Classic Kafka

Hey folks, rumor has it this collection of short stories is about to go out of print! So if you’d like a copy now might be your last chance. And just for fun here is a favorite with the readers from that collection.

Classic Kafka

We all meet at the parapsychology specialist’s house. A spacious bungalow just a few minutes north of San Francisco, tucked away in the rolling headlands. It has a nice view of one corner of the Golden Gate Bridge, visible from the back deck where we set up the photo shoot.

The air is limpid and wet with the smell of mulching leaves, although it is still August. Lindy Sunnucks, our patron from the Banana Republic division of  Gap Inc, is already here, checking her Blackberry, eating a muffin and sipping a Grande beverage. She is all smiles, but only with her mouth, not her eyes. She eyes me and Ashley from beneath her blond bangs, like a mistrustful sheepdog. She has the wary look that people affect when they don’t know what to do with themselves. I probably do too. We exchange greetings. Some small talk and then I let myself stare off to sea. Ashley has already set up his tripod facing the pin-striped, blue-on-beige chaise lounge and now he is snapping pictures of the scenery out of idle restlessness while we wait for the specialist, a stout bald man in a black turtleneck, to finish with his collection of machinery. Little black metal boxes that could have been props from any science fiction movie.

Ashley blows chemtrails of nicotine around the patio and takes pictures of the empty sky. We drove down together last night from the Wieden + Kennedy headquarters. I did all the driving. I feel tired and I am nervous – we all are ­– this ad, if we pull it off, could mean big promotions all around. Even though it is really my brainchild I feel 100% useless at this point; I’m just the idea guy, and once you have the idea there is not much else to do. Ashley will take the photographs of this ghost I haven’t read – except that one about the cockroach that everybody has to read in high school. After much debate we settled on him, for the long Czech eyebrows and soft, expressive brown eyes, mournful as a doe’s, and a hip but noncommercial cultural cache that holds resonance with our target demographic(s). Somebody else will do the layout and still somebody else will come up with a simple byline for the ad. Simple Kafka. Or Classic Kafka. Khaki Kafka. Something like that. Lindy Sunnucks is actually quite the bigwig over at Gap Inc. these days. I worked with her before, on the Spring 2007 North America men’s magazine ads for Banana Republic. They have headquarters here in the Bay Area, which is why we are doing the shoot down here as opposed to say Ireland or Mexico City, where there are some better established and cheaper parapsychologists. Like me, Sunnucks is probably just here to get some extra-credit points. We will simply take the photos and then go home. The parapsychologist says the whole thing won’t take longer than ten minutes.

We had talked about trying to actually film the summoning as a TV commercial but decided against it. Too risky – too many unknown variables that could backfire and prove costly. Once the other ad agencies get wind of this feat the dead celebrity (or whatever, famous historic personage?) spirit endorsements will be endless.

I watch the S.F. bay lap against rolling, distant hills like a monotonous postcard and imagine the possibilities for the next Super Bowl: James Dean drinking a Coke, Albert Einstein gumming a McDonald’s chicken nugget, Audrey Hepburn recommending a tampon,  Elvis Presley dancing with an Ipod from beyond the grave. The opportunities are infinite. Lincoln! Malcolm X! Beethoven! Van Gogh!

Ashley begins to snap pictures of me staring moodily at the bridge. I hate being photographed – no matter what I do I feel like I am posing.

“You know that bridge right there has more suicides jumping off it each year than anywhere else in the world,” Ashley tells me. He’s the kind of guy who always manages to announce the factoids that you have already heard. Good photographer though. He continues, “Now if only I could get all of those ghosts to show up at once it would make for a great picture.”

“But what would you be selling?” Lindy asks.

Nobody answers that, so I say, “Maybe that is why this guy does what he does here – enough people use this spot as a, um, gateway? It’s like an airport or a hiking trail, more usage equals more accessibility.”

Lindy laughs although I meant nothing as a joke. It is getting very windy.

“We are ready, then, lady and gentlemens?” Mr. Fisher, the parapsych guy says with his phony sounding accent.

Ashley nods, tosses his cigarette into the ocean. Mr. Fisher, grimacing, leads us over to his well prepped summoning area – a large square granite surface on the deck that could be mistaken for a helicopter landing pad – but instead of a landing target it is painted with an encircled and rune covered pentagram drawn in red chalk. In the center is  the carefully, casually arranged chaise lounge. I get the feeling the process is equal parts new-fangled technology, cutting edge physics, old school witchcraft, and luck.



Mr. Fisher begins muttering in hushed tones and approaches the chaise lounge slowly, almost reluctantly, he switches back and forth between English, German and something I’ve never heard. He has stuffed the clothes we selected for the photo shoot with crumpled paper torn from books into the carefully arranged outfit: the newest line of khaki pants (they look the same as always) and the brown Oakbluff Oxfords, the Prince of Wales stripe shirt (slim fit), the Heritage solid grey suit vest and the charcoal moleskin topcoat. I realize that we didn’t think to provide underwear.

Now I’m thinking the stripes of the shirt blend nicely with the Chaise Lounge, and are offset by the garland of Hydrangea but that the dark coat really doesn’t go with those pants, but oh well – who gives a fuck?

The whole ensemble is stuffed just like a scarecrow with the wadded up pages of Kafka’s books. Dozens of gutted hardback copies of “Kafka: The Complete Stories” lie cast about the perimeter like dead salmon.

Mr. Fisher is muttering lines from the scraps of paper as he tucks and primps the scarecrow with a few last minor adjustments. Then he squints at us over his shoulder, “One of the pages in the center of the effigy is an original handwritten letter to Max Brod,” he tells us, “and I assure you it was very hard to acquire, but in order to summon, one must always sever something created by the subject’s own hand . . . ah yes gentlemens, destroy it . . . which is what he wanted.”

Mr. Fisher returns to his incantations, lighting the manikin on fire here and there with long wooden matchsticks.

“Oh to be a red Indian,” he murmurs, his eyes open only a thin crack, his dry tongue flecking in and out from his lips, he looks turtlelike.

“It seems dreadful to stay a bachelor . . .” he croaks.

And, “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from an uneasy dream.” And, “Our singer is called Josephine, anyone who has not heard her sing does not know the power of song.”

And so on.

The papers catch flame all at once and the specialist darts back out of the ring like he lit a firework, as he kicks on the generator switch with his toe, all without turning his back on the circle. Then, satisfied, he folds his arms and waits, watching expectantly.

We watch as the flames smoke and crackle and the coldness of the Pacific seems to gather over our heads in opposition to the small fire. The stuffed suit is rolling with flames orange and then blue. The fire consumes the papers and passes through the clothing invisibly, in a convulsion the flames ripple and gather underneath the cloth,  leaving only an ashy glow and there sits before us a pale, young man with glittering eyes. He bears a proud forehead, lanky brown hair piled on both sides and he clutches at the arms of the chaise lounge with long fingers. He watches the world. His expression startled and slow like one woken from a deep sleep.

Ashley’s camera begins to click-click away at the young man’s face. He appears real and solid. I feel if I walk over to him I could grasp his hand and pick him up in an embrace, and yet there is also the feeling of seeing something from a great distance; like peering down into the bottom of a well and seeing your own watery and trembling reflection deep below.

Sunlight is breaking through the bank of clouds high over the horizon. You can almost hear the shafts of light plummet towards the ocean’s slatey surface. In short, the backdrop for the ad just looks fucking gorgeous.

Kafka turns to look at us. He sees us one by one and now he looks at me. I feel terrible. I am alone and very tired. A fleeting premonition of my own death: some years from now I see my mangled body being hauled by indifferent paramedics from smoking wreckage . . . of a car? a plane?

Mournfully Kafka asks, “Why have you disturbed me?”

And then the fire hushes and he is gone.

“Not enough fuel . . .” Mr. Fisher observes. Then he laughs. “You know – they always say the exact same thing.”

Ashley says he thinks he got the shot we needed.

On the drive back we are quiet. We listen to classical music on the fm radio and then up through the mountain passes it fades to static and finally nothing.

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