One year has passed since being told I was so pathetic I didn’t know what sad was, that if sad tapped me on the shoulder and said hi, I’m sad, I still wouldn’t recognize sad. It was a moment of revelation, my failure blinking in the mind like a caution light. Another loss for the mental notebook. But it was the motivation I needed. I have returned to Cincinnati a darker me, an emptier me.
The event was held in a meeting room at the Ramada. Everyone was dressed in black: shirts, pants, souls. Our collective ambition was idling in neutral. A herd of slumped shoulders and sluggish feet blended seamlessly with buckets of apathy. We sipped coffee and nibbled on glazed donuts while surveying the room, interrogating one another with our shy eyes, trying to detect the best of the worst. Goth violins leaked from speakers hidden in the walls.
Joanne from Duluth was first up. She was good. Talked about growing up without her parents, who ran off to Vegas to play Texas Hold’em forever. Her dog Rusty died in a snowstorm. She keeps his head in a plastic bowl in the freezer, defrosts it every Christmas morning to have someone to spend the holiday with. The intensity of her pain swallowed the room. I wanted to place it on a paper plate, grab a spork, and get to work.
Robbie from Daytona Beach tried too hard. He cried from the first word to the last. It was distracting. Though his anecdote about losing his virginity to a small rip in a leather couch cushion probably won him some points. But the non-stop crying game was tired, I’ve been playing that card since I was seven. He was more effort than execution.
Rebecca from Philadelphia went on and on about how sleeping all day was her response to the abstract brutality of living life as a human cube devoid of spontaneous revolution. She also said she was the square root of lonely. We were all mesmerized by her elegant strangeness.
I had prepared for this day for the last year, examined every unsavory memory, mined them for any drop of darkness. Every broken heart. Every bad career choice. Every ounce of self-loathing I could squeeze from my mind. I didn’t return a single text or phone call for the entire year. I listened to Sinéad O’Connor and Nazareth constantly and stared into the mirror for hours. I ate tubs of butter pecan ice cream while watching the English Patient, and covered all my windows with blankets and garbage bags. I repeatedly told myself that nobody cares, that being a lone gunslinger was unconventional and hazardous to my self-esteem. I was nothingness suffering inside a papier mâché shell. I killed canned beer, chain-vaped, and became a hermit, only venturing out for food and the mail. I spent the entire twelve months in a catatonic state of manufactured despair.
A man dragged himself to the front of the room without giving his name or hometown. He was as thin as a piece of window blind. He stood before us, never making eye contact, never making a sound. The man stripped down to his plaid boxers and crumbled to the ground, curling up in the fetal position on the hardwood. Still silent. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Nothing. No movement, just half-dead on the floor. The crowd went from confusion to admiration to titillation. Twenty minutes. Thirty minutes. Forty. And then his head turned slightly in our direction, just enough to glimpse the left side of his face. The entire room stopped breathing when a solitary teardrop slipped from his green eye. He caught it with the tip of his pinkie, held it high in the air for all to see. Then he simply stood up and began to walk out of the room like a melancholy Jesus. Joanne tossed a pair of black panties at him as he passed by. Someone carved an orchid from a styrofoam cup, flung it at his backside. Robbie cried like a hungry infant. I threw my library card at his bare feet. He never said a word.
I was overwhelmed by what I saw. Only twice in my life have I ever witnessed or heard anything as profound as his performance. The first was when my dad grilled a bald eagle on Independence day because he hated America. I can still picture him standing there, a charred eagle breast in his mouth, gumballs exploding in the sky. He told me later that he did it to mess with the patriotic neighbors. They had a gigantic flag on their porch, and one day they told my dad that when the wind charges in, the smacking you’ll hear will be the sound of sweet freedom. He didn’t care for them after that.
The second was when my mom lost two fingers, ring and middle, in a hydraulic press at work. She told me it hurt like childbirth, but she just wrapped her hand in duct tape and finished her shift. She was tough like that. And she said there was a silver lining: she could make the rock n roll forever sign much easier now. Mom was cooler than freon.
I decided to withdraw from the competition knowing I could never beat that guy. I would have to hunt for connection and acceptance somewhere else. Later, they crowned him the champion, gave him $1500.00, a trophy of a golden tissue, and a blue ribbon.
In the Ramada parking lot, someone tapped me on the shoulder and said hi. It was Gilbert from Nashville, the saddest human of the year.
Chris Milam lives in the bucolic wasteland that is Hamilton, Ohio. When not writing, he sulks and vapes with ferocity. His stories have appeared in Jellyfish Review, WhiskeyPaper, Bartleby Snopes, The Airgonaut, and elsewhere. You can find him on Twitter @Blukris.