Of course I'm honored and humbled to have been chosen as a recipient of an NEA grant and yes I'm excited by the idea of reducing my teaching load and using the money to buy time to write but I also like how, instantaneously, the reality of receiving the grant put a new kind of pressure on me and the project I'm working on. I felt validated--and also terrified. But in a good way. Now it's like: "You're getting actual support to finish this project. So get going!" So I will.
From the short story "Future Missionaries of America"
It's sleeting on Valentine's Day. I'm in the back booth of the Franklin Street McDonald's, waiting for Melashenko to deliver the robotic baby we're supposed to keep from suffering the slings and arrows of an unhappy infanthood, and writing him a letter on a napkin with the emergency topless ballpoint I keep in a hole in the lining of my hoodie. I write a I. in the corner of the first napkin and below that the date, February 14, 2003. I consider adding a little arrow-pierced heart, but I don't want to conjure even the smallest of question marks in Melashenko's head, so instead I draw a phantom heart in the air above the paper, which only confirms that I should definitely not draw it for real and that hearts are even more dangerous than sentimental closing signatures like Love or Love ya or Yours, any of which could inspire Melashenko to think I might think or even hope that we're anything more than we are. So, potentially disastrous heart drawing averted, I begin the letter, as usual, with Dear Melashenko (his first name's David but I use his last because I like the way it sounds, plus it ensures that I maintain a certain level of formality). Ten minutes later I've scribbled seven napkins' worth of words, which I roll into a floppy scroll. I snap a hair band around the middle and draw the letters of his name down the side in the Gothiest font I can muster, to give it this look like it might've been written by an ancient scribe, one who'd dreamed of future devastations and consigned them to this fragile parchment, to be delivered on this date to the father of a baby who's never been born.
Melashenko's been my project since French II. My job? To school him re reality. The first few weeks of class, we didn't talk, despite the fact that he sat right in front of me. I assumed that because he wore Izod and Polo and never once turned around to say bonjour that he was a stuck-up a-hole--a dude who had a Carolina-blue brick road paved straight to a frat-house date rape. When Madame Jacques called on him to recite dialogue, he pronounced every word in an impeccable French accent, which immediately made me think, okay, maybe he's gay. But one day, I arrived early to set up my class project (I was in charge of assembling an authentic French café, complete with a red and white checkered tablecloth, espresso, Nutella, baguettes, and a CD of accordion music) and there was Melashenko, in his regular seat, scribbling furiously on a semitransparent sheet of air mail stationery. I was like, What's the deal, are we writing letters to French kids now and he said, No, I'm writing to a friend in Ivory Coast, West Africa. No way, I said, that's cool, is the person African and if so how did you meet him and he said it's a she, her parents are missionaries, and I've been writing her for the past five years. He explained that his church had this magazine for kids called Junior Guide and that every week they listed the names of potential pen pals, along with their hobbies and interests, and when he saw that hers were horses and drawing and piano and pizza, and that she lived in Abidjan, he decided on a whim to write and then it was just like they hit it off as friends and have been exchanging one a week, which, he explained, is sometimes hard because you don't feel like you have much to say, but when that happens you just think up a string of weird and/or funny questions to ask.
This forced me to reconsider my initial assessment of Melashenko. Why would a religious dork spritzing himself with Drakkar Noir masquerade as a douche bag? What did he write in his letters? What did he receive? I needed an answer.
Matthew Vollmer is the author of Future Missionaries of America (MacAdam/Cage, 2009), a collection of short stories. He is finishing a novel about the shamanic journeys of a young mother whose boyfriend returns to their small mountain community, following a tour of duty in the Middle East. Vollmer's work has appeared in a number of magazines, including Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Epoch, Tin House, Oxford American, Colorado Review, Gulf Coast, Antioch Review, Portland Review, Confrontation, Salt Hill, Fugue, PRISM International, and New Letters. His work has been twice short-listed for the Best American Short Stories series, and he has been nominated numerous times for the Pushcart Prize. Vollmer received an MFA in fiction writing from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and now teaches in the English Department at Virginia Tech, where he also advises graduate teaching assistants in the composition program. He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia, with his wife, son, and dog.
Photo by Todd Wemmer