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Kafka's cockroach
Part III

April 16, 2002
The Iranian

Part III: New York: 2002
Part I, Part II)

Because he could not, because he was bound to the rock, birds feasting on his liver, his life, Prometheus suffered the way of his will, and his lesser self found the way jagged, desert-dazzled, thirst dead. He wrote his story, and the pen was warped, distorting in a slant the light that might tell, but escaped to give him his right to suffer much. Once reconciled, once abandoning the way of the best laid plan of mice and men, grace restored his harmony and Gregor died.

New York is for those who must fight, the grid of routes, like a wall of iron fence, laid on the ground to let the willing roam but leave the land untouched. How can those paved roads allow the land breath for life and restore soul to the living?

"I'm done with it," Gregor said as the glow of the burning wood inside a hole-riddled oil drum, as if machine gunned on purpose to let the fire out, warmed the huddled two to keep the cold in check, the dead of the winter.

"I will not seek for my humanity any more."

"Are you finished writing you?" Kafka asked from a distance. "Am to rewrite you anew?"

"I'll take advice, but no rewriting, thank you. If I am to finish your book, I must write me first."

"You'll have to deal with suffering, I tell you."

"With your help, I might survive."

"Are you suggesting perhaps a collaboration of some sorts? Do you mean us to write you together?"

"No! You just coach me along; how shall I say? Yes, edit me."

"I must warn you," Kafka said with a frown. "I must tell you that I am not good at editing, and I will be brutally frank, if that's acceptable to you."

"I know it," Gregor conceded, resting his worn-out legs on a ragged piece of news paper that read, "New York is in revolt against itself."

"Why give up your search now!?" Kafka asked. "You abandoned me to find you!"

"My search is like a terrible wound on an animal," Gregor answered. "It itches and hurts until the animal cannot bear and bites at the festering wound, and with each bite the cure causes deeper cuts until there is no wound left, nor the animal. I will not be diminished further."

"Oh! I see!"

The huddlers at night must have dreamed nightmare gargoyles, because one rolled and fell against the drum with a thud. The comfort of the heat worked its magic and he came to life, groaned with satisfaction, and almost rolled over Gregor, who ran in the direction of Kafka's voice, his nervous legs carrying him fast.

"Decades of practice pays off!" Kafka said with a laugh.

"No! It was the fear of being crushed by a fellow human being!" Gregor joked back, the first time in years he had ever written the funny side of his life. "Human to bug, he is the loser!"

"You sound happy? What has changed?"

"I really don't know, but I think I will never again ask another man for the restoration of my humanity, a great relief."

"Another kind of alienation?"

"No; I must find it in me."

"Is that wise?"

"Are you editing me?"

"Just coaching you÷for now!"

His mate rolled closer to the first vagrant man; he, too, felt the warmth of the fire and sighed with satisfaction. They were both hungry, but Gregor was in the midst of plenty. Everywhere he looked was garbage and scraps.

"New York of 2002 is a feasting table," Gregor said.

"Only for a cockroach!" Kafka protested.

"No wonder they call New York the city of cockroaches÷."

"And mice!" Kafka added.

"They are both immortal, of this world!"

"But, not man!"

"No; not man, unless he is transformed, like me. His days are numbered, but they, they will live to the very edge of doom."

"It is hard for man to survive in this violent land, this expended land," Kafka observed, remembering other times and other places like New York.

"These two men," Gregor said, "these two men who huddle even for living, these two men are not violent; they live in harmony, well, a harmony brought about by necessity." Gregor sat on a rock, surveying the sky. It was the mid-winter moon, that vapor sponged light that spreads further than in summer. Three small clouds were sailing fast, one trying to catch up with the other two. Gregor gazed and decided to stay to see if the little cloud would catch up with the two head-starts. The head-start two closed ranks to become one, and the third hurried to become of them. "Hurry, you little cloud," Gregor said. "Hurry, you faint of heart. Your being depends on joining. The other two will not retrace their paths to become you!"

He saw it all: the little cloud slid fast into the two; then the three were one, and the moon lit the way as the one glided, slowly, out of sight: Gregor's heart filled with life. He felt his limbs swell and extend, re-shape and re-size. His heart beat dropped, slower; now, he could feel his pulse between his fingers. He felt the winter cold and man hunger, but no man-food in sight. He had not asked, but he was given, and he knew that he was man.

"How does it feel after all these years?" asked Kafka.

"Great!" said Gregor. "What? no tattoos? No numbers?"

"This time, you didn't ask."


"You felt this time."

"What does that mean?"

"You didn't try to write you, but you did. In not trying, you succeeded, and see what you've done: in sympathizing you have written more than just you."

"Those two!?" Gregor exclaimed, pointing at the sleeping men.

"Exactly; they are your charge now; you are responsible for them."

"No one was ever responsible for me."

"I was -- and, Grete? At least, earlier, before she got fed up with you."

"What do I do with my creation?"

"That is the beginning of your reclamation. They are you and themselves. I don't know; you want me only to be your editor. You created them: You take care of them, as I do of you when you let me."

"I didn't know I could write more than me."

"How do you think God does his work?"

"Wait a minute, Kafka!" Gregor shouted, and his voice echoed in the dump and beyond, in the city. "Wait a minute! You can't leave me with these people. I wouldn't know what to do with them. I have never been able to handle people."

"You'll find a way," Kafka replied as he was disappearing. "I'll be close by; any time you need editing, call me."

And Gregor knew that he could not go to Oklahoma and finish Kafka's book. That was another matter, entirely beyond his reach, a matter that he thought he could undertake, but he was mistaken. Only Kafka could finish Kafka's book, and Gregor was not Kafka, no matter how he identified himself with Kafka. His task was with these men, and his humanity depended on his work with these dirty, vagrant human beings with whom he had, at a moment of weakness, sympathized into creation. But it was too late now; it was too late to disclaim them and try to find his humanity some other way. At any rate, the miracle had happened, and he was reclaimed without any identification other than his own. He was let go, so to speak, by the courts under his own cognizance.

"I don't think I can handle it," Gregor mumbled. The fire was all but out, and he felt the bitter cold penetrating his light clothes as the icy breeze blew from the Hudson River and across the land.

"What did you say, buddy?" the first huddler-for-life asked.

Gregor remained silent, but the man again asked, "Is that you, Arnie; is that you?"

Arnie lifted himself on his elbows, rubbed his eyes in the twilight and said, "No! Go to sleep."

"I thought you said somethin'."

"It was me," Gregor volunteered. "I was talking to myself."

Arnie opened his eyes wide and looked in the direction of the voice to see if there was an intruder. "Who's there?"

"Nobody," Gregor said. "It's just me, Gregor."

"Who the hell is Gregor, Max?" Arnie asked. "Nobody is allowed here!"

"I don' know no Gregor," Max sat up as he was trying to see Gregor's face. "How did you get here?"

Gregor could not possibly tell them about his story or how he had happened to be there, nor could he tell them that they were his charge, his writing! "I just dropped in," he said. "Yes, I just dropped in."

"He just dropt in," Max reassured Arnie. "He just dropt in!"

"Well, just drop out!" Arnie insisted. "There ain't enough round here for three. Just drop out before we send you out!"

"Don't send me out," Gregor begged. "I need you."

"You need us?" Arnie asked with a smile. "Max, This guy needs us!"

"I have nobody."

"Who does?" Max responded. "How come you fallen so low? Ain't you got nobody, no job, somethin'?"

"I have no one; I have traveled far."

"You speak funny! You're forner," Arnie observed. "You on the run?"

"You might say so; immigration is after me."

"You're okay!" Max said with a softer voice. "You're okay, but keep to your corner. You can huddle at night; but day time, you grub your way. We sher what you finds."

For the first time in decades, Gregor felt comfortable under most uncomfortable circumstances. These men were already beginning to accept him as a human being, an equal. "This is the land of equality, this city dump," Gregor thought and was glad to be a part of the life in New York City.

"You are developing a sense of humor, buddy! Guy!" Gregor heard Kafka whispering in his ears. "I used to laugh at my own writing, especially when I had an audience; but you÷!"

Crimson gold, the color of blood and light, twilight, gilded clouds in rosy jagged-frames: white sea gulls soaring, still-winged, magnet-pulled, source-drained, source fashioned; flying angrily, the white wingéd horse, fans the gray of the smoke hanging above the city like a blanket of curses.
"Who are you? And, who are you? And, who you are!" No one asks.

"I am Ulysses, come round, at last come round, to tell you the cycle is less than the Cyclops assumed and more than Homer thought was possible until Stephen could recognize the lover -- mother? -- in a brothel and forgive himself through Bloom who blossomed, the
epiphany, not in Dublin, in Gregor to see the city dump as his beginning, but not his end. It is the bridge that will end him.

His mate saw his hands freezing in the cold of December. "Wear this," Arnie offered a three-fingered, red glove to Gregor. "It'll keep you warm."

"Don't you need it yourself? It's so bitterly cold."

"Take hit; I've two. No left hand, see?" And, Arnie tried to show his arm with the amputated hand. "Got froze two yers Žgo, a week before chrismis, just Žbout this time a-yer it was, an' the doc, he laughs an' says it was useless anyhows, an' says ŽArnie, one good han' will do the job,' so I says, Žgo ahead, doc, cut the fuckin' han',' an' he puts me to sleep, an' when I comed, I had one less han'." Arnie laughed and offered the glove to Gregor.

Gregor was writing Arnie, and he was touched, as though the source was a mystery. He didn't understand Arnie at all and thought, "How could he talk about it without bitterness, without holding the world responsible?"

"That is you," Kafka interrupted from behind the hills. "You are writing him that way. Your wounded man turns out to be a hero. Of course, I would have written him differently!"

"Am I his charge," Gregor asked from nowhere, "or is he mine? He is leading the way. Am I envious of his freedom?"

"I don't know; but you are writing him: gods are often jealous of their handiwork!"

"Don't dare to joke at such a serious time, Kafka!"

"I am not: as I am you, as you create you, so Arnie is you, as you write him. You are the bridge, if you so choose, connecting the backward to the forward, infinite to infinite, at least the infinite I know: You extend both ways. Only when Arnie opts to write himself do you become me, the cycle of will and reconciliation, death and resurrection. So, take care of all three of you because gods also learn from their creatures, who are also gods."
Max and Arnie were looking at Gregor in a mystified awe. "You ain't crazy, Greg," Max asked from a distance that he had put between himself and Gregor.

"No, I am not crazy," Gregor answered.

"You prophet or somethin'?" Arnie asked with respect. "Are you? Droppin' in like that!"

"No, I am no prophet; I can barely see this very moment, why?"

"You was talkin' to somebody, Kafka his name? We didn' see nobody, did we, Arnie?" Max said. "But, that's ok, too. You can stay with us as long as you want. An' you don't have to sher your grub!"

"Your friend can stay too," Max suggested timidly.

"I will stay as long as you want me to stay," Gregor replied as he was fitting the glove on his right hand. He looked up at Arnie with a broad smile and said, "Thanks; I'll wear it. I'll keep my left hand in my pocket. One good hand will do the job!" And they all three laughed.

"That's the spirit, fellow; that is it," Max said, still respectfully ambivalent about Gregor's station in the hierarchy of the dump.

The next night they huddled, all three, and they felt warmer than they had been, plenty of food, "The prophet's gift," as Arnie called it. Max went to pains to situate Gregor between himself and Arnie, half in fear of his prophesy and half in fear of his absconding with their worldly goods before they woke up in the morning.

"We'll watch over you, Greg," Max said. "You sleep tight and warm!"

The year 2003 arrived with the sun shining directly on the three inhabitants of the city dumps. "Damn cockroach," Arnie woke up and saw the mess as he was trying to squashed a dozen bugs running all over the Formica sheet he was sleeping on. "Ain't Žfraid of nothin', rats an' all."

"They are competing with the rats," Gregor said, still dreaming of New Year's Day in Prague almost a century earlier. "They're harmless compared with the rodents; they don't bite or spread the plague."

But, Arnie hated cockroaches and preferred rodents. He said, "You ken stew a rat in a pinch. You ate las' night! Roaches just litter Žround an' run inside your cloz. I soon kill'em all; no good for eatin'!"

"They clean the land, like buzzards in the prairie," said Gregor, trying to teach him. "Cockroaches are useful. They've their place in this world."

"I say, kill'em all!" Arnie roared as he was stumping madly on the cockroaches that were running zigzag in every direction. "Kill the sumbitch! hate the fuckin' bugs!"

Impulsively, Gregor sprang to his feet like a depressed coil and landed on Arnie, who was absolutely dumfounded to find Gregor, the docile prophet and carpenter of their shack, upon him. "What the hell!" Arnie shouted, "what the hell you do that for?"

Gregor did not answer, still holding Arnie down, mindful not to hurt him but unwilling to let go. The cockroaches had quit running and were stubbornly standing around, twiddling their antennae, gazing, as if they knew the human language and knew that the struggle was on their account. In a mythic moment, Arnie saw a million cockroaches circling them, rubbing their antennae together that made the distinct cockroach sound, that high-pitched whistling sound, an invitation to feast, feast on his body, feast on his flesh, cannibals, even if not human, a sacramental feast of unity. Slowly the they closed the circle, and Arnie heard Kafka saying, "Eat, drink, this is the body of his body and the blood of his blood."

Instantly, however, Arnie could bear them no longer and shouted in fear of his life, "Jesus Christ, Son of God÷ the damn roaches eating me alive!"

And Max was on Gregor, pulling him away from Arnie, but Gregor did not fight to keep Arnie down. "I knowed you was crazy!" Max said with a false threat in his voice. "I knowed you was loony!"

Gregor sat away from Arnie, Max still having a firm hold on him, but he felt serendipitous. "Didn't intend to hurt you," he offered. "I was just stopping you from killing those cockroaches."

"Roach is no good," Max said. "You can't kill'em anyhows."

Gradually, Arnie gained his composure, but there were no millions of cockroaches to be seen, nor dead ones that Arnie had earlier killed: That frightened him. "You best get!" he said. "You best be on your way!"

"You done us good," Max said. "Thanks for all that, but you best be on your way now. There ain't much Žround here for three!"

Gregor stood up and looked in the direction of the city, and he knew that the time had come. Before he left, however, Arnie removed the glove from his right hand and gave it to him. "You wear it, Greg," he said. "You'll be movin', and the cold gets you."

Gregor took the glove: It had all five fingers in tact. He put the glove on, looked at the two, and without another word he started in the direction of the city that was still sleeping. "Let'em write themselves," Gregor mumbled.

"I have done just fine."

"They'll do fine, too," he heard Kafka's voice. "They'll be just fine."

It was late in the afternoon when Gregor arrived in the city, hitching a ride with a trucker, who had dared to challenge the elements and was driving this new day of the new year, away from his home.

There were very few stores open, but one intriguing shop off Times Square at Forty-Fourth Street beckoned Gregor in, and irresistibly he moved and stood across from the shop, on the opposite side of the street. The marquee in red neon lights read, "Madam Milena Jesenskà Tattoo Master."

"Go inside," Kafka suggested. "Go inside if you want a tattoo. I know her."

"I don't need a tattoo," Gregor replied. "Yet! Yet, I feel I am missing something, some part of me. Do you think I'm still looking for an identity outside myself?"

"Madam Milena knows!" Kafka teased him. "She can tell you."

"I think I'll get out of this cold street and go inside the tattooing parlor. I'm going to ask Madam Milena some serious questions!"

Inside, three chairs and operating tables remained unoccupied, three women, all tattoo masters, waiting for customers to satisfy, but no one in sight, the wrong day of the year. "Welcome home, Herr Samsa," Madam Milena said. She was a striking woman: tall, slender, wide shouldered, long legged, with a delicate nose, broad forehead, penetratingly blue eyes, a lovely curved mouth, passionate to distraction.

"Kafka, I want her," Gregor said loudly, and she heard him.

She spoke with a slight accent, adding to her mystery. "You want something special, no?" she asked.
"I have come to ask questions," Gregor answered, "questions about men and cockroaches, but you make me forget myself!"

"You choose the pattern, and I'll tell you what kind of person you are, no?"

"I have been tattooed before!"

"I know; Let's see! You don't want a swastika. You don't want numbers. How about a six-pointed star? No!"

"I don't think so. Kafka has killed that one for me. I still bitterly remember his writing you, Žsometimes I'd like to cram them all as Jews (including myself) into a drawer of the laundry chest, then wait, then open the drawer a little, to see whether all have already suffocated, if not, to close the drawer again and go on like this to the end.' So you see: A star of David will never do!"

"I didn't mean that," Kafka roared from somewhere on the ceiling, his sticky legs leaving traces of a brown liquid on the white paint. "That was just a pose to distract Madam Milena; I thought she didn't like Jews! It was an impetuous affectation. After all, in her letter she had asked me if I was a Jew, and how else could I interpret her?"

"It was an innocent question," Madam Milena said. "No! It wasn't even a question. I was only trying to fill the page and entice you to Vienna."

"I thought you were questioning my suitability. Josef David's family questioned Ottla's suitability, you remember that, don't you?"

"I was married to a Jew before I met you -- " she confessed, "You people were my tool of rebellion against Papa."

Gregor coughed to remind them that it was his story. He said, "Well, well, well! My God! Kafka, who denies himself! How does it go? ŽThe sins of fathers shall be visited upon their children?' No wonder I have been looking for me for over a century!"

"That was a long time ago," Kafka said, trying to change the subject and shift the attention to Gregor, "and Madam Milena is anxious to get you identified."

"Show me some designs," Gregor asked. "Flowers, trees and such."

"No! Today, you must be more creative, my dear!" Madam Milena suggested. "This is a once-in-a-life-time affair, and we must do it right, just right. Let me surprise you, then. Let me be your lover-mother and choose your mark! Where do you want the tattoos?"

"Tattoos? How many? I really don't want any, but if it will please you and Kafka, you can tattoo me inside my palms and on my feet. I want people to see your art; on my body, very few will see your handiwork."

"Done!" she said, and he extended his left palm to be tattooed.

Madam Milena fed a pattern into a large machine that was hooked to an apparatus like a dentist's drill and turned it on, putting three dyes in three different canisters, all connected to the arm of the tattooer. She then gently lowered Gregor's palm inside a box that was covered with a black velvet cloth, on which icons of mysterious origins were painted in white.

"This is what we call the coffin," Madam Milena explained. "The name sounds ominous, but it really isn't. You can call it a transducer, and it won't matter because words do not matter any longer, icons do."

She pushed a button, a light flashed and gears moved a flexible spring-cord in a never-ending circle that ran from the dye-chambers to the icon-possessed box. The cord carried the dyes down; on the up swing, it was clear and clean. Gregor did not feel any pain because the rotating needle inserted the dyes without breaking the skin. "Transmolecular process," she explained. "I invented it. The dyes float under the skin very much like other micro-organisms do, microscopic bugs and mites!"

When the operation was complete and he pulled his hand out of the box, in the middle of his left palm he saw a tattooed butterfly in multicolors. Then, she tattooed his right hand with the same butterfly, and the bugs mirrored each other, male and female, one on each palm.

"Make the insects dance; make them dance with you!" Madam Milena shouted at Gregor with the ecstasy of a little girl who had just caught a living monarch, her arms gracefully imitating the sweeping motion of the butterfly wings. "Make your palms dance!"

Gregor bent his fingers up and down from the third joint, caressing his palms as his fingers moved, and miraculously the wings of the butterflies moved with the rhythm of his will. "Oh!" Gregor shouted with delight. "Oh!" Again, the motion of his fingers imitating the wings of the butterfly.

To tattoo his feet was another matter: They were almost frozen and red. "We must thaw them first," Madam Milena ordered, and three pairs of hands undressed Gregor and rubbed his body with spices, the tenderness of a lover, until he knew them all; and when the scented rushes uncovered Leda, naked, willing, so over-powered by the beating wings, beak-torn, not of body, she put on his knowledge, and he, theirs.

When Gregor woke up, he had two small nymphs emerging from two cocoons, all tattooed on his feet; he was done, the inner hard shell sliced off, and he was free at last.

"I have quit writing me," Gregor suddenly announced. "I haven't written me since this morning. Who is writing me now?"

"Not me!" Kafka replied.

"Who is writing you and Madam Milena? Who is writing these three graceful women?"

"Nobody, I assume," Kafka admitted with disappointment.

"Someone must?"

"Why someone must? What is the need?"

"You started me, and I wrote me for a while; then I started Max and Arnie; they are now writing them. There must be someone before you and someone after Max and Arnie. I want to know who started you, Kafka?"

"I was a biological product of my parents, and they, their parents. It's that simple!"

"And, before that?"

"Before that there were the Homo Erectus, Homo Habilis, hominids, primates, until we get back to the murky soup that combined elements to make the first semi-living organic matter: This is my genealogy, yours no different!"

"And before that?"

"What do you want from me? God?" Kafka shouted with irritation, angry with Gregor for the first time since he had begun writing him. "If it is God you want, go find him. This childish quest for Žbefore this' and Žbefore that' won't gets us any place."

"I think I will," Gregor said. "You never take me seriously, anyhow."

Gregor walked out of the tattoo parlor a marked man and happy. The cold was gone, and he wanted to dance, dance to the music from the shops; he opened his hands in front of his face and danced with the butterflies, the wings flapping, not still; and the sea gulls, white, were making music with the butterflies.

"This must be the end and the beginning," Gregor said loudly.

"It is," they said. "You have arrived on time to usher in the new year with style."

"Were you waiting for me?"

"Yes," they whistled with a high-pitched squeak that was heard all across the city, and they took hold of him. He did not resist because he knew their ways and knew that the plan had to work: He had seen Arnie's sacramental dream earlier that day.

"Where?" he asked.

"You'll see! It's a surprise."

"Will Kafka come?"

"He has done his bit; you won't see him."

"And, is it painful? Will I cry in agony? Is it like tattooing?"

"All in good time."

"Who is writing this? Who decides what happens?"

"We just do it; no one that we know writes any scripts."

"How do you know what to do?"

"How do we know we don't?"

"I assume you have come this far with a plan," Gregor said vaguely. "I don't see any reason why there wouldn't be more unfolding."

"Are you prepared?" they asked with a whistle."Can I refuse this cup?" he asked, becoming angry.

They all fell silent, and there was no answer. Finally, they said matter of factly, "The hard shell is gone: You must go, too."

And they put a rope around Gregor's neck and piled food on his back to carry to the bridge. He was surprised at his own strength, but they rushed him, crawling all over his body. There were so many that he could barely walk. It was just before mid-night when they arrived at the bridge, the long bridge leading to the dump. They tied the rope to the iron girders and pushed him over, every one of them hanging on to him, adding their burden to his. No noise there was, only silence and the bridge catching the breeze.


"Who is he?" the reporter asked.

"Nobody," the police answered. "He hung himself last night."


"He wouldn't tell!" the police said. "Perhaps, the world was too much for him, but the funny thing is; the funny thing is, he had a bundle of rotting food on his back, fit for cockroaches!"

"I know him," Max said.

"Who are you?" asked the reporter.

"I'm Max; I live down there," and he pointed towards the dump.

"How do you know him?" The officer asked with a yawn.

"He jus' dropt in; Arnie an' me jus' foun' him: He's a prophet!"

The End

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment for the writer Reza Ordoubadian

By Reza Ordoubadian

Kafka's cockroach
Part I

Kafka's cockroach
Part II

Ordoubadian's features idnex


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