Three-Minute Fiction: 'Speechless,' 'Harding'

Round 9 of weekends on All Things Considered's short story contest is coming to a close as judge Brad Meltzer is nearly ready to make a decision on the best of the best. NPR's Lynn Neary reads an excerpt from Speechless by Steve Bismarck of Medford, Ore., and NPR's Bob Mondello reads from Harding on the Boulevard du Montparnasse by Nick Kolakowski of Brooklyn, N.Y. These stories, along with other Three-Minute Fiction submissions, can be read in full at npr.org/threeminutefiction.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

You know what the ticking means. It's time for Three-Minute Fiction, our contest where we ask you for original stories that can be read in about three minutes. Our judge in this round, the thriller writer Brad Meltzer, the challenge: to write a story that revolves around a U.S. president who could be fictional or real. And, of course, the story had to be 600 words or less. We received nearly 4,000 entries, and here are two that stood out.

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LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: (Reading) It was to be her fifth State of the Union address. Under other circumstances, her history of past oratorical success would have calmed her nerves. The speech was well written, quite possibly her best ever. But her delivery would cross a new frontier. How well her painstakingly rehearsed performance of meaningful looks and gestures would hold up during 52 minutes of voice-synthesized soundtrack, that was the question.

President Conway took her place at the rostrum, beaming and nodding as the applause finally died down and the assembled members of government took their seats. As previously rehearsed, she cued the speech by glancing down, then looking up at her audience. Passing seconds pooled into one attenuated moment of expectation, then drained into disbelief. Something had gone wrong with the computerized playback.

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BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: (Reading) Two years after faking his death, Warren Gamaliel Harding moved into a little bordello off the Boulevard du Montparnasse in Paris. He figured it was the last place on Earth that anyone would look for a former president of the United States, even if they discovered the coffin in the Ohio tomb was full of ballast.

His room was quiet in the morning so he could write. The parties in the evening kept him from becoming bored. He had nothing to worry about financially, thanks to some well-timed investments, and his leonine profile and quick wit granted him a certain standing among this new crowd.

You are clearly a man of stature, Monsieur, Madame M. had told him during their first meeting after he offered her the card with his fake name. Why would you choose to live with us? It's better than Washington, he said.

LYDEN: That was NPR's Bob Mondello reading the from the story "Harding on the Boulevard du Montparnasse" by Nick Kolakowski of Brooklyn, New York, and also NPR's Lynn Neary with an excerpt from "Speechless" by Steve Bismarck of Medford, Oregon. To read these stories in full, go to npr.org/threeminutefiction, all spelled out, no spaces or to our Three-Minute Fiction Facebook page. And don't forget we'll be back next week with Brad Meltzer and the winner of Round 9 of Three-Minute Fiction.

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Speechless

For Round 9 of our Three-Minute Fiction contest, we asked you to send us original works of fiction that revolve around a U.S. president, who can be real or fictional. Our winner was "The Dauphin."

microphone
iStockphoto.com

It was to be her fifth State of the Union address. Under other circumstances, her history of past oratorical success would have calmed her nerves. The speech was well written, quite possibly her best ever. But her delivery would cross a new frontier.

How well her painstakingly rehearsed performance of meaningful looks and gestures would hold up during 52 minutes of voice-synthesized soundtrack ... that was the question.

The software techs had spent eight days mining previous recordings of her voice to find the words and phonemes needed to assemble the contents of her address. An additional three days were spent digitally smoothing the patchwork diction for convincing prosody. The outcome was reassuringly natural. There were mildly stilted bits, but overall, it sounded like her: President Katelyn Conway.

It was time. Speaker of the House Tyler Underwood boomed the customary introduction.

"Members of 116th Congress, I have the high privilege and the distinct honor of presenting to you the president of the United States."

President Conway took her place at the rostrum, beaming and nodding as the applause finally died down and the assembled members of government took their seats.

As previously rehearsed, she cued the speech by glancing down, then looking up at her audience. Nothing happened. Passing seconds pooled into one attenuated moment of expectation, then drained into disbelief. She shot a frantic look at the operator in the control booth. His panicked expression confirmed her dismay. Something had gone wrong with the computerized playback.

Emily Reich, the president's press secretary, had been uneasy when she'd first heard of the plan some weeks earlier. She'd wasted no time in voicing her concerns to White House Chief of Staff Owen Turner.

"Do you really think this is a good idea, Owen? I mean ... I know that every president since Wilson has delivered the State of the Union address live before Congress, but it's not a requirement. President Conway could submit the address in writing."

Turner regarded her with a fish-eye stare. "No. Too old-fashioned. We have the technology to do this, why not use it? Listen, Emily, dignifying differences and disabilities is what we're all about. Kate can do this. She wants to do this."

But they both knew there was more to it. Vice President Brauner's cancer was now at Stage 4. If President Conway had to step down, the White House would soon wind up in Republican hands.

"Apraxia of speech isn't something the public easily understands," sighed Reich. "Half the country thinks she ended up with receptive language deficits as well."

"That's why the president needs to appear in person." Turner insisted. "It was a minor stroke. Her speech therapist says she's already producing a few isolated words. She doesn't yet have the neuromotor stamina for extended discourse, but President Conway is completely lucid. The public needs to connect with that."

Seldom in its long history had a more agonizing silence hung over the House chamber. Kate Conway closed her eyes and thought. Keep it simple. Written copies of her speech were even now being distributed to the press corps. That was the official address of record. She only needed to bring this awkward scenario to a close.

Fixing the control booth operator in her gaze, she pointed at her lectern microphone and he switched it on. The president took a deep breath as she prepared to deliver the most arduous speech of her six years in office — one that no one watching it would ever forget.

"Go-o-o-d. Night. God bless. The-e-e-se. U-nited. States. Of Ame-ri-ca."

Harding On The Boulevard Du Montparnasse

For Round 9 of our Three-Minute Fiction contest, we asked you to send us original works of fiction that revolve around a U.S. president, who can be real or fictional. Our winner was "The Dauphin."

Montparnasse Cemetery i i
iStockphoto.com
Montparnasse Cemetery
iStockphoto.com

Two years after faking his death, Warren Gamaliel Harding moved into a little bordello off the Boulevard du Montparnasse in Paris. He figured it was the last place on earth that anyone would look for a former president of the United States, even if they discovered the coffin in the Ohio tomb was full of ballast.

His room was quiet in the morning, so he could write. The parties in the evening kept him from becoming bored. He had nothing to worry about financially, thanks to some well-timed investments, and his leonine profile and quick wit granted him a certain standing among this new crowd.

"You are clearly a man of stature, monsieur," Madame M. had told him during their first meeting, after he offered her the card with his fake name. "Why would you choose to live with us?"

"It's better than Washington," he said, and smiled at her quizzical look. He reached into his briefcase and handed over a stack of crisp franc notes. She counted the money and raised her eyebrows and said, "Is there anything special you require?"

"Only that you keep me away from the liquor."

Warren settled in to enjoy the emptiness of his schedule. He spent most mornings on the second-floor terrace, watching the ladies spread their wet sheets and stockings on the clotheslines in the courtyard.

They basked in the sun as the laundry dried, smoking and laughing; a few crouched away from the rest, faces creased in worry, whispering to friends about some pain, a bruise, an insult flung at them the previous night. Whispering about how their lives could have descended to this, as if they were God's private punch line.

From his perch Warren studied them, his notebook open on his knee but blank, his pen sitting idle beside his usual cup of coffee. As a young man, he had run a newspaper in Marion, a time he now looked upon with joy and longing, choosing to forget the nerve-frying stress and the late nights and above all the fear of failure, collapse, total ruin.

He wanted the words to flow out of him again, as they did in those golden days, but nothing ever came. The years in the White House, that giant sarcophagus, had rusted that part of him to uselessness.

One morning, as he slapped the notebook closed, Warren lifted his gaze past the courtyard wall to the boulevard, where a few boys splashed in sun-bright puddles, and beyond them to the Montparnasse Cemetery, its rows of pale stones like molars.

That's where they'll put me, he thought, after I'm gone. When that day comes, will there be anything you regret? Only that I chose my friends poorly, I suppose, and let them run wild in their departments. But I did the best I could. I swear if anyone realized what the office truly entailed, nobody would ever run for the presidency. I should have stayed a newspaperman.

Overhead, the skies darkened, and the rain dropped like a curtain on the scene below. It poured down on the women running inside, on the figures in the street, on the white headstones of the cemetery, wiping the sound and color from the world. Warren stood, filled with a cool peacefulness. There's some comfort in oblivion, he thought. After I'm gone and forgotten, then all my mistakes will be erased as well.

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