Nemo on the Shore
“To say ‘He was a young fool, and now he’s an old fool’ is to make a distinction without a difference.” — Kafka the Cat
The time was May in the not too distant past; the place, a southern California beach just before sunrise. A Pacific marine layer blanketed the purple sky like a tufted quilt. Salt breezes licked Kafka’s furry face; a mild, wet kiss. Kafka the Cat sneaked through the shadows, planting his paw-prints on the gritty, wave-washed strand. Along the way, he diverted himself with a predatory romp, stalking a tern, chasing a gull. The scampering tabby circumambulated scattered shards of glass and empty beer cans. Detectives had already gathered roach clips, skuzzy brown doobies, sticky prophylactics, and other evidence of a beach party gone wrong. A strip of yellow tape fluttered and rattled in the wind, demarcating the crime scene.
Squad cars and paddy wagons crammed full of handcuffed, smelly, fuddled post-adolescents had exited the scene. Sirens wailed no more; the bonfire’s last ember had fizzled out. Gone too were the stern, expletive-laden commands of police and the surly cries and protests of arrested youth. The police-car tire tracks, like footprints and paw prints, were ephemera in the mutable sands.
The cat paused; his ears pricked up at the dull rush of surf on the shore. His whiskers twitched in the stirring breeze; he sniffed the fishy air. The sea beckoned and he answered her call, padding onto the worn grey paint-flaking planks of a pier jutting out into the ocean. Cast-iron serpentine lamps snaked upwards from the railing, dimly lighting the way with their low-wattage yellow bulbs. Below the walkway, garbage and sea-weed stippled surf swooshed and swirled round barnacle-encrusted timber pilings. Silvery-scaled dead fish floated belly-up in the foamy detritus.
Kafka slinked up the planking, always on the watch for an unwary mouse or a careless bird. About halfway up the jetty his keen emerald eyes spied what appeared to be a large heap of rags at the end of the pier. The ever-curious feline approached the object cautiously, advancing the last several paces in stalking mode. Nearing his goal, Kafka again halted and sniffed; his acute sense of smell detected a human. Moreover, this was a human whom Kafka immediately recognized as friendly. On further inspection he came to a conclusion. Why it’s Mr. Nemo. I hope he’s all right.
Kafka sidled up to the heap. He noticed Nemo’s protruding right hand clutching an empty bottle of rum. A hairy ear and grey stubbled cheek proclaimed Nemo’s seediness the way a garden overgrown with weeds declares the homestead’s neglect. The cat pitied his friend; his rough little tongue gently licked straggly white hairs on the nape of Nemo’s wrinkled neck.
Tickled into consciousness, Nemo moaned. “Whuhhhh… huhhhh. Hhhh.” His bleary reddish-blue eyes flickered open. “Who? What? Where am I?”
“You were sleeping on a pier, Mr. Nemo,” the cat meowed. “I’m happy to see you’re still alive… more or less.”
Nemo rubbed his eyes and propped himself up on an elbow. He blinked a few times and saw two blurry cats gradually merging into one. “Why, you’re Nemo’s little friend Kafka, aren’t you?” questioned Nemo with a thick, slurring tongue.
“Indeed I am, unless you’ve mistaken me for Schrödinger’s Cat.”
Nemo shook his woolly head. “No, Nemo is not familiar with Mr. Schrödinger or his cat.” Nemo moved slowly; aching muscles and throbbing joints stirred; he grunted, let go the empty rum bottle which rolled round the planks with a clink and a clatter before coming to rest beside a weather-beaten baluster. Then with great effort he grabbed the railing for support and pulled himself up gradually, rung by rung. Nemo felt as though the pier were a ship in rough seas. He closed his eyes to subdue his nausea, but it didn’t help. “Whuhhhh!” He bent over and spewed a stream of vomit into the murky waters.
The cat padded toward his friend, stood on his hind legs and placed his forepaws on the lowest rung. Looking upward at Nemo’s grayish-green face, he meowed, “Feel better now that you’ve hurled?”
Nemo was silent for a moment. Then: “Thanks for your concern. Yes, Nemo feels a little better.”
The two friends stood silently gazing at the horizon; the first reddish light of dawn emerged, separating purplish sea and sky. Silvery ripples appeared on the water; crying terns and gulls circled overhead. Nemo sighed heavily, wiped his puke-spattered lips on his sleeve and recited:
I had a dream, which was not all a dream
The bright sun was extinguished, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy Earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went — and came, and brought no day…
“That’s very fine,” Kafka meowed with sincere admiration. “Did you write it?”
“Alas, no. That’s from Lord Byron’s ‘Darkness.’ But it perfectly expresses Nemo’s thoughts and feelings at this moment. Last night Nemo had a dream which was not all a dream.”
The cat pondered his friend’s words and related them to the remnants of the busted beach party. “Could Nemo’s ‘dream which was not all a dream’ have anything to do with last night’s revels?”
Nemo stared at the cat; his lips trembled, his eyes filled with tears. “Ah revels, revels!” Nemo cried. “Carpe diem! Eheu fugaces! And so forth.” Having run the gamut of apposite Latin expressions — at least those presently known to him — wretched Nemo hung his head and sobbed. “Shades of a misspent youth!”
The cat was perspicacious; he knew his friend’s moods including Nemo’s tendency to recover from a drinking bout in stages, beginning with self-recrimination accompanied by lachrymose histrionics. Moreover, despite his failure to recognize the lines from Byron’s “Darkness,” Kafka was a rather erudite feline. He was a devotee of the German philosopher Nietzsche, and often analyzed psychological problems from a Nietzschean perspective. Therefore, he tried to help his friend by referencing The Birth of Tragedy.
“Mr. Nemo, if I may be permitted an observation, I believe your Apollonian and Dionysian inclinations are in conflict. You witnessed last night’s bacchanalia and longed to join the youthful revelers, yet reason and the wisdom of years restrained you. Unable to resolve your inner turmoil you chose to remain here, an observer rather than a participant, hiding in the shadows at the end of the pier, drinking yourself into oblivion. Have I stated your situation correctly?”
Nemo wiped his eyes and blew out his clogged nostrils. This procedure cleared his head somewhat. “Kafka is indeed perceptive. Have you a prescription for what ails Nemo?”
Kafka thought a moment before meowing: “What you need is a catharsis, a sort of emotional and mental enema.”
Nemo’s guts rumbled and he belched. An enema might be just the thing, he thought. “Very well, Kafka. What do you propose by way of a cathartic?”
One by one, many of Nemo’s closest friends and relatives had died or moved away; like millions, he had been hit hard by the market crash and recession; he wrote stories few read, and fewer cared for. The cat knew this, and he made a decision: Let’s have no more tears or regrets; no more sorrow or recrimination. Let’s don the motley and bring in the clowns.
Kafka stood on his hind legs, flailed about with his forepaws, and danced a jig. The sight of the cat dancing was so ludicrous it brought a smile to Nemo’s lips, followed by laughter. “Kafka,” Nemo sputtered, “You look so absurd!”
“Totally absurd,” Kafka meowed. “I’m as mad and ridiculous as this bitch of a world into which uncaring fate has thrown us. Come join me. We’ll dance down the pier to the shore.”
The cloud quilt unfolded; the sun rose, painting the sky salmon pink streaks on a pale blue ground. Kafka and Nemo danced the antic hay until they collapsed exhausted. The friends lay back on the beach to stare up at the dawn sky. Nemo grasped a handful of sand and let it run through his fingers. We’re of no more significance than a grain of sand. That sense of cosmic indifference was both comforting and liberating in an inexplicable sort of way. “Might be a fine day,” he remarked.
Turning his gaze toward the strip of coast highway and the small eating establishments lining the beach the cat’s thoughts turned to half-and-half. “Our friends Kafka the Insurance Adjustor, Kafka the Bureaucrat, and Kafka the Unemployed will be waiting for us at the café.”
Nemo looked out to sea. Reflected light sparkled on the waves and a cool breeze fanned his face. How beautiful. Last night’s dissipation, pre-dawn sorrows and regrets retreated into a dark corner of his consciousness and were replaced by an immediate desire for hot coffee, a muffin, and congenial companionship. Nemo got up and started walking toward the highway; Kafka the Cat padded alongside.
On the way they encountered the shabby, familiar figure of Harold the Homeless. The homeless one’s voice boomed over the shore like a thunderclap: “Nemo and Kafka, repent! Repent, you miserable sinners! It’s later than you think!”
The friends ignored him, and walked on.
First published 2012 in Bewildering Stories issue 503