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  Table of contents Issue Ten THE FEAR OF PUBLIC SPEAKING



K, just relax. Although my body does feel relaxed. It’s just being up in front of all these people. It’s intimidating. Scary. You’re supposed to imagine them naked, but that would be even more frightening. Instead I just pick one man in the front row. The lights are on my face, I mean, directly on my face, so I can’t see well, but I can see that man in the front row. And so I’m just going to focus on him. It would make it easier if he was focusing on me, but he’s not. He even looks like he might be asleep. He’s an old man. He looks 80. Maybe 90. That’s the type of people who come to these events. Old people. Although from the corner of my eye, I can see women, children. But I’m caught up on this old person. The way he just sits there, slouched. Uninterested. I want to scream out, “Do you know who I am?” I’m an important person. That’s why everyone is here, gathered, and I’m center stage. There’s no one else on this stage. Just me. So listen to me! But he’s not. I can tell by his posture. By the way he sits there. And this angers me. If you’re going to come to an event, you should sit up straight, listening, with a notebook, especially for what I’m going to say. Every word is very, very, very important to everyone in this room. Very. And I want to begin, but he’s there, not looking at me. Asleep? Who would fall asleep before the keynote speaker? To do that would be . . . blasphemous. Hellish. So now I’m completely focused on him and suddenly all the knots I thought I’d have in my stomach, the nervousness of being up in front of this many people—and there are a lot of people here. This is a big auditorium. I mean, not as big as I’d like, but it’s good size. Especially to me, who hasn’t done much with their life, except planning for this. I put a lot of work into this. A lot more than you would think, so to have the one person who I can see perfectly clearly, light on him too, asleep in the front row, is like a punch to the jaw. And now I can’t focus on anything. Just him. And I’m staring at him. And the audience is waiting. And my eyes haven’t moved from him once. In fact, since this began I’ve gawked straight at him, which might be alarming some of the members of the audience. But they must notice this too? Something’s not right. There’s a way that you sit when you’re asleep; there’s a comfort there, a relaxation. But he’s not sitting like that. He’s sitting like . . . he’s sitting like he’s dead. But that’s impossible. You don’t just die in the front row and not have anyone notice. Although I’m noticing. No one sits around him. The seats to his left and right are empty, so I take it he has no family with him, no friends. So no one who’d be worried, who’d shake him, say, “Grandpa, you OK?” And then I realize it, for sure, the man in the front row of the auditorium is dead. So what to do? Who do I tell? And then, worse, do they just cancel the whole thing? I’ve worked too hard to get here, to get to this point. So I consider just starting the speech. But how do you talk with a corpse in the front row? A corpse just sitting there, rotting. This is the reason for stage fright. Because you never, ever know what’s going to happen. I was worried a baby would be crying, so I took care of that, but to have this—it’s—it’s mind-boggling. The luck. To have this happen. What kind of a life would you have had to have led to get this one opportunity to be in front of this many people and have it spoiled with a corpse? And now it’s been awhile, my staring like this, and I’m concerned that people aren’t worried, aren’t reacting. Don’t you see there’s a corpse in row one! And then—then . . . then I realize. “Horror.” That word, like a long sleep just to say the words. That Apocalypse Now revelation of how horrific the word “horror” is—I realize, not wanting to take my eyes off this man, afraid to look, but the woman behind him, in the row directly behind him, the way she’s sitting. She must be sleeping? . . . But she’s not . . . There’s a difference. The woman behind him is . . . dead . . . Was that a laugh? Outside that open window? To laugh at a time like this? Whoever that child is outside, in the distance, who doesn’t see in here, who doesn’t know what’s going on in the building—there are two dead people in the front row. Or was that crying? . . . No matter. The mystery now is why. The reality is wondering, is this God being cruel to—to—there’s a baby in the woman’s arms. And the baby. I can’t tell. I can’t look. I won’t look. But I do—I stare at the man, the dead old man, but I can see this behind him, the woman dead, and the baby . . . dead . . . and . . . Is that rain? It is. That word. It’s always made me think of “reign of terror.” The Reign of Terror. The French Revolution. Sixteen thousand plus beheadings by guillotine. I’ve always loved history. In English Literature, we read the most boring stories. Stories that were approved by adults as safe for students. But in History, they gave you the blood. They reveled in the blood. They understood that all of the important historical moments are bathed in blood. I would tell the audience all of this, but . . . I finally get the sense that . . . I realize . . . that . . . yes, the whole auditorium, the entire auditorium is filled with corpses. That everything in here is dead. Every single person in the auditorium is—What’s that? Who’s there? A moan? Did someone moan? “What’s that?” It makes me think of “What’s this?” “What’s this? What’s this?” From Nightmare Before Christmas. “Who’s there?” makes me think of the “Who’s on first” routine with Abbott & Costello. They meet Frankenstein. They meet Jekyll & Hyde. 1949, my favorite—Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer. Our movies, our comedy, our history. Blood. And I can see the blood now. The man in the front row. It’s pooling. Mixed with the woman behind him. The baby. The floor is so filled with blood now. But from who? From what? And why am I fine? . . . Because I killed them . . . I remember now. “I remember now.” That’s from Queensrÿche. Operation: mindcrime. “I remember now. I remember how it started. I can’t remember yesterday. I just remember doing what they told me, told me, told me, told me.” I killed everyone in this room . . . I can’t remember how. How did I do it? Was it poison? No, the blood. The pooling blood. Gun? Why don’t I remember? It’s there. Faint. Walking in. I remember walking in, seeing all these people. And—and the rush. Am I a member of the NRA? The beauty if I’m a member of the NRA and I killed all these people. The sheer beauty of that. Or am I a religious fanatic? The beauty of that too. To kill for God. It’s all so ugly and ironic and now. So American. To be a member of the National Rifle Association and to kill all these people with a rifle. That’s elegant. To love God and then to kill people at the same time. So exquisite. Madness in America is something we are perfecting. Maybe it’s the world. Maybe it’s just what people are . . . But who am I? What am I here for? Yes, I remember. I came in, intent on killing all these people and then stepping center-stage. And I’ve done that. I’ve done all that. So perfect. But the unexpected. A man in the audience pulled out a gun. And he started firing and he missed me and he shot some innocent bystanders by mistake. And then I shot him. He helped me out. So well done. Bullets for everyone. I wish they all had guns. I wish they all had poison. The world. But I did so well. I killed every single person. From point blank range. Just going through the rows. And it certainly helps that we have automatic weapons in America. Thank you for that, NRA. Thank you for that, God. And then I got to center stage and I was supposed to give the speech. But I can’t. What is that? What’s that feeling? I—I—I don’t have a jaw. I don’t have a mouth anymore. I was supposed to give the speech, but the unexpected—the nervousness, the stage fright. I got to this seat, sat down, and I put the gun in my mouth. Always the mouth. The mouth. For mass killings, whether it’s poison or a gun, it always goes in the mouth. I knew a doctor who said that venereal disease, we like to think of the groin, but the cases he sees, the frequency, day after day, he sees it in the mouth. The infected tongue, lips, gums. We used to not be able to have sex. Now, this day and age, we can’t even kiss without getting infected. These are the days of seclusion. Where the mouth is becoming outdated. The mouth, it’s where so much evil comes from. And goes into. And I remember now I put the gun in my mouth and pulled the trigger and—and—and I did it before the speech. I forgot that I was supposed to give the speech while they were dying so they’d hear my voice and know, but I killed myself first and now—now I’m supposed to give the speech. Am I dead too? Dying? There’s no pain. Is that shock? The speech. How do I give the speech with no jaw? I can’t think straight with the stage fright. I can’t think straight with—A siren. The men with guns are coming . . . And we are all gathered here today, married in this moment. And I have so much to say. Maybe they can hear me. Now that they’re dead, dying. Maybe my thoughts almost—so that—I can—perhaps will the words to them . . . But I can’t remember the speech. What was the speech? Was it going to be something about how I wanted to make sure that everyone would be afraid of crowds, that I wanted to contribute to that, that I’d spent so much of my life alone and I wanted everyone in this city from now on to realize every time they ever went out to gather with other people that they could die? Was that what I was going to say? What was I going to tell them? That their theaters and schools and auditoriums were all designed for the serial killers out there, waiting, patiently? Or did I already tell them this? Is this my second time telling it? The third? The fortieth? I remember now. How it started. I remember . . . I remember the speech. It goes like this—

OK, just relax. Although my body does feel relaxed. It’s just being up in front of all these people. It’s intimidating. Scary. You’re supposed to imagine them naked, but that would be even more frightening. Instead I just pick one man in the front row . . .




Ron Riekki 's books include U.P.:a novel and The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works.

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