Wacky Wednesday – “The Speechwriter’s Guild, Part I”

3 Oct

Arthur Schlesinger stubbed out his cigarette, removed his glasses, and tried to wipe the sleep from his eyes. It was three in the afternoon in Texas, but it was midnight in Cape Canaveral, and he’d been struggling to stay awake. He looked at his watch again – it was time.

Arthur stood, cricking his back on his way over to the television. He switched it on, spun the dial, and stopped on a bright and washed-out image of the presidential podium at Rice Stadium. He watched his boss ascend the steps, and heard the tinny ocean rush of the crowd dissolve as it fell silent.

John F. Kennedy began his speech then, reciting Arthur’s words with a casual confidence as though he were inventing them on the fly, speaking straight from the heart. Arthur was always impressed by Kennedy’s effortlessness with this sort of thing; it was a natural skill, and one not shared by the rest of the Administration. He was damn sure LBJ didn’t have it, in any case.

Arthur lit another cigarette and nodded along, mouthing “We choose to go to the moon, and do the other things,” and hearing the crowd applaud. He noted the delivery on “not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” and he particularly enjoyed the punctuated growl in the Presidential tone on that last word. It was a fine speech, and Arthur felt a glow of pride. He really believed it, even if the politics got in the way – the stuff about “mankind’s great adventure”, all that, and Kennedy made it sound like he did, too. Arthur reached out to tug down the blinds and peeked through at the lights of the Space Centre over the hill. He’d had the tour yesterday. It was astonishing. Truly awe-inspiring. We’re really doing it, he’d said, it’s actually happening. His guide had grinned and replied, Of course. And best of all, we’ll get there first.

The President delivered the Hilary quote with vigour. Arthur hoped that the allusion didn’t slip them by. It was a hell of a thing they were applauding, and he didn’t think a single one of them knew just what was involved. Everest was one thing – this was the moon.

The speech finished and Arthur walked over and switched off the television. He poured himself a celebratory tumbler, and held it while he stood by the window in the glow of the launch pads.

Johnny had done one hell of a job, and the crowd had loved it. This had been a big one, one for the books. People would remember those words forever, so grand in scope and so emphatically spoken by the cocky young President. Arthur loved those words. They were the best work he’d ever done, but they were too big – too important. He felt a bitter pang, knowing that as soon as they had left the typewriter he had relinquished them; they weren’t his words anymore. They belonged to the world, and they would forever be attributed to the handsome college kid in the expensive suit. He blew smoke at his reflection in the window until his face was all but obscured, a shadowy indistinct form, unrecognizable, inhuman. The whiskey had only touched his lip when the telephone rang, loud and insistent in the dark motel room, and Arthur jumped out of his moody thoughts.

He scooped up the receiver and heard the hiss of breath on the other end. He said, “Hello?”

“Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr?”

“Yes, who’s this?”

“It was a fine speech, Mr. Schlesinger. One you should be proud of.”

Arthur’s heart skipped. He hadn’t given anyone this number – it was just a temporary room while he was at the Cape. He hadn’t told anyone where he was staying. He placed the tumbler on the bedside table and said, “How did you–”

“We’d like you to come and meet with us, Mr. Schlesinger. A car will pick you up in ten minutes.”

“Now wait just a damn minute. Who the hell–”

The voice on the other line was abrupt, but polite. “We appreciate your work, Mr. Schlesinger. And we would like to help you be remembered for it.” That shut Arthur up. “Please, come and visit us. I shall explain more then.”

Arthur heard the line go dead and, slowly, he set the receiver back down.

**

Arthur was led from the limo – it hadn’t been a car, as he had expected, but a sleek black stretch with tinted windows, driven by a chauffeur who seemed as impervious to questioning as a trained CIA assassin – onto the curving driveway of an enormous Gothic mansion. He was waved through into a grand foyer, richly furnished and filled with people, with marble floors, a glittering candelabra, and exotic-looking artifacts resting on plinths. Red velvet curtains framed the windows, and Arthur spotted mounted deer heads and what seemed to be an actual suit of armour. It was unreal – he felt as though he’d stumbled back in time and interrupted some Bavarian lord’s dinner party. Who were these people, carrying drinks in black-tie getups and mumbling to one another? Just what in the hell was going on?

Arthur was busy blinking behind his glasses, seriously doubting his decision to get in the car, when the sudden smell of pipe tobacco materialized into a bearded man with olive skin and twinkling black eyes.

“Ah, Mr. Schlesinger. Welcome, and thank you so very much for coming. My name is Rajesh Singh. This is my home. Won’t you follow me, please?” His manner was authoritative but genial, and Arthur found himself complying before he could even think. He was led through a side door into a broad corridor, equally well-appointed as the foyer, with portraits lining each wall. Arthur caught himself, and stopped in his tracks.

“Wait just a minute. What’s going on here? How do you know me?”

Singh turned back to face him and smiled, spreading his hands. “Ah, of course. How rude of me. I understand this must be confusing for you. Allow me to explain.” The man was broad and powerfully built, with an impeccably tailored suit and glossy black hair. His beard was zebra-striped with white along his chin, and his nose was hawk-like, predatory. “You, Arthur – may I call you Arthur? – are a speechwriter, yes?”

“Yes, but–“

“Well, as it happens, so am I.”

Arthur’s patience was wearing thin. He wanted to be back in his room. He wanted some scotch and some sleep, and this fruity Arab was playing games? He said, “So?”

Singh laughed, a rich and well-oiled sound. “So, you and I are of a kind! Kindred spirits. Wordsmiths, sir, silver-tongued artists who weave the truth in colourful patterns of sound and rhythm. Is this not so? Our superiors are merely vessels, amplifiers for our music – but it is the words which endure. In my homeland, I wrote many beautiful words to be spoken by simpletons, and I watched the world applaud these men for their “genius.” I know this frustration better than most. All speechwriters do – this is a pain we all share. And so we formed a… club, shall we say, where we could acknowledge each other’s work properly, and help to rectify this unique injustice that is inherent to our profession.”

Arthur was flabbergasted. Before he could speak, Singh curled a finger, inviting him to follow, and turned to walk down the corridor. As their feet sunk into the plush carpet, Singh indicated several portraits that they passed. “Judson Welliver,” he said, pointing to an austere nineteenth-century gentleman. “He wrote the Gettysburg Address. That there is Anatoly Stolichsyn, who put words in Lenin’s mouth.” He waved at each of them now, rattling off names in rapid succession. “Annabelle Jackson, Wu Xien-Po, Blas De La Fuente. From Robespierre to Gandhi to Hitler and every famous face in between, the members of our Guild have crafted the greatest and most memorable words in human history – and we are the only ones who know their names.”

They came to a blank spot on the wall at the end of the corridor, and Singh turned to face Arthur, his obsidian eyes sparkling. “Humankind is once again on the brink of momentous things, Arthur. Momentous words will be needed.” He swooped in close, and Arthur could smell the spice of his cologne. “You, my friend, will write them. And we would be honoured if you joined our Speechwriter’s Guild, and took your place on the wall among us.”

Arthur Schlesinger was overwhelmed. He found his reply – if there really was one forthcoming –  sticking in his throat. He removed his glasses and squeezed the space between his eyes, and heard Singh tut sympathetically. “Ah, of course, I understand. It is quite a lot to take in. I urge you to sleep on it – go back to the motel, think it over–“

“No,” said Arthur, putting his glasses back on and doing his best to disguise the heavy emotion in his voice. “No, I don’t need to sleep on it. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been dreaming of this my entire goddamn life.” He extended his hand to a beaming Singh. “Your sales pitch needs some serious work, Mohammed. But I would be honoured to join your club. Where do I sign?”

The bearded man threw back his head and laughed again, long and loud and unrestrained, the sound ringing down the hallway. Bizarrely, Arthur felt the hairs on his neck stand on end at the sound of it. Singh clasped Arthur’s hand and pumped it enthusiastically, saying, “Come with me, my friend.”

Singh opened the door at the end of the corridor, and Arthur stepped into a room unlike anything he had ever seen.

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