Vol.1 Brooklyn is happy to present an excerpt from Mark Anthony Cronin’s collection of short stories, Gigantic Failures. (It’s available now via Small Victories Press.) Regarding Cronin’s collection, Amber Sparks noted: “Despite the modern settings, despite pop culture references sprinkling the stories, despite the piles of Walmarts and McDonald’s and AK-47s–these are stories that get at the heart of very simple, age-old truths, and the dream of what it is to be human in any time.”
In the weeks that proceeded I began my studies. What I was looking for were elements of Mathilda’s life I could bring into my own, easily accessible parts or items I could purchase that would make me feel closer to her: a redwood bedside table from Pier One Imports, a bookcase from Ikea, Target Bed sheets, a second hand store writers desk (I found one that was a near perfect match), a MacBook, art supplies from Utrecht, A body pillow from Bed, Bath, & Beyond. There were the smaller, more inconspicuous things: the aloe vera hand lotion from Bath & Body Works, Abercrombie and Fitch perfume (not to wear, only to spray around my apartment to create the idea that she had been there), a pair of Love Pink sweatpants, Dove body wash, Three Olives Cherry Vodka, Sprite in 20oz bottles, and a Catholic Feast of St. Francis candle (Ironic?).
I’d started calling off work more and more, elaborating on my original lie.
“Tests,” I’d say to my boss, “they want to be sure there’s no ligament damage.” Or: “They found something in my blood, an abnormality. They want me to come back in tomorrow for more blood work and a CT scan.”
By the end of that December he’d caught on and the day he called me into his office to ‘talk’ I knew what was coming and went in guns blazing, not literally of course, figuratively.
“I have cancer,” I said.
“What?” He couldn’t tell if he’d heard me incorrectly or if I’d said what he heard or if I’d even spoken at all. He looked instantly haunted.
I went on to explain in brilliant detail my illness. I even brought myself to tears there in his office and he got out of his chair and hugged me. I couldn’t help but laugh and masked it by crying harder, more violently.
As I was exiting his office to begin my medical leave he said, “If you need anything, anything at all. Don’t hesitate to call.”
“Thanks,” I said, feigning a feigned smile.
At home I described the exploit to the Fridge. It was now full of organic beverages and Whole Foods bought condiments. I sat at the kitchen table, facing the Fridge.
“Now I’ve got all the time in the world!” I said.
“That’s nice,” the Fridge said back. It sounded a lot like Eeyore from the Winnie the Pooh cartoons I’d watched as a child.
“Why do you seem more glum than usual?” I asked the Fridge, “This is a great day to be alive!”
“I don’t have any feelings. I am what I am because of what you put into me,” it said, “Otherwise I’d just be a cold box.”
“We’ll have to work on that,” I said.
“Ok,” the Fridge said dejectedly.
That night there was a note from Mathilda: New Hope?!?! XOXO
What was that supposed to mean? I wondered. Where was she?
It was late.
This had always been one of the major hurdles of the exchange. If she was away then I had no idea where she was or what was happening. What if she was hurt, or worse? What if she was being held at knife point? There’d have been nothing I could do with her sometimes cryptic notes. New Hope? What the… What the fuck?
That night I drove around and looked for her. I wasn’t sure where she lived but I figured if it was in the area I’d find her. It was possible. Stranger things have happened you know. It is a small world after all. But I had no luck spotting her. She was vapor. She was mist. She was a heavenly body. She did not exist.
I stopped in at a bar and thought I’d maybe just have a couple drinks while I waited for her to return. I ended up really drunk and enmeshed in a doozy of a conversation with a girl half my age that ended up in my bed asking me: “Do you have a girlfriend? That’s so hot! Is she going to come home? Does she eat pussy? That’d be so hot?”
I put my hand over her mouth and got rough. She liked it. I hadn’t drunk that much in a long time and my cock felt like a string bean. I fell off of the girl and passed out. Woke up oblivious to what had happened. The girl was in my kitchen making eggs.
“Hey!” She said, “Where’s your girlfriend? Is she coming home? I’ll cook extra.”
“That was a… That was a mistake, last night,” I said, leaning into the counter.
“No such thing.”
“I don’t have a girlfriend,” I said, “but I am in love with a girl.”
“No such thing.”
I ate the eggs she cooked and then told her she had to leave, “I have a lot of work to do,” I told her.
She kissed me and left me her number.
When she was out in the hall and the door was locked I cried and fell into a wall.
“Who was that?” the Fridge asked.
“Don’t ask,” I said sniffling.
“I already did,” the Fridge said.
“She was nobody,” I said, “Worst of all that meant nothing. I don’t know her name. She wasn’t a good Mathilda facsimile. You wouldn’t know about this but this is the way those types of arrangements work. It’s just two people looking for someone in the other person they know they’re not going to find. It’s sad really. I’m just very sad.”
The Fridge said nothing else.
Out of shame I stayed away from the computer. I showered for longer than was usual, scrubbed harder, and left my skin scorched by the loofa. I ate a small meal at lunch. The cabinets had begun to put in their two cents, mumbling: scumbag, scumbag, scumbag…
“I know!” I screamed, “I know, just please just leave me alone.”
“I wasn’t even saying anything,” the Fridge said.
“Not you,” I said.
Ignoring the Fridge I moved to the living room and turned on the television. Fantom or Phantom?, one of the only programs I could stand to watch anymore, was having a marathon so I decided to watch, more consumed it. The next time I glanced at a clock it’d been hours, literally having fallen off the day. I felt well enough to return to the computer, to gaze upon Mathilda once more, whatever she was doing. I could hear the Fridge whispering something in the background.
“Shut up!” I screamed across the apartment.
There was silence.
Mathilda was still absent. In her place was a new note: Maybe?
I downloaded the material that had been recorded from the previous night up until that moment, parsed it for clues to what Maybe? meant, and that’s when I noticed it: In the room: two shadowy forms moving through the dark. Two: Mathilda had not been alone either. That’s what the maybe signified, having an attachment outside of the arrangement she’d made with us, her viewers. Mathilda had been the object of our collective affection but I had betrayed it and she followed suit. The forms hovered above the bed. It was impossible for me to watch and not feel sick, sick for myself and my actions and sick for what was there, set in stone, drawn out of real life and set to record. There, right there. In the live feed she was still absent, the note stood there tormenting me: Maybe? Maybe? Maybe?
The Eternal Question.
I needed my head to shut off, my head or the world, whichever came first.
I went back to the living room, stomped there on feet that felt caked in mud, and turned on the television. The marathon was still running but I couldn’t watch. I channel surfed through day time talk shows, commercials, soap operas, and reality shows. I stopped on an advertisement for a product claiming to be able to remove every follicle of hair from a human’s body through laser augmentation. All of the dramatization actors had perfectly sculpted and hairless bodies: All yours for only $19.95 w/S&H.
The erection made itself known.
I had to get out.
I threw on some clothes and fled.
Up the street from my apartment there was a large box retailer bookstore with connected coffee shop. I’d go there when I felt like I needed to be a part of the world but didn’t want to get to close, when things got to heavy at home. The Fridge could really get on my nerves. Sometimes I’d try and pick up an orange that would end up weighing as much as a shot-put ball. Everything was messing with me.
Now there was the Mathilda dilemma. The revealing of my own soul’s wretchedness had somehow transferred itself to her as well, possibly through the radio waves and signals sent from my router. She’d gone to the Shadow at the same instant I myself had given myself over to the girl from the bar. These events were locked in a kind of parabolic state. I could see it all at my vantage and it drove me nearly insane. It took a few punches of the steering wheel of my car, leaving streaks of white dead skin on the rubber, just to be able to walk into the building. The fluorescent lights harsh glow caught me off guard and I nearly fell into a display for the latest James Patterson bestseller but caught myself and acclimated to the light and my rage and self-incriminations melted with the smooth bass line of an aged jazz song playing through the speakers.
I walked contemplatively from section to section, my head filled with musings about the world and myself and all of mankind: light, music, and the voices of others in conversations about who knew what. It all mingled and sang and I felt light, buoyant. I glided on butterfly wings to the counter of the café. In front of me was a younger couple. They were happy. I was feeling happy. I watched them there, flirting and being quite indecisive about what to order. They’d turned it into a game.
“What do you want?” the guy asked.
“I don’t know. What are you getting?” the girl asked back.
“I don’t know either, just order.” The guy said laughing.
“I don’t know what I want though,” the girl said.
The guy sighed playfully, “It’s not that hard,” he said.
“Well then just order for me,” the girl said.
“What am I?” the guy asked.
“You’re the man.” The girl said.
“Damn right,” the guy said with a smirk, “now what do you want?”
“I don’t know!” The girl shrieked.
They did finally order. I stood there smiling pleasantly as I waited for the barista to prepare and serve their drinks. I waited for the barista, who was a middle aged woman in a black top and apron, to come back to the register and take my order.
“Hi,” she said, “What can I get for you?”
I looked over her head at the menu hung up on the wall behind her. I tried to look as if I were thinking hard about what I wanted, weighing options, and changing my mind. “Hmmm,” I said, rubbing my chin. I wanted to look absolutely human, normal, totally supposed to be there doing what I was doing.
The barista never got annoyed or sighed; at least she didn’t show it.
I took my time.
I said, “Umm,” and paused, then: “I’ll have a…” I stammered. I felt my face sag and my tongue fell out of my mouth. From my stomach arose guttural sounds I made no effort to produce. My whole body tightened up. The barista kept her eyes on me, never looking embarrassed or concerned. I kept my eyes on her, focusing as best I could. We were looking at each other, or rather: I was looking at her but she did not see me.