About the Writer
Zach VandeZande is an Assistant Professor at Central Washington University. He is the author of the novel Apathy and Paying Rent and the forthcoming short story collection Lesser American Boys. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Ninth Letter, Gettysburg Review, Yemassee, Word Riot, Portland Review, Cutbank, Sundog Literature, Passages North, Beloit, Slice Magazine, Atlas Review, The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. He likes you just fine.
There was a brown spot on the wall. It looked a little raised, but that could’ve been an illusion created by the combination of the color and the wall’s texturing. My thinking was it was a bug, and then, when I got up closer, some kind of bug residue. Maybe an egg sac. My thinking mostly was: gross. That’s gross.
I come from a long line of amateur household investigators. My strongest memory of my mother is her bent over in the living room, her nose inches away from the carpet, saying, “What is that?” And of course picking it up, bringing it over to show us kids, saying, “Do either of you know what this is?” Invariably it was a piece of goldfish cracker or chocolate, but one time it was an actual mouse turd there in her hand.
Later she vacuumed herself into a corner and wept until I got home from school. Things had gotten worse by then but, like it or not, I was still her daughter.
The point is: I picked at it with my finger. And when I picked it, it came loose at one end, and underneath was an angry pink spot that started leaking a clear and yellowish fluid.
It was a scab. It was a scab on the wall in the house I lived in, in the world I lived in, next to the room I sleep in, and things sort of opened up inside of me so that I felt a little sick.
I let the crust of it fall to the floor. I left the room. I came back. The spot was shining in its moisture, a bead of some liquid gathering at the bottom of it, ready to slide down the wall. I did not want it to slide down the wall. It began to slide down the wall. I left the room. I came back.
This went on for a time. Eventually I phoned in to work, then gathered myself and called an exterminator, eyes still locked on the leaking space on my wall.
A voice on the phone said Hello. It sounded like my father.
I have an infestation, I said.
I stood there, unable to say to him skin, scab, unreality. These are not things you say to a man who sounds like your father. Finally I said, I’m not sure, but something has damaged my wall.
A man came. I don’t think the same man. He smelled strongly of burrito, had a lot of hair on his arms running right up into his shirtsleeves. I led him over to the spot on my wall. He leaned in and looked at it. It had scabbed over fresh, bright pink and enflamed. And: it had grown. What had been the size of the end of my pinky was now the size of a penny.
What is it? I asked
He put his face against the wall, trying to see around the edges of it. Dunno, he said.
He pulled a knife from his belt and flicked the blade open with one finger. Don’t worry, he said, I’m not gonna hurt your wall. I believed him well enough. He had a kind of working-class authority that came from the eradication of small lives. But when he pressed the blade against and then into the scab a spray of blood burst forth, spritzing him across the cheek and neck. He jerked back and wiped it away with the back of his blade hand. I saw he was scared, which made me more scared. He backed away from the wall and me both.
Lady, he said, what the hell is going on here?
I tried to make my voice as small as I could when I said, Please, just help me.
He was staring at his hand still. Fuck you, lady.
And he left me there. He stormed right on out. I imagine he was more afraid than angry, but I still felt like I owed him an apology. I had a habit of apologizing for things that weren’t my fault. If it was happening and I was there, I was ready to assume the mantle of blame. I knew it was not the healthiest habit in the world from a mental wellness perspective. I did it anyway.
When he shut the door behind him I sat on my carpet for a while. There were flecks of blood on it. I moved my hand away, then felt I was being silly, and I put my hand back where it was. I reminded myself that everything can be reckoned with in this world. Then I reminded myself again. I could be scared and reasonable, both at once.
My wall was bleeding still. There was no other way about it—I went to the bathroom and found the first aid kit, stanched the blood with gauze, and bandaged it as best I could. When I was done, I said, All better. I felt embarrassed, because I realized I may not have been talking to myself, and looked around the room.
I made dinner, box macaroni. I tried watching TV. I wasn’t successful until I rearranged the furniture in my living room to be facing away from the injured wall. Around nine I had to change the bandage. When I took the old bandage off, rust-red and damp, it had weight. The wound had heat coming off of it. This is normal, I thought. All of this is normal, and everything will be well again soon. I pressed a new bandage to the wall, secured it with medical tape.
When I felt the room breathing, I knew it was my imagination. That almost made it worse. Because: what would I imagine next? The air around me seemed to draw into somewhere, and then fill the space again. I thought maybe this is how it started with Mom. One unreasonable thing. One thing beyond controlling. Then she was on her way.
It took three gin and tonics before I could go to sleep. I felt ill drinking them in the kitchen, and I felt ill having drunk them in the bedroom. My hands smelled of squeezed lime while I lay in bed, swimming in the sheets and my drunkenness.
This probably happens all the time, I thought. It’s just new to you. On my phone in bed, thoroughly drunk, I searched for it, but all I found was noise. I tried different combinations of scab and wall and blood and wound. I didn’t know what search term would give me an answer. It seemed like there was too much possibility, that I wouldn’t find my problem in the realm of all possible problems.
I fell asleep searching.
In the morning the bandage had fallen and the wound was the size of a peach. It made me jump back when I saw, jerked me right awake. My head throbbed, and I thought: pinky, penny, peach. I tried to think of the next biggest thing that would fit this pattern, if it was a pattern, if it was just my need for a pattern, if there was a difference. Pumpkin. Profiterole. How big are those? Paul Rudd. Pennsylvania.
I had to get things under control, first of all myself. I bit my lip to keep from saying What’s wrong? I was afraid of who I would be asking, afraid there might be an answer.
I went outside and stood on my lawn, looking back toward my open door. It was a normal Tuesday. An automatic sprinkler was going, and when it reached the end of its arc it went suddenly deep and full against a city garbage can that had been left out from Monday morning. I thought of my HOA. I thought of Brad Planck’s dog shitting in my yard. The world went about its morningish business. I could tell myself I didn’t know why it was a relief, to be out here and to see that my door led to the same place it always had, that the grass on my lawn still needed more attention than I was willing to give it. My neighbor across the street was loading his kids into a van like they were cargo, lifting them up and placing them in one by one. He’d come across the pavement once and offered to mow my lawn and I’d said No, no. I knew what he thought of me, living alone, a little too old for it in his eyes, a little too single, maybe even a lesbian, but not the neighborly kind—the kind of lesbian who is not into yardwork.
He probably owned spackle.
I jogged across the street, waving my arms a little too wildly. His head was ducked into the van, and he was futzing with somebody’s seatbelt. His children were totally indistinct to me, just the one and then a smaller one and then another slightly smaller one. They had very wispy hair and seemed perpetually syrup-smeared.
Hey, I called out. We didn’t know each other’s names, but he smiled at me. Hey, do you have spackle, or like something to fix a wall?
One of his kids yelled in the car and he startled and turned before answering. Yeah, somewhere. You knock a hole in it or something?
I held up my hand, made a circle with two fingers that was a good bit smaller than the wound itself. I didn’t want him coming over to take a look. About yea big.
I got you, he said. Then he went into his garage and dug around in a drawer for a minute. I stood there not looking at his children while they looked at me. The father came back and handed me a little plastic jar. That should work, but it might not look as good as a real wall patch.
It’s fine. Thank you. I’ll bring it by later.
Keep it, he said.
I thanked him, then walked back to my yard. I hesitated at the door, which had swung closed on its own. Had that happened before? It had. I put my hand on the wood and pushed. It was warm from the morning sun.
Inside, the scab was crusted over again, yellow at the edges, then red, shiny and tacky looking still. I thought I might blow on it. I put my hand on the wall, expecting warmth, but got only the cold of room temperature, which always seems colder when you touch something solid than when you’re standing in the air.
I went and got a cloth and a butter knife, which was the closest I had to the right tool for the job. The spackle smelled like a new room, one that had never had people in it. I mixed it up with the butter knife. I spread a little on the wall away from the wound, dragged the knife across the wall to smooth it over. It worked well enough. With a fresh coat of paint it might not be noticeable at all, or else it would just be a smooth spot.
I stood in front of the wound, waiting for it to object. I realized I thought of it as a conscious thing, as though it might have a will and a preference for what happens next.
I have to do this, I said. You understand.
But of course it didn’t understand.
I slopped the spackle onto the wall and pulled down across the wound as gently as I could. When it wouldn’t spread, when it got stuck on the ridges of the scab, I spread on more. When it started going pink, when it started having flecks of dried blood mixed in, I started to weep. I put more spackle on. I spread it thick over everything, the whole jar up on the wall. It kept sliding off the wound, sticking to the dry parts. The wall bled freely. I cried more.
You can’t do this to me, I said. The wound was surrounded by globules of spackle. Part of the scab was peeled back and barely hanging. I took the cloth I’d brought with me and dabbed it, watched the blood seep out of the pink flesh of the wall, the way it seems to come from nowhere and everywhere, a magic trick of the body of my house. Whatever this was, I was going to have to live with it. I sank to the floor.
I sprawled out on the carpet haphazard like a corpse.
I tried to think about meaning.
Like: was this sudden impetus toward caretaking a cosmic corrective for my lack of desire for motherhood, my inability to have attachments? Was it brought on by my neighbor’s belief and therefore society’s belief that I was somehow lacking without being needed by something?
Like: is this about the environment, the metaphysics of space, and what makes a room a room, and how a room is already a kind of wound?
Like: what even are the suburbs but a betweening of the world of human and animal, and why should I expect one or the other to have dominion?
Like: what makes this less acceptable than any of the other events that happen to me every day?
Like: Having a thought at all.
Like: Being a being that exists at this scale in the context of the infinite.
I decided, finally, that it was meaningless, a fucking up of normal, and I had only to bear it, as I’d borne so many things.
This decision did not make things easier. In fact they got much worse, as I learned to bear more and more things for less and less reason.
Which brings us, quietly, to now.