Billy Pilgrim closes his eyes and finds himself on Tralfamadore. Montana Wildhack stands in the artificial light, of their artificial sun, in their artificial room simulating Earth. She is buxom and blonde. Billy is erect. The Tralfamadorians watch in anticipation of bearing witness to a mating ritual. In thirty years from this point, Billy will transport to Tralfamadore, and find out Montana will be shot dead by a high powered laser rifle, a native of the planet having gone rogue. So it goes. As Billy enters Montana, he closes his eyes for a second and is transported to Dresden.
The city is in rubble. He can taste the fine dust and powder of masonry and crushed bone. These are the bones pounded by Allied bombs, flesh melted and incinerated in a flash. So it goes. Billy is sure he is standing where a bakery once stood. The baker died as the a bomb dropped through the roof and crushed his skull before it ever exploded. So it goes. Billy sifts through rubble for signs of life. He finds a child–or parts of what once was–underneath a splintered wooden sign. The child wore red shoes. So it goes.
In the intensity of the day, Billy is exhausted and finds an indent amongst the debris. A small cave. Billy lays down and falls asleep.
Billy is transported to 2014. A child reaches into the purse of its mother. It finds a gun and shoots itself. So it goes. It is in a store unlike Billy has ever seen. It is gargantuan. The light is harsh and artificial. Billy wonders how people haven’t committed suicide by working in such a cold and unfeeling place. A few years later, one of the workers hangs himself in a rented motel room. So it goes.
Lethargic from the lulling music over the intercom, Billy finds a strange couch to lie on. Much to Billy’s surprise, it becomes flat like a bed. He finds it peculiar they offer resting places for shoppers. Billy lies down, closing his eyes.
Its 2012 and Billy finds himself in Connecticut, Sandy Hook. He walks past a school. Shots ring through the air. Billy is familiar with the sound of gunfire, having experienced war, and is surprised to find this here. Twenty-six people are murdered that day. So it goes. Billy finds a bar close by and watches the events unfold on the news. He drinks straight bourbon and thinks about Montana and her curves. He thinks about visiting her and performing another mating ritual for the Tralfamadorians. On the television screen, Billy sees the police cars with flashing lights surround the school. In the background of the bar, someone says its fake news. Billy wonders why anyone would think such a ridiculous thing. In the years that follow, a portion of the population will believe this event to be an elaborate hoax. The children are still dead, whether the disbelievers accept this or not. So it goes. The fake news man dies three months later cleaning his own gun. Drunk, he never checks the chamber. So it goes. Billy passes out at the bar from too much bourbon.
Billy opens his eyes with no hangover. He’s on the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University campus. It is 2007. Billy wonders if the United States isn’t involved in perpetual civil war. Shots zing past his head. He knows he doesn’t die here. He’s died hundreds of times, and will always die the same way, back in 1976, giving a speech on the subjects of Tralfamadore and flying saucers. He addresses the crowd, telling them he will be murdered that day. He is shot by a sniper from a press box in the stadium in Chicago, where he gives that address. So it goes. Back in 2007, on that campus, 32 people are killed. So it goes.
Opening his eyes, Billy finds himself back in Dresden. Rubble slides down the collapsed wall of a building. Bricks tumble and clink against each other. When the pile settles, a cloud of powder rises into the air and hovers apathetically, choosing not to rise or descend. The stench of death is overpowering. Billy puts his shirt over his face to stanch the smell, but to no avail. In the grime at his feet, Billy sees something shine. Reaching down he picks up an arm with a gold bracelet. It is fashioned from other bits of jewelry all gnarled and wired together in makeshift fashion. A german soldier acquired these valuable trinkets from Jewish victims he’d sent to the ovens. They all died. So it goes. This arm is all that is left of the soldier. So it goes. Billy winces at the feeling of cold flesh in his hands and closes his eyes.
It is 1999 and Billy is in Colorado, Columbine. Billy has never been to Colorado. He wonders how far away Cody, Wyoming is from there. “Just ask for Wild Bob!” Billy says aloud. The repeat of gunfire echoes in the distance. It comes from within a building in the distance. From the signage on the exterior walls, Billy sees it’s a school. Billy wonders that if in the future, schools mean something different than they did only 40 years before. Billy had seen war and atrocity, but never killed children. He’d never held a gun until the war, and never owned one after, seeing its only purpose was to destroy and kill. When Billy transports to 2016, he finds out 12 died in Columbine that day. So it goes.
It is 2016, it is hot. The air stifles and the humidity is like a blanket. Billy finds the breeze cool and refreshing. He stands on a street. Neon lights the darkness. Music thumps from within the building in front of him. A sign out front says “Pulse,” and Billy feels the music leading the throb in his arteries. It is the deepest loudest bass he’s ever encountered. His heartbeat finds the rhythm. Doors fling open and people spill out onto the streets. Billy puzzles at this flow of people. From within, the sound of gunfire fills the air intermingling with music, marrying the two in a discordant cacophony of chaos. 49 people die. So it goes. Billy cannot figure this war out. He scratches his head, and scrunching his eyes, rubs his figures across closed lids.
Billy has never been to Las Vegas. The lights are blinding. The air is a dry heat. His nose bleeds from the arid temperature. He finds toilet paper and tears it apart, shoving each piece up a nostril. His nose is bulbous, stuffed in this manner. The wadded pieces of paper red at the tips. It is 2017, October 1st. Billy Pilgrim walks down the Las Vegas strip for the first time. Drunk people make out on the sidewalk. One couple dry humps in the shadows. Billy’s mind instantly reverts back to Montana Wildhack and her curves. He thinks about mating on Tralfamadore. Billy sees fountains that are the most spectacular he’s ever seen. Bright shining buildings rise into the night sky, reflecting all the artificial light. In the distance, Billy hears a familiar sound. One he’s grown to recognize in his frequent time traveling. Over the din of music, Billy hears the gunfire. It reminds him of the war. He watches from the sidewalk and sits. He wonders why. This war on American soil puzzles him. He wishes to close his eyes and travel back before his death, or even to his death, even that would be ideal. Billy can’t understand, so he sits and weeps.
When the sun rises the next morning Billy finds out 59 are dead. So it goes. Billy keeps his eyes open and bears witness to the horror. Billy searches for answers, but finds only sorrow. Billy doesn’t close his eyes to it. He doesn’t turn away. He stays. He will not shut his eyes to this. Not like so many others have, blinded by the glint of gunmetal.
Thank you. I have spent many hours with Billy Pilgrim. First, when I was a college student in the 1970s; then as a 30 something living in Germany. Then as a College professor sharing him with young students who had never heard of Kurt Vonnegut. And, lately, after a visit to a showing of Vonnegut’s art here in Chicago. A lovely reflection–and so it will go until we do something about it.
Thank you for reading my piece and the compliment.