Sons of Samsa

By Christoph W. Bauer

Translation Susan Thorne

“Kafka drove the father out of me, so I was at least spared being a bogeyman in someone else’s childhood—parents always turn out that way, by definition.” He looked over my shoulder at one of the monitors showing the flight gates and departure times, and drew his brows together. Then he burst out laughing, “The Romans are boarding,” he said, adding, “Do you like Rome?”

My thoughts were still with Kafka and I looked at him quizzically, whereupon he said, “It’s the same for me: a horrible city, Naples, yeah, Florence, maybe, but Rome: never. Who wants to go to a city that all roads lead to, which just means that you’ll meet all and sundry, and Mrs. All and Mrs. Sundry, too—we want to be politically correct, don’t we?”

Suddenly he stood up, “’Scuse me for a minute,” pointed at his luggage, “Keep an eye on it?”   Without waiting for my reply, he turned his back, making me think of my father, which gave me a shock. Felt myself being watched, started to examine the luggage entrusted to me, a small backpack and a cloth bag with the slogan Squaring the Circle. Hadn’t my father drummed it into me all during my youth? From my first trip without my parents and forever after: Never let strangers palm off a piece of luggage on you. He would have assumed there were drugs in there, he worked with them himself – no, my old man and I, we seldom saw eye to eye. Another shock: when was the last time I had called him the old man?

I had cultivated a relaxed relationship with my father in the interim, he was more approachable since his retirement and had gone from being a heathen to a believer in some respects. Previously, he’d do anything to assert his opinion; now he appreciated the value of listening. And that of reading: how he used to demonize novels, “You don’t find life happening inside those fictions.” The indestructible Clarks, that he kept on wearing in memory of his first investment with his own money, had landed in the garbage. Now he wore those unspeakable rubber slippers you see on children everywhere these days, my mother had talked him into it. So she was co-responsible for his transformation, he had her—an ardent vegetarian—to thank for the fact that he preferred the side dishes on his plate, once despised as accessories, to any meat concoction. And that former pill-roller now swore by the healing power of herbs, with a missionary zeal that almost seemed like a mockery of his former pharmacist’s life.

You could smile at all that, but it’s OK, I myself had changed, too. By this time, every business trip was agony, I avoided flights when I could, always driven by the thought that my luck would run out sooner or later. My faith in technology didn’t come back until the plane landed, and until then I clasped the lapis lazuli scarab beetle in my pants pocket, a present from my mother, even took it to doctor’s appointments, a horror, Father’s fear of diagnoses: and what will become of the children? But I would never warn of—
Where was that guy, my plane was leaving soon. What to do if he didn’t show up in time? Leave the luggage pieces lying there and unleash a suspected-bomb alarm? A sudden thought: Why just suspected? I began to sweat. But two items had been handed over to me, and that definitely argued against an assassination attempt. I consoled myself that the backpack alone would be enough for a terrorist attack, or even the cloth bag. Was the latter just camouflage? I grabbed my water bottle, drank greedily, not letting that damnable bag out of my sight. That slogan an instruction? Squaring the circle.

I tried to grasp the meaning of the phrase, felt hatred rising within me. How I had pleaded with the old man to let me attend a language camp in England, in Worthing, Eastbourne or Bournemouth, all my classmates were allowed to, it didn’t come into question for me, for reasons whose emptiness my father did his best to fill at high volume. “I piss on the roaming charges!” I hollered now in reply, tearing my cell phone out of my jacket pocket and googling “Squaring the circle.” At least I didn’t need to feel watched any more, glances were directed at me, but I had other problems, the smell of sweat rose into my nostrils, why did the site take so long to load? Then finally, Squaring the circle, Cuadratura del circulo, die Quadratur des Kreises as a classical problem of geometry, a metaphor in many languages for an insoluble problem.

“That’s it!” I bellowed, “an insoluble problem!” X-ray looks followed my pointing finger to the cloth bag, a woman cried, “Oh my God”. And brought me to my senses with her cry, outwardly anyway. I made a fluid, appeasing hand gesture, smiled awkwardly, stared at the phone display. Clung to the lucky charm in my pants pocket with the other hand, barely under control inwardly, my thoughts rushing headlong: Worthing, Squaring the circle, Kafka, kept coming back to my father. “If only you hadn’t got started, I always warned you,” I heard him intoning, that sanctimonious pill-roller, I craved a cigarette, but there were no smokers’ zones in this cursed terminal. I stood up, keeping a lookout for the cloth bag’s owner, where was that guy? And what was he up to now?
We’d become acquainted in the departure hall, started a conversation, which was very agreeable for me, thankful for any distraction from my flying phobia. But hadn’t his appearance immediately struck me as a bad omen? That Existentialist look! His black suit was matched by the dark rings under his reddened eyes, as if he hadn’t slept all night or had been weeping over the transience of being. He’d been living in London for years and worked as a journalist for a news magazine, he told me, and also that he was currently working on a story about prohibited insecticides, a highly personal story, he had elaborated, and broke into my amazement at this postscript with the question—And you? I explained about the dermatology conference in London that I was travelling to, blathered on about how UV contamination causes far more damage to our skin than cigarettes. Our skin is not a carapace, he remarked softly.

Gregor Samsa! I hadn’t been able to come up with the name until now; I sat down again. Hadn’t the cloth bag been lying to the right of the backpack? I hid my face behind my hands but couldn’t ignore the snickering, no matter how hard I tried, squeezed my thighs together, simultaneously starting to grunt and then to collapse into laughter. “Oh my God,” I gasped in the direction of my forced cry a few minutes before—saw the woman and her unmistakable expression, which reminded me of my father, because everything kept reminding me of him, even the apple in her hand or her companion’s crutch, yes, even the newspaper in which one traveller now immersed himself again, tired of the ridiculous sight of me. And he was right, I realized with horror as I looked down at myself: those weren’t my hands, those weren’t my legs and those definitely weren’t my feet at all that were thrust into silly sandals, because I hated sandals, had hated them viscerally ever since childhood. No, that wasn’t me, and if it was, then I didn’t want to have anything to do with myself, that was over. Another person was sitting here now, somebody else had morphed into a wimp here before everybody’s eyes, bewitched by panic. That explained the grunting in purely mythological terms, but it didn’t help me otherwise. For I’d grown under his skin, shrunk into him right down to his feet, which didn’t even reach to the ground.  Let’s finally get rid of those pathetic sandals, rushed over his tongue and out of my mouth. And the woman, familiar to me now, bit into the apple and her companion grabbed his crutch, and the newspaper reader—no reaction from him. Yet he was watching me out of the corner of his eye, I could feel it, that gray-haired man had been watching me the whole time, it seemed to me that he was looking at my feet, and yes, the old man grinned! I wanted to jump up, but the Sandal Child held me back, whispered in my ear: You’re wearing—I looked bashfully down at myself, those weren’t my hands or legs or feet, but the latter were actually wearing my beloved boots, hideously expensive they were, I had scrimped and saved for them when I was a student. Joyfully I slapped those alien thighs, laughed until my unfamiliar sides ached, in other words: I had to admit to myself that I had gone crazy. And I asked myself what I’d done to deserve that.

I was just a little dermatologist with a big doctor phobia, son of a pill-roller turned herb guru, on his return trip from a conference about the vindication of corticosteroids, I had run into a man at the terminal who was still making me wait for him, had merely inquired whether he had children. “Kafka drove the father out of me,” was his answer, and I had immediately started searching for the name of the protagonist in the only story of Kafka’s I had ever read, years ago. I was not surprised that Gregor Samsa had stayed in my memory, I had presented a report about the story. I closed my eyes, and the departures hall dissolved into the bedroom of my youth, where I was sitting at the desk, bent over Kafka’s story. My father opened the door, as always my glance crawled beetle-like down from his chin, across his chest, down his pants legs to his Clarks. He came no closer, stood leaning against the door frame and snarled, “What are you reading there again?” And without waiting for my answer, he turned his back.
“Excuse me, I had to call my mother, that’s why—where were we?”

The Existentialist-freak, in the flesh. I felt something prick my hand, pulled it out of my pants pocket, saw the mark, “With a writer from Prague,” I managed to say.

“Prague? Weren’t we talking about Rome?”

“But you mentioned Kafka.”

“Oh right, yes, I read that sentence somewhere once, years ago, it got under my skin, if I can use that expression with a dermatologist.”

“So. Do you have children now?” I was getting impatient. He looked past my shoulder to one of the monitors, suddenly seized his bags, he had to get going. He said his father couldn’t run off anymore, that would be a pointless undertaking even for him, “but if I miss this flight, I won’t get to his funeral.”

I stood up with difficulty, unsettled, forced to think of my father. I looked at the person across from me, at his eyes, the dark rings, matching his funeral clothes. I couldn’t manage a word, put out my hand. Sighing, he turned away, went in the direction of the counter where the woman and her companion and the grey-haired man had gathered. “My condolences,” I called softly after him, but just at that instant he turned around toward me and laughed in my face.

From the short fiction collection In einer Bar unter dem Meer. Erzählungen © Haymon Verlag, 2014