We Are What We Pretend to Be

BOOK: We Are What We Pretend to Be
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Title Page
Table of Contents
 
 
 
 
Foreward
Foreword
I am not a student of my father’s writing, but I am his daughter and would like to share what I know about both
Basic Training
and
If God Were Alive Today
, both of which are somewhat autobiographical.
Basic Training
is a story that was never accepted for publication.
If God Were Alive Today
is the beginning of a novel that was never finished. They were written at the beginning and end, respectively, of my father’s writing career, fifty years apart.
I was not even born when my father wrote
Basic Training
in 1950, but over the years I could swear I remember him talking about someone from his childhood called “the General.” As I read the story I felt eerily close to my father, as if I were seeing through his sixteen-year-old eyes, and we were in Indiana in the company of his old friends. So I called his childhood friend, Majie Failey, now ninety years old, to see if there was any fact behind this piece of fiction.
As I gave Majie the broad strokes of
Basic Training
, I hit black gold and the memories spilled out of her. My father spent many happy summers on Rainbow Farm, just outside Indianapolis. The General in the story was in fact based on my grandfather’s cousin, who had been a captain in the Rainbow Division during World War I and ran his family and farm in the military fashion. My father was in love with one of the three Captain’s daughters, Mary, who was quite beautiful and his own age. The Captain wouldn’t allow his daughters to visit the city, so, even though my father was terrified of the Captain, he would bicycle out to the farm on weekends and do chores just to be near Mary. As the phone call with Majie went on, it became clear that she had become unstuck in time. She talked about a stallion named Ezekiel, remembering him up on his hind legs snorting, almost hitting the rafters of his stall. The red-haired, green-eyed boy was based on Ben Hitz, and inspiration for the guy in the polished boots and military garb had to be Dad’s cousin Sonny Mueller. Ben Hitz was my father’s best man when he married my mother.
Later in his life, when my father said he wanted to go home, he always meant to his childhood and home in Indianapolis. This story is, in large part, about sixteen-year-old Kurt Vonnegut at his happiest, before the war.
My twenty-year-old daughter was elated to learn that her grandfather was close to thirty when he wrote
Basic Training.
She felt it meant that time was on her side and she had a chance at being a good writer after all. When my children romanticize the writer’s life, I remind them that their grandfather worked at his craft for years with little reward. I describe the piles of rejection
letters from publishers that wound up as decoupage on wastebaskets in our house.
It took years of work, producing stories like
Basic Training
, while he was holding other jobs and supporting his young family, for my dad to develop his very own, finely tuned voice. Only two years after he wrote
Basic Training
,
Player Piano
was published.
Gil Berman, the main character in
If God Were Alive Today
, was conceived in my father’s slightly charred, seventy-eight-year-old brain in the year 2000. A month before my father came to Northampton, Massachusetts, to be near family after being exiled from his brownstone in New York City, the upper story of his house caught fire, and he wound up in a hospital burn unit with complications from smoke inhalation. His wife of twenty-five years told him that he was not welcome back until the damage was repaired.
I had been squawking for years about how my father was abducted from me by fame and fortune back in 1969 when I was fifteen, the year of
Slaughterhouse Five
. Northampton had a lot to offer—grandchildren, nephews and nieces, writers and artists. When it came time for my father’s discharge from the rehab facility, two of my brothers drove to rescue and deliver him to the Hotel Northampton and to me. They called me an hour outside of Northampton and announced, “We’re delivering your father.”
He was miserable upon arrival. He snapped at me a lot. So much so that I left him a note at the Hotel Northampton, along with keys to an apartment within walking distance from the hotel, saying that I was at his disposal, but only if and when he asked. He took the keys when no one was looking and climbed
the steep staircase to the waiting apartment, where he hung the very few pieces of clothing he had. His new home came with a computer to write on and a charming and witty landlady who gradually brought out the courtly Kurt Vonnegut; I saw a little color come back to his cheeks.
He could walk to Serio’s, our local grocery store, where they even carried Pall Malls. The Tunnel Bar was practically in his backyard, a place so darkened he would not be recognized, and a place where he could smoke and drink. He made friends with all the clerks at the local hardware store, probably because, as a boy in Indianapolis, he had worked at Vonnegut Hardware. The first thing he bought for his new life was a Waring blender. He could walk to my house for dinner if he felt like it. Sometimes he would come by with shopping bags full of candy and soda for his grandchildren, commanding them to “Live it up!”
I brought my father to a performance of Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain at The Calvin Theater not long after he arrived. My father was transfixed. He communicated his agreement with Mr. Twain’s words with quiet coughs and sighs. Toward the end of the performance, Mark Twain said something about having deeply disappointed his wife. This elicited from my father a deep groan. We stayed behind to meet Hal Holbrook. I watched as the two Mark Twains spoke to each other with utmost respect, almost reverence.
Another good day was when I watched my dad goose Gloria Steinem on the steps of the Smith College Chapel, where she was about to deliver a sermon to Smithies. Gloria Steinem turned around, completely composed, and said, “Oh, hello Kurt.”
My father and I did a lot of walking when he was in Northampton. The talks were always intense, but they were often broken up by his sudden theatrics, such as when he saw a squirrel freeze in the street with a nut in his mouth, and shouted, “Hey, you, squirrel, drop that nut!” We’d double over laughing for an unnatural amount of time and then return to the very serious subject at hand. He was trying to figure out how to resolve his marital problems. He was considering faking his own death as a possible solution.
Though it had been more than thirty years since I had had any extended amount of time with my father, not much had changed. I still worried that he would not answer the door and I might find him dead. Growing up, suicide was always considered a possible and even logical outcome of my father’s life. But my father always answered the door, and I usually found him in the act of writing, which included working on the
New York Times
crossword puzzle. Sitting next to him on his purple velvet futon couch, I’d listen to what he was trying to write. As he talked, his long toes would knead the floor, and I could feel heat waves coming off his head as he was working an idea. He appeared to me then as an exquisite alien creature, as if his giant brain and long toes were trying to extract something from another planet. He told me he was failing to connect with anything worthwhile that day, except his main character, Gil Berman, who might have to fake his own death.
Most times I’d find my father in a very receptive mood to my prying questions, like “How many times have you been in love?” His answer was instantaneous, and he held up three long fingers.
I was relieved to hear my mother was one of them. His explanation of the merits and failures of each true love struck me as completely fair. Whether or not my mother really did not love him enough did not matter; he felt that love was lacking, and I believed him. As I was walking out the door with his laundry, I suggested that we go to therapy together. He answered, “There’s too much to talk about!” There was nothing unloving in this answer; he was absolutely right. Sometimes the best thing for me was to tell a good joke and tell it well. When I told him about the old man who confessed to a youth with a colorful Mohawk haircut that he had fucked a parrot many years before, and was wondering if the young man might be his son, my father told me that my delivery was elegant.
Once, I brought to my father’s attention a story in the
Boston Globe
about a stockbroker who had killed his wife and staked her head to a pole in the front yard for the entire neighborhood to see. The husband explained that he had gone bonkers when the wife overcooked the pasta for supper. My father paused for about three seconds and replied, “Well, we don’t know what she did before that.”
Though my father was trying to divorce his wife, the phone calls from the brownstone in New York City were incessant. I was present for one such phone call that went on for a very long time. As far as I could tell, it involved a broken appliance that my father, being the man of the house, should fix somehow. Finally, my father yelled, “Call General Electric for Christ’s sake!” Then he yanked the phone line out of the wall.
After almost a year in Northampton, he went back to his
brownstone in New York City, knowing full well he was walking back into a burning house, but it was familiar.
Gil Berman was conceived and born out of the toxic circumstances of my father’s life at that time. So, of course, Gil Berman and the story are quite ill, but there is hilarity, wisdom, and redemption along the way. No one but my father could cap the darkest, most honest moment in this story with a fart.
My father did with words what Fred Astaire did with his body, something out of this world that no one else could possibly pull off. Even as an old man my dad defied gravity and did the audacious thing of creating something out of nothing.
 
Nanette Vonnegut
Basic Training: A Novella
Basic Training
A Novella
I.
I.
“In many ways, Haley, this is the nicest room in the house, even though it is little and has only one window,” said Annie Cooley, a woman in her middle twenties. She sat on the edge of the cot, her heavy legs crossed, and watched her sixteen-year-old cousin unpack his small suitcase. “The view of the elm grove and the duck pond is very good, and you’ll have a lot more privacy than any of us in this end of the house.”
Haley Brandon arranged his three white shirts in one corner of a deep bureau drawer, nodding absently at the end of each of Annie’s sentences. He was tired after a fitful night aboard a railroad coach, and he was glad that Annie was content to talk on and on without calling upon him to contribute to the conversation. She was a complete stranger to him, and not a very interesting-looking one at that. He would not have known what to say to her, if it had been up to him to lead the talking. He was something less than adept at making new friends quickly, he thought uncomfortably. He glanced out of the window. Not even the land was remotely reminiscent of anything he had seen before.
“Now you take Kitty and Hope,” Annie continued, referring to her younger sisters. “Their windows look right out on the new hog barn and the tool shed, and I’ve got the silo to look at.” She grimaced, and two deep dimples appeared in her plump cheeks. “I’ve really got the worst room of all. The walls are just like cardboard, and I’m right next to the General’s room. He’s moving around until all hours, so it’s a wonder I get any sleep at all. And I’m the one who always has to get up first, too.”
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