by Daniel Waldman
The Speechwriter — that’s me, but my name isn’t important or allowed — sits in his three foot by four foot cubicle that is buried deep in a field of cubicles somewhere in a concrete maze of offices and other cubicle fields. There’s the usual quiet murmuring. Staff on the phone. Staff sharing secrets. Staff trying to get their way, little by little.
A set of instructions for a new speech arrives in the Speechwriter’s inbox. The instructions indicate that the speech must stir strong emotions. The speech must be easy to understand. The speech must make members of the Whole afraid. The speech must make them rage. It must enflame their desires to take what is theirs: land, property, bodies; to kill their brothers, their mothers, their fathers, if necessary. All in the name of... of what exactly? Progress? Reform? As long as it serves the good of the Whole.
The speech is due at 3:34 p.m. on Wednesday, tomorrow. Once done, it will travel up to the Speechwriter’s boss, the Deputy Deputy, who will make his corrections and then send it onto his boss, the Deputy, who will make his corrections and then send it onto his boss, the Chief, who will make his corrections and then send it onto his associate, the Lawyer, who will cross everything out and send it back down through the Chief, the Deputy, the Deputy Deputy, and finally back the Speechwriter.
The Speechwriter will accept all changes, fix a few typos, any grammar and punctuation errors, and make the language more obscure in some places or sharper in others. The Speechwriter will then send it back up the chain for a second review.
Eventually, once all the changes are made — sometimes at the last minute — the speech is delivered to the Chief’s boss, the Leader, who will often make his own changes. The Speechwriter always tries to anticipate the Leader’s changes, but he rarely guesses correctly.
The topic of the new speech is the upcoming war. It is to be a war with the Unseen, the ghosts of the past and their offspring. The speech must showcase how strong the Whole is, how weak the Unseen are and, most importantly, how criminally evil the Unseen have always been. It has been determined by the Office of Arms and the Office of Strategy that the Unseen are unfit to live among us, both at home and abroad.
The Speechwriter knows that the speech’s success is measured by the emotional responses of the members of the Whole, which is measured with a sophisticated computer that monitors what members think and feel using their own words, and then spits out an analysis that tells the Leader what to say to make the members angrier. However, the Speechwriter has never seen this machine or its analyses first-hand; he has not yet attained that level of privilege. It only comes in the form of a word list.
The word list for this speech includes: symptoms, crisis, political struggle, dysfunction, critical situation, revolution, hard-working, win, winning, waning, stagnant, destruction. Interesting choices, all determined by algorithms. Perhaps if the speech incites enough destruction, the Speechwriter will obtain clearance to see the reports. He believes that access would help him write even more powerful speeches, and he briefly basks in the adulation he imagines he would receive from his superiors.
To write such a speech, the Speechwriter is supposed to believe what the Leader is to say. He spends his days listening to the Leader’s voice, and he hears it often when he dreams. He has one dream that often comes the night before a speech is due: The Leader is telling him how to butter his bread. And how to brew his tea. And how to sweep his hallway. And how to pick the right clothes for work. And that there is no love to be found anywhere.
The Speechwriter spends so much time hearing the Leader’s voice that he sometimes is unsure what his own voice sounds like. The Speechwriter used to enjoy hearing the Leader’s voice all the time. It made him feel warm and safe, and righteously superior. But lately, the Speechwriter just wants silence. Not the voice of the Leader. Not the voices of the Chief, the Deputy, or the Deputy Deputy. He doesn’t want to hear the quiet murmur of bureaucratic manipulation, or even his own voice. Silence is golden.
Our world, our country, is in deep crisis. Unlike anything we’ve ever experienced before (the Speechwriter writes). Our once great democratic system has grown stagnant and is now inseparable from the other symptoms of our time (Remind them that the government is dysfunctional and only the Leader can save them). A critical situation cannot be remedied by collaborating with the causes of that stagnation but by a radical extermination of these causes (There can be only one way forward; violence is the way). Hence under such conditions the political struggle must necessarily take the form of a revolution.
The Speechwriter stares at his screen, fidgets in his seat. The revolution came and went two years ago, but it must continue even if it is already outdated. Members of the Whole must continue to believe, if they are to continue to obey. And the Speechwriter must make the members obey the Leader. He continues to write:
We have an incredible and great movement made up of millions of hard-working men and women who love their country and want a better, brighter future for themselves and for their families (The more they think of themselves, the more power they give to the Leader). They are the source of inspiration for our revolution, and with their continued hard work, we will overcome the challenges presented by the infiltration of the Unseen into every corner of our society and across the globe (Threaten them).
The Speechwriter has about halfway completed the first draft when the Deputy Deputy calls him into his cubicle. He barks over the six-foot high felted walls, “Mr. Speechwriter, get in here!”
“Yes, Mr. Deputy Deputy,” says the Speechwriter.
As he walks into the Deputy Deputy’s cubicle space, he’s greeted by a string of expletives. Only about half are directed towards him, the other half toward the Unseen, but also toward the many other enemies who are standing in the Leader’s way.
“Is it done?” he growls, motioning to the Speechwriter to sit.
“Not yet, sir. Almost,” says the Speechwriter as he glances down at his right hand. It is grasping the bottom button of his shirt, circling it with his forefinger, picking at it like a scab. He tilts his head toward the Deputy Deputy in order to appear attentive.
“Get it done by today,” the Deputy Deputy snarls.
“Yes, sir,” says the Speechwriter, and he stands to leave.
“And, Mr. Speechwriter,” says the Deputy Deputy. “Make this the best one yet. the Leader is planning a big offensive. If the speech isn’t successful, the Office of Arms won’t be able to execute their mission. Your job is on the line.” The Deputy Deputy tells the Speechwriter that at least three times a week. The Speechwriter knows it is not an empty threat, though. The Speechwriter is not the first Speechwriter to serve the Leader.
“Yes, sir.” The Speechwriter slinks back to his desk.
A little later, the Speechwriter is in his cubicle. He leans back on his chair, swivels round and round. He stares at the ceiling, looking for hidden words. He doesn’t see any, only islands of mold and rivers of cracks. He thinks of a forest where crickets and birds chirp; a place he may have visited when he was a child.
He closes his eyes momentarily and hears the hum of nature instead of the ringing voice of the Leader or the murmur of the staff around him. He sees his mother running after him, laughing, her curly hair bouncing behind her in a ponytail. She’s saying something, but it’s unintelligible, as though it’s coming from far away.
The words aren’t coming and the Speechwriter needs a break. He decides to get a coffee in the breakroom. In the breakroom, eating lunch with other staff is the Friend. The Friend whom the Speechwriter once loved. The Friend who once loved him back, the Speechwriter believes, though the Friend never said it outright. It was secret, of course. Loving is not allowed, unless of course, the loved person is the Leader.
The Friend is the Researcher. He is the one who finds things out about the Unseen and enemies of the Leader. He sends report after report to the higher level staff. He once told the Speechwriter, in the dark privacy of a dusty, old hotel room, that he doesn’t do his job and no one cares. He just thinks up what he thinks the members of the Whole want to believe about the Unseen, and makes up evidence of those things. No one checks his sources.
He told the Speechwriter a lot of secrets like that in those quiet, murky moments scented with musky body odor when they were lying naked and still. He even revealed to the Speechwriter his mother-given name, not used for a long time, long before the Leader became the Leader.
The Speechwriter was too ashamed to share his own mother-given name, but he relished their illicit encounters. As long as no one could see them with the lights out, the Speechwriter felt safe to explore.
It wasn’t anything expected, nor something the Speechwriter pursued. If anything, it was the Researcher who started it. A casual touch here and there. A wink when no one else was looking. And then one day a note with a date, time and address.
The Speechwriter didn’t know what to expect the first time. The Researcher had indicated not to talk. The Speechwriter wasn’t ready for soft kisses, and it took him entirely by surprise; he certainly wasn’t ready for the pain of penetration. But afterwards, there was a quiet glow and warmth that filled him. It was nice to be wanted.
The Speechwriter and the Researcher met at the hotel four times. After the last time, the Researcher stopped passing notes, stopped winking or brushing his hand in the hallway. All this without saying a word. The Speechwriter felt hurt. He wondered if he had done something wrong. If this was love, as it seemed to be, it didn’t feel good.
The Speechwriter is meticulous about how he fills his coffee mug. He carefully drops in two sugars and precisely one spoonful of milk filled just to the brim of the spoon so that the milk convexes like a contact lens. Four seconds of brisk stirring and he begins to turn to head back to his cubicle. But as he turns, his eyes down, he bumps into another person, causing the coffee to slosh out of his mug and onto the sleeve of a cornflower blue shirt. The Speechwriter looks up. It is the Friend, and he is angry.
“I’m sorry,” the Speechwriter mumbles, avoiding eye contact. His legs and arms are frozen and he doesn’t move to clean up the mess.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing, Mr. Speechwriter!”
“I’m sorry,” the Speechwriter whispers.
“You’re worthless, Mr. Speechwriter!” the Researcher snarls and reaches beyond the Speechwriter for a paper towel next to the coffee maker. The Speechwriter reaches out, too, and their hands touch. Not the way they did before, in the dark, but reminds him of their meetings and makes the Speechwriter blush.
The Researcher snaps his hand back and says loudly, “Don’t touch me!” The other staff in the breakroom weren’t paying much attention to the interaction; now they’re getting interested, possibly looking for an offense they can report to earn credits.
Under his breath, the Researcher says to the Speechwriter, “You’re never to touch me again. It was fun while it lasted, but I don’t need you anymore.”
“Please forgive me, Jeremy,” pleads the Speechwriter. He immediately sucks in his breath, trying to take back the statement. The Researcher’s face contorts painfully, his brow scrunches, his lips curl in disgust. He yanks a paper towel from the dispenser and stomps away. The Speechwriter grabs a few paper towels and mops up what is left of his coffee from the floor.
He slowly shuffles back to his desk. He tries to work on the speech, to hear the Leader’s voice, but he only hears the Friend telling him he’s worthless over and over again. Did the Friend think the Speechwriter was worthless when they secretly touched each other? Did he always think this?
Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Waldman