Fiction Second Place: The Plagiarist
City Paper’s 14th Annual Fiction Contest
Published: December 19, 2012
No one would be able to make sense of it, not on the day it happened and not in the weeks that followed either. It would be the least explicable to Jacinta, the Dominican custodian who found his body swinging from the sixth floor staircase in Pennypacker Hall. Jacinta, whose name was the Spanish word for “hyacinth,” had come up from the Dominican Republic just a few months before, in search of something better, like everybody always does. Now, in the deep of February in Massachusetts, she found herself in a strange place without a sufficient winter coat, a place where there were no hyacinths in sight and the wealthy students who attended the university she cleaned wrought disaster not only while in residence as undergraduates, in the form of cigarette butts and vomit, but also sometimes—as in this instance—five years after graduation just to kill themselves.
No one would be able to make sense of it, not his parents, his teachers, his friends, or the retinue of eager reporters that The Crimson dispatched to his hometown in the aftermath to investigate. Archer Phillips, it seemed, had lived out a truly charmed adolescence. The Crimson staffers beat a path to the front door of his parents’ brick colonial in New Haven, the one with the typical basketball hoop dutifully perched alongside the driveway. They eagerly presented themselves to the befuddled teachers at the princely prep school where Archer Phillips had been the lead in the school play and the captain of the basketball team and editor of the literary magazine. They murmured sympathetically and handed tissue after tissue to Hannah Berry, the high school girlfriend who broke things off with him—“It was a mistake, I know that now,” she softly blubbered between tissues—with her own fateful decision to attend Yale instead of Harvard.
Not that Archer Phillips would ever be hard up once he got to Harvard, not for girls or for anything else he wanted. He quickly accumulated what his mother described as “very upstanding” friends from similarly fashionable Northeastern families. Like Archer, they also bore first names that sounded like last names, because that’s exactly what they were, in commemoration of their mothers’ lost maidenhoods and the stern old patriarchs who once bore the names like a medieval standard. So among their company was a Bedford, an Emerson, and—the least sonorous of them all—a Fosdick. They had a jolly time of it for four years: spending weekends back in Connecticut at each others’ houses, enjoying a tipple to mark everything from the end of midterms to the arrival of Tuesday night, hoodwinking their instructors into believing they wrote their own term papers.
Archer had a series of college girlfriends, all extremely thin and vaguely European in their pretensions. They imported their shampoo from Paris and majored in silly things like art history and folklore. Their parents would pay for them to attend graduate school in the same useless fields of academic endeavor, which was itself an endeavor of no small uselessness from which they might become professors and perpetuators of nonsense, if they didn’t get married and pregnant and move to Park Slope first.
Because he already had a name that sounded like a publishing house, when Archer Phillips moved to New York after graduation, he immediately got a job at a literary magazine of some note. It was one of the large-circulation monthlies that you see in the chain bookstores at the airport, not the earnest little quarterlies that no one follows unless they have blown 50 grand on an MFA in fiction at Iowa. He got an apartment in Manhattan because his mother, the former Miss Archer, wouldn’t hear of him commuting from one of the boroughs with the rest of the proletariat. He had a view of Central Park at home and at work, where his responsibility was to sift through the dozens of unsolicited manuscripts that the magazine received each week. The economy was bad, which had a couple of consequences for the general flow of Archer’s workday. A poor economy meant there were a lot of people out of work, with time on their hands to convince themselves that the lay-off had been divinely inspired, for surely they were destined to be Great American Writers. It also meant that there were hundreds of students piling into creative-writing graduate programs, either to put off looking for a job or to acquire an additional academic credential, as if it might protect them from penury. At any rate, four years into the job and as many years into this most recent recession, Archer Phillips was fairly swamped with unsolicited manuscripts to read. Unsolicited and, sadly but all too frequently, unwanted manuscripts. It was nearly impossible for an unknown writer to get published this way, by lobbing his or her painstakingly crafted short story at the ever-growing mass that Archer and others in the business referred to as “the slush pile.” There was a man in New Jersey named Richard Spicer who sent a rambling five-page essay without fail every week. All day, he read submissions and prepared mailings of the magazine’s diplomatically worded rejection letter. Archer once calculated that Richard Spicer had received nearly 50 of the exact same letter since he began working at the magazine. What a colossal waste of postage, he mused, shaking his head as he opened the next ill-fated envelope.
Archer’s superiors noted the growing number of submissions that were awaiting a response and, when the fall semester began, they gave him an intern to help him keep up. Her name was Katie Kirby, and she was from that part of Illinois that is Not Chicago and thus, to most people, barely placeable on a map of the United States. Katie Kirby was a junior at NYU, and although she was very pretty, Archer resented her presence. He viewed her internship as an implicit critique of his workplace productivity and he was not used to criticism. He purposely gave her nothing to do, not even so much as a computer on her desk on which she could at least check her email or do her homework on the three afternoons per week that she darkened his doorstep. She sat quietly, respectfully, like a good girl in church on Sunday, waiting for him to give her something to do, resisting even the urge to text her friends about how boring this internship was turning out to be. One afternoon, Archer ran into his boss on the way back up to the office after lunch. His boss had a lovely NYU intern of his own on his arm; They were just returning from a wine bar where he had treated her to a meal and an intimate chat about her literary ambitions. Archer pretended not to watch them in elevator, particularly when the comely intern stumbled backward against his boss at just the right angle for his hand to meet her ass. The next day, Archer invited Katie to dinner after work. And because it also seemed like the thing to do, he took her back to his apartment and slept with her.
As women often do, especially very young women, when a relationship enters an unexpected new phase, Katie began talking to Archer about her writing. It turned out that she was about halfway through writing her first novel, The Life and Times of Cinnamon Granger. Archer was instantly jealous. Despite working in publishing and being surrounded by other people’s writing, he had not written anything worthwhile since college. Mainly, he realized, this was because his life had no struggle. He was comfortable, well-fed, impeccably dressed, and, spiritually speaking, fat and lazy from his own financial security. He arrived at this realization slowly, over the course of many evenings spent in Manhattan bars picking up women. He began to notice a pattern. He was no longer attracted to the same kind of woman as he had been in college; he did not want a woman who was as spiritually lazy and fat as he was. He was drawn to what he referred to as charity cases: women who were either working their way through college or working to pay down thousands of dollars in student-loan debt. They were people who could not simply fly to Amsterdam for a long weekend on a whim, as he could. If they even had cars, they were at least 10 years old; in some cases, they were makes and models that were not even being sold any more. They shopped at thrift stores because they had to, not because they were being ironic. Women of color were even more interesting to him, because they inherited the memory of generations of struggle. With them, there could only be angry sex, tinged with loathing for Archer’s whiteness, wrenched with guilt over coming back for more.
Katie Kirby was naked, lying on her stomach on Archer’s bed with her legs bent at the knees and feet crossed at the ankles. When she was 14, she went with her church on a mission trip to New Orleans a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina. Each of the volunteers boarded with a local family, and Katie’s host was the conglomerated Granger/Temple/Willis family: four generations, three legal marriages, and innumerably more casual couplings that created a great, brawling bunch, spilling out of doors and onto the lawn of an inadequately sized house in St. John the Baptist Parish. At the time, no one seemed to mind the close quarters, the constant presence of toddler-strewn cracker crumbs, or the gummy gibberish of the old folks as they laughed at the children. Before the storm, the Grangers and Temples had lived in the lower 9th Ward, which meant their houses were as good as gone. They spent a few nights in the Superdome in New Orleans with hundreds of others, refugees now in their own city, before the Willises finally got through on their cell phones to assure them that there would be plenty of room for them in great grandmama’s old house. The Grangers and Temples gladly assembled their belongings and their children and walked the 30 miles from New Orleans to La Place. That Superdome was hell on earth, Mrs. Granger explained to Katie. Before the storm, Mrs. Granger worked for Social Security. She had a degree from Xavier, and she quite simply did not know how to react when the people around her were throwing elbows for bottles of water, blankets, and pillows. The Grangers had a 13-year-old daughter named Cinnamon who was light-skinned and genteel like her mother. That summer, Cinnamon was reading Gone with the Wind for the third time; she and Katie drank lemonade and dangled from the tire swing outside great grandmama’s house reading Rhett and Scarlett’s dialogue out loud. It could have been an idyllic summer, but Cinnamon was first in her class and anxious that school would never reopen. Plus, it’s different here, she confided. There are more white people here than there were at home. No offense. When Katie’s church took another mission trip to New Orleans at Christmas, she visited the Granger/Temple/Willis house. Cinnamon met her at the door, her pregnant belly comically distended on her tiny frame. There had been a dark night in the Superdome when a National Guardsman took Cinnamon from her slumbering mother’s side. Like Mama said, hell on earth.
The novel was about her, and it was not about her, Archer discovered, as he crept over to Katie’s laptop while she slept. Nor was the novel the first time that Katie had gotten some mileage from Cinnamon Granger, her story having provided ample fodder for her college application essays some years before. His face illuminated by her computer screen, Archer’s eyes flicked from paragraph to paragraph of The Life and Times of Cinnamon Granger. He had to hand it to Katie: she had a gift for invention. She made the entire Granger family quite a few shades darker, and lavished pages of description on their “shimmering ebony skin, rippling like an African sea.” Mrs. Granger, deprived of her Xavier degree in this version, described the family’s stay in the Superdome while frying catfish in a heavy skillet, each sizzle of cooking grease explained in exquisite detail. As the story’s protagonist, Cinnamon’s charms owed not to her intelligence but to her quaint illiteracy and the poor dental care that left a whistling gap between her front teeth. The child born from the rape in the Superdome, in this telling, was Cinnamon’s second. She was stuck at this part, Katie told him; she didn’t know where to go with the story once the baby was born. Archer did. He finished the novel and signed with an agent who, a few months later, was booking stopovers on Archer Phillips’ first national tour.
Archer was in Boston, readying for an appearance on an inane morning show, when he got the call from Katie—rather, from Katie’s lawyers. They had questions about the closeness of his book to the manuscript that their client discovered she could not sell to any publisher in New York. Would he come in to give a statement? Archer stared out the window of his hotel as he wordlessly hung up the phone. It was starting to snow. He realized he hadn’t been back to Harvard since graduation. He slowly put on his coat and made for the subway. He thought about Cinnamon Granger and her child, who would be something like 6 years old now and starting elementary school. Was it a girl or a boy? He got off the train at Harvard Square and started walking toward Prescott Street. He took in a resolute breath. It was snowing harder now, and he had a place in mind to go to.
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