BY GREG AMES
Kafka in his garden, cultivating begonias. He bends over them, frowning. I am seated on a lawn chair nearby, slurping a Long Island Iced Tea through a bent yellow straw. “Franz, what are we doing here, I ask you?” I ask him. He does not reply, merely spritzes the waxy leaves with the pump-sprayer in his dirt-crusted garden glove. “Guys like us,” I say, “we should be out boozing and brawling, picking up chicks.” Kafka drops to his hands and knees to inspect the soil. Then he stands with a sigh, one back-turned hand on his aching lower lumbar. “With your ears and chin,” I continue, “my biceps and hairline, we would be unstoppable, my man!” Kafka ignores me.
Kafka on his motorcycle, speeding recklessly. I am navigating from the sidecar. A crimson scarf flaps jauntily in the wind behind me. “Turn left here!” I shout. Both wearing goggles, we are headed to The Stumble Inn for chicken wings and darts. Franz is meeting a chick named Sherry. She claims to have a friend for me. “Is she pretty, Franz?” I yell over the rushing wind. “Really, I don’t want to get fixed up with a dog. She’s not ugly, is she?” Gloved fists gripping the handlebars, Kafka ignores me, and flicks his wrist. I feel the acceleration in the pit of my stomach. Buildings blur beside us. Lips moving without voices. Pedestrians, road crews, stray dogs.
At The Stumble, we meet the drunken chicks at the bar. They do not understand our jokes and witty banter. Sherry, the heavy one, has an unfortunate tattoo on her left forearm: MEATLOAF WORLD TOUR ‘82. She drinks Jack. Jasmine’s lime green tank top appears to be crusted with vomit. She says fuck a lot and hits the bull’s-eye with two out of every three darts she throws. She drinks bottled beer. We want our women to take our pain and carry it for us. We heap it on their backs like sacks of grain. They are bent double. We drive them face-first into the ground, into the dirt, into the sticky barroom floor.
Kafka pilots his motorcycle away from The Stumble. He said the wrong things again and scared the chicks away. Hunched over the handlebars, goggles strapped on, he sublimates with speed. My scarf is whipping above my head. Like a man cut free from a noose.
In the bathtub, Kafka has a death-grip on my rubber toad. “Franz, take it easy on Mister Toad, would ya?” He tosses it onto the floor. It squeaks and skids and comes to a halt near the brown wicker clothes hamper. We sit in silence. “Franz, hand me the soap, would ya?” I say at last. He blinks at me. “The soap, Franz! Hand. Me. The. Soap.” Defiantly Kafka turns his head. His bony chest and rib cage heave with each breath he takes. He gnaws his lower lip, glaring into the murky water. Angry silence. We do not look at each other. “It was my toad,” I grumble. “If it was yours, fine. But it belonged to me. You have to treat other people’s things nicer, that’s all.” Kafka ignores me.
I lack weight in his presence. I feel thin, wind-blown, flighty. We are walking side-by-side on the beach. I ask him questions that I know he can’t answer, yet I cannot refrain from speaking incessantly in his presence. “Why do dogs chase their tails? What do you make of the theory of relativity? Is it going to rain later? How’s your love life? Your hamstring? Your hemorrhoids?” I’m fumbling in my pockets for change. I’ve just purchased two Nutty Buddys, one for me, one for Franz. Now I have both ice creams in one hand and I reach out the other hand, the hand with the money, reaching out and angling my torso forward at the same time, careful not to jar my paperback loose from my armpit. “Renovations,” says the ice cream man, accepting the money from me. He nods at something over my shoulder. “Right,” I say, confused. I don’t know what he’s talking about. “Long time coming,” he says. “Yes,” I agree. He shrugs. “Tax payer dollars.” “Well.” I shrug back. “What’re you gonna do?” “Grin and bear it.” He hands me a tiny napkin. “Thanks,” I say. Walking away, I hoist my ice creams in toast. “Nice talking to you.” “You too, buddy.”
Kafka understands pain, loneliness. A man buying a couple of ice cream cones is not enough to raise Kafka’s eyebrows. We sit quietly on this wooden bench. We are licking, chewing, not speaking, watching the sun set orange over the purple pier. There is no cause to be frightened. We are safe here. No one is allowed to hurt us when we come quietly to this place. Here we’re at ease in our skin. Enjoy the ice cream, enjoy the sunlight. It’s been another good day. Women are not the key to our happiness, anyway. We need to learn to love ourselves. Solitude enhances self-awareness. Kafka nods, licking off a thin white ‘stache of vanilla ice cream. I watch his eyes. I know what he’s thinking and I turn my head. “Where?” I ask him. And then I see her too, long legs swishing together, approaching where we sit.
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