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Kafka In The Common


A flock of pigeons clustered around the park bench while the old man threw handfuls of popcorn on the asphalt. He wheezed, softly. The old man wore loneliness like an old hat.

His sunken eyes lingered on the birds, as if pigeons were fuzzy stuffed bedtime cuddle-friends who could keep him company until sleep came. Red-faced, the old man wiped dribbly sweat from his forehead in rhythm: wheeze, wheeze, mop; wheeze, wheeze, mop. The sun glared off his moist, shiny head.

Then, out of nowhere, his voice creaked to life.

"You birdies . . . you birdies got it good, you know that? This is the life of Riley, birdies. Look at this! You got no job, and you'll never need one. Why? Because you get all the food you could ever eat from old saps like me. The best food in the park. I pay extra for the good stuff, you know, from the vendor by the statue, because he pops it fresh every day. Some of the guys get big bags of stale pre-popped crap and sell it like it's fresh. But I know better.

"I wonder how many of you are mommies. Or daddies." The pigeons cooed. Two tugged at the same plump kernel. "I bet most of you are. Call of the wild. Ever see your kids? Probably not. We got something in common there.

"Pigeons don't mate for life, do they? You just do your screwing and get the hell out of there. My wife mated for life." He straightened his back and scattered a bunch of popcorn on the sidewalk. "A better place, that's what they tell me. She's in a better place."

Using a single withered finger, the old man spilled the whole bag of popcorn all over the pavement, sending the pigeons into a panic. Feathers rustled wildly. "Yeah, you got it good," said the old man. "Nothing to lose. Here's the sad thing -- you're too stupid to know how good you got it."

The old man grunted to a standing position. The pigeons exploded into pandemonium, startled by the old man's sudden movement. He shuffled away, leaving the park bench empty and the popcorn strewn all about. As soon as he moved a few steps, the flock of pigeons descended on the popcorn, devouring it like unwitting prey. They cooed, as always.

The old man approached a phone booth, up near the loud street, and fingered change in his pocket. He hobbled in, pushed the door shut, and lifted the receiver. He raised his hand to clink a dime into the slot, but hesitated. Memories flushed away. He couldn't remember the number he planned to call. He couldn't remember whose number had been forgotten. Concentration didn't help. It all slipped away. Then he blacked out.


His eyes flickered open and blinked what must have been a hundred times. The beating of his heart was so rapid, so intense, that he felt certain he was in the beginning stages of cardiac arrest. Then he noticed: no pain. After countless years getting accustomed to the dull pain wracking his bones, he was free. New sensations shot through him, one by one. He felt lighter, light enough to float. He waddled side to side rather than taking careful steps. He felt so close to the ground; what had changed? He had acquired machine-gun vision revealing feathers, huge feathers covering his awkward body. But the feathers weren't extraordinary. Neither was he. There were hundreds of pigeons in the Boston Common.

Screaming made more sense than anything, but his voice didn't work as it once did. Nothing. Now curious, he pushed air through his new windpipe and found a coo coming from inside him. Pleased, he fluttered about. He moved what would have been his arms and marveled at how light they felt. The runaway heart rate filled him with energy and inspired him to raise his arms -- no, wings! He beat them up and down, in rhythm with his manic pulse. Up he went, sailing higher and higher into the blue. At one point he tried to glide and plummeted a great distance before correcting the mistake. His newly precise eyes spotted a patch of trees in the Public Garden. He darted through the cooling air.

Discovering a group of pigeons within the grove, he made a graceful landing and bobbed into the flock. Excited to the point of virtual intoxication, he did his best to relate the incredible story. The pigeons simply pecked at puddles. The birds seemed be unaware of each other, noting another one's presence only when it stood in the way of a bit of food. His spirit burned. He ached to tell of his transformation.

A smiling little boy stood near the pond scattering the remains of a tuna sandwich. Swarming pigeons fought for each little crumb. The new pigeon eagerly snagged a scrap, then was overwhelmed by a sudden preference for food that would twist and writhe; it should still be alive as he ate it. The delighted boy now tossed chunks of tuna fish at the pigeons, not knowing the desperation of the new pigeon. While he could remember how to talk, the new pigeon could not perform the act. An inadvertent coo increased the frustration. He took to the sky, abandoning his ignorant companions, and tried to clear his mind. He performed tricks in the air, learning the limits of his newfound ability to fly. He swirled around the tall trees, feeling more liberated with each passing moment. The sky was his new home. There was no need to touch ground again.

"This is crazy. This can't be happening."

His wings failed. He fell, slammed his head against the wall of the phone booth and crumpled to the ground. The pain returned, but only for a fleeting moment.


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