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Wind advisory. Blizzard-quick squalls of snow. Front and back yard strewn with limbs: a hurricane’s worth of cones and those brittle little branches slung from the line of eight Weeping Norway Spruces that designate the boundary between our yard and our neighbors’. Theirs? Freshly mowed. Immaculate. Not even a single cone blotching the expanse. Normally, I might have cursed somebody out in my head, but I tried instead to be grateful – after all, it would give me something to do. The director David Lynch, who recently predicted that the world will be a much kinder and more spiritual place after the coronavirus ends, has, according to a recent article I read, stayed busy: meditating, drinking coffee, and making lamps in his woodshop. Mort Drucker, on the other hand, who spent years working as a caricaturist for MAD magazine, had finished his time on earth. Dead at 91. In other news, a mom on Facebook wonders how other parents are handling screen time. Domestic violence is on the rise – worldwide. The Amish are mobilizing, sheltering in place and sewing masks. A sex cam worker says that customers aren’t only hoarding toilet paper, they’re hoarding money. “Don’t get arrested,” I texted a friend, who’d sent me a photo of the porch of the Airbnb in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee – home of Dolly Parton’s Dollywood – that his girlfriend had secured for the weekend. Apparently they hadn’t read the article I’d scanned the day before about an Airbnb owner in Asheville for whom police had been searching; renting houses and rooms for non-essential purposes was now against the law, worthy of a misdemeanor. I fired up the PlayStation, dialed up Red Dead Redemption, and directed my mustachioed avatar, whose head I’d recently paid a barber to shave, to end a poker game at a saloon table with a man by blowing his brains out. This didn’t make me feel better. I tried to watch a TV show about cyborgs who were attempting to rewrite their own codes and take revenge upon the humans that created them but I kept getting lost in the narrative: I couldn’t stop checking my phone. According to ABC News, I learned that thousands of acres of fruits and vegetables grown in Florida were being plowed over or left to rot because farmers couldn’t sell them – as they had been accustomed – to restaurants, theme parks or schools. According to a headline on Newsweek, “CORONAVIRUS IS HAVING A MAJOR IMPACT ON THE ENVIRONMENT, WITH REDUCED CO2, BETTER AIR QUALITY AND ANIMALS ROAMING CITY STREETS.” My phone rang. I answered. It was John, a student. He’d called to discuss a story he’d written about a man whose job it was to produce hand-carved coffins. My advice? Perhaps the man should have death on his mind as he worked. Maybe his only grandson had died – maybe the young man had caught the virus while on spring break in Florida – and now the coffin maker was composing, in his mind, a letter to the boy’s mother, the man’s estranged daughter. John seemed to like the idea. He’d been watching some kind of “land mammal” in his backyard and knew it wasn’t a skunk or possum or raccoon or groundhog but probably an American mink, since after describing it to his mother that’s what she thought it might be. As he watched it, an hour passed – and John couldn’t understand how. “Maybe I’ll get into birdwatching,” he said, no doubt anticipating the long stretches of time yet to come. John’s father had died at the end of January, after a three-year fight with cancer, and when the world hadn’t stopped – when, after the man had passed, and things in the world had continued as normal – John couldn’t help but think that this should seem strange, but now that the world actually had slammed on its brakes, the resulting stillness felt even weirder. Not that the world hadn’t always been weird. Case in point: three days before John’s father had died, that man had claimed that he’d been visited by three angels, though, when asked to describe what they looked like, he had no words to do so. And then, after the man had been dead and buried, his wife – John’s mother – had sat down one day in the chair where he’d lived out his last days – a kind of electric recliner that allows people who can no longer stand on their own to rise up – and that as soon as she’d seated herself, an electric bulb in a nearby lamp had gone out. All over the house, John said, bulbs had been going dark. Furthermore, when he’d returned home for the funeral, he’d noted that the chair itself had been unplugged, and no one could say how. And not just “kind of” unplugged, John said. Decidedly. I marveled. My mother had often sat in a similar kind of recliner during her final days, and as far as I knew, it was still in the living room, in the house were my own father, who was still very much alive, was living. I called him later in the day to check in. Had he heard that people were burning down cell towers in the UK because they believed 5G was spreading the virus through people’s cell phones? My father said that someone – a longtime family friend – had just told him that. And the friend – who works as a judge in Spokane – believed it. “Did you hear,” I asked, “that Trump wants to commercialize the solar system and begin mining the moon?“ My father and I, we don’t usually talk politics, because when we do, we argue, and he tends to err, at least form my perspective, just this side of uninformed. “I wonder what he thinks is in there,” I wondered. “Maybe he’s after the cheese,” my father speculated. “Like what’s his name thought. On Saturday Night Live.” I summoned my impression of Will Ferrell impersonating Harry Caray, the announcer for the Chicago Cubs, and bid my father adieu. I texted my friend – the one in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and told him to check out nearby Gatlinburg and that even if all the shops were closed, he’d see some crazy ass shit. I imagined the shops that sold T-shirts that used the Reece’s Cup font to spell “Jesus” or images of cartoon rottweilers busting through Confederate flag shirts would be closed. But would the taffy pulling machine still be going? Would the pancake houses – of which there are too many to count – be deemed “essential”? Would their owners have taped signs to their doors informing customers that they were closed for the foreseeable future? Those same signs – handwritten in black ink, like so many goodbye letters – had been taped to the front doors of restaurants all over the town in which I lived with my son and wife, the latter of whom convinced me to take a walk through our neighborhood, despite the gale-force winds. We marched down the street in silence – except to curse the wind. I note the pink blossoms of a tree my mother could have identified but whose name was lost to me. It occurred to me that I might take a picture, since the petals contrasted so nicely with the blue sky, which had been home, for days now, to nothing but clouds. But I wasn’t sure what the point would be or what might occasion my need to look back upon a replica that would fail to capture, in one way or another, the tree’s resplendent color, so I left it undocumented, noting, as I had for days now, the Hindu idea of atma-yajna: the notion that the universe wasn’t just created by God but that everything in the universe – elephants, coral reefs, moths, flowers, people, and viruses – was God, and that he was playing hide-and-go-seek with himself. According to the website of Morad Nazari, an Iranian with degrees in Engineering and Philosophy & Religion, “As Prajapati, Vishnu, or Brahma, the Lord under many names creates the world by an act of self-dismemberment or self-forgetting, whereby the One becomes Many, and the single Actor plays innumerable parts. In the end, he comes again to himself only to begin the play once more – One dying into Many, and Many dying into the One… By the act of self-abandonment, God becomes all beings, yet at the same time does not cease to be God.” I thought this idea beautiful in its inclusiveness and could feel it opening up a space in my heart for even the worst of my enemies. I imagined telling my wife about it, but as interesting as it was to me, I couldn’t imagine that she’d much care, and so I kept it a secret as we walked through the stinging wind toward home.
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 was co-editor of Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts. His work has appeared venues such as Paris Review, Glimmer Train, Ploughshares, Tin House, Virginia Quarterly Review, Epoch, Ecotone, New England Review, DIAGRAM, Colorado Review, The Normal School, Willow Springs, The Antioch Review, Gulf Coast, The Collagist, Carolina Quarterly, Oxford American, The Sun, The Pushcart Prize, and Best American Essays. A winner of a fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts, he teaches creative writing and literature in the English Department at Virginia Tech, where he is an Associate Professor.