“Jonathan, I just talked to Oprah, son. She wants you, wants you real bad.”
Franzen flinched. “I’m scheduled for her show.”
“She wants you for that, too.”
“What else?” Franzen knew.
“You knew this day was coming. You did, right? I mean, it’s Oprah. You had to know.”
Franzen paused the sort of pause he takes when an audience member at his readings asks if he knows his book is similar to other books.
“What do I have to do?”
“Go visit the show before the Book Club show, then stick around afterwards.”
“You know, hang out backstage. She needs to rearrange her octagon, er, stage set.”
“She doesn’t scare me.”
“You’re kidding me, right son? Oprah doesn’t scare you? Good one. She scares the be-Jesus out of me, but she doesn’t scare you? Let me ask you, son, you afraid of Hillary? Don’t answer.”
“You tell me, Mr. President. What’s going on here?” Franzen said.
“Call me Bill, Jon. It’s pretty straight forward. Just show up and be ready for a nice surprise afterward.”
“It’ll boost book sales. That can’t hurt.”
“It’s the hurt part I’m worried about.”
“Let me ask you this: When is the last time you got punched in the face?”
“I’m a writer, I really, uh, don’t remember. A bad review feels like a gut punch.”
“That’s good. It probably wasn’t a fist with a padded glove that hit you in the face, so if you can’t remember, it probably didn’t hurt much. MMA fighters use padded gloves.”
“What’s MMA got to do with anything?”
“Did I say MMA? I didn’t mean MMA. I meant your momma.”
“I’ll see you in Chicago.”
A week after Freedom won the Oprah sticker, Jonathan Franzen stood backstage at Harpo Studios. Bill Clinton stepped out from behind curtains on one side, John Irving in a striped referee shirt on the other.
In the back-back stage a large tarp covered an elevated circle.
Suddenly the lights raised. The studio audience roared their good-bye and Oprah came bounding around the corner with a gym bag.
“Here,” she said, tossing the bag toward Franzen. “Put this on.” She swept away to a dressing room.
The bag contained a pair of shorts, open fingered gloves, and a mouth guard.
Franzen picked up the mouth guard. “I won’t wear this.”
Bill Clinton draped an arm around his shoulders. “That’d be a mistake, son. I’ve seen some of her workouts. That girl can punch.”
“She’s been practicing?”
John Irving joined them. “Ever since James Frey, Jon. She’s got a few things to work out that didn’t get settled when she brought him back. She’ll fix that now.”
Clinton stood between the two men. “This is how it’s going to work, fellas. Jonathan, you and Oprah are the first match in a series of Mixed Gender Mixed Martial Arts, or MGMMA. Sounds sort of like magma, doesn’t it? Hot rock. I made that one up on my own.”
“And I will ref them all,” Irving said.
“All? There’s more?” Franzen said.
“Calm down, Jon. Let’s not get all fired up just yet. You don’t want to peak too early.”
“I don’t want to peak at all.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. See, it depends on what your definition of peak is is.”
“Did I say is is? I’ve got to stop that. Anyway, this is the first match.”
Irving nodded his head. Franzen turned his head toward one face, then the other.
“First match? Who’s the second.”
“Who have you polled?”
“That’s a joke, right?” Clinton said. “I still have my polling organization. I could give you the percentage difference on teeth cracked by Italian olive pits versus teeth cracked by Spanish olive pits and teeth ready to crack eating jello in fifteen minutes. Trust me, people want to see these matches, and the match with the winners.”
“It’ll be a fair match, I can tell you that,” Irving said, flexing his shirt.
“What if both men or both women win? Then what?” Franzen asked.
“Then what?” Clinton and Irving look at each other. They nod in time then turn to Franzen singing to the tune of Billy Joel‘s ‘Still Rock and Rock To Me.’
“Ooooo hoooo, what’s the matter with the face I’m crushing,
can’t you tell that your nose is too wide.
Maybe I should do a rear naked choke,
make you feel glad to be alive.
Have you been training in a new dojo, honey,
you won’t get hurt if your blood’s not too runny.
Everybody’s talking ’bout the next fight, funny,
but it’s still MMA to me.”
They slip into their Electric Glide steps.
Jonathan Franzen watches Oprah dance out of her dressing room in a purple one piece. In the back-back stage an overhead wench lifts the tarp off a caged octagon. Spotlights click on in sequence, raising the mat temperature.
The television audience showed up in the shadows of the spots, having moved quietly from the front of Harpo Studios.
John Irving turns and runs toward the octagon. The crowd goes wild.
Bill Clinton leans over Jonathan Franzen.
“Son, I’d get into that bag and put on whatever you’ve got on. This is going live real fast.”
Oprah stood in front of the crowd.
“This is not personal between me and Franzen, but I am going to crush this man.”