“Dispatch from a Pandemic: Blacksburg, Virginia” by Matthew Vollmer

Lego Legs 1
Lego Legs 1, Edward Michael Supranowicz

“I’m a big fan of letting people enjoy things,” a Twitter user named Sherryis washingherhands posted, to a thread of judgey reactions to a post about moms dressing sam.coronadotsup Baby Yodas and pretending they were real children. “This country deserves everything it’s getting,” PlebeianPrime posted. Apparently, dressing up realistic baby dolls was considered by some to be a legitimate “hobby,” as was dressing baby werewolf dolls. The special effects artist Asia Erikson crafts each so-called “Werepup” by hand. According to one werepup owner “One of her babies was made with her own hair, which she lost while undergoing chemotherapy, while another was custom-made to include a pair of real teeth from a cat skeleton.” Thinking about Werepups and realistic babies reminded me of the Flexmort CuddleCot, a refrigerated bassinet that allows parents more time to say goodbye to stillborn babies. According to a New York Times article, the babies who remain in these devices appear as if they’re sleeping, and allow the parents to hold—and in some cases baptize—them. The company’s website claims that “the CuddleCot™ cooling pad is placed in any Moses basket, crib, bed or other receptacles. It is connected by a specially insulated hose and is quietly cooled using the CuddleCot cooling unit. The CuddleCot system comes in its carry case with two sizes of cooling pad for premature and full-term babies. The CuddleCot cools to an ideal temperature for preserving a baby without being too cold for the parents.” I thought about the story of baby Moses and his papyrus basket made from tar and pitch, bobbing in the reeds on the banks of the Nile: a lone male child who, according to the story, had survived Pharaoh’s decree that all Hebrew babies should be thrown into the Nile. Had the air quality in Egypt improved during the pandemic? According to my friend Beejay, who’d fled Cairo to stay with her parents’ house in Western Australia, it had. She wouldn’t be able to see her husband, a diplomat who’d stayed behind, until August, at the earliest. She was worried about him. He was exhausted. As was my aunt Mary Jane, who I talked to for two hours two nights ago, and who, as the only person in her family without quote-unquote official work obligations, is probably working more than anybody else, chasing three children under the age of six, while also grocery shopping, doing the laundry, and cooking meals. She texted me a picture about an hour after I’d read about the CuddleCots and had visited Bible Gateway to see exactly what materials had been used for Moses’ basket: it was a page from a coloring book Mary Jane had found in her attic, and the picture was of the basket Moses lived in and then the older version of Moses at the burning bush. I told her about all the above and she replied with two words: “Covid-brain.” In my mind, the burning bush summoned the image of the hickory tree in my dad’s yard—the one that, at the end of January, had lit up with light in the middle of the night. The whole tree had been spectacularly illuminated, and at the top green leaves appeared. My father tried to take a picture with his phone, but as soon as he touched the screen, the light in the tree went out. The tree hadn’t been burning like Moses’ bush, and a voice had not commanded my father to do anything, so he hadn’t been sure whether the light was of divine or demonic origin, or whether he might just be dreaming, but he was pretty certain the leaves had appeared while he was awake. The burning bush, on the other hand, had spoken quite clearly, instructing Moses to come no closer and to remove his shoes, as he was now standing on holy ground. And then the Lord said that he intended for Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. And Moses had replied, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them,” and then God says, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you say to the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you.” I had never paused as a child to think of how strange this was, but now the mystical part of me, the part that vibed with the Hindu notion of reality being an illusion and God playing hide-and-go-seek with himself by disguising himself as the living things of the universe, couldn’t help but wonder about that “I AM.” The one who is. The ground of all being. And how that was a very Buddhist thing for Elohim to have said. My name is “I exist.” What other name would the God of all creation need? Of course, whether or not God exists was despite the point; we made God—or his absence—up with our minds. I should have tried to talk to my student Elia about this when I ran into her today, but instead, we talked about: smoking; the burned up character in the waiting room of the afterlife in the Beetlejuice movie; how sad it was that this year’s graduating class wouldn’t be taking part in an actual, live commencement; watching The Adventures of Baron Munchausen with her father; the perils of technology; the fact that sometimes Elia wanders around campus with a basket and a pair of scissors, clipping flowers to take home with her; and how the other night she and her friends ran naked across Virginia Tech’s Drill Field at 10:30 pm. At home, I swung in the hammock as I read and paused to watch a butterfly flapping itself crazily in the wind, and thought as I often do about the thinker—whose name escapes me—who said something about how if a person had only a day or week to live, then they would find even the most repulsive of insects—a cockroach, say—to represent nothing less than an absolute miracle. The butterfly landed on the grass and folded its wings together, perhaps to rest, and then successfully camouflaging itself disappeared into the lawn. My friend Todd from Salem called to talk to me but my son and his friends needed me to ride to Walmart with them because they were all under 18 and they wanted to buy spray paint—not, I was sorry to learn, for the purposes of vandalism, but for some kind of art project inspired by an artist who’d sprayed “WET GRASS” onto a square of Astroturf. So I rode in the backseat of my son’s friend Oscar’s hybrid, as their friend Jackson played a song from a rapper who, after murdering someone, recorded an album while he was on the run and was now serving a life sentence. As I was writing this, it occurred to me to—to what? I could no longer remember because I neglected to finish that above sentence and now, I had to suppose, I’d never know what specific thought had passed through my brain. Even as I re-read this, trying to find an ending to this section, searching my mind for that thought that ghosted me, I could only think of “wet grass” and wondered what it meant, and so I entered the phrase into a search engine, which returned only the obvious answer. I remembered then how the car in which we had been riding—a Prius adorned with what I could only assume to be an ironic American flag magnet, driven by a teenager who rocked a faint and also possibly ironic mustache—and how I’d tried to play it cool, pretend I wasn’t afraid of riding in a car driven by a distracted boy who was flashing various hand signals to other drivers, exceeding the speed limit, and listening to a song that ended with these words: “I’m gon’ shoot, you can see it in my face/ Fuck a beat, I was tryna beat a case/ But I ain’t beat that case, bitch I did the race/ (See it in my mothafuckin’ face).”

Matthew Vollmer

Raining. Flood watch. Breezy. Wind chimes ringing. Birds singing. In the next room, wife’s typing on her loud, clatter-prone computer and cursing; when I ask what’s going on she says it doesn’t matter. Spent sixty bucks on takeout from an Italian restaurant last night. Was gonna make gluten-free chicken pot pie but couldn’t summon the wherewithal. Walked to the top of the municipal golf course, which has been allowing Blacksburg residents to play free of charge. Talked to my father, who had been                    FaceTiming, as he had for weeks, his old friend Jolene from Guam. Jolene lived in the future. Fourteen hours ahead. Wondered whether she would someday live at my dad’s house. Would she take down the photos of my mother that I had hung in place of the cross-stitched portraits of Black people eating watermelon and picking cotton? I didn’t want to know. Texted my friend Ron, who just moved to his hometown of Chattanooga, to let him know that I’d finally killed all the zombie hordes in Days Gone. “You are a master,” he replied. “Now there’s nothing to do.” I told him that I knew. That I had won. And lost. “You saved the world,” Ron said, “but not yourself.” The president announced that he’d been taking hydroxychloroquine; somebody made a joke about Flintstone vitamins. A priest in Michigan used a water gun to shoot parishioners with holy water. My CBD vape pen arrived in the mail. As did the third Covid key that I’d ordered but hadn’t initially received from Milspin, a metal fabrication shop in Columbus, Ohio, a company that claimed that “the sound a good cutter makes when you hit its sweet spot up against a piece of stainless steel puts a grin on our faces,” and that they “crave the feeling of a smooth, freshly cut, fine-finished metal surface that’s never before felt the human touch.” Is getting an erection a by-product of smoking CBD? More than one article on the internet seemed to suggest that cannabinoids could function as aphrodisiacs. Last night, rocker Billy Corgan sang “Hard Times,” a song from his 2019 album Cotillion, on The Tonight Show. He looked, in his blazer and floppy hat, like a hobo grandpa. I couldn’t help thinking, as I watched approximately 5.6 seconds of the video, that seeing inside the homes of celebrities wasn’t nearly as interesting as I’d imagined to. On TikTok, a man who had cut out the top of a what looked like a Huggies baby wipes container and fashioned it into a mask he was wearing opened the little plastic door where his mouth was to take a sip of beer. Might Virginia Tech begin school a week early, endure a six-day workweek, depart for winter break on Thanksgiving, and resume courses from March to June? Hypothetically, it was possible. Outside, it was just cool enough to wear a knit hat and my red vest that I’d owned since before K and I got married. I carried an unopened umbrella. Mist kissed my face. I walked again to the golf course, listening to the music Spotify’s algorithms had selected for me and might well have been described as “brooding ambient.” Stopped to video a puddle trembling with the reflections of pine trees and the concentric circles that appeared when raindrops hit. The music of an artist named Lingua Ignota began to play in my head: violins and cellos in a kind of repeated drone preceded the voice of a woman singing, over and over, “Most glorious and holy light/Faithful servant and friend of Christ/Most glorious and holy light/Bow before unending night.” It made me stop and consider the indescribable beauty of baby leaves greening on trees. I noted that the golf course sign claimed that we would all get through this together and, wondering if that were true, acknowledged that I had seen more than a few people use the subject line “moving forward together” when sending messages—as if we had any choice in the matter. I sucked on the golden tube in my fist, blew vapor into the wind. I googled Lingua Ignota and discovered that “Lingua ignota” is Latin for “unknown language” and that it was the moniker for a classically trained multi-instrumentalist Kristin Hayter, whose MFA thesis was titled Burn Everything Trust No One Kill Yourself, and that she’d created a 10,000-page manuscript (a page count, according to Wikipedia, selected by Hayter, a survivor of domestic violence, because it approximated her weight in paper). Jenn Pelly, writing in Pitchfork, assigned Hayter’s most album, Caligula, a score of 8.1, noting that “on her torrential second album, Kristin Hayter creates a murderous amalgam of opera, metal, and noise that uses her classical training like a Trojan horse, burning misogyny to ash from its Judeo-Christian roots.” I hadn’t known that misogyny had its roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition but I figured I knew what Pelly meant. Back home I played guitar. A colleague replied to one of my emails to say that his wife’s mother, aged ninety-four, had died of a stroke and that she had been busy tending to the needs of her father, who, living alone and in isolation, had to be walked through how to “open” an orange. According to my friend, his wife’s mother hadn’t liked the mess and because of this, he hadn’t eaten a single orange during their marriage. I haven’t been able to erase this image from my head: an old man, in his kitchen, listening to his daughter, a senior citizen herself, explain how to peel a fruit that he’d denied himself for decades, whose sweetness only now, while grieving and alone, he could attempt to savor.

–May 21, 2020


vollmer photo

Matthew Vollmer is the author of two story collections—Future Missionaries of America and Gateway to Paradise—as well as two collections of essays—Inscriptions for Headstones and Permanent Exhibit. He was the editor of A Book of Uncommon Prayer, which collects invocations from over 60 acclaimed and emerging authors, and served as co-editor of Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent ArtifactsHis work has appeared in venues such as Paris ReviewGlimmer TrainPloughsharesTin HouseOxford AmericanThe SunThe Pushcart Prize anthology, and Best American Essays. He teaches in the English department at Virginia Tech, where he is an associate professor.

edward sup

Edward Michael Supranowicz is the grandson of Irish and Russian/Ukrainian immigrants. He grew up on a small farm in Appalachia.  He has a grad background in painting and printmaking. Some of his artwork has recently or will soon appear in Fish Food, Streetlight, Straylight, Gravel, The Phoenix, and other journals. Edward is also a published poet.