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19 July 2008

The Evening I Stopped Writing Ellie’s Speeches

“Ellie” is what everybody called her, probably as a play on the French, “elle,” because she was undeniably feminine and sort of elegant despite her shortness, roundness, and fully-packedness. She had a lovely face, with merry blue eyes, a pert nose, and sculpted lips that insisted on revealing gorgeous teeth in an irrepressible smile. But the rest of her suggested what she herself described as “a kewpie doll on steroids.”

Even so, she regarded the hooman bean with an untiring fondness, and she brought that persistent amiability to her job as an elected state official. I had been doing some freelance speech-writing for her, and I ranked her up there with some of the better political orators, mainly because of her willingness to cut her writers a good bit of slack on approach and style.

One afternoon she called me and asked if I’d be up to discussing my new assignment over supper at her apartment. It had been an atrocious few days, she said, with hellish deadline pressures and a problem with the governor’s counsel, and she wouldn’t have any time for me during the office hours of tomorrow. “Go to my place around five,” she instructed. “Maudie, my maid, will fix you a drink or whatever, and I’ll be there as soon as.”

Maudie was cordial and brought me coffee. The apartment was really nice, with tall windows and expensive, comfortable furnishings dominated by a splendid baby grand piano. I was lounging at this, doodling some old standards, when Ellie arrived.

“You play the piano?” she asked. “You didn’t ever tell me.”

“I play at the piano.”

“What means that?”

“I’m a Dixieland guy. A saloon player. I can’t read piano music. But give me the melody and some cheat-sheet guitar symbols, and I’ll get the job done.”

She gave me a wry look. “So why don’t you play a guitar?”

“I like the piano. I just use guitar music to play the piano with. I use the guitar music to tell me how the piano music goes. Sort of.”

“So, as you say, you’re a cheat, eh?”

“Sort of.”

She sat on the bench beside me and used her ample empennage to scoot me aside. “Let me show you how it’s done,” she said.

She launched into an incredible display of classical form — a rendition of crashing chords, stunning glissendos, wildly exciting upper register trillings — with her pudgy hands a virtual blur as they raced up and down the eighty-eights.

When she’d finished I stared at her in awe. “My God, Ellie. Nobody’s fingers can move that fast — ”

She laughed. “I studied for years. Ended up playing concerts. In some rather impressive venues, actually. But then I got bored and turned comic.”

“Comic?”

“Like Victor Borge. You know — playing The Beautiful Blue Danube upside down. That kind of thing.”

“So what happened?”

“I got bored with that, mainly because my audiences were industrial strength stupid. They never realized how I was putting them on.” She laughed again. “And right at that time one of my lovers was looking for a woman his party could run for town manager, and I induced him to give me the job. He did, and I’d at last found my metier, my reason for being.”

“How could that be? Your command of the piano is just plain damn-old marvelous. That thing you just roared through — ” I shook my head.

She jabbed me with her elbow and winked. “That was ‘The Aria di Coloratura’ from the opera Penne Cacciatore, by Fettuccini Vermicelli.”

It was my turn to laugh.“You actually gave it a name?”

“That’s the way I’d introduce it in my comedy recitals. Just a bunch of flashy noise and a lot of wild and woolly hand motions. No formal composition, no organization, no nothing. Just flashy noise and a fancy Italian menu title. And the audiences never got it. They would stand and cheer and fall all over me as the great artiste.”

“So that makes me industrial strength stupid, too, eh?”

“No. You saw the joke.” She paused and stared out the tall window. “It’s just a case of people seeing what they want to see, hearing what they want to hear. Americans aren’t really huge on subtlety, on nuances. They like experts to tell them what to think and tend to swallow anything that has some kind of expert label attached. And they tend to favor the underdog. Ask me. I know. They liked me as an accomplished pianist because I don’t look like one. And I got elected mostly because I’m a fat little woman who can talk up a storm about things that sound important — and in a way that sounds as if I know what the hell I’m talking about, even when it’s plain Fettuccini Vermicelli.”

I felt a sudden depression, then decided to mention what had been on my mind for a time. “You’re a great speechifier, Ellie. But I get nervous when you ad lib. Last time you said some things that just aren’t true —”

She sniffed. “Hey. You know that, and I know that, but” — she swept a hand toward the skyline outside — “those dummies out there, they don’t know that. I just tell them what they want to hear, true or not.”

Maudie came in to announce that supper was waiting.

I didn’t enjoy it all that much, though, preoccupied as I was with when and where and how I’d tell Ellie that I’d no longer be writing speeches for her.

Jack

Copyright © 2008 by Jack D. Hunter.  All rights reserved.  No part of this document may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.

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