The Redneck Kafka by Pat King
(Reprinted by permission. Originally in Babel Magazine #57 and The Whirligig #6)
There was a simple sign on the window. Cheap Used Books. I was unemployed, trying to sell off some books, hoping to buy dinner for the night, then return to the apartment from which I was soon to be evicted. The apartment in which I had been married for a very short time.
I walked in, chiming a welcome bell. I had a box of hard covers in my arms. On top was my favorite book, a collection of Kafka’s short stories. The shopkeeper, a thin, old man in his sixties or seventies, was helping an elderly lady decide on a paperback romance novel.
The shopkeeper waved at me. “Hello,” he said. “Just stick the books on the counter. I’ll be with you as soon as I can.”
“Yes sir,” I said. I gently sat the box down, being careful not to scratch the beautiful oak counter with the corner of my box. God, the store was warm. My apartment was freezing, without heat or electricity.
I had passed this store before. It was within walking distance of my apartment, about twenty minutes away. It’s a hell of a walk if you’re carrying a few pounds of books. It was my entire collection, the books that I had kept since I was a kid. I read them all the time, several times each. I loved them, I think, more than I loved my soul. But I was hungry, so damned hungry. I would have sold my soul for a cheeseburger, so why not these books?
The shopkeeper and the old lady had found a book. The woman held a paperback up to the light, then nodded her head and thanked the shopkeeper. They made their way to the counter, their shoes almost buried in the thick, brown and black speckled shag carpet. Each of them whispered polite small talk.
He smiled at me as he walked behind the counter. Thick, web-like creases formed around his eyes, showing his age, his wear. He turned back to the old lady and rang her up. She stayed a few feet away from me. Then, when the transaction was finished, she waved goodbye to the shopkeeper and darted toward the door, glancing at me with disgust for the briefest instant.
“Don’t mind her,” the shopkeeper said. “She’s a pain in the ass chit-chatting lady. But she’s a regular, so, what can you do? Now, what have we got here?”
“Not sure,” I said, sliding the box of books closer to him. “Been reading these forever, but I’m not sure if they’re worth anything.”
“Well,” he said, “we’ll see, I suppose.” He began sorting the books into piles.
“Yeah,” I said, “my wife said that readin’ was the only thing we had in common.”
The shopkeeper looked up for a second. “Oh? My wife used to say something like that, jokingly of course. Where do ya’ll live? Around here?”
“Well, I do, sir,” I said. “I don’t know about my wife, though. She’s gone.” I instantly regretted saying that.
“Oh,” the shopkeeper said, “I’m sorry.” Then, quickly changing the subject, he added, “This is your first time in my little store, isn’t it?”
“Yes sir,” I said. “But it’s a nice store. I like it.”
“Thank you. Me too.” The shopkeeper shook his head as if remembering something. He held out his hand. “I’m sorry. I’ve been rude. My name’s Sam Burroughs.”
I shook his hand. “Danny Sullivan, sir,” I said. His politeness made me uncomfortable. My clothes stank. I stank. I just wanted to get my money and leave.
Sam Burroughs had finished separating the books. They were on the counter in two distinct piles, one much larger than the other. My newer books were in the smaller pile. They were mostly hard covers, mostly in pretty good shape. In the other pile were the books I had owned for years. They had cracked spines, dog-eared pages, and almost non-existent bindings.
“I’m sorry,” Sam said. “There’s not much I can do for you, son. These newer books I might be able to sell, but I doubt it. Don’t get me wrong – I love poetry. And you have some good taste too – Bukowski and Snyder are two of my favorites. But, frankly, nobody buys poetry, and I have too many poetry books as it is. I can give you five bucks for the lot, mostly because of the Kafka book, but that’s about all I can do.”
I wanted more, but I had a feeling that he was being generous. “That’s just fine,” I said.
There was no cash register on the counter. Instead, he opened a drawer and flipped through some bills until he found a five. I watched him closely. His eyes kept moving from the drawer to my face. He knew I was staring. He also knew I was thinking about robbing him.
I took the bill from him. I nodded and tried to smile, but, instead, I quickly turned around and left the store.
I hadn’t eaten for two days. The few dollars that I had this morning were spent on whiskey in the afternoon. Now, it was after six o’clock in the middle of February, and it was cold, snowing. A light snow, but intolerable, freezing. So far, the winter had been mild. It was only a couple of weeks ago that my wife and I stood on the balcony of our second-story apartment in T-shirts. We smoked cigarettes and drank beer and let the sun heat our faces.
Then it got cold and my wife left me. And now I walk and think about her. My wife. Karen.
It’s early September. I see her in the distance, coming towards me, counting her change in her open palm. I am in my booth at the gas station. It’s barely big enough to stand up and stretch in. It’s okay though. I don’t get up much. I sit and read and wait for the occasional customer to come walking up to the Plexiglas window that separates us and slide their money through a rusty metal box.
I get a blurry view of her when she walks up to the Plexiglas and puts a couple of bills and her change in the box, then slides it toward me. I glance at it for a moment and see that it is exact. I wave her away and go back to my book.
“What’re you reading?” she asks. I look up and get a better view of her. She isn’t fat really, just very thick, mostly in the right places around the breasts and ass and hips. Her straight blonde hair shines in the sunlight and flows maybe halfway down her back.
I show her the cover of my book.
“Kafka, huh?” she says. “Strange.”
I am offended and want to defend myself. “I ain’t dumb just because I work at a gas station.”
She steps back. It looks like she is going to turn around and leave. But she doesn’t. She just says, “No, I didn’t mean anything by it. It’s just -”
“You figured a guy like me would be reading Penthouse or something?”
“Don’t worry about it,” I say.
She turns sharply and acts like she wants to leave, but she doesn’t. Instead, she turns toward me again. “I’m sorry. It must be this hot Alabama weather getting to me. I’m still not used to it.”
“You ain’t from around here?”
“I heard the mountains are pretty nice to look at up close.”
“Yeah,” she said, “but you’d be amazed how flat parts of Colorado are. I lived in a place called Odensville. It wasn’t anywhere near the mountains. It was just flat. Plain.”
I put a small crease in the page I was on, then close the book. I lay it on the shelf beside me next to my pack of smokes and the Coke can that is filled with vodka. “Why you down here?”
“A funeral. My father. Actually, I had to take care of him for a while before he died,” she says, quickly wiping an eye with her pinky. “He grew up here.”
There is a short silence, so I speak next. “I’m Danny.”
“Karen,” she says.
“That’s a pretty name,” I say. “So whatcha doing now? You workin’ anywhere?”
“I’m a teacher at a small high school here in Birmingham. Actually, it’s just a few blocks from where we are. I’m an English teacher. That’s the main reason I was interested in what you were reading. I was thrilled to see it was Kafka. He’s so dark. Unreachable.”
“I breathe Kafka,” I say. “Been that way since I was a boy. He made me want to write.”
She laughs under her breath. “Maybe one day you’ll be the Redneck Kafka.”
I smile a little. “Someday soon. We need to get a cup of coffee,” I say.
She smiles shyly; then snaps open her purse and tears off a scrap of paper while digging around for a pen. She writes her number down and slides it through the box. It’s a scrap of yellow notebook paper. In one of the corners there is a partial lipstick blot in fading red. It is a semicircle that reveals the delicate creases in her lips. But when I look down a little, I see her handwriting. It’s scribbled, almost unreadable. Like a doctor’s handwriting. It’s the handwriting of someone who knows they’re in control.
I was wearing a sweater, but it was too cold for just a sweater. I could feel the snowflakes falling on my head. I looked up for a second to watch them fall slowly through the light of a street lamp. The used bookstore was behind me. Ahead, if I walked straight on the slush-covered sidewalk, was a diner. It was the last building on a street of old, run-down shops. It offered a wide selection of bad cheeseburgers and coffee. But it was cheap.
The waitress noticed me as I was opening the door. She was washing dishes. She looked up at me, closed her eyes, and sighed. I suppose she had a feeling about me, that I had no intention of tipping her. She was right.
There was a sign on the door that said the diner’s booths were for two or more people. But there were only two other people in the diner, an old man and an old woman. They were sitting in a booth, drinking coffee, not saying anything to each other. The old man sipped his coffee through clenched teeth and rocked back and forth in his seat. I sat in a booth on the opposite side of the diner, ordering a cheeseburger with everything on it and a cup of coffee.
After the waitress gave me the burger, I ate it quickly and didn’t stop, almost didn’t breathe until after I had eaten the whole thing. It did nothing except to give me a slight stomachache and remind me of my emptiness. I wanted another burger, but I only had a dollar and some change left. Convenient enough, because I planned to stop at the bar afterwards. It was dollar beer night.
By the time I finally got back to my apartment, it was nearly two in the morning. Some of the guys at the bar had chipped in and bought me some drinks. I walked in and lit a candle.
The studio apartment was mostly empty. Karen had taken most of our stuff when she left me. She even took my stereo and most of my clothes. She must have stuffed the bed of her old Ford truck with as much stuff as it would hold. All that she left me were my books and a Garth Brooks CD. I tried to sell the CD, but nobody would buy it.
The apartment came with a pullout bed. I pulled it down and laid on it, not bothering to take my clothes, or even my shoes, off. I was on my back, my hands behind my head, staring at the ceiling. I was drunk and hungry and the room was spinning around me. There was a pain building up around my ribs. I began to shiver in tremors because I was cold, because I was alone. I laid on the bed, shaking in fits, crying, biting the sheets, wallowing in my drunken rage.
Karen, all I wanted was everything.
Karen and I decide to meet for coffee. It’s been two days since we met at the gas station and I’m not sure how to react when I see her. We meet at a coffee shop that has plenty of outdoor seating. We sit outside and enjoy the warm, humid night. The conversation starts out slow. We are wrapped up in the first-date formalities, with the obligatory nervous silences and awkward questions. But soon, the conversation drifts toward the topic of books. We talk about the Beat Poets and how they affected our teenage years, our rebelliousness, our lust.
“You know,” I say, finally beginning to relax, “I was the School Poet.”
“School Poet?” she says. “What?”
“You know, it’s kind of an honor for the best poet in the school. All the kids vote on it. Doesn’t really do much except get you some recognition in the yearbook. Didn’t your school have a School Poet?”
“I didn’t know that any school did,” she says.
After that, there is no end to the pleasures of our night. Soon, we admit to each other that that we’re really not “coffee people” and decide to get some drinks at my favorite bar. It’s a short walk, but Karen insists that we take her truck. It’s a welcome change.
When we’re inside, sitting at the bar, Karen says that she really can’t have any more than a couple drinks. She has to get up at six in the morning and get ready for work. But we’re having such a great time that I doubt her sincerity. We drink till ten. I invite Karen to my studio apartment. She agrees. We leave the truck in the parking lot and walk the two blocks.
“Geeze,” Karen says, when she sees where we are going, “We live in the same fucking building. How come I’ve never seen you?”
“Dunno,” I say. “We keep different hours, I guess.”
We decide to crash at my apartment. I pull the bed down from the wall. Karen is already taking off her clothes. I begin to take mine off. It almost becomes a race to see who can get their clothes off first. We finish around the same time. We get on the bed and fuck for what seems like hours. Drunk fucking. Fucking to a rhythm, like breathing, breathing or dance, dancing to create our own singular life. We wanted to forget that we would die someday.
But, oh Lord, in the morning, the world still burns.
Somehow, the memory drifted away and I fell asleep.
I stayed asleep until God knows when. Maybe two, three in the afternoon, who knows? Who gives a fuck, anyway? Jesus, I might have slept forever if the pain hadn’t come. It was like someone was inside of me, carving up my stomach with a sharp knife. I thought I was dying. I threw my covers on the floor, grabbed my knees, and slumped over into a fetal position. I then bit the inside of my lip and tasted a drip of blood. This was it, I thought, the beginning of my breakdown, my physical and mental psychosis.
I lay there for a while, without thought, letting the pain take over. I began to think that it might not be so bad, this pain. Maybe I was actually dying. Maybe this would save me the trouble of suicide, which I didn’t have the guts to carry out myself. Maybe God was going to do all the messy stuff for me.
Eventually, the pain dulled a little and I found that I could actually bring myself to move around again. I got up and changed clothes. The only clothes I had left – my red sweater, my torn jeans, and my brown, steel-toed boots. I ran a comb through my hair, although, I’m not sure why I bothered. I knew I looked like shit. I felt like shit.
I had to eat. I wanted a drink. I thought about Sam Burroughs and his drawer full of cash.
Then, trying my best to ignore the pain in my belly, I left the apartment, pulling a pink eviction notice off the door.
Outside, the weather hadn’t changed much. Although the sun had come out and it wasn’t snowing, there was still a bitter chill in the air. The wind blew in my face. I could barely keep my eyes open. I started the twenty-minute walk. I still wasn’t sure what time it was.
Each step was a struggle. My hunger was killing me. The pain in my side was throbbing again. Each time I breathed in, the heavy, knifelike sensation came back. Each time I breathed out, it went away.
Before long, I was staring at my reflection in Mr. Burroughs’ used bookstore. Cheap Used Books. I looked at all the books.
Karen, if only my passion for you was half as strong as my passion for books. My passion for Kafka, and his poetic prose.
It’s been a couple of months since we’ve known each other. A couple of weeks since we’ve been married. She’s moved into my apartment, and that’s where we are when she asks the strangest question I’ve ever heard: “You wanna quit your job?”
We’re standing on the porch, drinking beers and watching the sun set. The question surprises me. I put my beer down.
“Of course I do,” I say. “Doesn’t everyone?”
“Yes, but your poetry. It’s so good.” My poetry. Jesus, she must have been digging through the closet while I wasn’t here. Must have found those little scraps of paper that I keep in the shoeboxes. The stuff I’d written in high school.
“We gotta eat,” I say. “Anyway, I haven’t written anything since high school. Been through a lot of shit since then.”
“I know,” she says. “You’ve told me all about it.”
“I told you about recent shit. How I came into the job I’m at. I used to be smart, you know.”
“You still are smart,” she says.
“I could have gone to college.”
“You never told me that. You always said your parents couldn’t afford it.”
“Shit,” I say. “We weren’t well off. But I could have done some things differently.”
“Like what?” she says.
“Like not turning down a college scholarship so that I could see the world. I wanted to travel around Europe and the U.S. I wanted to see everything. Instead, I moved out of my mom and dad’s apartment and got one of my own. I got a job and tried to save some money, but I ended up drinking it all away. Before I knew it, a couple years gone by and I hadn’t done anything with my life.”
“You ever give writing another chance?”
“Yeah,” I say. “All the time. It never works, though. I’ve lost my creativity. I sit down to write something, and nothing comes out. Or something stupid. Something that I don’t mean. Something forced.”
“Maybe you oughta quit drinking,” she says.
“You think that’ll help anything?”
She puts her arms around me and pulls me close. Her thick arms wrap tightly around me as she puts her head near mine and whispers into my ear, “Quit your job. We don’t need the money. I want you to have some time alone, without worrying about work. Write poetry for me. Bring back my Redneck Kafka”
And for her, I would do anything. I quit my job and I worked all day on my poetry, scribbling endless lines into a notebook. It’s agonizing, you know, facing the thing I had avoided for years. And it’s torture. The endless lines are just lines with no meaning. I’ve lost my imagination, the part of me that could actually sense the horror and beauty of life. I’d lost my sense of poetry.
So, in the afternoons, I want to go to the bar. She comes home from work around five. I ask for money and she gives. But she wants to come with me. After spending all day struggling with words, trying to imagine, trying to create, my only wish for the end of the day is to be alone with a drink. But of course I can’t say no. I depend on this woman for everything now. I say yes, but with a quiet anxiety. So she comes and she asks me about my writing and I answer her in monotone with a yes or no. Every word she says; every question she asks; feels like condemnation. She means well, but I get angry.
Then one afternoon she just hands me some money. Says she’s just too tired to go out, and if I really want to go out without her, then fine. I walk quickly to the bar. Inside, finally left alone with a beer and my thoughts, I begin to break down. I begin to think about my childhood, my teenage years, and my parents and I living in a three-bedroom apartment downtown. I wrote poetry. And all the poetry was good – nothing but praise from my parents and my English teachers – nothing but well wishes and encouragement to continue my studies in college. Find my voice, the English teacher said. I was a good kid and I wrote poetry, and the future was bright, as they said so often. How could I guess that the spark would die one day, that I would have no talent, no purpose in life? Worse, I did it all to myself.
By the time the bar closes, I have spent all of my money on beer. I walk the short way to the apartment, then take the elevator to the third floor. I stand in front of my apartment, shaking the keys, trying to find the right one. When I find it, I make a lot of noise trying to open the door.
I finally get it open, but Karen is standing in my way.
“It’s midnight. I have to be up at six. What are you doing making all this noise?”
I shove her. She falls to the floor and I walk in. “Fuck you,” I say. “I was trying to get rid of some of this pressure you’ve been putting me through.”
She gets up, sits on the bed. She is shaken, disturbed. She looks at the ground and puts her hand on her forehead. “Calm down,” she says. “What are you talking about? What pressure?”
“The writing,” I say. “The fucking writing.”
She rubs her eyes. “You want to go back to work? Fine. Go find some gas station somewhere. I don’t give a shit. But you better let me sleep. I’ve got to get up early.”
“I better let you sleep?” I say. “How about the sleep I ain’t been able to get when I realize that everything I try to write is shit? You’re really fucked up, you know.”
“I’m fucked up?”
“Yeah. What’s the point? What do you get out of all this? Do you have some fantasy to be the wife of a great poet?” I stop to think about my words. “There ain’t no poet here. No fucking Redneck Kafka.”
I’m hovering over her. She looks up at me. “Just come to bed, Danny. You’re drunk. We can talk about this in the morning.”
She lies down. I’m full of rage. I lay on top of her and put my hand on her mouth. She screams. Damn, how she screams. But I ignore it. I pull her underwear off and don’t stop my attack. Karen has done nothing but care about me. And now she screams.
In the morning, when I wake up, the snow has begun to fall, and Karen is gone.
I had been hanging around outside of the bookstore for almost an hour, crouching below the window, leaning against the bricks, trying to bum smokes. It wasn’t working. I stared at the snow-covered sidewalk. I wanted to write a poem in the snow. A good poem. A poem about love and sex. I wanted to tell the world that I am Danny, and I am a sinner. Everyone’s a sinner and love is not real. But then I remembered that I have no imagination.
The pain in my stomach began to come back. I started to hurt all over again. I could only pay attention to the pain. I prepared, once again, to die.
I must have fallen down, hit my head on the sidewalk and laid there in the snow. I can’t remember anything about the next few minutes or hours. God knows how long I laid there. I woke up when a pair of hands grabbed me under the armpit. I was being dragged somewhere. I kept my eyes closed. I heard a door open and then there was warmth … warmth all over my body.
“Son, are you okay?”
God, I was so warm. I held out my tongue and tasted the warmth.
“Son, it’s okay. It’s okay, you hear? I’m gonna call an ambulance now. Stay put.”
I was lying on the floor. The shag carpet tickled my face.
“Yes sir. Seventh Avenue South. Burroughs’ Used Books. Please hurry. He’s cracked his head good. Okay. Thank-you.”
I wondered what felt so good, then realized I was wiggling my toes. I felt a wet rag on my forehead.
“Son, try to open your eyes.”
I slowly opened my eyes. It took me a second to get focused. Books. Books all around me. Shelves of beautiful books.
I saw Sam Burroughs. “There you go, son. You’re gonna be all right. Hold on a sec. I’ll get some coffee. Maybe it’ll warm you up a little.”
So many beautiful books.
Sam returned quickly with the coffee. I sat up and took hold of it. I let it warm my hands. I took a sip and let it warm my body. Sam Burroughs held the rag on my head.
“My wife’s gone,” I said.
Sam smiled at me. “Yes. I remember you telling me that yesterday. My wife – she’s gone too … with the Lord. But it’s okay. I’ve got my customers and all these wonderful books.”
Wonderful books. He was right. “Must be nice to be around books all day,” I said. “Ever read any Kafka?”
“Sometimes,” he said. “I read just about everything.”
“He’s one of my favorites,” I said. And then, a confession: “I came here to rob you, Sam. I’m so sorry.”
He laughed. “Rob me? With what? Are you armed?”
“Well, I keep a gun in my desk. It would have been hard for you to rob me.”
Mr. Burroughs was sitting on an upside-down wooden crate. His hands were cupped underneath the coffee, making sure that I didn’t drop it. I looked out the window that said, “Cheap Used Books.” I saw that the snow was gone. I looked down and saw a cardboard box, a moving box, filled with books. On top of the pile were most of the books I had brought in yesterday, maybe all of them. I saw my Kafka book. In black permanent marker, the box read, “Free.”
I laughed a little as slices of pain ran through my chest. “Mr. Burroughs,” I said, “one day I’m gonna write a poem about you. A good poem.”
“That’s fine, son – Danny. Just have another sip of coffee. I can hear the ambulance coming.”
I could hear it too.