Friendship is a Game for Two: Kurt Vonnegut's Love for Joe Petro

I don't know either of these men well. In fact, I was only in the same room with Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. once in my life: When he spoke to a standing room only crowd at the University of Maine, back in the last century. But despite my lack of personal contact with the man, Vonnegut provoked my thoughts and validated my beliefs. He did that because he was a master fiction writer and - as he once told JC Gabel - "Fiction is a game for two." No matter how many hundreds of thousands of other people read Vonnegut's work, it was always just about him and me.

As for Joe Petro, III: last month, at the request of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, I traveled to Lexington, Kentucky and interviewed him. Petro it turns out, wasn't just the artist/screen printer that translated Vonnegut's sketches from napkins to handmade paper ¬- suitable for framing - he was one of Vonnegut's very best friends.

Vonnegut and Petro both had dads who were artists. Vonnegut's dad, an architect, painted at home and while he appreciated art, financial hardship led the elder Kurt Vonnegut to dissuade his son from pursuing a frivolous career. Petro's father, a successful professional artist, made no such attempt at discouragement. And while Petro's creative expertise is self-taught, that ability to encourage other artists appears to be hereditary. It was Petro who convinced Vonnegut that there was a market for his sketches.

Vonnegut's drawings - perhaps every bit as much as his fictional stories - allowed him to make, "people respond emotionally when nothing is really going on." Vonnegut called art a "practical joke." And he was delighted that he and Petro could "make art for people's homes" not for museums. Petro's talent for screen printing Vonnegut's work made a one-of-a-kind image available to thousands of people who might like to hang it on their wall.

In A Man Without a Country, the last book Vonnegut published before he died, Vonnegut described Petro's remarkable ability to add a new artistic layer to his drawings, "Joe makes prints of some of (my work), one by one, color by color, by means of the time-consuming, archaic silk screen process, practiced by almost nobody else anymore: squeegeeing inks through cloths and onto paper. This process is so painstaking and tactile, almost balletic, that each print Joe makes is a painting in its own right."

Vonnegut goes on to announce, without explanation, that Joe Petro, III, saved his life. It was because of this astonishing declaration, and because of Petro's unwavering support of The Vonnegut (that's the shorthand locals use when referring to the library) that we employed the talents of a professional filmmaker and struck off nearly 10 years after Vonnegut's death, to interview Petro in his Kentucky art studio.

Over the years, Petro has helped the library preserve the memory and legacy of his friend, any way he can. Julia Whitehead, chief executive officer of The Vonnegut, says that regardless of how many times she's asked Petro for help, he's never turned her away. In the interview - which will be available at The Vonnegut's website in a few weeks - Petro explains that he's on board to help any way he can for as long as he can. Petro sees it as a way to preserve the memory of a man he loved greatly and misses even more.

But friendship, like fiction, is a game for two. Anyone who loves Vonnegut's writing or art can put themselves in Petro's shoes and understand why Petro loved the man. We went to Petro's studio, in no small part, to meet the man Vonnegut loved back. We wanted Petro to tell us what Vonnegut saw in him, that allowed their bond to be so close - close enough for Vonnegut to allow the young artist to save his life.

It wasn't until Petro told us how he'd known Vonnegut was in trouble that we gained a glimpse at their rare relationship. When Kurt Vonnegut fell outside his home, a few days before he died, Petro stopped hearing from him. Because, amazingly, he'd heard from him nearly every day, even if only with a few short whimsical phone calls.

Joe in Kentucky and Kurt in New York, Petro's phone would ring at night at a quarter before seven and Vonnegut would say, "15 minutes." The countdown would continue until it was time for Vonnegut's manhattan: A beverage that - because of Petro - Vonnegut didn't have to drink alone.

In Vonnegut's world it wasn't the manhattan that mattered, it was the loneliness. In the later years of his life he cautioned his audiences to beware of it. When I saw him speak in Maine, when he granted interviews, whenever he could, Vonnegut admonished, "We need extended families as much as we need vitamin C... People will do anything to stop being lonely - just as people will do anything to stop from suffocating... There is a great American disease, which is so easily exploited by cynical people. It's loneliness. It is unbearable.

Am I right about Joe Petro, III, saving the life of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., simply by loving him, making time for him and being his friend? I think so. But, in a few weeks you can watch the interview and decide for yourself.