Featured Fiction

"Degrees of Degeneration"
Bobby Williams

​It might not seem that strange to you now that at seven-seventeen in the morning a coffee maker gurgles to life with absolutely no one around or having been around for twelve hours, but it is. All these things are coming to life, and no one really notices. And even if they do notice, they certainly don’t seem to mind. And that’s what happened—right there in Marco Salazar’s metallic kitchen, the coffee commenced its daily dribbling at precisely seven-seventeen.  
    Marco had told his clipboard carrying interior designer that he wanted the kitchen to feel and operate like a spaceship. And so that’s what happens: Marco inhabits the kitchen from time to time but really the ship just cruises. His dietician arrives just before the first of every month to preprogram the refrigerator’s computer to communicate with the computer at the grocery store, which finally tells a team of human employees what needs to be brought over and put into Marco’s fridge for the next month. The dietitian is the closest thing to a friend Marco has left, always telling him during each visit, “You’re lookin’ guuuuu-ud, are you making your shakes like I showed you? Yes? Okay, good, that’s really great… And what about that salmon with bronze fennel? When I saw it on the screen last month, I almost shit myself. No, oh my God, that was duck, Marco. I see, yeah. No it isn’t weird. Okay, we don’t have to…” And all this time the dietician jabs and jab-jab-jabs his fingers at the screen.  
    The rising smell of spacebrewed coffee gives Marco an added punch in his pants upon waking. A massive white screen in front of his bed shows office action featuring a receptionist in something that leaps over the line for casual and lands in the strictly forbidden as far as office attire is concerned. And Hell-oooo, she bends over much further than necessary to answer the phone. Marco strokes himself and laughs; now that’s a real fantasy. The fact that Marco is personally responsible for the near extinction of receptionists nationwide makes him feel powerful and he can’t help thinking that this day, February 28th, is going to be oh, oh my God, oh my fucking God, it’s going to be so good, so good, oh my God.  

Note: The author is aware that the story begins, more or less, with the main character waking up in the morning. Please don’t be alarmed or turned off or anything, silly, it’s just that if he is going to die at the end, and he might, isn’t it comforting to know that he had a pleasant morning? But really the point here is that although Marco Salazar is a hot young software man, and if we’re being honest, the hottest, he still wakes up and inserts himself into improbable pornographic scenarios before having coffee and leaving for work just like everyone else.  

    And of course, also like everyone else, Marco Salazar admires his still-shirtless physique while pouring spacebrewed coffee and flipping on the news. This physique is one thing that separates him from some of the less-hot young software men. 
    Local weatherman Stone DeFoné is a combed and hyper hurricane of a man whose weather forecasting technique is best descried as…threatening. His face lunges toward the screen: “Now, there is a chance of rain today,” then quickly retreats to the map, “but I’m not sure that it will,” and approaches again as though he’s working up to something violent, “you should definitely bring your umbrella to work…just in case.” He is stern, his hands squeeze the air in front of the camera, and the viewer senses that he could become unhinged by the slightest unforeseen gust of wind.
    Stone today: “I wore this white suit because that’s what you can count on this morning and probably into the late evening, Long Island. That’s right, it’s Ice-Ice, baby,” Stone says, laughing, retreating, continuing, “you see what we have up here is a thick layer of warm, above-freezing air,” Stone’s arms flay about the map like he’s spray painting, “and down below boy, as you can see, the surface temperature today is frigid, in the single digits—so when this group of high pressure clouds arrives and eventually bursts the precipitation will pass through the warm upper region and into the frigid zone absolutely freezing what normally would have been your standard messy mix. I hate to say this, Long Island, I really do, but we might have a Glaze Event on our hands.”  
    “Ice isn’t white,” Salazar says into his mug, sliding his other palm along his abs.
    “A Glaze Event? That sounds pretty bad, Stone, back to you,” says the made-up anchorwoman dressed in a daring lobster-red business suit, overworked hair poking stiffly from her scalp like hay.  
    “Bad it is, Umi, back to you.”  
    “Do you have a fun fact for us today, Stone, or have you canceled it due to the Glaze Event?” 
    “Oh, yeah, sh-sure I do. Got this one from our Money Watch team…last year the number of Americans that drink coffee dropped from sixty-six percent to sixty-one. Back to you, Umi,” he points.  
    “Well, that’s certainly bad news for Starbucks. Wonder what that’s all about?” Umi smiles at her male co-anchor.
    “Fascinating,” mocks the male co-anchor, reasonably jealous of Stone’s white suit, or the way his co-anchor’s red ensemble mutes his otherwise spectacular February tan. “Maybe the Money Watch team should invest in tea,” he adds.  
    The big bad sky is the color of arrogant disinterest. Just posing there…making you beg for it, ready to hurl but nothing falls yet. Marco’s cigarette smoke blends in nicely as it exits through the sunroof. He’s a practiced smoker, looks (and feels) cool doing it, holds the cigarette between his teeth like a happily perplexed pirate before draping his lips around it oh so gently (doubtful the cigarette would prefer to be smoked by anyone else). When he puts the cigarette out the window to ash, the motion is so elegant you’d just think everyone was watching. He’s now twenty-nine and never considered words like bald, acne, overweight, virgin, or disappointment. His car is black with a fat howling engine. At red lights he revs the engine, mechanically threatening to ass-rape the car ahead—the move is so aggressive that the driver ahead has no choice but to look in the rearview to see Marco revving and smoking. The revvie considers Marco a motherfucking asshole. Marco the revver assumes jealousy.
    And Marco Salazar knows that The Number 2s will be picketing in his parking lot today, rain or shine, even ice. In the halls of Egostatistical he’s been referring to them as “the cleaning crew,” or “maid ladies.” The group of unemployed Hispanic receptionists would kill Marco Salazar if it would help them get their jobs back, but it’s too late; they prefer instead to make his life a living hell.  
    The protest outside Egostatistical started after a bitter revenge interview Salazar’s former patent editor, LaMichael Carmichael, gave to High-Tech Times. In the interview, Carmichael recounted, and really enumerated, the constant (almost daily) need to remind Marco to include Two for Español while developing the software and patent for his Automated Answering System (AAS)—the technological device now credited with putting most receptionists out of work and steadily increasing cellphone usage minutes nationwide. Carmichael also alleged that Salazar had made a lucrative agreement with multiple cellphone corporations in which he promised to program the AAS to ask meaningless and unanswerable questions like “What is your account number?” to drive up minutes and so further increase cell revenue. Salazar is also rumored to have guaranteed that with the simple push of a button a company could ensure that all operators were busy helping other customers (this is true). Cellphone companies would then offer a kickback to businesses that kept their customers on hold the longest (unconfirmed). LaMichael Carmichael concluded the interview by asking, rhetorically, “What kind of guy thinks up twisted circular lines of automated questioning but can’t remember half the country’s population?”  
    Salazar was eventually recognized for having created the most Significant Technological Device (STD) of the new millennium at a High-Tech Times fundraiser event. When he failed to credit, thank, or even mention LaMichael Carmichael once during his acceptance speech, it pissed the editor off. “Surely his Technological Device wouldn’t have been nearly as significant had I let him exclude half the damn population. And I won’t even mention the sheer stupidity of his original idea.”  
    And so these newly unemployed Hispanic receptionists banded together in protest outside Egostatistical headquarters and branded themselves ‘The Number 2s (some say L.Carmichael invented the name though he receives no credit from the 2s). High-Tech took notice of the racially charged movement and sent a journalist to the scene to see what Salazar had to say for himself. His now legendary statement, “I don’t give a shit,” was labeled insensitive, a corny fecal faux pas, and a confirmation of patent racism. It wasn’t long before the whole mess spread around the capital ‘I’ Internet. Do I need to explain what clever Internet individuals do with a story that involves a hot young wealthy entrepreneur, minorities, and a few juicy out-of-context quotations?  
    They invent clever captions for unrelated pictures.
    They use this symbol “#” to reinforce everything already overtly hilarious about said captions.  
    They “tweet” “at” everyone even remotely involved. 
    They cry injustice and form sentences that include phrases like ‘this country’ or ‘the government.’  
    They influence late night television monologues. 
    They want to do something about it.  
    They want Salazar to apologize publicly for what he said. 
    They do not ever consider how many people he does employ.  
    But he doesn’t even notice because he’s got a company to run.  
    Another public figure commits a newer and/or funnier faux pas.  
    They move on.  
    They leave the Number 2s behind. Old news.  
    Salazar pops his trunk and The Number 2s “BOOOOOOO” at him, jerking their signs of protest up and down for his notice. Marco Salazar cannot read the signs as they are of course written in Spanish. If they were written in English, they’d kind of be screwing themselves over, a little too ironic, so you gotta give them that. He’s got about fifteen umbrellas in his trunk and he invites the protestors to come over and take one. Their English-speaking representative yells to him, “No way, man; you just want us to put down these signs.” 
    Salazar can’t stand arguing with them anymore. He’d long ago added numero dos for Español. He’d been feeding them lunch on and off for months.  
    It really hasn’t helped that a younger and Hispanic software man developed a similar system to Marco’s that allowed Spanish-speaking callers the honor of pressing One for Español. The Number 2s spend a lot of time calling local Long Island businesses to find out who still uses Marco’s numero dos answering service and then they picket accordingly. There is a merger/buyout being worked up by the Egostatistical legal team that should soon quell the Numero Uno rebellion.  
    Marco Salazar leaves about fifteen sets of Gore-Tex brand gloves with the umbrellas on the sidewalk. He looks at the poor cold protestors on his way in and announces, “There is going to be a Glaze Event beginning any minute now—you’re welcome to stand in the lobby while you wait for rides home.”
    “We’re not going anywhere you motherfucker,” the representative replies, blue lips, teeth chattering. No matter how many pizzas Marco orders or gloves he hands out the Number 2s will not understand that their time is coming one way or the other. If Marco Salazar had not invented the Automated Answering Service, it is a metaphysical certainty that someone else would have. Direct human communication and basic human labor are things of the past—he tries to make this as clear as possible to whoever will listen, but no one will listen.  
    Boss Salazar runs his fingers through his hair in the elevator. He looks up at the mirrored ceiling and it is clear that he’s flicked all the falling ice balls from his gorgeous black strands. Using the small mirror on the back of his cellphone device he checks to make sure he has no boogers in his nose; it is important for a boss not to have boogers in his nose—you never think about it, and that’s because the boss is always thinking about it. Boogers undermine a boss’s authority. Tiny food particles flying from the boss’s mouth while eating, or sticking just barely to his lips or chin, can have the same effect. That’s why you never get to eat lunch with the boss.  
    The elevator doors glide open and Salazar strides into the office. There the office weasel is pecking around at everyone’s desk. His moronic orange button-front shirt is buttoned up all the way; it constricts his Adam’s apple and could be the reason he is always stretching his neck when he speaks. Boss Salazar actually has no clue what the weasel does; a perplexing department called ‘Human Resources’ does all the hiring around here now. The boss has often thought about his company as developer of inhuman resources, and wonders in the same vein about what alien resources might entail—a directory of available extra-terrestrials? Too many lonely lunches…  
    “Yo, BOSS-man,” announces the weasel.  
    “Good morning,” replies Marco, who is also unsure of the weasel’s actual name.
    “Yes, morning, grrrreat morning all right!” He might as well have replied with ‘Sheez, I’ll say,’ and looked out the window. He’s stretching his neck toward the boss, a beacon signaling intended conversation from which the boss must flee, quickly, and he rushes to his executive assistant’s desk.  
    The weasel yanks at his tight orange collar; with two fingers he pulls it the opposite direction of the momentarily outstretched neck and awkwardly lurches at the boss who has noticed a consistent spike in weasel energy during national news events like this weather thing, or a tragic airport shooting. Anything that might elicit general conversation or permit early release from work seems to get him all jazzed up.  
    “Did you see Duh- Foné report dis morning,” the weasel says cleverly. 
    “Sure,” replies Salazar.
    “Ever been in a Glaze Event before?” 
    “Not before…dis morning,” the boss replies, regrettably engaging in the weasel’s clever joke, but really more showing off for his adjacent smoking hot executive assistant who does get to eat with the boss from time to time and so is aware that the weasel’s presence is unwanted.  
    “You may go home now Scott, they’re closing the roads soon.” She has exceptional organizational ability and writing skills, she is highly motivated, a self-starter, comfortable in a fast-paced setting, able to work independently or in a team environment, uses may when most would use can. 
    “Oh yeeeeeahhh, is that okay with the boss?”  
    “Have a good one, Scott.”  
    “You’ve got a conference with Legal in five, Marco.”  
    Scott skips back to his desk, shoots his neck and generally announces, “I’m outta here.” The few employees who have made it to work are relieved.  
    In the office Marco tells his executive assistant, Karen, “That kind of shit is why I need you. What the fuck does he even do?”
    “Scott’s a field tech.”
    “A field tech?”
    “He visits local offices that are having problems with software.”
    “Don’t most offices have their own IT professionals?”
    “Does our software ever break down?”
    “Not really.” 
    “So that’s why he’s always around and never has anything to do.”
    “If we gave him his own office, would he stay in there?”
    “Already tried it.”
    “You’re good.”
    “I’ll figure something out soon enough; we can’t fire him.”
    “Why not?”
    “Scott’s Hispanic.”
    “Fucking Christ.”  
    “You should just tell everyone what’s on your mind, Marco; they’d understand.”
    “Is anyone even racist anymore?”
    “Sure, people in the South are…”
    “That’s racist!” says the boss.
    Karen laughs. They do make a charming team; she’s so pleasant to look at, one of those girls who puts ribbons in her hair Saturday afternoons and with whom you imagine a whole life with right after meeting her (they haven’t fucked yet). Here’s part of the reason why:
    “You don’t really have a call, you know.”
    “I figured; heard something about a winter weather advisory on the way in and schools closing—that where all our moms are?”
    “Yeah, they all sent emails.”
    “Lorelei called earlier and said you should collect her stuff and leave it in the garage.”  
    “She also insisted on returning the ring and car.”
    “Are you mad?”
    “Fuck it.”  
    “Well, I think she’s crazy.”  
    Just as the boss was about to take this suggestive bit of phrasing to the next level a meteoric cacophony, sprack and cack-cack-cack, smacked against the office windows. The Glaze Event kicked off with the force of a great blind pigeon apocalypse and all anyone in the office could do was quietly exclaim the f-word and rotate their nervous gaze from the front door to their car keys to Marco Salazar.  
    And so after Marco sent everyone home to tuck in he stayed to collect a few framed photographs for the impending and non-confrontational garaged return. He looked into the eyes of the photographed Lorelei, staring and thinking—like, in a way that if the person in the picture could sneak into the room without notice and see you staring like that, she might think twice about calling off the engagement. 
    Salazar exited the elevator carrying his clinking cardboard box of frames. Before he walked outside he observed The Number 2s bracing themselves against the sharp and constant ice. They’d put down their signs and were using their forearms across their foreheads as shelter; ineffective, some had picked up and unfurled the donated umbrellas—all wore the Gore Tex gloves. The ice that did not pelt their bodies went ricocheting, cartoon-like, off the parking lot pavement, and some that really slanted in with the wind skidded along the black ice for yards. The Number 2s weren’t speaking to each other because opening one’s mouth had become dangerous; early ice had ricocheted off a few lips, drawing minor blood. The only real sound out there anymore was the heavy peppering of ice against the signs now laid either protectively flat over certain protesting heads, or on a nearby patch of forgotten grass, cackling sporadically like popcorn when it gets going in the microwave.  
    The returned presence of Marco Salazar seems to heat them as well. Like nothing had happened, or was now happening, like a son mid-whack when Mom randomly checks in, they all rush to grab their signs again in the manner of the dishonestly self-assured. They are quick—quick enough to convince themselves Marco had not seen them on break, nearly defeated by the still infant storm. Still they bob the signs up and down in his face, taking out their ice-fed frustration on the owner and chairman of Egostatistical. 
    Marco acknowledges a need to address the group: “I am leaving the office now, and it is Friday, and neither I nor anyone else will return until Monday, or whenever this is all over.” As he speaks, the chairman is party to the same blistering icy onslaught. It doesn’t bother him (though to be fair he’s only just entered the Event). He’s speaking like he’s addressing his own soldiers and not the enemy. His loosely-combed and parted-over- the-right-eye black hair pairs nicely with the ice in it. As the world around him becomes white, Marco’s dark features stand out brilliantly in contrast. Not only is he immune to adversarial conditions, he thrives on them. The ice-balls seem small and futile when they bounce off his sweet black leather jacket.  
    “I’m getting in my car now and I’m not coming back here−until Monday,” he speaks slowly, toeing that ever so fine line between offense and courtesy when addressing foreign speakers. “No one…at all, is going to be here again…until Monday. So you can all go home now. You should all go home. Okay, I’m leaving.” The Number 2s make no reply. It is pretty much understood that they’re going to leave and that no one is going to blame them for it, or even notice.  
    Salazar hops into his ride, black leather jacket against black leather seats—leather euphoria. He pushes in his personally designed and installed (1 of 1) old school cigarette car lighter and turns up the tunes as he shifts manually into reverse.  
    He pulls up alongside The Number 2s and rolls down his window: “De veras, regresen a sus casas y a sus familias y disfruten el fin de semana.”
    Eres pura mierda,” replies one Number 2. 
    El encendedor de cigarillos del coche suena y despierta el interés de los “Numero Dos” pero no lo suficiente, entonces el líder dice, "Jódete hijo de puta.”*
    Cars dawdle fitfully forward along the Long Island Expressway like lemmings headed to the edge, taillights lit red alert, wipers sloshing and resloshing, arms flung frustratingly into the air, stabbing middle fingers, yelling —total disrespect for the rules governing the HOV lane. Marco Salazar shoves his high-performance wide-tired ride nearly up somebody’s wet and icy rear-end, tiredly yelling “come on,” more like a passive reaction than a guy who cares or actually has to be somewhere. Though in truth Salazar did want to be somewhere, namely, anywhere but stuck next to exit 35, “Patchogue,” where he grew up. He looked at the giant white word everyday, sounds like a poison radish, a dimwitted burrowing creature that should have fur but doesn’t. Just to say “Patchogue” one must contort his mouth and tongue in a way that encourages drooling, and there is no way to clearly enunciate something so marbled and so makes you sound dumb or low class even before the other person confirms that you are as poor as those clothes would indicate. Goddamn “Patchogue,” the only word his mother could still properly pronounce after losing control of her entire biologically western hemisphere. “Patchogue!” the sign yelled, former home of the slackened beast woman and her dull-seeming son, forced to rub her left leg nightly hoping to reinvigorate the slack marshmallow muscles. And she, this beast, Mrs. Salaznek blowing Marlboro or Parliament cigarette smoke into her massaging son Mark’s teenage face—Mark often considered this brand shift while rubbing and rubbing and rubbing her in their dreadfully earth-toned living room. He eventually concluded that the corner store clerk likely had great difficulty discerning if she’d said “Marlboro” or “Parliament” and as both are quality brands, it is doubtful she ever bothered to correct him. After the accident in their driveway, she did not speak so much as words leaked from the corner of her down turned mouth, drooling out from the jaw. She’d say things to Mark every night, and he could hardly tell what they were: “Duneverrr fuhgit whooya-arrrr,” shit like that, little inspirational clichés.  
    Marco Salazar tries not to think about that shit anymore. But he knows if it weren’t for Patchogue, and his mother, he’d never have invented the Automated Answering System. One thing for another, I guess. He grrr injects the car lighter, “Ack,” turns up the music. The lighter pops and he pulls it. He puts it to the butt then guides the wheel one-handed down the exit 41 off-ramp, “Old Brookville.”  
    He used to make this trip from Patchogue to Old Brookville on Mondays in the summer with his mom. He’d roll down the window as they pulled off the exit. She’d always have hers closed to support the weight of her leaning left side, drooling a bit down the warm sunny glass like a dog. She spoke into the glass, to Mark, “Thave ta bes fishear…ta bes!” From his open window he could smell…fresh air. But that’s not it at all. This is an atmosphere we’re talking about—the cool presence of freedom, freedom from worry, freedom from morning and evening flabby calf massages. The stuff sifting into their rusting car wasn’t fresh air but elegance spiked with mint cannabis and chased with Spanish Rioja. The Mothers of Old Brookville walked on tanned feet, front yarding it in white pants, holding hands with bonneted babes. Destination: nowhere in particular, maybe to the beach, or a stop at Fred’s to get something, smiling and waving at the sweating men perpetually raking and mowing these yards. Mark sometimes noticed that the moms and dads would shelter their children’s ears from his mother’s car, its echo rudely piercing the otherwise perfect atmosphere, rumbling along to the fish market where Mark would have to roll his window up.  
    If you don’t already know, Monday is not the day to buy fish. What is on sale Monday is leftover from Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Anything they can move on Monday is just a bonus. Those fish are rank. They smell like their gaping mouths and bulging eyes look, puking at the thought of lying around in the sun for so long. Mrs. Salaznek, leaning and cane-bobbing her way into the market, didn’t give a damn about the smell. She didn’t read the sorry gaze of the fishmonger when she asked, “Wus-goodeer?” She tilted against the cane, waiting for his answer, not swatting the flies swarming around her cigarette smoke and briefly nesting in her dry orange-yellow hair. Her son Mark stood back, checking to make sure no classmates were around to pass judgment. The monger also looked at Mark who could read his gaze—it was pity, makes ya feel too small. His Mom continued to lean there, smoking with her right hand. The thin left strap of her purple and tulip-colored dress fell from her shoulder and landed in the crease of her elbow. 
    “Well,” the fishmonger said, averting his gaze from her contorted mouth, “the catfish fillets are good; okay, they’re okay, in the summer.”
    Mrs. Salaznek jabbed her cigarette into her hanging mouth and pulled on it with half lips. “Dey standup toooda heat aright enuff?” she asked, still leaning, still not fixing the strap, still not swatting flies, sun blazing directly in her face.  
    “Yeah, they do okay.”
    She turned to her son, “Marky, wuddya think?” 
    “Hey, yeah, if they’re good,” said Mark, trying to sound excited.  
    Mrs. Salaznek pointed her cigarette at the monger: “Baggumup, yav da bes fishear…I tell erybuddy dadullissen, da bes!”  
    Marco remembered the way she smiled pressed up against that window all the way home, her right-sided smile made the greater by contrast. And she’d been right, correct, too—those catfish filets were tasty, and when removed from that mountain of rotting fish flesh didn’t actually smell that bad.  
    Marco chuckled at the familiar memory, thinking about the ocean of topnotch fish he’d eaten since as he watched his garage door glide open automatically and almost too quickly for comfort. The door ascended in a manner befitting a lair instead of a home, the lack of a swooshing futuristic sound only made the motion more unsettling. Lorelei had always hated these garage doors: “Can’t we just have normal ones that move like a grandpa,” she would plead. But Marco exclaimed that this home was a testament to the power of technology. The door slid closed, shutting out the smacking sound made by cascading ice. Even inside the garage Marco could see his breath and feel the tightening grip of nature.  
These are the days that meteorologists dream about, major airtime for Stone DeFoné, front and center fella. The lone regional voice tasked with unveiling the intent of an angry regional god. This bitch could get national coverage. Tree branches might fall, landing on power lines. Grocery stores turned battleground, utter lack of any good bread, whispers of ‘stocking the basement’ among the elite. The word “crisis” started to permeate the writers’ room. The possibility of Stone’s big break includes the possibility of trickledown benefits. He needed words appropriate for chaos. 
Marco opened the space fridge to discover a barren landscape. He phoned his dietitian.
    “Chew, yo man.”
    “Marcoooooo, what are you doing?”
    “When you coming over?”
    “Whaaaaaat? I’m not going anywhere in this. Marco, yer crazy.”
    “Dude, come on, tomorrow’s the first.”
    “Tomorrow is not the first.”
    “Today is the twenty-eighth, Chew, you need to program the fridge.”
    “It’s leap year, Marco, tomorrow is the twenty-ninth. Marco, fucking trees are falling down. I lost power. I think my phone’s gonna die.”  
    “The twenty-ninth? Shit. Come over here; I have power.” 
    “I’ll try to make it over tomorrow; you should really go get some food for yourself.”  
    “I have a wine cellar, Chew.”  
    “Marco, my phone’s gonna die.”  
    “I’ll call you tomorrow.”
    “Yo, Chew?”
    Salazar flipped on the TV. 
    “It makes sense, Long Island—the devil bestows his wrath with fire, and god uses ice. I don’t know what some of you did to deserve this…” Stone steps closer to the camera, smiles, winks, retreats to the map of Long Island’s sliver now enlarged to fit where the entire USA used to be.  
    Salazar could sense the desperate local writers being pressured to uplift the storm’s prestige. He sipped some stale coffee. “Wrath isn’t fucking bestowed.”
    “Steer clear of the roads for the rest of the day; this Glaze Event is kicking into high-gear with gale-force winds…”
    “Maritime term,” Marco noted.
    “Beware of falling branches and downed power lines, if you still have power and heat, turn it up, the temperature will drop precipitously as the sun sets…towns without power…”
    They can’t hear you, buddy.”
    “Bellport, Blue Point, Brookhaven, Calverton, Coram…”
    Marco makes that blah-blah-blah motion with both hands, chomping like a babbling meteorologist.
    “Mount Sinai, Patchogue…” Stone pauses to wipe the corner of his mouth, “…Port Jeff, Port Jeff Station, Rocky Point, Ronkonkoma…” You get the sense that there are interns scrambling to various alphabetically arranged locations holding cue cards in the way Stone DeFoné shifts slightly and pauses when he gets to a new letter.  
    Marco looks at his blender, knows he’s supposed to make a shake now but opts for a bottle of wine from the cellar. He’s annoyed that Chew isn’t coming over. He sends Chew a tempting text message: Just cracked a bottle of Rioja…1990. Let’s party. But the message just hangs there, not going through, and confirms the death of Chew’s phone.  
    “And in Nassau County…Baldwin, Bellmore, Bethpage…”
    Salazar starts wandering around his house, which is actually really a mansion. Most of his neighbors’ mansions have names, and the names usually include the word ‘manor,’ like Saddlewood Manor or Stone Manor or Avebury Manor. He moves slowly into the vaulted living room, hoping that the longer it takes him to get there, the better the chance of him finding someone. No such luck. The thickening sheet of ice on his roof clutches like the sound of a tightening noose. He jumps and is startled (only slightly) by the pronounced sound of crystalline trees snapping in the distance. The initial CLAP is so thick and unavoidably real that it rattles his spine; the bareboned echo that follows calls attention to the abnormally vacant streets outside. This splintering of timber becomes so commonplace, almost rhythmic, that Salazar anticipates the phrase “Fee Fie Foe Fum” anytime now. 
    “Garden City, Hempstead, Hewlett…Old Brookville.”  
    “No, no, no, no, no, no,” Marco pleads with his empty house.
    Oh yes, everything off. All shut down with the defeated sigh of the just unplugged or powered down—a supposedly sweet relief.  
    What to do first but light so many candles? The aroma actually serves to occupy the just unplugged mind for longer than one would care to admit. Oh wowie, I should light candles more often…what is this waxy blue gem? “Lilac Blossoms.” A holdover from Mother’s Day, no doubt. And now, “Bahama Breeze” and “Banana Nut Bread” and every Christmas candle, including “Spilled Wine” and “The Spinach No One Wanted.” Certainly no bestseller, but why actually make the stuff when you can just light a candle? Once the mansion is fragrantly muddled it becomes apparent to Marco why people always use the term ‘candlelight’ instead of just ‘light.’ He can’t really see but traces of everything once familiar are now dominated by the longest indoor shadows possible.  
    The unplugged mind soon returns to its default setting. 
    “Hello, you have reached the Long Island Power Authority, para Español oprima numero dos. For billing inquiries, press or say one; for trouble with your service, or to report an outage, press or say three.” 
    “I didn’t get that. For billing inquiries, press or say one; for trouble with your service, or to report an outage, press or say three.”
    Marco presses three.  
    “Thanks. We are currently experiencing high call volume. All our customer service representatives are busy at the moment. The approximate wait time to speak with a representative is forty-five minutes.”  
    Wildly inappropriate Muzak streams into Marco’s ear so he pushes the button that ends the call, defiantly gulps his wine and heads into the basement for another bottle. He’s got no food, his phone will probably die soon, and he’s in the romantic stage of a solid red wine buzz. His thick black flashlight forms intricate bottled shadows on the cellar walls and his mind recalls Roman Times when men claimed ladies and lusted after everything candlelit and appealing.  
      Karen, it’s like ancient Rome over here.
    Hi Marco.
    Come over.  
    Whaaaat? Are you drunk?
    They shut down the L.I.E. Even if I could come over there I couldn’t.  
    Just come on, I need your assistance. I don’t even have any food.
    Where’s Chew?
    He said he’s not coming over because it’s leap year.
    You poor thing, what’re ya gonna do all night?  
    I guess drink and wait for the juice to come back.  
    Might be a while.
    No way.
    You want my assistance?
    Yes. Please. 
    Start boxing up Lorelei’s stuff. You don’t need power for that.
    I might.
    Call me tomorrow, my phone’s gonna die. 
    Finally confronted with the option of reading by candlelight to pass the time Marco decides instead to collect his ex-fiancés stuff. Great word, stuff, perfect for describing all that might go into a box or any number of items one leaves behind. It is of course also right here that you’d be expecting a catalogue of these cute little things going into the box so cleverly used to recall cute little memories. But I wouldn’t do you like that. Are these physical manifestations of time spent what you think of when you think of memories? Do you actually believe that when Marco Salazar still thinks about Lorelei every single day of his life he meditates on vague seashells or pictures from dinners and ballgames and vacations and (friends’) weddings and holidays? That’s all just stuff. Actual memories are no more static than those who fill them. They are stored not in a cardboard box but within the most complex human organ, and here they are eternally alive. They are not posed or captured but accidentally retained, forcibly ingrained through significance. What Marco boxes are trinkets and artifacts that only act as signifiers for what goes on inside said organ, they cannot convey the smell or sound of her, and even after they are boxed and forgotten she will still exist to him as strongly and as clearly as the first day they met. He holds tightly to that first day; cued on continuous loop it waits backstage every night for the hacks to clear out, then moonlit takes center stage to tuck Marco in and hopefully guide his dreams somewhere pleasant.  
    It was the day he first presented what would become the Automated Answering Service to a group of investors in Manhattan. He was twenty, entering his sophomore year of college and still living at home to take care of his mom whose condition had worsened, which is the word people use in place of the phrase ‘gone completely to shit’. With his notes and computer packed by the front door, he sat on the ottoman massaging the limp calf muscle—it’d been limp for five years and yet she insisted. She still cashed the smoke from her lungs into his face. She’d gotten into drinking more seriously. Mark dreaded what he’d find each night when he arrived home from school.
    Ya fugedding hooda fukyarrrrrr!” She’d have ashes right on her shirt, her left side unraveling further into the muddy recliner, that left arm dangling off to the side so much that it appeared now longer than the right. 
    Enn waddaya doon tudday fuggin bigschot?” she asked him that morning, noticing her son in a suit for the first time.  
    “I have an interview.”
    Zit aboudat musheen ya made me?”
    Skippinda margit tuday den?”
    “I’m gonna have to; pick me up something for when I get back though.”
    Yarryarrya, jus dun fugget hooyarrr-kay,” she reminded him, arm dangling.  
    “I won’t.”
    By 8:15am that Monday the Long Island Railroad car smelled of unflushed piss and sweat and hairspray and soggy newspapers and Redbull and coffee and residue from thick green soaps and smoke and gum. Mark tried to go over his notes but was distracted by a babe across the aisle and up one row. The ever-present male fantasy of the beautiful woman spotted alone on public transportation took hold. He couldn’t turn away from the display of gentle dexterity made by her lightly pinked fingernails breaking that bagel down into bird-size bites. With each successive stop the conductor reminded everyone that this is a particularly crowded rush hour train and that they’re expecting another crowd at the next station. After the conductor punched her ticket she thanked him; Mark would later tell his buddy about the sound of her voice and take a lot of shit for it.  
    At the next stop the conductor came on again to announce that this train is particularly busy, and those riding together should sit together.  
    And why wouldn’t it be particularly busy at 8:45 on a Monday morning?  
Mark looked at his notes. Black blotches on a screen; this dexterous distraction might be his unraveling. He felt himself sweating and considered not what to say or how to sell, but what some money might do to help rejuvenate his deteriorating mother.  
   And at the next stop the conductor again reminded everyone that the train was crowded and those riding together should sit together.  
And Mark considered the absolute fact that we are all riding together, and that there really is no way for those riding together to not sit together.  
    She started popping baby carrots into her mouth one…at a…time. Looking out the window with something on her mind that Mark figured to be as interesting as her profile, cut like a sparkling starlet against the humdrum towns whizzing by, she seemed not at all static but full of something actual and alive. She wore a jean jacket with slightly rolled-up sleeves to give her various bracelets room to jangle up and down her arm. She was tanned and blonde, traits provided by nature and not a salon.  
    Mark convinced himself that his open seat, and her open seat, and the relative proximity were all good fortune, so he took his shot.
    “You know,” he quietly croaked up to her seat. She didn’t respond, as there were a lot of voices on the train. “YOU know what?”
    She turned, still unsure, “Me?”
    “We’re actually all riding together.”
    “The conductor keeps saying, ‘…if you’re riding together you should sit together’; I mean, we are all riding together, aren’t we?” 
    She did laugh, and she did get up.  
    “What’s all this?” she asked, sitting down next to Mark. He stared, as if in a trance, at her two scarves that hung so colorfully that they radiated with the force of fifteen. She was thin, a small little lady but with a full face, almost pudgy. The way she walked across the aisle one could imagine her dancing for a lifetime without a moment of embarrassment. Black sunglasses rested on top of her thick blonde hair, dimples flanked charmingly crooked teeth—sexy eyelashes flashed and flashed. Mark had always told her that she was too cool for him, even after he became really fucking cool.  
    “It’s a presentation, for a device I’m inventing.”
    “Ah, you’re an inventor,” she said coolly.  
    “I hope so.”
    “What’s your name?” she asked.
    “Marco,” he lied.
    “I’m Lorelei.” They shook, her bracelets jangling, dimples inning.  
   Salazar’s long-ass shadow wobbled a bit down the garage steps. He put the second box on the freezing concrete floor, unsure of how much time had elapsed−perhaps two hours? It had grown dark, good for nothing sun now napping somewhere in the blackness. The once radial candlelight now receded into itself, swallowed almost completely by the darkness that cloaked the powerless house.  
    “So what’s this device all about?”  
    “It allows people who can’t speak to make phone calls.”  
    “I’ve never really thought about what a pain in the ass that probably is.”  
    “The first one I made was for my mom.”
    “She went to remove a telephone wire that’d been sticking out of our driveway, and when she grabbed it it was live—she couldn’t let go.”
    “I’m so sorry to hear that.” 
    “The voltage took out her whole left side. The doctor said the current ripped through her nervous system like a lighter on tissue.”
    Somehow she stuck around even after that way-too-personal intro—though in Mark’s defense it was on topic. 
    In the meeting, with the investors, they acknowledged a societal need for such a device but asked how it could be possible for someone to carry on a conversation with only “yes” and “no” as available responses. They were right; he’d witnessed his mother struggle to make it work—the inability to make the linguistically capable aware of the yes or no situation was a big issue:
    “How may I help you sir, or ma’am?” Operators not yet versed in the proper grammar for conversing with computers.  
    “Ma’am…sir? What can I do for you?”
    And so it went. The device needed work. After the meeting Mark was interrupted on his way to the subway: “Yo kid,” shouted LaMichael Carmichael.
    “Yeah?” Carmichael approached him, put his arm around him, and walked him around the corner. He pulled out a smoke and handed one to Mark who said, “I don’t smoke.”
    “Listen,” Carmichael started, “you write code or what?”
    “Flip that bitch around.”
    “Listen,” Carmichael repeated, “you got it backwards. What you need is the computer to be on the other side. The person calling won’t have to talk at all.”
    “Oh shit.” 
    “If you can write code for what needs to be asked, like ‘do you need to pay a bill?’ Or call a specific department? Or whatever—check motherfuckin’ movie times, for god sakes. All you need then is for the responder to press a button in reply that the computer can read and move to the next option—no one ever has to talk.”
    “That’s brilliant.”
    “You can write code, right?”
    “Fuck yes…”
    LaMichael Carmichael, 42, quit his job within a week, backed and even befriended the young codewriter, and, as aforementioned, did save him from nearly blowing the whole thing via a certain recurring omission. After the infamous STD speech, Carmichael called Marco and asked stuff like, “What’s gotten into you?” “What the fuck is your problem?” “Is something wrong?” “Are you even listening?”  
    It wasn’t long before Marco moved to Old Brookville and hired someone to take care of his mom; and that first someone was collared, mid-massage, with a right-handed swing brandishing a bottle of Jack Daniels. The second someone took great offense to her cigarette smoke, then he fucked one, and one more, and the others got sick of constantly being asked the unintelligible question, “Hooina fugz MARGO SALZRRR?”
    Who indeed… 
    Marco stood barefoot and bored in the garage, indifferent to both his freezing feet and the cardboard boxes. The moon taunted him through the small garage windows, calm and silent and one-eyed and hidden behind twisted black branches that, given the icy thickness, did actually appear glazed—they tentacled into complex spirals, fusing with the yellow moon in a lunar design that resembled a bad tattoo. The too familiar racket of ice thrashing ice no longer filled the void left by all that forced powering down. For the first time Marco felt cold.  
    “Hello, you have reached the Long Island Power Authority, para Español oprima numero dos. For billing inquiries, press or say one. For trouble with your service, or to report an outage, press or say three.”
    “We’re sorry, your response was not understood. For billing inquiries, press or say one. For trouble with your service, or to report an outage, press or say three.”
    “Fuck YOU! OPERATOR. OPERATORRRR! This is bullshit. I need a fucking HUMAN. HUMAN BEING...”
He stomped back into the house.
    “We’re sorry, your response was not understood. For billing inquiries, press or say one. For trouble with your service, or to report an outage, press or say three.”
    He pushed the part of the screen on his phone programmed to represent the number three. 
    “We are experiencing unusually high call volume. The approximate wait time for a customer service representative is one hour and forty-five minutes.” 
    The absurdly inappropriate, mind-numbing, sunny psych-ward, driving to insanity, and by the way, who in the fuck composes this shit music started playing again and happily leaping through the phone like a clown on a daycare murder spree. There would be a Monday meeting about this on-hold Muzak shit.  
    Marco noted his cell percentage like a pulse. He felt hungry; cold, drunk, barely functioning on fifteen percent power. He needed to leave; flee, like the birds and bears had done months ago. He hung up. Then he dialed.  
    “Welcome to Oheka Castle, Long Island’s premier hotel and estate. For directions, press one. For weddings, events or corporate sales, press two. For group hotel sales, press three. For fine dining, press four. For mansion tours, press five. For media inquiries, press six…”
    “Un-real,” Marco begged the machine.
    “For the corporate office, press seven. For a hotel reservation, press zero.”
    He pressed zero.
    “Oheka Castle; this is Suzanne.”
    “Yes, hello?”
    “Hello, sir.”
    “You have power?”
    “Yes, sir; is there something I can help you with?”
    “Can I get a room?”
    “I’d be happy to check for you, sir.” He heard her punching keyboard, the spongy oral sound of her gum chewing almost too much for him to handle. “All we have left is the Olmsted Suite,” she reported.
    “Book it.”
    “Sir, I should tell you that the Olmsted Suite is twelve hundred dollars a night.”
    “No problem,”−his chuckle is relief, not conceit−well, maybe a hint of conceit.  
    “Fantastic, sir, the exceptional suite pays tribute to the Olmsted Brothers who designed the reflective and stately formal gardens here at Oheka Castle. You will have access to two glorious balconies that overlook the great lawn and the reflecting pools—of course I do apologize that all that’s frozen tonight.”  
    “That’s fine, Su—” 
    “Suzanne, don’t worry about the reflective pools; you’ve saved me.”
    “Then you can check in anytime, sir; plenty of people are staying the night, and Executive Chef Horatio Ettore Felice has decided to conduct an impromptu tasting for tonight’s guests.”  
    “Thanks so much, again; I really appreciate it.” 
    “Can I just have your name, sir?”
    “Marco Salazar.” 
    “We hope to see you shortly, Mr. Salazar, and drive safely—I take it you live close by? The expressway’s closed, you know...”
    “I do; and this isn’t my first trip to Oheka. My first solo trip, well, yeah...” 
    “Very good, Mr. Salazar. See you soon.” 
    Marco set his wine glass on the counter. He hopped up his grand staircase two steps at a time, rushing to his closet for some proper dining attire. He was no longer thinking about what could have been, or what was, but what could be going down tonight at the Oheka Castle. The Olmsted Suite, the Olmsted Suit, he rehearsed in the mirror: “Would you like to join me…in the Olmsted Suite?” He buttoned up a checked shirt that looked like a blue tablecloth from picnics in paradise. “You know, I have a view of all the frozen ponds from my two glorious balconies…” That was funny, cute and witty and humble, but the tie might be a little too much, could come off as desperate… He tucked it into his overcoat on the chance other dudes were wearing them.  
    And also, if the suite wasn’t stocked with champagne, he grabbed a few bottles from the cellar, wrapped them in his overcoat, and threw them onto the passenger seat of his jumbo truck—a vehicle so large and so in charge that this Glaze Event marked the first time in its generally garaged history that the word ‘needed’ could even be considered appropriate. The tires still smelled like rubber, the black paint buffed and gleaming, dazzling, sparkled in a way that makes people who don’t often ride in limousines uncomfortable. 
    Marco pressed the button on the wall that opened the garage door. Not much was happening. But of course, the power was out. He pushed the button on the driver’s side visor that opened and shut the door. Nothing.  
    “Mother-fucker,” he says to the garage. 
    Marco smiles that, oh god, kind of terrified, unsheltered smile that acknowledges he might be fucked here. He looks at the door, runs his fingers through his hair, adds his blazer to the pile on the passenger seat, unbuttons the sleeves of his tablecloth shirt−fuck it, he unbuttons the entire shirt and takes it off, adds it to the pile. Now in his shirt sleeves he can really feel the blistering cold sneaking through all the miniscule cracks that come with any house, even a named mansion or manor. He still takes the time to admire the definition of his goose-bumpy arms—biceps, triceps, forearms, the whole works on the ready.  
    First from the inside, behind the black beast, Marco bends over and pulls the manual override handle with all his might. He wants to use his hands and his arms to manually open the garage door, but sadly, the door does not concede one inch.  
    He gathers himself, hands on hips, takes a few deep breaths, and this time, with both hands squeezed into the handle, he jerks and contorts his reddening face to aid the struggle. He pulls then releases, an anthropoidal screech of pressure coming from deep in his guts, wine colored dabs of spittle dripping onto his chin (some rocket through his teeth) to the cold concrete, sharp ripples of skin cut into his cheeks with the effort and his eyes ooze liquid tension. He knows it’s the ice. He climbs to his feet and shoulders the door: BANG—BANG—BANG, trying to shake it loose. He shoulders it three more times. He elbows it and punches it on his way back down to the handle. He yells, “FUCK you!” at the top of his lungs as he pulls again. This time he pulls and shoulders at the same time, his shiny shoes slightly slipping and leaving signs of a struggle on the concrete. The goose bumps have vacated his arms that aren’t yet sweating but do test the limits of flexibility in such a chilly and unstretched atmosphere. He continues to pull up and shoulder out as he grunts: “HA-URRRRRGGGG, MMMMMMUHHH, HUU-MMMMMMM…MUHHHHH,” that classic, vein-popping grunt from the tomato-faced world of the hopeless and desperate.  
    This is usually when someone watching would coolly mention, “I don’t think that’s gonna work,” from a few feet away. And the hopelessly desperate would answer, after three or five dramatically heavy breaths, “Well,” more breathing here, “what the fuck do you think we should do?” 
    Then they’ll mention something annoyingly obvious that, unless you’re dumb, you probably checked even before you started the wildly physical exertion, like, “Did you check to make sure it’s unlocked?”  
    The sweaty individual would then reply in the rhetorical, “Waddaya think I am, a fucking idiot?”  
    The conversation will end there, and the two, (or the one in this case) will just stare at the problem for a while, not yet ready to admit total defeat. The ice sounds like laughter sprinkling daintily down to join its amassing crowd of compatriots outside the garage doors. Marco kicks at the door with his brown dining shoes, even throws another straight right that stings his knuckles. He yells the ef word−he hadn’t elongated the middle vowel like that in a while. He shoulders the door again, pathetically, then pulls at it like a dedicated crew member—one, two, three…one, two, three, huh, huh, huh, trying to resuscitate his mental stability. He considers reversing the black beast straight through that bastard-fucking door. But luckily the sound of anciently thick trees toppling like dominos in the distance reminds him of the potential havoc wrought by massive collapsing structures. He thinks of the mocking front-page headline, the photo of his crushed truck, that most unfortunate moment when supposed freedom turns instead to unexpected end.  
    And now is when that still-standing fool’s errand foreman will say, “Why don’t you just go outside and break the ice?”  
Yeah. Just break the ice.  
    He puts on sneakers, his leather jacket, and opens the garage door. Ice descends from the sky in unnaturally heavy then lighter assaults, seasoning Marco’s face like the regional weather god is salting his dinner. Stiff trees line the perimeter of Marco’s property, utterly black, thick with glaze and labeled: “Preserved for Survival after Doomsday”. The moonlight brings hints of definition to the trees’ frostbitten fingertips. Misshapen limbs lay perverted all over the ground, twisted, inky against the snow. Wind squalls in vicious howls through the branches and over the icy lawn, thrusting into Marco’s ears so powerfully that his brain feels as if it’s in a vise. He puts his hands over the ears, thinking that that might somehow help him cope.  
    Marco kicks the ice on the garage door bashfully with the realization that this task will require tools. The tool that comes to mind is pickax. A tool that you can’t buy nonchalantly unless you look like a miner or railroad man, because if you don’t look like a miner or a railroad man you’ll look like a criminal that’s up to something. So you’re forced to come up with a ridiculous excuse for the purchase like, “Never know when there might be a Glaze Event…”  
Instead of the necessary pickax, Marco grabs a shafted shovel—orange shovelhead/orange handle (plastic). He brings the Happymeal tool above his head with both hands on the shaft, takes the frigid air into his lungs and then plunges the tool into the ice with the ferocity and pride of a nearly victorious Renaissance knight.  
    Small bits of ice splatter to the sides. The back of Marco’s leather achieves its own glaze. His hair stiffens with each successive skewer. He bends down to check his progress, prodding the ice with his fingers. Dented it, the size of a golf ball—but fresh ice fills the hole almost immediately. Marco knows it’s hopeless. Tree limbs fracture around him, the freeze bites into exposed skin, his face like a cadaver, his fingers frozen. He is tiny in the tundra. He’s not getting that Olmsted suite either: no frozen reflecting pools, no impromptu tasting and certainly no Glaze sex event.  
    He smashes the shovel into the ice repeatedly until the shaft splits up the middle.
    He’s audible again but in the great space his frustrated grunt produces hardly an echo. He Mickey Mantles the door twice, WHACK and WHACK, which entirely detaches shovelhead from shaft and handle. He calls the fallen shovelhead a ‘fucking piece of plastic shit’ and kicks it away for icy burial. The knight and his plastic lance make an epically futile pair. And that unfulfilling slash of sunny color then rises against the sable sky, stabbing into the ivory earth like the forlorn filter of a failed photographer, something so incredibly mediocre that it makes you sad and so becomes a work of art.  
    Marco Salazar persists in the hopeless deed. He stabs and stabs and stabs and stabs, all the while yelling at the ground, and spit sticks to his purple and frozen lips. He wants the not-so-sharp shaft to impale his own vulnerability, to gore and release the prison of pressure gathering in his guts, to free him from whatever he’s thinking ‘here’ means to him.  
    Marco’s last stab is a catastrophe. His right foot slides backward as he goes for another plunge, the angry momentum sending him to the ground at breakneck speed. His hands brace for the forward fall, but his right wrist snaps on impact like one of those far-off tree limbs, and from close proximity the sound is disturbingly similar. The wrist’s concession allows for his head to crash in submission. He can’t open his eyes to accost the sky; the ice, ice, tinkles down, down, like jagged giggling hellfire fairies just pissing rock solid on the already ruined victim, baby. Marco rolls onto his side and eventually works his way up. He’s covered in everything. He grabs the shovel with his good wrist, takes it inside and stabs it into Lorelei’s box of stuff so it looks like, you know, he’s just a good dude returning her cute plastic shovel.  
Back inside he seeks nothing but the passage of time. He needs this to end. He feels himself withering with each frozen moment—his cell percentage in the single digits now, the hope of existing on hold long enough to reach a human voice even more impossible than freeing the garage door. He finishes the last half of an already opened bottle of Rioja with his wrist dangling and pulsating. Nothing left to do but try to sleep.  
    The once pornographically alive white screen in front of Marco’s bed is confrontational, hauntingly pale, white, powered down, dead. It’s even cold upstairs. The hot young software man has the coverlets pulled up to his chinny-chin-chin. He’s chucked his dining attire in the laundry basket and pulled on sweatpants and sweatshirts. His eyelids stare at the ceiling, his wrist throbbing. Thin white curtains allow unwanted moonlight to come through the windows, worthless and weak like two anorexic models in bridal gowns waiting for a breeze to blow them bare, the physical manifestation of the sheer silence that invades Marco’s mind. All the forgotten people are resurrected in the vacant space—Mother, fiancé, partner, victims—abandoned, lied to, forsaken, and fucked. He feels like the center, I of the storm. He blames the telephone instead—for crippling his mother and costing her her job and livelihood: “Misses Salaznek, putting you up in front of those kids, it’s, it’s, well, it’s kind of a cruel mirror.” He remembers the yellow sweat stains under the autistic school principal’s shirt. Her slackened left side couldn’t put up much of a fight: “I gessurright den.” Nor did she fight with her husband who deemed her unfit for marriage: “Take care of your mother,” was all he told Mark as he rushed to his car, and to his freedom. She hadn’t even fought with her son when he decided to move out. She now conceded to everything and everyone, even giving up her preference of cigarettes, and sat alone, chain-smoking in the empty earth-tone house. She fought only to be acknowledged by her son, and for him to acknowledge his family name. The only thing she cared about, all that she asked of him was that he remember that she existed, and to remember and to talk about the life that had made him. 
    She had shown up unannounced at the mansion to find a mysterious and naturally cool young woman, Lorelei, of whom she asked, “Hooa fuggaryoo?” To which Lorelei answered with a question, “Well, who are you, at my house?” and naturally, she found out. Mrs. Salaznek also found out that she’d been described as “dead” from day one. The two women sat there in silence recalibrating their opinions of the mighty Marco Salazar, formerly plain old Mark Salaznek of Patchogue, NY, who while inventing the most Significant Technological Device of the new millennium also had to make sure his degenerating mother received constant care and had to fight and plead with her to accept that care. Who after working on his device and patent for double-digit hours still went back to Patchogue to massage the mushy leg and help her in and out of the shower. Who, when his mother could no longer stand up in the shower, helped her in and out of the bath and was told, as her naked body dripped all over the bathroom floor, not to forget any of it—and who, when finally called upon to make a pointless speech, spoke with the singular goal of moving on to something else—of getting the hell out of whatever ‘here’ meant for him then. He forgot to thank a few people along the way, he changed his name—then all those people lost their jobs, and so fucking what, who are they? Who are you? Who cares? You have to choose. I tucked Marco back in, powerless and injured, but right back where he started—I did it for you. It’s about you. Everything for you...  

If you frequently ask others to photograph you and your smiling spouse, press one. 
    Don’t worry about it—nothing was ever wrong. The power comes back on, the mansion warms up, and Marco places the most thoughtful handwritten note on Lorelei’s stuff. The note wins her over, it explains everything and she forgives him. They hug and kiss and get married. Mrs. Salaznek (body rejuvenated) is the bridesmaid and moves into the guesthouse after the couple returns from the most extravagant honeymoon where they do not fuck even once, but do often make love.  

If you’re pissed, press two.
    Marco is overcome by dread. His throbbing wrist spreads and so consumes his body. He deteriorates into wine bottles, trembles at evil thoughts of what he has done to people in his life. He can’t pull the covers up high enough. That note he writes to Lorelei is now also addressed to his mom, and the subject matter is changed. He goes downstairs into that stainless steel kitchen and pulls out a pistol, or a revolver, or a shotgun− whatever you choose to imagine. He puts the firearm into his mouth and blasts away, spreading guts all over the space kitchen, a potpourri of non-essentials that don’t quite comprise what makes a life.  

If a song has ever moved you to tears, press three. 
    Marco writes the note, and it is sweet with perspective, the content matters because it is reflective and totally honest.     The power does come back on, but he does not revert to his constructed self. He shows Lorelei Mark Salaznek, he brings his mom over, and all are humbled—the time without power has changed him for the better, reminded him who he is, who he always was, forced him to think and act like a real person instead of someone defined by things that will never be alive, and he finds fulfillment in this—he is finally himself.  

For the operator, press zero.
    Hi, it’s me: imagine my human voice. Admit that we’re both here. Listen, all that ice, it’s just gonna melt. No matter who you are, it will defrost and liquefy and dissolve. The water collects and rushes into gutters before joining the river of shit on its way to the ocean. I promise it’s only a matter of time until the waxy leaves puff out their colorful chests and whistle a sidewalk breeze for your pleasure. And you’ll just flop along, happy to forget certain frozen moments. But you can’t just box that stuff away. We should not be satisfied by the presentation of our ever-posturing persona, this disease of disguise is spreading. 

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Bobby Williams actually believes that future ghosts are predeter-
mined by one's earthly appearance. His work has appeared in The Montreal Review, Epiphany, The Ben Jonson Journal, The Bicycle Review and elsewhere.

is the novel that grew out of
"Degrees of Degeneration"

If you like this story, then you'll love

Available at Open Books Direct