Keynote Address

by Rick Taliaferro

Short description . . .

This topic presents a character who encounters outward change masquerading as inward change, and whose task is to maintain his composure during the masquerade.  

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Task . . .

  John Fortrand settled in a burgundy leather chair with a cup of coffee and focused on the conventioneers gathering for happy hour throughout the cavernous lobby. From 4:00 � 5:00, John had given a presentation (I Come to Bury Information, Not to Praise It: Reducing Information Overload with Links), and now wanted to relax and people-watch before dinner.  

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When the concierge announced a phone call above the numerous conversations, John heard a familiar name: Patricia Dardington. He hadn't thought of her in several years, and assumed she was with one of the conventions crowding the hotel. But surely not the Technical Communicators' Society (TCS) convention.  

 John stood and scanned the lobby for Patricia. He wondered what she had been doing the past 15 years, and thought it might be pleasant to say hello and catch up. Maybe she had changed.  

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A determined woman bustled to the concierge desk to take the call. Her spiky brunette hair complemented the hotel architecture; and John didn't remember Patricia having highlights. When she looked around before speaking into the phone, they had eye contact through the throng milling about. It wasn't the Patricia Dardington he'd known.  

Moments later, sipping his coffee and savoring the various dining options in the city, John heard a woman's voice near his right ear.  

"You're looking around like you're lost," she said. "As usual."

John assumed it was one of the ubiquitous cell-phone chatterers and looked up with pursed lips to see the woman who had answered the concierge's phone. Close up, looking into her brown eyes, he realized she was the Patricia Dardington he'd known. And he also realized that it wouldn't be pleasant to say hello. "Patricia," he said, affecting amiable surprise.

"You didn't recognize me a few minutes ago," she said pleased. She adjusted the shoulder strap on her laptop case and thrust out her hand to shake.

John politely stood and extended his hand, noticing an odd slight tremor in hers.

"I feel like I've entered a time warp," Patricia said. "You haven't changed a bit."

 John didn't like agreeing with her, but he felt that he had entered the same time warp. But apparently she was different, and he wasn't. "You . . . you've really changed," he said as neutrally as possible.  

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Patricia liked his observation. "And I'll bet you're here for the TCS convention."

John nodded.

"Well, I'm delivering the keynote address," she said.

"For what?" John asked.

"The Southeast Realtors' Association," she said, as if he should have known.

 John was more surprised that the Southeast Realtors were having their convention in the Midwest, than Patricia was now a realtor. "So, you ended up in real estate," he said, knowing as soon as he said it that he had misspoken.  

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"Correction," Patricia said. "I didn't 'end up' in real estate."

"Sorry," John said. "Wrong wording." It would be the wrong wording even if he adhered strictly to Simplified Technical English.

A meandering waiter offered them hors d'oeuvres. None of them would go with coffee, so John declined. Patricia plucked a shrimp, and when the waiter left, she declared, "But you ended up in tech writing. Haven't figured out how to get away."

"I don't want to get away," John said. "I like what I do, most of the time." But he wanted to get away from her and looked around, hoping to see associates to whom he could excuse himself. Until then, he determined to stay on guard. He didn't want to give her the satisfaction of losing his temper.

"I don't know, John," Patricia said with forced cheeriness, "it seems kind of limiting."

"I guess it would be if you're already limited."

Patricia paused, the cheeriness deleted from her face. But then she restarted and mocked, "'I guess, I guess.'" When John didn't respond, she prodded half-heartedly, "There was nothing ever definite with you."

"I guess not," John quipped, wondering why her cutting comments were listless. She seemed to know it, too. Maybe she had changed.

Patricia nibbled the plump shrimp and rubbed her thumb and forefinger on a purple cloth napkin. "How's Lynne?" she asked.

  John had been observing the slight quiver in her hand, and was caught off guard. Though Patricia had known his wife, she didn't know they had had a baby, Timothy. But John didn't want to tell her about them because he was afraid she would say something trite that would impel him to choke her. He attempted to close the memory of them.  

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"Yoo-hoo, John," Patricia prompted. "Is she here with you?"

"I wish."

"And what is she doing these days?"

"Same old same old," John said. "Just like me. No change."

"Too sad," Patricia teased.

He couldn't fault her for teasing, because she didn't know, but he lost control and replied caustically, �And are you married now?�

Patricia's eyes widened. She started to answer, but clicked her shrimp dish on the nearby glass-topped table and pulled a cell phone out of her laptop case, holding up her index finger to John. She thumbed through several messages, then closed the phone. �I'm expecting a call from a regional director,� she said, evasively looking around the teeming lobby.

  John was about to repeat his question, but he knew the answer. "What time's your speech?" he asked instead.  

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Patricia was relieved by that question and snapped her left wrist to display a watch with a gold band. "In twenty-two minutes."

"Are you nervous about it?" John asked.

Patricia boasted, "Oh, come on. This is the third speech I've given this year."

"Are you nervous about something else?"

Patricia paused, then scoffed and said, "I'm not the nervous type, like you."

"Hmm," he said through compressed lips.

"Do you ever disagree with anyone?� she taunted, further deflecting his questioning.

�Not with people like you.�

She raised her eyebrows.

�Your thoughts and opinions never meant anything to me,� John explained. But he had felt sympathy for her. Mean as she could be, he still did.

Patricia narrowed her eyes at hearing what she had meant to him, though it shouldn't have been news. �Did I say something to offend you?� she asked, her voice rising above the conversational hum. Several persons nearby looked at them and then away.

�Not particularly,� John said.

�'Not particularly,'� Patricia sneered. �You'll never change.�

John shrugged.

Patricia mimicked him and said, �Most people change, unless they're emotional zeroes.�

John clenched his teeth to modulate his voice and temper and asked tonelessly, �Do they?�

�I've changed,� she said adamantly and waved her hand around her hair and face to prove it.

John thought about his wife and son, the despairing period after that, and mused flatly, �I don't know that I have.�

�Well, I have,� she stressed.

Despite her transparent protesting, John was inquisitive about her. �All right,� he said, �what's been a significant event in your life? What caused your hands to shake?�

Patricia officiously looked at her watch again and said, �I'd love to detail the highlights of my life, but . . .� She put out her hand to shake goodbye.

�But you have nothing to show for it,� John said mechanically. �Other than your career.� He reached for her hand, but she drew back.

�I don't have the faintest idea what you're talking about,� she said and glanced around with watery eyes.

 "There's some upsetting knowledge that you don't want to face,� John conjectured, �that propels you from one thing to another."  

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Patricia jerked her leg to step away, but stopped and grimaced as if she had stepped on a nail. "Oh, that's specific," she gasped.

Seeing her pained expression, John put his guard down and assumed his regular voice. �I don't know how to express it,� he said.

�Don't tell me the tech writer's at a loss for words,� she said irritably.

He remembered a useful line from a popular song, but couldn't remember the songwriter. "It's like the poet said, 'So much has happened, but nothing has changed.' That applies to you, Patricia. You were right about a time warp."

She flinched and her laptop case slipped off her shoulder and thumped onto the carpet before John could catch it. "Glenn Frey said that," she hissed.

John picked up the case, and to avoid Patricia's eyes drilling into him from underneath her blade-like bangs, he looked around.

One of her colleagues came over and looked askance at John for causing her to drop the computer. The colleague took it, then whispered to her, and when she nodded and unfixed her eyes off John, escorted her to the main conference room.

John sheepishly followed, trying to think of an apology. Patricia had succeeded in goading him, and he regretted what he had said to her, and her reaction to it. They cold-shouldered him as they went through the wide doors to scattered applause, leaving him at the back of the room.

But when Patricia took the podium, she gaped at John, her face mask-like in the stage lighting.

As he watched her freeze before the congregation of bustling waiters and realtors digging in to their Greek salads, he remembered his inability to speak at his wife's and child's funeral service, and hoped Patricia wasn't entering a despairing period.

What to do next . . .

Curious about Patricia's speech and what it might suggest about her life, John sat down on a stray folding chair. When she didn't begin the keynote address, even after the munching audience began murmuring, he became embarrassed for her and stood to leave. When he waved an encouraging apology, Patricia suddenly began choking into the microphone as if she had swallowed one of the shrimps whole.

BIO: "Keynote Address" is the author's third appearance in Bartleby Snopes. He would like to acknowledge the late James Purdy's story, "Plan Now to Attend," as an influence on "Keynote Address."