Mr. Nemo and the Dead Bird
by Gary Inbinder
Mr. Nemo walked to the strip-mall café to meet his friend, Kafka the Cat. While strolling absent-mindedly through the alley behind the parking lot, his shoe crunched on something nasty. Nemo glanced down and saw a squashed seagull lying on the asphalt. The bird’s remains rested on its side next to a dumpster; one of its glassy eyes stared up at Nemo as if in protest against the indignity of having been trod upon.
Nemo lifted his sneaker and examined the rubber sole. He scraped the bottom against a nearby concrete speed bump, removing a couple of sticky feathers. Then Nemo returned to the dumpster to contemplate the avian corpse.
Ants swarmed the bird, circumambulating a plastic motor-oil bottle that had leaked its dregs into a small iridescent pool. Avoiding the ants and the oil, Nemo focused his attention on the dead bird’s eye, which seemed to convey a message: “This morning, the last of my brief existence, I flew in on an easterly breeze from the ocean, soaring high over the suburbs, searching for tasty garbage. Here, my free spirit met its fate by a dumpster, to rot and be consumed by vermin till nothing is left of me.” Or so it seemed from Nemo’s anthropomorphizing perspective.
Nemo empathized with the dead bird. It had probably been struck by a car while foraging in the trash strewn alley. It’s our common fate, he thought. In the end we’re all food for worms.
Upon his arrival at the café, Nemo was surprised to see not only Kafka the Cat, but also their friends, Kafka the Bureaucrat and Kafka the Unemployed. The three companions sat at a cast iron round table on the strip of pavement surrounding the coffee shop. They sheltered from the morning sun, beneath the shade of a broad yellow and black striped umbrella.
“Greetings, Mr. Nemo,” Kafka the Cat meowed as he glanced up from his cup of half-and-half. “You’re right on time as usual, and here’s your coffee, ready and waiting.” The cat gestured with his forepaw toward a large steaming cup of French Roast, two containers of non-fat milk and an empty chair.
Nemo smiled appreciatively. He took his seat, and then reimbursed Kafka the Bureaucrat, who had been kind enough to purchase the coffee. Nemo sipped for a moment before cryptically saying, “Chekhov.” He gazed down at some grounds floating in his cup and said no more.
Without missing a beat Kafka the Unemployed, who was an avid Trekker, said “Sulu”, as though this were the beginning of a game.
Going with the conversational flow, Kafka the Bureaucrat said, “Scotty.”
“I don’t think our friend is referring to Mr. Chekhov of Star Trek,” the cat meowed perspicaciously.
Nemo smiled at his feline companion. “You are perceptive, Kafka. Nemo referred to Anton Chekhov. On his way to the coffee shop, Nemo encountered a dead bird. It reminded him of Chekhov’s play The Seagull.”
“I get it,” said Kafka the Unemployed without a moment’s hesitation. “On the way to the coffee shop I stepped in a dog turd. It reminded me of the last Star Trek movie.”
The three Kafkas laughed, the cat’s mirth characteristically manifesting itself in a sniggering “Mew-mew.”
Nemo was not amused. “Nemo viewed the dead bird metaphorically, as a symbol of the futility of life, the vanity of human wishes. Nemo is a writer, so he naturally turns his observations into symbols and figures of speech.”
“Well, life’s like stepping in a dog turd, metaphorically speaking,” asserted Kafka the Unemployed. “We all get into it, now and then. You scrape your shoe and move on.”
“I’m afraid your metaphorical dead bird may have been done in by one of my friends,” observed the cat. “We prowl the dumpsters hereabouts. By the way, did you know I played the cat in last season’s community theater production of Uncle Vanya?”
“Nemo didn’t know there was a cat in Uncle Vanya.”
“There was in our production,” the cat meowed.
“Now wait a minute,” interjected Kafka the Unemployed. “I have a better metaphor for the futility of life and the vanity of human wishes.”
“Oh really? Perhaps you would care to elucidate,” said Mr. Nemo.
“Gladly,” replied the unemployed. “Life is like that three-mile walk to save planet earth and promote green jobs that I participated in last weekend. Now I’m very skeptical of that event’s ability to save anything, let alone our planet, but I’d sure like one of those green jobs. Anyway, I really went on the walk to score some pot. I had almost achieved my goal — the end of the walk I mean, not the bag of grass, or saving the planet, or getting a green job either — when I slipped on a banana peel, tumbled into a ditch and landed splat on my ass. I had a bruise you wouldn’t believe. A freaking hematoma.”
“So?” queried Nemo.
“So, that’s my metaphor. Life’s like a three-mile walk to save planet earth, promote green jobs, and score some pot. In the end you slip on a banana peel, fall splat on your ass in a ditch and wake up the next morning pot-less, jobless and with a bruise on your butt the size of a jumbo blueberry pancake. And the planet’s still doomed.”
“Your metaphor sucks,” said Kafka the Bureaucrat testily.
“Oh yeah, well have you a better metaphor for the futility of life and the vanity of human wishes? The cosmos is going to blow up in about a million-billion years, and every living thing that ever was or will be is going to disappear into an eternal void. I could just as well have scored my bag of grass and a green job as fallen on my ass, and it wouldn’t have made a bit of difference, viewed sub specie aeternitatis.”
The others responded with a sigh and sipped their drinks, until the cat inquired of Nemo: “Why did you associate the dead bird with Chekhov’s Seagull? Why not Ibsen’s Wild Duck?”
“Because Nemo didn’t step on a dead duck.”
“Oh, I see,” meowed Kafka.
A ragged, smelly old man with long, greasy gray hair and a beard like a bird’s nest, shambled over to our friends. “My name is Ducky. It used to be Lucky. Now it’s Ducky.”
The group tried to ignore the man who was known round the strip mall as Harold the Homeless. “It might have been a tern,” said Kafka the Bureaucrat. “I’ve noticed terns circling the strip mall dumpsters.”
“I used to be a tern — then I returned to earth. I reckon this here tern did me a good turn, and it turned out all right in the end, I reckon,” blathered Harold the Homeless.
“Shut up, Harold. Turn back into a tern, fly away and never return. Go bother someone else while we discuss the futility of existence,” said Kafka the Bureaucrat.
“For a dollar I will,” replied Harold eagerly.
The bureaucrat reached into his pocket, took out a crisp new dollar bill and handed it to the shabby old man.
Harold the Homeless grabbed the dollar with his grubby paw. His black hole of a mouth opened wide in a toothless grin. “Thank you sir, thank you kindly. Oh my name used to be Ducky but now it’s Lucky,” he sang as he waddled to another table where he practiced his extortion routine on another group of coffee drinkers.
The bureaucrat scowled at Harold for a moment before turning his attention back to Mr. Nemo. “Importunate old bastard,” he growled. “I once saw a dead geezer out by the dumpster, just like Nemo’s seagull. Crawling with maggots he was; God what a stink. I suppose old Harold will end up like that. And the sooner the better. Let him die and decrease the surplus population.”
“Die and decrease the surplus population. That’s from Chekhov, isn’t it?” queried the unemployed.
“No, you fool,” groused the bureaucrat. “That’s Dickens. No wonder you’re out of work.”
“And Dickens got the idea from the eighteenth-century economist Malthus,” meowed the cat.
“Chekhov, Dickens, Malthus — what difference does it make?” Mr. Nemo said. “It’s our common fate. ‘Imperious Caesar dead and turned to clay, might stop a hole to keep the wind away’.”
“That’s Chekhov,” said the unemployed confidently.
“No, you idiot, that’s Shakespeare,” cried the bureaucrat.
“And Shakespeare got the idea from Ecclesiastes. And Ecclesiastes got the idea from—”
“Shakespeare, Ecclesiastes, Chekhov, Dickens — who cares!” howled Nemo. The other patrons and Harold the Homeless, who had just cadged another three dollars, stared at our friend. “We’re all doomed,” Nemo pursued. “Oh, how I long for a Deus ex Machina, just to — just to tell me I’m all right — and that everyone and every thing is all right, and that all’s for the best in this best of all possible worlds -”
“Best of all possible worlds — that must be Chekhov!” proclaimed the unemployed.
“No, you twit, that’s Voltaire,” fulminated the bureaucrat.
“And Voltaire got the idea from Leibniz. And Leibniz got his idea from—”
A great noise interrupted the cat’s pedagogic meowing. The whiny rumbling of a leaf-blower, a boom-box tuned to the Mornings with Marvin Moldy Oldies program blasting Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” and a cell-phone jangling Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” reverberated throughout the parking lot. Clouds parted, a golden ray slanted downward and, enveloped within the shimmering nimbus, there appeared a sparkling silver disc circled by squawking seagulls — and terns.
As the dazzling object descended, there were random speculations among the coffee drinkers:
“Is it a miracle?” “Is it Elvis?” “No, it’s a reality TV promotion” and so forth.
“Actually, it’s a probe from my home planet Felix,” the cat informed his friends. “Mr. Nemo’s prayer has been answered. We felines have already solved the mystery of life. We are now willing to share our wisdom with the human denizens of earth.”
“So, Kafka the Cat, you’re an alien after all. I suspected as much. Your erudition and refined manner of speaking were dead giveaways,” muttered the bureaucrat.
“Are there green jobs and grass on Felix?” inquired the unemployed of no one in particular.
The spacecraft settled on the asphalt next to an SUV which was, to get a sense of scale, several times larger, in all its dimensions, than the flying saucer. A door on the saucer hissed open and a stairway lowered to the pavement.
A cat dressed in a metallic gold space-suit and fish-bowl bubble helmet emerged from the spacecraft. It padded down the tiny ramp followed by a miniature humanoid robot. The alien stopped about ten feet from our friends, removed its helmet with a flourish of its right forepaw, stood on its hind-legs and greeted Kafka the Cat: “Meoowrr, mzzlpft pzzzt.” Kafka responded and then translated for the coffee shop crowd:
“My friend brings greetings from our mighty Emperor Rumpleteazer XXIV. His Serene Majesty offers tidings of great hope and joy. ‘People of Earth, submit to my beneficent rule and we shall provide for all your needs and wants. And when the time comes, all my obedient servants will be transported to my planet Felix, to live forever after with me in perfect bliss and harmony.’”
“That’s quite a mouthful for ‘Meoowrr, mzzlpft pzzzt.’” Mr. Nemo observed skeptically.
“Ours is a very economical language,” Kafka the Cat replied.
“And what if the people of Earth tell your Emperor to bugger off?” blustered the bureaucrat.
“I’m afraid that would mean war with the Feline Empire, something none of us should want,” the cat meowed.
“I’m for peace — and pot and green jobs,” said the unemployed. “And Felix does sound like a lovely place. It reminds me of the merry old Land of Oz. Confirmation of the existence of somewhere over the rainbow gives meaning to life. You see, Nemo, you no longer have to worry about futility, the vanity of human wishes, dead birds and stuff.”
“My name was Shitty, but now it’s Kitty,” said Harold the Homeless. “I’ll vote for Emperor Pumplegeezer all right — if he gives me five bucks. Gimme ten bucks an’ I’ll vote for him twice.”
“So the cosmos is ruled by a great cat,” sighed the bureaucrat. “I sometimes thought it might have been a dog. I like dogs. After all, dog spelled backwards is god. Cat spelled backwards is tac. What’s a tac? I find this all rather disappointing.”
There was a good deal of argument among the coffee shop patrons; some wanted to welcome the aliens, others considered calling the police, or the FBI, or alerting The Department of Homeland Security. Amid all the heated discussion, Nemo remained obstinately silent.
Finally, Kafka the Cat questioned his friend: “Well, Mr. Nemo, aren’t you happy now that your great existential questions have been answered by a Deus ex Machina? Isn’t that what you wanted?”
“Nothing’s been answered,” Nemo sighed. “Submit to feline rule, or face the consequences. That’s your Emperor’s demand. And if we’re good boys and girls the great Rumpleteazer might deign to care for us in a promised afterlife on Felix. What sort of choice is that? Why should we believe the conquering Rumpleteazers with their empty promises? Free spirits are forever crushed by the jackboots of cosmic oppression. Nemo might just as well be that dead seagull.”
Kafka the Cat raised his paw and sniggered, “Mew, mew, mew.”
“What’s so funny, Kafka?”
“We really had you going for a while, didn’t we?” Kafka turned to the space cat. “All right, Socrates, time to hand out the flyers.”
Socrates the Siamese, in the role of the cat from outer space, and Cleopatra the Calico in her robot costume, passed among the throng, handing out promotional material for the upcoming community theater production of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.
“What do you think, fellows?” Kafka meowed proudly. “I got the idea from Orson Welles.”
The unemployed Kafka commented: “I didn’t know Orson Welles wrote War of the Worlds. I thought it was Chekhov.”
Harold the Homeless appeared just as the bureaucrat was about to correct his friend. “Hey Mr. Kitty, gimme five tickets and I promise I won’t panhandle round the playhouse on your opening night.”
Kafka the Cat acquiesced. The homeless one immediately scalped the tickets, turning a nice profit.
Kafka the Bureaucrat observed: “While we’ve been sitting on our backsides babbling about the meaning of life, we’ve been taken in by our feline friend’s promotional gimmick, and old Harold’s opportunistically stuffed his pockets full of dollar bills. We’ve been duped by a group of theatrical cats and scammed by a bum.”
Kafka the Unemployed remarked. “I think the kitties are cute. And that old derelict has quite an entrepreneurial spirit. I wonder why he’s such a loser.”
Mr. Nemo sighed. “What makes you think he’s the loser?”
Copyright © 2011 by Gary Inbinder