Stefan Michael Ziewacz

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 pennies.

Middle Age

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

slightly overexposed.

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 to suppress.

He will throw his darts, over and over, for several more years, never really noticing the

thousands of tiny holes that will never close.


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