Exhaustion, stage fright, and a fat reefer had taken their toll on his attention. The audience seemed unusually vivid, almost threateningly so, but he barely heard a word any of the other panelists said. When his own turn came, he could sense people holding their breath.
"W-W-W-" he began. "W-W-W-W-" He tried once more and then inhaled sharply. He was shocked to find himself already stuck, unable even to pronounce the name of the place where all of them lived. He pretended to look at his notes and tried to clear his mind.
"Good evening," he said, recovering, and he could feel a sigh of relief as he smiled through his gathering blush. His stuttering, he had come to think, was almost as painful for his listeners as it was for him. But tonight his preparations worked their magic. He tried to speak casually, to forget his audience, and confined himself to some brief generalities.
"W-W-Webster has proven to be everything my f-family and I h-hoped it would be when we moved here," he lied, adding that "the q-q-question of K-Kriegers immediate future is as m-m-much on our m-m-minds as yours. As m-most of you know, they are our b-b-biggest advertiser, and t-t-they anchor a downtown full of the r-rest of our advertisers."
After his initial scare, he quickly settled down, his stoppered words at last tumbling out in a rush, like beer poured rapidly from a long-necked bottle, and before he knew it, he was done. He finished with the same almost delirious sense of relief he felt any time he managed to speak publicly without finding his words chained inside his chest.
The rest of the time passed, Terry wasnt sure how. He spent most of it scouting for women in the audience, coming back to one particular unfamiliar face whenever he dared, a small woman with a taut figure in the front row. She wore a purple suit with a short skirt and seemed dressed up in the charming way of women who do not dress up all the time, her hair opting out of whatever plans she might have made for it and her shoes scuffed with weather. Something about her made it hard to stop looking. He was yanked back to the present during the question-and-answer period, when one of the few men in the audience stood up, and in a loud, almost hectoring voice, asked: "How can you people any longer drag your feet in doing what needs to be done to bring some parking downtown and save the communitys biggest private employer? Are you all deaf, dumb, and blind? Were about to lose Kriegers, and you all sit here talking all this planning gobbledygook."
The speaker was Ed Krcyszyki, the wiry, bellicose leader of the union representing workers at Kriegers. Terry was fond of Krcyszyki, who had spent six years putting himself through Web State at night while selling womens shoes by day, and who had risen from his hands and knees to elevate the lives of his many fellow employees. His whole life, in fact, stood as a rebuke to Charles Krieger, the self-absorbed Kriegers heir whose cosseted youth unjustly culminated at the helm of the department store chain, which he ran now largely for his own benefit. Krcyszyki was right, Terry thought. How can we not build the garage? How can we let Kriegers go---and the Chronicle potentially with it? Are the people who run this town crazy? At the back of his throat he could taste the rise of cannabis-inflected bile.
Realizing that the question "Whither Webster?" would become yet another discussion about parking, Terry came so close to weeping that he had to take a deep breath, heaving his chest and surprising himself by rasping. He got this way after a lot of pot, which lately, before an evening like this one, he found more and more reason to administer prophylactically against the misery of participatory democracy, just as travel to some equatorial backwater demanded inoculation against obscure tropical diseases.
Reprinted from The Webster Chronicle by Daniel Akst by permission of BlueHen Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2001 by Daniel Akst. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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