It feels good to be prowling outside in the night, to become an active part (or is it particle?) in the city’s circulatory system. We are two Wandering Jews who dream without sleeping, the friction of our minds keeping us warm like a hummingbird’s frantic wings. But soon as my feet travel certain segments of cement, a correlative set of memories begin to readily surface.
Around Avenue B I am reminded of a certain discourteous fat woman. As I mentioned earlier, my mind is mainly associative and operates in a manner that chooses to recognize rather than retrieve. That’s why almost everything in my life seems like an accident to me, something I just innocently happened to stumble on. Happenstance is my personal god and I find myself in a state of perpetual astonishment and amazement.
When we knock on the obese Fortuneteller’s door no one answers. I bang louder - knowing she’d have already opened it earlier, even before the first knock - if she were anywhere in the vicinity.
“You believe in this stuff?” K asks, referring to the palm-shaped sign on her door.
“As St. Thomas thought about God but never had a chance to actually write down: For lack of anything better, why not?”
But the query itself is pointless since the Fortuneteller is still off on her honeymoon, making nuptial mischief on some conjugal waterbed with her husband the ex-con. Their sex life, if I try to imagine it, must be intolerably brutal and exemplary savage in unprecedented ways. Her massive sinuous flesh rippling with each punishing thrust of his hungry prison-starved hips.
“What now? You ready to go back and write more?” I ask with a terrified touch of melancholy.
“Nahh. Not yet.”
The writing confines me, but without it I feel lost and unmoored. Always have. Yes - as St. Thomas thought without writing down - For lack of anything better, why not?”
“We’ll have to go back sometime, you know.”
“Yeah, I know.” K acknowledges. “But right now the idea of writing is inimical to my very being. Adding dross to more dross. Drek on drek. I’d rather shift large items of furniture around the room than rearrange words on the lazy page.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” I agree, watching him reach into his jacket and remove some manuscript pages from his pocket.
“I don’t know about you,” he says, “but I need a couple of drinks.” He waves the pages in the air. “This writing business is hard stuff. And it never gets easier. For each word you pick there are literally dozens that are neglected, forsaken, abandoned, rejected, denied, rebuffed, dismissed, overlooked… neglected… did I already say that? Well, you get the point, don’t you?”
One of the pages flutters out of his hand and I pick it up. The page is stitched all over with revisions and full of crossing out. Mozart minus the vision, clarity impaired by doubt.
“So what’s this?” I ask.
“Oh, some private stuff I’ve been working on on the side.”
“But what are you doing with it? Here…?”
I catch the words – Tiergarten Topiary – when he grabs the page out of my hand before I have time to inspect it further.
“Thought maybe I would have a chance to read some of my work in public tonight. See how it plays before a non-partisan crowd. Get a real impartial response. See if it’s even worth finishing.”
“Is that why you wanted to go on a walk?”
“No, of course not. But you never know who you’ll run into. Or what thought you might have… which is why I always arm myself with a little notebook and pen.”
As if to illustrate his point Kafka furtively writes something down in his moleskin, but doesn’t let me see what.
“What did you just jot down.”
“Can you share it?”
“Yes, but I’m not going to.”
I’m now beginning to genuinely wonder if K’s whole spiel about my short story being so good and assisting him with his was simply a ruse to throw me off the scent.
“I won’t steal it, you know.”
“Never said you would,” he says, as he returns the moleskin back to its secret pocket. “But who wants to take chances.”
He reminds me of one of those unctuous high school students who pretend to never study for their exams so they can psyche everyone else out, boasting transparently - Yeah, I wish I could’ve studied but there was a season premiere of Project Runaway last night which I just couldn’t miss. But, hey, I still got an A, not that I deserve it or anything. Oh yeah, I could easily see Kafka doing that, except he’d probably be watching The Bachelor instead, the competitive sonofabitch.
“You coming or what?”
When I look up, K is making a beeline to the corner bar, a dilapidated structure which I’m sure looks even worse and more depressing in daylight. The place is a cultivated metaphor for all the desperation and sadness in this corner of the universe, a true orphanage of loneliness.
“This place doesn’t look exactly literate,” I say.
“Let alone partisan to anything but hard liquor,” I add.
The bouncer at the door cards everyone except for Kafka, who seems to have the common touch. He goes right in without even noticing my detainment.
“What’s the big idea?” I ask. “You just let my friend in.”
“He didn’t act like your friend.”
“I’m the closest person he has.”
“That’s sad,” says the immovable behemoth at the door. “But I’m still gonna have to see some i.d. here.”
I remove my license from my wallet. Hand it to him.
“You sure you can count that high?”
“You trying to be smart?”
“No just get a drink.”
He studies my i.d. for a very long time. Then stares hard at my still bandaged head. I bet even Methuselah would get carded here.
“Doesn’t change my age. Does it?”
“In France, you know, they wouldn’t let you in with that shit on your head.”
“You want me to take it off?”
“But since we’re in America, I’m gonna make an exception.”
I start to slide past him when he grabs my elbow from behind.
“Although… on second thought” – I can’t believe he’d even have a first thought to countermand – “I really think our patrons” – it’s a big word for him – “would prefer if you actually took that off.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“It’s the terrorism thing. Nowadays they even make us check diapers.”
“Ok, fine with me. But I think you should really review your policies.”
I unravel the bandages and drop them at his feet. He stares at me, befuddled, eyes wide in disbelief.
“Better…?” I ask.
It feels like some strange clinical striptease. His mouth has that slack stupid expression of a fish waiting to be fed. Finally he speaks.
“No, not really, you… Shithead!”
Then cracks up laughing.
“Can I go in now?”
He slaps his thigh and laughs some more.
“I was wondering if I could go in now?” I repeat impatiently.
“Sure, sure, this place could use a good laugh.”
The smell emanating from my festering wound is fairly potent to say the least, but I’m not sure it’s commensurate to the hysterical reaction it seems to provoke.
“Hey Shithead!” – I stop, turn – “You got something stuck to the bottom of your shoe.”
He points to my feet where the bandages cling. And laughs to the point of almost giving himself a hernia.
Inside it takes a few minutes for my eyes to adjust to the clotted unforgiving gloom. And as my pupils dilate diligently, I sense plenty of hostile stares trying to trip me up, but it might also be my paranoia just acting up again. You never know. Especially after that encounter at the door. Finally, in the far back, I locate Kafka at the pool table, a miniature oasis in the midst of all this shit.
“I call the two ball off the six,” he announces confidently.
Faithful to his prediction the number two ball brushes against the six with a light kiss and alters its course - as though it were always meant to do so – and heads towards its designated pocket. Next is the number twelve off the far bank. K dominates the table. He seems to have a genius for racking up combination shots, bank shots, and anything that plays or caroms off something else – that’s his expertise. His concentration is piercing and intense. He addresses me without once lifting his eyes from the cigarette scarred felt.
“What happened to you?” he asks.
“Not everyone gets a free pass,” I reply.
“Always, that’s what gives me my edge.”
Watching his eyes map the table it’s as though his mind were in the midst of playing out all the prospective possibilities, calculating all the possible angles, dynamic velocities and trajectories, all at once.
The permutations are all there on the table just waiting to be played out, or not. It’s like a contained microcosm of life, but that doesn’t make me feel more comfortable or at home. On the contrary, it only serves to alienate me further.
“Jesus, look at this place!”
I feel so out of place here, as though my clothes had taken me out for a walk and now I want to go home and just get in my pajamas. Kafka, however, is in his element here. His eyes grazing the roughly pilled table like he were reading some secret instructions in coded Braille or perhaps caressing the face of a young acneed lover tending to Goethe’s Austrian estate.
For a moment I imagine myself to be an ant crawling across the pool table, navigating its pocked baize surface as if it were a shag carpet or a swath of uncut grass. This somehow speaks to my acute sense of alienation, providing it with some tenuous pretext or perspective, but ultimately it’s very short lived.
For his part, Kafka is anything but removed or disembodied. On the contrary, he is entirely preoccupied and engaged as he puts a little english on the ball and sinks the five in a far corner off the side rail.
“You’re very good at this.”
“I’m just working backwards,” he says. “That’s the key to life. Knowing where you’ll end up.”
“Look, maybe I’m more sensitive than need be, but don’t you feel like we’re a bit out of place here?”
“I’m winning. All I know is I’m winning and I like it.”
Another look around only corroborates my first impression. It seems to me like we’re surrounded by a previous uncouth version of humanity, somewhere between Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal. I look at Kafka’s babbling opponent and his slack-jawed friends. The smallest physical activity seems to excite their mirth and bewilderment. Right now they’re all amused by the simple occupation of holding something like a glass of whisky or can of beer in their rough prehensile hands. A cigarette is a real accomplishment.
“I think we’ve gone back in time.”
“You haven’t seen nothing till you’ve passed through the shtetel on All Saints Day.”
Maybe not, I think, before giving in to another lousy paroxysm of remove, but it can’t be much worse than this. Suddenly I feel like Camus on a Club Med vacation; not that I’m remotely similar to Camus or that this place holds any resemblance to Club Med, but you get the picture. Watching people enjoying themselves so they forget to think about death and decay only exacerbates my alienation and makes me feel like the neglected, forsaken, abandoned, rejected, denied, rebuffed, dismissed, overlooked (also unheard, unwanted and misinterpreted) prophet I’ve always arrogantly and secretly believed myself to be.
If I could, I’d run up to everyone here, shake them by the shoulder, and shout shrill admonitions in their face. Then I’d climb every rooftop and howl my dim forecast like a call to prayer - but I’m sure that no one would listen. And why should they…? What good would an epidemic of my anxiety bring? I’m not Kafka. But Kafka, he should really know better. No matter what metamorphosis he seems to be undergoing this minute, in this noisy smoke-filled bar, he should be more wary and attentive to death’s unremitting claim on life.
“What is humanity?” - I whisper in K’s ear. “Aside from a steady diet of suffering - What is it?”
“Oh Christ, spare me your existential insights and get me a drink. I’m on a roll here.”
“Ok. But do you realize that on the inside we’re all the same, it’s just the packaging that’s different.”
“That’s because you haven’t really checked out the talent here.”
“Patrons of the female persuasion.”
I scan for chicks, but all that catches my eye is this one babe leaning against an indigenously unkempt brute who keeps staring at us. I talk in the hopes of making him disappear or making myself seem insignificant.
“We’ve all got the same organs on the inside, arranged in pretty much the same way… and yet we think we’re so different… so other…”
“Look, they call it happy hour for a reason. Not existential hour, or metaphysical minute. But happy hour. With good happy prices. So go get us a round of drinks and give the heady stuff a rest.”
K positions the butt end of his cue stick into the ground at an angle and cavalierly twirls it with his right foot, grinding it stylishly into the floor while administering chalk to the extreme tip.
“Speaking of talent. I think that girl likes the way I carry a cue stick.”
“Have you seen who she’s with?”
“I think it’s her brother.”
“Yeah, keep hoping.”
“Better than getting all existential about it like a little Bavarian pussy.”
“What do you have against existentialists anyway? Just because you’re trying to reform doesn’t mean everything about your previous life should be discounted or disqualified.”
“It’s not so much existentialism itself as the kind of people it attracts.” K sternly studies the table. “The indolent and stubborn nature of those willing to face off against the void with nothing more than an arsenal of self-aggrandizing laziness.” He points his cue and takes a bead to interpolate the next shot in his head. “In short, the slacker is a perfect fit for the young existentialist in the making. Someone who will work harder than anyone simply to do nothing, someone who will gladly enslave himself to minimum wages so as to have a sense of reduced obligation.”
His lament sounds strangely familiar and yet indignantly fresh. But I can’t be sure if it’s something I‘d read in one of his writings or something he’d told me about earlier in person. Not that it really matters now as K circumambulates the table, hunting for his shot. Slowly he strains to bend over for a fresh perspective as if this allowed him to hear an echo from a future crowded with collisions. He continues:
“But old age will find you in the full glory of your indigence, it always does. And then what… what then…?”
“You pick up a pen and write about it?”
“That’s if you’re lucky.” K picks his next shot and assumes his pose. “No, most likely you end up being a bartender in a place like this.”
He shoots successfully, dropping several more balls.
“Now go fetch us those gin and tonics so I don’t lose my place and fuck up my winning streak.”
As I head to the bar more faces turn to look at me, murmuring madly, sometimes rudely, as I pass. There is definitely something sinister in the air here but I try not to let it sway me. I pay for the drinks and, still in a partial existential state of mind, leave the bartender a handsome existential tip. But then he smiles sincerely and says - Thanks Shithead! - so I snatch the money back before he pockets it.
“You are a real shithead, aren’t you?!”
A drink in each hand, I make my way back through the increasingly hostile crowd to find K and the girl who admired him and his cue stick, in close proximity. The boyfriend must be in the bathroom. Assuming he’s not her brother.
She’s not the Serbian or the Waitress or coma Girl from the bookstore. But the congruence of her female anatomy reminds me of all three. How could it not? We make the briefest of eye contact – the girl and I - but it’s still enough to transfix me and repel her.
Right away I try and dissuade myself from what seems to be an inexplicable but mandated attraction on my part; something I know will undoubtedly end tragically for one of us - namely me.
Already a new game is racked and anything can happen. The Girl is there sidling seductively beside K, eager to study his opening break. I keep telling myself that her beauty is just an amalgam of curiously arranged proteins. That sex in general is just a matter of - as Kafka himself said earlier - cleaning someone else’s pipes. And yet I can’t help but be bewitched by her pedestrian charms. The way her hair gleams in the dirty fluorescent light and responds to the sublime pull of gravity when she tosses her head to smile; how each breath inhabits her body fully, and the crepuscular residue of her recently imbibed cold alcoholic beverage dewed on her warm petalled lips. It’s almost sensory overload. And that’s without even mentioning the amazing intuitive breasts that could give Salma a real suck for her money.
“Watch this one!”
K releases his cue and scatters the balls like an exploding flock of pigeons above a tidy green lawn. Two balls drop directly into their assigned pocket, a third rolls resignedly in. K leans over and whispers to me.
“Not bad.” I’m not sure if he’s talking about the girl or the shot. “With headlines like that no one reads the fine print.”
It’s the girl alright.
“Next shot will definitely impress her.”
For the next ten minutes, as K runs the table, I try to keep my lust in check with the sobering insight that youth is just a neat package to contain old age. A time released capsule that will eventually unveil the death and ugliness we struggle a lifetime to conceal. Yes, that’s right, another dose of handy existentialism to ward off the visceral somatic attraction I now feel towards this girl whom Kafka is trying to woo with his elegant dynamic shots.
Secretly, if you must know, I’m biting the inside of my cheeks hoping the pain might somehow connect me to this girl. And if all this overly involved ratiocination and self-inflicted pain fails to make me feel better, well, there’s always the imminent return of the murderous brother - who’s most likely her boyfriend - to keep things in line.
Now whereas on previous occasions K would’ve surely retreated into similar self-negating territory that I’ve just laid out here in order to avoid confronting his unmet needs and raw vulnerability; tonight the new Kafka is bursting on the scene with forthright confidence. When he lassos his arm around the girl’s waist, she complies eagerly, unequivocally.
“So…” He reels the girl closer to him. “Tell me, what’s a girl like you doing in a dump like this?”
“Having my period.”
Kafka and the girl gulp with laughter, but I grimace; it’s a bit too graphic for me.
“You two brothers…?” The girl asks with a slight inebriated slur.
“Yeah, I was separated from Shithead here at birth.”
“We used to share the same penis.”
“Don’t listen to him.”
“You’re both funny…”
“Now I’ve got the penis and he’s got the brains - but since I think with my dick it’s okay with me.”
“You have to forgive him,” I apologize on K’s behalf, although there’s really no need for it. The girl’s not at all offended. In fact it’s quite the opposite.
“I don’t mind,” she says. “I find it refreshing to have a man say what’s on his mind.”
“In vino veritas.” Kafka quotes then translates without the slightest trace of condescension. “In wine there is truth!”
Wow, one drink and K is transformed from being deceptively well-mannered to becoming louche and licentious. Perhaps that explains why he prefers to write his lovers long relentless letters like a slow Chinese suicide. But then again the slovenly girl is not much better in her comportment either – although in her case I find this vulgarity much more acceptable. And presently I begin to wonder if she’s not the kind of girl who likes a mild slap across the buttocks, maybe face, during a heated bout of intercourse.
“In vino veritas!” Having emptied his drink, K now drains mine. “Change one word around and you’d really have yourself something there.” This time he grabs his crotch before Latinizing his latest epiphany. “In penis veritas!!”
Both he and the girl crack up. She removes his hand from his crotch and replaces it with hers.
“In penis veritas! They should like put that on the back of every penny!” says the girl. “That would show ‘em.”
“Yes it would.”
The two giggle annoyingly like a clan of starved hyenas who, I recently learned, are not really laughing but actually lodging some kind of animal complaint, usually relating to food or sex. So what else can the laughter of these two adults signify other than their feral consent for one another and my sorry exclusion?
But I’m not ready to give up. Not yet. I try and think of how to belittle K, or at the very least neutralize him in some way. I’m even willing to hit below the penis veritas belt if need be.
“Did you know that Franz here is a famous author?” I say.
If this doesn’t turn her off, nothing will.
“You don’t say?”
“Don’t call me Franz,” K insists under his breath to me. Then turns to the girl. “I prefer Kafka.”
“Kaaa-ff-ka,” she repeats slowly, dreamily.
“Or “K” for short,” he curtly adds.
“And you’re an author… yes?” the girl asks.
“I try to be. All authors are trying to be. Except for Dickens. He was born that way.”
“It that then like being an impersonator?”
“Or imposter,” I add.
“I’ve never met a live author before.”
She draws each syllable out with her mouth, especially the vowels, and I can feel myself getting significantly hard under the influence of her native facility with the ancient Romance languages. More determined than ever, I aim to press any possible advantage, hoping to paint a grim unattractive portrait of the young dead writer at work.
“Usually you can spot a writer by their sickly anemic look… the impenetrable shadow under their eyes. Shoulders slouched with guilt. It’s the collateral damage you get from all that thinking.”
“Aw fuck, and here I thought he was with the band. But what do I know? I think everyone is with the band. Until they tell me otherwise. Which is usually after I’ve already had sex with them.” She lights a cigarette. “Hey, K, you play an instrument?”
“Nothing I’d be proud of.”
Franz bums a square from the girl. It’s her last one. And this time he really smokes it. But again it’s I who does the coughing. Having started smoking in the guise of Hannah, I now find myself thoroughly addicted. I can’t wait for him to take another puff. When he does, I smile with deep satisfaction.
“How about vocals?” the girl asks. “You sing at all…?”
“Aw come on, Franz,” I goad him on. “Sure you sing. Anyone can sing.”
“Would really turn me on to hear you sing,” the girl coos sweetly and caresses his cheek. “I’m just helpless around singers. And you look so soulful… I’m sure it’d be really special and beautiful if you sang.”
“You hear that Franz.”
“What about her boyfriend?”
“Who…?” she asks.
“The big guy with the oversized hands.” K says.
“Lenny’s not my boyfriend. He just thinks he is.”
“That’s good enough for me.
“You’re not scared, are you?
“You tell me,” K says and points to the door where, at that serendipitous instant, Lenny materializes larger than when he left. He leaves a wide wake behind him as he approaches us from across the room. Moreover, he lists in such a determined fashion it makes me tilt my head just to watch him walk. But his voice, when he speaks, his voice is tiny and jarringly high-pitched for such an enormous frame.
“Shithead here giving you a hard time, babe?”
I look at Kafka.
“I’m talking to you KAKA-head!”
He gets right in my face and, although intimidating and huge, it’s hard to take him seriously with that compressed castrato voice.
“Everything’s good, Lenny.”
She placates him with a kiss to the cheek and he hands her a fresh pack of smokes.
“Aww, Lenny, you got me the soft pack.”
“You know I need a hard pack.”
“How many times do I have to tell you, I can’t smoke from a soft pack.”
“Yeah shrivel nuts.” I cough.
“You say something, Shithead.”
“Who me?” I reply in an unnaturally high register.
“You laughing at me?”
“Lenny…” the girl intercedes. “Cigarettes.”
She sends him off again. Then runs after him to hand him some money. I turn to Kafka.
“You think she’s cute?”
“I like them slightly more zaftig, but yeah she’s cute.”
“Because if you don’t like her, I’d be happy to –“
“She said singing turns her on. You think she’ll blow me if I sing?”
Kafka screeches through the vocal scales and smiles proudly.
“She’ll probably blow you while you sing.” I now prod K on, hoping he’ll be a supreme failure and the girl would leave him for me. But fate doesn’t always comply with your personal agenda.
“I was planning you know to read from my new work” - he unfolds his secret pages, flutters them – “see how accessible it all is, but hey, if there’s a chance of me getting lucky here, I don’t mind singing.”
“Just think of Passover Seder and you can’t go wrong.”
It’s a new age punk band – Pharaoh’s Army - and although K’s voice is whiny, the cryptic lyrics go over big in this environment.
“This one’s for my girl in the first row!” K says, and literally spits at her.
The crowd loves it already. They especially love his German accent. The only thing better would be if he were to whip out his poorly circumcised cock and pee askance in their general direction. Instead he continues to sing:
The castle’s dark, so
dark, it lurks in the
heart, the fuckin heart.
There’s no entrance, no
escape, where the castle
looms high, shadows
suffocate ‘n sigh.
It’s the end, the end,
the beginning some
say remembers the end,
I say it is, it
K leaps fearlessly into the mosh pit and loves it. From behind some shaven heads it certainly looks like he’s getting his dick sucked but I can’t be sure. Hoisted like a fallen warrior he howls rapturously. When he returns I steal a quick look at his zipper and see that it’s indeed undone. Moreover his demeanor is sedate, tranquil and pacific. In fact, he appears almost stoned. This pillar of angst and despair has suddenly been transformed into a paragon of celestial calm; domesticated by the crowd’s fickle approval and a simple blowjob like it was the antidote to all genocide.
“To K!” The girl lifts her glass and wipes her chin. “That was some performance.”
“And Shithead!” K petitions. “Lest we forget our very own Shithead!”
“And Shithead!!” the girl enjoins.
“But I didn’t do anything.”
“You encouraged me to get out there. And that was plenty. Thank you, Shithead. I may be drunk, but I love you, Kakahead.”
“Can we stop with this Shithead business already? All night that’s all I hear from everyone.”
“Well, that’s what you are, my friend. Whether you like it or not, you are now a genuine Shithead… a Shiesskopf!” - with added relish – “Kaka-head!!”
“Fuck you, Franz!”
“I warned you. Stop calling me Franz in front of the ladies, Shithead!”
“And you stop calling me Shithead, Franz!”
At which point K grabs my shoulders and swivels me to face the mirror above the bar.
“Look there, Shithead, and tell me what you see!”
“He’s right,” the girl gently denotes in the background. “You do resemble a Manson family reject. You and Squeaky Fromme can go on a date now that she’s been paroled. You know what they say about women right out of prison. All that time they spent in confinement, much worse than the men…”
But instead of listening to the girl orate on a subject I’d normally be quite interested in, I’m now captivated by the mirror where I find the reasoned explanation to everyone’s titular amusement for the evening.
Across my forehead another letter has sadly appeared beneath the bandages I was forced to remove earlier in the evening. And for some punitive and humorless reason, the “F” I’d antipated in completing K A F K A’s overly determined anagram has been eschewed in favor of the more symmetrical and final “A” to spell the childish
K A-K A rather than the literate and progressive K A F K -.
No wonder I’ve solicited such hostile looks and ridicule all night, walking about with this malformed malediction across the marquee of my forehead. Who knows how long it’s been lurking there beneath the bandages - and for how much longer I must endure this humiliation till the final signature “F” decides to make its disordered appearance. Because till then I really am just another Shithead with K-A-K-A on his forehead.
“Let’s get outta here!” I turn indignantly away from the mirror in shame, as if it were partially to blame for the reflection it delivered. “This place is cursed.”
“But I love it here,” K insists. “And what’s more… they love me!”
“Don’t be fooled. These guys couldn’t love their own dicks on a cold winter night.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Just wait till they find out you’re Jewish and circumcised.”
“Are you?” the girl asks with a zest of prurience.
“No, you know, the other thing…”
“I’d rather not get into that right now.”
“K is very touchy about that part of his life, aren’t you?”
“See what I mean.”
“You’d be a shithead even without the stupid letters on your head.”
“You guys are fun.”
“Yeah like a barrel of monkey going over Niagara Falls,” I say.
“Take me with you. Please. This place sucks. I want to go with you guys!”
“I‘m sorry, but we can’t,” I declare officially, categorically.
“Why?” the girls pleads desperately. “Why?”
“Yeah, why…?” K echoes.
“Conference,” I reply succinctly.
“We have to prepare for The Conference.”
“Maybe I can help,” the girl implores in a final bid of self-advocacy. “I might you know be able to help you.”
“That’s what I thought when K first mentioned it. But Kafka here is very secretive about who can help, and in what capacity, aren’t you K?”
“No, you’re just very impatient.”
“You two a couple or something?”
“No, we’re not a couple, we’re on a mission.”
I study the girl who’s staring beseechingly at K as if I barely existed and try to get her to look at me by thinking really hard and visualizing with all my might that I am slowly, incrementally, turning her head towards me with the sheer strength of my mind and the pure tenacity of my spirit - but that’s just absurd childish folly, isn’t it. Best I can hope for is to be moderately tolerated while Kafka is revered like some grand beloved potentate.
“They’re holding the Conference on my birthday,” he announces airily.
“Really? Happy Birthday!” the girl gives him a quick birthday kiss which lasts much longer than need be.
“It’s no big deal,” I spoil. “They usually do that with these conferences and birthdays.”
If I can’t have her why should K be so privileged? Why should I be the eternal spectator here - first to my own life and now to his - always proofreading someone else’s work, never my own. Besides, more troubling is the begging question of where this illiterate waif would sleep and with whom if she were to join us? But I’m obviously getting ahead of myself here.
“Look,” I explicate somewhat pedantically, “in the not so great scheme of things we don’t even know where we’re going or what we’re doing ourselves, so how do you expect us to take you along?”
“I don’t care. As long as I’m away from here I’m good,” the girl resumes her plea. “Just take me. You won’t regret it.”
I realize that by continuing to deny her, I am finally getting the attention I so crave. And although it’s not necessarily the right kind of attention, I still can’t seem to stop myself.
“I don’t know,” I say tentatively, “I just don’t know.”
On one level it can be seen as an arbitrary exercise in exerting capricious power; on the other, it’s a way of keeping K in check and me in play.
“Ok. Supposing, just supposing we do take you…” I consider aloud. “What can you do? Your skills that is? Is there anything in your particular repertoire that would behoove us to take someone like you along? Make you an indispensable addition to our club?”
“I can recite every Bob Dylan song there is. Even those he never committed to paper.”
“What about something a bit more practical…”
“Like laser tattoo removal…?” K injects acridly from his corner. And he and the girl share another good exclusive laugh at my expense.
“That’s a good one,” she chortles with a few unfeminine snorts thrown in.
“It is, isn’t it?” he gasps. “A real good one.”
“You still haven’t answered the question,” I remind her soberly, wondering when Kafka even had time to read about lasers and their uses.
The girl squelches her laughter and thinks.
“Well… I am a woman, after all.”
“Well, what if you’re ever stuck in some Podunk town and you need cash to bail you out from a tricky situation, I can do things that would greatly ease the burden of your predicament.”
“Oh that’s rich. A girl who can take her clothes off.”
“That’s not what I was talking about.”
“Nothing wrong with that!” K expostulates.
“No, but I was actually thinking of something else,” she says.
“Oh, I suppose you were alluding to your often underappreciated and overlooked paralegal skills…?”
“How did you know?”
“Aww, come on!” I scoff.
“Hey, so what if I acquired them at community college! The law is still the law.”
“Ok. Fine. But can you contribute to the conversation? Elevate our patter in some significant way? If you haven’t noticed, we like to talk a lot.”
“That we do.”
“Complaining is a key factor for us.”
“It certainly is,” K confirms. “It’s what makes us human after all.”
“Hey, it’s not personal or anything. It’s just that we have this big Conference coming up and things are a bit nebulous right now, to say the least.”
The girl turns from me and appeals to Kafka by rubbing her atrophied paralegal thigh on his.
“What do you think birthday boy?” she posits divisively. “You’re the writer here.”
“Let me confer a minute with my colleague and see what we can come up with.”
She rubs more vigorously.
“Ok. But quick. Before my boyfriend returns.”
“Hey, I thought he wasn’t really your boyfriend,” I say. Then give K the impudent told-you-so look I learned from my mother when she first saw, as she tells it, my enormous head wriggling its way out from between her corpulent varicose thighs. But K remains impervious.
“He’s not really my boyfriend. But you try telling Lenny that.”
“Maybe I will.”
I follow the girl’s gaze to see Lenny darkening the doorway like it was tailored just for him. Good, I say to myself, now we won’t have to be the bad guys in rejecting her application; Lenny can take over that department.
“You wait here,” the girl cautions. “I’m going to talk to him.”
In the middle distance I watch the girl and Lenny converse in heated pantomime. He shakes his head, she pounds his chest, he points a finger, she lifts her chin. It’s like the mating ritual of some strange exotic animal; but if I make a great effort to focus I can audibly sift out some of their exchange from the surrounding din, and it doesn’t sound too promising.
“This is goodbye Lenny.”
“But that’s not fair!” His voice goes higher than usual. “I got you the hard pack.” He hands her the newly packaged smokes. “Just like you asked me to.”
She hurls them on the floor. Crushes the box viciously with her heel.
“I don’t give a shit Lenny. I really don’t.”
He takes her by the shoulders and won’t let go.
I turn to K as the girl raises her voice.
“Let go of me,” she screams. “Help! Somebody help!”
“Come on,” I entreat K. “That’s our exit line. Let’s split.”
“You want to wait outside, go ahead.” He advances in the girl’s direction. “I’m not leaving her like this.”
I’m sure that if I left now I’d feel bad - but only temporarily - and yet I can’t let K go alone. When I follow, I make sure to stay a few steps behind.
“Is there a problem here?” K asks.
Lenny squints at K and squeaks like a large balloon letting out air through a tiny valve. “You the singer…?
“Actually a writer. Tonight was my singing debut. Although I must say, it felt like I discovered my real voice tonight. After all this time.”
“Musta been nice.”
“Truly transformative,” K smiles. “Now I suggest you release this young woman if you know what’s good for you.”
“Is that so?”
“You better listen to him, Lenny,” the Girl cautions. “Franz is a real writer. He might be having a book tour soon.”
“What about Kaka-head over there?”
“Enough with the endearing diminutives, please!”
“Speak English Shithead!”
He directs his frustrated wrath on me. And I gotta say it’s pretty impressive from this close up, girlish voice notwithstanding.
“I’m sorry, Lenny, but it’s time I moved on,” says the girl.
“And where the fuck are you going?”
“With my new friends.”
“I don’t want you to go.”
“I have to. I’m sorry.”
“If you go you’ll leave me.”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”
“But I don’t want that. Lenny wants you to stay.”
He yanks the girl towards him.
K yanks back.
I step in the middle.
“Come on Franz, we should probably go now.”
“I’m not going anywhere without her.” He pivots to face the ill groomed gargantuan. “And I’m certainly not going to be bullied around by this goyisha golem.”
“What’d you call me?”
“You heard me.”
“Don’t antagonize him.”
Lenny gets in K’s face. “You calling me a gimp?”
“No. A golem, you hormonal misfit. An uninspired goyisha golem.”
“Take that back! Whatever that means, you take it back now!”
He lifts K up by the scruff of his collar like he was some despised despotic effigy, or better yet, a tantalizing piñata about to be pummeled into submission by a merciless flock of sugar starved kids.
“Just for the record. I think you’re making a huge mistake here.”
K glares at me from his newly elevated height.
“You’re one to talk with all that graffiti shit scrawled across your forehead.”
“Fine.” I step away hurt and aggrieved. “But I’m only trying to save your ass.”
“Lenny…” The girl voices her disapproval with a new finality. “I think you’ve made your point. Let him go. Now!”
“Only if you promise to stay.”
“I can’t. I told you.”
“It’s his fault, isn’t it?” He grabs the manuscript peeking out of Kafka’s pocket and chucks it across the bar. “These damn writers creep inside your head with their manifestos and won’t come out.”
“I’m warning you, Lenny. You do this and we’re over.”
“Does that mean we’re still together, baby?” He asks with dumb hopeful tenderness.
“So who’s gonna give you shade and protect you?”
“I don’t need that kind of protection anymore.”
“Yes. You. Do.”
With each word he bangs K hard against the wall; his neutered voice hitting an increasingly higher register, ready to shatter glass if necessary.
“Yes! You! Do!”
Although I see a romantic window opening for me and the girl once Lenny finishes Kafka off, I don’t want it to be at the expense of his front teeth or broken vertebra. So I step up to Lenny and appeal once again to what I hope might be his less primitive side.
“Excuse me, but I’m sure my dear friend and colleague meant no offense when, in his effusive outburst, he alluded to you as a goyisha Golem, which if truth be told, accounts for the xenophobic touch of Yiddish.” I take the opportunity to smooth out K’s lapel, after all, he is wearing my jacket. “Maybe, I’m thinking, I should take my colleague home and you should take your friend back to the cave you consider a hovel and we’ll call it a night and part ways amicably.”
“You think I’m dumb, don’t you?”
“Would I be talking like this to someone who was intellectually impaired?”
This gives him pause. And as he considers, K whispers pointedly to me.
“What are you doing?”
“Trying to save you an astronomical dental bill.”
“I don’t need your help. I’ve got it all covered.” K assures me and winks. “I’ve got a secret weapon.”
“Oh yeah? They teach you karate in the shtetel? Really worked great during those pogroms. You really showed those Cossacks a thing or two.”
“Don’t laugh, but we Jews have a secret weapon that’s incredibly potent and formidable.”
“I gotta hear this.”
Meanwhile a decent sized crowd has started to form in anticipation of the bloody festivities about to unfold. Nothing new for a place like this where the blood is more stale than the beer.
“I don’t mind getting beat up,” K whispers.
“That’s my weapon. I don’t mind getting hurt. Abused is one thing, getting beat up is another. And when you don’t mind losing, you’re already a winner!”
“Spoken like a true Jew. I’ll wait outside for the ambulance.”
“You better go with him,” K tells the girl. “This might get ugly.”
At Kafka’s behest she finally consents to join me, although she still hurries to remove my warm paternal hand
from her bare exposed shoulder. The last thing I see from the door is Kafka’s thin expectant smile as it’s about to get disfigured.