Excerpt: 'inscriptions for headstones' by Matthew Vollmer



here lies a man whose life frequently seemed as if its purpose were merely to exhibit to his closest family members the extravagant failures of his own character; a man who lay in bed in the early morning hours thinking to himself that maybe—were he to  remain absolutely still for a few minutes longer—his wife would wake and get the coffee started and thus relieve him from the responsibility of doing so; a man who frequently disrobed and, telling himself that he would pick up his clothes later, merely left them strewn upon the floor, where they languished for days in a moldering heap; a man who often did not take his shoes off upon entering the house and thus tracked dirt (whether visible or invisible) throughout the house and who failed—despite having been asked time and time again—to place his shoes on the rack where they belonged; a man who bought expensive or unhealthy foods that were not on the grocery store list—or foods that, in fact, the family already had in their pantry or refrigerator; a man  who failed, on occasion, to lift the toilet seat or—supposing he raised it—did not return it to its original position; a man who, though he loved his wife, barked answers at her when she made sensible and often necessary inquiries regarding the ways in which their day might unfold; a man who did not like to be disturbed, did not like to be asked trivial questions like “did you get the mail” and “what do we need from the store” and “what do you want for dinner,” a man who did not want to be informed and did not want to inform others of his comings and goings; a man who yelled at his son because the son was behaving in a way that the man deemed ridiculous or annoying, even though—and in fact especially if—the son was mirroring behaviors—i.e., engaging in such acts as dancing, noise-making, nonsensical blabbering, or simply talking a lot—that he’d inherited from the father; a man who often ignored his family altogether and hid himself in his downstairs office, a place reserved for “writing” and “reading” and which the deceased used primarily to fritter away large portions of the day by visiting web sites that re-posted funny or ironic images and GIFs from other web sites, the viewing of which lessened for approximately two to four seconds the crushing weight of existence and the reality of his impending death, but of course this isn’t to say that the deceased was always a total jackass, or that he wasn’t capable of forethought or genuine charity, as he sometimes cleaned up after himself or surprised his wife and child with gifts, and neither was he always a such an epic waster of time, since, in order to remain employable he had to prepare lesson plans and grade papers and make up stories and send them out into the world, where, though some readers found his words acceptable and ushered them into print or online venues, most editors claimed his work wasn’t “quite right” for the magazine or failed to fit their “editorial needs,” responses that never failed to disappoint the deceased, who often attempted to quell this anxiety with a slowly-paced jog, an activity he often described to others as “running,” which, honestly, was what it felt like to the deceased, who hadn’t begun to engage in this sort of sustained exercise until he was well past thirty years of age and discovered that not only did he feel better whenever he ran upwards of three miles but that once he got going, with the dog’s leash in one hand and in the other his smart phone—which, with the help of an application created by one of the world’s most famous manufacturers of athletic shoes, would shuffle a playlist of anthemic rock songs, thus making each mile seem all the more triumphant, while also recording his miles and the pace at which he was running and the amount of calories he had burned, afterward using the recorded voice of a famous basketball player or tri-athlete or stand-up comedian to offer what the deceased liked to imagine were personal congratulations—he could enjoy the sensation of his legs propelling him forward, of thinking through problems like what should his character in the current story he was writing do next or how should he explain to graduate students the concept of “the rhetorical situation,”  and as his brain carouseled through all these options, and as the naturally-occurring endorphins kicked in, the deceased would become aware of how grateful he should be to live on a street where he knew and genuinely liked everyone on his block, and in a neighborhood where he knew people didn’t always lock their doors, and where miles of paved walking trails were kept up by guys in blue uniforms piloting golf carts or miniature cars with swiveling yellow lights on their roofs, and how improbable was it that he had grown up and gotten a job and married a stunningly beautiful woman who was much smarter than he and that together they had produced a talented and bright and healthy child, and that none of them had died or been seriously injured or contracted any debilitating diseases, and how—of all people he knew—he, the deceased, deserved this maybe the least of anyone, seeing as how he could, when he wanted, be a raging a-hole, and in these moments where he was aware that he was doing something good for himself for once and his lungs were burning and he could feel his pulse in his temples and the phone was pumping epic beats through his head he would become overwhelmed by the ephemeral nature of life and acknowledge that, at any time, any of these things could be taken away from him, thus turning him into a sniveling wretch of a person, and it should probably be noted at this point that while the deceased averaged a nine-minute mile and rarely went further than six (on his best days), he had also never once paused beforehand to stretch the muscles of his legs, since the deceased was by nature impatient, a man who had watched other runners engage in stretching exercises and thought, “Whatever” and  “I don’t need to stretch” and “I’ve never been hurt, so why bother” and “Honestly, stretching seems like a total waste of time,” and so for a good long while he continued this line of thinking, until one day, a pang sang out behind his right buttock, a pang that continued to pulse with every step he took, and because the deceased was not the type of athlete who could, as they say, “play through the pain,” and (truth be told) would not be remembered for his ability to tolerate pain of any kind—a fact to which his wife, who’d heard him on many an occasion release shouts so astonishingly loud that she figured he’d lopped off a body part, could attest—and so he limped into the office of a doctor who pointed out a problematic lump on his knee and, in addition to giving him the number of a man who made ergonomic shoe inserts for team members of the Dallas Cowboys, encouraged him to make an appointment with a physical therapist, which he did, a woman who turned out to resemble a young, foul-mouthed comedian who made jokes about her vagina and poop and Jesus, none of which, it should be noted, were repeated by the therapist, as she was a self-professed Christian who explained body structure vis-a-vis the lens of why G-D made things the way He did and who, in order to ascertain the manner in which the deceased had been injured, commanded him to, “Show me how you normally sit” and “Show me how you normally stand,” and so the deceased had showed her how he normally stood and how he normally sat, and lo and behold it’d turned out that he’d been sitting and standing the wrong way his entire life, and furthermore the therapist instructed him how and how not to stretch, ending each of these sessions by lathering the back of his thigh with a balm made of bee’s wax and rubbing the base of his ass with an ultrasonic wand, inside of which, the therapist claimed, lay a crystal that sent vibrations into the deceased’s body and broke apart the scar tissue, of which there was quite a lot, since all those years of quote unquote running had really taken their toll, which meant that if he wanted to get better he’d need to get a volunteer at home to rub his legs every night, so he’d gone to the pharmacy and purchased a container of “bag balm,” a substance which had originally been intended to be slathered upon the chapped udders of cows but now the deceased would ask his wife to apply it to the backsides of his legs and his ass, and she would, with some reluctance, because she didn’t like feeling the little bulbous bits of scar tissue and furthermore she was skeptical about some of the things that this therapist had said,  having spent her whole adult life running and having once been the record holder for a track and field event at her high school, a fact that—while impressive—did not convince the deceased that she knew more than the therapist, whose stretches and wand-sessions ended up pretty much healing the deceased, though, when he tried to run for real, he realized how difficult such a thing actually was, that if he was going to try to emulate the proscribed form he would need to lengthen his stride, which meant he’d have to run faster, and though he could do this for three hundred yard stretches, he’d have to take breaks, plus it felt now like his other leg, or rather a tendon or muscle beneath his left buttock, was also starting to sing out in a similar kind of pain, and so, the deceased was forced to acknowledge that perhaps he possessed neither the will nor the ability to be an actual runner, though now, having been informed about the proper mechanics and form, he could point to the other runners he passed in his car and say to himself, in a rather judgmental and self-satisfied way that served to obscure his own jealousy, that none of them had any idea what they were doing, and that someday, these quote unquote runners would pay for—and forever regret—the mistakes they had made

Excerpt republished with permission of the Author

About the Author:

Matthew Vollmer is the author of  Inscriptions for Headstones, a collection of essays, and a story collection, Future Missionaries of America. He is co-editor, with David Shields, of Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Fake Lectures, Quasi-Lectures, “Found” Texts and Other Dubious Documents. He teaches at Virginia Tech, where he directs the undergraduate creative writing program.