Nonfiction by Matthew Vollmer
A friend and colleague of mine, an industrial design professor and vegetarian, once found himself at a dim sum restaurant in Changsha City, in the Hunan province of China, where, as the guest of honor, he was asked to be the first to sample each dish that was brought to the table, and which included, much to his dismay, a bowl of pig’s blood soup. The other day this same man, whose last name always calls to my mind the image of a shark fin, sent me a link to an article about an artist—a sculptor—who has been building, for more than two decades, a series of monuments in a Nevada desert: triangular slabs of concrete and monolithic so-called “complexes” that resemble Mayan pyramids, all of which, the artist hopes, will outlast humanity. I was Google Imaging this place and thinking about a friend of mine who had confessed that he hoped whatever books he might write would still be read fifty years after he died, when a colleague entered my office and said, “Check your email,” so I did, thinking that maybe he’d sent me something interesting to consider because in the past he’d sent invitations to lectures (“Captain America as Literature”), articles about writing residencies on Amtrak, and jazz renditions of “Be Thou My Vision,” but when I checked my inbox I found an email not from my colleague but from one “Robert Birdman” that said, “I am here to inform that in the next couple of days I will break in to [sic] the campus and will kill as many people as I can until the police arrives [sic].” I stared at the name Robert Birdman and then Googled it; the only Robert Birdman I could find was Robert “Birdman” Stroud, a convicted murderer who, after taking care of a nest of injured sparrows he discovered in a prison yard, became an amateur ornithologist. After agreeing with my colleague that this was a situation worth monitoring, I received a text from my friend Terry, a guy who’d grown up in Blacksburg and attended Virginia Tech—and whom I will always remember sitting next to during George W. Bush’s address to the university after the April 16 shootings, a speech we watched on the Jumbotron of Lane Stadium with the rest of the overflow crowd that hadn’t arrived early enough to claim a seat at Cassell Coliseum. Terry, a gamer who regularly plays online with a group of Pakistani men who own bodegas in New York City and with a disabled fifteen-year-old boy who lives with his grandmother in Illinois, suggested that we “heist it up later” and “make some clams,” by which he meant “play Grand Theft Auto Online.” I texted back, “Sure,” and then stared at my computer and imagined a deranged “Robert Birdman”—I pictured the bald head and avian nose of Robert Stroud, whose picture I had just viewed on Wikipedia—on the Virginia Tech Drill Field, mowing down people with a military-grade machine gun. Several students emailed me to say that, because of the Birdman email and because they had heard the campus was on lockdown (it wasn’t), they would not be coming to class, and I wrote back to say that I understood. I didn’t know what to do myself, except to live my life as usual, which meant teaching my classes, going home for dinner, and walking the dog while listening to Frank Ocean’s “There Will Be Tears” on repeat, a song I just discovered and which is about how the singer only knew his grandfather—“the only dad I’ve ever known”—for a little while, and at the man’s funeral he has to hide his face because none of the other boys—who are also fatherless—are crying. “You can’t miss what you ain’t had,” one of them says, and Ocean responds with, “Well, I can,” and then belts out: “I’m saaad!” As I watched the last splotches of sunset fade, I decided to call my own father, but the call failed, so I dialed again and got sent directly to voicemail, tried again, same thing. Then I remembered: my father was with a group of local men on their annual trip to gather blackberries and eat steak and eggs while sitting around campfires at “the Bald,” a grassy meadow at the top of the Snowbird mountain range in Graham County, North Carolina, a place that, in the early 19th century, George Gordon Moore, a self-made millionaire rumored to have been F. Scott Fitzgerald’s model for Jay Gatsby, had attempted unsuccessfully to transform into a European-style game preserve and lodge that would cater to wealthy men who wanted the thrill of hunting and killing wild animals. Moore transported an ark’s worth of animals to the Bald, including eight buffalo, fourteen elk, six Colorado mule deer, thirty-four bears, two hundred wild turkeys, ten thousand eggs of the English ring-necked pheasant, and, perhaps most significantly, fourteen young wild boar, shipped from Russia’s Ural Mountains, a range it’s worth pointing out bears a striking resemblance to the Appalachian mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina, which may have something to do with the hog’s subsequent proliferation, as the dark thickets of laurel and rhododendron provide the animal plenty of places to hide, as well as an abundance of food sources, including roots, acorns, and—according to a November 1961 issue of Popular Science—rattlesnakes, a delicacy the animal stomps to death with its hooves and devours “on the spot.” Though the wild boar population has grown substantially since the early 1900s—they are said to be both destructive and, unless you have the proper weaponry, indestructible—and though I have seen evidence in dark mountain coves of their wallowing, I myself have never seen a boar, at least not in the wild. My father has seen them from time to time; once he approached an adult hog that had wandered onto his property and, using a .22 rifle, shot the hog point blank in the forehead. The bullet wound oozed blood, the boar wobbled a bit, but then it turned around and ambled into the woods, and though hunters were called to dispense of it, the animal was not seen again.
Matthew Vollmer is the author of two collections of short fiction—Gateway to Paradise and Future Missionaries of America—as well as a collection of essays—inscriptions for headstones. With David Shields, he co-edited FAKES: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts, and served as editor for The Book of Uncommon Prayer, an anthology of everyday invocations featuring the work of over 60 writers. He teaches at Virginia Tech.