Here’s another odd 20 minute (or so) fiction…
He continued, not with the speech he planned but with a test. He wondered how long his audience might listen. He began conventionally enough—a joke to loosen them up and gain their acceptance, an anecdote familiar and just a touch strange, like food you think fresh that nonetheless gives off a whiff of earthy decay. Most laughed, only a few uncomfortably, their heads tipped too far back, their eyes clenched.
He meant to tender their common humanity, the currency of every soul present, but he also meant to say he wasn’t of them exactly and soon might turn on them. When he began to twist his words, to tighten his syntax into baroque skeins of language, their attention relaxed. He started to confess—tales of indiscretion too complicated to follow and yet too plain not to feel. He unreeled a scroll of shame, and some people looked up from their laps. Some looked down. They crossed their legs. They angled away.
Yet, at three quarters of an hour, most remained. Some, elbows on knees, tilted forward as if the slightest provocation might lift them and send them to the exit.
“I’m apt to cry at odd intervals,” he heard himself say and then made good on the statement, choking as he trudged through halting incoherence. One or two people slipped into the aisle.
“I want to say what I’ve always meant to,” he said, and more faces, pained with civility, glanced back at him. Some offered sympathy, so he directed his stare toward those, curling his lip as if somewhere between cackling and tears.
The small fraction still there couldn’t stay much longer, or, of necessity, they’d remove themselves some other way, listening to internal alternatives, lists of tasks unperformed, conversations revised, fantasies.
Next came a long deconstruction of everything he’d said so far. He doubled back to explain his opening joke as if they’d been too dull to understand and had only laughed not to be left out. He insulted himself by critiquing every loose trap he’d set. He repeated himself nearly exactly, just differently enough to enhance their now mutual agony. He could be quite savage and was quite practiced at it. Were he nice he might have spared them, as—now—when they turned woeful eyes in his direction, begging for mercy.
Never has anyone spoken so long for so little purpose and with so little pleasure. He told them so, but many had gone, sighing to lead the way. The audience thinned to just a few stalwarts and a few curious. A child remained and watched him as if he were a circus act hypnotizing in its mystery. For that child, he felt some warmth and paused between sentences to give him a sliver of a smile.
Someone thought to clap then, someone who must have hoped to force him to conclude. But he shouted over the gathering noise. Their anger followed. Some shouted “Get off!” and others hurled more complicated messages. He blocked them out. He continued.
Almost two hours in, he saw a few sleeping forms and no eyes at all. As they woke and stumbled out, as the auditorium finally emptied entirely, he kept talking, barely listening himself.