Kafka the Bagger

S. R. Meins

        For William Losinger

        No one’s mouth is big enough to utter the whole thing.
                  —Alan Watts

Groceries had been disappearing all morning—a ham steak, a box of grain cereal, a quart of milk. Kafka would arrange the items carefully and place them into the bag precisely—with a nearly artistic vision for composition in order to best suit the customers’ needs for carrying and unpacking and for keeping things fresh and undamaged—but as the items went into the bag, they would disappear.
    He put a cellophane-wrapped loaf of bread tentatively on top of the other groceries in the brown paper bag—the milk, the canned beans, the box of thin, salty crackers—and it stayed, but when he opened another bag and put a carton of twelve white eggs gently inside, as soon as he released them from his thin gray fingertips, they continued to fall. The eggs sailed out of sight. They went right through the bottom of the bag and disappeared like a light down a tunnel into infinite darkness. Oddly, though, no one but Kafka seemed to notice these strange happenings. The bags always remained stoutly heavy as the customers either carried them away or wheeled them out of the store in shiny wire shopping carts.
    So Kafka—not the real Kafka, but the Kafka named by his mother after something someone once said, something that no one could any longer remember—quit his job. He quit his job not because he wanted to be unemployed, or because he no longer liked his vocation, but because he wanted to escape the inevitable disappearance of nearly everything he touched.

Kafka had attempted to leave his employment in a hurry, exiting through the main door, but an alarm sounded, and security guards came rushing up to him and beat him. And beneath their pummeling and grasping hands, Kafka explained that he was Kafka the Bagger, but the guards only kept repeating, “Shut up until we ask you a question,” and then they would beat him again. He explained once more that he was Kafka the Bagger, and as the words formed in his mouth and crawled up on tiny black legs to his lips, he dimly realized that the guards weren’t beating him, they were only shaking him because he had fainted, or as they had explained, he had tried to exit out through the in door and had met with the abrupt closing of glass. “Kafka,” the security guards said. “Don’t leave.” “But I must,” Kafka said. “I am erasing the world and I have to get home before everything has disappeared.”
    Kafka had enjoyed his nearly thirty years of bagging groceries, immeasurably, because they had given him a methodical focus for his life. They set everything that might have otherwise been unbearably chaotic to a happy rhythm—the opening and closing of bags, the placing of groceries, the smiling and jostling, the reassuring chatter about the weather—good and bad—the joyful, unrestrained saying of hello and good-bye, and the many thank yous and may I help yous. Bagging had ordered Kafka’s existence; it had become the needle for threading his life into the fabric of eternity. But the carton of eggs had been the last straw. As soon as it had spiraled into eternal darkness, unnoticed by anyone but him, Kafka knew that the rest of the world would soon be following close behind. It was a dreadful thought that had entered his mind and clattered through his brain like a freight train loaded with agony.
    Kafka walked into the street, his body rattling beneath a sun that immediately began to disappear from the sky. The fading yellow light grabbed the edge of Kafka’s eyes and pulled his attention up over the horizon like a coroner’s curtain. He apologized for erasing the sun, but it didn’t seem to matter. The sun only continued to fade inexorably into the darkness, turning all the windows in the office buildings into mirrors and making shadows out of the angled buttresses of concrete and steel. Kafka stared straight ahead, bewildered, as the dim light mysteriously turned the blacktopped streets into the same leathery brown color as dried oranges.
    As he walked, the wide avenues of the shopping districts narrowed into the jumbled lanes and alleys of the old part of the city, and Kafka kept his eyes focused on the uniform grids of the sidewalk beneath his feet. He carefully counted the cracks between the gray slabs as he stepped over them—not because he was superstitious, but because of his growing concern for order, for certainty. It had come to him that if he could forcibly hold his attention on the specific construction of things, that whatever was within him that was erasing the world (allowing groceries to slip into silent and infinite darkness) might be constrained—at least until he could get to his apartment. But once he got to his apartment, he knew he had no idea what he would do to stop it from disappearing as well.
    His apartment was on the third floor of a walk-up, in a building that was very old and made of unfashionable stone and brick. It was either too hot or too cold, depending, and had always smelled, to Kafka, like a tomb. Although unpleasant, the odor had become familiar to him, and infinitely comforting. His rooms were strangely small and cramped, filled to the edges with the accumulated minutia of a lifetime, but the restricted space was liberating to him. He could easily reach the edges of his life with a glance, and the smallness of his existence left no room for there to be any surprises. There was no room for anyone to visit, even if there had been someone who would visit.
    Kafka had lived in his apartment for as long as he could remember, although he could not be certain how long that actually had been because whatever was within him that was erasing the world was also erasing his memories—as if the shadow that his life had once cast was eating itself. There had once been others, he thought—a mother and a father, maybe a brother—somewhere in his past, in another life—perhaps in a life that had already disappeared into all of the years he had been Kafka the Bagger. Recently, and with spiraling rapidity, he had felt that everything about him was disappearing into a single point, into a single moment that would eventually collapse into nothingness because he was increasingly without an external reference. When he searched around inside himself, he found only a solitary man standing, orphaned, by the sea.
    The rows of buildings on the busy street crept closer and closer to the sidewalk, and Kafka felt their urgent pressing narrow around him like the walls of an unforgiving dream. He was not certain if he could walk fast enough to get to his apartment before it, too, began to be erased, and with this uncertainty rising within him, his breath began to fail him little by little. “I must slow down,” he thought, and immediately he began to grow thinner—his bones becoming thin as the filaments of a spider’s web. Each step he made toward his home shook a little more of his body onto the sidewalk, and each of those pieces disappeared in the same way as the carton of eggs, the milk, the cereal, and the sun—out of the bottom of everything and into a relentlessly expanding darkness.
    Kafka stopped to collect his strength and leaned on a door frame next to an expansive shop window, a familiar bakery. He tried to look through the glass storefront, but his gaze was arrested at a reflection. He was not there. When he focused intently on his image, all he could see was a thin piece of shadow, like a strip of dark fabric, blowing in the wind in the space where he thought his shoulder ought to have been.
    He had erased things once before, as a child, although these memories were no longer part of him. He had let a bicycle disappear—he felt certain—by leaving it against a lamppost until the thin vinyl seat slipped into a crack in the enameled finish, causing the whole thing to race close behind. He had been so afraid of being punished for losing the bicycle, that when his father had asked him what had become of it, he said that it had been stolen. Later, when forced to incriminate someone, he identified two neighborhood boys, and in spite of their convincing protests, they were harshly disciplined by the authorities. Kafka was stupefied by the power that came by pointing a frightened, accusing finger, and from that day forward, he held his fingers close to his vest pockets and only looked in the direction of those people who called him by his name.
    As he continued to gaze into the bakery-shop window, his eyes fixed on the space where his shoulder ought to have been. He saw only the city, each neat building leaning up against the sky like a ladder, chattering beneath the cold of the disappearing sun and reverberating as their doors coughed open and closed with people coming and going—women with shopping bags, swinging them heavy as stones or light as wings, children crying, old men collapsing on their canes into withered deaths, young women with beatific poses enticing young men over the prow of their liquid desires. All this went on for Kafka as he watched the windowed buildings studying him, opening and closing their shining or dull eyes. There, a face would appear and then disappear—a momentary life, a human being, and, then, just a vacant patch of cold, smooth gray wall or sky.
    On the street, automobiles moved in clotted pulses, city buses lurched toward the curb and gasped—spitting out or inhaling passengers. Horns bleated, and harried drivers flung frustration out like hot coals between the fitful feet of the pedestrians, pedestrians who walked over the surface of the world with an unquestioning, habitual certainty—a certainty that Kafka could no longer grasp. And all of this ordered itself for Kafka as he looked into the window glass of the bakery shop with single-pointed concentration. The word bakery tattooed itself on the back of his mind like handrails around a collapsing balcony. Hold on, the individual letters said to his mind, each one painted in square bold letters, as if to say, We are really here.
    Kafka forced his attention beyond the glass and looked at the pastries arranged on the racks, stacked like gift packages—bright bows, swirls of piping and dappled candied flowers, thick ribbons of icing and layers and layers of wrapping-paper frosting folded around tottering tiered cakes and slender, fragile delicacies. The image evoked a memory for Kafka, but the recollection slipped quickly into the collapsing abyss that was rapidly becoming the world as soon as it wafted by. He continued to focus on the pastries—studying the flakey crusts, the coils of fruit rolled around powdered wafers, the cascading icing, the bleeding chocolate, the hemorrhaging Danishes, the ruptured twists and the intestinal turns. The exactness of imperfection suddenly tumbled toward Kafka like a disgorged, desirous sea, and then it went black.
    Kafka had traveled so far from the morning, so far from the afternoon, so far from himself that if he were asked by someone who he was, he would no longer have been able to utter his name. If he were called to by some friendly person passing by on the street, he would have only been able to look at them, inexplicably mouthing emptiness, as if his voice had become a door hinge made of moth’s wings. The words Kafka the Bagger would have seemed to him—if he could have possibly heard them—like an echo of bathwater, tarnished as silver and swirling down a drain. In fact, all of Kafka’s life had been accumulating around his ears like bathwater: the disappeared bicycle, his mother, his father, his lost brother, the pastries, the cartons of eggs, the milk, the sun, the jostling buildings, the serpentine traffic, the day, the hour, the curling tips of his fingers, the strained expression, the vacuous, pinpointed dark eyes, the sighs. All of everything of him was spiraling and emptying—disappearing in rusted red and silver down the open black mouth of a drain.
    Kafka left his reflection and his memory on the mirrored surface of the bakery shop window and headed toward the city center, toward the park where he sometimes rested on his way home. He would find a bench and either sit in the sun on cool days or find a way to angle his body in the shadow of the commemorative monument on hot days. He had been sitting in the park for his entire life. And the park seemed to mirror his passing days—once young and possessed by possibility, and then marked by weary crumblings and hopeful restorations. The park had come to resemble Kafka’s best suit—stitched and patched and threadbare, but comfortable.
    The park had always been full of pigeons, as well as dour old women and nervous and strangely silent old men. But more and more often, children would roar through on bicycles or run after one another shouting, laughing, and calling out—to Kafka’s dismay—obscenities. There were more and more menacing characters whom the old people called unsavory. They could be seen lurking in the shadows—especially after dark—but Kafka was long into sleep by then and had never seen them. The park was empty of the past, although the monument still stood, along with the old barriers around the gardens, the wrought-iron fences, and the wood-and-stone benches. The easiness of the past had disappeared, and the security of sitting in the sun with one’s eyes closed was as lost to reality as it was to Kafka’s eroding memory.
    The park was a haven for pigeons—a confetti of pigeons—gray and white and charred black, brown flecked and honey colored, or rust stained and amber, with their pinion feathers dusty or gleaming. Sometimes their bodies were luminous with a pinkish light reflecting from the dust on the concrete. Pigeons. They moved in pulsing plumes around the park like great wads of newsprint tumbling end over end in the wind, or sometimes rising up with a sudden gust like a colorful, escaped parasol. The pigeons cooed and poured expectantly into pools around the feet of anyone sitting on a bench or standing still, because people so often came to the park to feed them with scraps of bread or bits of stale cereal or the crumbs and crusts of sandwiches.
    Feeding the pigeons had been illegal at one time, and Kafka himself had violated the law more than once. Ultimately, the municipal police had given up enforcing the restrictions because of sadness. The civil authorities had learned (and then acted in a rare miracle of bureaucratic compassion) that it had only been the old, sick, and lonely who fed the pigeons, and that without the pigeons to feed, those people stopped coming to the park and stayed home, inside their decrepit slanting apartments, and died. The tragedy was indisputable, and the consequence of all the sadness eventually caused an enormous strain on the city coffers. All the while there had been a ban on feeding the pigeons, the municipal morgues were filling up with bodies—nearly all nameless—people whose bodies were discovered, abandoned like insect shells, by landlords, meter readers, nursing staff, and, very rarely, a family member performing his or her duty—bodies still warm, rigid, or with pools of tears drowning their eyes.
    The city had been the center of Kafka’s existence. His mother and father had both disappeared into its shadows every morning and returned from it late in the evening—wrung out and pallid, as if they had been held underwater or been exposed to fluorescent lights for too long. Their eyes had become small and translucent and their skin as white as the underbellies of fish. His parents shouted when they were at home, not angrily, but to enjoy the novelty of their own voices—voices that sounded to Kafka, when he nervously listened, like a bucket of ice dumped into a hallway made of porcelain. Kafka remembered this, remembered his parents, as if they were a wave he was grabbing at with his flailing arms, a wave that slipped around his body and disappeared into the open mouth of a gasping black drain that surrounded him.
    Everywhere he rested his eyes a hole appeared, and whatever was there—a thought or a thing—went spiraling into oblivion. One entire street disappeared after he looked at it. He drew his eyes from the commemorative monument to the park entrance, along the black wrought-iron railing, and onto the flat back of a city bus, and everything in between the two points disappeared—children, dogs, automobiles, lovers, a man with a newspaper, a vendor selling slivers of roasted meat from a cart. Gone. Kafka looked at his hands. They were dim as morning stars, but he made them stay. He looked at his fingers and ran them over what was left to the eroding edges of his life, and he tried to feel himself home. Kafka was a man without sight now, a blind man reading the braille of his destiny.
    He became weak. His attention, focused as it was on such a singular spot inside his constricted memory, tired him—tired him in the same way he became tired as a child, straining to listen to the conspiring voices of his parents as they clattered through the thin walls of their apartment while designing a future for themselves that Kafka could not understand. What he hadn’t known was that his mother and father were reading from a book issued by the city that was made to hold stamps—greenish stamps with the official gold seal of the city royally emblazoned on them. The city issued the stamps after citizens accomplished certain services, certain responsibilities, with an uninterrupted dedication over a certain number of years, and citizens then pasted them into the pages of their book. Every three months the city issued an update, a supplemental pamphlet that contained various retirements, rewards, vacations, and incentives—places to go, homes to own, luxuries. Men could select women, women men, and so on. It was a book of the future—of the afterlife, really. Kafka had never actually seen it himself. It was his parents’ greedily guarded secret—he only knew what he knew of it by the hours he had overheard his parents planning, deliberating, and arguing as they drank liquor and smoked cigarettes. Kafka had often fallen asleep with the voices of his parents’ dreams in his head, pushing aside his own dreams. And then one day, when Kafka was twenty seven, he awoke to an empty apartment—no mother or father. The next week he got the job as bagger—Kafka the Bagger.
    Kafka sat on a sagging bench. He was not in the light or out of the light. Although he could see around himself, there was no sun, there was no lamplight—he could just see. He was not warm. He was not cold. In fact, he thought it strange, although only for a moment, that he could not feel himself at all. He did not attempt to sit in the shadow of the monument, because there were no shadows. He did not attempt to sit in the sun, because there was no sun. He just sat on the bench, and, as he sat, a feeling came to him as if his body were sliding like fingers into a glove—the narrow sleeves, the leathered seams, the warm, worn palms. Kafka exhaled, and his breath lifted his gaze toward the horizon.
    The horizon—or what was left of it—circled his life like a fence made of vapor. He saw only milky patches of the sky as it broke through the holes in the back of his mind—out of where something should have been but never was. To him the city either stopped at the horizon, or just kept going forever. Either way there had never been anything else to the world beyond the dozen or so blocks on which he had lived his life. The people who shopped at the grocery where he was Kafka the Bagger had talked about this place and that—a lake, a mountain, an open plain, trees that went on for miles—but for Kafka, whatever he knew of what existed beyond the horizon was only what he knew from the city stamp book, which was only more stories, collections of dreams, and fantasies to sustain one until one reached the end of usefulness.
    From out of a hole in the sky, from out of the open space between where the financial house and the commerce exchange had once existed in Kafka’s mind, came a huge plume of gray and sunset rose. The plume sank and turned up again, and then floated down like a ribbon toward Kafka, toward where he sat alone on the park bench. The plume moved in a compelling unity. It had a singular shifting shape, at first flittering up with a frenzied surge, and then floating downward in a shimmering mass. Pigeons. Pigeons in the hundreds. Kafka focused his eyes on them, and as he did they moved in so closely they became all that he could see—a wall of glistening feathers amid chittering gray beaks. Suddenly their innumerable black eyes arranged themselves into a singular eternal eye, blinking open and closed like a gasping mouth—becoming the infernal black drain that was disappearing the city.
    Kafka loosened his grip on this vision, and the birds moved away, their individual bodies temporarily evaporating into the air. Then the birds surged once more and quickly turned and fluttered in, their wings breaking the air, their bodies settling en masse, floating down like a mottled shroud. Pigeons. Kafka studied them and fell into their dark eyes as the birds swirled up to his feet, settled around him from sky to sidewalk in one continuous, fluid motion.
    Kafka reached out his arms, extended his legs, adjusted his shoulders, aligned himself with what was left of his hips, and the pigeons came to him. They settled on his rearranged body as if his bones were the gnarled limbs of a tree. The birds alit on his coat sleeves. They ran the length of his slacks, perched along the inseams as if on a stretched-out wire. They held tight to his upturned cuffs, and roosted on his tattered repairs, the patches and the smudged remnants of his life and things unseen.
    Kafka sat in steady repose as the entire city disappeared into irretrievable darkness, and the pigeons held him up on the raft of his life. He drifted with them as if all that were left of the world was the idea he had of himself sitting alone on a park bench—neither in the sun nor out of it—covered with pigeons. And with the sudden remembering of their descending flight from the sky to the ground, a single profound thought fixed itself in his mind, and hard as he tried to push it aside, it would not move. He realized—in that ecstatic and singular moment—that he, too, like the pigeons, lived in the sky—that the sky began against the bottoms of his feet, flat against the earth, and that he had been living in the air all his life.

The landlord turned the lock, and Kafka’s apartment door swung open like a welcoming arm. The landlord was accompanied by the manager of the grocery store where Kafka worked as a bagger. “Kafka?” they called, both speaking in similar impersonal, gruff tones. “Kafka. Kafka the Bagger, are you here?” The landlord and the manager listened for a response. All they heard in return was the distant sound of running water—steady and clear.
    The landlord and the manager moved together through the crowded and orderly disarray, a disarray created by the confined accumulation of a lifetime. “Kafka,” they called through the neat stacks of papers, the cloth-covered furniture, and the neatly arranged compositions of the unfamiliar made familiar. “Kafka,” they called again and opened the only closed door in the apartment. And there they found him, a neat crack in his skull, the icy water running over his naked gray body, his old legs twisted up over the tub sides, his flesh the color of dull wings disappearing in the rain. The landlord shut the faucets off and turned toward the grocery manager. Kafka let his heart go then, and the pigeons suddenly lifted into the wind, leaving nothing beneath them but an empty bench tumbling like a brown leaf in between the receding slats of the dawn.

S. R. Meins was an adjunct professor of psychology for the State University of New York system and currently lives and writes—in search of meaning—at the end of a  long dirt road in upstate New York.

“Kafka the Bagger” appears in our Spring 2009 issue.