Kafka made an effort to hold his back ramrod straight at his desk. He hastily put the finishing touch on a compensation claim describing a shopgirl who had fallen down a flight of stairs while carrying two lamps. He would marry such a girl, he decided, hopelessly disfigured and full of shards as she might be. He signed the report and jumped up. But now he slowed himself, recalling that in his coworkers' eyes he was the picture of calm. He smoothed his suit coat, buttoned the bottom button that he left unfastened while sitting, put on his hat and picked up his cane. At his full height he walked in tight steps to the doorway and stairwell to the street, holding his hat as if a stiff wind were blowing through the building. Encountering his boss on the way out, he nodded curtly. His boss looked away, evidently preoccupied. Kafka was unable to take his eyes off the man.
On the street Kafka started to run, and stealing yet another look at his watch saw he was already ten minutes late. He started laughing, not only because of the spectacle he knew he was making of himself, but from the exhilaration of being out of the office, even if only for an hour. It was swelteringly hot out, and many laborers were in shirtsleeves, many working girls in airy blouses. Young women on the street with children were practically undressed, their skirts and tops almost thin enough to see through. Kafka laughed with glee at this freedom in others and his own too-fastidious and unseasonal attire. For a block he feigned a limp, to emphasize his disability with respect to fashion. He knew he was also imitating the poor injured shopgirl in this absurd performance.
Now he saw Max and the two women standing at the designated corner, and he instinctively put his hand over his heart as he continued to rush forward. This was his way of proclaiming his innocence over being late. He had met neither of the women before, and it was to be a blind date for lunch. He ran all the way up to the trio, stopping just before them, his hand still over his wildly thumping heart. Scarcely glancing at Max's annoyed face, or at the faces or dress of the ladies, he nevertheless saw at once that they were working class women, office workers at best. That settled, he started giggling and bowed in the courtliest way. Now Max too began laughing, while the women looked at each other as if to ask, "What is the cause of this hysteria?"
Kafka could not stop himself from bowing lower and lower, and pushed his head down almost to his knees. In that position he saw his cane sticking up along his thigh like an erection, and laughed so helplessly that he could not straighten up for quite some time. Finally Max thumped him on the back and he jerked himself upright, his face red and his eyes teary from laughter. He looked at the women, caught the eye of the one that was his, and observed her carefully for injuries and deformities. Finding none, he kissed her hand. Could it be love?
They were all laughing at something he said as they proceeded to the restaurant. Kafka called for the wine list and got a little tipsier than usual, then boldly asked for his partner's address. She gave it to this handsome but funny man who chewed each bite of his vegetarian dish too many times.
He paid her an inordinate amount of attention, but on the sly, not wishing to stare. He wished to recall every detail of their meeting for the letter he would write her as soon as he got back to the office. In fact, he wished lunch were over so he could start writing it that minute. He had so much to say, going on eating was only interfering with his saying it. He already had enough for ten letters, he calculated, and would wear her out with reading before he saw her again. In fact he decided against seeing her again. She was a ten-letter woman, period.
Finally Max called attention to the time and Kafka jumped up, saying he would be late getting back to the office. He excused himself to the women and dashed off, leaving his friend stuck with the check. He would have made it back on the dot, except he ran into a beggar on the street. It took him five agonized minutes to decide on an amount to give the man, and even as he dropped the coins in the man's hat he knew it wasn't right. Arriving at work several minutes late, he ran right into his boss. Both suppressed looks of astonishment, though they knew each other well, and neither spoke.
About the author:
Michael Fowler works at a stable for homeless horses in Cincinnati, Ohio. His chapbooks of poems, Bruce on Leaves and Cold Pillow, were both nominated for a Fast Food Prize. As ever, Mike's motto remains, "Are you hiring?"