~This story was previously published in American Letters & Commentary (1998).
Einstein and Kafka are young men. One, a former patent examiner and now a full professor, lectures on physics at the Karl-Ferdinand University in Prague; one, an insurance adjuster for the Austro-Hungarian government, sprawls in his chair at the café, a tall glass of lemonade on the table in front of him.
One lounges in his seat, dreaming of a young actress who travels with the Yiddish Theatre Troupe; the other runs a hand through his black hair and talks enthusiastically about atoms. The atom, he says, is a kind of dream, a space in which power is compressed to a point of conversion, at which point it becomes—becomes!—possibility. It is as if, he says, the atom is a symbol of itself.
The windows of the lecture hall have been opened wide, the shades snapped up. The pull-rings, wrapped in silk thread, can be reached only by a long stick with a hook on the end.
Beyond the windows, tall glasses of lemonade are growing downright hot atop the glass tables of all the sidewalk cafés. Trees in thick foliage shade the broad avenue and narrow side-streets, leaves rustling like taffeta skirts.
The sky is lovely, blue and silent.
To the young men, the sky is everything, a dream.
It is atomic.
It is theatrical—posed, awaiting a cue.
In the classroom, a young professor gestures, and tugs at his black hair almost as if he would absent-mindedly pull it out.
At one of the outdoor cafés, a young businessman drapes himself around his chair. The lemonade is stale and sour, and his digestion delicate.
So sweet, she is lovely, the actress, gentle and mirthful, her lips as red as blood. (Something wildly provocative about her mouth, as if she reddens her lips by biting them herself. . .)
The two young men, too, are lovely, in their fervor and good suits, and with such good manners.
Prague is lovely, a gold-leafed city dawdling on the far edge of the century now closing. There are so many books to be written, so many lives to be lived. So many dreams. The future is so close that for a brief moment there seems no need to hurry into it. In fact, there is a single moment when no one raises his eyes to look at it, just as a lover, sensing that the one he worships has at last arrived at the dance, chooses not to notice, attempting in this way to reclaim some of the control he has already surrendered.
Then, somehow, it happens that everyone looks up at the same time, which is what the darling beauty wanted in the first place. She shrugs off her wrap, into the waiting hands of the servant. She descends the short, carpeted staircase into the ballroom.
Everyone rushes toward her.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
"Young Men of Prague" came into being when I realized that Einstein and Kafka were alive in Prague together. Both are meaningful to me, Kafka as a writer of course, Einstein because I had read about him and studied (not altogether successfully) physics. At fourteen I asked a friend to mail a letter for me to Einstein (no P.O. near where my family lived); later, I learned she hadn't done it, which is a pity, because Einstein liked receiving mail from young people and usually replied. I wrote the short-short long before I visited Prague but I had been to various cities in the Soviet Union and I'd read a fair amount of Russian fiction and poetry. When I did get to Prague, it seemed familiar but way too trendy for my taste.
ABOUT KELLY CHERRY
Author of 24 books, 10 chapbooks, 2 translations of classical drama. Most recent: Twelve Women in a Country Called America: Stories. Former PL of Virginia. Member, Poets Corner, Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, NYC. NEA, USIA, Rockefeller, Bradley Lifetime Award, Weinstein Award, others. Publication in prize anthologies. Eudora Welty Professor Emerita of English and Evjue-Bascom Professor Emerita in the Humanities, University of Wisconsin Madison. Eminent Scholar, UAH, 2001-2005. More info and details on Wikipedia/Kelly Cherry.