The weather outside was frightful. Wind was strong-arming a small group of saplings huddled together for protection at the end of the street, snow was immobilizing a car two houses down, and the sun was punishing Helen’s front yard with an unremitting heat that reminded her of the drought they’d had that morning just before another monsoon had swept through the neighborhood, flooding a couple of storm drains and drowning all the iguanas. Helen was glad to be rid of the iguanas, frankly. They don’t get along well with dogs.
She sighed, and turned the TV channel away from Window to look for something that paid. Helen had taken a job some months before, embarrassed that she couldn’t produce any Buzz and wanting to pull her own weight around the house. She brought in a little extra cash by watching TV (commercials mostly, though all time in front of the tube was clocked.) What really paid were advertisements for major brands, but if she wasted too much time surfing for the blue chips she’d undermine her own efforts, so she settled for something moderately promising and pressed pause on the remote. There, in between advertisements for a new line of cars that ran on everything from hangovers to a well-held grudge, her husband’s face appeared beside a screen displaying a topographical view of their block as seen from space with absolutely no weather, none at all, just a long row of houses and a yellow dog wandering around in the street.
Helen’s husband was a weatherman. The weatherman, at the time.
She didn’t trust him.
Actually, she trusted him in a way—as one trusts a thief to steal—but when it came to weather, she did her own research.
She walked to the phone to dial up Joan from down the street.
“Look I’m just calling to-”
“I was just thinking about you! I saw Jack on TV and he said that tomorrow’s supposed to be—”
“Weatherless. I heard. Joan, I was just calling to let you know Rocket’s back. The satellite picked him up and he’s—”
“Yes.” Helen wondered if there’d been some proliferation she wasn’t aware of. “He’s outside over by the Gleason’s.”
“Oh thank you so much Helen! I’ll unlock his door.”
Helen thought of the roaming blizzard. “You might want to turn on the beacon too.”
“The beacon? But Jack said…”
“I know what Jack said, but really Joan, just to be on the safe side.”
“Helen you’re absolutely right. Thank you so much.”
“Not at all. Talk to you later.”
“Oh yes let’s.”
Joan was in denial of the fact that she couldn’t stand her dog Rocket. She didn’t like animals at all, really—not since an incident with a particularly mean stuffed panda as a child—but she was getting a good return on it, so Helen and the other ladies on the block helped her out occasionally. You never know. There was a two-week stretch one year when almost all the kitchen appliances in the neighborhood were running off Joan’s discovery that Ted, her husband, was fucking a news anchor. She’d found a pair of panties in his jacket pocket and promptly forced it out of her mind, leaving her with so much Buzz pulsing through the place she had to give some away.
Joan, for her part, had been sleeping with Helen’s husband, but for some reason Helen couldn’t bring herself to pretend it wasn’t happening. I think she worried about this, though. I think she was nagged by the notion that she should keep trying. Deny it even for a moment, she figured, and she could begin to use the dishwasher again.
The TV beeped, calling her back, and Helen dutifully returned to her post. Just as she sat down Jack came back on talking about what they could expect for the next few minutes—again, no weather—and was cut off by a Public Service Announcement for AS-Masks. The Anti-Surveillance Masks had been delivered to every house in Seattle about a few months prior as part of a beta testing program before it could be launched nation-wide. Helen gazed across the room at her own mask, prone, its vaguely Asian eyes looking deep into the fake grain of the dining room table. They were spooky enough—and the idea of hiding from some “all-seeing eye” seemed rather moot—but what really made Helen uncomfortable was the fact that they looked so much like her ex-boyfriend, Asseem Ahmad.
In the PSA, a voiceover speaks about the public menace of Citizen Surveillance—an organization which, as you know, the government neither confirms nor denies—and encourages people to preserve their freedom of privacy by wearing their masks. Then the terrible part happens: Asseem himself appears, his large eyes, high forehead and smooth brown skin taking up almost the entire screen, and he seems to peel away a layer of his own skin, then hand the resulting “face” forward, directly at the camera.
“Put on your AS-Mask,” he says.
Helen flip-flopped through a few more ads, a competing weather report for her block predicting 57% more Slerm from 5:45 to 6:02 that evening, and on to an infomercial about worms that attach to your face, chew your food for you, and shit down your throat. Slerm? Helen sighed. Jack’s competition had begun making up weather conditions to pique viewer interest. It was the beginning of the end. She was supposed to log on to the website and get the lowdown on their latest invention.
Jack hadn’t always been a liar; he just had a big heart. Soon after they’d left the city he’d responded to a recruitment effort, and with his vacant, toothy optimism and corny good looks he’d been a natural before the green screen. In the beginning it hadn’t been so bad. Real-time micro-weather reports were pretty handy, and for a while the weathermen actually tried to keep it all kosher. But as with everything else, a few inflated egos and the whole profession went to pot. Soon they all went indie, started recording from private studios, and peddled their reports to any block looking for a sanitary smile and a sunny day. Jack gave them what they wanted.
Helen made her way to the computer and visited the Slerm site. Pop-up ads wandered around just under the surface of the interface, appearing like phantoms before the site destroyed them. The whole process was played out in a dramatization that actually drew more attention to the ads than she’d have given them if they were left alone to do their thing. Sometimes Helen would visit low-budget sites just to avoid this sorry display, and let the ads accumulate. They’d slowly cover the site’s second rate content and wind up lobbing logos off the screen, where they’d climb around on the desk and head for the items they hoped to replace. Sometimes she’d let them. She didn’t give a damn what brand of stapler she used. Joan swore up and down that ever since she’d let a little Pansomatic© logo slip past her and climb onto the phone she’d enjoyed 1.3 percent better reception.
“What does 1.3 percent better reception sound like?” Helen had asked.
“A million bucks!”
En route back to the boob tube Helen passed by her quietly menacing mask, waiting to be worn. As he did with any new social trend gained firm enough footing to seem exciting without being too risky, Jack was always encouraging her to wear it. He knew about her relationship with Asseem, of course, or had at one point—he’d likely long since pushed it out of his mind—but he found them attractive, he asserted. Helen thought of this as she walked by. How could something that masked one’s identity itself be sexy?
Joan, who hadn’t taken hers off in days, had told Helen it felt great to know you’re sticking one to the government, but she’d stared blankly when asked why she thought the government itself was responsible for the mask—an unlikely but well-publicized movement by the Department of Homeland Security—and was encouraging people to wear them on government-owned TV channels.
“It’s a free country,” she’d finally said.
Jack never watched TV with Helen anymore; he said it just didn’t hold his attention. Helen would argue, of course. “Hey,” she’d say, “we can’t power the alarm clock on that kind of honesty! What if you’re late for work?” The truth was, Helen wouldn’t have minded if he’d found another job. With things going so well for him, of course, it seemed unlikely that he’d be looking for anything in the near future—Joan’s unwavering support alone would have probably kept his ratings high enough. But during Helen’s long days in front of the tube she’d begun to see him on other channels, pimping his WeatherLESS Reports™ to other blocks, some in other towns entirely. The man had talent. And obviously the perks of being married to a cultural icon were unavoidable: free deserts, priority at the spa… Nonetheless, lately Helen seemed to have been feeling dissatisfied with her privilege. It was as though, in the midst of an extended green light treatment, she’d been hoping for a few yellows. Sometimes as she sped past all the commuters waiting their turn, waving and giving her thumbs up, it occurred to her that she’d forgotten what it was like to get a red.
When they got married Jack was an honest man. He was honest, and Helen loved him. She still loved him, she’d say, if asked. She couldn’t really imagine life without him. She was trying to convince herself that was the same thing.
Still exhausted from work—perhaps due to this exhaustion—Helen decided right then and there to surprise Jack when he got home by having her mask on. Put a little spark back into things, maybe. He’d be happy, she reasoned, to see that she shared his concerns about being watched, and maybe he’d pay some attention to her. Maybe they’d watch some TV together.
On her own time, she turned the TV to Window and looked out at the street. Snow was now piled up in her driveway, it was sunny down at the Gleason’s, and there was a thick fog-like substance about as big as a dog crawling around in Joan’s yard. Helen squinted, and realized four little furry yellow legs were jutting down from the fog into dead grass. Rocket. She reached for the phone again, and called to alert her negligent neighbor.
“…Helen?” her neighbor whispered.
“Yeah, Hi. I was just calling to—”
“Helen how on earth did you know it was me?”
“How did I know it was you?” She thought about it. “Well, Joan, I called your house, and you know your voice is—”
“Oh! Of course. I’m being silly.”
Helen had a thought. “Are you wearing your AS-Mask?” The masks, she’d been told, play strange tricks on one’s mind.
“Oh Helen I was just trying it on again for a second! I got a new attachment that relays weather reports directly to an ear-piece.”
“Speaking of weather, Joan, I’m calling to tell you that Rocket’s been eaten by fog.”
“I’m afraid so Joan. I was just watching the Window channel and it looks like-”
“Oh God Helen I…” Joan was in tears. She was sniveling, and obviously too choked up to chat.
“I’m going to hang up now Joan,” Helen said as nicely as possible. “I’ll call later to check in.”
She hung up the phone and walked over to the kitchen, retrieving the AS-Mask from its temporary retirement on the dining room table. As she brought the thing to her face, however, the blender began to whirr, picking up the excess energy, she figured, resulting from Joan’s terrible predicament, and she peered out into a barely recognizable room, serenaded by the buzz of an unburdened mind.