Christmas is quickly approaching. Cal and Conrad are at a local tree farm, selecting a fir to display in their living room. Conrad is tireless in his search for the perfect tree, which is a wonderful sight for Cal. Never mind the size of the tree—Conrad's enthusiasm is a far cry from the Conrad he knew just a year ago, so tired and ill he was unable to order food for lunch at a restaurant near the hospital. His son's vitality, combined with the festive feeling in the air, leave Cal "weightless with joy."
Is Conrad making progress, or is this sudden sense of control too good to be true? Maybe both? We might recall the worry Cal has earlier in the novel: the appearance of satisfaction conveyed in this scene seems too good to be true, as suggested by the presence of "canned music" and gaudy Christmas decorations.
Cal and Conrad begin setting up the tree in their living room. Beth returns home from "a meeting," which he elusively describes as "interesting." She explains that she ran into Carole Lazenby earlier that day, and reveals that she felt embarrassed when Carole told her that Conrad had quit the swimming team and she hadn't even known it herself. Immediately Cal is plunged into a bout of guilt. He was so certain that he was doing his job as a dutiful father, and never suspected he could miss something so important.
Beth's detachment from Conrad is on full display in this scene; she never addresses him straightforwardly. Both she and Cal's desire for control are derailed; Beth feels pitied by the people who knew about her son before she did, and Cal's sense of responsibility has failed him.
Beth continues to scold Conrad for keeping this secret for a month. Conrad explodes with anger, he yells that hadn't told his mother because he knew she didn't really care about him. Mother and son loudly blame each other for wanting to hurt the other. Cal tries to step in, but Conrad continues unloading on Beth. He expresses his resentment for her refusal to see him while he was in the hospital, and finally storms off to his room.
A mess of buried emotions explode to the surface. None of the Jarretts have known how best to handle the aftermath of Conrad's breakdown, and their individual desires – for control, for acceptance, for peace – have put them at odds with one another.
Cal tries to comfort Beth, who is shaking and sobbing. He wants the two to make up, but Beth refuses, claiming that Cal only takes Conrad's side in their confrontations. With Beth "refus[ing] to be manipulated," Cal heads up to Conrad's room by himself.
This is a rare moment in which Beth's own mental unrest is uncovered. We realize that her coldness toward Conrad is more than a matter of courtesy. To her, his anger represents nothing more than an attempt to manipulate her.
Cal finds Conrad lying face down on his bed. He tries to persuade Conrad to apologize to Beth, but Conrad complains that he's too tired. He also doesn't think his effort would be worthwhile. Cal doesn't understand what he means; Conrad explains that Beth hates him, and doesn't want his apology. His son's claim doesn't make sense to him. Casting for an answer, he asks if his sessions with Berger are helping. Conrad warns Cal not to blame Berger, and the conversation ends abruptly.
Tellingly, Conrad wants to leave Berger out of the situation. He believes his therapy sessions are designed to deal more with himself than with his place in his family. However much Berger is helping to transform his personal sense of control, Conrad still feels powerless when interacting with others.