When Jamaal arrived at his father’s house Friday evening, he saw the old man standing on the front stoop, facing the door.
Something didn’t look quite right as Jamaal approached. His father wore one of his droopy old jackets, one of the five he had alternated each weekday for the last how-ever-many years of teaching math to kids who sometimes paid attention at the local public school, sometimes stared into space as the numbers flew above their heads and out the windows. The droopy jacket seemed to vibrate at a slow pace, almost imperceptible, as his father’s right arm, a right angle at the elbow, pulsed slightly as if keeping time to snappy jazz no one else could hear.
“Dad?” Jamaal called softly as he approached his father.
The old man turned, his expression a mix of surprise and frustration. “The goddamned door won’t unlock,” he said, clipping the words like the chalk strokes of another equation on another Friday afternoon.
Jamaal noticed his father held his keys in his right hand, pointing them toward the door and pressing the electric lock for his car door over and over.
“This thing was working this morning!” his father groused, looking at the keys as if they’d said something bad about his dog.
After staring at the keys for a few depressions of the button, Jamaal softly said, “Dad, that’s your car key.” He gently maneuvered the key ring in his father’s gnarled hand until the house key aligned with the doorknob.
“Well shit,” his father said, and then he forced a smileless chuckle. “I guess I need my head examined!”
Jamaal laughed too as his father easily unlocked the door with the correct key and called over his shoulder, “Are you staying for dinner?”
“Is Mom making meatloaf tonight?” he asked. Even in his fifth decade of life, his mother’s meatloaf could make him happy as a carefree child again for the time it took to eat a second helping.
“You know, she might have mentioned something about that this morning,” his father replied, sounding his cheerful self again. “But I honestly don’t remember.”
“I’m only staying if it’s meat loaf,” Jamaal said, playing along with a joke they’d shared many times.
But Jamaal wondered if his father could sense the concern swimming at snorkel-depth beneath the humor. His father was scheduled to see the neurologist again next week for more tests. Jamaal was going with him this time—at the doctor’s request.
Something other than the trip to the doctor was weighing on Jamaal’s mind. Just that morning, he had tried to jam his own house key into his office door’s keyhole, briefly pushing and twisting until he scraped his knuckles. It was only three seconds, a voice in his head assured him. Doesn’t mean a thing.
By John Sheirer