I Met Him Once, You Know
I'd only been there a month or so when he walked in one night. I recognised him, of course. Whenever I wasn't sleeping or working I was reading. Probably I should have been sleeping some of the time I spent reading. I'd seen his face on a couple of book jackets, and it was pretty distinctive.
I'm not sure anyone else even looked up. but if they had it wouldn't have mattered. Even if some of the mags they bought ran author interviews, they never looked at those pages. It was a good thing, too. It wasn't the kind of crowd likely to appreciate his wit or understand his criticisms of society.
I guess he must have been looking for a place like that. Just because you're famous doesn't mean you always want other people surrounding you when you're trying to be alone. He smoked for a little while before ordering a whiskey, straight.
When I set it in front of him, he stared at it for a minute, then gulped it down as if it were medicine. Come to think of it, considering some of the things he'd seen, perhaps it was. He lit another cigarette, sat quietly while he smoked it, staring into the mirror behind the bar, then ordered another.
Again, he eyed it for a moment, picked it up, and swallowed as if he were following doctor's orders. After another cigarette, during which he gazed at the mirror again, he beckoned me over, almost shyly.
"What kind of man do I look like to you?" His voice was soft and hesitant, but raspy, the way I expected it would be after seeing how much he smoked.
I hesitated. I wasn't sure if I should let him know I recognised him. To cover up, I pretended to look him over carefully. "Well, I'd say you were a man who's seen a lot, been through a lot."
He gave a short laugh, almost a bark. "A nice diplomatic answer."
Before I could say more, he raised a hand. "I understand. All people want, most of the time, are polite answers."
"I wasn't trying to be polite. You really do look like a man who's been through an awful lot."
He lit another cigarette and peered at me through the smoke. His eyes were so deep, dark and full of sadness, but still warm and kind. Even in his pictures, you can see what striking eyes he had, but I'm telling you, that's nothing to what you saw when he really looked at you. I squirmed a little as he sized me up.
"Maybe you did mean it." He gave me a tired, sad smile, just a flicker before his face drooped back into its habitual mournful expression.
"Thank you, sir."
I must have been just a bit too respectful; his eyes grew a little sharper. "You recognize me?"
"Uh, yes, sir. I'm sorry, I was trying not to bother you."
"You're a fan, then. No wonder you were so perceptive." He couldn't keep the cynicism out of his voice.
I hesitated, then decided this man deserved honesty. "Actually, sir, I respect your talent, I enjoy your sense of humour, and I think you make some great points about the way the world works, but I wouldn't exactly say I'm a fan."
It almost seemed his eyes lit up a little. "You wouldn't? Why is that? And stop calling me 'sir'. It makes me feel ancient!"
"Sorry." I paused; it wasn't easy to think clearly standing in the presence of such a man.
He waited, patiently or wearily, I couldn't tell which.
"Well, I agree with a lot of what you say, but about the war..."
He opened his mouth, but with a visible effort shut it again until I finished.
"I don't like war either, but the war against the Nazis, I don't think we had much choice. Letting them win would have been more awful."
"I never said I wanted Hitler to take over the world. But, you know, in some ways he did. We became like him in order to stop him. We firebombed Dresden for revenge, not to end the war."
"We shouldn't have done that, and I understand how you feel. Maybe I'd feel the same myself if I'd been through it. I don't know. It just seems Hitler had to be stopped."
He sighed, a deep, tired sigh. "I don't pretend I have all the answers, but I don't see how becoming more brutal did us any good."
"No, I agree with you there. Let me start over."
"Forget about the war. I'm not even sure if we disagree about that or not. But in spite of how funny you are, your writing is just too dark and hopeless."
"That's what I see. Would you prefer pretty lies?"
"I know that, and I don't mean you should lie. I think you describe the world as you see it. But I see things differently."
"If I'd been through some of the things you have, maybe I'd see the world the same way. But I haven't, and even though there are a lot of sad and terrible things, there's also joy and hope. I see a mixture of both. And I believe joy and hope are important."
He sighed again, and coughed slightly, on the smoke from his latest cigarette. "Then I envy you. I don't want everyone to think the way I tell them to. I try to show people they need to think for themselves."
"I know. I enjoy your writing, and agree with a lot of it. Some of your thoughts are very deep, but overall I think you're missing something real, something important. That's why I can't say I'm a fan of yours."
"The truth is, I never looked for fans, just readers who could take something away from what I wrote."
"I have done that..."
"I wish I could see the things you do. It isn't pleasant being labelled a cynic, a misanthrope, bitter, any of the things they call me..."
"I don't think they're right, either. I think you care too much, feel too much. A less sensitive man wouldn't have developed such thick scars."
He stared at me. "Hah! Well, don't give away my secret - you'd ruin my reputation!"
Just then, one of the regulars on the other side of him worked his way through the scraps of our conversation he'd overheard. He narrowed his eyes. "Hey! What were you sayin about the war? You ain't some kind of pinko, are ya?"
He turned, showing the man a twisted smile, full of pain. "Why no, I'm red through and through, just as every red-blooded American should be!"
With a dry chuckle, he twisted around, slid off his stool, and walked to the door as his opponent frowned over this remark.
I came from behind the bar, stood in the doorway, and watched him walk slowly away, a man who felt things so deeply carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. I was younger then, so I couldn't guess how heavy that weight must be, caring about so much, even when no one else did. But even I could see how it burdened him.
Before he disappeared into the darkness, he turned back and raised his arm a moment. I called after him. My eyes were still stinging from the smoke of his cigarettes. I can feel it now, that's why my eyes are wet.
"Goodbye, Mister Vonnegut! It was an honour and a pleasure!"