““That fall I had stopped believing I was a person” begins an early paragraph in this nihilistic, yet wryly buoyant excerpt about a thirty-year-old aspiring artist caught between her ambition and the lure of procrastination and despair,” Charmaine Craig says of “Crybaby” by Mariah Adcox, the second place finalist in our 2022 Novel Excerpt Contest. “In line after line, the influence of mind-numbing groupthink is on evidence, as is the singular humor of a character alive to her own pain and potential. I was immediately engaged and moved by this acerbic and sensitive look at trying to mature and make meaning in a landscape stripped of values.” Read the excerpt at the link below!
For years I had been following a Twitter account that called itself That Counts As Art. The account’s basic premise was to expand the idea of what counted as making art. That you didn’t have to be strictly painting, or writing, or creating, that you could say you were engaging in generating art no matter what you were doing. When I first started following the account, it would tweet things like “Going to a museum counts as art” and I would go to a museum and let myself think, That’s enough art for today. But as the years progressed, the account, and I along with it, grew increasingly more deranged. It started tweeting things like “Doing the dishes counts as art” and “Showering counts as art.”
That fall, the rats were out. Everywhere you went people were talking about them. It was like they were taking over. I was repulsed, of course, but I also felt jealous of how confidently they moved through the world. They danced on the subway tracks like death wasn’t coming and I thought to myself, I wish I could do that. One night I went out to dinner with my friend Nate, and he told me that on his way to the restaurant a rat had run over his foot. It was so big, he said, I thought it was a cat.
A few nights later I was at a party and, predictably, someone brought up the rats. That fall, when no one had anything else to say, someone brought up the weather, what they were watching on TV, or the rats. A tall guy with glasses I didn’t know was talking about finding a dead rat outside his apartment. It was huge, he said, you wouldn’t believe the size of this thing. I waited patiently for him to stop talking because I had a story of my own. When he did, I said, A few days ago, a rat ran over my foot. It was so big, I said, I thought it was a cat.
That fall I had stopped believing I was a person, at least in the classic sense of what it meant to be one. There was, first and foremost, the problem of my personality, the problem being that I did not seem to have one. Or, if I did have one, that I had the wrong one. In order to change, I told stories about myself that I heard other people tell about their lives. I would tell them so often that eventually, they felt like the truth. I borrowed everything I believed from everyone else. I tried to have opinions of my own but nothing stuck. Instead, anytime someone said Let that sink, I did. I let other people’s opinions drift down into the soft pink center of my brain. The leaves were just beginning to turn from green to brown, and my defining characteristic was that I would always let anyone change my mind.
A few months before I’d started working at a cafe in Manhattan, serving strong coffee to women who looked good for their age. Some of them yelled at me if their coffee was too hot so I got in the habit of sticking my finger into their cups before handing them back, to make sure the coffee didn’t burn their tongues. I did this until a regular named Glennis saw me do it and said to my manager, That girl stuck her finger in my coffee. My manager was a man named Roger who was both younger and shorter than me. I figured these were the reasons that Roger liked to punish me, because he felt threatened by both my age and stature. After Glennis told Roger about my finger in her coffee, he took me back into his office and said, What were you thinking. I said, What Glennis doesn’t understand is that I’m doing her a favor. I said, What I’m doing here is not a service that every barista is willing to provide. I said, I think we should be asking ourselves, in fact, what it was that Glennis was thinking. After that, I wasn’t allowed to make drinks anymore, just run the cash register and clean. I told customers their totals and spent a lot of time mopping. I was thirty. No one tipped.
In the back of the coffee shop there was a kitchen where they made breakfast food, stale bagels and runny breakfast burritos. There was always a pot of poached eggs on the stove, and I hated the way they smelled. If I had to go back into the kitchen to get something I held my nose with two fingers. Every time I did this the cook stopped what he was doing and stared at me. On one particularly bad morning I went back to the kitchen and my natural human gag reflex responded. I’m sorry, I said to the chef, it’s not personal. They’re my eggs, he said. It’s always personal.
I worked nights and weekends with Jason, a twenty-two-year-old theater major. He told me he loved going to Renaissance fairs and when I said, You must be joking, he said, I don’t joke about the Renaissance. He would sing at the customers, repeat their orders back to them like it was an audition. When work was slow, I’d think about killing him. I’d slice his throat with the bread knife or shove his head into the coffee grinder. Every night when I mopped the floor, I imagined I was mopping up his blood, too.
It was my job to gather all the baked goods that no one had bought that day and put them in big black trash bags and leave them on the sidewalk outside. One night I asked Roger if it would be better to take them to a shelter and he said, Sure, you can if you want to. I don’t want to, I said, I just thought someone else probably should.
At night, before closing, we couldn’t leave until the last customer was gone. We would give them ten and five-minute warnings. We had to keep reminding them that we were closing but most of the customers wouldn’t move so then we had to clean around them. You could tell the customers who wouldn’t leave thought they were better than us. When they lifted their feet so I could mop underneath them I realized they were right, they were better than me. While I mopped, I thought about all the people I had made fun of with five-year plans. Now five years had passed and I was the one mopping the floor.
To continue reading “Crybaby” click here.