After my first class Monday morning, Dolly, the undergrad who was helping fill in for Marcie, was waiting at the door with a note from Dr. Giles. “Come see me after class. Important that I talk to you this morning. G.” When I stuck my head in his office he informed me that we had an appointment with Dr. Sandeman, head of the English department, at 1:30 that afternoon, and sincerely hoped I could make it. No problem on my end. I would have to let my history tutorial out a few minutes early, but this late in the semester, it might even save my life at the hands of a bunch of freshmen crazed by the deadly combination of spring-induced hormone overload and finals.
I got to Dr. Sandeman’s office right on time, but was still the last one there. The third person waiting for me was Victoria L. Doubletree. Ms. Doubletree taught a creative writing class whenever she felt like it. She got away with this less-than-exhausting course load because she had published three novels, one of which had made it to the New York Times bestseller list and was being made into a genuine Hollywood movie. I had read Between the Laughing Tombstones, which hadn’t made it to the bestseller list, but I deemed its shortcoming was that it was too good to be popular.
Dr. Sandeman was at least twenty years older than Ms. Doubletree, but that didn’t keep him from calling her Ma’am. Published authors seem to have that effect on people (and they wanted me to join this noble order? Somehow I couldn’t imagine Dr. Sandeman calling me ‘Sir’ had I drawn Excalibur from the stone and been knighted Poet Laureate of England with it). Not that Ms. Doubletree was particularly fierce. At least, when I shook her hand she didn’t snarl or anything. In fact, she was rather quiet and unassuming, although clearly not embarrassed in the least by all the fuss. I genuinely hoped her middle initial didn’t stand for Layla. I’d had quite enough coincidences in that regard for a lifetime; one more would have convinced me of the involvement of a power greater than Franca the goddess of Irony.
The gist of the meeting, which wasn’t much of a meeting since everything had already been decided before I got there, was that Ms. Doubletree would take me on as a provisional graduate student in creative writing, as long as her responsibilities were limited to guiding my budding stylistic growth and critiquing my work. Dr. Giles had agreed to be my ‘official’ advisor and handle the administrative responsibilities. I would continue to teach a history tutorial the next semester to justify my stipend. Prior to the spring semester, the four of us would decide if I should be teaching in the English department instead (the look on Dr. Sandeman’s face clearly indicated that he didn’t possibly see how I could teach literature, but he didn’t say anything). Only after a full year of this ‘experiment in historical fiction,’ as Dr. Giles called it, would we reevaluate and decide if the trial should be continued or dropped. Either side could terminate the program at that point: me, from a lack of continued interest; them, from a lack of quality in the work I was producing.
I was a little awed that Dr. Giles had actually been able to sell it, particularly considering that I’d had to nudge him with The Grail to get his buy-in initially. English faculties are suckers for published writers, but I wasn’t even an unpublished one—and nothing is more common or more useless than an ‘aspiring’ writer. Maybe the magic of Merlin’s crystal pendant had reached forward through the ages and warmed Dr. Sandeman’s heart; from the conversation, I could tell that Dr. Giles had used Merlin as his critical selling point. Maybe, like all other American professors of English that I’d known, Dr. Sandeman shared the inferiority complex that Americans were part of, but not really equal partners in, the great rich myths and legends of the English. After all, they had Arthur, while the best that we had come up with in two centuries of trying was Paul Bunyan.
“That’s a really generous offer,” I temporized when I realized that they had finished and were waiting for an answer. “How soon do you need to know?”
Their expressions slowly transformed from frozen-in-place smiles to puzzled frowns as they realized that I hadn’t jumped all over their offer. “I’m sorry,” said Dr. Sandeman, first to recover enough to speak. “I got the impression from Dr. Giles that you had already decided that this was the direction you wanted to go. Is there some problem?”
No, no problem. No problem at all other than that what I had to tell was factual, dammit, and despite what Dr. Giles had postulated I couldn’t see how the facts would ever recover from a fictionalized treatment. But I was torn enough by the pros and cons that I weaved and bobbed, noting that it was the rather sudden and unexpected career change and that I just needed just a little time to think about it.
Ms. Doubletree finally rescued me. “Well, I see no harm in your working on this project from whichever angle you choose this summer.” This was actually the first thing that she’d said other than the obviously over-stated, “Good to meet you.” The faint hint of a mischievous sparkle darted across her eyes. “Of course, if by the start of the semester you are convinced that your work is too weak to be good fiction and must be presented as history instead, I shall nonetheless insist on reading your manuscript and offering my opinion.”
So the queen had spoken, and so it was decided. There being nothing left to discuss, after another round of shaking hands and speaking closing clichés, the meeting broke up and we left.
I was just about to turn the corner when Ms. Doubletree called me back. “Oh by the way, Mr. Schuster. Are you free next Wednesday evening?”
“Yes ma’am, as far as I know,” I ventured, opting for the truth since I didn’t know if I should lie or not. Was this woman coming on to me? It didn’t seem likely; I have my good points, but being so sexually attractive that older women stop me in the hall to proposition me is not one of them. But if not that, then what? Involuntarily my legs tensed, ready to flee, while the scientific part of my brain noted that massive amounts of adrenaline was coursing through my veins, intoxicating The Marquis to the extent that when all of this was over we would probably faint.
“Then I would like for you to come by and address my creative writing class on a topic of your choosing. Doesn’t have to be long or formal. Oh, and don’t call me ma’am. You’re not an English professor; there’s no need to act like one.”
I was so shocked at her unforeseen mandate that the caveats and excuses I made up came out sounding like, “Sure, I’d be happy to.” At least, I guess that’s what happened. Either that or I said, “I’m sorry, I couldn’t possibly do that on such short notice,” but she heard what she wanted to hear. Or she chose to ignore me completely. Whatever the reason she obviously presumed my agreement, because without any further conversation she turned and left.