It was an otherwise normal Tuesday, when an outburst from the television made Tom Groves stop short. As always, his son Jackson had tuned to ESPN and absent-mindedly watched last night’s highlights while eating breakfast. Normally, Tom tuned it out entirely—he always watched the highlights before bed and caught up on anything he missed on the Internet at work. But today Stephen A. Smith seemed to have lost his mind. “…And I’m tired of playing everyone’s favorite angry black man for your fucking amusement! Has it ever occurred to you that I might have something interesting to say without having to scream it at the top of my goddamned lungs? I have a fucking college degree for Christ’s sake!”
That’ll earn them a friendly visit from the FCC, Tom thought. Wonder what set him off? He was jolted from his musing by Jackson. “Hey, Dad—you’re kinda in the way.”
“Did you hear that?” he asked Jackson, pointing to the screen.
“Stephen A. Smith freaked out.”
“Yeah, that’s what he does.”
“No, I mean—“ Tom noticed the show cut back to Smith. What was the director thinking? “Listen.”
“What do I think? You don’t give a good goddamn what I think! Toss it back to the angry negro so he can amuse all the white people! Fuck you!”
“Wow.” Tom couldn’t understand how they could keep him on the air. And he was still in the split screen. Did they want to lose their license?
“What?” Jackson asked.
“Didn’t you just hear that?”
“Yeah, that’s his thing. You know that.”
“Don’t you think he went a little far there?”
“I don’t know. I could care less about the Knicks.”
“What do I care who the Knicks should sign in the off season?”
“Didn’t you hear him swear?”
Jackson looked up from his bowl of Raisin Bran. “Ah, very funny. Mess with the teenager when he’s half-asleep. Clever.”
“But—“ Tom looked back to the TV, but ESPN had gone to a commercial. Maybe he was the one who was half-asleep. After all, it didn’t quite make sense. Yes—that had to be it. Tom made his way to the coffee maker and poured himself a large cup. Jackson had turned his attention back to his cereal. SportsCenter had turned its attention to spring training highlights, and no one was screaming at the moment. He must have been hearing things. Although that wasn’t much of a relief, if he was honest.
Jackson finished his breakfast and stood up from the table. “You ready to go? I’ll grab my stuff.” Silence. “Dad?”
“Huh? Oh, yeah. Go grab your stuff, I’ll be with you in a minute.” As Jackson hurried up the stairs to his bedroom, Tom found the remote. He wanted to check something out. See if he really was imagining things. CNN was usually good for yelling. Sure enough—talking heads.
“…gotta scream all the fucking time because of those morons on Fox!” What the hell is going on? He switched quickly to Fox News.
“How goddamned stupid are you idiots that you eat this shit up every day? Every fucking day!” Tom immediately clicked off the TV and glanced quickly at the stairs to make sure Jackson wasn’t watching him. What is going on? Oh my god—I’m going crazy. He stared at the blank screen.
“How late were you up last night?” Tom snapped back and noticed Jackson standing next to him. “You look like you’re about ready to pass out.” Maybe that was it. He didn’t sleep all that well last night. After all, if he was going crazy, he wouldn’t notice, right? That’s what he thought he remembered anyway. If you think you are going crazy you’re not—something like that.
These thoughts kept Tom’s mind racing while he drove Jackson to school. Just before the turn into the school, blaring horns pulled Jackson back out of his thoughts. They were at a red light in the left turn lane, and the occupants of the cars in the two lanes to their right were busy exchanging shouts.
“I am so sick and fucking tired of going to this goddamned worthless shit-ass job every fucking day!”
“My stupid bitch of a wife threw my ass out in the fucking street!”
“My dumb ass fucking boss wouldn’t know a good idea if it bit him in the ass!”
“Unfaithful bitch is fucking the goddamned neighbor!”
“Dad!” Tom jumped in his seat. “The light’s green.”
“Oh…yeah.” Tom looked at Jackson while he turned left toward the school. He doesn’t look shocked. But, he had to. This time. “You had to hear that.”
“What two guys arguing over road rage?”
“Is that what you heard?”
“Isn’t that what you heard?”
“Yeah, but—it was just a little shocking?”
He didn’t hear it. How is this possible? First the TV—now this. This can’t be happening. “I mean…this early in the morning. How can you be so mad this early.”
He’s looking at me strange, Tom thought. He just doesn’t want to say anything. Tom couldn’t blame him, though. Have a good day at work, Dad. Oh, and try not to lose the rest of your mind. Yep—that’s a pleasant conversation.
Tom dropped Jackson off and made his way to work without incident. The morning sped by uneventfully. No issues cropped up at lunch either, and soon it was nearing the end of the day. Tom was beginning to think it might just be lack of sleep. After all, Jackson hadn’t heard anything. And if he wasn’t going insane then Jackson— He stopped right there. That was not a thought he could complete. Unfortunately for Tom, he was mulling this over when he was supposed to be listening to a client on a conference call. When he finally noticed that his name was being called, he had to ask for a recap.
“My fucking house is getting foreclosed! They cancelled our goddamned bonuses, and I am fucking screwed—hard! Where the fuck are we gonna go? How the hell do you tell your kids that your shitty company decided to stop paying you, and you’re going to lose your mother-fucking house?”
Tom stifled the scream that pounded inside his head. He had to get out—right now. He mumbled something about being sick and hurried to leave the office. He had to check himself three times to keep from breaking into a run on the way to his car.
He started the car and quickly turned off the radio as soon as he noticed it was on. I’m not going to hear any more crazy voices. Crazy—good word choice. I gotta get home. During the drive, his head began to throb, so he pulled into a drug store to get something for the pain. As the automatic door opened, he saw an old man bending creakily to the floor to pick up some dropped money. “My whole fucking life is shit! My savings are gone, my kids are selfish assholes, and I gotta eat fucking hamburger helper.”
Tom stopped short and didn’t even pause before turning and sprinting back to his car. Something was wrong. Something was definitely wrong. No one in his family was crazy. This crap was supposed to be genetic. He wasn’t under any unusual stress. Things were fine at work. No fights with Judy lately. What the hell is going on?
Tom drove directly home, texted his wife, Judy, that he wasn’t feeling well, popped one of her sleeping pills, and went right to bed. It had to be better in the morning. He just needed some sleep. He slept soundly through to the next morning, when his alarm finally woke him up. Judy was already gone, and Jackson was waiting for him downstairs. This was going to be a normal day. No more hearing things. Got plenty of sleep. Everything’s OK now. All of these thoughts ran through Tom’s mind while he showered and dressed. When he walked down the stairs, sure enough, there was Jackson watching SportsCenter while eating. Perfectly normal day.
“I am just thrilled to be back screaming at you dumb motherfuckers again.”
Tom scrambled for the remote, fumbled with it for a second, and turned off the television. “You had to hear that,” he said as he turned toward Jackson.
Jackson looked at him, paused for a second, then yelled. “Will you shut the fuck up you crazy asshole?”