|Oct/Nov 2019 Fiction|
"Over Fifty Billion Kafkas Served." Motorists read this as they enter our city. The graffiti lettering is exceptionally neat—clear, black spray paint on green, government background. Underneath the black, the white print is barely visible. It gives the official population. "Welcome to Laston, USA. Population 2.3 mil."
Most drivers are unsure of what the welcome sign means. Are Kafkas truly served here? Are they basted with mayo, mustard, and ketchup, then smushed between two stale buns, cushioned only by a dead leaf of lettuce, pale tomato, and soft onion slice? Are they then shoved inside a carcinogenic carton, sold to fast talkers, faster eaters, as a balanced and delicious meal?
Or are the Kafkas the ones receiving the service? And if so, what are they being served? Is it licit or illicit? Luxury or economy size? I cannot deny that Laston is crowded, but could there be 50 billion consuming here? Without knowledge of our city, it is impossible to determine the exact nature of a Kafka and on which end of the service he lies. So for drivers, just passing through, it is hard to say what the road sign means.
But with 50 billion Kafkas crawling within city limits, one cannot avoid their facts. You see them everywhere. They loom and lurk all across town. They never look where they are going and appear to drift aimlessly about. I do not dismiss them as mere useless loiterers, but they often appear as if their lives hold no purpose.
To their credit, they work. Of course, it is never in a professional capacity. But believe me, they are honest folk. They prefer work in the most private sectors—the tiniest niches of society. They work as small-shop clerks and window cleaners. They clip your ticket at the theater. They check in your library books and tend to the city parks. They pour coffee and dish pastries in quiet cafes. They may sell you some fast food, but only when jobs are scarce. The lunch rush is not their setting. They work evenings and weekends rather than deal with the noisy stampede of the business herd.
For these and other reasons, you can never know their true numbers or try to take their census. Their jobs are not always stable, and their constant pedestrianism makes headcounts impossible. Bustling to and fro, they often appear in two or three places at once. They are as limitless as the shrouds of glistening glass atop the asphalt streets. Our population is listed as 2.3 mil, but 50 billion could be a better guess.
In the steamy city bustle, the sidewalks are teeming with Kafkas. Their overabundance makes mere strolling difficult and unsafe. For you cannot avoid smacking into them. If you do not push them down to the cement, these Kafkas will trip you up! Their persistence can cause you to question your own moral purpose. Often I brush one aside or slam one down, and believe me, I feel shame.
With this Kafka menace, I cannot go anywhere safely. I bump into them everywhere I turn. Last week, I floored three at the grocer, sideswiped two by the newsstand, and even thrust one into a mad dryer at my Laundromat. By the time I could rescue the victim, my man was all pathetically wrinkled and wedged up. These Kafkas wear over a hundred billion socks—is it any wonder the cleaners are full? And I profusely apologize, but they rarely respond, or they nod politely and meekly insist it was merely their very own fault!
Wrecked by these violent exchanges, I feel like a beast of prey pushing aside a bad part of flesh. A morning walk becomes a trial in itself, full of guilt, apologies, concrete prayer, and shared insurance papers. At the gym, I exercise three times a week, merely to maintain enough strength and flexibility for evading Kafkas. Believe me, I've sprained many an ankle and elbow trying to avoid these mice-like men. But I am lucky to at least possess street smarts and fitness. The city is no longer safe for weak-limbed old ladies. And the wheel-chaired Army vet? He cannot venture safely to the veteran's clinic and has no hope of claiming his disability check.
So in the summer, I avoid the Kafka obstacle course, play it safe, and stay inside. Only when sun sets and the air cools do I dare venture outside. Yes, it is then that I dart to and fro, shove and skip; I move to the middle of the street where I serpentine through the trolleys and taxis rather than risk the tragedies of Kafkafied sidewalk.
Out on such late-night pacing, I avoid all the likely places. Our city stays open late, so with care I proceed. I never venture toward the library. It is an overcrowded jail in which the Kafkas find freedom. City Hall is more dangerous than you might think. Its entry-level posts are filled with unpromotable Kafkas—they make good court reporters and tax-audit clerks. The supermarkets and restaurants? Again, Kafkas dominate the midnight shopping scene.
No, at night, I move for the zoo. If you ask the Kafkas where they go, they may name an art-house film or the museum of art. They name a coffee shop or a non-profit playhouse. But if you ask about the zoo, they shake their head no. They say the zoo is too expensive. They say the zoo is too commercial. They say the zoo is land-craving beasts confined to tiny cages. They term the zoo bourgeois and curse our civilized crime. These Kafkas step in a thousand directions, but they never make for the zoo. And that is why I feel safe and free there.
At night and alone, I take pleasure in my animal brethren. No, I do not feel implicated in the caging of wild beasts. Far from implicated, I identify with them. In a town of overfed Kafkas, this is my meager feeding time. So often, in freedom-loving running sneaks, I climb the zoo walls, escape the prison of the city, enjoy the night air and tranquility, far from the maddening Kafkas, with only primates and small mammals for peers. Once inside, I walk in peace, let down my elbows, and swing my arms, belch and fart aloud, like a man, with no fear of offending some Kafka or other crowding me in and stealing my leers. It is only then that I love city life. For where would I go in the country? Petting farms are meek and plain in comparison.
I scale the gates, slip over the iron spikes, and daringly cannonball down. I like to land bottom down in the elephant's mushy dung. It is either cushy elephantine poo or a splash in the hippo pond—but the night air can be nippy for such soaking fun. Up from my fall, I head for the small-mammal house, for these mites make my favorite mates. The tiny foxes smile at me. The African midget pigs are witty and cute. The aardvark is an old bean of like mind. When I tire of these little ones, I head for the longest necks in town.
The tall, spotted giraffes are their usual chewy selves, hanging out, swapping small talk, nibbling by the tree. Nothing appears out of scene. But between giraffe necks, I suddenly spy movement! Is it something funny or fishy? My goodness, it is a Kafka stuck in the giraffe's feeding tree! Does he see me? I do not believe he does, and so I quickly duck behind a manicured bush. What could a Kafka be doing here at this hour? I watch him climb down the giraffe's neck, hand under hand, and then leap from its waist. Once grounded, the Kafka jumps over the small moat, hops over the fence, and heads away from my bush. He does not look back, and so I fear I am safe.
Now under normal conditions, having had a brush with a Kafka, I immediately move away in the opposite direction. These Kafkas abound so, they cramp my living and hound me always. But tonight, my inner detective cat scratches for facts. What would a Kafka look for here? Is he investigating the animals? He looks as if he is into a know or onto a something. In all my years of city living, I have never spied such a snooping Kafka. Can I be certain it is not a rarer breed of man, some corporate politico or captain of industry? He certainly looks like a Kafka—but a genuine aimless Kafka doing what looks to be detective work? Damn curious, I follow.
I give him 30 paces and then match him stride for stride. We pass the rhinos and the hippos, but the Kafka barely peeks in. Inside Penguin Country, he fondles through the tuxedo-clad birds, but after a few minutes and a look of no luck, he decisively darts for the egress.
In the Monkey Village, he takes time to check the trees. I wait, crouching behind the bushy gate, watching him inspect and molest each primate, acknowledging each with a knock on the head and tug of the groin. No, none of these monkeys are what Kafka searches for.
He leads, and I follow to Bear Heaven. The Kafka skips past brown bears and raccoon bears and makes straight for Polar World. At the gate, he thrusts his head out and turns in all directions. The friendly polar bear smiles back at him and tries his best icy pond tricks. But alas! The Kafka gives him but a momentary glance. He appears uninterested in this lonely pale wretch. And all of a sudden his gaze fixes on me!
"I've got you now," his piercing stare screams. I would answer his silent knowing aloud, but I see this is futile. So to the old ways, I retreat. I walk briskly back the way I came. Past bears and monkeys, penguins and rhinos, past giraffes and elephants, past my best friends, the small animals, and straight for the big-cat cages!
He gains on me with every stride. I try to build speed, but it is hopeless. Fast-walking as fast as I can, I tear my left hamstring and then my right groin. Pop, the left calf and then the right arch. Ouch! I pull three quarters of my quads and double up with pain. Both my legs busted, the Kafka gains ground with ease. Limping and lost, I trip into the big-cat house. I cannot say why, but I want to get caught by the great tiger's cage. If this Kafka is to thrust his inhumane inquisitions upon me, I want it done right, before the striped carnivore, the queen of them all. Anything less would be a poor finale to this crazed affair.
With a last, desperate burst of groin-wrenching speed, I lunge for the tiger room, trip over a log in the road, which happens to be a homeless man's bandaged leg, and he begs a dollar as he limps about pocketing my rolling pennies, as I, too, go flying and land with a crash, my head banging off the tiger's bars, safely away from its yawning jaws and fishy breath. My Kafka man leaps upon me, straddles my midsection, keeping me down. In cold silence, we stare into each other's eyes.
"What do you want with me, Kafka?"
"Naye, I am not Kafka."
"Naye, I say. You are more Kafka than I!"
This is strange, unlikely. He claims to be no Kafka man. He asserts I am more Kafka than he!
"Then who are you?" I whisper.
"Do not pretend not to know me," he booms. "I am Turner!"
He gives me Turner. Do I not know a Turner from work?
Page Turner? Turner, Page? Yes! "Page Turner from executive accounts?"
"Indeed," he nods solemnly. "Executive accounts."
"On the mark."
"Who got expelled for profane bathroom graffiti?"
"On the mark!"
And suddenly the whole terroristic truth shines bright. This is that demon Page Turner—the man who got canned for painting upon our lavatory walls overtly lurid and obscene remarks! Over 50 billion Kafkas served in Laston, and I get a mad Page Turner on my tail, this most evil beast of prey, this man thing who ought to be caged in a zoo! In fear, I cry out as I try to shove him off.
"So you are that devil Page Turner! Does this mean I die?"
"Hah!" His ruddy mug aflame, he laughs back in my face while easily ignoring my feeble punches. His spittle strands smack off my pale lips and cheeks.
"Far from it," he hisses. "This means you are going to live."