Cover Photo: The Motivational Speaker Chez Lui by John Picard

The Motivational Speaker Chez Lui


     

          The Motivational Speaker Chez Lui

               

                      


Buck is trying to get his fifteen year old to do his homework.

“The first thing to do is set a goal for yourself.” 

“Dude!” Eddie hollers over the music blasting into his headphones. “It’s not a goal. It’s an assignment.”

“All right, an assignment,” Buck says, practically shouting to make himself heard. “An oral report on any subject of your choosing, according to your syllabus. Begin at the end,” he adds, using one of his favorite coinages. “Envision the completed project.”

The boy picks up two unsharpened pencils and begins beating them against his leg. 

Buck Rogers (ne Leland Westfall) has just flown in from the west coast where, at the Paso Robles Marriott, he brought thirteen hundred Apple sales reps to their feet. It was his last stop on a three-week, eighteen-state tour. He is home for a week, a brief respite before setting off on another tour of equal duration. He is still dressed in his motivational speaker’s clothes: white pants, plaid sports coat, red tie and socks. At six two, one hundred and eighty pounds, he is a model of middle-aged fitness. He has perfect posture. He has a mane of prematurely white hair. He is Hollywood handsome.

“Make a list,” Buck perseveres. “Sit down with pen and paper and write anything that occurs to you. Don’t be afraid of where your imagination takes you. Some of my best--”

“Dude! I’m listening to my tunes.”

When had “Dad” become “dude?” “Your mother and I are concerned about your grades. We’re concerned about your future.” 

The boy continues to beat on his leg with the pencils.

“It’s not too soon to start thinking about college. You’ll be a junior next--”

“I told you. I don’t wanna go to college. I wanna play in a band.”

Buck fights the urge to snatch the pencils out of his son’s hands, snap them in two. “One more song and hit the books, OK?”

Eddie shrugs.

“I’d like a little more confirmation than that. Promise me you’ll devote some small portion of your evening to your studies. Can you do that? Answer me, please.”

“Whatever.” 

              

That night he steals into his wife’s bedroom only to have her turn down his offer of a back rub with Johnson’s Baby Oil, an old preliminary. Neither does she come around after the promise of various tangible items: a new dress, earrings, theater tickets. She prefers to sleep. She’s too tired. But that’s not the real reason she refuses him. He has known about Claire’s lover for some time (co-workers, she and Jean-Pierre send each other obscene e-mail messages, print-outs of which he came across in her purse one day), known that they get it on while he’s away on tour. He has never confronted Claire with this knowledge. It is, after all, largely his fault. He is gone a good five months of the year. He is not the best listener or confidant a wife could have, not being a people person, in the usual sense. And it’s not like he hasn’t enjoyed the occasional dalliance himself. There are many women eager to have relations with a motivational speaker. They come up to him after a talk and slip him their phone number, or simply knock on his hotel door late at night. They are attracted by the commanding voice, the crisp delivery, not to mention the full head of hair and the trim athletic build maintained by a vigorous exercise regimen. He looks good. More than that, though, it is seeing a roomful of men and women fall under the spell of his rhetorical mastery. It is supremely sexy. He kisses his wife on top of her head, softly, so as not to wake her, and then leaves the room. 

              

In the morning, he makes the trek to the other side of the house, the twenty-three room, neoclassical mansion once owned by an Exxon executive who, out of gratitude for a last quarter jump in sales, cut him a deal. In his study, he pauses before his ego wall, hung with autographed photographs of himself shaking hands with captains of industry, high government officials, giants in the entertainment world. Buck’s fees are among the highest in the motivational business, fifty thousand a pop. Surveys conducted after his appearances consistently show a marked increase in productivity, usually between five and twelve percent. Some market analysts credit him with single-handedly reviving RynaCorp. He also addresses nonprofit groups in need of morale boosting and never fails to leave everyone feeling better about themselves, according to all the follow-up surveys. They understand each other, he and an audience. They have a rapport.

              

“No headphones at the table,” he tells Eddie at breakfast.

The boy cannot hear him, or pretends not to. He chews his cereal loudly and messily while twitching the strings of an invisible guitar.

Buck says to his wife, his still lovely, still youthful wife, who has just poured a second cup of what she insists on calling cafe au lait, “How about going out to dinner tonight?”

“That’s sweet of you, darling, but I’ll probably be working late.”

“Working late? When did you start working late?” She does not have to work at all, of course, but she wants a career, an identity, separate from his own. He turns to Eddie. “As a minimal courtesy, would you mind lowering the volume?”    

“It’s just that things have gotten so backed up at the office,” Claire says. “I don’t know if I can get away. Would you mind passing the sugar? How did the tour go? You haven’t said.” 

“OK.”

“You’re being modest. I’m sure you wowed them. You always do.” Claire leans over and pats his wrist. He reaches for her hand but it’s withdrawn too quickly. 

“Are you positive you can’t go to dinner? I was thinking of trying that new Italian place on Elm.”

“It’s not new, darling. It’s been there for ages. I doubt I’ll be home before eight or nine.”

“We can have a late dinner.”

“I’ll try. We’ll see.” 

“Is that a new scent you’re wearing?”

“Amor Amor. Do you like it?”

“I’ll not ask you again, young man. What made you switch?”

“Switch?”

“Perfumes. What was wrong with the other one?”

“Nothing. I just wanted a change.” 

“TURN THAT MUSIC DOWN THIS INSTANT, MISTER!”

“I wish you wouldn’t raise your voice to Eddie. He doesn’t respond well to shouting.” 

“He doesn’t respond at all.”

“Exactement.”


There is a part of him that wishes he could be a motivational speaker only. His life would be lived solely on the road, in front of huge and supportive crowds. It would have a purity and simplicity unattainable in his present circumstances. In those moments when he wasn’t addressing masses of people, exhorting them, sharing his vision, when the one-on-one thing became unavoidable, other special arrangements would be made. Instead of one waiter or waitress, say, he would be served by a dozen. Spared the rudeness he typically received from individual servers, he would instill in the cohort a collective respect and cooperation. Likewise the postal worker, the dry cleaner, the grocery clerk, the bartender, etc. Instead of the one, the many.

              *

Taking a tip from Marriage: The Ultimate Turn-on, he buys a drugstore basket full of candles and arranges them around Claire’s bedroom. He has also picked up some football mums from the florist, both white and yellow, and spread them about. He is not so sure about the DVD, Blast from the Pants, the adult movie he has chosen--again, at the book’s urging. In principle he disapproves of pornography, but more than that he cannot imagine the two of them watching it without acute embarrassment. He and Claire have talked very little about such things. Their communication in this area, according to a test at the back of the book, falls between “Chilly” and “Frostbite.” Once there was no need for talk. When he returned home from a tour they would make love as soon as they were alone together. When did that begin to change?

The phone is ringing. It’s a few minutes before nine. “Hello.”

“Darling?”

“Yes.”

“I’m awfully sorry, but we’re swamped here. The server crashed and it’s put us way behind.”

How practiced she’d become at deception. “But I had a surprise for you.”

“Did you? That’s so sweet.”

“When will you be--”

“Could you program the DVR for Modern Family? You’ll need to put the trash out too. And don’t wait up. Bonne nuit.”

             *

It is Buck’s fervent wish that one day he will regain his son’s respect, the respect he lost without doing anything differently somewhere around the child’s eleventh year. Before that they spent endless hours together. The boy would ride on his back, hold his hand when they went for walks, fall asleep in front of the TV with his head on Dad’s shoulder. Eddie had hated it when his father went away. During summer vacation, Buck took the boy with him on some of his shorter trips. Eddie relished flying first class, ordering room service, seeing the sights, but most of all sitting in the front row of some large auditorium and watching his father do what he did best. Buck gained inspiration every time he saw his son sitting there in his miniature motivational speaker’s outfit. At the boy’s insistence, Buck bought him clothes identical to his own, right down to the white leather belt with the gold-plated buckle and the American flag cuff-links. But that was long ago. Now he’s lucky if he can get the boy to go with him to McDonald’s.

              

“Ms. Phelps, your teacher, phoned us this morning. She said you weren’t in class on Tuesday. Is this true?”

Eddie raises his arm and tosses a short red stick, the sawed-off end of a broom handle. The slate-colored Labrador, an enormous six-month old female puppy, Buck’s recent birthday present to his son, runs full tilt in pursuit. “I hate school,” the boy says.

The animal trots back over the grass, the stick clamped between her teeth, her breathing loud and fierce, her eyes bulging with manic energy. She makes Eddie tug three times sincerely on the stick before releasing it. She watches it leave Eddie’s hand, then tears off.

Buck says, “If you miss too many days of school you run the risk of having to repeat. You know that, don’t you? Actions have consequences.” 

The boy is wearing a soiled T-shirt as loosely fitting as a serape and a baggy pair of khaki shorts so long they are only a few inches shy of being trousers. His black hair has an unclean, plastered-down look. He is overweight, with a pudgy though not unhandsome face, wide hips, and thick legs. He is unable to throw the stick more than fifteen or twenty feet, putting too much wrist into it. No doubt he is among the last to be picked for any team, poor guy. 

“Would you like to tell me about it?”

“I told you. I hate school. I’m quitting when I turn sixteen. Then I’m starting my own band, The Clank.” 

Exercising superhuman patience, Buck says, “Everyone needs a dream.”   

The stick comes back. The boy wrenches it loose and tosses it the same pathetic distance.

“Ms. Phelps also said you were supposed to give your oral report on Tuesday. Is there any connection between your skipping school and having to make a speech?”

Eddie shrugs.

Buck has a flash of intuition. “For many people, talking in front of a large group can be very stressful. I’d be happy to give you some pointers on public speaking.”

“No.”

“All right.”

Eddie retrieves the stick and gives it another feeble toss.  The dog explodes after it. “They’re all a bunch of jerks,” Eddie says.

“Who is?”

“The people in my class.”

“What’s wrong with them?”

“I don’t like them, that’s what.” After a pause, “And they don’t like me. Do you think I could transfer to another school?”

“Each stage of life comes with its own unique set of challenges.” 

“Here we go.”

“Again and again, we have to renew our commitment to facing them.”

“Forget it.” 

“I suspect your classmates sense your negative feelings toward them and so respond in kind. Going to another school would accomplish nothing. You’d encounter the same situation all over again.”

“So you won’t let me transfer.”

“We’re all engaged in a great struggle.”

“Oh, Jesus.”

“A struggle with our own personal demons. You can stand and fight them, or you can retreat. It’s up to you. But when you turn away from life--”

“Life turns away from you--yeah, yeah.”

“Give me that.” Buck snatches the stick out of his son’s hand. He rears back and throws. The stick lands beyond the swing-set and the Jungle-gym, more than fifty feet away. Spinning around, he finds the dog sitting at his feet. “Fetch!” The dog is watching him, tail wagging, tongue flopped out of one side of its mouth. “Fetch! FETCH!” The dog blinks and looks away.  

               

One afternoon, after forty-five strenuous minutes on his exercise machine, Buck wanders into the living room and sees that Claire has gotten home early from work, her purse and other belongings stacked neatly in the foyer. He finds her in the bedroom where she is folding clothes into a suitcase.

“There you are,” she says. “I was hoping I’d see you before I left.”

“You’re...you’re leaving me?”

“It’s a little business trip, silly. Don’t be so melodramatic. I’ll be back in five days. And please don’t say you’ll miss me. You’ll be leaving soon yourself.” On Friday he is addressing 25,000 Amway distributors in the Astrodome, the first stop on his upcoming tour. 

“You’re an administrative assistant,” Buck says. “Administrative assistants don’t go on business trips.”

“I’ve asked Mother to stay with Eddie while I’m gone.”

“Where’s it going to be, this trip?”

“Antibes.”  

“You’re going on a business trip to the Riviera?”

“It’s supposed to be beautiful this time of year.”

“I’m sure it is.”

“I’ll be staying at the Hotel des Sables if you need to reach me. The honeymoon suite.”

“The honeymoon suite? Why the honeymoon suite?”

“Some mix-up in the reservations. I’m not complaining, though. King size bed, Jacuzzi, twenty-four hour room service.”

“Is that a bikini?”

“Cute, huh?”

“It’s indecent. What happened to your sensible two-piece?”

“That old thing?”

“Is there anything I can do to stop you, Claire?”

“Why in the world would you want to stop me? Silly, silly man. Make sure Eddie does his homework. And try not to be too hard on him. He’s very sensitive.” She peeks through the blinds. “Taxi’s here.” 

At the front door, he says, “Hug?”

But she has already started down the walk, a bag in each hand, the cab driver preceding her with the suitcase. She opens the back door and is about to step inside when she turns and waves. “Au revoir.”

              *

When he answers the phone on Thursday, it’s Ms. Phelps, calling to confirm that he’ll be speaking at 2:30 tomorrow, adding how much she’s personally looking forward to it. It wasn’t every day one was treated to a motivational speaker of his caliber.  

“I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says. “I’m leaving town tomorrow.”

Buck learns that it is Parents and Teachers’ Week at Eddie’s school, a PTA sponsored event in which parents have been invited to talk to their child’s class about their occupations. Ms. Phelps had made a point of asking Eddie to invite his father. Eddie, it seems, has kept this information from him, knowing he was leaving for Houston that day. 

 He decides he has time to speak to the class and still make his flight. He tells the teacher, “I’ll be there.”

Despite an ugly scene the next morning, he refuses to write a note excusing Eddie--who claims to have flu-like symptoms--from school. 

At 2:30 sharp Ms. Phelps introduces him. Buck steps into the classroom, giving everyone a thumps up. Eddie sinks down in his seat and shields his face.   

Though only discernible to the trained observer (another motivational speaker), the quality of Buck’s talks varies greatly, ranging from the perfunctory to the transcendent, with the majority somewhere in between. He has spoken over five thousand times, but only a handful of these stand out in memory, and not always due to the auspiciousness of the occasion. He was called in to boost the spirits of the New York Firefighters after 9/11, a speech attended by the Mayor and the Vice-President. But that speech, the apex of his career, remains a blur. He was good that day, he was on, but he had not touched them, not the way he touched them in Seattle last year when addressing a small group of website designers who, by the time he began his peroration, had tears in their eyes. Once in a while it happened, this special thing that flowed between him and an audience, that went deeper than mere motivation. He lived for such moments. He is having one right now. 

Striding back and forth in front of the blackboard, the plaid sports coat unbuttoned, the crimson tie swinging, he has turned a ragtag bunch of yawning, scratching, smirking, malcontents into an homogeneous band of grinning, bright-eyed enthusiasts. Never has his voice been so resonant, never has his delivery been so crisp. Any potential dry patches in his talk he has enlivened with interesting digressions and humorous anecdotes told with aplomb and perfect comic timing. Eddie, he notices, has removed his hand from his face. Slowly, grudgingly, he has come out of his slump. He sees the boy look around and note the rapt attention of his fellow students and even Ms. Phelps, hugging herself in the back of the room and watching Buck with what must strike Eddie as undue concentration. It has been a long time since he saw his father work a room and he is apparently surprised, even awed, by the reaction. Then something Buck never thought he’d see again creeps over the boy’s features. He hardly recognizes it, so long has it been--pride, the pride his young son once displayed unabashedly when he beamed from the front row in his pint-sized motivational speaker’s clothes.

After the applause dies down, Buck agrees to take questions. Small hands stretch toward him from every direction. Eventually, Ms. Phelps has to put a stop to this, for they can’t get enough of his stories and clever sayings. Many of the children linger after the bell. Eddie finds himself surrounded by his classmates. 

“Your father’s so neat.” 

“What a cool dresser.” 

“When I grow up, I want to be a motivational speaker.”

Eddie has been shaken by the performance. In the car, on the ride home, he is silent and doesn’t know how to act. He nibbles at the cuticle of his left index finger while eyeing the road ahead. He jiggles his foot and punches indecisively at the buttons on the radio. He neglects to put his headphones on. 

Buck says, “That went well, don’t you think?”

The boy’s nod is just perceptible.

“They seemed to like me, in other words--your classmates.” He laughs hollowly. 

Eddie looks out his side window. 

Buck Rogers has been eulogized by everyone from George Steinbrenner to Rupert Murdoch, but he would trade all that praise for one faintly positive word from his son. He asks him, “Was there anything--anything at all--you wanted to tell me?”

“Like what?”

“Oh, I don’t know.”

They ride for a while longer in silence, then Eddie says, looking down at his unlaced, boot-like sneakers, “Did you really meet Raif Stryker?” The boy’s troglodytic idol. Last year he and the rock star appeared together as part of an anti-drug rally at the Hollywood Bowl.

“I sure did. I mentioned it to you at the time. You may not remember now. I have a picture of him on my wall. I’ll show it to you if you like.”

“That’s OK.”

“Better yet, you can have it. I bet it would go great over your bed.”

They have arrived at the mansion. Buck pulls the car into the horseshoe driveway and shuts off the engine. Before the boy can open his door, he says, “From all indications your old man did a pretty bang-up job today is all I’m saying.” 

Eddie says nothing. 

“I was thinking,” Buck says. “How would you like to come to Houston with me? You could fly back on Sunday. What do you say?”

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“I have stuff to do.”

“What kind of stuff?”

“Stuff.”

“How about next weekend? I’ll be in St. Louis. You could fly out. We could do some sight--”

“Don’t push it.”

“I’m not pushing. 

“Yeah, you are.”

“OK. Tell you what; just consider it, just give it some thought. That’s not asking too much, is it?”

Eddie mumbles.

“What was that?”

“Nothing.” 

“I heard something. You said something.”

“Oh, Jesus.” Eddie moves to open his door.

Buck reaches over with the intention of tousling his son’s hair. 

Eddie knocks his hand away and yells, “Push. Push. Push. That’s all you ever do. I hate it! I HATE IT!” He gets out and slams the door. His skateboard lies face down on the grass. He flips it onto the sidewalk and scoots away, picking up speed at the end of the block.

Back inside the mansion, Buck packs a suitcase, then calls for a taxi. On his way to the front of the house he stops outside the guest bedroom Claire has preferred to the master bedroom for the last three years. He takes in the vaulted ceiling, the canopied king-size bed, the shelves crowded with all the overpriced tchotchkes--crystal perfume bottles, gold-trimmed demitasse sets, knockoff Faberge eggs--all the expensive gifts he has brought back for her from his travels, bribes so ineffectual they can’t even keep her in the same bedroom with him. Farther down the hall he comes to Eddie’s room. He goes inside and begins rifling through the chest of drawers. He finds what he’s looking for crumpled in the back of the bottom drawer: the little white pants, the little plaid sports jacket, the miniature red tie, the white leather belt and one of the American flag cufflinks. He doesn’t know how long he’s been standing like this when he hears a car horn. 

Minutes later Buck is in the back seat of a taxi, being taken the long way to the airport. “MacArthur Boulevard is much faster,” he says.

“Hey, I know the route,” the cabbie tells him.

“This way adds at least ten minutes.”

“Look. I know what I’m doing. Relax.”

Buck is about to lose it big time. He’s at the breaking point. But just before he blows he decides to take the cabbie’s advice after all. He leans back in his seat. He stretches his legs and closes his eyes. Why let it get to him? What did it matter? In Houston, thousands were waiting for him with open arms. 





















 

 



























 

 

I received my MFA in creative writing from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. I have published fiction and nonfiction in The Iowa Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, The New England Review.