While I wait for the blue tunnel that leads to the afterlife to open, I think of the punch line to a joke: “Keep your hat on, we may end up miles from here.” I’ve never heard the joke before, though there was a time when I desperately wanted to. So I try to imagine …
I can’t come up with anything …
At a memorial gathering, Kurt, you once said of the secular humanist and atheist Isaac Asimov: he’s “up in heaven now.” So when the blue tunnel that leads to the afterlife opens (though I’m pretty sure it will not), I’ll say to you, “Being a fan of Mark Twain, who was one of the people credited with, ‘Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company,’ I hope you’re enjoying Hell,” because I can think of no better company than you.
That’s what I’ll say.
I will not say that when I lived in Brooklyn, I was positive there was no one better to hang out with than you. I will not tell you that when I moved to New York City in May 2001, I had read an article in The New York Times about you falling asleep during the Super Bowl (don’t worry, although I’m a football fan, I agree that most of the Super Bowls have been dull), about how you’d been smoking a Pall Mall as you fell asleep, about how your desk caught on fire, about how smoke started pouring out of your brownstone’s window, about how your neighbor saw the smoke and managed to get inside your home and save you, about how the article had not included your specific address, but had included the street you lived on. I will not tell you that, after moving to the Big Apple, I walked down your street, and once there were buildings that looked like residences, instead of places where people worked, I started asking passersby, “Doesn’t Kurt Vonnegut live around here?” I won’t tell you that no one seemed to know until I spotted an older guy smoking a cigarette, smoking a cigarette!, and I asked him. And of course he knew. We were, after all, standing right in front of your place.
I won’t tell you any of this because it would make me sound like a stalker. I was even aware of this potential label, this potential danger at the time. And so I didn’t bring any books with me for you to sign because I’d read a piece by you where you complained about autograph collectors (a complaint that has probably died amongst writers now). And so I wore a mostly white Hawaiian shirt adorned with a few bedraggled palm trees and I wore beat-to-hell khakis because I thought they made me look like exactly what I felt like: a big galoot of no consequence at all.
What did I plan on saying to you then?
I did not plan on saying that I discovered your work accidentally, that I’d been a night owl from a young age and had accidentally run across the film version of Slaughterhouse-five when I was an early teen up at 3am, that when I was in college I recalled seeing that bizarre movie as a kid and somehow remembered the title, that a friend of mine had told me it’d been a book before it was a movie, that I found the book in the Kent State University library and read it in the loft study room of Harbourt Hall, that it was exactly what I was looking for: a respite from what I thought of (and probably still do) as the boring realism I was being taught in many of my classes, that it’d subsequently led me on to many more works of metafiction and postmodernism, that I’ve ultimately become a metafictionist and, to a certain extent, postmodernist because of that book (and later others, especially Mother Night and Cat’s Cradle).
No, I had no plans to say any of that to you.
Instead, I thought it’d be fitting, taking my ridiculous attire and thinning hair (though I was in my early 20s) and ugly glasses and awkward physique that screamed out: I am a big lug, pat my belly condescendingly!, well I figured it’d be best if I asked for you to tell me a joke.
So now, as I stand here waiting for the blue tunnel that leads to the afterlife to open, I prepare myself to ask you what I wanted to ask you then: “Will you tell me the joke that you’ve made reference to many times in your speeches and other writings that ends with the punch line, ‘Keep your hat on, we may end up miles from here,’ would you be so kind as to tell me that joke?
I will ask because, although you’ve made reference to the joke many times, you’ve never actually told it in any of those speeches or writings.
And if the blue tunnel that leads to the afterlife existed, I can imagine you popping out, smoking a Pall Mall, coughing, and finally saying, “Really? That’s what you want to hear? As I step out of the afterlife, that is what you want me to tell you?”
And I would say: “Yes, that’s it, Mr. Vonnegut. That’s what I want to hear. I’m even willing to run off to the store and buy the most ridiculous Hawaiian shirt available, I’m even willing to destroy a perfectly good pair of khaki pants, I’m even willing to don a broken down pair of glasses, just so I can best approximate what I looked like on that rainy day in 2001 when I went in search of you, when I ultimately knocked on your door in the humblest possible manner and your wife told me that you were not home, that you were summering out in the Hamptons. Mr. Vonnegut, if you would be so kind, although I know the punch line, I’ve never heard what leads up to it. So please, tell me the joke.”
That is what I would say to you, Mr. Vonnegut.
But the reason you got such a big laugh out of the assembled crowd at Isaac Asimov’s memorial is because nobody there believed in an afterlife. Nor did Asimov believe in an afterlife. Nor did you believe in an afterlife. Nor do I. So as I wait for the blue tunnel that leads to the afterlife to remain forever absent, this is what I have to say to you, Kurt Vonnegut: nothing. Because you are no longer here. Any speech would be futile. And yet if I could somehow transmit a message to you, it’d be: I thank you for the influence, but since I never had the opportunity to hear the joke that ends, “Keep your hat on, we may end up miles from here,” from you, I never want to hear it at all.
If you could respond, you might say that’s a silly message. And yet, I do not think you’d mind. People don’t look to the afterlife for preachments, but to marvel at the unknown. Using your own words I’d conclude:
“So I thank you for your sweetly faked attention.”
Andrew Farkas' Self-Titled Debut, a collection of fictions, is available from Subito Press. He currently adjuncts at John Carroll University, the University of Akron, and Walsh University. He has degrees from Kent State University, the University of Tennessee, the University of Alabama, and the University of Illinois at Chicago. He has also taught at Rocky Mountain College. Andrew Farkas is attempting to do some kind of work at every single college and university in the country. Perhaps you will see him at an institution of higher learning near you soon.
Kurt Vonnegut is dead.