The Big O
Between jobs, Terri watched Oprah.
Surprisingly, she bonded with the black woman quickly. As a rule,
eastern and northern European whites passed straight through to
her inner life, Italians and Greeks met significant resistance,
and blacks, Jews, and Hispanics were stopped at the border.
Oprah, however, like a good hacker, broke herself into little
pieces, slipped through the perimeter, and reassembled herself
It wasn't her achievements that did it, nor her money, nor all of
those millions of adoring minions; her infiltration was
facilitated by a confluence of circumstances, above all, the
erosion of Terri's self-confidence, the breakdown of her belief
that she understood even simple things, thanks to Paul's
unpredictable behaviors which interrupted the feedback loops that
had made her surroundings and her inner map a seamless coherent
whole, and the sheer force of the celebrity's personality, the
power of her will, her intellect, her empathy, caring and
understanding, her generosity of spirit, her deep feelings shared
with such ease (she was so articulate!), the money, sometimes
cars and all kinds of other stuff given away in little and big
public gestures, her relentless drive to get inside and connect
with every woman who had been educated to a certain level, stayed
home most days, and plotted to her demo- and psychographic maps.
All of that enabled Oprah quietly to shoulder Silvia, Terri's
mother, out of the foreground of her mind. Terri didn't even
notice that it happened, much less how.
It didn't happen all at once, of course. At first a tiny image of
Oprah hung in the upper corner of her waking thoughts like a
Christmas tree ornament used to correct an overabundance of
evergreen. The image winked off and on throughout the day, a
benevolent spirit manifesting at the right times. As Terri
watched her program every afternoon, however, as she laughed and
cried and learned as she might have learned from her mother, had
Silvia been more inclined or capable of teaching, the earnest
strong-willed big-haired personality moved toward the center. Her
image grew larger and brighter until it glowed in Terri's
imagination, stuffed and plump or slender and sexy, depending on
Oprah's weight. She was no longer an ornament but a shining star,
lighted from within. Her complexion lightened and her face became
more Aryan. One day Oprah's features and her mother's merged,
Oprah's mapping onto the older woman's Polish, German and Serbian
traits as if an invisible hand were photoshopping their
The hypnotic power of television was absolute, its imprinting
indelible. Her mother's high cheekbones disappeared into the
plump chocolate cheeks of the star, then her forehead darkened
and was absorbed, her eyebrows tightened and her nose widened
until all that remained of her mother's face was a constant
anxious frown. By that time Terri had become so discipled to the
entertainer that Oprah's voice and her mother's were equal in
impact. Then Oprah's pulled ahead and her mother's sounded silly,
whiny, and irrelevant. Telephone calls from her Mom and
interviews conducted by the superstar elicited similar feelings,
but oddly, Oprah's tone seemed more familiar, as if her own
mother were one of the cousins while the Big
O was an older sister who had always been
And something else happened. Along the way to resident status in
her mind and heart, Oprah became a woman who was not exactly
black. She was something else, a check in the other box,
the many pejorative qualities of her race scrubbed clean like a
man – Stedman, in point of fact – washed out of her
big hair. Her internalized voice echoed after everything Terri
thought or said like the still small voice of her conscience,
accessible any time of the night or day for wisdom, consolation,
or strength. By definition and ontological status, no black
person could occupy that position. So her race went missing while
her womanhood, powerful but bleached, arrived inside.
Unless one understood this, Terri's behavior at the Christmas
party was incomprehensible, given her usual demeanor. The party
was hosted as always by her cousins Chris and Chris because they
had a bigger house. There were too many children, step-children,
newly adopted babies, even one from China, cousins uncles aunts
and all, for anyone else to think about having it at their place.
The result was an inflow of friends as well as relations,
including people from the north side and a Jew or two from the
swank suburbs up on the lake – Lox Cove they called Wolf
Cove, Bagel Bay instead of Bream. One of those people, a friend
of her Uncle Dan's, apparently, someone he knew from work, a
lawyer for the union he told her later, you could tell from how
he held himself so fancy-schmancy and how he used big words to
make sure they knew he had gone to an expensive school, he was
Morris or Meir, Michael or Micah, one of those, when he made
dismissive remarks about people who watch sitcoms, soaps and talk
shows as if they were all idiots, Terri bristled but said
nothing, but then he ridiculed serious people like Regis and
Terri had to bite her lip, and then – then he made the
mistake of beating on Oprah, mocking how she promoted books and
book clubs and – shit! Terri thought,
shit, shit, shit! and sprang for his face like a
rottweiler, snarling, "go fuck yourself you arrogant
prick! Yes, you heard me," she repeated when he took a
step back and expressed wonder and disbelief. "You can
shove your superior North Shore Jew act up your ass."
Terri! said Florence, looking at Paul to do something. Terri!
said her mother, but it came out Trrr because Silvia's
mouth was full of cream cheese and chutney. Her uncle Dan
chuckled, but Aunt Minnie, sustaining the ethos of the
subculture, got real quiet, the back of her hand at her open
mouth. In the dining room, everyone else got quiet too, their
silence like a thunderclap in contrast with the loud laughter and
chatter in the other rooms. The hush expanded like spilling ink
over their merriment, ticking off six seconds, seven seconds,
eight, nine, ten – a lot of silence in the middle of a
traditional Christmas party.
At ten seconds, Paul said, "Terri! Jesus!"
One of the cousins said to anyone who was listening, "I didn't
know that young ladies talked like that these days."
But Terri did. Terri burned. There was no quenching her righteous
fire, no way to stop her defending her mentor. She knew she was
well within bounds to shut Mister North Shore Know-it-all once
and for all the fuck up.
Oprah had become the most dependable person in her life. Her
mother loved her, sure, but had less and less support to offer
and little understanding; her relatives were there but not there,
if you know what she meant; and Paul had come back damaged in
some way she didn't understand. The fabric of her life and
understanding was corroding. She walked constantly on leafy
branches over a pit, afraid they would give way. Only Oprah with
her deep wisdom continued to flow like a river to her troubled
And the asshole did shut up, she did accomplish that. He left the
party in a huff. Terri was getting ready to chase after him but
Paul grabbed her by the arm and said, "Jesus, leave him alone,
Terri! Let it go."
She turned and looked at her boyfriend, her steady, her
significant other, not her fiancé yet but almost, almost,
more than a fuck buddy, much much more, the man she had
intended to marry as soon as he returned from his tour and
narrowed her eyes and folded her arms in a tight cross and
The relatives buzzed among themselves and then someone shouted
that the kringles were out of the oven and everyone shifted
gears. The kids ran for the big kitchen and the smells of diverse
kringles (almond and maple walnut, strawberry raspberry and
cherry, Bavarian cream, chocolate walnut and toffee pecan for
Terri's mom) mingled with the scent of evergreen in the hot dry
house and grown-ups wandered around and Paul took Terri by the
arm into the livingroom, mostly empty, and asked her what in the
fuck was the matter.
"If you don't know, then I can't tell you," she said, still
glaring. "You heard him."
"Yeah, but it's no big deal. You worry about the little shit,
you'll make yourself nuts. You'll never see him again." He
breathed deeply. "So what's going on?"
Terri couldn't tell him because Terri didn't know. But she could
tell him what she did know.
"I don't know," she said, "how much more I can stand."
"How much more what?"
"The way things are, now," she said as if it were obvious to
anyone with half a brain. Then she was crying again and running
out of the house without a coat into the cold gray afternoon.
So when she heard that Oprah was having a show on returning vets
and their issues, she didn't say anything to Paul, she
just got on the Internet and went to the Harpo Studio site and
found out how to apply. She did it all online, answering their
questions as honestly as she could, and of course she went
absolutely insane when she got an email saying she had moved to
the second round. They told her to expect a call.
An assistant producer named Naomi called that week.
Terri responded without forethought or guile. She told them how
long she had been with Paul (five years), how he had been before
he left (fine, really nice), how he was acting now. She told her
about her family, how they mostly talked about other things and
changed the subject whenever she wanted to bring it up. She told
them about Buddy, Paul's younger brother, how mad he was when she
said even the least little thing. She said how Florence was
crying all the time, saying it was from happiness, but Terri
wasn't so sure about that.
Naomi asked about her background. She told her about growing up
in Lake View in a bungalow like everyone else, her age (23), her
education (high school with a C+ grade point, three semesters at
the local branch of the state university), even her criminal
record (none), embarrassing incidents in her life (the time they
covered themselves with body paint in high school and crawled in
through the basement window and ran naked into Jerry's livingroom
where Jerry and Paul and Steve and Andre and Louie were playing
poker but Jerry's parents (oh my God!) were there, too, and the
time they pretended to kidnap Andre's brother Bucky, turning over
the furniture carefully so as not to wreck anything really,
making it look like there was a fight, dipping a kitchen knife in
ketchup, leaving it on the floor and the door open, but his
parents freaked and called the police and the cops gave them a
long lecture about simulating crimes and wasting resources, how
much it cost, why it was a crime which of course they had not
known, not before that night), and did she do drugs or use any
illegal substance? no, not really, they all smoked a little pot
now and then, but she never did coke or meth like some of her
friends or sniffed anything, and sure, she had a few drinks with
friends, but not to excess, maybe one night of drinking, oh I
don't know, five or six but only once or twice a month, maybe
more in cold weather. Maybe once a week. Yes, she was a Caucasian
and a good Catholic, but Anglo Catholic now (that's a whole other
story, Terri laughed) and she still did Hail Marys and went to
Saint Peter's with her mother, she was five feet five with brown
hair, some called mousy, but Terri thought it was kind of pretty.
Yes, she would do it the way they wanted, yes oh yes she would be
thrilled to go to Harpo and have them do it right there
in the studio before the show. No, she wasn't working now, she
was between jobs. I'm sorry, what was that? Well, just jobs, not
a career: she had been a barista at Java Jive and could
always go back, she had been a photographer's helper in a studio
here in Lake View, she had sorted books in the library for a
school job in exchange for financial aid, and for two summers
during high school she held the stop sign when her Uncle Dan got
her the job through his friends at the county. Did she (Naomi)
have any idea how much you got paid to stand there and turn the
sign from stop to go slow? It was really
something, considering what you did. No, just union dues, which
come to think of it were pretty high. No, they never had a
Naomi said they had lots of applicants, of course, asked her to
email a picture which she did at once, before the call had ended,
and said they would let her know in a week or two. Terry thanked
her very much and when she was off the telephone, she leaped and
woo-hooed and danced in a circle around the small livingroom she
and her roomies shared until she was winded and dizzy and fell
down on the carpet they had rescued from the old couple moving
out upstairs. "Please God please Jesus," she said aloud, the
question about religion reminding her to pray, knowing it was a
long shot but my God! Oprah! and in the meantime she was bleeding
off anxiety, the mere possibility of telling her mentor what was
going on as a means of feeling much better for the moment despite
nothing really changing in her life.
She didn't tell anyone what she had done. She did not want to
argue, justify her actions, or listen to critiques. There was
time enough for that if they let her on. What her roommates
noticed was a heightened cheerfulness, whistling and humming and
even skipping a step or two with her mind off in another world.
Christine said with that sly smile, "come on, Terri, what's up?
Did Paul propose? You're not pregnant, are you?" Terri laughed
and said, "no, God forbid," then added that she would tell her
all about it, but in due time.
Paul didn't notice anything different except if he stopped to
think about her behavior, which he didn't, Terri wasn't as
crabby. He felt the difference without knowing it. So it did make
it easier for a bit, and God knows, he did not need distractions.
It was all he could do to show up at work and do his job. It felt
like he was riding a huge bubble of something hot and elastic
that might blow at any moment. He straddled it as he imagined you
straddle a mechanical bull except a bull was hard and this was
slippery, a balloon filled with some kind of weird liquid pushing
out unpredictable bulges every time he tried to grip it with his
knees. It took all his energy to ride the goddamn thing, not make
mistakes at work and get paid, play into Terri's extreme
expectations of what a boy friend did or was like based on how
the world was before he left, a world that was gone for Paul
forever, and once a week he had dinner with Buddy and his mother
at the old house. He had moved his stuff to a two-room flat above
the barber shop on T and stayed there a lot, watching TV, looking
out the window, thinking about things.
Naomi's assistant, a woman named Taylor, called to tell Terri she
"Oh my God!" was all she could say. "Oh my God! Oh, thank you! Oh
But how would she tell Paul?
She decided it might be best to have the roomies around for a
cushion in case he reacted. So she asked him to come by the
apartment when Christine and Karen were having dinner. She asked
them to make something vegetarian, not telling them why, just
saying please, can you please just not make hamburgers or roast
beef, just for tonight? So they made a vegetarian lasagna with
lots of cheese and salad and garlic bread. They were still
sitting at the table with the empty dishes, Christine smoking and
dropping ashes onto her plate, her legs up and her feet on the
chair next to her, looking reasonably mellow and content in her
sweats, Karen leaning across the oval table to tell her about
some moron at work, this guy named Boris who they moved into the
cubicle across, Karen still wearing her white blouse and navy
suit, she usually changed the minute she came home but said she
was going back to Butch's to meet Harry for a drink, she was
talking non-stop about Boris when Paul rang the buzzer and Terri
buzzed him in and listened to his footsteps coming up two stories
of carpeted hallway stairs to her door. She looked through the
fish-eye and saw him all distorted, ready to knock, and opened
"Hey!" Paul said. He looked tired and stomped snow from his boots
and threw his blue parka onto the beat-up yellow sofa. He
followed it there, sinking into the cushion which rose on his
flanks like waterwings. Terri leaned and kissed him on the
forehead, tip of the nose, and lips.
He kissed her back when she reached his lips. She could feel him
in the room now, wanting to be there, wanting to come out. That
Karen stopped talking and looked over. "Hey, Paul," she said.
Christine turned her head, looking in his direction. Her hair was
a complete mess and she wore a disheveled gray sweatshirt with
maroon letters. She didn't uncross her legs and he saw her toe
sticking out of a hole in her white sock. They exchanged mute
greetings with nodding faces, then the women went back to talking
about Boris, like how do these Russians grow up? I mean, what
makes them behave like that? Are they orphans? Were they all in
prison or something? Wasn't anybody home?
Paul turned back to his girl who was waiting patiently to say: "I
have some news."
He sat up straighter and looked concerned.
"No no," she smiled, "nothing like that."
Paul waited, watching her eyes do the anxiety thing, shifting
side to side.
"Well?" he said. "What?'
"Ok," she said. "Well. You know how Oprah has different themes
depending on the show?"
"Ok. Well. I heard that she was planning a show about vets coming
home and how it is, you know, for their girlfriends and families
and kids and all ...."
"Uh-huh," he said.
"So I wrote in and they called and we talked and they called back
and they want me to be on! They want me to be part of the show!"
Paul was silent. Christine was telling Karen about the Russian
Jews coming out in the eighties, how it was all planned out and
now the Russian mafia was everywhere, into construction, gambling
and stuff, even here, behind the scenes, and they practically own
Israel now and their politicians, Karen confused because she
thought mafia meant Italians, so Christine explained about the
Russian mafia, she had seen a program on Dateline and
read something in the doctor's office, waiting for the official
word which was negative, thank God, how Italians like Tony
Soprano might kill you but these guys were crazy, they'd kill
your whole family, Terri not hearing anything they said, watching
Paul's eyes, balancing on her toes like a diver on a high
platform, waiting for something to show up but nothing did.
"Uh-huh," he said, a little different in tone but she wasn't sure
"OK. So, in a couple of weeks, I go down to Chicago to Harpo
where Oprah does her shows? can you believe that? They're going
to send a limousine! and I am going to be on Oprah!"
He caught her excitement this time, not exactly into Oprah or any
of the programs she told him about, the reality stuff, the one
with the bunch of women talking all the time, the interns
sleeping with each other and with nurses, other doctors, even
patients in a daisy chain shot through with medical crises, so he
thought OK, if that's what you want to do. Be on TV. That's fine.
"Well, good for you," he said, and Terri exhaled, not even
knowing she was holding her breath. She couldn't know that Paul
was thinking of Gene, Eugene, really, his boss, and how he had
been less than helpful that afternoon, taking the customer's
side, thinking too, off and on, of Cerie, who for some reason he
could not get out of his mind, and thinking always about the
bubbling or froth on the edges of his feeling, how it never went
away, whatever it was, thinking in short of everything but what
she was talking about or what it meant, exactly, what was the
content of the show or what Terri might say, so it meant nearly
nothing to him, not that night, the girls talking after dinner,
the shadeless windows of the livingroom black with night, the
smell of garlic strong in the apartment but nothing got
triggered, luckily, nothing at all. So when Christine said, "You
guys want some chocolate chip cheesecake?" Terri and Paul said
"Sure" at the same time, laughing about it as Paul got up feeling
like a creaky old man instead of a kid of twenty-four and they
went into the kitchen looking for the big white box among the
mess so they could help themselves to two huge pieces of
cheesecake and put on coffee and take it all into her bedroom and
eat and straighten out the sheets and get into bed for some
seriously restorative recreational sex.
Six weeks later Terri stood outside her apartment building thirty
minutes early, waiting for the limo. The sun was coming up
earlier but you wouldn't know it – the overcast made
everything look the same and the temperature had been below
freezing for a week. Terri was stomping around like a rain
dancer, squeezing her fingers in her gloves in her deep pockets,
when the big stretch limo navigated the corner and crunched
through the snow. The long white vehicle double parked and the
older guy who was driving slid down his window. "Are you Terri
Metzger?" Terri said "yes," giggling like a schoolgirl despite
her freezing fingers and toes and he came around and opened the
The limo seemed like a yacht, it was so big, so warm and
cushiony, with a little fridge with water bottles and snacks,
magazines in side pockets, a place to put up her feet. The driver
was so far forward she thought she would have to shout but she
must have been amplified – anything she asked, he gave her
the answer. She asked a million questions and Curtis responded in
short clips, giving her data, not the kinds of fascinating
narrative she hoped to hear. The limo rode on air, gliding
through the bleak landscape, the early spring fields patches of
black and white, trees without leaves except maybe willows
yellowing a little, then office parks of anonymous glass and
noise containment fences all the way to Chicago. The traffic
wasn't bad until they hit the city. Then they crawled through the
morning war of fender and horn to the downtown exits and went
west to Harpo. Monsieur le Chauffeur, as Terri thought
of him, led her inside through a side door. She had to stop for
security, a big matronly woman making her empty her purse and
pockets, take off her shoes, stand with her arms out to be
wanded, just like at the airport.
But then – then! Oh my God! It was like a cruise, she told
Christine and Karen later, something you'd win on Wheel of
Fortune. It was incredible! They had all this food and plush
leather sofas and everything was so elegant, so ... classy.
Naomi, the one I spoke to, met me at the door and led me to the
Green Room. The others on the show were already there, I guess
they flew in the day before and stayed at a hotel. Naomi did most
of the talking and told us what to expect. They do lots of shows
on the same day, I hadn't realized that, and guess who was there!
Harrison Ford! doing a show! while we waited! We had to wait a
long time, too, because apparently he wouldn't say anything
interesting and Oprah had to stoke up the crowd like a
cheerleader. We saw it all from the Green Room on monitors. Oprah
played games with different parts of the audience, getting them
all excited, and finally he must have said enough because then it
was our turn.
When they took us to make-up, the guy who was doing it, this
obviously very gay guy? was looking sideways at my hair and I
asked if it looked Ok? and he said, well, you're the one who's
average, right? I didn't know what he meant so he told
me they had one black, one Hispanic, one Unknown Soldier –
wait, I'll tell you in a minute – and apparently I was
picked because I'm white and Midwestern. Apparently I stand for
middle America. He said my plain hair fit the part perfectly,
that he thought the photo had made up their minds. I asked if he
couldn't do something with it without losing the effect, and he
curled it, you'll see when you see the show, he did this little
thing but it looked so different. I love what he did.
So the others in the Green Room were this black girl, LaDonda,
and a short bald guy from Nogales, and me. It was funny, they
kept this fourth person in a separate room and disguised her face
and voice and all. They did her after we finished. Naomi called
her the Unknown Soldier. I guess she was tortured. Her voice
sounded like a cancer patient using one of those boxes and they
made her face like a mask. So it wasn't like a real person or
someone you knew, it was more like a movie. You'll see what I
Ernesto, the Spanish guy, his wife was over there a year and I
guess he had to deal with how much sex he thought she had with
different guys. You could barely understand anything he said.
LaDonda, the black girl, was just plain angry, but I couldn't
blame her, the guy she's living with sounds like a whacko. He
carries a gun and beat up some guy in a bar fight and got
arrested – LaDonda said he had gotten into some stuff
before he left but hadn't done time, so she blames it all on what
happened over there. I don't know why she stays with him. Anyway,
I wore my new suit, the beige, the one from Boston Store? And
they led us into the studio and ... there was Oprah, big as life,
wearing this incredible green dress and her shoes were absolutely
fantastic, she came over and it felt like coming home for dinner,
except better, the way she made us feel. She is so natural, so
down to earth, like she knew you forever. I told her how much she
meant to me and she squeezed my hand and gave me a little hug.
Then Taylor, the one who works with Naomi, sat us in chairs in
the order she would talk to us. I went last.
So ... that was it. We all talked and when we finished, the limos
were lined up outside, waiting. I had a different driver coming
back, a guy named Julius, and while he was walking around the
limo to open the door, these huge silent flakes of snow started
drifting down from the overcast sky and everything was muffled,
even close to downtown, the snow absorbing the traffic noise and
I looked through it toward the skyline you could barely make out
and I started to cry. I don't know why. Everyone had been so
wonderful and I talked so much about Paul and what was going on
and now it was all over. "Here," Julius said, "let me help you,
Miss," and the way he said it was so nice. He asked if I was Ok,
and I said fine, I'm fine, let's go, and he gave me a Kleenex and
got me settled in the back and – that was that.
The show will be on in a couple of weeks. But listen, you guys,
listen to this – Oprah thanked me for
coming. She thanked me! Can you
believe it? Just thinking about it is enough to make me cry
The day the show was on, she had Paul come over to be with her
and Christine and Karen and Karen's latest guy, Harry, who worked
with her in the office, they all got together after work. Terri
made herself go out and walk around when the program was on in
the afternoon, not wanting to see it until everyone was together.
She used the DVR and Paul's mother made a tape, too, using a VCR,
just in case.
They had beer and pizzas and Christine made tons of popcorn.
There were three big ceramic bowls of the hot buttered stuff on
the table in front of the sofa, the fridge was right there if
anybody needed more beer. Paul pushed into the corner of the
sofa, Terri taking his arm and putting it around her, saying,
"silly, come on!" Karen sitting on the left side of the sofa,
Harry on the arm, his arm lightly around her, Christine in the
big flowered chair with wings. Karen asked, "is everybody ready?"
and they all shouted "YES!"
It was hard to remember, Terri said later, who said what and
when. Some people said things she didn't remember anyone saying,
and there were things she could swear they said that were
missing. They taped for a couple of hours and edited the thing
down to a seamless illusion of a short conversation that never
happened, or so she tried to tell Paul, you have got to try to
understand what they did, how they make it look, leaving things
out or having it sound like people clapped when nobody clapped.
She was talking to his back then, going down the hallway stairs,
and his back didn't answer.
Before she started the recording, she explained that LaDonda went
first. Oprah asked her to say what happened when Donald came
home. The girl's mouth was like a machine gun, spitting bullets
of rage. He didn't want to talk to her at first about anything.
Then he told her too much. She didn't need to know about the
women, did she? Or what it was like to watch some guy DeWitt from
Bisbee Arizona die in the street? He told her his blood was all
over him and forming puddles in the street, he was crouching
behind his dying body, trying not to die himself. Go talk to a
shrink, she told him. I don't need to know all that.
But you wouldn't know that she said that, Terri explained, as
they watched the tape of the show. It opened with LaDonda talking
about Donald waking up screaming every night. Most nights he
didn't sleep at all, trying to keep himself from dreaming. Terri
did remember her saying that but at the end. There was nothing on
the show about the women or the guy dying on the street which was
amazing because you couldn't possibly know why she was so pissed
off. Then they cut to Ernesto who could barely speak English but
the editors must have spliced his different sentences together so
he sounded like a genius, talking about his wife and how he took
care of the kids while she was gone, how they had to learn how to
be a family all over again. Tears welled up in Christine's eyes,
listening to the guy, and Terri tried to tell her that he wasn't
like that, not at all, as Oprah introduced the woman who was
"What the hell?" Terri said, pausing the remote. "She came last!
The audience never saw her. But it looks like she was sitting
right there on the stage. In fact," Terri said, "what really
happened after the Spanish guy got done was that I talked to
Oprah for at least twenty minutes." Oprah asked questions and I
told her how we met (he waited every morning when she stopped
traffic, chatting through the window of his beat-up
Stratus) and one thing led to another and he got into
the Guard while she started college but then they sent him over.
Paul wrote letters for a while, she said she had said. Then they
stopped. He never got into combat, from what she understood,
which made what happened hard to understand. He went to a special
place and they flew him to other places, too. He never told her
where or what he did, exactly. She knew it had to do with talking
to people and getting information and he worked with a bunch of
other guys. His team (she told the whole fucking world, Paul
began to think, unable to believe what he was hearing) had a
doctor in it and a Jew who spoke different languages and two guys
Paul said were real good at getting people to talk and a Spanish
kid they called Menudo who could be pretty tough and, of course,
"What was his job?" Oprah asked.
"His job," Terri said, "was to do what he was told. Defend
freedom. And keep bad things from happening."
She told them all that, and more, was what she really said,
before the one in the hidden room came on, and Paul became very
very quiet. Terri was aware that his arm, still around her, was
unmoving and he didn't say a word which was scary. Everyone else
was quiet, too, and at last he said, "Are you aware that you gave
away our group? That anyone who wants to know now knows who we
Terri stared, not even shaking her head, no.
"Are you aware," he said, "that you betrayed us?"
The room was quiet. Everyone waited.
Terri pulled out from under his arm and turned. "I don't even
know what you did! How could I betray you or say what you did
when I don't even know what you did!"
"Paul," Karen said, "it wasn't even on the show. Even if Terri
revealed some details, not meaning to, of course –
everything was cut. Isn't that what you're saying, Terri?"
Terri tried to catch her breath and say, "Yes. That's what I'm
saying. I was third but they make it look like that woman went
Karen reached across Harry to take the remote. "Let's see what
really happened, Ok? Paul? Don't get upset about things that
"She said that she said it," Paul said. "She said that it
"Yeah, but if it wasn't on TV, it never happened. Right? Not in
terms of anybody knowing."
She clicked the remote. Oprah introduced "a woman we are calling
the Unknown Soldier." She looked earnestly out of the screen and
said that "some of what you will hear will be graphic and
shocking. If you don't want to hear this or want to get your
children out of the room, now is the time."
She turned as if she were facing someone but the woman wasn't
really there. Some kind of black screen flexed in front of a
person who looked like a young woman, more or less. Oprah asked
when she was captured, how it happened.
They were on patrol and were ambushed. Three guys were killed,
the rest got away. She was the only one captured.
Oprah leaned toward the phantasm with concern in her eyes. She
lowered her voice, too. "If you can ... please ... tell us what
They put a hood on her, said the raspy voice of the apparition,
tied her hands and legs, and threw her in back of a truck. They
bumped along over rocks for a long time. Yes, she was terrified.
She had no idea where they were going. She lay there bouncing
around, hurting and afraid, when someone worked her pants down to
the ankles. They played with her like she was a toy.
After a long ride, they carried her into a stinking place where
she stayed for days. They took turns punching, slapping, and
kicking her. They untied her hands so they could tie them to
something high. They cut off her uniform with a knife. No, she
never saw anyone's face, not once. They took turns hitting her,
sometimes punching her with fists, sometimes lashing her with
something that felt like a dog whip. I don't know how many times.
When she went unconscious, they threw water into her face. Yes,
the hood was on me the whole time. No, I barely ate, they pushed
this crap under the hood into my mouth. They gave me enough water
so I didn't die.
Now, this is a very very sensitive question, Oprah said, so
please don't answer if it's too painful –.
Yes. I was raped.
Oprah turned away, looking stricken.
They never asked questions or anything. I never heard anyone
speak English. I didn't know anything anyway and they knew that.
They didn't do it to get information. They did it to break me or
because they enjoyed it.
One day there was silence. They disappeared. She was alone for a
long time and then someone found her and got some troops.
Oprah explained that this young woman had agreed to tell her
story so people could understand what kind of enemy we were
Then a commercial break.
Christine fast forwarded through ads for medications,
restaurants, cars. Then Oprah was back letting the audience ask
questions. She went through that fast too. At the end of the
session the applause was long and loud.
According to the recorder, only three minutes were left. It must
be Terri's turn now.
Oprah introduced her as the face of mid-America, the heartland
soul who stayed behind while her young man went to war. Oprah
asked Terri to "tell us about the place you grew up. Tell us
about the people."
While Terri's voice answered questions in the background, Oprah
provided a voiceover telling the audience what she said. She
described the small town where she was born, then the bigger city
to which she moved. The narrative was illustrated with images of
bungalows, neighbors talking over fences, an elderly woman
pausing on her walker to wave to a friend.
Then Oprah said, "Tell us about Paul. What was he like when you
Her answer was clipped to a single phrase. Paul was "a wonderful
Now tell us, Oprah said, her face grave, what he was like when he
Terri's voice said, "I don't know how to describe it. Something
in him had died." A close-up of her face showed tears. "Fuck!"
the real Terri cried. "That shot was taken when we came out and
they turned on the bright lights! I wasn't crying, then!"
Oprah reached to take Terri's hand. There were seconds of
silence, then they went to a commercial.
When the show returned, it was all Oprah, recapping the stories
of the four guests and how the war had knitted their lives and
their stories. Their faces came on the monitor, one at a time,
finishing with the distorted face of the Unknown Soldier, then
they morphed into one, their features bleeding together, as Oprah
described tomorrow's show.
The recording stopped. The DVR said: "Would you like to erase
this show now?"
Karen clicked no, save it, and turned off the
Terri was aghast. "They cut out almost everything I said and
turned the rest into captions for those silly pictures!"
Harry said, "Well, what did you expect?" He took a long pull at
his beer. "Paul? What do you think?"
Paul looked at the guy from the office, still wearing his Brooks
Brother shirt and his wide silk tie, although he had taken off
his jacket and hung it carefully on the knob of a closet door. He
watched the guy put his bottle back on the table, then his eyes
looking from Karen to Christine, then back to Paul.
"I think it's a betrayal."
Terri looked up, thinking he understood. "I'll say it is," she
said, hopefulness flooding her heart. "They sure didn't tell me
what they intended."
But Karen saw the expression on Paul's face. She jumped up and
collected bottles and cradled them into the kitchen. Christine
reached to retrieve a bowl of popcorn, set it on her lap, and
began eating handful upon handful, turning her buttery fists in
front of her mouth to lick whatever stuck. Harry looked at Paul,
waiting for a little more.
Instead, Paul stood and put on his parka. He didn't need to look
at Terri, not any more. He opened the door and walked out. Terri
rose and went after him, talking to his back, telling him what
had happened, how they make things look, but Paul wasn't
listening. Paul was intent on making it to the downstairs door
without swinging at Terri or anyone else, without screaming,
without saying so much as a single word to her or to anyone in
the street who had the balls to be walking where he intended to
walk and didn't get out of the fucking way in time, daring him to
a fight by the mere fact of their miserable existence.
by Richard Thieme
... who is a professional author of books, stories, and articles,
which are indexed at Thieme
Works online. His Richard Thieme's Islands in the
Clickstream (July 2004) is a collection of past works, while
"Entering Sacred Digital Space", New Paradigms for Bible
Study: The Bible in the Third Millennium (June 2004) and
"Identity / Destiny", Prophecy Anthology (vol 1, 2004)
were anthologized. His "The Changing Context of Intelligence and
Ethics: Enabling Technologies as Transformational Engines"
appeared in Defense Intelligence Journal
(January 2007). His stories have been published in Analog
Science Fiction, The Puckerbrush
Review, Timber Creek Review,
Porcupine, Pacific Coast
Journal, The Potomac Review,
Red Wheelbarrow, Heartlands,
The Circle Magazine, The Listening
Ear, Words on Walls, Nth
Degree, Down in the Dirt,
Golf, Rogue, and elsewhere. His
articles have been published in Forbes,
Salon, Information Security,
Secure Business Quarterly, Village
Voice, Wired, Counter
Punch, Common Dreams, Internet
Underground, National Catholic
Reporter, Asia Times Online,
The Witness, and elsewhere. This short story has
been excerpted from The Room, a forthcoming book.