Every Sunday, Jason and his parents, Scott and Shirley, have steak dinner. The vegetable sidekicks change, but the main performer is always the iron-filled, bloody chunk of filet.
This particular Sunday came with a chill lingering in the air. Whenever Keith was invited to steak dinner, this chill came with him — a tension-lathered gaze steaming from Scott’s eyes, like a fire on the horizon when a sunset was expected.
Scott’s normal Sunday was a grunt here, a mumble there, minimal eye contact, and this night, Shirley and Keith were exceptionally chatty.
Over the years, Scott has tried to see Keith like Shirley and Jason do, but efforts passed unsuccessfully. To Scott, Keith is invisible. To Jason, Keith is his best friend, his forever sidekick. To Shirley, Keith is the love she’s never had before.
“God, that is so ingenious, Keith. Where did you come up with that?” Shirley says.
Scott doesn’t listen. Grunt. Mumble. Repeat.
“Did you hear that, Scott?” Shirley turns to Scott.
“No. No. I didn’t,” Scott returns. He can’t hear him, either. Scott believes that Jason made up Keith when he was four years old, and he thinks that Shirley, with the good heart she hordes, simply cannot admit to Jason that she, too, doesn’t see Keith.
Jason chimes in, “He was talking about dreams.”
Scott shoves an entire radish in his mouth. “Yeah? What about ’em?”
Shirley continues, putting her hand on Keith’s hand while she vocalizes his words. Of course, to Scott, Shirley is putting her hand on a napkin next to an empty plate. “He said he thinks dreams are part of the human subconscious, or,” She looks up at Jason. “I’m going to butcher it. It was so beautiful. What did he say?”
Jason finishes for her. “He said that the human subconscious, or figments of our subconscious, like dreams — that they’re another world where other humans live. That humans enter another human’s dream when they die. That none of it was really real, but it felt so real. That our life is a dream, even if it feels like a nightmare sometimes.”
“Oh, that was it. So interesting,” Shirley says.
“Sounds dumb to me.” Scott huffs.
Naturally, they all collectively feel awkward, looking down at their plates as if they were trying to tell them something. Scott guzzles his Scotch.
Shirley defensively comes to Keith’s aid. “I thought it was pretty.”
Scott grunts. Mumbles. Repeats. Adds in another guzzle.
Scott picks up his knife, looks at Jason, and stabs his filet. Blood spatters up to his cheek and trickles down towards his lips. Scott sticks his tongue out of his mouth and slurps the blood off his cheek.
Shirley’s cheeks look like someone took the beets off her plate and rammed them repeatedly on her face, leaving a permanent mark. Shirley has maintained a PTA middle-aged mom haircut for nearly all of her marriage to Scott. Shirley didn’t care for the way it shaped her face, but it was the one thing she seemed to know for certain that Scott liked about her, so she kept it. The new blond highlights she collected went unnoticed by Scott, but she thought it made her look younger.
She could tell that this moment was the time to sit Scott down and have the tough conversation. Every time Shirley attempted this controversy in the past, Scott didn’t truly hear her. That was clear.
“Scott,” Shirley says, “Can we talk a minute?” She hesitates, per usual.
“Jason, go upstairs,” Scott says, barely looking up to acknowledge Jason’s presence.
Jason goes upstairs. “C’mon, Keith,” he says as they run up the stairs.
Shirley has a nervous twitch that she has perfected around Scott. She twiddles her thumb and first fingers of each hand, making an infinity symbol. “We should talk about this Keith situation.”
“He’s crazy,” Scott says.
She can’t find her voice for a few moments but squeezes it out of her vocal chords like a bulbous item out of a vacuum cleaner, temporarily clogging it. “He’s … not …crazy. He’s just young. Keith is…” She unravels her words like an old-time scroll being read to someone unimportant.
“This isn’t about Keith. This is about Jason. He’s crazy. He thinks Keith is sitting right in front of us, having dinner. We have to buy the imaginary kid a steak, Shirley.”
“You … you still don’t see him?” She finger-infinities again. Shirley has come to recognize Scott’s hostility towards Keith — and Scott’s subsequent perception that Jason is crazy — as repression. Scott doesn’t want to see Keith, so he doesn’t.
“No. And you don’t either. But Jason does. This is a problem, Shirley. You need to cut the act. Doing this little performance with Jason, acting like you see Keith, too, it’s only enabling him — making it worse. We need to take him to be evaluated again.” He speaks with conviction. “We should do it tonight. We can’t wait any longer. He’s going to grow up to be a serial killer. And you’re not helping.”
“It’s too late for the doctor’s.” Her voice trickles out like a waterfall in the distance of a Costa Rican village.
“Jason!” Scott screams.
“Don’t get mad at him,” Shirley mumbles.
Jason descends from the staircase. With Keith. “What’s up, Dad? Keith and I were just about to watch Die Hard.”
“Jason, you’re not going to school tomorrow. We’re going to take a little field trip.”
“Scott — he has to go to school.”
“Keith and I have a biology test tomorrow.”
“I’ll write you a note. It’s final. Be up at eight.”
Jason gets up at eight o’clock for his mysterious field trip. Except, due to experience, Jason knows the plan. Like clockwork, every few months, Scott has this same fit.
His dad is positioned at the kitchen table with eggs and coffee in front of him. Another plate mirror-images his meal across from Scott.
“Sit. Eat. Eggs are brain food. Coffee to wake you up.” Scott’s forehead gains wrinkles daily. His constant downward concocting of his head made his double-chin pronounced. His furrowed-brow made frequent appearances in pictures on the Georges’ mantel over the fireplace.
There is one picture hanging on the wall near the staircase where Scott looks happy. He’s young. He has a single-chin. His wrinkles on his forehead were in hiding then. It was autumn in Alaska. Jason, who was four at the time, is wrapping one arm around Scott’s head, and Shirley stands above them. Leaves drown out the light blue sky in the background. Scott’s eyes match the color of the leaves, and there’s something about the crisp autumn air that is visible in the picture.
“Thanks.” Jason sits down. “What’s Keith going to eat?”
“Keith’s staying home today. Got it?”
Jason turns to the staircase, in which Keith’s elbow is wrapped around the wooden hand rail. “Sorry, Keith.”
Jason walks out of the evaluation room, smiling, as is the doctor. Scott sits in the most isolated chair of the waiting room, ticking his big toes noticeably in his shoes. When he sees Jason exiting the “Are You Crazy?” room, he shoots up as if he sat on a trampoline.
“How’d it go?” he asks the doctor. Jason lingers with them, and Scott pulls the doctor into the room, telling Jason to wait outside. He closes the door.
“My evaluation of Jason is the same as Doctor Mulnay’s preliminary findings. Jason is mentally healthy and right on track.”
“You’re pulling my leg.” Scott laughs as if he has heard that joke about the fungus walking into a bar that makes him chuckle every time.
The doctor repositions the envelope in his hands. “Based on my discussion with Jason, he simply requires more attention—”
Scott cuts the doctor off. “So you’re saying that he’s imagining someone, because I don’t pay enough attention to him. Perfect. The problem is me.”
“No, Mr. George. It is not your fault. Jason is psychologically healthy, and that should be cause for celebration. Excuse me, I have another appointment in a few minutes.” The doctor positions his hands toward the door, opening it and allowing Scott to exit in front of him.
“Jason!” Scott yells. “Let’s go.”
Shirley is home from work when Scott drops Jason off. She sees the headlights in the driveway and watches as Scott backs up and speeds down the street.
“Nice of your father to come in and say hi to me before rushing off,” she says sarcastically.
“Keith wants to know how your big meeting went,” Jason says in return.
She looks at Keith as she answers. “How nice of him to remember. It was stressful. My heart was,” she put her hand on her heart to show a thumping movement. “But, I knew the material, and that showed, so I think it went well.” She turns to Jason. “How’d the…?” She doesn’t finish her question, rather she moves her wrist in a circular motion toward the door.
Jason knew what she meant. “Doc cleared me … again.”
“You know your father … he tries to be thorough.” She moves to the kitchen, knocking on cabinets, dissecting pots and pans from their homes, getting dinner ready.
“He’s the crazy one,” Jason mumbles under his breath.
Keith shakes his head. “It’s not his fault, dude.”
“Jason!” Shirley yells from the kitchen. “Do you and Keith want to play basketball while dinner’s in the oven?”
Scott gets home from work, disgruntled, parking his car on the street while Keith, Shirley, and Jason play basketball.
“Who’s winning?” He asks, trying his best to engage. To Scott, the only ball in sight is the one in Shirley’s hand.
“Keith,” Jason answers.
Scott grunts, sarcastically shaking his head. He starts walking into the house but turns back. “Where is Keith?” he asks.
“Taking a shot at the foul line…” Shirley says. “You should have heard him a minute ago. He was talking about concrete.”
“Concrete, huh?” Scott says. “Sounds invigorating.”
“No, it was really rad, Dad.” He turns to his mother. “Rad, Dad. It rhymes.”
Scott snorts out a laugh as if he is trying to imitate how loud someone was snoring in a bed next to him at a European hostel. “Funny,” he says.
“Anyway, Dad,” Jason calls out to him as Scott tries walking in the house through the garage. He stops. “Don’t you want to hear what Keith said?”
Scott pulls in his lips, clenching his jaw overtop of his closed-mouth. He nods his head up and down.
“Well I asked him for advice about Marley.”
“She’s still seeing you?” Scott asks.
“She is, but I kind of messed up. I don’t need to share all the details, but I made a mistake. And I asked Keith for advice, and he — Keith has this way of relating everything to something else, ya know, like he said that nothing is concrete. Even actual concrete, he said, has a period of time when you can still jump into the molding and leave your imprint.”
Shirley slightly bobbed her head, as if she was listening to The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes.” “It’s a really great perspective, Keith.” She looks directly at the foul line, where Keith stands holding the basketball. Even though it is night, the Alaskan sky carries light blue trickles of the day with it. Keith’s blue eyes match the cold air — the visibility into his aura through his pupils more powerfully clear and beautiful, to Shirley, than the Northern Lights ever could be.
“I don’t get it,” Scott mutters. Angry and uncomfortable at his wife’s ogling an empty space, Scott turns his body towards the garage door. He opens the door, enters it, and pauses in the house to hear the slam.
Jason sits outside on the porch, seemingly rather upset.
Scott parks on the street, a rusty, dark-blue Giant cruiser bike sprawled out like Bambi on the path to the garage.
“You look sad,” Scott says, walking behind him, rumbling his keys.
“No!” Jason shoots up. “Dad. You can’t go in there.”
He turns around. “Why not?”
“Mom. She’s not feeling good. She’s sick.”
“She was fine this morning,” he says, positioning his key in the lock.
Jason takes the key out of the lock and walks to the front lawn.
“Jason. Come back here with my keys. Now.” Scott is pissed.
“You can’t go in, Dad.”
“Tell me the real reason why, right now.”
Jason hesitates. “She has a surprise for your birthday.” He spits it out like too-chewed gum. “Just give her a little more time, please.” His dad’s pinkish, heated face subsides to his skin’s natural color.
“A surprise for my birthday?” Scott smiles for what seems to Jason like the first time in years. For a fleeting moment, he looks to Jason like the picture on the wall. It’s like 10 years were shaved off in just seconds.
Scott thinks of how they haven’t celebrated his birthday with a party in over a decade. After minutes float into half an hour and darkness engulfs the night, Scott breaks their silence. “Can you go check on her? I have to pee. And it’s freezing out here. I left my good coat at home this morning, thinking I’d have access to a heated house after work.”
Jason gets up and uses the confiscated keys in his pocket. Moments later, he walks back out. “They need a few more minutes. They’re almost finished.”
“They?” Scott asks.
“Oh … a party planner … friend. There’s no car here, because … they live down the street.”
“Oh … is that who’s bike is in the driveway?” Scott asks.
Jason and Scott sit on the porch, close enough that their knees’ body heat is almost felt by the other. “Have you ever thought that maybe life is hell or heaven?”
“What?” Jason asks.
“I was thinking about that today for some reason. I think I heard it somewhere. Or maybe I made it up. What do you think?”
“I think I’ve heard it before, too.” Jason tries to think about movies they’ve watched together recently, and then he remembers that they haven’t sat down to a movie since his childhood. “Where’d we hear that?”
“I don’t know. Wherever it was, it’s genius. Sometimes…” Scott looks up, remembering his audience. “Well, sometimes, it feels like life is a test. That’s all.”
“I know what you mean.” Jason thinks of his psych evaluations. He stands up, looking down at his father.
Scott jolts his head upward to Jason who looks at Scott’s graying hairs on the top of his head. He looks at his eyebrows that are furrowing in a commiserating way, instead of their normal disdainful way.
The porch window reflects Jason’s similarities to his dad — their slightly curly hair, only at the ends; their oval egg-shaped eyes; the barely noticeable curvature of their nose; and their lopsided ear lobes. Jason stares at himself in the window for a few elongated seconds. He shifts his feet away from Scott, still facing him, leaning against the railing of the staircase. They stare in each other’s irises until Scott looks down at his hands. “Son…”
“I’m gonna go check on Mom.”
Jason enters the house, locking the door behind him.
“Mom!” he yells.
He hears movement upstairs. Shirley comes down, pulling her robe tied. Her hair looks disheveled, like she used Bed Head Hairspray.
Keith runs passed him, “Later, dude.”
“Wait.” Jason stops him. “Use the back door. My dad’s on the front porch.”
“Your dad’s here?” Shirley asks. Keith kisses the side of her head. They wave silently as Keith walks out of the back.
“Yeah?” she asks, her cheeks reddening.
“We have to throw Dad a surprise party for his birthday.”
They stand in their positions in the house as if their shoes are glued, silent, their breathing audible.
They take turns looking at Scott’s smiling picture on the wall — both of their faces pure and joyous. They were a family in that moment. The leaves were falling, and they were a family.
“Isn’t that the day we met Keith?” Jason asks.
“Yeah, he was in the park, playing in the leaves.” Shirley approaches the photograph, standing on the second stair. She touches the picture as if the leaves had texture. “That’s his shoe.”