Monday, December 31, 2018

Franz Kafka in Fresno

A short story by Daniel A. Olivas
Franz Kafka hated his father.  And he had good reason to harbor such feelings.  Specifically, Franz could not forgive his father for insisting that his only child be named Franz.  Franz understood that his father was very proud that he very likely was related to the great writer by virtue of sharing the same surname.  However, with a name like Franz, Carl virtually guaranteed that his son would be beaten up every day of his life from kindergarten through high school.  Fresno was not a hospitable place for a slender, overly-intelligent, German-Mexican named Franz.  Franz wondered why he couldn’t have been named after some relative on his mother’s side.  The Gamboa family possessed many fine names from which to choose such as Alfredo, Eloy, César and even Kiko, which was really a nickname.  Sometimes, when he was nursing a black eye given to him by a bully, Franz would daydream about who he could have been.  The possibilities made his young head swim in a giddy swirl.  Can you imagine it?  Kiko Kafka!  Who in his right mind, even in Fresno, would mess with a boy named Kiko Kafka?  But, alas, he was named Franz.  And so it was: Franz hated his father.
            The day Franz’s father died, Franz had made a vow never to speak to his father again.  Enough is enough, he reasoned.  If you hate someone, why waste time speaking with each other?  Unfortunately, Franz made the vow before he got the call that his father had died. Of course, he felt a great pang of guilt.  How could a son hate his father especially when his father has died?  It was not right.  So Franz flew back to Fresno from Los Angeles and made certain that Carl had a fine burial.  With his mother long gone, Franz was now officially an orphan at the age of thirty-one.
            “Good-bye, Papá,” said Franz as the coffin slowly creaked down into the fresh grave.  “I didn’t mean to hate you.”
The few people who attended looked away and the priest offered nothing more than a grunt.  As Franz started toward his car, an old man stopped him with a large, heavy hand placed carefully but insistently on Franz’s shoulder. 
“I knew your father well,” said the man.
“Who are you?” asked Franz.
The old man smiled.  “Just a man,” he said.  “Nothing more, nothing less.”
They stood there in silence.  Franz felt as though his head would explode.
“Well,” Franz finally said.  “Thank you for coming.  I’m sure my father would have been happy you made the effort.”
The man let go of Franz’s shoulder.  “I doubt it,” he said with a chuckle.
With that, the man turned and wandered away.  Franz noticed that the man was almost a giant, certainly seven feet tall if he were an inch.  Franz let out a sigh and continued toward his car.  Why would a sardonic giant be attending his father’s funeral?  And why did Franz bother showing up?  What possible benefit could be derived from his presence at the funeral of the only man he hated?  Nothing good could come of this.  There was only one solution.  Franz needed to find a Starbucks.  Since moving to Los Angeles ten years ago, he had become addicted to the brilliant concoction known as the Iced Caramel Macchiato.  It was his only addiction and he fed it liberally.  Franz wondered if Starbucks had made any inroads into Fresno.  He then laughed because to ask such a question would admit to a great ignorance as to how the world worked.  Franz drove into the nearest gas station and, after filling up his Ford Taurus, he asked the attendant for directions to the nearest Starbucks. 
            “On Cedar,” the man said without a smile.  “Just south of Shepherd Avenue.”  The man pointed with his right thumb over his left shoulder.
            “Thank you,” said Franz.
            “Okay,” said the man.
            As Franz walked to his car he suddenly froze.  On the driver’s side window crawled a plump, gigantic cockroach.  For obvious reasons, Franz had developed an aversion to all vermin, in particular cockroaches.  He shivered a deep shiver that went down below his heart.  Franz took a deep breath, averted his eyes, and got himself into the car.  Once safely inside, he looked for the cockroach but it had disappeared.  And for reasons he could not fathom, Franz at that moment missed that cockroach more than his father.  He let out a sigh.  He needed an Iced Caramel Macchiato now more than ever.  Franz imagined the gas station attendant’s thumb pointing toward Cedar and aimed his car in that direction.
            The moment Franz entered the Starbucks, his heartbeat and breathing slowed, his brow unknitted, his hands unclenched.  Ah!  Starbucks.  He stood without moving, absorbing the calm, the familiar coffee smells and sounds.  Franz looked about his second home.  A few young, beautiful people chatted in one corner, two old men played chess over by the wall, a mother and her two children laughed and joked over their frothy drinks.  What a perfect place.  Franz walked to the counter and there stood the most magnificent example of young womanhood he had ever seen.  Her nametag said NAVIDAD which means “Christmas.”  She, indeed, looked like the Madonna, the Virgin—La Virgén de Guadalupe—with long black hair spilling out from under a perfect Starbucks cap.
            “May I help you?” she smiled.
Franz had never seen such a beautiful smile.  His hands shook and his tongue had trouble finding the right position to put itself to form a word.
“Sir?” she asked still offering nothing but the most exquisite smile Franz had ever witnessed.  The young woman’s eyes then brightened with an idea.  She offered: “¿Puedo ayudar usted, señor?”
Oh, God bless her, thought Franz.  She thinks I speak only Spanish.  What a wonderful, thoughtful, empathetic creature she is!  He noticed that she did not wear a wedding band and wondered how such a perfect woman could still be unmarried even taking into account her obvious youth.  Fresno men just don’t get it, he figured.  They just don’t know how lucky they are to have such a perfect woman in their midst.  Navidad was a true Christmas gift, one for any day of the year.
“Sorry,” said Franz trying his best to offer a smile that expressed the joy that filled his heart at that moment.  Instead, he merely confused the young woman.
“Why are you sorry?” she asked.
Franz coughed and felt the beginnings of flop sweat on his upper lip the kind that would have made Nixon proud.  “Iced Caramel Macchiato, please,” was all he could get out.
The young woman nodded.  “Size?”
“Oh, yes,” he said.  “Sorry.”
She stood there offering nothing but a gentle look of understanding.  She certainly had seen all kinds.
“Grande,” said Franz thinking that he should pace himself.
The young woman keyed it into the cash register with a few beeps and grabbed a cup from the counter.  “Name?”
This was the only part of the Starbucks experience Franz hated.  Because he had ordered a bar drink, the young woman would have to write his name on the cup, hand it to the barrista who would then make the drink and, when finished, call out the name printed on the cup.  Inevitably, Franz would be misspelled into Frank and it was just too much trouble to offer a correction.
“Frank,” said Franz.
The young woman nodded, smiled and printed Frank on the cup before handing it to the tall, earringed, young man who worked the bar.  The barrista annoyed Franz for some reason, though he wasn’t quite certain why.  After paying, he waited by the bar to observe how his drink was being put together.  This annoyed the young man, or at least that’s what Franz surmised.  He wondered if this poor excuse for masculinity was sleeping with the young woman.  Such thoughts made Franz feel a bit ill so he shook his head and tried to think of happy things.  What to think of?  But he couldn’t think happy thoughts.  His mind kept falling back to the dream he’d had last night as he slept in his old room, his family’s house quiet except for Franz’s breathing.  In the dream, Franz admired a beautiful black fish that swam in a small round bowl that sat on the kitchen counter in his parents’ house.  Oh, what an elegant fish it was, too!  It swam slowly, regally, showing off its almost translucent, flowing fins.  But then Franz noticed that the water grew dirty.  And soon the fish was swimming in muck, gasping for oxygen.  He quickly poured some of the water out and refilled it.  But the water grew dirty again and despite changing the water numerous times, the water changed each time into the noxious brew.  Suddenly, Franz’s long-deceased black cat, who was named Blue, leapt from behind and snatched the fish with a lightening quick paw.  Before Franz could do anything, Blue gulped down the fish whole.  Franz shook a finger at Blue and said, “Blue, give me back the fish.”  Blue did what cats do so well: he smiled but did not obey.  After a few more scoldings from Franz, Blue leaned back upon his spine and made a loud mewing sound.  Franz looked closely at Blue’s hind legs that were spread wide open.  With another mew, Blue quickly gave birth to the fish.  Franz should have been a bit surprised because Blue was a male.  But no matter.  Franz said, “Thank you, Blue,” and put the fish back in the bowl.  The fish happily swam about and the water looked cleaner than it had before.  Franz then woke.
Franz’s mother had been an expert dream interpreter and he wished that he could find out what this one meant.  She had inherited the skill, she always said, from her grandmother who was a famous curandera from Las Vegas.  But his mother was dead.  So all Franz could do was be haunted by his dream’s disturbing images.  Suddenly the young man behind the bar yelled, “Iced Caramel Macchiato for Frank!”  Of course, Franz was the only person waiting so there was no reason for the young man to yell.  Franz reached for his drink and offered a nod as thanks.  The young man’s face suddenly broke into a smile that was nothing short of angelic.  With a few movements of a facial muscle here, another there, this dreary, bored-to-tears teenage boy became a seraph, an exquisite celestial spirit.  Franz could not help but offer his own smile.  How could he not?  Franz took a sip while keeping his eyes locked on the barrista.  Perfect!  He had never tasted a better Iced Caramel Macchiato.
“Thank you,” said Franz.
“You’re very welcome, Frank,” said the young man still looking like an angel.
Franz nodded and started to walk away.
“It’s funny,” said the young man.
Franz stopped and looked back.  “What?”
“Your name.”
Franz now offered a laugh.  “What’s funny about ‘Frank’?”
“Oh, no, that’s not what I meant.”  The young man wiped his brow with the back of his hand before continuing.  “Not the name.  It’s just kind of funny because it’s almost my name.”
The young man pointed to his nametag.  Franz squinted to read the letters.  When it registered exactly what he read, his mouth opened slightly making a small smacking sound.  The nametag said FRANZ.  Franz Kafka blinked once, and then again.  He moved one foot, and then the other.  He pulled away from the bar and accelerated as he passed by the young woman at the cashier.  The young woman said, “Bye!” but Franz didn’t acknowledge her.  He opened the glass door and the midday Fresno sun quickly counteracted the Starbucks air conditioning.  Franz found his car, got in, placed his Iced Caramel Macchiato into a cup holder, and started the engine with a vroom.  As he eased his car out of the parking lot, Franz thought about his father who now lay in a box under fresh, wet dirt.  And he knew then that he could not hate Carl Kafka even if he tried.  Franz took a sip of his drink and savored the coolness within his mouth.  It was without question the best Iced Caramel Macchiato he had ever tasted.
[“Franz Kafka in Fresno” is featured in Anywhere But L.A.: Stories (Bilingual Press).]

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