Close Encounters of the Absurd Kind
by Gary Inbinder
part 1 of 2
Contact with the unknown requires a singular perspective, neither distorted by its proximity nor sharply focused at a safe distance, but somewhere in between. We judge based on appearance, but appearances deceive, and to see is not necessarily to believe. Such was the case when Mr. Nemo experienced a close encounter of the absurd kind.
Nemo, as was his morning habit, enjoyed a cup of coffee while he sat in a butt-chilling iron slat chair at a large, glass-topped round table. The location was a pavement fronting the neighborhood strip mall café. Purplish dawn covered the scene like a spreading hematoma, a flock of menacing sparrows gathered in the shadowy bare branches of a nearby tree, circling gulls and hovering crows screeched and cawed, a distant leaf-blower droned.
Out in the middle of the parking lot, the shabby figure of Harold the Homeless wandered in circles round speed bumps, garbage-strewn concrete islands, and a few parked cars. The homeless one muttered imprecations of imminent doom.
Nemo zipped his windbreaker against the early morning chill, lifted his paper cup and sipped hot coffee through the opening in the lid. A dribble escaped with the steam, leaking down the side of the cup. “Goddamn leaky lids. Bet they’re made in China,” he muttered, wiping the mess with his napkin.
While thus distracted, Nemo failed to notice an approaching figure. The interloper slunk through the shadows, making its presence known by a diffident meow.
Nemo looked down to his right in the direction of the feline whine and was greeted by a pair of glowing emerald eyes. “Good morning, sir,” mewed the cat, “Do you mind if I join you?”
Nemo glanced round in an attempt to locate a human interlocutor. Perhaps one of Nemo’s friends is practicing ventriloquism, having a little joke at Nemo’s expense?
The cat noticed Nemo’s bewilderment and tried to set him at ease. “Pardon me, sir, if I startled you. As you can see, I’m a cat, but I speak several human languages. If you look closely, you might recognize me. I live in the vicinity of your apartment complex, and we have in fact already made acquaintance. On occasion you have been so good as to treat me to a saucer of milk and a bowl of tuna.”
The sudden appearance of a talking cat might have prompted consternation in some, but Nemo had long since concluded that the world was mad, a cruel arena of combat and death created for the amusement of Thomas Hardy’s “purblind doomsters.” Nemo assumed that both he and the cat were ciphers, mere puppets in the cosmic Punch and Judy show. In such a world, the appearance of an articulate feline was hardly a cause for concern.
Mr. Nemo did not necessarily believe in talking cats. But like Hamlet, Nemo conceded that there were more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in our philosophy. Therefore, though he remained agnostic on the subject of talking felines, he did not think that his agnosticism was an excuse for bad manners.
Nemo bent over, peered into the shadows and soon recognized the handsome young tabby. He instinctively reached down, as he had on previous occasions, and allowed the cat to rub its muzzle against his hand.
“Why you’re the little fellow who visits Nemo now and then, aren’t you?”
“You are correct, sir. Now that we have renewed our acquaintance, may I join you?”
“Of course you may, but Nemo should warn you. Three friends will be joining Nemo shortly, and their attitude toward you may not be as tolerant as Nemo’s.”
The cat climbed onto the chair opposite Nemo, placed his forepaws on the table, and fixed his interlocutor with an appealing green-eyed gaze. “I happen to know the friends of whom you speak. They are Kafka the Bureaucrat, Kafka the Insurance Adjustor, and Kafka the Unemployed. In the course of my peregrinations across this great exurban sprawl, I have come across all of them at one time or another. By the way, I’m known hereabouts as Kafka the Cat, and I reckon one Kafka’s as good as another.”
Nemo was relieved, since he now had assurance that his new friend would be socially acceptable to his regular strip mall café companions. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Cat,” said Nemo as he shook an extended forepaw.
“Please call me Kafka,” the cat meowed in reply.
“The end is near! Repent, Oh, ye sinners! Ye of little faith, repent!” cried Harold the Homeless.
The cat turned toward the homeless man. “Old Harold’s in rare voice this morning.”
“Yes he is,” Nemo sighed. “Harold panhandled Nemo, expecting the usual dollar. Nemo was a bit short, and handed him fifty cents, which Harold snatched with contempt. He damned Nemo to hell for a cheapskate and has been wandering about muttering ever since. Nemo reckons he’ll come begging again when the other Kafkas arrive.”
The cat nodded in sad agreement. They continued exchanging pleasantries about the weather, the condition of the strip mall, the quality of coffee served at the café and so forth until Nemo observed that his friend had nothing to drink.
“Kafka, would you care for some half and half?”
“Oh, would I!” meowed the cat.
Nemo removed the leaky lid from his now empty coffee cup and stuffed the sipping hole with scraps of paper napkin. “Nemo will return in a moment,” he said. He got up and entered the café. By the time Nemo returned with a lid full of cream, Kafka the Bureaucrat and Kafka the Insurance Adjustor had arrived and were in the process of bribing Harold the Homeless to go away and cadge from someone else.
Harold grinned toothlessly through his long, greasy gray beard, as they each handed him a dollar. But when he saw Nemo, the smile turned to a scowl. The Homeless One pointed a shaking finger. “Beware Nemo, you parsimonious, money-grubbing Plutocrat! The end is near. Repent!” Then he turned his back on the company, stuffed the bills in his pocket and shuffled off toward the bus stop in search of another benefactor.
The Kafkas purchased their coffee and donuts, and then joined Mr. Nemo and the cat. Kafka the Bureaucrat, a burly, bald-headed fellow in his late fifties smiled wryly at his pal, Nemo. “You really got the old boy pissed off. Did you stiff him?”
Nemo returned to his chair, handed the cream to the cat, and answered with an air of annoyance, “Nemo did not stiff Harold. Times are tough. Nemo was short of cash, so instead of a dollar he gave Harold fifty cents.”
The Bureaucrat laughed. “Fifty cents! Oh, that’s rich. You can’t treat old Harold that way, leastways not now he’s accustomed to dollar bills.”
“Yes indeed,” added the Insurance Adjustor. “That’s like government cutting COLAs on Social Security. The seniors would have their guts for garters come next election.”
A tall, gaunt man with long, salt and pepper hair tied back in a pony tail, arrived at the table. Kafka the Unemployed smiled and greeted his friends. This morning he wore a black t-shirt with silver lettering: NAE RULES! NAE standing for the organization, Nihilists Against Everything.
“Good morning, Kafka,” said Mr. Nemo. “How’re things going down at the Mall Mart demonstration?”
The Unemployed took his usual seat before replying. “Something big is going down today, very big, my friend. We’re going to take it to that symbol of capitalism, racism, consumerism, imperialist greed, exploitation of the workers, and stuff. But before we talk about that, how’s the writing coming along?”
Nemo was a retired bureaucrat who now wrote for a living, his literary efforts thus far having been less than successful. “Alas, Nemo has just received another rejection from an agent.”
“Another rejection,” exclaimed Kafka the Bureaucrat. “Doesn’t that make five hundred this year?”
“Five hundred and one, to be precise,” Nemo sighed.
“That must be a record,” meowed the cat. “Perhaps you are writing in the wrong genre for today’s market?”
“Nemo fears that may be the case. You see, Nemo writes novels with ideas.”
“Ideas!” sputtered the bureaucrat. “That’s antediluvian. Hemingway made ideas in fiction obsolete.”
“Not to mention novels with stylish prose and wit. Those ended with Evelyn Waugh,” added the Insurance Adjustor.
“And forget fantasy that might be construed as Christian allegory. That went out with C.S. Lewis and Tolkien,” mewed the cat. “Teenage vampire romance is what the agents and editors want these days. Display a trace of ideas, philosophy, theology, stylish prose and wit in your manuscript and it gets tossed into the shredder.”
“Nemo tried writing a teenage vampire romance once, but he made the mistake of including an idea. That was before he learned that agents hire philosophy major interns to screen out all manuscripts containing ideas. One faint glimmer of intelligence in your writing and your proposal is dead on arrival.”
“That’s sad, Nemo,” said the insurance adjustor sympathetically. “But why do the agents hire philosophy majors to screen for ideas? Surely the agents could spot the ideas themselves?”
“Do you think a literary agent would recognize an idea, if she saw one?” queried Nemo.
The company sighed. Then the insurance adjustor ventured, “Do you think ideas are stylebook no-noes, like split infinitives?”
“No indeed,” replied Nemo. “Split infinitives are, as you say, stylebook no-noes, but they’re perfectly acceptable in popular fiction. Ideas are not.”
“Can you think of anything else that might be wrong with your manuscripts, besides the universally proscribed things like intelligence, allegory, stylish prose and wit?” asked the cat.
Copyright © 2012 by Gary Inbinder