As Franz Kafka awoke one morning from fevered dreams, he found himself transformed in his Ikea bed into a gigantic Author. Later, Max Brod visited him and asked why Franz was still in the Ikea bed, and not looking so well.

“A bug,” Kafka said.

“A bug?” asked Brod.

“Flu bug,” said the gigantic Author.

“Ah, flu bug,” answered the friend.

Later still, Kafka said: “Burn all my manuscripts, Max.”

“Can’t you burn them yourself, Franz,” his dear friend said with some pique, feeling a bit put upon at this point.

“I want you to burn them for me.”

“You lazy, fucking Kraut,” Max shouted. “Get the fuck outta that Ikea bed and burn the fucking manuscripts yourself.”

“Max, Max,” the gigantic Author said, twitching. “I have a bug.”

“Quite right,” Max said. “When do you want me to burn all your manuscripts?”

“When I die,” the gigantic bug-eyed Author said.

“When is that, prey tell?”

“Anon,” Kafka answered.

Even later than when it was later still, Kafka said: “Max, Max, this bug is getting worse. I’m dying. Before I go, one more thing. I am not a Kraut. I may be a Shmuck, a Shlemazl and an Oiky Turd. But I am not a Kraut. I’m Czech. I’m a Czech, mate.”

“Checkmate,” Max Brod said, and went off to look for stick matches with which to burn the putative manuscripts of the gigantic Author.

Alone in his room, Kafka tossed furiously and turned ferociously, so big in his Ikea bed was he with the swelling of his forthcoming Fame, he knocked into walls, ripping the Ikea duvet and Ikea pillows to shreds in his Fever.

“A bug, a bug,” he said, burning up as if he himself were those manuscripts on fire.

When Max Brod returned with a box of stick matches, he said: “Now where are those manuscripts you want me to burn for you?”

But the gigantic Author did not answer, wherein he had nothing more to say. Therein Max ferreted about, looking for the alleged manuscripts. But he could not find them straight away.

“Now what the hell am I supposed to do with this Czech fiend who has gone and died because of that bug he had?” Max asked himself. “I spent a few quid on these fucking stick matches, so there had better be a bundle of fucking manuscripts to burn.”

Kafka lay there as silently as Lenin in his tomb, as iconic as Elvis Presley, as enigmatic as the Holy Ghost. Even as Brod stared at his dead friend, the dead friend’s reputation was growing bountifully and leapingly, spreading through the countryside, running along the rails of Europe, shining forth on boatloads of tourists and immigrants bound for Amerika and beyond. Even Chinese disident students read his stories aloud, as did Korean and Japanese businessmen snowbound at Narita Airport outside of Tokyo. Ghurkas kept copies of the stories in their Ghurka hats. Formula One race-car drivers in Monte Carlo sat in pitstops, holding up the race, as they thumbed through various tales by the Gigantic Author from Prague. He had become as big and mystical as the Black Madonna of Poland or the Infant of Prague. Gauchos in Argentina, loping through the Pampas, swopped favorite lines from Kafka with other gauchos. A nun in Mexico kept a copy under her black gown. A boy and girl in Kansas sat in their barn reading the stories aloud. Even presidents of large countries quoted from the stories, speaking of themselves as Bullshit Artists. A philosopher in Cambridge, England said that he read the stories and felt almost as if he were Franz Kafka. But who is Franz Kafka? he asked. No one quite knew how to answer that question. Franz Kafka was Franz Kafka, and then again he was not Franz Kafka. He was Franz Kafka.

“Who is Franz Kafka?” Max Brod asked. “I will tell you who he is. He is this lousy loafer in that Ikea bed, forever asking me to burn this, burn that. Then he pretends to die on me. He pretends to have slipped the mortal coil. Fuck him. That’s what I say. Fuck Franz Kafka.”

Max tossed the box of stick matches across the room.

“Oh, to hell with this,” he said. “Burn the fucking manuscripts yourself, you ungrateful bastard.”

With that, Max stormed out.


There was an old Irish relative, May Faherty (pronounced Farty), whose name always made us laugh, and then get smacked for laughing, and she would visit us a few times every year, along with her husband, the very silent and polite Christy.


May was short and wide and had a moony full face, not a Coole, I presume, she had to be a Hopkins from Mayo, out on the island from Queens, usually on a Sunday like this day, early in the month of May, the sun shining, flowers in blooms, everything springing forth and burgeoning, one by one.


May Farty (tittering child / smacks all around) visited us in May, that was one of her months for visitations, and then maybe in December or January. I have no idea what she did the rest of the year, but there were no children which she and the Christy (silent, broodless, courteous, invisible) had. Instead, May lavished her attention on us, bringing my mother flowers—the only time of year she received them—and ice cream for the kids, the sting of the smack softened by the coldness of the ice cream (strawberry, vanilla, chocolate)


from Breyer’s, specks of bean in the vanilla, the strawberry almost pinkish red, and the chocolate brown, we sat in the cool, sunny yard on the pink metal glider (already broken, though new), and the fantastic smell of lilacs, deep purply and blooming, in front of


the dining room window, bushes white with flowers, though the hollyhock was not going to bloom until the summer months, weeks and weeks away. May meant that one of us (this meant me) had to cut the grass with the manual lawn mower.


I also had to get the manual hedge clippers oiled, after taking them down from their perch on a wall hook in the broken down, dilapidated garage, starting my wearying journey of clipping at the front of the garage, then working down the street eastward along Lafayette,


turning at Astor Place, into the shade of the beech tree, clipping furiously until my arms felt like they might fall off, and then going inside for a glass of water to drink, only to confront May and Christy, the Fartys,


(titter, titter / smack, smack), putting on their hats, hers a spring bonnet of white and lace, and his a plain-looking fedora, one of those tweed contraptions of very rural older men. May also wore white cotton gloves with fake pearls sewn on, offering me her dainty Mayo hand to shake goodbye, with a kiss on the cheek, a peck, the smell of Chanel


#5 on the air, competing with the heavy scent of the lilac bush wafting through the dining room windows—he looks so much like a Hopkins, May says of me—only her cousin Jackie Coole is having none of these complements—he’s a bum, like his brothers, my father retorts—despite


there being no evidence to prove his character-assassinating assertion, his soul-crushing remark, smack/smack, the Fartys at the door, do I dare make—to send the two of them on their way—a wind-breaking noise, the Bronx cheer,


with my mouth, and then dash out the door, before my father could catch and throttle me good, forget the smacks, it would be worth it, wouldn’t it, Mickey Mack, only I am saved by a younger brother Terry, making a fart noise


as May and Christy Faherty leave the premises and walk the ten minutes to the train station to take them back to Queens, their journey taking them past two excellent homemade ice-cream parlors, a Swedish bakery, a funeral parlor, a religious shop, and any number of ginmills and saloons.


There is the sound of a father, strap off, pants falling about his ass, chasing little Terry Coole around the dining room table. Perhaps neither of them is aware of the smell of the lilac bush, wafting through the two windows into the tiny dining room. Terry screams for help, but everyone is outside, post-ice-cream lethargic, ignoring his pleas.


I am back to trimming hedges, the last part of it, along Astor Place, in the shade of the beech tree, only now it is too cool to work in a tee-shirt, so I have put on a sweatshirt to keep me warm, as my weary-weary arms chop-chop the hedges with the heavy blades of the newly oiled hedge clipper. The task is far from over, though. Now I must find a bag big enough to put the clipped hedge bits after I have swept them up with the outside broom.


I trim the hedges, then sweep up the bits on the ground, putting them in a large bag afterwards, hardly a bum’s work, though it is a mug’s game. There is no credit where credit is due, no thanks for the work done. I am a slave to these immigrants, these slavers. One day I will leave them for good, tying a bag of food on a stick, and walking down the train tracks away from them, the way Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin do in their movies.


Already the coolness of evening suggests itself, summer moments away, school nearly out, the old man works furiously in the tiny kitchen, banging around pots and pans, as he prepares to re-cycle the stale beer for Welsh rabbit.

“Hurt people,” she said, “hurt people.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked.

“I did not hurt you,” she said.

“But it sure feels like you did.”

“I need my own space.”

“More bullshit,” he said.

She pulled on her cigarette, then stuffed it out in the ashtray of the outdoor cafe where they sat in the near-freezing cold. The day was damp and overcast. She wore a wool short jacket and jeans, her boots and gloves, and she had a long scarf wrapped many times about her neck. Her hair was brown, long, and straight. She wore elegant round glasses, with little make-up. She was taller than he was. Her glass was half-empty with white wine.

Earlier he had joked: “Booze, it’s not just for breakfast anymore.”

“Hair of the dog,” she said, and lit another cigarette.

He wore a black roll-top jumper, a short brown leather jacket, also jeans, boots, and a baseball cap. He did not smoke. Nor did he drink alcohol. He sipped from an espresso cup, having just put a large dollop of sugar into the coffee. A large glass of water, half-full, stood next to the espresso cup.

She started to light another cigarette, then thought better of it.

“I have to stop,” she said. “I have stopped. I was stopped.”

“It’s an ugly habit.”

“You are obsessed with beauty,” she said. “I am not as troubled by the ugliness in the world. I love beautiful things, but I understand where they are situated, among, amid all this ugliness, this misery. This suffering. I want more beauty, just like you. But I am not obsessed with it. I don’t need art around me. I don’t have to be involved with the art world.”

She had been a model. At a glance, she was young and beautiful, tall and thin, stylish in her dress, urban and casual. It is what allowed her to speak the way she did. By contrast, he was old, average height, going to seed, less fashionable than she. Yet people still noticed him, perhaps his quiet intensity or his eyes. He had not yet shaved that morning.

“You’re a bloody nutter,” he said, “and you’ve ruined my life.”

“I was a catalyst,” she said. “I admit that I instigated the changes. But I did that because I could see that you were stuck.”

“It’s just work,” he said, lying, shrugging his shoulders

He was not a good actor.

“It’s what I do. Some people drive a taxi cab. I make paintings. No one even paints anymore. At least young artists don’t. I’m an anachronism, a throwback to another time when such things mattered.”

He realized that he was beginning to talk like her. He also realized that he had been disparaging his own work, ever since he first met her. He did not know why.

“Your work is beautiful,” she said. “I fell in love with your work. Then I fell in love with you.”

“And then you fell out of love,” he said.

He drank some water with his espresso. You could not drink an espresso without some water on the side. That is the way they did it in France and Italy. Now he drank some coffee. He put the cup down on the saucer. It was a small white cup. He looked at it a moment, as if he might paint it. But his painting had no cups, no objects, no people, no things. There were colors. There were shapes. His work had fields of energy. Light. Color. Magnificence. Everyone commented on it. In the presence of just one of his paintings, you felt the incredible energy of his work—and its contradictory serenity. People felt alive and well, smart and important, in a room filled with his paintings on display. You could ascribe so much to them. But it was almost impossible to say what his work was. Reviews invariably danced around the content.

He seemed to be an artist without an influence either leading up to his work or flowing from it. One reviewer called him the masterless samurai, the ronin, and that was perhaps what he was. It was as good a label as any.

“I want some time alone,” she said.

“Why?” he asked.

“To think.”

“Think?” he asked. “About what?”

“To sort things out.”

“We could go away to the south of France.”

“It’s winter.”

“So where are you going to think?”

“Away from the city.”

“In the country?”

“Isn’t that what away-from-the-city means?”

“You told me that you hated the country.”

“I’ll go to the sea.”

“The sea is not the country,” he said.

Suddenly he felt so old talking this way to her, as if he were her guardian or parent, not her future ex-boyfriend.

“You’ve been an incredible influence on everything I think and do,” she said.

“And you thank me by bolting like this?”

He sounded almost like a Borscht Belt comedian when he said that remark.

“I need perspective,” she said.

Her eyes watered up. Her nose seemed red and raw from crying. Or perhaps it was the rawness of the day. She took out a tissue and dabbed the water from the edges of her eyes. Her eyes were pale blue and shaped like almonds. At first glance, she seemed wholesomely American. At second glance, there was something far more exotic working across her face, especially her eyes. She blinked. She stared off into the distance.

“You have it,” he said.



“This isn’t easy for me either.”

“You don’t look terribly upset.”

“I’m twisted up and tight inside,” she told him, holding her stomach as she spoke. For a moment, she looked as if she might be sick at the table. Then she composed herself.

“Let’s go to a hotel and make love one last time.”

“That’s the last thing we need to do,” she said. “You need to work. You need to get back to your work. You need to reflect yourself. You need time by yourself.”

“I need to fuck you one last time,” he said. “We could go around the corner to my studio.”

“I have a ticket to leave this afternoon,” she said, and then drained the glass of white wine. “I’m flying home to see my family for a few days, then I’ll decide what to do next.”

“Let me paint you.”

“You’re not that kind of painter.”

“I could become that kind. You could take off your clothes and lay down on that settee I have. I could drape some sheets over the furniture, and you could stretch out across it. I’d create a point of light coming through the skylight.”

She looked at her wrist watch. Then she took it off.

“I need to give this back to you.”

“It’s a trifle,” he said, although he knew that he had spent more than a thousand dollars to purchase it.

She pushed it across the table to him. He pushed it back her way.

“It’s a gift.”

“The last thing I need is to feel indebted. I want to get on my own, free of everything.”

“I thought that the last thing you needed was to have sex with me one more time. Now you’re saying that the last thing you need is to keep a fucking watch I gave you. Which one is it?”

“I have to go,” she said. “It’s getting late.”

She stood to leave. The watch lay on the table. She leaned over to kiss him goodbye. As she stood, the blood rushed to her head and she felt tipsy from the glass of white wine so early in the morning. She lost her balance, and her kiss landed on his forehead, far away from his lips.

He pulled her down by the shoulders and whispered, “You bitch, you fucking bitch.”

“Let go of me,” she said, pushing him back into his chair.

“I loved you,” he said, as she walked quickly away from the outdoor cafe.

After she had gone, he looked at the woman’s wrist watch on the table. He picked it up, examined it, then thought of throwing it across the road. He stuffed it into his jacket pocket.

It was the first time that he realized how cold it had been, and that he should be sitting inside with the other customers of the cafe. Once she was gone, he ordered another coffee, not moving, though. He zipped up his leather jacket, pulled out a scarf and knotted it around his neck. The watch almost slipped out of his pocket, so he placed it into an inner pocket of his jacket, and then buttoned the pocket closed. He pulled his baseball cap lower down on his ears, although his ears felt cold. He had noticed, the other day, looking in a mirror, that while his eyes had not gotten bigger with age, his ears had. He tightened the hangman’s knot of the scarf, trying to trap the warmth inside his leather jacket. He put on a pair of leather gloves.

His ears might be bigger, but his eyesight was still very good. He had the eyes of a hawk or an eagle, with great clarity, even at a distance. He had a keen sense of smell too, which explained why he was such a good cook. His hands were strong. He had taste, whatever that might be. At least for now he was deemed tasteful, a great artist, some said. It was all a bunch of rubbish, he thought. He liked to paint, and did it well. He enjoyed people, always had. He enjoyed the city, this downtown world, even as the shops changed, the rents went up, the artists left for other climes. This was where he fit in and belonged. It was home, where he painted, where he made art.

He saw a certain color inhabiting a certain pattern and instead of reaching for it, he decided to let it elude him. That was not like him at all. But he was not feeling like himself at the moment. He felt deflated and alone, not confident. Everything was uncertain. Even the way he made art seemed questionable.

A young woman stepped up to his table. In a more cynical moment, he might think that she was almost a cookie-cutter carbon copy of the one who had just left. But this one had a broader smile. There was less moodiness about her than the other. The one who had left was demanding of him in ways that no one had ever been. This one had an open energy, full of life. He picked up that bit of her aura immediately. He was a very intuitive person, rarely wrong, although he had been dead wrong about the other. He could almost sense all of this person’s love. Her tenderness. Perhaps he was projecting too much. He looked her in the eyes.

There was nothing exotic about her face, and he could tell from her accent that she came from the Midwest, maybe Chicago.

“I’m sorry to bother you,” she said.

“That’s all right,” he said, smiling. He was weary, tired, but still charming. He had new teeth too. Why not smile? They had cost him a fortune, and the implants took months to take hold. There were complications. He had to switch dentists midway, though the new dentist proved infinitely better than the previous one, and was even cheaper than the first one.

“Are you—“ and she said his name.

He confirmed that he was whom she thought he might be. He was the painter. Sit down, he said. She could not. Friends were inside. He offered to buy her a drink, but she declined. She said she had to go to work today. It was a holiday, he said. I know, I know, she answered, that’s what I told my boss. She laughed in a way that had a clarity of expression, an open channel, from deep in her belly. He wrote down his telephone number on a napkin, and handed it to her.

“I’m being forward,” he said.

“And I am backward,” she confessed. “I should never have bothered you.”

“My studio is around the corner. Come by to see the new work.”

“That’s so kind of you,” she said.

She did not know why, because she was never like that, but she leaned over the table, and kissed him, right on the lips.

“I’ll call you soon—tomorrow. Maybe later today.”

“That would great,” he said.

She ran inside the cafe, clutching his number. He hadn’t even asked her name. What was her name? he wondered, as she drifted into the back of the cafe and out of sight. Perhaps she had mistaken him for someone else. But, no, she had said his name. His name was unusual. There would not be two artists with that name. He had an exotic past, well, his parents and grandparents had. He was the product of the suburbs, of parochial education, of four years of college, two years in the military, several years in business before he realized that he wanted to paint, that he always did paint whenever he had time by himself. He had had a small show downtown in his twenties. For whatever reasons, it had been received quite well, with lots of press coverage. The show sold out, and he wound up being represented by a prestigious uptown gallery, the same one that still represented him forty years later.

He sipped the new coffee. Then he drank some water. It was how it was done, at least on the continent. They drank the coffee, then they drank the water. He did the same. It was less upsetting for the stomach. It did not make him edgy afterwards. Though he did not smoke, he wished he had a Cuban cigar to smoke. But he did not smoke and he did not have a Cuban cigar. They were still banned in America, though he knew of several places downtown that could get you a few of them for a price. They came in from Canada, he was told.

He looked to the horizon.

The last thing he needed was a new girlfriend. The last thing that young woman needed was to know me, he thought. He sipped more coffee to get warm. But it was now too cold out for the coffee to work. He called for his check and paid up. He left a big tip. He always did. He had the money now. He walked back to his studio around the corner, thinking that he might do some painting today. It would be the first time in months that such an urge had taken hold. She had preoccupied all of his waking thoughts. He had not been so obsessed about another person since he was a young man.

There was a potbelly stove in the center of his studio, and his assistant would be there before going off to his other job. Perhaps the assistant had the stove on, to get the place warm. He liked to work in a tee-shirt, unencumbered, so he needed the stove in full operation on a blustery day like this one. He was not one for the cold anymore. But then other things preoccupied his mind than the weather. Shapes, and then colors, flitted past his eyes. The last thing he needed was another girlfriend.


In a place called the Prose Cafe, I dreamed I would write down my most inward and deep thoughts.


It was across the street from my periodontist, Dr. Payne.


I imagined that I would write essays, stories, chapters of books.


There were no poets in the Prose Cafe.


Dr. Payne sometimes sat at a back table, scribbling notes for his future novel.


The nurse who worked for Dr. Payne sometimes went there on her lunch hour, making imagined drawings of the patients, naked and writhing in pain.


A tramp sometimes went into the Prose Cafe to ask for money.


The proprietor, a woman from Budapest, gave him some coins and asked him to leave.


I am a prose master, he said.


I’ll call the police, she said.


Prose runs in my veins, the tramp said. I was not always a tramp. I once had honors and degrees. There were twelve letters after my name. I wrote a treatise on Henry James.


The proprietor of the Prose Cafe drew an espresso for the tramp.


They sat and discussed the felicities of Camus’ prose as compared to Nietzsche’s prose.


The proprietor took a fancy to the tramp, and asked him to come live with her.


One day he asked her to change the name of the place to the Poets’ Cafe.


They had a row.


The end result was a new cafe called Sergio’s.


No writers were allowed in Sergio’s.


The only customers were mothers with strollers and their children in the strollers.


Students sometimes frequented Sergio’s.


Dr. Payne began to drink coffee in a nearby cafe called Pensive Charlie’s Last Thoughts.


The nurse became a nude model at the local art school and gave up drinking coffee entirely.


Sergio’s is now in its fifth year.


The periodontist has given up his practice and taken up sculpture.


The tramp moved out of the owner of Sergio’s back room and found himself a snug on a boat in the harbor.


The proprietor of Sergio’s talks about going back to Budapest.