Kurt Vonnegut is dead and now I am unstuck in time.
It is 1989, my thirteenth summer. I am visiting my Aunt Kay and Uncle Dave on their honey farm in South Bend, Indiana. It’s a form of indentured servitude to eccentric, loving masters. Life out on the honey farm is probably really boring, but I wouldn’t know. I’m busy reading.
“The library’s pretty good out here in the sticks,” Aunt Kay says. “Nobody else out here reads, so we get the good stuff pretty much to ourselves.” On one of many trips to the library in town, I discover Slaughterhouse Five. “Oh, Vonnegut,” Aunt Kay says, a little surprised. “I think he’s a good fit for you.” I start the book in the parking lot on the way home and do not speak for the next 24 hours.
I sneak in a few pages in the truck on the way out to the beehives with my Uncle Dave. I _eat_ the pages while he gets out our netted hats (they are simultaneously ridiculous and ominous) , readies the bee smoker, gets my gloves out of the box in the back. He doesn’t make me get out until it’s time to hit the hives. “I know how it is,” I remember him saying. “If you read real fast, you get to find out what happens next. But if you take your time, it lasts longer.”
I do both, my eyes running laps over and over each page. I know what the Tralfamadorian ship sounds like as it hovers over Billy Pilgrim’s back yard: it sounds like hives full of sleepy, smoke-addled bees.
I read more while walking slowly to the car that night on the way to the only pizza restaurant in town, read it at the table and in the car on the way home in ambient light from slowly strobing streetlights. Once we get outside town, it’s too dim to read. I sit back and imagine saucers, war, time travel.
A beehive is little more than a series of stacked boxes (called supers) containing frames for bees to build honeycomb on. When the hives are full the frames are bloated, pregnant with honey and larvae. Hardcore vegans think that eating honey is cruel because it is an animal byproduct. Hardcore vegans are a uniformly joyless bunch, and I would imagine that they have never had someone else masterfully clean their apartments in an afternoon. I am providing that service to these bees, and in their tiny little hearts they are grateful.
To clean these cramped, boxy little apartments, I stack the supers in a tiny room containing a large, heated bowl with a hole in the bottom, an electrically heated knife, a centrifuge and a DustBuster. After supper I enter the room and shut the door, prying the frames out of the super with a crowbar. A few addled bees inevitably escape. They’re no real threat until they come to their senses. Their stupor allows me to take the electric knife and shave both sides of a frame bloated with honeycomb into the heated bowl. There, the beeswax melts and rises to the top, allowing heat-thinned honey to trickle through a hose and into tanks on the floor below me. Then I load the frames into a centrifuge, spinning the remaining honey out and into the same tanks below.
I sit on a wooden box while the honey twirls, reading Slaughterhouse Five in one hand and sucking bees into the Dustbuster with the other. Wisely, Uncle Dave pays me per pound of extracted honey rather than by the hour.
Late at night, when all the honey is twirled, I go into the yard release the bees. I stop reading long enough to stare up into the Indiana sky. A storm system is moving in, erasing the stars one by one.
The next morning, over honey-slathered slices of thick Amish toast from Uncle Dave’s personal toaster (he keeps one by his feet at the breakfast table), I am asked to mow a path to the hives. The grass is too wet from last night’s storm, so I sit on the porch and wait for it to dry. And while I wait, I finish Slaughterhouse Five and start it over again.
Now it’s April 12, 2007. Kurt Vonnegut is dead, and so are most of the bees. So it goes …