Zach VandeZande Fiction: “Imperative”

Fiction: Zach VandeZande


It is night and the feeling is coming on again. You know the one. There are rules for dealing with this, a blunt methodology we have devised over time. Stay awake. Don’t stop thinking. Don’t let it wash over you the way it does. Find something to do.

The knight Wallace makes his way up the steps again. He holds a sword as long as his body. His face is hidden behind a faceguard. He is only steely determination. He is an abstraction of knighthood. It does not bother him. The staircase is massive, made of old, moss-mottled stone. At the top of the stairs he is flattened by the heavy warpick of a humanoid rhinoceros. A warpick is a weapon that has a hammer face on its end counterbalanced by a sharp pike, which is thematically appropriate for a rhinoceros. There is an internal consistency to his world. After a moment of blackness, Wallace appears at the bottom of the massive staircase. He makes his way back up the steps.

The feeling is creeping in again. Keep it in the peripheral. Don’t sleep. Sleep is one place where it comes on. The feeling slides around the room, hiding in all the places it cannot be found. The feeling is clever that way. The feeling is a cockroach in a bathroom drain. A literal cockroach.

There is a certain austerity to phenomenology that we like. The world as navigated and articulated by blunt observation. Everything stripped of its meaning until a meaning is found. Phenomenology scrapes a brain clean. Plus we like the way the terminology rattles around in a sentence.

Wallace has a kind of resolve you admire. He knows he is alone in the world. The world was made lonely for him. In fact, the world exists in such a way that only what is visible is rendered. What the camera does not point at is not even there. It is a void, yet when Wallace runs toward it he does not feel the vast terror that should accompany running at full speed towards nonexistence. He sees only the instantiation of the real. There is no questioning of fate in Wallace. There is no asking if he has a will. There is only climbing the stairs, and what’s after.

Sleep distracted if you have to. If you have to sleep, that is. Put on a show you’ve seen before. The one you like, the one that’s a warm blanket. Or put on one you don’t particularly like. It doesn’t matter. Sleep drunk. Sleep with your laptop open. Read a website until sleep fights back. Put pillows around your body. Make a joke of it. Call it Fort Lonelyfort. Convince yourself you’re not alone. Podcasts help. Music. Hours of pre-bed videogame playing. Put one unhealthy obsession in place of another.

The feeling is a lot of feelings, if you’re being honest. Which we would rather you were not, so: do not be honest. Impose a kind of sterility of thought. Phenomenologize. Make an autoclave of your brain.

The cockroach hides in your sink, tucked in the overflow drain. Pokes its antennae out. It has all that it needs. There is moisture and scum. But still it wonders, if a cockroach could be said to wonder.

We strongly oppose attempts to sleep. If you sleep, you’ll wake up, and the feeling will have you. It might be an hour. It might be five. It might be a gut-drop body-jerk instant. Keep the feeling at bay however you can. Even as you know that not sleeping is a part of the feeling. Shh.

The feeling is the roach. The feeling is Wallace, climbing his nonexistent stairs. The feeling is the worry that death invented time, that it wasn’t the other way around. Death is impossible to phenomenologize. The inherent meaning of it cannot be found out, so any meaning in death is ascribed from outside the process of one’s dying. And sleep is the cousin of death. We heard that once and knew it was true. So: don’t sleep.

You cannot let the feeling find you. You cannot let the feeling up the steps. You cannot let the feeling gain any ground. Cannot.

The cockroach pokes its body out of its hidey hole. Darkness over everything—the toothbrush, the hand soap, the razor and the shaving cream. It climbs up and out, briefly on the lip of the counter, its legs splayed out on either side of it. Tests the open air.

The feeling is: you are maybe crazy.

The feeling is: maybe you are not.

The feeling is: the only intelligent response to running full bore into the void of nonexistence is terror.

Here is what the knight Wallace is thinking: nothing! If only! Stoic is one way to describe him. Blank-faced under his visor. Or: no-faced, if you’re going to be honest. He puts his visor down and his face disappears. On the one hand, it’s a matter of how a computer processor handles memory by not rendering what cannot be seen. On the other hand, it makes a certain kind of phenomenological sense.

The bowl of the sink is too slick. You have scrubbed it down recently. You scrub it down often, because the stuff that accumulates in the sink is the feeling. The cockroach slides down the porcelain and tries to clamber back up to its home. It is almost pathetic. Though you can’t see it. If you saw it your breath would catch and you would back out of the room. It is the size of your thumb and scrambling nowhere. You are in the living room, living.

We know you named Wallace. Many times you are allowed to name characters in this way, to give them a sense of ownership or to invest them with personality. Do this whenever you can. We approve of your attempts to assign meaning where there is none. You chose, also, his armor, that visor, what kind of sword is best suited for the job. You send him up the steps and he is flattened again and again. The act itself is bulwark—a sacrifice against the coming on of the feeling.

You named him after another person, a person who you think sometimes felt like you feel now. You hope he did. A feeling shared is less intense. A friend you never met.

In the dark a cockroach is at home.

Do not give the feeling its name. Do not say it out loud. Do not admit a thing in the darkness where you sit alone. This is a hostage negotiation. There is a gun pointed at your heart. Or: the gun is inside your heart aiming out. We don’t quite know where the gun is, but the point is there is a gun and it’s going to shoot something unless you cooperate.

The cockroach is nameless and you have no connection to it nor do you want one. But: it walks onto the porcelain of the sink, and it is too smooth to grip with the cilia on its feet, so it slips into the bowl, and its struggle in that moment can be said to exist in a way Wallace’s does not. In a way that yours does not. It scrambles in panic and also in a sink. Its goal: get to the overflow drain at the top of the bowl. It knows of the danger it is in. Its goal: get home.

Elsewhere, other young men move their version of Wallace up the same stairs. They have different names, different armor. Some have axes or spears instead of swords. If it is a community it is a messy or theoretical one. One built on difference and individual struggle instead of unity. They do not want to admit that their choices are meaningless. A weapon is a weapon is a weapon. Do not admit this either.

Watch Wallace as you are Wallace. An echo. A twinning of intent. A simplification. His failures are your failures. In this way achieve a stillness of thought. Achieve something like peace. You are Wallace. Vice versa. Achieve seeing yourself as both, as a lenticular or a magic eye poster. Achieve not feeling the feeling.

The cockroach is also you. A metaphor of sorts. Though, again, actual.

Wallace moves up the stairs with grace. He dodges arrows that come toward him, uses a bow of his own to kill one of the archers. Three arrows. A health bar empties. The archer falls. Further up the steps he kills another with his sword after rolling under an arrow. Pretend you hear it whistle past. You are Wallace. Get to that empty place. Get smashed by the rhinoceros.

Log on to an internet forum to find the community. Talk about the rhinoceros. Say, “I keep getting my shit pushed in by that goddam rhinoceros.” Get some tips, some sympathy, some knowing replies.

Do not say: all of this is inherently without value.

Do not say: I am afraid that I am utterly alone in all of this, and the mere acknowledgement of that fear makes it true. It is a meta-fear or a performative fear or the simulacrum of fear of a simulacrum and phenomenology is useless against it. It is knotty and empty and far worse than a rhinoceros on two legs with a hammer.

Do not talk about the feeling.

The roach fails to find purchase, unaware that the drain behind it leads to the same place, that it could retreat if it wanted, that it could move back into the shadows it knows without struggle. It runs a circle, a skittering mockery of draining water. It stops to suck some moisture. Its antennae twitch. Toothpaste, saliva.

Sit on your couch and pretend you do not exist. Put your phone on silent. We insist you eat cereal for dinner. We insist you keep people from seeing what a terrible fraud you are. We know things. We’ve seen that you are likable and kind for its reward. We’ve seen how brittle your humanism and empathy are. We’ve seen you cry at a funeral not for the deceased but for your own mortality. We’ve seen that every good thing about you is built out of something small and sharp and hurting inside of you. Obey our terms or else.

At the top of the steps, the rhino brings its warpick down hard, but Wallace rolls clear. Or: you roll clear. Heyou lockslock on and movesyou move him to the right. The rhino circles too, jabs forward with the point of the warpick. Its armor is a beaten copper that’s dulled and corroded in the fake sun, in the ages that it sat waiting before Wallaceyou came to the stairway. WallaceYou movesmove right, the rhino circles. Then it throws its crushing weight down on the hammer, missing. WallaceYou takestake hisyour chance. Two swingstaps of the swordbutton. Blood mists the air. The rhino staggers back and raises its hammer again. WallaceYou dodgesdeny that you are separate from what is happening on screen. In this way the thing is done.

Sit on your couch and focus on the kind of struggle you can handle. Fall into bed at the last possible moment. Make sleep immediate, necessary, and vital. Ignore; ignore!

With enough time invested the mind can become anything. Close your eyes and see Wallace. Feel safe.

Sometimes the cockroach thinks everything is too much because anything is too much.

Wallace lives free from desire. What he has is directive. Up the stairs, Wallace. Fell the rhino. And so he does. The rhino slumps to its knees, crashes down. The hammer clatters a ways down the stairs. Sunlight, or something like it, on everything. The doorway beyond glimmers. The goal is far taller than Wallace. Wallace moves to it, a great wrought double door covered in runes. With a hand on each door, he pushes his way in. The gate gives way. Behind, immediately behind, stand two more of the armored rhinos, too close together to divide and conquer. They must be killed as one. His world, cruel though it may be, is iterative. Knowledge of the system is leverage. It pays off. How nice!

You could be comparative. You could press your loneliness on to the figure that you control on the screen. What Wallace fights is the feeling. Or. And. Hm.

Don’t forget the cockroach we have placed in the sink. You will meet it soon. It is there scrambling. It has been there before, out of sight while you brushed your teeth, avoided yourself in the mirror.

Wallace’s is to die again and again, each death meaning such an infinitesimal amount as to actually mean nothing. It’s death that denies death. To actually die, Wallace would need to stop. You would need to stop. The real death in this case is a giving in, going to bed, uncoupling yourself from him and returning to the biological real and not returning to his world. Sleep is the cousin. This same struggle is happening in so many other apartments, irrespective of your own struggle, which is to say that Wallace’s death is in some ways not inevitable in the same way as your own death. Letting Wallace die, truly die, would have an intrinsic meaning, would be a giving up. What about you?

You have to pee. Or: you don’t want to answer the question we’ve put to you, which is fine by us. Go and see the roach. Go and flip the light and jump back and feel foolish for jumping back but feel disgusted too and feel a kind of throat-clutched dread take hold of you as the roach scrambles and scrambles around the sink and open the cabinet with your foot while you watch and reach down for just a moment while keeping an eye.

Wallace stands at the bottom of the stairs not thinking thoughts.

Hit the roach with aerosol poison. Never give it a chance. Let its respiratory system catch fire. Let it writhe and twitch in something like agony. One dead roach won’t save you. One dead roach is knowledge, surety. A harbinger of infestation. Or: a fluke. An outlier. A wanderer who took a wrong turn and ended up in your drain. But it’s proof of something you cannot contain. You cannot stop the outside from coming in.

While you stand there watching the roach die, we must insist: don’t give in to the temptation to make this about you. It’s so gauche, which makes us have to point out that it’s gauche, which is also, all told, fairly gauche. Change particulars, deny that you are the author and this is you playing Dark Souls because of something so bottomless as your anxiety, that black hole that doesn’t have any weight you could name. Change details. Avoid specificity. Make it a mask so that you don’t have to wear it.

Here’s how the roach will get its revenge: close your eyes and it’s in bed with you. Close your eyes and it’s behind them. Try and think of Wallace and it crawls across the screen. Look at you. Defeated.

Now the feeling has barbs and can crawl around. Everything is a cockroach to you. Wallace is a cockroach. The feeling is a cockroach. And you.

Other people have words for the feeling. The feeling slides easily away from these words. Keep it in the realm of the unspecified. Do not attempt to hold the ocean with a teaspoon. Language is too childish, or: you are too childish to use it to describe this thing in you. It’s a paradox, a head spinner, and the feeling is both a kind of confusion/lostness and a fear of that very confusion/lostness. But we’re not saying that. We’re not saying that we’re not saying that, but we’re not saying that.

The roach runs the bowl.

Try and find a shape for your life in the performative act of moving Wallace up the stairs. Though it is shattered, a mosaic. Hundreds of treks up the stairs as one seamless trip. There used to be a wilderness in you that you have evened out chemically and behaviorally, like stitching those failed attempts to get Wallace up the steps into the one success.

But language does have the words is the point. You have put them in your mouth. Anxiety. Ennui. Anhedonia. Fear. Cockroach. Gregor Samsa. Wallace. And you.

The roach runs circles in the bowl as the poison does its work. Bear witness in disgust. Watch as it flips on its back and its legs flail. Wonder: do they flip over to ease some felt pain as they die? Is it a letting go? Or just dumb reflex, some textbook fact of biology as their legs curl into their bent sarcophogal form? Do not decide on an answer. Allow that you are disgusted because a cockroach’s being alive is mechanical and base, a set of imperatives in response to impulse.

Zach VandeZande is an author and professor. He lives in Ellensburg, Washington (sometimes), and Washington, DC (sometimes). He is the author of a novel, Apathy and Paying Rent (Loose Teeth Press, 2008), and a forthcoming short story collection, Liminal Domestic: Stories (Gold Wake Press, 2019). He knows all the dogs in his neighborhood.


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