Franz Kafka moved in with me today. His hair is greasy with the slime of the grave. His bald pate, colored like a palm tree in the middle of an oasis of hair, shakes dandruff sequins from the desert mirage onto the floor. His hollow eyes, the size of a vulture’s balls, penetrate me.
“Franz,” I say, “what are you doing at an hour like this? You should be in bed.”
Franz winks and smiles wide, revealing what remains of his two teeth. They are the color of ointment extracted from a baby’s behind three days after its deposit.
“Franz, why don’t you talk to me? Speak. That’s what you were born to do.”
“I’ve been talking all my life,” he says, “but no one listened. In death it’s too late to speak.”
After the fact. Poor boy. He never looked like a man. There he sits, in a Halloween costume: a white sheet with boogie monster eye-slits beneath his forehead, trapped inside a boy’s body, frozen at the age of twenty-two.
“Franz, I feel sorry for you. You’re stuck inside a boy’s body. You look twenty two.”
“If you’d let me marry you,” he continues with my rhyme, “I wouldn’t be so blue.”
“That’s cheap. You can do better than that. Stick to prose in the future. We’ve made great strides since your time in the realm of poetry, and you don’t stand a chance of catching up with us.”
“And what about prose?” he asks.
“The novel—alas the novel!—always lags behind. You’re still ahead of us in that area, bro.”
He seems to think it strange that I speak with him on such familiar terms, my being a woman and all, but I explain to him the sexual revolution and finally flickers comprehension’s light bulb.
“It’s simple,” I say. “The world has changed in unfathomable ways since you were born. War didn’t even have a shape back then. Now it resembles a blob of chewing gum that expands as you add one more blob to the mixture. We keep chewing, chewing, chewing, until some nasty fink comes along and rips it out of our mouth.”
“When will that happen?” he asks.
“When the world ends,” I say. “Nuclear war.”
“How come you know all this?” he asks. “How can you sound so certain?”
“It takes practice, bud.” I lean against him to make him smell the beer on my tongue, the froth still fresh on my lips. “I have a talent for truth.”
“Women were certainly different in my day and age. They were more delicate. I liked them better then.”
“Me too,” I say.
Franz keeps me up, in the middle of night, refusing me sleep. I tell him that I deserve sleep, having worked all my life. He disagrees. Posterity always wins. Franz is a talker. I’m a listener. His steady voice grates heavy on my ear, an ax that hurts so much that finally I ask him what’s the point.
“The point of what?” he says, confused. This is the first time that I have interrupted him in the middle of a speech.
“The point of writing,” I explain. “The point if it doesn’t redeem your pain.”
“Easy,” he says. “The books we need are the kind that act upon us like a misfortune. They make us suffer like the death of someone we love more than ourselves. They make us feel as though we were on the verge of suicide—”
“Franz,” I interrupt again, worried, “why do you say that?” He ignores me.
“—lost in a forest remote from human habitation. A book should serve as an ax for the frozen sea within us.”
Now that he’s coined a phrase I don’t think he’ll ever shut up. Franz’s voice is a lonely trumpet in the middle of the sea, but his loneliness is a matter of indifference to him, as well as, perhaps, to me. Franz keeps talking.