By Allen Callaci
This April marks 10 years since Kurt Vonnegut left us. I remember exactly where I was when that news reached me—a pizza parlor on the brink of extinction located snugly between a Chevron station and a Hooters-like barbershop that offered insanely priced haircuts from busty beauty school dropouts in cheap lingerie (think Victoria’s Secrets meets Supercuts). The Chevron is still there. The pizza palace is not.
The lingerie barbershop is no longer there either.
And so it goes.
My mother says that rain is angels
who are crying up in heaven
And I believe that ’cause when sad things happen
It starts raining
– Kimya Dawson
My band was opening for Kimya Dawson that night. We had all bonded with her over rock n’ roll and drunken late night poop jokes a few years earlier at a festival in Paris. Since then she’d made it a habit, one that persists to this day, that whenever she tours the West Coast she books a show somewhere near Pomona and funnels us onto the bill.
I was pulling into the parking lot of the pizza parlor, in a Corolla even older than the one I drive now, when the news pushed out the tinny backseat speakers like a poisonous weed pushing up through a cracked church sidewalk. “Slaughterhouse-Five Author Kurt Vonnegut has passed away. He was 84. Now for your traffic update every hour on the one …”
“I loved that wise, kind, sweet, hopeful, cynical old bastard,” Kimya said with a sad knowing shake of her head. “I’ve always thought of him as one of my grandparents.”
A sad, whispered “F**k,” was all I could think of to say as I kicked a few stray pebbles across the parking lot.
And so it goes.
I was introduced to Kurt Vonnegut at age 15 by my sophomore English teacher, Mrs. Smith, on whom I had a secret—or maybe not-so-secret—crush. I was a student who was constantly being reprimanded by my guidance counselor about all the “great potential” that I squandered by cutting school with my Iron Maiden-loving friends to loiter at the local arcade. It wasn’t really about potential. I just didn’t like the taste of so much of the pre-chewed information that I was being fed that I spit it out into a napkin and then tossed it aside when I thought no one was looking.
Midway through the sophomore semester, a copy of Slaughterhouse-Five appeared in my hands. It challenged me. Engaged me. Provoked me. It was manna from Heaven. I read it cover to cover … twice. Mrs. Smith kept me after class to talk about my Slaughterhouse-Five essay. She thought it was good. So good that she wondered if it had been plagiarized. It took 15 minutes to convince her that I wrote it myself. I’d been inspired. We both walked away from the discussion richer than we had walked in. After several valiant tries she connected with a difficult, tuned-out student. For the first time, I became aware of some real abilities that I didn’t quite know I had.
Mrs. Smith passed on about eight years ago.
And so it goes.
It’s amazing how a life can be transformed in 250 pages. It doesn’t even have to be the latest edition. Content—not format—moves lives. The yellowed paperback copies of the Slaughterhouse-Five that the class received featured the tagline “The Big Bestseller … Now A Great Movie!” emblazoned across the cover in big block print.
The movie came out in 1972.
It was now 1982.
I’d like to believe that the outdated copies of Slaughterhouse-Five were not just a byproduct of the school’s ruthless, coldblooded, reptilian budget cuts over the years. I’d rather believe that the decade-old copies whose pages were as thin and fragile as the wings of a butterfly reinforced how time is conceived by the book’s Tralfamadorians.
In the novel, Tralfamadorians believe that time is not linear. They see time like an outdated edition of a textbook in a poorly funded, steamy classroom. Time passes in a continuous loop: replayed, reopened and relived again and again and again for all eternity.
I would not have chosen a different place than the one where I was when the news landed—a godforsaken pizza palace in the hidden corner of a strip-mall wasteland listening to Kimya Dawson strum “It’s Been Raining” up into the Heavens:
…It’s been raining for awhile now
It’s been raining at least forty days
And I’ve been crying since the first time
Someone I loved passed away
“If what Billy Pilgrim learned from the Tralfamadorians is true, that we will all live forever, no matter how dead we may sometimes seem to be, I am not overjoyed. Still–if I am going to spend eternity visiting this moment and that, I’m grateful that so many of those moments are nice.” – Kurt Vonnegut