First rule in this job is always to meet your deadline. You gonna leave the Chief to go on TV empty-mouthed like a puppet?
The only puppet I can think of right now is the little guy with the nose that grows.
We get the speech together at least six hours before he’s due to air. Tonto starts us off, and the Chief walks in halfway through, a carton of popcorn in his hand. He offers the box ’round and if there’s enough left, we all take some.
“Help yourselves, guys,” he says, even though Marileene is a woman.
So first we all read through our drafts: me, John, Jake, Jim, and Marileene. Marileene laughs that she’s the odd one out of the Four J’s, because my name is Joe. I reckon the Four J’s sounds like a Motown band, but Marileene says she wasn’t born then.
The Chief listens, and Tonto listens, and when we’re all done, they decide. Or really, Tonto decides. The Chief doesn’t have much opinion on the subject, except it never hurts to mention High Noon or the Chief’s poppa, or the mud that sticks to your boots. Sometimes they’ll choose just one of us, sometimes they want a paragraph from Jake, a line from Jim and an inspiring quote from me. They don’t mind us putting our heads together for the rewrites, but they don’t want us to collaborate before the first draft.
“I want to hear what y’all have to say,” the Chief waves his box of popcorn. “You are each as goddamn individual as this great and good goddamn nation is as individual and special folks in God’s people and the family of man that was put here on this Homeland to make our country special.”
So we all write our first drafts separately. I hear Marileene chewing gum in the next cubicle and Jim phones his aunt in Wichita to find out what her church minister said this week. He always tells her to talk slower so he has time to get it down. I guess me and Jake are the quietest. Me, I’m just a Lone Ranger, and I don’t know where I get my ideas from. I think about the State of the Nation, the episode of Sex and the City I saw last night. I think about our Constitution and my wife’s latest copy of Woman’s Day, which I always read cover to cover except the recipes and any talk of menstruation.
Sometimes, I admit it, I pray, but I don’t kneel down because my cubicle is small and Marileene throws pellets of chewing-gum wrapper over the wall if I fidget around too much.
There’s times when it’s hard to come up with the right thing.
“Reads like a Microsoft press release,” said Tonto last week, throwing my page of college-ruled back on my desk. He told me to read Deepak Chopra to get a better idea.
When they’ve decided the final cut, the Chief slaps us on the back, “Great work guys,” and we are released.
Now it’s Tonto’s job to get the Chief word-perfect, coaching him through, eliminating unnecessary alliteration, checking the pronunciation of strange words like “Nicaragua” and “Czechoslovakia.” He’s given up on “nuclear.”
I just go home. The drive gives me time to hear two, maybe three tracks of Céline Dion. My wife is always standing in the hall as I drive up. I see the monkish silhouette of her dressing gown behind the dimpled glass of the front door. How does she do that? Does she stand there all night just waiting? She can’t, because the kids are always in bed, bathed, and sweet as milk when I go upstairs and kiss them goodnight.
I park the car and jangle the keys in my hand, kicking into the rhythm of the theme to Titanic that still plays in my head. I hug my wife and take off my shoes, then into the den for a beer and some supper, maybe see what the president has to say on the news.