The Wayfarer’s Tavern has looked better. I’ve seen it, looking better.

 

But that must have been last year. I’ve been away, am only now getting back. The place isn’t exactly full, but, insofar as it isn’t empty, it’s full of old people with beer- or potbellies, their heads on their chests, lips turned mostly to spittle, mumbling, “But, sure, but just think where we were this time last year. Compared to that, we’re … ” Some of them are resting their hands in bowls of bar nuts, very still, like they’ve forgotten them there.

 

I must have come in on the last bus, and now we’re all in here waiting for the next. Everyone must have gone away, for the holidays and all, and now they’re all coming back. I kind of think that the next bus has already arrived, and here everyone is, trudging into the Tavern with their bags and suitcases, kicking snow off their boots, and yet we’re still waiting for them, like the fact of their having arrived has spurred us to start rather than to stop waiting.

 

Fair enough. It couldn’t be much more than 6 a.m. No one exactly picks their heads up off their chests, but when the TV up by the ceiling comes on, they tilt their eyes upward so’s to see what little they can, like checking on the sun to see if it’s eclipsed enough to be safe to look at yet, or not.

 

No reason not to kill a little time while we’re waiting, would be my guess as to the general thought in here at the moment, though lord knows I could be almost infinitely far off base.

 

Some images of morbidly obese people flash around the screen, and I hear a teapot in the back of the bar starting to boil, and then the usual show comes on: it was once, I gather, called Bargain Basement Kafka, but, as if the words were painted on the wall of some shed by the side of some road somewhere, the letters in the title have corroded over the years, so now only some of them appear on the screen. After the title appears the familiar situation: someone is standing by the side of the road on a frigid winter day, breathing awful gusts of steam and dancing on her tiptoes. She wears a thin, clearly inadequate, coat, a light hat, tennis shoes, and no mittens. It’s clear she didn’t expect to be out this long.

 

She tries to light a — I suppose a cigarette, but she can’t even get what it is out of her pocket, so she just stands there flicking her lighter, which, scowling, she eventually tosses into the snow.

 

Someone in the bar’s hand rattles in its bath of nuts and I picture salt and oil shifting position amongst knuckles.

 

On the TV, she’s still standing there, alone on the street except for a single parked car, near her, which, the camera now shows, has someone inside, also breathing steam and looking uncomfortable. We understand the situation: she’s there waiting for her ride, freezing and waiting.

 

She keeps going up to the car and staring at the driver, who stares back, like she’s checking if he’s here to pick her up, and he keeps checking her, asking himself the other part of the same question.

 

Each time they check each other they retreat in disappointment, but then, a moment later, she comes back to the window and checks again. No other cars pass by. She starts to look incredulous, like, “Am I really failing to recognize this person I know so well, who’s come all this way to pick me up and take me indoors, where it will be warm and there will be coffee?”

 

The driver wonders the same, like, “Should I open the door for her? For whom?”

 

Neither speaks.

 

This is where I always nod off, weakened, as I am, by the weight of my rearrival, the long bus journey through uncertain climes.

 

Whenever I nod off like this, the words “Baby Market Kafka” occur to me, and I’m put in mind (or put by mind into) a kind of incubation room of tiny humanoid creatures, somewhere between fetuses and babies, in warm broths, trying to breathe under the tremendous attention of Kafka far overhead, looking in perhaps via (sorry to say via so much, the new George Saunders book is new) a microscope, choosing which one to pluck and draw up, up, up, to Attain-to-Life Through Kafka, in the very particular way that only such entities, once chosen, can, and must.

 

Watching him watch them, it’s only a matter of moments until I’m imitating them, lying down on the floor under my table in my coat, whispering “pick me, pick me,” dreaming of the shed by the road with those peeling letters on its cement flank, inside which Kafka is perhaps prodding a fire, or trying to work a microwave.

 

*****

In my dream, or when I wake (I’m tempted to say: when that bus we’ve been waiting for finally arrives), we’re all out in the center of town, where the Molloy-spouting Bull has been interred in the ground, and gone to sleep for the past month, safe and scary as a dormant volcano.

 

It was the Mayor’s idea to send us all home to get our teenage skin mags from our drawers, and backs of shelves and under out mattresses and rugs, and in our chests, the ones we haven’t looked at for years if not decades, and feed them to the beast, which hasn’t woken but has, of late, begun grumbling with supposed hunger in its sleep.

 

So here we all are, gathered around the volcano (which, this last month, has taken on the dimensions of a town park), each of us with a pile of mags in front of us. All of the images in those mags, we’ve just now discovered, have atrophied and decayed — not just yellowed and wrinkled, and not just ceased to arouse or amuse, but gone sour, the bodies more than the pages having shriveled biologically, like the tips of bowels that have poked through a hernia and, in the outside liquid, given in to rot.

 

There is a smell.

 

It puts me in the mood of a mass pet funeral, all of us here burying our dearly departed parakeets and guinea pigs in the back yard, the Bull down there simply an embodiment of the usually diffuse agents of decomposition forever awaiting any pet carcass you care to feed them.

 

We consign our mags one by one (one person by one person, I mean, each of us has many, like they are our children, taken sadly by plague), and then we step back, heads down, while the next of us steps forward.

 

When they’re all in there, the Preacher says his piece, consigning them to their fate down below. Then he asks, “Would anyone care to add anything at this time?”

 

There’s a silence, then Big Pharmakos steps forward, but then, before he can speak, the Bull starts to eat, shifting the scene’s genre to become a big old Book Burning, and out run the vendors and clowns, tripping over their foam rubber shoes.

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