“Ave, Imperator! Morituri te salutant,” grumbled Gabriel Green, fumbling with his scarf and scattering snowflakes over the carpet.
The lady at the desk giggled. “I don’t speak Spanish, Mr. Green.”
“Latin,” corrected Gabe. “It means, ‘Hail, Emperor! Those who are about to die salute you.’” He looped the scarf around his neck and pulled it upward like a noose, doing his best impression of a hanged man. “Is Phil in his office?” he asked, somewhat ruining the effect.
“Oh, don’t be such a drama queen,” tittered the secretary. “I’ll let him know you’re here.” She pressed a button and leaned forward to speak into a little microphone on the desk. “Mr. Lector? It’s Mr. Green. Should I send him in?”
“Gabe!” crackled a familiar voice. “Come in, come in, come in! Just the man I wanted to see.”
“You can hang your stuff on the wall over there,” said the secretary, waving vaguely toward some coat hooks on the wall.
“Can I hang myself?” inquired Gabriel. “I mean, will the hooks take my weight, or should I find a sturdy tree?”
Moments later, as he stepped into Phil’s office, Gabriel was met with the comforting smell of old coffee.
“Gabe!” boomed his agent, rising from his desk. “Been waiting for you! Have a cuppa joe. It’s old and sludgy, but I don’t charge.”
Gabriel needed no encouragement. Filling a foam cup, he recited, “Out of the gloom that covers me, when wind is cold and sky is gray, I thank whatever gods may be for coffee on a winter day.”
“That’s good, that’s good,” said Phil, beaming. “An original?”
“From a poem by William Ernest Henley,” admitted Gabriel. “More or less. You wanted to see me?”
Phil motioned to a leather chair across the desk from his own. “Have a seat, Gabe. We gotta talk.”
Gabriel sat down, feeling like a student in the principal’s office. “What have I done this time?”
“The problem’s with your latest book,” said Phil, frowning. “I won’t mince words, Gabe. The Sun and the Spire didn’t sell.”
“It wasn’t exactly a bestseller,” he conceded, “but the critics loved it. The review from The Typewriter Ribbon called it—”
“I don’t care what reviews called it. I call it a loss.” Phil’s tone softened. “Look, Gabe, I love your stuff. You know that. As an agent, I like representing at least one brainy writer for bragging rights. You’re my trophy author.”
“Thanks a lot, Phil.”
“But even trophy authors have to earn a few bucks now and then, and my kids occasionally need to eat. We’re counting on you, Gabe. We need a bestseller: something for Young Adults.”
Gabriel sipped his coffee, stared at his hands, and asked in a small voice, “What did you have in mind?”
“Glad you asked!” exclaimed Phil, slapping his desk. “I’d suggest a vampire novel to entice publishers, but since that’s apparently, ahem, ‘impossible,’ we’ll have to try another angle. How’s a love triangle sound?”
A pained noise, something between a moan and a wail, escaped from somewhere deep inside Gabriel Green.
“You okay?” asked his agent.
“I’ll be damned.”
Phil smirked. “Language, Gabe.”
“A love triangle?”
“You know, a romance where a character has to choose between two lovers. Haven’t you read Twilight or The Hunger Games? They’re hot sellers. They’ve got love triangles.”
“Do you know what else is a hot seller? Romeo and Juliet. Two lovers: great romance. There’s a reason Shakespeare didn’t call it Romeo and Juliet and Dave. Three’s a crowd.”
Phil dismissed the Bard of Avon with a wave. “Shakespeare’s ancient history. We’re talking Young Adults, Gabe. They want love triangles, and publishers want to give them love triangles, and it’s our job to keep publishers happy. Give them a love triangle. And Gabe,” he added, “this time it had better not be impossible.”
Gabriel Green drained his cup, crushed it in his fist, and dropped it in the trashcan as he slunk out of his agent’s office. As he gathered his coat and scarf from their hooks on the wall, the secretary asked, “Where to next, Mr. Green?”
“To find a sturdy tree,” he spat, wrapping his scarf tightly around his neck.
When Gabriel returned to his apartment, he left his winter clothes in a heap on the floor and went straight to the kitchen to brew coffee. Then, reluctantly, he fished a cell phone out of his pants pocket, sifted through his contacts, and selected a number labeled BARBARA.
“Gaby Baby!” cried a breathy voice on the other end of the line.
Gabriel cringed. “Hello, Barbara.”
“When will you learn to call me Babs like everyone else in the universe? Oh, never mind. You haven’t called in forever, Gaby.”
“Gabriel,” he corrected. “I’ve been busy: the life of a writer, you know.”
“That’s no reason not to call your big sister now and then,” she pouted. “What do you need? I’m sure you’re not calling because you miss me.”
“I miss you lots,” he lied, “but my reason for calling is that I have some questions about, um, teen romance novels.”
He pulled away the phone from his ear as shrill laughter rang from the earpiece. “You’re writing a teen romance?” gasped his sister. “I never thought I’d see the day.”
“Since you read a lot of romances,” he persisted, “I thought you might, um, have some pointers.”
“Sex!” she exclaimed. “Put in lots of sex.”
“For heaven’s sake, Barbara, I’m writing for teens. They don’t need sex.”
“But they sure want it,” she replied, and giggled.
“These are the times that try men’s souls,” he muttered, and added more loudly, “Moving on, dear sister, what sort of things do writers put in romance novels?”
“Besides sex? Well, the main characters have to be beautiful. The gal should be adorably awkward and clumsy—are you writing this down?—and the guy should have abs, and maybe be a werewolf or a vampire or something.”
“Barbara, I’ve got to go,” said Gabriel. “Something is boiling over on the stove.”
“Wait! Before you go, let me recommend some romances for you. In the Light of the Blood Moon is good, and so is Once Bitten, Twice Loved, and Only a Farm Girl.”
“All right—thanks—bye,” he said, and stuffed his phone back in his pocket. The stove top lay before him, cold and empty, and he grinned crookedly. “A lie is an abomination before the Lord, and an ever-present help in time of trouble. Ah, coffee’s done.”
After a few cups of coffee and a humiliating trip to the library, Gabriel threw himself onto his sofa and picked up Once Bitten, Twice Loved: the first of a short stack of teen romances.
“As Leonard lay burning with fever,” he read aloud from the middle of page sixty-three, “Isabelle sat beside him, her eyes shining with compassion. His hard, flat chest heaved with the effort of breathing. She stroked his raven-black hair. ‘I love you,’ she whispered, but as the words left her lips, she thought guiltily of Alexander. His soft brown eyes and warm smiled filled her mind.
“I think,” added Gabriel, dropping Once Bitten, Twice Loved, “I’m going to be sick.” He lay back on the sofa and closed his eyes. “I can’t do this. Love triangles are an appalling cliché.” Sitting up again, he cast a venomous glance at the stack of romances on the stand beside the sofa, and then moseyed to the window. Snow was falling in the dying light.
“I can’t do this,” he repeated slowly. “Love triangles are an appalling cliché.” His face brightened. “I can’t do this!” he exclaimed, and laughed. “Love triangles are an appalling cliché!”
Six months later, Gabriel Green found himself sitting across the desk from Phil Lector, sipping old coffee from a foam cup, and looking at his hands.
“Gabe, Gabe, what am I going to do with you?” asked his agent, holding up a newspaper. “Ink Blot Quarterly reviewed your book. Listen to this: ‘Gabriel Green’s latest opus, Romeo and Juliet and Dave, is a ruthless satire of contemporary romance novels. It spares no fault or foible of the genre, and deconstructs the cliché of love triangles with vindictive glee.’ I could go on, Gabe, but you get the idea.”
“Did it sell?” asked Gabriel.
“Well, yes,” admitted Phil, and burst into a laugh. “Your book sold in the thousands, and the publisher’s satisfied. You struck gold, you magnificent bastard.”
Gabriel smiled. “Language, Phil.”
“It’s not too early to think about your next book. I hear dystopian fiction is pretty hot in the Young Adult market these days. How does something post-apocalyptic sound?”
Gabriel grabbed the end of his necktie and pulled it upward, pretending to hang himself.
“Excellent!” exclaimed his agent, beaming. “I want the first chapter on my desk next Tuesday.”
I’ve been reading the Hunger Games trilogy lately. It has become a pop culture phenomenon, so I decided to find out what all the fuss is about. The books are full of intrigue, near escapes, and… romantic tension. Of course.
The love triangle in the Hunger Games books set me thinking about the ubiquity of complicated romances in Young Adult fiction. That made me want to poke fun at the concept; that, in turn, reminded me of a snarky little story I once wrote poking fun at a literary trend.
This seemed like a fine time for a sequel to “A Portrait of the Artist as a Performing Monkey,” so I brought Gabriel Green out of retirement and put him through a new gauntlet of discomforts. The title of this story, like the last, is a pun on a famous literary work. I would like to chronicle further misadventures of Gabriel Green in a series of short stories, but I’m not sure how many I could write before they became repetitive. At any rate, this one was fun to write!
Thanks for reading!