|On the ledge over KV's front door|
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is why I became a writer and he became a writer because of Mark Twain and they both believed, as Humanists, that the universe is a crock and that humanity, as Vonnegut put it, is here just to fart around.
(The principal’s staff whispered that he had been distracted by his mistress that dark drizzly day, or hung-over and, well, seeing double.)
Upon entering I discovered that a queue to reach him snaked around three aisles and I realized there was no point joining because the time allocated for this event would soon expire and Vonnegut’s temperament would not allow him to stay a second longer than commitment required, so I stood and watched from a distance.
My Memphis buds bid farewell as my driver, who I will soon nickname Nashville, rolls up.
Nashville is pleasant and efficient and off we zoom, northward toward autumn, mercury falling, rainclouds gathering.
A glittery angel or fairy dangles from
Nashville’s rearview mirror so I know I’m in good hands as we zip past Abe Lincoln’s birthplace in Hodgenville, Kentucky and Hunter S. Thompson’s too, in Louisville, and four hours later we're in Indy, rounding into the forecourt of
the old Severin Hotel, built by Kurt Vonnegut’s grandfather, Bernard, who shaped
Indianapolis with his landmark architecture.
I dump my bags and we carry on to Red Key Tavern, Vonnegut’s hang, but they don’t open till four o’clock and there’s no time to waste.
Returning to the city center we inadvertently pass Crown Cemetery where the Vonnegut clan is buried, all except Kurt (whose whereabouts remain a mystery though I suspect his ashes were spread near his brethren).
I’d read about this graveyard but hadn’t placed it on my itinerary, yet here it is anyway and Nashville, now sharing the spirit of my adventure, cuts a roscoe and glides through the gateway.
The last time I saw so pretty a cemetery was in Oslo where I’d gone with Van Stein to see Edvard Munch’s final resting place and scribbled these notes into my journal:
“We need to go where Munch is buried,” I tell Tom, our driver, handing him a printout from findagrave.com.
In all the years Tom’s been shepherding tourists around his hometown, no one asked to see Munch’s gravesite. He shakes his head good-naturedly, already understanding we are not his normal tourists.
The Cemetery of Our Savior is just across the Akerselva River, once the divide between wealth and poverty, good health and bad; this exclusive graveyard the final resting place for notable Norwegians.
Perhaps from stress brought on by the Nazi occupation of Norway, Munch in 1944 succumbed to bronchitis, which plagued him most of his life. He believed that the Nazis, who labeled his art degenerate, would find and destroy his paintings—his “children”—just as they had done, to his horror, in Berlin.
There are no directions in this cemetery and though it is not vast, it is not small. It is serene, however, with rolling hills and quietude.
Tom asks directions from someone who, though alive, belongs to this graveyard and we endeavor to follow the caretaker’s point, ambling among the dead, inspecting inscriptions. Finally, I come upon Munch’s head in bronze atop a five-foot monolith.
We pose, Van Stein and I, for a goofy mug shot with Munch and I leave a wooden nickel for a free beer on the cement slab covering his bones.
The graveyard brings to mind mortality, which I do not fear, not since my death dream. Instead it cheers me that I am here, alive and living in the moment.
“You might as well enjoy the time you’re here,” I say to Van Stein as we saunter back to the car. “Being alive is just a drop in the bucket compared to how long you’re going to be dead. And it’s coming faster than you think.”
“You’re over 50 now. Going from 49 to 50 is one-fiftieth of your life. You know how long it seemed to get from four to five years old? That’s because going from four to five was one-fifth of your life. Time is relative. But I wouldn’t worry about it,” I add.
“Does it bother you that you weren’t here for billions of years before you were born?”
Van Stein shake his head. “Why should it?”
“Exactly. You won’t even know, or care, when you’re not here for billions more.”
Nashville, bless her, is as much into this as I am and, on this gray moody day, she cruises this cemetery’s sections and plots, straining her neck to find what we’re looking for.
I alight at a section I misidentify as the Vonnegut residence and happen upon a prominent gravestone inscribed with this name: Stanley.
Onward we drive, onward my mind tumbles.
Downtown Indy is quiet on a Sunday and Vonnegut’s tidy memorial library is even quieter; we, its only visitors.
I am excited to be here, finally, to see Vonnegut’s electric typewriter, reading glasses, his last pack of Pall Malls (found hidden on a bookshelf after he died).
Particularly poignant is a display celebrating the first line of Slaughterhouse Five:
Dinner at the bar is made all the more delightful by conversation with a pair of sisters from Kansas City happily relocated to this clean, well-kept city.
Finishing up, I realize I’m not done; that I must revisit Red Key Tavern while open and, even better, in the dark.
And, indeed, 30 minutes later I’m sitting at the long bar nursing pale ale, coaxing Kurt’s spirit to manifest.
After draining my glass I aim for Vonnegut’s childhood homestead, alight from the cab into darkness and quiet.
I don’t know this for certain until next morning when I lighten pitch-black digital photographs to reveal a single orb hanging between tree branches and then another photo with three distinct orbs hanging around the front yard, checking me out.
And I smile, knowing that Vonnegut found a way to get back home with his siblings after all.
Two years earlier (June 2016)
Rain is merely threatened as we ease our way through traffic to St. James’s and The Cavendish Hotel and I can hardly believe my last time inside this hotel was a quarter century ago working with the legendary spymaster.
My mind further boggles when my friend Curt steps from the elevator to claim his room, 1111, which, with a space in the middle, pops from the door as 11 11, an image that evokes my 45 year-old dream riddle, one is doubles, that I never got to ask Vonnegut about.