Happy Thursday to you, Story366!
Tonight Moon City Press hosted a FB Live Zoom Webinar event with Pablo Piñero Stillmann, author of Our Brains and the Brains of Miniature Sharks. It was a fantastic reading and I had a ball talking with Pablo after, feeding him questions from the audience at home. It’s probably been my favorite part of this semester, this back-and-forth with these authors. If you’d like to check out the reading with Pablo, or any of our virtual readings, here’s the link to the Moon City video archive:
Worth checking out, for sure!
Today I continue on with my Two-Timers Week here at Story366, when I cover an author for a second time, for a different book. The writer I’m making a Two-Timer today is Matthew Vollmer, with his debut collection, Future Missionaries of America, out in 2008 from MacAdam Cage. Vollmer’s first entry here was for his follow-up collection, Gateway to Paradise, covered back in October of 2016. I very much enjoyed reading from this first book of his today, and am pleased to be featuring him here once again.
The opening story is called “Oh Land of National Paradise, How Glorious Are Thy Bounties” and is about Harper, a young dude working as a waiter at a hotel inside Yosemite. Harper has just found out his best pal, Wes, has died from injuries related to being hit by a car. Harper is heartbroken, but he’s also kind of torn, because he’s been sleeping with Wes’ girl, Abby. Full of turmoil and angst and young-man sperm, he runs off from the hotel, his bowtie lost in the breeze, toward the worker dormitories. There he encounters Abby in her room, and what follows is a frenzy of emotion, the two relaying that grief into something else.
“Freebleeders” features Kevin, another college-aged dude with an overactive libido. Kevin is working at a lab where they do tests on freebleeders, or hemophiliac animals. It’s a shit job, but Kevin makes it clear that he doesn’t really like animals, so he can tolerate it. At the same time, a girl he met at a party a while back, Michelle, contacts him and lets him know that she’s broken up with her boyfriend, that she looks forward to visiting him when she gets back from Spain, where she’s studying Spanish and hanging out with European professional basketball players. Michelle is Kevin’s dream girl, way out of his league, but Michelle seems into him, especially when she makes good on her promise and shows up at Kevin’s door. The two have an intimate few days, and even though Michelle acts oddly at times, Kevin is smitten. So much so, he sinks his rent money into everything the spendthrift Michelle wants, including an expensive dinner and a golden retriever puppy. When Michelle leaves a couple of days later, probably for good, Kevin is stuck with it all, including that job that suddenly doesn’t seem as tolerable.
The title story, “Future Missionaries of America,” shows up last and is also the longest story in the book. This one’s about Alex, a gothy teen who’s pals with a high school classmate, Dave Melashenko, whom she just calls Melashenko. Alex is a practical girl, a straight-shooter who has a long leash, her single mom too busy grading a million comp papers to pay attention to what’s she’s up to. Alex seems like one of those cool and confident girls I admired from afar when I was in high school, but was way to much of geek to ever actually approach. You know, like Karen—somewhere along the way, I got the balls, I guess.
Anyway, Alex starts her friendship with Melashenko in French by passing a note, mocking him for his super-Christian ways. She finds Melashenko to have a sense of a humor, to be a cool about her jibes. They start a relationship that involves writing letters back and forth to each other, long epistles that include lots of in jokes, but also reveal a lot about themselves—to each other and to us.
The story centers around that classic home-ec assignment, to take care of a baby doll like it’s a real baby. Alex and Melashenko are paired together, faux-parents to Beth, one of those high-tech robots that records stuff and cries when you neglect it. The story starts with Alex waiting for Melashenko to drop Beth off at a McDonald’s—it’s like they’re divorced, splitting time. Alex doesn’t admit this, but she’s chosen this spot so she can buy Melashenko a sundae, kind of even sorta call it a date; the more she denies it, the more her motivations become clear. Did I mention it’s Valentine’s Day?
One thing leads to another and Melashenko invites Alex over to his house for dinner. Alex accepts and finds that Melashenko is loaded (he’s super-preppy, so this is no surprise). His mom is a medical professor and his dad is a reverend. Melashenko’s Christianity is in full force at home, his parents super-positive, always giving ethical advice and quoting the Bible. Are they the Flanderses? Pretty much—Melashenko’s kid sister even plays a game called “Baby Moses.”.
The story really takes a turn when the sleet outside turns to a blizzard and Alex is forced to spend the night. Melashenko’s parents are more than happy to host this heathen for the night. They’re completely unaware of Alex’s intentions, which start out innocently enough. Because Vollmer knows what he’s doing, however, he forces the issue, and before long, Alex, Melashenko, and Beth are up on Melashenko’s bed, in the middle of the night, and things get intense. Some of this is due to Melashenko’s announcement that he’ll be spending the next year in Africa—this is where the missionary motif comes in—with a missionary pen pal that serves as Alex’s rival. But again, two teenagers in a bed, emotions flying, on Valentine’s Day? Only so many things can happen, but Vollmer treats us with a nice grab bag of those options.
Future Missionaries of America, Matthew Vollmer’s debut collection, seems to be about the lengths to which young people will go just to get their ya-yas off. Not too hard when you’re young; it would be easy to add “… and not much to lose” here, but that’s the point, I think: There’s no such thing as free love, each encounter coming with a consequence. Because these are such good stories, these consequences seem life-changing, even if they aren’t, but seeming is all that matters when you’re lost in the moment the way Vollmer loses you in his.