This Young Man’s Father Froze to Death in an Ice Storm. You Won’t Believe What Happened Next by Alex McElroy
PN editorial intern Willow Grosz on today’s story: At first glance, I thought I was going to hate this piece. Really. I’ve been conditioned not to take pop-culture references too seriously, and here is this story that not only references Facebook, but literally sends me off the page to check on that reference—all in the first sentence. This is perverse, I thought. And sooo gimmicky. I’m not reading any further. Fortunately, my curiosity got the better of me because McElroy doesn’t simply make these references as a form of contemporary omphaloskepsis. Look deeper, the story demands. This pastiche is mapping our limits. The limits of our social networks. The limits of our economic networks. The limits of self-soothing. And whether it’s cataloguing memes or giving a nod to postmodern literature, this story never stops nudging obsessively at the boundaries of urgent, human grief.
This Young Man’s Father Froze to Death in an Ice Storm. You Won’t Believe What Happened Next
I created my father a Facebook page. In the photo I chose for his profile picture Dad and I are reclined on a blue-and-white couch and both inconsolably smiling. It was taken in Cape May in the weeks after Mom left. I was sixteen. And Dad was, I don’t know, Dad-aged.
Using Chrome, I commented, “I’d forgotten about that trip. Look at our sunburn!” I opened Explorer and signed in as my father. “That was a rly fun trip,” he replied. Facebook suggested he start liking things. He liked Con-Air. Face-Off. The Rock. Nicolas Cage. Pink Floyd, Springsteen, and Sting. He liked Blairstown. Morristown. He liked Home Repair Tutor.
My father repaired things for a living. That’s how he died. Patching the roof of Morristown’s Bayer Pharmaceutical Plant as an ice storm glassed the night. They discovered him frozen to death, sitting cross-legged, snow crusted over his eyes and icicles gripping his nose, like Jack Torrence at the end of The Shining, a film that my father, on Facebook, didn’t like.
Once I created his page I tried to return to my life. I was twenty-six years old, a man of inconsistent employment. During the winter I shoveled snow for the elderly. They paid me in germs and butterscotch candy. My landlord, an independently wealthy sexagenarian, accepted the candy as payment. She also insisted I tidy the complex. I changed light bulbs. I dusted the parking lot. I swept cigarette butts into the street. I clubbed the occasional beehive. My life was guarded and lonely, and susceptible, I soon discovered, to the distraction my father provided.
By January he had two friends. Me and a woman named Amber-Lynn Hardi who shared links to freenlegal.com. We liked Amber-Lynn. But one day her page disappeared. Fearing his page might be considered a bot and deleted, Dad started liking more things:
Snooty cats purring on pillows. Teens gagging on cinnamon. Philosoraptor. Fist-pumping baby. The Harlem Shake and The History Channel. America. The state of New Jersey. Sports. Then, the NFL, and to specify his allegiance, The Dallas Cowboys. Finally, he liked his former high school, North Warren Regional High School (my alma mater as well).
Not thirty minutes after liking North Warren he accepted a friend request from a man named Doug Catersmythe. From 2006 to the present Doug had managed a Hertz Car Rental in Tallahassee, Florida. He lived in Tallahassee with his wife, Barbara, and his fourteen-year-old daughter, Rachel. Doug sent a message: “Jacko! where the helluv-ya been, ya old goat? glad u finally came out ur cave!” His excitement worried me. I told him that I was not Jacko, but his son. I had created the page to help me cope with the death of my father. Doug Catersmythe began typing . . . “haha jackyboy! the jackpot! ringdingdingding! class clown thru and thru. hay listen u find ur ass in the orange state u drop me a line.”
Within two weeks my father had 86 friends, including a woman named Angela Landsing, whose posts appeared in his feed more than anyone else’s. Dad’s classmates were thrilled to have found him. Though I tried to tell them, at first, what I had told Doug Catersmythe, they all reacted with stubborn, fraternal incredulity. What else could I do but pretend Dad was alive?
It was a warm, unprofitable winter. Few of the elderly needed their driveways shoveled. Many expired. I was behind on my rent, with neither the candy nor the means to get more. It was no surprise, then, when one afternoon my landlord clopped up to my apartment. Let me explain the clopping. She had lost both her feet to diabetes. Instead of accepting a wheelchair, she’d opted for an experimental surgery. Steel hooves had been grafted to the base of her calves. She looked like a sleep-deprived satyr. But she was satisfied with the procedure. I was too. Her hoovesteps drumming in the stairwell warned me of her impending arrival. I washed my face and heated a kettle for tea.
Once inside, she plopped down onto the folding chair in my living room. “I’m glad you’re living in squalor,” she said. “Means you’re as poor as you say.” I smiled, feeling vindicated. “Don’t get too happy,” she said. Changes were being made to the rent policy. Even if I could, somehow, come up with the butterscotch candies to cover my rent, she could no longer accept them as fungible assets. Doctors’ orders: no more candy. From now on she would only accept real money. $325 by the end of the month. She sucked down her tea and left.
I sent my father a personal message asking him what I should do. He suggested I apply for a job at the Bayer Pharmaceutical Plant where he’d been employed. He ended his sentence with ;-), which surprised me. I didn’t know Dad had such a macabre sense of humor.
On Monday I drove to Bayer and requested an interview with Dad’s former employer. Ray was a grand and flabby man who breathed with a gruff, scraping wheeze that sounded like a rusty carnival ride slowing down. He told me the position had already been filled. I told him who I was. He asked me to shut the door.
Ray laced his hands together in front of his mouth. After a long, wheeze-riddled silence, he asked me if I believed. Believed in what, I asked. “The Lord reincarnate as man,” he said. I nodded. “Well good, because the Lord, reincarnate as man, Jesus, he . . .” Ray squirmed, his eyes darting away from me, “he preaches good will and . . . kindness. That’s it. Kindness. In addition to holy forgiveness. Have you read the sermon on the mount?” I hadn’t. “Point is,” he continued, “I live by the code of the Lord. His teachings have reconfigured my soul. And because of that, Alex, I’m going to do us both a favor.
“You know that we’re sinners? Thieves plucking fruit from the tree of eternity?” I didn’t. Did I know what the tree of eternity was? The Tree of Knowledge, I guessed. Ray laughed. “The tree is the kingdom of heaven, young man. Our souls are the fruit we have plucked.”
I nodded like, Ah yes, of course.
Ray leaned forward. His stomach pressed into the desk; hirsute flesh bulged through the slits between shirt-buttons like hairy tongues squeezing through lips. “Thanks to you,” he said, “I can atone for the sin of bureaucratic commitment: my choice to put your old man on the roof. And you, thanks to me, might walk out of here on the payroll.” He offered me a job mopping floors and scrubbing feces from toilets. On one condition: I must attend church every week. I agreed. Ray gave me directions to church, in addition to a blue button-down shirt just like his, except, instead of Ray stitched on the chest, or Jack, it read Rudy.
At church, Pastor Michælus taught us about the dumb lumps of flesh that were our bodies. I learned that my soul was on loan. Everything I had ever received had been given to me through divine circulation.
Then we sang. Then children were asked to bathe with their clothes on. I was asked to bathe with my clothes on. I considered declining, but two pews behind me sat Ray—his crossed arms like two tangled seals—staring with fixed ultimatum. I reluctantly climbed onto the shelf over the font. Pastor Michælus was given a bucket of baseballs. The congregation cheered and whistled. When he hit the bull’s eye I splashed down into the water.
Church upset me. I wrote frantic messages to Dad expressing my doubts in the faith. He told me that these feelings were natural. Doubt is a healthy reaction to burgeoning faith. It is by no means opposed to genuine faith, he continued, but it mercilessly examines and questions the spurious "faith" of everyday life, the human faith which is nothing but the passive acceptance of conventional opinion.
He had become rather wise since he died, a shift I attributed not to some post-corporeal omniscience but to the confidence engendered by his army of friends. He had more than 300 friends. I only had 106. But his friendships, he assured me, were the result of mid-life nostalgia. His “friends” didn’t want friendship. They wanted tenuous proof that the past they remembered existed. He was an idea that people sought to preserve. “Does ‘people’ mean me?” I asked.
“Does my popularity bother you?” he asked.
“Those people don’t really know you,” I typed.
“Did you really know me?” he typed. I signed off.
The next morning there was a message from Dad in my inbox: Is the stress of keeping me updated worth it? What are you avoiding? I’m just an idea, your idea, an idea you could easily terminate. I deleted the message. All my life I’d wanted a stronger relationship with him. For us to share things with each other. To hear what he thought about me, if he was proud, and how he had felt when Mom left him for good. Chatting with each other on Facebook was the closest I’d come to achieving that fantasy.
Spring arrived. I had a job, a god, and a father. My life couldn’t get any better, I thought, which didn’t mean it couldn’t get worse.
Doug Catersmythe sent my father a message inviting him to Atlantic City to stay with him and some friends on their annual trip. With Dad they would have five: enough to splurge on a suite. But Dad was too busy. Plus, he’d never liked gambling. Doug was persistent. He posted links to Dad’s wall—A.C. on a Budget; Smart Gambling—and messaged him daily. If my father read a message but didn’t reply Doug would send another message asking why Dad was ignoring him. The harassment swayed my father. He agreed to go. I gave Doug my number, planning to make an excuse when he called, and changed my voicemail greeting to a robot reading my phone number.
In Atlantic City, Doug called my father 42 times. He left 17 messages. The following week passed uneventfully. I assumed everything had blown over. But one morning Dad opened Facebook and was greeted with a trio of notifications.
Doug Catersmythe had tagged my father in a photo of a middle finger. In his comment on the photo he accused my father of robbery. In his mind, Dad’s truancy was equivalent to stealing $400. Thinking there would be five people Doug had purchased a suite instead of a room with two doubles. Now he was out the extra money. He demanded remuneration. He demanded my father apologize. The link was shared by 12 people. It received 214 likes. I mailed Doug Catersmythe $400. But the damage was done. Dad lost 73 friends. He put his account on hold.
His absence impacted my work. I became stressed, irritable, lazy. I mopped hastily, leaving streaks of bleach-water zigged on the floor. I left scabs of feces clung to rims of the toilets. I stopped washing my armpits and ears.
Roy called me into his office. He had grown larger. There was barely any room in his office to stand. I politely squeezed around his circumference until I found a niche in the corner. His bare stomach pressed into my face.
“Complaints have been filed, Alex. Official complaints in which the most troubling boxes were checked: Slovenly, Harried, Slapdash, Uncouth. I am told that your hair is wrinkled. That your teeth are unwiped.” He coughed. A slight tremor wobbled my cheek. “Need I remind you, Alex, that a company is only as great as its lowliest scum?”
“You needn’t,” I murmured.
“Because you, Alex, are the lowliest of the scum on our payroll. You are the metonym for scum. When I think, ‘Alex McElroy,’ I think of the greenish gunk in shower drains or the fungus fur in old yogurt. Am I making myself clear?”
I tried nodding, but his stomach held my head in place. I muttered, “Mm-hmm.”
“But don’t be crestfallen. Despair, as they say, is endemic to scum. Despair is what makes scum stay scum. That is a fact, young man, but you’re in luck. Because scum, all scum, as Aristotle would say, is merely potential for shine. Do you know how to reach your potential?”
I so dearly wanted to know.
“Self,” he paused for effect, “Obliteration.” I suspect he was smiling. “Take this,” he said. A scrunched-up pamphlet slogged across his gut before finally touching my forehead. I thanked him and then wiggled my way to the exit.
The pamphlet, titled So You’ve Settled on Obliteration, was full of drastic suggestions. One should bathe six times a day and take care to scrub with steel wool. One should discard all personal items, including novelty mugs and key chains. One must burn one’s ID. One must sell one’s social security number to hackers. I threw the pamphlet away.
That evening my father reopened his Facebook account. I told him what had happened at work. He thought I’d done the right thing by discarding the pamphlet. He was proud of me. He loved me. Empty compliments. He was telling me what I wanted to hear, what I already knew, when what I wanted to know was what only he knew:
“What’s death like?” I typed.
“Death . . .” he typed. “Death is a series of tubes.”
“HA!” I typed.
He didn’t type back.
“But seriously,” I typed. “Is death that which gives meaning to life?”
He typed, “No, life is that which gives meaning to life.”
I typed, “But isn’t death, considered as a fundamental datum, the means by which the taken-for-granted mundanity of the everyday may be transcended in the direction of—”
Dad was typing . . . “What are you saying?”
I typed, “Am I wasting my life?”
He typed, “Most likely.”
“That wasn’t the answer I wanted.”
I minimized Facebook. I checked my email. I checked ESPN. I jacked off into my boxers. I asked Dad how he liked being dead.
“It could be worse.”
“Are there pretty women?”
“Yes,” he typed. “There very well could be. It’s mostly light. It’s all light. And noise.” As I was typing . . . he typed, “It’s terrible.” He signed off. I posted an article on his wall—about Cape May recovering after Sandy—and then refreshed the page, hoping my father would like it. He did, eventually, like the link—but he didn’t comment. I doubt he actually liked it.
For the next few weeks I did what I could to transcend my scumminess. I bought new clothes. I greased my hair with the finest of unguents. I bathed in the lab’s emergency shower. I wiped my teeth with whitening wipes. Ray stopped me one morning as I was squeezing through the corridor that he occupied. He was impressed by my discipline. He offered me Dad’s old job. “More responsibility,” he bellowed. “And more pay. Much more.”
I equivocated. “I don’t know Ray. My pay already dwarfs my desires.”
“You’ll get new desires.”
“What about the man who replaced my father?”
“He will be terminated.” Ray must’ve noticed the shock on my face. “Figuratively.”
Dad wasn’t as excited as I’d hoped. “Cool,” he typed, when I told him I’d taken the job.
“You seem disappointed,” I typed.
“I always thought you’d do more than I did.”
“There’s time,” I typed.
“Not as much as you think.” Neither of us typed for a while. Had I let him down? Could I have achieved more? I had two college degrees, after all. But the diplomas had burned in a fire; my education was rash and impractical without its symbolic endorsement.
Dad was typing . . . I assumed he was going to apologize for his lackluster praise, but instead he typed, “Alex, I have a problem.” The problem was Angela Landsing—formerly Angela Stoddart, when she and my father were lovers. She’d found him through friend finder months ago and had begun sending him erotic messages. She had requested they meet up for drinks. In a moment of weakness Dad had agreed to go out with her.
“Why the hell did you do that?” I typed.
Abashed, he typed. “Because I still love her.” What a miracle! The dead still in love with the living! So, I agreed to go out with her, in place of my father. He planned to feed me lines during the date. How? I asked. He reminded me that, with my increase in pay, I could easily purchase a couple of iPhones.
Angela and I met at a Jazz club that resembled an opium den crossed with an Applebee’s. On stage, a man was ferociously juggling trumpets. Angela was perched at the bar.
I sat down and explained who I was. “Is this a fucking joke?” she said. “Excuse me,” I said, and checked my phone. My father typed, “Tell her it’s not a joke.” I told her it wasn’t a joke. “Then where is he?” she asked. I checked my phone. “My father’s life is in danger,” I said.
She attentively set down her martini. “Is he sick?”
“Worse,” I said, and glanced at my phone. I demurred; Dad insisted. I told her he’d witnessed a mob hit performed by the infamous Whitey Bulger.
“An American convicted murderer and former organized crime figure,” I said. “And now my father’s in the Witness Protection Program.” I touchingly touched Angela’s shoulder. The tears on her face caught flickers of the lights pulsing onstage. She sucked down her martini, wiped her lips with the heel of her wrist, tossed a twenty dollar bill on the bar, and left without saying goodbye. With the change from her drink I bought a French beer that tasted like vinegar. My phone was buzzing incessantly. Dad demanded I chase after Angela. And tell her what? I asked. He told me to give her the phone. He’d fix everything. I told him he was being ridiculous. He called me a pussy. I called him a corpse.
Midway through my third beer I felt a hand on my back. Slugs of mascara slid down Angela’s cheeks. She poked me. “Facebook,” she said. “How can he have a Facebook page if he’s in hiding?”
I told her some of the truth: the Facebook page was my doing. A labor of love. But I didn’t tell her that my father was dead. Dead? Protective hiding? What’s the difference?
“So that means you read all my—”
“Yes,” I said.
She ordered another martini. “This one’s on you,” she said, “for making me come all the way down here.” We talked. She told me I looked like my father. I told her he and I were related. Her laughter was enormous and toothy. She had a fine smile: marble framed by plum-purple lips. She smelled like cherries and pine. Her breath a polite combination of olives and gin.
I stroked her hair. “You belong on the top of a Buzzfeed list,” I said. “25 Mothers Hotter than Models.”
“Stop it,” she said, in that tone of bashful flirtation. She waved away the compliment with her right hand, her left hand still tucked under her thigh.
“It’s okay,” I said, gesturing toward her left hand. There was no use hiding her husband, Ellison Landsing, and her three oblivious children. “I know.”
Angela smirked. She twisted off her rings and tossed them over her shoulder. Plop! Plop! into a flute of champagne. Monstrously drunk, Angela and I stood outside beneath the luminous breath of a streetlamp. “What now?” she asked. In my pocket I felt a storm of vibrations. I tossed my phone into the street. It was flattened by the timeliest dump truck.
We cheered and then kissed. I looked into Angela’s some-colored eyes and saw what would happen if she came back to my place. The clandestine fucking in cars. The threats from Ellison Landsing. Her divorce. Our marriage. Her decision to sever all ties with her family.
How boring, I thought. How predictable life is when we give it some thought. My father would’ve brought Angela home. Was I becoming my father? Of course! But no: I couldn’t. Nobody becomes anyone else. Each of us, I thought, is merely the diluted reiteration of those who precede us. I was nothing but the failed imitation of Jack McElroy, just as he was the failed imitation of his father, he of his father, ad infinitum, the human race a poor imitation of what may never have been; progress is a series of blunders, a march backwards into the future as we pause, on occasion, to beat one another with the oars of the past.
“Let’s go someplace else,” I whispered.
“To your place?”
Angela cackled. “You’re an adult now, Alex, so act like one.” We spent the rest of the night fucking like trolls at a greasy-sheeted Holiday Inn. In the morning, she was gone.
I shook out the bolus of blankets and pillows. My phone tumbled onto the carpet. I began writing my father a message asking what I should do—go after Angela, tell her off—but I paused a few letters in. His phone was shards of plastic and glass in the street. I knew that he wouldn’t respond. I love you, I typed, then deleted it. Thanks, I typed, then deleted it. I’m sorry, I typed, then deleted it. It went on this way for some time. I understand that things were hard for—I deleted it. I do feel closer now than—I deleted it. Knocks on the door. “Housekeeping,” I heard. I let them inside.
Alex McElroy's work appears or is forthcoming in Indiana Review, Gulf Coast, Diagram, Tin House, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and more work can be found here. He currently lives in Arizona, where he serves as the International Editor for Hayden's Ferry Review.