As it receives an incoming text message, the cell
phone resting on the pillow next to Mark Kowalski's head, makes
first a buzzing and then a beeping sound.
Mark turns his head on the pillow. He opens his
mouth. Mark tastes the malty dryness of last night's twelve-pack
at the back of his throat. He attempts to conjure up some saliva
by the flicking of his tongue against the roof of his mouth, but
none is forthcoming and nothing's there. Only the malty dryness
of the beer remains left behind.
The cell phone beeps. Mark moves his eyes over to
look at it. The screen says: 1 NEW TEXT MESSAGE, and glows with a
dull blue light. He picks the cell phone up and holds it in his
hand, but he doesn't read the new message. Instead, Mark rolls
over onto his back and stares up at the ceiling.
As he looks up at the white ceiling of his bedroom,
he becomes entranced by the small crack in the paint that zigzags
its way from corner to corner above his head. Mark watches the
crack in the paint for a few minutes, and then, it really sets
in. The headache sets in and jolts of pain shoot zigzag across
The headache takes hold and it refuses to let go.
Then the coughing, an insistent dry hack, sets in too as Mark
pays the price for last night. A healthy dose of coughing and
nausea is the going rate for drinking a twelve-pack of Budweiser
and smoking a pack of Marlboros in three hours. And to think, all
of this had come from a night when Mark had chosen to stay in! If
he had decided to go out last night, Mark suspects, he might've
ended up in a coma at this rate.
Mark continues to lie in bed and cough. As he coughs,
he watches his chest heave up and down, and he waits in silence
for the cloudiness that hangs like gauze over his vision to
slowly dissipate. After about fifteen minutes of watching his
chest go up and down and waiting, the gauze is lifted.
His head still hurts; he still feels tightness and a
tugging in his chest where he believes that his heart is supposed
to be, but he does feel well enough to sit up in his bed now.
Mark rolls onto his side and then he sits up. He
swings his legs over the edge of the bed and sits there on the
very edge. He turns his head and looks at himself in the mirror.
Mark is wearing a pair of navy blue boxer shorts and nothing
else. He sees in the mirror that a small paunch, not yet a gut,
but the beginnings of one, is starting to form around his
mid-section. Mark's not becoming fat. His weight is only rising
in proportion to the unhealthiness of his lifestyle in much the
same way that the inner-tube of a bicycle tire will slowly
inflate as air is pumped into it.
Mark yawns as he sits on the edge of his bed with the
bottoms of his bare feet resting atop the chilled surface of the
hardwood bedroom floor. He thinks about laying back down and
going back to sleep, but he decides against it because he figures
it would be unwise. He's pushing the amount of time he has left
to make into work as it is.
His mouth is so dry; so parched, that it's
dehydration that overpowers Mark's innate laziness and forces him
to rise to his feet and stand up. He sprints the eight feet out
of his bedroom and into the small adjoining half-bathroom. Mark
slams and locks the bathroom door behind him as he enters even
though he's the only person there.
All in one motion, Mark turns on the tap and plunges
his head face-up into the sink and beneath the running faucet. He
lets the running water fill his mouth and cascade down his throat
in an attempt to slake his ravenous alcohol driven thirst. Mark
lifts his dripping wet head from beneath the faucet and gives one
last coughing heave that knocks the accumulated remnants of tar
and mucus loose inside his chest. It's only then, after all of
these ministrations, that he remembers he's still holding his
cell phone in his hand.
Mark wonders who could possibly be texting him at
this time of the morning. Did he do something stupid last night
that he doesn't now remember? Did he call an ex-girlfriend? Did
he call his grandmother at two-thirty in the morning? Did he call
his boss and tell him what a fat, lazy piece of shit he
really thinks he is? What? What? What?
With a sense of trepidation, Mark flips his phone
open again, presses the green button that opens the text message
and looks down at the screen.
Instead of seeing a name, or a complete phone number
in the box at the top of the screen that's marked: FROM, Mark
sees only six numbers and a hyphen: 46-4630.
Mark lets out a little cough, scratches his chest
hair and sighs. Great, he thinks, now he gets junk mail on his
cell phone too! Junk mail via regular mail; junk e-mails; junk
phone calls; junk memos at work; junk conversations with other
people about the weather and the rising price of gas, and now,
junk text messages.
Before he reads the message, Mark decides that he
knows one thing for sure. He knows that he doesn't know where
this text message came from, and therefore, he's not going to
respond to it.
He remembers the one time that he made the mistake of
responding to a phone call whose origin he didn't know. That
time, Mark had received a call from a number he'd never seen
before. One day at work, when Mark had been stacking large cube
shaped cardboard boxes on top of other large cube shaped
cardboard boxes on metal shelves, he'd heard his phone beep
inside his pocket.
It had kept on beeping. He looked at it, didn't
recognize the number, but answered the call anyway.
He flipped open his phone.
"Who is this?"
"I DON'T SPEAK SPANISH!" Mark had shouted into his
"ME NO SPEAK INGLEIAS!" The voice of the mystery
number had shouted into the phone. Then they had both hung up at
the same time.
Four hours later, while Mark was still putting cube
shaped cardboard boxes on top of other cube shaped cardboard
boxes, the mystery number called again.
This process-Hello? Che Pasa? Hello? Che
Pasa?-repeated itself every four hours, on the hour, for the next
four days. After four days, the voice of the mystery number had
apparently stopped caring about what was up with Mark in either
English, or in Spanish. It was O.K. though, four days was about
the limit for being on speaking terms with most of the women that
Mark knew anyway, so that he was used to people disappearing into
silence like that. It had been a relief to be able to stop
hanging up on someone without being able to say good-bye. Mark
hates to stop talking to anyone without saying goodbye, even if
they're not speaking in a language that he can understand.
As he stands there this morning, over the toilet bowl
clad only in his navy blue boxer shorts, Mark has already made up
his mind that he's not going to respond to this text message from
an unknown number. Especially considering that the person,
whoever it is, had the audacity to put a hyphen-A HYPHEN OF ALL
THINGS!-into their number as if all the regular numbers, digits 0
through 9, aren't good enough for them, or something. The balls
on some people!
Mark continues to hold his phone open in the palm of
his hand. He looks down into the still water of the toilet bowl
intently, as if the water is a pile of tea leaves, or a crystal
ball and Mark is a modern day Nostradamus attempting to predict
the future by reading the messages hidden in the water of the
He gazes into the water of the toilet for a long
time. A thought flits across his mind: My cat drinks from
And yes, it's true. Mark's cat does drink this water
that Mark is gazing down into right now as if it were a
reflecting pool. For a second, all of Mark's thoughts go blank in
the face of the placid sublimity of the toilet bowl water.
Then it finally occurs to Mark that, yes, his cat
DOES drink from this water. In fact, not only does Mark's cat
drink the water in the toilet bowl, but Mark's cat goes to great
lengths, climbing over the sink; getting wet in the pools of
water that Mark leaves behind on the floor after his showers, and
even lifting up the toilet seat itself with its little head and
bearing the entire weight of the aforementioned toilet seat on
top its tiny cat skull-just to get a drink of specifically THIS
In another second, some profound thoughts cross
Mark's mind. He knows that the cat does drink this water. He
knows that the cat goes out of his way, like a lost and parched
man wandering through the Sahara simply to arrive at the oasis
that is this toilet bowl water and to drink from it. Mark knows
that his cat is fine. He knows that his cat isn't going bald. His
cat's fur isn't turning prematurely gray. His cat isn't starting
to put on extra weight. His cat doesn't drink alcohol or get mean
and nasty hangovers. Hell, Mark's cat doesn't even have to go to
work! The lucky Son of a Bitch, or whatever the female feline
equivalent of a bitch is, Mark thinks.
Maybe, just maybe Mark supposes, HE should drink from
the toilet bowl water too. He bends over and lowers his head. He
lets his tongue fall slightly out of his mouth, exactly like he's
seen his cat do countless times before, and he prepares to slurp
up the obviously life giving elixir of the toilet bowl water. But
luckily, the thought of drinking from the toilet vanishes from
Mark's mind as quickly as it came.
He shakes his head rapidly from side to side like a
dog drying off after a bath. Mark stands up straight. He decides
that if he can't drink the water from the toilet and if he can't
respond to the mysterious text message because he doesn't know
where it came from, than at the very least he can read what it
says. After all, there's no harm in looking. Right?
Mark looks down at the space on the screen of his
cell phone right underneath the little box that says FROM: 46-(A
fucking HYPHEN! Can you believe that?) 4630.
He reads. The message says: MARK KOWALSKI: SAVE THE
EARTH! SOLVE THE ENERGY CRISIS! MAKE MILLIONS! DISCOVER THE
SECRET! TEXT "YES" TO 46-4630!
After he reads the message, Mark feels nauseous. The
hangover is rearing its ugly head once again. Or, maybe, it's the
message itself and all those capital letters, saving the world
and the urgency of the damned thing that's stressing Mark out
more than having to be at work in a half an hour all dehydrated
and with his mouth tasting like malted barley that's causing him
to feel nauseous.
He sits down on the floor, on the bathmat next to the
shower. His head is spinning.
Save the world? Make millions? Discover the secret?
The secret? All he has to do to discover 'The Secret' is to reply
to this number, the mysterious number with the hyphen, and then
all the world-saving and all of the millions can be his?-Mark
Sitting on the bathmat with the cold chill of the
tiles beginning to rise up through the cotton of his navy blue
boxer shorts and freeze his ass a color blue to match his
underwear, Mark decides that this is all practically too good to
The secret can be his? And it's not just any secret,
but THE secret could be all Mark Kowalski's, and the only thing
that he has to do is reply to this message. This is amazing. No
one has ever entrusted Mark with a secret of any kind ever before
that he can remember.
Mark sits on the floor of his bathroom and tries to
remember when, if ever in the past, he had been privy to any kind
He tries to remember, but in trying to remember he
keeps on thinking of Mrs. Anderson's 1st Grade class.
His 1st Grade class. He remembers that he sat in the
third seat in the third row behind Heather McCantry and in front
of Constantine Constanakos, the Greek kid.
Mrs. Anderson had rust colored hair, and if Mark's
memory is correct, she must have been around forty years old.
Mark was too young at the time to tell whether or not Mrs.
Anderson was a cougar, but he does remember that she had an
unattractive perm that was not unlike those red wigs that clowns
in the circus wear. It was the 80's after all.
Mrs. Anderson's favorite game was Telephone. At least
once every week she would make the class play a game of
Telephone. The class would play Telephone at the most random
times, in the middle of Math class, during rehearsals for the
Christmas musical and even right in the middle of Bring Your
Grandparents to School Day. Back then, in the 1st
Grade, Mark couldn't discern any viable educational reason as to
why the class played Telephone once a week, and as he sits on the
cold floor of his bathroom in his underwear twenty odd years
later with his cell phone in his hand, he still can't figure out
why the class had to play Telephone once a week.
Mrs. Anderson would whisper something like, "I love
chocolate covered strawberries," into the ear of Katie Finch who
sat in the 1st seat of the 1st row of the
classroom, and the message would wind its way from waxy six year
old ear to waxy six year old ear as it went from row to row.
Soon, the message would get to the 3rd row
where Mark sat. When the message did get to the 3rd
row, Heather McCantry who sat in the 1st seat of the
3rd row directly in front of Mark would stand up and
walk past the 2nd seat of the 3rd row where
Mark sat and walk to the 3rd seat of the
3rd row where Constantine Constanakos sat and whisper.
"I shove velvet covered canaries," into HIS ear and not Mark's.
Even she would skip Mark, not let him in on the secret and tell
Constantine Constanakos, THE GREEK KID OF ALL PEOPLE, the secret
But now, as Mark sits on the floor of his bathroom in
his underwear, not just any secret, but THE SECRET is his, and
all he has to do is reply to the mysterious text message from
46-4630. The tables have turned! And who gives a damn now, twenty
odd years later, about who shoves velvet covered canaries?
Mark cradles his cell phone in his hand. He presses
the 'Y' button, then he presses the 'E' button and then he
presses the 'S' button. He hits the reply key on his cell phone
and his heart skips a beat as he prepares for his 'YES' to be
sent to the mysterious 46-4630 number and for the secret, not
just any secret but the secret of secrets, to be all his.
But then Mark's heart drops as suddenly a black
telephone icon with a red line through it pops up on the screen
followed by the words: MESSAGE UNABLE TO BE DELIVERED. Damn it!
He's lost all reception. His cell phone is getting no signal.
Mark begins to sweat and the nausea of his hangover, or of the
pressure of the secret, returns as he tries frantically to get a
signal in his bathroom.
He climbs up onto his toilet, but nothing comes, just
the icon of the telephone with the red line remains. Damn it!
Damn it! Damn it! And usually bathrooms are the ONLY places where
Mark gets cell phone reception, but the Gods of the secret are
obviously conspiring against him.
Mark lifts his legs and jumps up on his sink. He half
stands and half sits, hunched over on top of the sink on the
heels of his feet with his cell in his hand and raised in the air
up toward the ceiling.
He stares at the phone, and then in a split second,
the black phone icon with the red line through it disappears and
Mark has reception once again! The secret can be his! The message
"YES" to 46-4630 starts to be sent once again. Mark waits in
tense anticipation, in his underwear crouching on top of his
bathroom sink for the secret to be his.
And then the phone rings. It beeps, it buzzes, it
rings and then the message stops sending. UNABLE TO SEND MESSAGE:
INCOMING CALL flashes across the screen. Damn it!
Mark picks up the phone. "Hello?"
"Hello?" A woman's voice says from the other end of
the line as if she didn't realize she had been calling Mark and
is startled by the fact that another voice is talking to her.
"Yeah, hey Deena it's Mark. Listen, I'm kinda busy,"
Mark says crouching on top of the sink in his bathroom in his
"How come you're not at work?" Deena says. Mark had
met Deena three days ago, at work. They'd gone out for drinks
once, Mark drove her home, and now apparently she thinks they're
in some kind of relationship.
"Work?" Mark asks. He's on the threshold of
discovering the secret. Really, he has no clue what she's talking
"Yeah work," she insists.
"Oh I'm not feeling well. Listen De-"
"Are you drunk again?" She asks with a high pitched
tilt of anger to her voice.
"No, hung over but-"
Deena cuts Mark off and yells, "YOU"RE ALWAYS DRUNK
Mark begins to sweat. He has to discover the secret.
His back is beginning to hurt in this crouched over position on
top of the sink in his underwear. "I'm not always drunk," Mark
says quickly, "listen Deena I have to go."
"EVERYTIME I TRY TO TALK TO YOU, YOU'RE DRUNK
"That's not true Deena," Mark snaps, "but lis-"
"YOU"RE ALWAYS DRUNK!"
"I'm not always drunk. You've only known me for
"AND YOU"VE ALWAYS BEEN DRUNK FOR THREE DAYS!" Deena
screams into the phone.
"FINE!" Mark yells.
"FINE!" Deena yells.
She hangs up.
He hangs up.
Mark is still hunched over crouching on top of the
sink in his bathroom, in his underwear, trying to discover the
secret. After the phone call he's lost all reception again. The
message to discover the secret cannot be sent.
Frantically, Mark begins to move his hand from side
to side to side trying in vain to get some, to get any, amount of
reception so that he can send "YES" to 46-4630 and discover the
One bar, for one split second Mark gets one tiny bar
of reception and with his heart beating fast, he presses the
button for SEND and waits with tense anticipation for the mystery
number with the hyphen, 46-4630, to respond back to him so that
he, Mark Kowalski, can know not just any secret, but THE SECRET
and solve the energy crisis and make millions.
Mark is still crouching on top of the sink in his
bathroom in his underwear. The phone beeps. The phone buzzes. The
phone rings. Mark looks down at the phone in the palm of his
hand. It says: INCOMING CALL. The number of the incoming call is
In a rush, a flash of excitement, Mark flips open his
phone and answers the call.
"Hello?" Mark asks, breathless with anticipation.
"Che pasa?" A voice responds on the other end.
Mark begins to shake; to shutter all over from head
to toe as he crouches on top of the sink in his bathroom, in his
underwear, with the cell phone pressed to his ear.
"WHAT IS THE SECRET!?" Mark screams into the phone.
"CHE PASA?" The voice shouts back.
"WHAT IS THE SECRET?!"
Mark begins to shake and tremble all over. The phone
slips from his hand, for a second and it rattles against the edge
of the sink and then if falls with an anti-climactic plop into
the still water of the toilet bowl that's to the left of Mark.
He jumps down off the top of the sink in his
underwear and stands looking down into his toilet bowl and
watching the cell phone there, an inanimate lump of gray plastic
sitting like a dead fish at the bottom and still holding onto the
Mark gazes down into the toilet for a moment. Then he
bends over and fishes the phone out from the bottom of the toilet
with his hand. The thing is ruined. It won't work at all.
Mark takes the wet phone and walks the eight feet
back into his bedroom. He disassembles the cell phone. He takes
the battery and the SIM card out and he lays all the component
parts of the phone on the window sill of his bedroom where the
morning sunlight is streaming in through the open window.
He leaves the pieces of his phone there on the window
sill to dry. He's lost the secret. But at least, he supposes,
with his cell phone soaked like it is, Deena can't call again,
his boss can't call to ask him why he's not at work yet and no
one can ask him-Che pasa?
Mark lays back down in bed and rolls over on his
side. He lets the warm sunlight that's coming through the window
shine on his naked back and warm him. Mark falls into a fitful
sleep and sleeps the rest of the day away. The secret isn't his,
but the warm sun on his back feels good.