Ecce Mortis: Epics of the Deep: Selling Kafka

One evening after work Plantman saw a man in a rumpled uniform of sorts bounced out of the Cave Guy bar.

The man made a vain attempt to stand, then let his body crumble to the gutter. On closer inspection, Plantman was shocked to discover that this poor drunk was none other than The Manager of The CityPlex.

His uniform was soiled and unbuttoned, his hair uncombed.  He was a mess.

“Manager, can this be you?”

“I’ve fallen to the very depths, Plantman. The very depths. Big Media has squashed me like a bug.

“I called in sick. I may never go back. Not while Epics of the Deep plays with that wretched Starlette Nova. That spangled harlot, that whore! She ruined my life. Absconded with beloved Kafka.”

Plantman led The Manager to My Mommy’s diner. He ordered coffee and fresh-baked muffins. The Manager told Plantman of his brief encounter with Starlette Nova several years before, when he was an aspiring screenwriter and she an up-and-coming, but still relatively unknown, star.

“I first crossed paths with Starlette Nova, during the shooting of her first movie, Down in The City,” began The Manager. “I was only an usher then, and attending classes at The University Writing Program, Screenwriter’s Division. I had spent four years writing a screenplay. I’d completed it at the Writing Program, writing and studying screen writing by day, and ushering at night.

“My screenplay concerned life in The City, specifically, Downtown. I captured the essence of my environs, and now waited to see it live on the big screen. The Screenwriter’s Division provided a pool of agents to handle the screenplays of its graduates. I had a genuine agent working on my case.

“The coming of Big Media to the neighborhood was a bad omen for my script, a signal that Archimago had beaten me to the game. That I wrote truth while Archimago wrote lies was irrelevant. Archimago had the machinery of Big Media behind him.

Down in The City was shot on location. Downtown at the Life Cafe and in the Square Park area a block away from my tenement apartment.

“It was during one of my daily perambulations with my dog, Kafka, that I first came head-to-head with Starlette. She was outside her trailer, surrounded by attendants and lesser actresses with lesser roles. They all fawned over Kafka. Starlette fawned most. They patted and petted him and stroked his ears.

Kafka was not accustomed to strangers lavishing such overt affection in the street.

“’Adorable,’” said one waif.

“’He seems so sad,’” said another.

“’All dogs are sad,” said Starlette with a tone of authority that immediately separated her from the supporting players. “’I had a lot of animals when I was growing up out West. Dogs are the saddest animals because they’re closest to us. Rabbits, cats, birds—they don’t give a fuck.’”

“She reached under Kafka and stroked his belly.

“‘But I see what you mean about his face. It’s not typical. He seems more than plain old dog-sad. It’s like he’s sad for people, not because of them. It’s like he knows something.’

“‘Yeah, that’s it,’ said one of the supporting nymphs. ‘It’s like he knows something.’

“Starlette was about to speak to me — perhaps ask me if I myself knew something — when a man with a headset showed up and politely told me to shove off.

“The Headset arranged the girls into a pattern. Cameras rolled, and led by Starlette, the girls walked majestically into the Life Cafe.

“Starlette developed a fondness for Kafka. During our next walk, as Kafka and I stepped over and around cables and wires strewn like snakes about the sidewalk, she emerged from her trailer with a gift she’d picked up—or had a toady pick up for her — from the Pet Store: a dried calf’s foot, a wretched, smelly thing, but Kafka seemed content.

“‘The Nation is going to see this film and wish that every place was here,’ Starlette said.

“‘I wouldn’t be surprised,’ I responded.

“They were planning footage in the Square Park dog run. Would I mind Kafka in a cameo?

“‘They won’t pay you anything,’ said Starlette. But you’ll be on camera. All you have to do is show up in the dog run and let Kafka do his thing.’

“‘Kafka doesn’t have a thing,’” I said.

“‘Well, you know. His dog thing.’

“They’d already selected dogs forthe shoot, but she could probably wrangle Kafka in.

“‘Be there Saturday at seven a.m. Don’t tell anyone. It’s not like a casting call or anything. Most of the dogs will be professionals.’

“I showed up with Kafka at the dog run at our usual time, well before dawn. I lit a cigarette and set Kafka loose. He wandered aimlessly, confused, as he usually did immediately after he was unleashed, then settled down to his own calm-frantic compounded internal energy. He circled the dog run like a jogger, staying close to the fence, as if he needed the proximity of some kind of wall or geometrical enclosure to guide and soothe him. Like a room. Wherever Kafka was, he gave the appearance of being in the corner of a room.

“This was how it was done with us. Our little tradition. Every morning for four years I smoked my cigarette and watched the sun rise over Kafka. This was how I woke up to write the screenplay, taking mental notes, concocting situations; it’s how I worked. My solitude. And Kafka’s. We were happy. We were at peace.

Big Media arrived. First the caterers setting up a folding table banquet of coffee and donuts, and fruit and juices for the fashionably health-concerned, then The Headsets staking out their turf, establishing clean authority in the cigarette-butt gum wrapper wilderness of The Square Park. Finally the film crew and cast members and professional dog-owners—managers? Handlers? — with their charges, and the distant, anxious Director. I leashed Kafka and went off to join the crowd.

“The crew offered me and the professional dog owners donuts and coffee. A Headset told us to act naturally, as if the cameras weren’t rolling, and say the typical things folks say to dogs on a Saturday morning in The Square Park.

“The action would focus on a particular bench where Starlette’s character and her boyfriend — a real Big Media take on the Downtown Artiste, complete with ponytail and Designer cigarettes, modeled, of course, after Archimago’s vision of himself — are talking about god-knows-what poppycock the script stuffed down their throats and roll ’em.

“A problem emerged. Starlette didn’t like the dog they chose.

“’He’s too…I don’t know. Rambunctious? He’s bumming me out. Get rid of him.’

“The dog’s owner/manager protested vehemently. He’d still be paid; but his slobbering boxer, Virgil, wouldn’t show up in the credits. Thus were Virgil’s big-screen aspirations quashed: swiftly, ruthlessly, thoroughly; but not without a smile.

“‘Sorry, old man,” said The Headset who led the rejected dog and owner back into the mob.

“‘I want Kafka,’ Starlette said.

“‘Who?’

“‘That one,’ she pointed to Kafka, who paced nervously behind me. The proximity of other dogs, many of them quite large, unsettled him.

“‘But he’s non-union,’ said The Headset.

“‘Fuck the union. He’s the dog. I want him for the shoot.’

“The Director conferred with his cabal of Headsets and Walkie-talkies. They eyed Kafka, who seized the moment for a long, pulsating piss (and who wouldn’t pee under such scrutiny?)

“‘Alright,’ sighed The Director. ‘Set him up.’

“My dog was now a character in Archimago’s fiction. Where would it end?

“So Kafka scored his first big role. In the scene, Archimago’s scene, Starlette stroked him for comfort while she and her no-good writer boyfriend shared an anguished, existential moment. At the director’s signal she let go of the leash and Kafka broke into a brisk, unKafka-like run, which was preserved on film for the amusement and posterity of The Nation.

“He was a natural.

“‘What did I tell you guys? Did I tell you this was The Dog?’ Starlette called out to one of The Headsets.

“‘He’s it,” said The Headset. ‘Look at that face. There’s pain in that face. Better than pain. Anomie. Look at him. He actually looks like he’s depressed. A depressive dog!’

“The Director, smoking in the distance, whispered instructions into the pink ear of a Walkie-talkie. They were joined by another Walkie-talkie, and another. They looked at Kafka. But with their dark sunglasses and fixed mandibles and features set expressionless in doughy flesh it was difficult to discern, or even imagine, what they were thinking. The Director licked his lips.

“I thought: my dog is accomplice to Archimago’s rocket-like ascent.

“Time to go. I took the leash from Starlette and snapped it onto Kafka’s collar. My hands trembled. The crew packed equipment — metal tripods, light-stands, and other insect-like machine parts — into the trucks. A hand touched my back. I whipped around, ready to fight, or more probably, flee.

“That evening the Starlette called me at home.

“‘He’s everything we could have hoped for in an animal. His laid-back energy, his almost…doomed expression. Like he’s thinking something, some deep dog thought, and you’ll always wonder what it is, and you’ll go mad mad mad insane because you’ll never, ever know. He’s just what my character, what the show was missing all along: a living metaphor. Kafka’s what Down in The City is about…This is new territory. Kafka’s injecting a new energy into the film — or sucking it out. Whatever. Everyone, even The Director, is excited about the possibilities: hip downtown bartender/aspiring actress on her own in The City. She meets all these freaky people every day, she has relationships, she gets involved in all sorts of crap, but there’s no one she can really talk to.  She’s independent. But lonely. Anyway, all her friends are fucked up, or at least as fucked up as she is. But she can talk to her dog about her problems. He listens, or appears to listen — that’s Kafka’s genius, he actually looks like he’s thinking something, like he’s listening to you and understands. He’s like the only male who really knows her. She has all this trouble with her crazy boyfriend and all that, but when she comes home to Kafka, she’s okay… When me and The Actor who plays my boyfriend got into some serious dialogue, Kafka responded, like he was part of the conversation, giving signals, telling me the relationship was trouble. Then when I let go of the leash and he runs off like that, it’s like he’s saying “Go. Get away from this creep. Be free.”  The audience is going to eat it up. I mean, WE almost believed it.’

“I phoned The Agent provided by the Writing School to tell him the big news.

“‘Great,” he said. ‘Tremendous opportunity. Use the dog to make contacts. Shmooz these people. I know it’s tempting to get jealous of the star treatment, but—’

“‘—jealous? Of my own dog? It’s Archimago who’s driving me insane. My dog is a raisin in his pudding.’

“‘Archimago? Who the hell’s Archimago?’

“‘The guy who writes everything,’ I sighed.

“‘Never heard of him,’ said the Agent. ‘Listen to me. Once we get your screenplay sold, it’ll be you they’re after, not the dog. Your name will be a household word long after the name “Kafka” is forgotten.’

“The following Monday a Headset presented me with a contract at the Life Cafe with a lawyer at his side.

“‘You need the dog’s signature?’ I asked, a small attempt at levity, most unbecoming The Manager of the CityPlex, but I was nervous, and somewhat peeved.

“‘That won’t be necessary at this time,’ the lawyer said, dry as a bone.

“However, he assured me, if there was any further paperwork to be done in the future, he’d let me know.

“My sinecure position as Kafka’s ‘caretaker and trainer’ entitled me to hang around during the shoots, scarf down free food, walk Kafka during breaks, and generally see what it was like to leech off of a Big Media production.

“So began my daylight job of chaperoning Kafka to his shoots. I loitered with professional nonchalance, pretending to read my thick, black-spined paperbacks. During breaks I took Starlette on informal tours of the Square Park area. She wanted to get into the ‘mindset’ of her character, ‘flesh out’ the hackneyed heroine it was her tiresome lot to play.

“We walked Kafka—she held the leash—around the neighborhood, made the usual rounds of thrift-shops, sex shops, bodegas, boutiques, used book and record stores, et al.

“Once, we passed The CityPlex, and both stopped cold, lost in our own insatiable vanities.

“‘Have you ever seen me before?’ she asked. ‘I mean before Down in The City.’

“‘Yes.’

“‘Where?’

“‘That ad campaign.’

“‘Which ad campaign? That’s all I’ve done in my life is ad campaigns.’

“‘The one with the soda bottle. The soda thing.’

“‘Pistol Pop. I’m in a thong bikini, sipping a long-neck bottle — blowing it, really — atop a snow capped mountain. “Wouldn’t you rather cool off with an icy Pistol Pop?”‘

“‘Yeah, that’s it. You garnished the bus stops and subway stations all last Summer.’

“‘I was a model, then. Now I’m an actress. I can say things on my own now. Without cartoon bubbles.’

“She dropped her cigarette into the bottle of mineral water she’d been sipping and passed the empty bottle on to me.

“‘The People forget you like you’re nothing,’ she said. ‘You have to nail yourself into their skulls. All these people out today, they don’t recognize me — yet. Or maybe they’ve seen me but forgot me. Not totally. I’m in their memories like last year’s music. This time next year I won’t be able to walk down this street. There’d be a mob scene. I should enjoy them while they last, these anonymous afternoons. . .’

“She stared down the avenue at the short, sweaty line before the movie theater, at the kids, bums, couples, geezers yammering in their various native tongues outside bodegas, nervous old women pushing shopping carts, workers guarding the fruits and vegetables of their employers, then back at me, confused. It must have dawned on her with some suddenness that I was not, in this context, among the masses on the street, but a person with a life and a dog who was spending this moment with her on the street across from The CityPlex, planet earth.

“The weekend after the shooting ended Starlette asked me out for dinner and drinks. I called in sick at The CityPlex, assuming that, having procured Kafka, part of my remuneration would be a night in bed with Starlette, though it wasn’t stated explicitly in the contract.

“We went — where else? — to Life Cafe. She wanted to see what it was like during off-camera hours.

“At Life, among the usual clientèle of artistes, grad-students, wannabe musicians, painters, poets, and computer freaks, we ordered veggie burgers and, for me, beer, white wine for her. I was already royally shit-faced, having quaffed vodka and wine coolers at the apartment. I found it difficult to be alone in the apartment with Kafka, of late. It wasn’t Archimago who was my nemesis in the Looking Glass world of Big Media, it was my dog.

“Starlet chain-smoked between gulps of beer and nibbles of burger. She said she did it to keep thin. She finished four glasses of wine and the equivalent of about three human-sized bites of burger and all the lettuce and been sprouts on her plate. We ordered more drinks.

“Starlette picked up the tab and led me outside. She suggested we go to my apartment. As soon as I opened the door she headed straight for the dog.

“‘Kafka-baby. Kafka, my star. Did you miss me, lover?’

“In the morning, as we lay nude in bed, sharing a cigarette, like in the movies, she gave me the pitch, straight from the mouth of Big Media.

“‘I want Kafka.’

“‘What?’

“Her rap was long and staccato; she jumped from point to point, but never strayed far from her original thesis, not unlike a young girl begging her parents for a pony. What I heard come out of her pretty mouth was unpunctuated, frenetic, ruthless, untranslatable. She promised to take my screenplay back with her to Movieland. She said she’d show it to The Director and various other people of influence. She told me to think about the realities of my life. She dressed. I led her to the door.

“One minute I was playing around with Kafka, the ol’ master-dog roughhousing, the next I was strangling him. I looked deep into his buggy, brown dog eyes and began to wring his neck.

“His legs waved like sea anemones as he tried to pull free. He whimpered pathetically. When I loosened my grip, he yelped, broke away, and hid under my desk.

“‘This is crazy.’ I said out loud.

“He didn’t disagree. I felt terrible. I went up to the roof, alone, to smoke and think. I suppose he needed his personal space too.

“When I returned he was the same old Kafka. He greeted me at the door, licked my hand, and when the master-dog formalities concluded, returned to the futon to pant and drool. I gave him a cookie.

“Starlet’s limo pulled up just before dawn. I was alone in the dark park with Kafka and the bums. She offered me her cheek and a promise from the coffers of Big Media. I handed her a copy of my script.

“It surprised me how obediently Kafka followed her into the car, how calm and happy he appeared, even after the chauffeur slammed the door. Then again, he’d spent the whole summer pretending to be this woman’s fictional dog; he may have been a bit confused. Then again, again, he’s only a dog: how much further to him is Big Media than around the block?

“Sad moment. But really what kind of relationship can you have with a creature with whom you share your living space for five years but never a word? What kind of consciousness could Kafka have? Sure he played the loyal companion for the guy that fed him, but this was his BIG BREAK. How did I know he didn’t, in some freaky canine way, hate and resent me — the way I, to my shame, hated and resented sponging off his acting career all Summer — but figured it was the best he could get until something better came along? How did I know he didn’t hate my guts really, and were it not for his agoraphobia and general nervous condition, would have cut out as soon as he had the chance? Well now Big Media was giving him his chance. He’d get to bury his snout nightly in the fragrant lap of Starlette Nova.

“My last real-life image of Kafka was his panting face in the lighted interior of the limousine. The light went out and they drove off.

“The night of the much-hyped debut of Down in The City, I ushered at The CityPlex. After the seating was done, I stood at the door of one of the theaterettes and watched.

“The screen flashed a high angle establishing shot of the Square Park. Then the camera, probably mounted on a motorcycle, took us through the streets at manic speed. Everything familiar became charged and skewed. Credits whizzed by. Among them, ‘Kafka’.

“I watched what I’d already seen: the scenes Big Media’s machines and personnel had manufactured, live, during the Summer. I watched Archimago’s drama real and colorful on screen and pulsating with pop music.

“We, The People, the moviegoers, watched Life turn mythical, a place of excitement and happening and hip talk — the place to be in The Nation, the place it was impossible to actually go…

“Finally Kafka’s first big moment in the dog run: Starlette and her lover on the park bench talking about whether they’re ready for a commitment or some such nonsense but I stopped listening I just watched Kafka strain at the leash until — on cue, I remembered that cue from the Summer, The Director waving his arms — Starlette let go and Kafka ran wild before The Nation.”

“Did Starlette ever show anyone your script?” asked Plantman.

“Do you think I’d be Manager of The CityPlex and not out in The Nation, writing scripts for Big Media, if she had?”

They sat in silence. The Manager of the CitiPlex molded his muffin into animal shapes.

“Who is ‘Archimago,’” Plantman asked.

The Manager paused from his raisin-bran sculpture and wiped his hands on a napkin.

“Any writer in the world who is not me,” he said.

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