucky.

* * *

“Sophia,” The Great Man called across the portico. She kept walking. He caught up to her. “Sophia,” he said again, laying his hand on her shoulder.

“That was someone else,” she shook her head, shook his hand off.

“Then give this to her,” he said, dropping an advance copy of the first volume of the Dixon trilogy on top of the books cradled in her arms. He veered off and she stood looking after him. She leaned against one of the columns of the portico and flipped open the cover to read the handwritten inscription, but there was none. She turned past the title page and then she came to it set in Palatino italic

 For Sophia

and she shuddered as if she weren’t someone who was already thinking about using all this in a story.



Margaret Hermes has stories in recent or current issues of Rockhurst Review, Confrontation, Pembroke Magazine, Passages North, and River Styx.  This is her third story to appear in GHLL. Her story collection, Relative Strangers, received the Doris Bakwin Book Award and second place in the 2013 Balcones Fiction Prize. Her published/performed work includes a mystery novel, The Phoenix Nest, a stage adaptation of an Oscar Wilde fable, The Birthday of the Infanta, and several essays. When not writing, Hermes concentrates her energies on environmental issues.