Dreaming of Kafka
Lactantius said, “Ignorance of a man’s self,
and the wont of knowledge wherefore and to what end he is
born, is the cause of error, of evil…of forsaking the light
to walk in darkness.”
Mr. Kalbec is soon to retire from a company that
manufactures ball bearings, where he advanced over the years
from a packer of parts, to an inspector, to a machine operator,
and finally to a set-up man for other machine operators. In
his pocket is forty-three cents. His daughter Phoebe is herself
a mother, of three girls. She tells them stories of the grandmother
she never knew and shows them black and white photographs
of a beautiful young wife and mother wearing a checkered shirt
with jeans. The woman in the photograph has full, dark lips
and a white smile. Another photo shows her more closely. She
is holding a baby. Her lips look black upon the child’s fat,
white cheeks; sexy, like punctuation. Mr. Kalbec has read
Skvorecky and Svetla and has thought about the deportation
of a million Lithuanians from their homeland and about the
liquidation of the Crimean Tatars. He used to show the same
photographs to Phoebe, and say, “This was my mother. She played
the piano and sang and danced like an angel. She loved asparagus.”
Phoebe could read whole sentences at two and
a half. Her mother, Mr. Kalbec’s young wife Anezka, taught
her this, and played Saties’s Gymnopdie for her on the piano.
In the afternoons, Phoebe and Anezka would have make-believe
tea parties, where Anezka would read to her daughter the poetry
of Emily Dickinson, and Phoebe’s tiny mouth would tacitly
form the name over and over, “Emily, Emily, Emily….” When
Mr. Kalbec would arrive home, late from his factory shift,
he would immediately go to Phoebe’s room to smell the sweetness
of her breath in the air. Now, all these years later, the
sound of his lunch pail as he places it on the kitchen counter
echoes through the dark hallways and empty rooms. The smell
of machine oil makes itself at home like a fat cousin.
He is thinking about Chotkovy Sadie, the park
in which Kafka took long walks, in which he too hopes to take
long walks, to view the islands and the bridges of the Vlatva.
In bed he tries to dream of the city of alchemists, but inevitably
the same dream/memory plays itself out:
He is fourteen, just getting home from school.
The air is hot and thick with the scent of catalpa trees.
He walks up the long driveway. For some reason the back door
is locked. He cups his hands over his eyes and presses his
face to the screen to peer inside. What he sees turns day
to night and time inside out. He runs to the front of the
house, climbs the porch and breaks the window to get in. He
rights the toppled chair and stands on it trying to lift his
mother’s body above the door frame from which it hangs. As
the torn sheets come loose, she is too heavy for him, and
they fall to the floor. Her shoulders and head lie upon his
lap. Her legs are askew and lifeless. The torn sheets around
her neck, white with pink roses, look like a scarf; her skin
is the pale blue of a robin’s egg. Minutes or hours go by.
In his hand he holds his pocket change, which he counts over
and over, entranced by the variant weight and density, color
and shine of one dime, one quarter, one nickel, and three
It is one of those hot summers where each smell
is as distinct as its Latinate etymology.
The neighbors are all out in their yards in yellows
and whites, and the chiaroscuro is
A man is throwing darts at a circular target
mounted upon the wooden door that leads to the cellar stairs;
the musky cool air, pungent with the dark fumes of the oil
furnace is kept at bay. Each dart makes a thud as it enters
the cork board or a ping if it hits one of the
metal ringed striations.
The man is shirtless in baggy chinos. He has
the compact body of a pugilist, of a welterweight, with a
Chesterfield between his lips as he concentrates on the target.
The smoke is both sweet and acerbic as it curls and dissipates.
He is lost in battle against himself; a place
he seems content, and for once, not angry.
The skill and luck combine in mathematical destinies
of infinite variation.
This is leisure time. The televisions are black
and white in wooden cabinets. The cars
are huge and zaftig with shiny chrome and white
wall tires. This is his leisure time; a respite from the woodshop
and the factory.
Each throw of the dart is a yearning to succeed,
to overcome the odds.
As one gets closer to the board, where the darts
are retrieved over and over, it becomes evident that each
piercing, each separating of the cork, even though the material
contracts, leaves a slight hole, a pock mark, a scar.
The black and yellow circle, with its numbers
from one to twenty, and its concentric metal wires diminishing
to a tight bull’s-eye provides a center to an expanding universe,
irrepressible modernity, and memories too horrible
He will throw his darts, over and over, for several
more years, never really noticing the
thousands of tiny holes that will never close.