BY TIM HANSON
Copyright is held by the author.
THE NIGHT Jason choked on his dinner and watched the world slip away began like any other. He was seated at the kitchen table, while his mother went click-click-click behind him.
“I don’t care if you had an appointment, Ben. So did I — with you,” his mother screamed into her cell phone, pivoting quickly on her black stilettos to pace the five feet back to the sink. His mother often lamented their cramped kitchen, with an oven older than she was and a refrigerator that only worked part-time; however, she was also quick to point out how costly apartments were in the city, and the very fact they had an apartment at all, especially since Dear Old Dad had left them nothing when he died, was a miracle Jason needed to be grateful for. “I made the trip uptown. Paid for a cab. Left my twelve-year-old alone all day. Just so your secretary could tell me you wouldn’t be in the rest of the afternoon — hey!”
The cry woke Jason from his daze, and he looked up to find his mother scowling. “Eat your food,” she hissed, and resumed yelling into her phone.
Jason eyed the Salisbury steak before him, which was no smaller now than it was ten minutes ago. Wrinkling his nose, he poked the congealed meat and pushed it back and forth into the burnt gravy. He tried cutting the piece in two, but it was obstinate and bent under the fork’s pressure before sliding away.
“You know what, Ben, never mind, forget it,” his mother yelled, her stilettos going click-click-click, faster now than before. She had bought the stilettos six months ago, along with a new suit from Nordstrom’s. She wore that suit everywhere — to her agent’s office, to the local television and radio stations for interviews (which had all but dried up now), and to the few job interviews she had landed downtown at retail stores, all looking for someone younger and more qualified.
“Did FOX get back to you?” she asked, then took a long drag on her cigarette. “Well, what did they say?”
Jason piled two forkfuls of potatoes onto a torn scrap of Salisbury steak, and noticed how it resembled a log of shit dumped onto freshly fallen snow. Grimacing, he took a bite, hoping the lumped mass would dull the steak’s bitter taste.
Click-click-click. “What do you mean they’re gonna pass?” Click-click-click. “How could they pass on something this good?”
After swallowing, an act that nearly brought tears to his eyes, Jason looked up from his plate and met a dozen ghostly smiles.
There were four pictures hanging over the kitchen table. His mother had removed these after the funeral, leaving four eight-by-eleven inch rectangular stains behind, places where the walls hadn’t been marred by time’s cruel hand. “I’m gonna find new pictures. Of me and you, kiddo, I promise,” she had said, but time had gotten away from her and soon the old pictures were placed back upon the wall, two living smiles set on either side of the dead.
“Did they even read the script,” his mother asked, lighting another cigarette. “Did you tell them Logan Kroger wrote it?” He heard the whistle of his mother sucking the cigarette down to a tiny stump and then the sigh of relief as she let the smoke waft toward the yellowed ceiling. The neighbors upstairs complained whenever his mother smoked, but she only smoked when she was anxious or sad or upset.
The neighbours complained often.
“Did you tell them about his off-Broadway play? The Death of a Shoe Salesmen?” Click-click-click. “Well, I just don’t understand why they’d pass. Everyone ate that story up six months ago. I mean, there’s a goddamn meme on Facebook, with my husband’s face right in the middle and everything. My kid showed it to me. People are still passing it around.”
Jason tried to ignore the photos hanging over every dinner —t hose frozen smiles, those happy faces — but their mockery was palpable; however, even they were better than the meme his mother spoke of now, which most of his classmates had reposted on social media after the initial broadcast, with different messages written above and below his father’s dumbfounded face: He has the whooole world in his hands . . . and lost it and the face of a man that knows he just done screwed up real bad. Mercifully, they had faded a couple months after, right around the time other classmates had stopped sending him messages saying: jason, if u need a friend im here; and im sorry about ur dad dude; and we’re all thinking about u. Now, whenever he refreshed the page, there were no new notifications, no new messages, no new comments of any kind. Everyone had moved on to other things, leaving him just where he had started: here, in this kitchen, listening to his mother’s tirades.
“But it’s an Emmy-worthy script!” his mother cried, throwing her cigarette butt into the sink. “This is every actor’s dream!” Click-click-click. “That woman from Desperate Housewives. What’s her name? The black-haired one. She could play me.” Click-click-click-click-click. “And that chubby guy from that wine movie.” Click-click-click-click-click-click. “He could play Tommy!”
His father hadn’t been chubby; actually, he had looked rather skinny, never more so than when he had appeared on This or That!
“He could act the shit out of that part,” his mother yelled, so loudly Jason was sure the neighbors five flights down could hear her. “That scene where they show what’s in the last suitcase, that’s heartbreaking! And when Lou Green said, ‘Well, at least you have that laundry list of jobs to go back to, Tommy,’ people will cry!”
The crowd had laughed when his father listed all of the jobs preceding his appearance on This or That! “Wow,” host Lou Green said, chuckling, “a man of many trades!” The audience laughed louder. Jason, however, only furrowed his brow, turned to his mother, and asked what was so funny, but the scowl that met him was answer enough: they were making fun of Dad. “Well,” Lou said, patting his father’s back, “after tonight, hopefully you’ll never need any of those jobs again. Now, let’s play This or That!” A thunderous instrumental cue followed Lou’s proclamation, and the house lights dimmed, allowing for a succession of blue and green lights to illuminate the dark stage. Jason stared up at the flashing lights, mesmerized, and then lowered his stare toward his father and found he was doing the same, his face a mixture of terror and bewilderment. His father would wear this look most of the evening, until the last rounds of questioning.
“He was on a winning streak,” his mother said, and frantically pointed her finger at Jason’s meal, mouthing, Finish your food! Jason moved to make an excuse, but the wind had been sucked from his chest. Besides, his mother was on a role, and would ignore any protests made. “They asked all the right questions, about all that nerdy shit he had spent a lifetime learning. And somehow, he guessed the right suitcase each time. You’re telling me this has a buildup like that and you can’t sell this story, Ben?”
After every question answered correctly, Lou would point to two suitcases upstage: one with a multiplier that would increase his father’s winnings by the number shown inside; the other with either a ‘Game Over’ sign or the dreaded ‘Times Zero,’ the suitcase that would not only end the game but rob the contestant of everything he had won. “All right, Mr. Jack-of-All-Trades,” Lou said after the seventh question, “which suitcase will it be? Now, our audience must remember that if Tommy walks away, he walks away with $50,000. If he decides to play, though, he could multiply it up to ten times as much. Or it could be game over. Or he could lose it all. A lot of pressure is riding on this decision, Tommy. What’ll it be? This . . . or that?”
As his mother began recounting the story for what must have been the seven-hundredth time, Jason began shoveling the food into his mouth, two pieces of steak at a time. The Salisbury steak was cold and bitter, and no matter how many times he chewed it, the steak would not yield; but he needed it gone, he needed to get away from his mother’s story before it reached its conclusion, he needed to be anywhere but here. “Logan told me the buildup is the tragedy, that it seems like the perfect inspirational story until the very end,” his mother said, her voice growing hoarse and frantic. “He said people could relate to this, that we all know what it’s like to have the rug ripped out from under us. Don’t they see that?”
And then: “I need this, Ben. My son and I, we need this deal. We’re willing to do whatever it takes. We’re willing to do interviews and talk shows, the whole thing.”
A lump — whether it was a piece of steak or the potatoes or something else — was growing larger in Jason’s throat, but it didn’t matter. Two more pieces entered his mouth, and Jason chewed them quickly, adding more slush to the piles collected in his aching cheeks. He looked up, almost half his meal shoved into his mouth, and glared at the happy faces taunting his progress.
“This is it,” Lou Green said after that tenth question, after Tommy had somehow amassed winnings of $750,000. “Now we enter the final decision, and you have a very important question to answer, don’t you, Tommy? You could call it a night. You could take that money, say au revoir to that laundry list of jobs, and find yourself a nice little home. Heck, you may get by with never having to work again. But . . .”
“It all changed with that word,” his mother cried. “The final act. That’s what makes this thing a tragedy! You’re telling me a network couldn’t do wonders with this?”
That terrified, bewildered expression now gone from his face, his father must have experienced something in that moment he had never felt before: he was in control, and everything he had done up until this point, all of the failures and nerdy things he knew that often made him the butt of his wife’s jokes, were going to make him a millionaire.
“But,” Lou Green said, putting his hand on his father’s shoulder, “there is still that ‘Times 10’ multiplier out there, meaning one of those suitcases would increase your winnings to seven-and-half million dollars. So what it’ll be: take your winnings and leave, or bet it all and decide this or that?”
His father’s eyes were wild, and his body began to tremble. “I’m gonna play!” he cried, and the crowd roared. Jason cheered, too, but when he looked up at his mother, she was wearing the same expression she had been all night, the same one she wore when her husband came home to tell her about the new job he had landed and how “this was the one” and how “they wouldn’t need to worry about money anymore.” It was the look of someone used to hearing the stories of a liar, the look of someone used to disappointment.
“He bet it all,” his mother said. “I still can’t believer the idiot bet nearly a million dollars. People will be screaming at their televisions when they see it!”
Jason was almost done with the steak. He took a swig of milk, and finished the glass. He would’ve poured some more, but he feared moving now might cause him to vomit all over the floor, forcing him back into that chair later that night, to face those smiles, to hear his mother screaming their story and threatening television interviews, to eat more Salisbury steak.
“This is it, Tommy! Two cases, a future with no worries and millions of dollars on the line, and still the possibility of a ‘Times Zero’ hanging in the balance. Which will it be: this case…or that case?” On stage, a beautiful woman touched the cases seductively, and his father’s eyes darted back and forth. Sweat dripped down his sallow cheeks, and a smile traded places with horror between each second. All at once, his father shot a hand forward, to his left side, his dominant side, the side he had favored most of the night. “That one! I choose the left case!”
What followed: “Times Zero,” a groaning audience, and the consolation prize for making it to the final question: a lifetime supply of Henderson’s Salisbury Steak. Henderson, a name synonymous with family dining. What followed: a meme on Facebook with a picture of Dear Old Dad’s face, a thousand jokes made at his expense, and neighbors laughing whenever he walked down the hall. What followed: his mother screaming for a week, leaving abruptly one night, and coming home the next, telling his father she couldn’t live like this anymore. What followed: three weeks later, after the world had heard his story and the stand-up comics had made their jokes and his horror-stricken mug had graced thousands of YouTube clips and social media pages, his father took a drive to a vacant lot overlooking the bay, put a gun in his mouth, and pulled the trigger.
“You can’t sell that, Ben?” his mother said, her voice a forced calm. “You’re telling me that won’t win awards?
Jason’s eyes began to water, and the smiles on the wall blurred to white clouds floating amongst a war-torn landscape of peeling wallpaper and yellow linoleum. There were still a few pieces of Salisbury steak left on the plate, but that meant little to him now. As his mother made one last attempt to sell their tragedy wholesale, Jason started pawing at his throat. He tried coughing, he even tried reaching into his mouth and grabbing the pieces lodged in his throat, but these simple movements were impossible. With the last of his efforts, he slammed his fist onto the table, swung it to the left, knocking the plate and the empty glass of milk onto the floor, and fell.
Behind him, his mother screamed, and even through the blur, the sound of his mother’s cell phone hitting the floor, of her agent saying her name once before hanging up, was a relief.
“Jason,” his mother cried.
The world swung upward, and with it the faces on the wall, their smiles looking so artificial now in the dying light. All but his — his smile had been real.
“. . . Jason . . .”
Someone screaming eight feet underwater — or above, rather, because he was the one sinking now, drowning, fading.
“. . . ason . . .”
A pain suddenly erupted in his throat, and the bitter taste of a meal’s worth of Salisbury steak and potatoes filled his mouth and hit the floor. The blur finally gave way to clarity, to the brown, half-masticated pile of acrid waste. The smell wafting up brought forth another violent heave and this afternoon’s lunch joined tonight’s dinner.
With his mother’s arms holding him around the waste, her balled fists wedged above his gut and her tears dampening the top of his head, Jason stared at his father’s consolation prize, sharing the first blissful silence with his mother since his father’s passing.
A minute passed before Jason managed to say, “Mom, I don’t want Salisbury steak, anymore.”