A Quiet, Clean, Well-Lighted Place

 

sabrina’s3350918537899816322..jpg

It was late and everyone had left the café except for me. I was sitting at a sidewalk table in front of the window and could watch the passersby on their way home. A tree sat a few feet from me in a large round pot casting a shadow over the empty table sitting next to it. A slight breeze gently moved the leaves on the tree. There was enough light to read by. I liked to sit late at night in this café and read and drink my whiskey and soda in peace. It was quiet now that all the other customers had left. There only remained two waiters, one old like me and the other young. The younger one seemed impatient to go home. Probably had a wife to go home too. That was not the case for me or I suspect the other waiter.

Last week I attempted suicide.

Why, you may ask?

Loneliness, despair, I don’t know. Just couldn’t stand the pain of going on.

It wasn’t for lack of money. No, no, I have plenty. There just didn’t seem to be any point going on. I was saved at the last minute by my niece who cut me down. I’m not sure she did me any favors.

I noticed out in the street a soldier and a girl walking briskly by. They better get home soon, I thought, or they will be out past curfew and have to pay the price. Hope he gets what he wants.

I signaled the waiter for another drink.

The younger waiter sauntered over.

“What will you have?”

“Another whisky and soda.”

“You’ll be drunk.”

I just looked at him. He went away.

The two waiters were huddled together at a table near the door. They were whispering. Probably talking about me I thought. Probably want me to go. Well, I’m not ready to go.

The waiter went to the bar and poured a shot of Woodford into a tumbler of ice and spritzed it with soda water. He carried the drink outside to where I was sitting. He placed the drink in front of me and said, “You should have killed yourself last week.”

He probably thought I couldn’t hear what he was saying as I am practically deaf. But I hear well enough in a quiet environment.

The waiter went back into café and sat down with his work mate. They began whispering again. Probably think I’m drunk and need to leave, I thought. Oh, well, I’ll stay a little longer and have one more for the road. I had a wife once. She left me long ago.

I like this place. It is clean, well-lighted, and quiet.

I motioned to the waiters for another drink.

“Another whiskey and soda, amigo.”

“No,” the young waiter said. “You’re done. Time to go.”

“Another,” I insisted.

“We are closing now.” He began to wipe the table clean with his towel.

I slowly stood up, looked at the bill he had unceremoniously laid on the table.  I pulled my cash from my pocket and paid the bill, leaving a modest tip.

I walked down the street away from the café slowly, a bit unsteadily, but with as much dignity as I could muster. I could feel the eyes of the two waiters burning a hole in my back. I wasn’t ready to go home yet. I didn’t want to face my dark room and the empty bed. One more drink, I thought. There must be some place open tonight. Only thing was, they would unlikely be as clean and well-lighted or as nice as this last one was. I didn’t want any music. No, I really couldn’t stand to listen to any music. And it would be difficult to stand with dignity in front of a bar. What was it I wanted? Just a clean, quiet, well-lighted place. What was it I had? A whole lot of nothing. I faced a cold void, full of nothing. A darkness. Deliver us from nothingness.

I came to a bar that was open and stood at the counter.

“What will it be?” asked the counter man.

“Nothing. I’ll have a cup of nothing.”

“What, are you crazy, old man?”

I laughed.

“I’ll have shot of Tequila, then. Patron.”

“This is a very bright place you have here,” I said, “and it is very pleasant, but the bar needs cleaning.”

The counterman gave me a look, but did not speak. It was too late to talk.

“You want another shot?” he asked.

“No thanks,” I said and left.  I dislike bars and dirty cafes. A quiet, clean, well-lighted place is a different matter altogether.

Now, I will go home. I will lie in my bed and fall asleep just as the day is breaking. I am probably not the only one who has trouble sleeping, I thought to myself, as I walked the six blocks back to my apartment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

KAFKA

The Metamorphosis

metamorhosis

 

My step daughter Kim visited me recently. As is our wont to do we had a literary discussion about books and what books influenced us and why. Of course we talked about Hemingway and Camus. But then we landed on Kafka. What, she wanted to know, made me like Kafka so much?

Well, that gave me pause. I allude to Kafka a lot in my writing and in my conversations with people but is has been awhile since I last read his works. The best I could come up with was that I identified with his sense of alienation and absurdity and the bureaucratic nightmare that modern man seems to live under as depicted in his works. I got to thinking. Why else? Well, it had been about 40 years since I last read Metamorphosis, so I decided I would reread it.

I had it in my library. It was the original copy that I had read in the 1970’s. But the book wasn’t in very good condition. The pages had yellowed, there was mold or something growing on the frontispiece, and the spine was cracked and coming apart in the middle. I decided I needed another copy. So, I did what any respectable book buyer might do, I went on line. I found a book and ordered it. Not wanting to wait the two days for its arrival I decide to download a copy to my Kindle so that I could start reading right away.

Now, I remember the first time I read The Metamorphosis, as I say, some 40 odd years ago. I had taken the book along with me on a visit to the emergency room. I had just crashed my motorcycle and broken my leg. The attending physician looked at the book I was reading as I was waiting to be examined. He looked at the book, then looked at me, and then looked at the book again. “Pretty heavy reading isn’t it?” He asked.

Well that may give you an example of the absurdity of my existence up to that point right there.

As I remembered in the book, Gregor Samsa woke up one morning to discover he had been transformed into a gigantic bug. As I remembered it was a cockroach. I had already been disabused of that notion long ago and realized it was a beetle. Now when I stated reading my kindle edition it said “vermin.” Well that wasn’t good enough for me. I needed to see “beetle.” So, I decided I’d wait for the actual book to arrive. It came and I started in to reading it. I came to the fateful passage and it read “verminous bug.” Still not good enough! But I read on. This could go on forever, I thought. I guess there was something lost in translation or in my memory. Speak memory!  Later on in the book there was a passage that referred to Gregor as a “dung beetle.” Now, feeling gloriously vindicated, I read the rest of the story in a condition of sublime justification.

Now that I have reread the story I feel that I can speak definitively as to what the book says to me. The story reflects thematically on feelings of alienation, anxiety, and guilt, which pretty well sums up man’s absurd relationship to the world in which he lives and one I have very much identified with ever since I can remember. The story operates in a random, chaotic, and absurd universe, as do we all. Do things happen for a reason or do they befall us purely by chance? That is the question Kafka seems to be exploring in this surrealistic story of transformation.

Another thing I like about Kafka is his take on the kinds of books to read and by extension the kinds of books to write. I also believe this can be applied to other types of art as well.

In a letter to a friend he says: “I think you should only read books that bite and sting you. If the book we read does not wake us with a blow to the skull, why do we read the book? To make us happy as you write? My God, we would be happy if we had no books, and such books that make us happy, we could write to the emergency. But we need the books that affect us like a misfortune that hurts us a lot, like the death of one we loved rather than us, as if we were going into forests, away from all people, like a suicide, a book must be the ax for the frozen sea in us.”

THE INTERROGATION

20180327_201605752262193.jpg

“Step this way please, Mr. Quarry.”

I had always known this day would come. As soon as I had stepped through the stainless steel and plate glass portals I had a premonition of dark design: today I would be chosen. This clouded my thinking as I walked through the aisles.

They had been tracking me for the last thirty minutes on closed circuit TV. They don’t bother to hide the cameras anymore, everyone knows about them by now. Even though the remote monitoring had been going on for years a strange creepy feeling still filled the senses. Someone somewhere was watching.

The excursion itself, however, proved pleasant enough. Items were skillfully arrayed in a myriad of colors. This all served to make one momentarily forget about the guard dogs, armed security, cameras and microphones. I pushed my thoughts of impending doom to the back of my mind and for a while was at peace.

Peace was not long lasting however and my dark thoughts came crashing back as we queued up to leave at the check point center. After my selections were placed in a brightly colored plastic container I was approached by a young uniformed girl.

“May I see your identification please?” she cheerily inquired.

They’re trained to do that. To act cheerful. I reached into a pocket and retrieved my wallet. I withdrew the required paperwork and handed it to her. She studied it carefully for a moment, frowning, then she spoke.

“Step this way please, Mr. Quarry.”

Damn! I hate this! I follow her through a maze hallways and tunnels, my heart pounding wildly in my ears. Finally, we arrive at the interrogation center located deep within the recesses of the building.

It is a long narrow room with double doors at either end. Fluorescent tubes over head flood the room with rays of light that glance from white wall to white wall. From floor to ceiling, completely filling the room with dazzling brightness. The room is devoid of furniture or fixtures save five orange molded plastic chairs that lined the wall closest to where we entered.

“Remove your clothing please,” the girl commands in solemn tones.

I hesitate a moment, feeling a bit shaky, and not really believing this was happening to me, but this was my first time. I just stare blankly into her dull grey eyes.

“Remove your clothing please,” she repeats, a little more harshly now than before.

I begin disrobing slowly and she smiles her approval. She watches with seeming disinterest. Probably does this all day I think to myself as I step out of my trousers. I hand my clothes over to her in a bundle. She glances hurriedly over my naked body then she searches through my clothing. Apparently satisfied that I have nothing to conceal she returns my apparel and announces that I am to get dressed again.

“You can’t be too careful these days,” she says. “Please be seated. Someone will be with you in a minute.”

After I finish dressing I sit in one of the chairs against the wall. I am only sitting there a few minutes when the double doors at the other end of the room burst open. I am suddenly joined by a middle-aged professional looking man in a long white lab coat closely followed by a younger man in a similar coat pushing a two- tiered cart laden with various pieces of electronic apparatus. The two men had apparently been catapulted together down the long corridor preceding the double doors which even now are still swinging on their hinges.

“Good day, Mr. Quarry. I am afraid we are going to need some additional information.” This from the middle-aged man. “If you will be so kind as to bring one of those chairs over here to the center of the room, we can begin our session.”

I comply with his request as the younger man proceeds to engage his equipment. A pneumatic tube is wound tightly across my chest. Around my arm, just above the elbow, a heavy canvas band is wound tightly into place, constricting the flow of blood in my arm and measuring its pressure. To the tip of my middle finger a shiny silver electrode it taped. This to measure body temperature. I am now wired to the polygraph machine. The young technician finally plugs the electrical cord into the waiting outlet box in the floor and flips the switch, thereby breathing life into the machine. Needles become erect on their respective dials and a low barely audible hum indicates that the machine lives.

“Now Mr. Quarry, a few test questions to calibrate the machine to your particular bodily reactions.”

My interrogator stands behind me a little to one side. His presence is known to me only as a disembodied voice coming to me over my right shoulder. His questions are simple at first. What is your name? Did you ever steal money from your parents as child? And so on. The came the pertinent questions.

“Your place of employment?”

“River City Mutual.”

“Length of service?”

“Two Years.”

“Income?”

“$45,000.”

“Your wife’s name?”

“Rebecca.”

“And your wife’s place of employment?”

“General Computers.”

“And your wife’s income?”

“$55,000.”

I let go with a little laugh after this, but there was no reaction from anyone else in the room, but the machine. Its arcing stylus bleeds red ink onto the moving graph paper.

So the questioning goes, probing into all areas of my life. A list of personal property is given. A list of friends and relatives is given. Finally, it is over. I had begun to hyperventilate. My left arm is numb. My body fairly floats in perspiration. The skin at the back of my skull crawls with anxiety. I stagger to my feet having come through the ordeal, much to my surprise, alive.

“Miss Jones will escort you back up front,” I am informed.

The interrogation unit disengages its equipment and disappears through the same double doors from whence it came. Simultaneously the same girl that had brought me here reappears at the opposite end of the room. She holds the door open and beckons me to follow.

“This way please, Mr. Quarry,” she says.

We pass through the same series of hallways and tunnels until we arrive once again at the check point center. We wait a few moments at the desk. A phone rings. Miss Jones answers. Stone face. She replaces the phone in its cradle then flashes a smile in my direction.

“Your check has been approved, Mr. Quarry. Here are your purchases. You may exit the store now and thank you for shopping at S and M.

END