“What do you mean you can’t find my briefcase?” K.’s voice rose harshly above the general clatter and muttering at the airport’s baggage claim area. It was not the first time he had asked that question that morning. Once more, with diminishing patience, the official-looking young clerk gave his explanation.
“Sir, I’ve told you all I know. We have no record of your briefcase ever being on board this or any other flight. We show no luggage for you at all. In fact, to be perfectly honest, I don’t even find you on the seating chart. Unless you can produce a ticket stub of some kind…” He let the sentence dangle in the air, as if to underscore the nebulous nature of K.’s claim. His bright blue uniform gave him the appearance of a policeman, and for some reason the sight of his shiny but useless epaulets filled K. with a vague apprehension. Nonetheless, K. was shouting and gesticulating wildly. People nearby looked up in curiosity.
“I’m telling you for the last time. My ticket stub is gone, vanished — poof! You understand? Somehow my overcoat became confused with that of another passenger, and I now wear the garment of a Doctor Thomas Mann. See? Here’s his ticket stub!” K. waved a ragged scrap of pasteboard in the clerk’s immobile face.
“If you’re suggesting I give you Doctor Mann’s baggage, I’m afraid I can’t do that either,” said the young man, who had already begun to process the papers of the customer just behind K.
“I don’t want Doctor Mann’s baggage, you imbecile!” Without thinking, he had grabbed the clerk by the lapels and lifted him clear off his toes. When he heard another clerk mention calling security, K. suddenly became quiet, almost apologetic. He let go of the clerk’s collar and even brushed a June bug off one of his epaulets. “I only want what’s coming to me. My briefcase, you understand, no other’s. I’m not looking for any favors, but my briefcase happens to contain the only existing copy of my thesis, which I am to deliver later today at the convention.”
“Oh? And what convention might that be?” the clerk said with a sneer that made the other customers titter.
“The K-kafka C-convention,” K. stuttered. But for a nearly imperceptible look of horror, the clerk’s face remained blank. K. continued with feverish enthusiasm. “Franz K-kafka, the writer. In my thesis I compare him to a variety of intestinal worm, you see, a species whose appetite and capacity for guilt are equally immense. Such parasites usually starve themselves to d-d-death, in a sense.”
“To b-b-be sure,” mocked the clerk, “but if you’ll excuse me…” Everyone laughed but K., who turned red and started to back away.
“Of course, of course,” he said. “Never mind me.” He stumbled into an obese, unkempt woman who was openly nursing the largest infant K. had ever seen. Despite the sickening bluish tint of the child’s skull, K. felt obliged to pat it and say something, however banal: “Nice baby.” At that moment the head came up to bite his hand, and K. found to his amazement and repulsion that it belonged not to a child but to a wizened old man with smacking gums. The octogenarian giggled inanely and snatched K.’s alpine hat from his head.
“My hat! Mine!” screeched the old man with delight. The woman removed a large sausage from her handbag and began to methodically beat K. with it.
“Filth!” she yelled.
“Of course,” said K. He had backed all the way to the edge of the up escalator, and now tumbled backwards down the sharp metal stairs. He could hear more laughter and what sounded like applause coming from above as he lay crumpled at the foot of the escalator. His face protruded over the moving stairs, and as each new step emerged his chin bounced on it painfully.
“Perhaps if I remain here suffering quietly,” K. thought, “the Superintendent of this facility will notice that I — an honored foreigner having received official invitation, no less — am being treated in this scandalous fashion, and will take pity on me. If he is worthy of his office he will be outraged, and with a snap of his fingers he will order that my briefcase be restored to me. Who knows? He may even award me certain damages.”
K.’s meditations were interrupted by a piercing pain in his backside. He turned to discover a lean Hispanic janitor trying to impale him on a pointed spike and lift him into a refuse bag. “Stop that nonsense at once, or I’ll report you to the Authorities! Do you hear?” K. did his best to sound threatening, but his voice had suddenly acquired an odd, squeaking quality. He quickly learned that he had also lost control of his body.
The janitor paused and looked at him oddly. “Hey, Tony, come over here!” he called to another man further down the hall. “You gotta see this! This June bug is at least four inches long, and its mouth is moving almost like it’s trying to say something!” K. sputtered and tried to deny the ridiculous charge that he had become an insect, but upon examination he saw that such was indeed the case. He had been flipped upon his back and could only wave his six pitifully thin legs in the air and make a nervous sort of buzz. His speech was no longer comprehensible.
“Pleazzze, help meezzzz! I muzzzt get to zzzee convenzzzion!” The janitors both laughed heartily at these pathetic sounds.
“Man, that’s spooky! I don’t know what it is, but I think we better kill it quick,” said the one who had first noticed K. “Livin’ la vida loca, and now your back is broke-a,” the one called Tony said as his partner flipped K. over and tried once more to run him through. K. found the peculiar singsong strangely comforting, and did not resist as the man put the sharp spike through the space between his folded wings, lifted him roughly, and stuffed him into the dark plastic bag.