God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut
The other day I called Kurt Vonnegut about my problems and fears. I dialed his number (a rotary phone, of course) and he answered in person on the second ring, "How may I help you?"
I said, "Well, I have so many worries and regrets, I don’t know where to start." "That’s all right." His voice came through, clear, warm, kindly. "You take your time. What is it: money, nameless dread, a cruel lover, advancing age, car trouble, war jitters, those ten pounds you can’t lose?"
"Not really. It’s more like I don’t think I’m better off than everyone else."
"Oh. You must not believe in God then."
"No, I can’t. I can’t. I mean, I tried. I even almost became a Baptist once. But when the minister took me into his study and told me about my duty to God and welcoming Jesus into my heart, all I could think about was penises. So I knew it was probably just a lot of hypocrisy, and there was so much of that in my life already. Saying one thing and doing another."
"That must be a pretty common problem, I suppose. What’s your name, by the way?"
"So you have to be good, right?"
"Exactly. Named after the mother of Jesus."
"Well, Mary, I myself find it very hard to believe that people aren’t just covering up for how they really think and feel, most of the time. Like you’re supposed to have the proper, authorized feelings at the proper time, eh?"
"Right. My tears refuse to flow any more. And I like it that way."
"Maybe that’s good. Go on."
So I continued, but I could hear myself getting more and more tedious and repetitious, and I knew a whine was creeping into my voice. Just going around in circles.
"You do complain and exaggerate a lot and you feel you missed the boat on stuff," Mr. Vonnegut said. "Me, too. You stood your ground and did what you had to when others did not, and so did I. And without the consolation of religion to tell you that you were doing the right thing but just more an expression of your dutiful nature, so you couldn’t even pat yourself on the back about your virtues. However, I’m not a psychiatrist, only a writer, you know. And I must go now."
With that, he hung up. And after being so friendly, this abrupt end to our conversation upset me.
So I decided to pursue him. I went to his house. Standing in his yard was a skinny woman, washing clothes at an outdoor well. She had very muscular legs and a big smile. She looked Asian, Korean maybe. She said, "I saw him hang up the phone. It’s the one he uses for advice. But he got tired of listening to you talk. You need to be more content, like me." I had to listen very hard to her, because she spoke with a strong accent, and her voice was garbled in some other way, too, as if I could not hear her clearly for some reason.
Mr. Vonnegut came out and I told him who I was. He looked mildly annoyed but not hostile. Not afraid of me or anything.
"Remember Mr. Rosewater?" I said.
"Yes, I do, he said, but I’m no Mr. Rosewater. He was a fictional character, and I’m a real person with deadlines to meet. I suggest you leave." He still looked kindly, mild eyes behind his coke-bottle lenses, so I took a chance.
"Even Mr. Rosewater had a short temper sometimes. Remember when a caller asked him for a big sum of money and he said, ‘Would $200.00 do?’ I know I’m being persistent here, but if you had one good piece of advice, I could use it."
"Well, look. You’re rich and famous, but your life is not much better than mine, you said so yourself. Why is that?"
"What makes you say that?" Aha. He looked intrigued. This was a new approach. I had his attention.
"It’s like this," he said. No matter how rich and famous you are, no matter how protected, even if like me you can get women to do stuff for you, whatever it is you have going for you, you have only a certain store of feelings. And those feelings can get used up."
"Oh, you are wise, Mr. Vonnegut. That is exactly it. Is this why some old people sit around and don’t want to do anything?"
"I think so. They’re trying to remember back to when they felt things."
"Well, now I’ll go away and let you alone. Don’t want you to think I’m a stalker, heh, heh."
"You take care, and if you want to call me again in a few months, I’ll be glad to listen to you, but please don’t come by again."
"You got it, Kurt."
I left suffused with a warmth I had not felt in years.
God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut!
© 2003, Marianna Scheffer