Kafka's Mustache


It never fit my face, from the moment I started growing it. It was too narrow, too dark, the hairs too fine and far apart. It didn't seem to belong to me, but I grew it out to see whose it was.


I knew it was Kafka's when I saw his face on the cover of a book. I stared at his big crazy eyes and down that long nose and paused on that big empty upper lip. In the bathroom I sketched my mustache from the mirror onto the book in pencil—it was Kafka's mustache all right. What was it doing on my face?


The mustache looked great on the cover of the book. On me it looked like I had traced it from the book onto my own lip, instead of the other way around. I had grown the wrong mustache, all right. Why me?


“How do you like my mustache?” I asked my friend Max.


“Looks great.” He barely glanced. We were eating and I was distracting him.


“No, it doesn't. It doesn't fit my face.”       


“I'm just trying to be nice.”


“Be straight with me. Tell me more about my mustache.”


Max appraised me for a moment.


“It's not the same color as the rest of your hair,” he said. “Looks like you've got it stuck on with gum or something.”


“Exactly! Know why? It's not mine. It's Kafka's.”


“It's Kafka's? The writer?”


“Yes. I had it DNA tested.”


“They have Kafka's DNA on file?”


“Don't be naïve, Max. They've got everything on file.”


“How in the hell did you grow a dead guy's mustache?”


A fair question. I had some theories. Kafka never grew a mustache, but he would have looked good with one. I think he knew it; I think he didn't grow one out of spite. But such a fine mustache must exist—you can't stop a force of nature.


So something went wrong. It was all wrong from the moment Kafka never grew the mustache. Why shouldn't it show up on some guy's face in the future? Nature's indiscriminate like that. Was I chosen because I'm a fan? Was it because I was thinking too hard about growing a mustache? In other words, was it my fault?


Max was listening patiently. “Does it matter if it's your fault? Joseph K. is guilty, said Orson Welles. What he's guilty of is unclear, but he's guilty all right.” He shoveled a heap of spaghetti into his mouth.




It was my little secret, mine and Max's, but he probably didn't believe me. I wore it around the office, hiding my grin below it. I was famous and no one knew it. Not even the guys at the DNA lab: and they had the hard data right in front of them.



Eventually, I had to tell my girlfriend. We'd promised to be more honest with each other.  I was honest about my new little secret and she was honest in her assessment of it.


“I think you're cracking up,” she said. “You're under too much stress.”


“I'm not under any stress.”


“I know, it doesn't make sense. Maybe you're about to be under too much stress.” She didn't seem to want to talk about it. Maybe it wasn't working out, even with all the honesty. Kafka wouldn't have liked her much anyway.


After she left, I started thinking a lot about Kafka. I felt I had to deserve him. I started dressing a little more conservatively. I tried to make myself scarce and to be deferential. I argued with my father. I exercised in front of open windows. I started rooting for the underdog. That's how I met the new girl.


Since I found myself with so much time on my hands (sans-girlfriend), I started watching movies that were nominated for Oscars but didn't win. It felt like a mustache-appropriate hobby. Melanie and I both reached for The Birds at the same time. I could've let it go, but I had to see where the story would lead. I told her about my loser-movie marathon.


The Birds wasn't nominated for Best Picture,” she said. We discussed the ones that were that year and settled on How the West Was Won. The movie was so long I couldn't make it to the end before I had to tell her about Kafka's mustache.


“It's wild,” she said. “Can you imagine. Whose beard do you have under there?”


I didn't want to think about that.


Since she was always smiling, I could never tell if she believed me or not. She let me believe it, anyhow. She seemed to want to help me. Once, she told me I should have Kafka cloned.


“Take it to those people, you know from the news. The cloning people.”


“You mean those nuts with the UFO religion?”


“Well, that's only part of it. Their main business is cloning experiments. Like how monks make wine.”


I told her I'd think about it, and she told me she'd contact them for me. She could get their number off a website, I wouldn't have to do a thing. She'd take care of it. Sometime during this conversation, I realized that we would never work out. She was bright and forceful, and only humoring me.


Two women in a month--something inside was keeping me from forming a lasting relationship. Or something outside. The mustache was beginning to have an effect on me. I started keeping a diary. I recorded my strange dreams. On the bus I imagined other passengers getting up and berating me in long monologues. I watched more and more movies late at night. Sometimes while they played, I would write.


But there was nothing to write, not really. Kafka's mustache wanted me to write but it had no ideas of its own. I made a final definitive list of Oscar losers. I was going to watch them all.




“Why don't you just shave it off?” asked Max.


Shave it off—but how could I? This was a piece of history, Kafka's last living fragment. It had to be important. He left us so little—unfinished novels, enigmatic little parables.  The mustache was the final clue. The diaries, the letters, the office writings, everything Kafka ever produced had been published. Here, finally, was something he failed to produce—the mustache he refused to grow. Maybe this was just the beginning. Maybe now the other unfinished bits of Kafka's work would start to appear. The end of The Castle and Amerika, the final order of the chapters in The Trial, the answers to all the riddles. I would keep the mustache. I would hold out, even if it meant sacrificing my life. Even if it meant living his.




The cloning people left me a message. Melanie must've called them.


Hello, this is the clone factory (or whatever it was called). Please contact us about your replication inquiry regarding your artist, politician, or other celebrity. We look forward to meeting you, and introducing you to your hero in the flesh. Thank you for choosing the clone factory!




I stayed up making lists and watching movies—42nd Street, Sideways, Taxi Driver. Kafka would have liked talking pictures. His mustache sure seemed to. My upper lip felt warm.


Some of them the mustache didn't care for. Dark comedy was good, quirky comedy not so good. It seemed to hate Juno, with its little love story that works out fine in the end. Juno, without a hint of despair, with its silly little soundtrack featuring The Moldy Peaches.


Featuring Adam Green, Kafka's great-grandson by Felice Bauer.




Felice Bauer's great-grandson, by another man.


Too much. The tears welled up. Ninety years of lost time rolled down my cheeks.


I decided to shave the mustache, but I couldn't find my razor.


I decided to let them do it for me.




The offices of the cloning cult were not what you'd expect. It was definitely a cult—a video of a charismatic leader with slick-backed hair played on a loop in the lobby, but there wasn't a compound, and no one greeted me warmly at the door. The whole things was automated. I sat and read through the cloning brochure (“Build a Better You”). Kafka's mustache itched—proximity to bureaucracy made it uneasy. But what's bureaucracy without the bureaucrats? The window above the counter where a receptionist would be at your dentist's office showed nobody inside. The whole thing gave me the chills; the mustache was right. This place was about making more people but there weren't any people around.


But I had to wait; it needed to be done. Kafka's mustache had to go, and at the cloning factory, he could live again. Just not through me. Just leave me out of it, I said. Kafka wants to live so badly, let him have it. Only this time, he'd have a dashing mustache. Then he'd have a better time, perhaps. Maybe he'd grow big and strong like his father (who also had a mustache) and maybe he'd finish those novels. What was in store for all those drab little men left stranded in those old pages? What was the plan?


I thought of his diaries, all published, all his thoughts out there in the world for anyone to read. Oh, he's not going to like that. And what with his newfound mustache strength, someone might get hurt. I started to sweat in the cool office picturing a Herculean Kafka, with all the power his body never had the last time around, bearing down on me with the weight of his monumental rage.


But what really made me jump up and leave the office without ever seeing anyone was the thought that Kafka might have a lot to say, and what if he said things I didn't agree with? He could re-interpret all his works for us. What if he messed with the image in my head? It was already happening—the muscular Kafka was a step away from nightmare. What of the new school of criticism that would be born, hanging off of living Kafka's every word? How could I stand it—digging it all up, going back over what's already been decided?


And what if Kafka wasn't mad his works got published? What if he was delighted beyond expectations? Every time I'd open one of his books, Kafka would be there, grinning under the mustache, waiting for me to get to the bottom of the page and lift my eyes. I'd have to tell him what I thought.


So Kafka stayed dead and the mustache was upset, but it's just a mustache. Maybe it's still upset, I can't really tell. The last I heard from it was when the barber shaved it off. He'd never heard of Kafka, he thought I wanted to pay when I mentioned “Czech,” and he certainly didn't know what to make of my tears and my request to keep the hairs, washed of the shaving cream. The mustache has been silent--I keep it in a jar of water; the hairs float around in a jumble, formless, each its own little fragment.