My current work-in-progress. The story of Kip, a lovable loser who comes under Oprah’s spell in his attempt to regain his lost love, fix his family relationships and save his job. But what will be left of his life in Oprah’s wake?
In Oprah’s Wake
I’m sick of people sittin’ in chairs stating their problems. Then we roll the videotape… then we have our experts on the topic… I’m in the ‘What’s next?’ phase of my career.
“Oprah is an over-rated, annoying blow-hard,” my friend Greg Cline said as he chugged a Bud Light. “Where’s the remote? Yo, Charlie. Change the channel.”
The crowd at Sullivan’s in downtown Chicago was light for a Friday afternoon. I sat at the bar nursing another Newcastle while one of my best friends sat next to me shaking his head at the TV. I don’t know why the bar had Oprah on that day. Maybe it was a mistake. Maybe pure laziness on the part of the bartender. Or maybe it was fate, if you believe in that kind of thing. All I know is that day, Oprah was on the TV, and Cline and I sat and watched the episode. The bartender waved away the protest and continued his inventory of the hard liquor. Cline shook his head in frustration.
“It’s almost over anyway.” I finished my second beer while watching the action on the screen. It was the end of the Oprah show and she was talking to a group of women about something to do with meditation with some New Age guy that looked to me like someone who belonged on the sex offender list.
“Oprah is full of shit. Like she needs any of this self-help crap. She’s a billionaire. What does she need? More billions. Pisses me off.” Cline scratched his balding head. Cline was never one to mince words. Maybe that’s why we became friends. I seemed to be fully able to mince mine most of the time.
At that point, I really had no strong feelings about Oprah one way or another, but I had to agree that Oprah probably did not need any more money. However, I would not begrudge Oprah if she wanted to help me, Kip Tierney, get some billions for myself. Still, Oprah was an icon, and whether you liked her or agreed with her or not, there was no argument that she was one of the richest humans in the world, and that meant she had to know something more than the “average Joes” down at Sullivan’s Pub. I decided that since the damn show was on, and the bartender wasn’t about to change it, that I might as well hear her out. “Shh. Maybe we can learn how to get rich, too.” I leaned forward and tried to listened, but Cline was on a roll.
“Whatever, dude. That’s not how it works.”
“Shh.” I waved my hand at Cline. I was intrigued, though it seemed to me not many guys would ever admit to watching Oprah, at least not the guys Cline and I knew. The beer- drinking, trying- to- be- tough kind of guys. The Chicago guys.
Oprah spoke. “So the key to living your best life is to create your own reality. Be the change you seek in the world, and by changing the way you see things, the things you see will change.”
The group of women dabbed their eyes and clapped furiously.
“Your best life is out there waiting to be discovered.”
“I’ve had enough.” Cline slid off the stool and started looking for the remote control behind the bar. The bartender, annoyed at the continued interruption of his inventory, stomped to our end of the bar and grabbed the remote out of Cline’s hand.
I watched the final seconds of the show before the bartender finally changed the channel. “And remember, you have the power to create the life you want for yourself. Take the first step to a higher level of existence and best life, the life you deserve.”
The Cubs appeared on the screen, but Oprah’s words kept ringing in my ears. I knew that Oprah had built an empire on what was essentially the whole self-help craze, but I had largely ignored all that, mainly because it seemed like that stuff worked for everyone else but me. My wife had left me, my job as an architectural boat tour docent was constantly in jeopardy, and my family seemed to think everything that went wrong in my life was my fault. All the Oprah pep-talk seemed really too good to be true. I pondered this until Cline hit me on the back of the head. “Snap out of it, dude. You’re acting like one of those Oprah zombies.”
“Geez. Who do you think you are? One of the Three Stooges.” I rubbed the back of my head, more for affect than necessity.
Cline laughed. “Point taken. I don’t even know why we’re having this discussion.”
“You don’t want to have a better life?”
“Sure.” Cline said as he returned to his seat. “But I’m not going to get it listening to that crap. What the hell is wrong with you?”
I didn’t feel like anything was wrong with me at that moment, only that her words had inexplicably hit a nerve. “Nothing. Forget it.” I concentrated on the full count and forgot about everything else for the moment.
When Tony entered, I was so preoccupied that he didn’t see him until he sat down on the stool next to Cline, “What’s wrong with you?” Tony asked me as he waved at the bartender. “One of these” he said as he pointed to the bottle.
“He’s in a funk,” Cline said.
Lately, things seemed to be getting to me more and more. There hadn’t been anything out of the ordinary to cause my introspection. But I felt on the verge of something big, and I wasn’t sure whether it was to be something positive or negative. It was a strange energy that I couldn’t put my finger on.
I looked up at Tony. “There’s nothing wrong.”
“Woman trouble?” Tony asked.
“Yeah, because he’s got no woman.” Cline shook his head.
“Don’t start.” I glanced at Tony, but he already knew the answer. Tony was about to give me a lecture about “getting back on the horse,” that stupid cliché I kept hearing from well-meaning, intrusive friends. I wasn’t ready to get on anything—or anyone.
“One date. You need to go on one damn date.” Tony shook his head. “Man, it’s been over a year.”
“Almost two years,” I said. Not that it mattered. It felt like yesterday.
“Man, that’s long enough. You need to move on,” Cline said.
Sure, my head agreed, but there was a nagging in my chest I couldn’t deny. My ex-wife had probably moved on, or so I assumed since she was the one who walked out on me. Something would not let me move on yet. It felt like the end of the marriage was too unresolved for me and whatever the feeling was caught in my chest whenever the subject of dating came up. I didn’t know if it was guilt, regret, or something else. But whatever it was, I wasn’t moving on to another relationship until it was gone.
“I will when I’m ready,” I said. I picked at the corner of the label on my beer bottle.
Tony just shook his head, his black curls bouncing. “You’re a good guy. Any woman would be happy to have you. You just gotta forget that ex and find someone better.”
“Thanks, Dr. Malone.” I laughed.
“Whatever, man. Just saying.” He shook his head and turned his attention back to the game. It was enough talk about personal issues for the three of us at that moment, so we watched the game without saying anything other than cursing at the umpires until we heard the door open.
I had just finished my beer and signaled for another when the door opened and a figure entered the nearly empty bar. I paid no real attention until Tony nudged me, and pointed in her direction. She paused upon entering until her eyes adjusted to the darkness, ant then she found her intended target; she headed right toward me, and I felt the familiar tug in my chest.
“Karen? What are you doing here?” I looked at her and there was no mistaking that feeling which was unfortunately totally unwelcome at the moment. No way was I going to let her see I was vulnerable. I had to be cool.
The former Karen Tierney, now Karen Lawrence, stopped in front of me. She looked the same as the last time I’d seen her in court finalizing our divorce. Her soft, blond hair fell around her face and skimmed her slim shoulders. The whole time I had known her, her blue eyes clouded every time she had something to tell me that I wasn’t going to like. I noticed that the color definitely indicated cloudy with a hundred percent chance of a thunderstorm. That feeling of being on the verge of something big seemed to suddenly make some kind of sense to me. I waited.
Still, she said nothing. “Well, at least have a seat,” I said as I swiveled the stool around to face her. She obliged by sitting in the seat I offered her.
“Hey,” she finally said.
“What is it? Is everything okay?” I had gone from being irritated at her silence to being truly concerned. “Did someone die?”
Karen laughed. “No. Sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“But something is wrong, or you wouldn’t be here.” I reached over, touched her arm, and attempted to make eye contact with her, though both were a mistake. While I still harbored a lot of anger at her for leaving me, I knew that a large part of me still loved her—the feeling in my chest. I knew that holding onto that feeling too would do me no good, and touching her made those feeling well to the surface.
“So just spill it. What are you doing here?” Tony asked as he inserted himself into the conversation. Karen pulled her hand away.
“Tony, I think she’s here to talk to me.” I nudged him out of the way, though I tried not to be too irritated with him; being the oldest in our trio, Tony seemed to exhibit a paternal streak whenever it appeared I was going to get kicked in the groin, either literally or figuratively. This was beginning to look like one day I should have worn a cup.
Karen leaned around me to face him. “Tony, please, can I speak to Kip alone for a minute? You too, Cline.” She tried to smile, a genuine attempt to be deferential, something Karen didn’t do very often when it came to Tony and Cline. Something big was indeed coming.
Tony shrugged, grabbed his beer and walked over to the far end of the bar. Cline followed, but scowled at Karen on his way to the end of the bar, and then Karen turned her attention back to me. “So, how have you been? How are your parents?”
She was stalling. I looked down at my beer and began picking the edge of the label with my thumbnail. “Not bad. They still miss you and remind me of my failings as a man whenever I see them. They’re still mad at me for what happened.”
“Tell them I said hello.” She forced a smile.
“I will.” Karen made no attempt to get to the point, so I continued the chit-chat. “What about you?”
“I’m good. Really good.” She paused, and then looked at the floor. “That’s what I need to talk to you about.”
“You want to rub it in?” A half-hearted attempt at a joke though neither of us found it funny.
Karen sighed. “I’m not here to rub anything in. I’m here out of courtesy. Out of respect for your feelings.” She reached over and touched my hand, but I slid it away before she could feel it shaking.
“Then just say it, Karen. What do you have to tell me?” I took a drink to steel my nerves.
She lifted her left hand and held it up to me. The ring looked big and flashy and I nearly spit my Newcastle all over it. No one I knew had bothered to mention to me that Karen was getting married, let alone dating someone seriously, and I felt punched in the throat. Maybe she had warned them all not to? I didn’t know. I, however, would have expected at least one of the mutual friends we still had to have seen fit to warn me. This was huge. This news changed everything.
“And no one bothered to tell me?” I asked.
“I wanted you to hear it from me.” She looked at the floor.
I shook my head. “So, I supposed you want congratulations? Screw that. I’m not sending a goddamn gift either. You kept all of the ones from our wedding as it is.”
Karen touched my arm again, but I yanked it away. “I wanted you to hear it from me.”
“So thoughtful of you.” I swallowed the lump in my throat.
“Kip, listen, there is no reason to be angry here. We’re divorced. We have both moved on. I know you’ve been dating, too.”
“No, Karen. I haven’t.”
“Who is he?” I asked.
“Well, that’s the other thing I need to tell you.”
I sat up straighter, bracing for the next blow. I knew then that the worst of this wasn’t that she was getting married–it was who she planned to marry. “Who? Just tell me.”
Karen stood, and I wondered if she was preparing to beat a hasty retreat once she dropped the bomb. “It’s Jack.”
The moment sped up and slowed down at the same time, like something from some cheesy thriller. The words refused to register at first. Jack? It couldn’t be. I slid from the stool, sending it to the floor. Tony stood, prepared to intervene, but I raised my hand. “I’m ok.” I faced Karen. “You didn’t just say Jack.”
“You have got to be kidding me. This has to be a joke. A mistake. I don’t get it.”
“We didn’t plan it. It just. . . .happened.” She shrugged.
Jack Baldwin. My old college buddy, my roommate and the friend who encouraged me to ask Karen out our junior year at University of Illinois Chicago. The buddy who had been the best man at our wedding. That bastard Jack Baldwin.
“Just happened?” I stared at her. “An engagement doesn’t ‘just happen’.”
“You know what I mean.” She shook her head.
“You just expect me to be okay with this? Don’t you know me at all?” I ran my hand through my hair.
“Listen, I didn’t come here to upset you. I’d think that you could at least be happy for me. For us. At least I fell in love with someone you know. You know he’s not a creep.”
I shook my head. How the hell was that supposed to make me feel better? Knowing my ex-best friend had not only started dating Karen, but that the asshole was now going to marry her. Every day from then on, I would be unable to erase the mental picture of the two of them in bed together. Marrying a stranger would be far easier for me to handle. Not that I wanted her to get remarried at all, but at least with a stranger, I could fill in the blanks, inventing a list of inferior traits to baptize the creep with. The guy would be short, bald and have a big gut. The guy would have a smelly job and be unable to kill a spider in the bathtub when Karen needed him to. He could neither change a flat tire nor the oil. If someone tried to break into the house, he would call 911 and cower until the cops came. He would drive a PT Cruiser in a shade of metallic purple only women over the age of 65 could appreciate. He would watch Oprah every day and cry right on cue. He would be an inferior member of the male gender. In short, the guy would suck. As much as I hated Jack at that moment, Jack was not the aforementioned crappy dude. Jack didn’t suck. The guy could and would do all those things for Karen. And more. The guy was in finance, drove a BMW, and even though she could provide for herself, Jack gave off the impression that he could take care of Karen if she would let him. The guy was good- looking or so I had been told by all the women who swooned over him in college. With a stranger at least I would not have a realistic visual in my head that I wouldn’t be able to shake. No, this certainly did not make me happy.
“Oh sure. I feel great.” I lied.
Karen straightened her skirt and looked at her shoes. “Well, I just wanted you to hear it from me first.” She turned toward the door.
Karen turned around. “July.”
“July? What the hell is the rush? That’s like three months.”
“Why wait? Besides, it’s not going to be a big production. It’s July 4th.”
“This is crazy. It’s too soon.” I shook my head, and felt my face flushing. I always assumed I had more time before I would have to deal with anything like this happening. Maybe I figured too that I’d never have to deal with it. She’d come back to her senses, and to me.
“Listen, I’m sorry you’re taking this so hard. I thought it would be easier coming from me. I guess I was wrong.”
Before I could utter another word, Karen headed out the door. The splash of waning sun blinded me; though I think only part of it was the light. The rest was the fact that I felt blindsided. Once the door closed, Karen was gone and all I saw were the spots that danced across my pupils and the dark of the bar. Tony and Cline appeared next to me. “What the hell happened?” Cline asked.
I flopped onto the stool Karen had abandoned, still warm from her body. “She’s getting married.”
Tony shook his head as he resumed his seat. “Man, you should be glad. Then she’s outta your hair for good. Good riddance, I say.”
I stared at myself in the mirror above the bar and the look on my face troubled me. What the hell was wrong with me? Maybe Tony was right. I should be happy at least that Karen was happy. But I wasn’t. No way could I be happy about this.
“Here’s the thing,” I said as I turned to look at Tony. “She’s marrying Jack.”
“Jack? That dude you were best friends with? The guy who dropped you like a sack of shit when he got that fancy job right out of school?” Cline asked.
“That’s the one.”
“That rich banker guy?” Tony asked.
“Yes, that’s the one. And thanks for reminding me.”
“Oh man. He needs a beat-down. Doesn’t he know that’s not cool?” Cline shook his head.
“Apparently not.” Maybe this was the way the world worked now. I felt way older than thirty-five and way less sure of what the relationship rules actually were. Maybe this was all okay now.
“Then you need to take him down.” Tony said.
“What?” I asked.
Tony hit his hand on the bar. “Man, this is one of those times when you gotta stand up for what’s right. Go over there and have it out with him.”
I had consumed just enough alcohol for this to make perfect sense. “You’re exactly right.” I flung myself off the stool, threw a few dollars on the bar and made for the door.
“Where you goin?” Cline asked.
“To kick Jack’s ass.” When I thought about Karen marrying Jack, something inside me twisted into knots. The thought of it was more than I could take.