HOLLYWOOD—When Josef K. went to pick up his shirt at a dry cleaners in Prague, he forgot his tag. The crone at the dry cleaners’ counter sighed with disgust.
“Is that K-A-Y-E?”
“Just K.,” he said.
- had always had difficulties with his given last name, which was Kaput. People would say Kaput, stressing the last syllable, -put, signifying finished, finito, that’s all she wrote. He always felt obligated to honor his forebears and correct them, “It’s Kap-ut, emphasizing the first part, Kap. . .” After several years of this nonsense, he decided to have his name legally changed to K.
The crone flicked a switch that caused a carousel of garments to dance around a circular course. K. glimpsed the polka-dot pattern of his shirt as the clothes do-si-doed around the curve of the mechanized rack. The woman with the flashing monocle looked under the K’s—nothing—flipped again the switch and the clothing clattered forward.
“It is quite a miracle you manage to keep track of all the garments,” he remarked.
“We have our system,” she said, a slight Teutonic flavor infiltrating her voice.
“Tell me, have you ever lost a piece of clothing?”
“Never,” she said in a tone that left no room for negotiation.
A look of misery fled across K.’s face. The crone sighed, peered through her monocle, brusquely tossed aside her clipboard and huffed. From the battalion of hanged shirts, suits and trousers, there finally appeared Josef K.’s white and blue polka-dotted shirt. It had been mis-filed under ”˜C’.
He left a new goulash-stained shirt to be laundered. “Write your name and phone number of the pad,” the woman said. K. pressed the nib hard so it would be legible in triplicate. Before he fled into the afternoon, he took the lilac copy and stuffed it into a pocket of his greatcoat.
“Don’t forget to bring your slip,” the crone reminded. “It’ll be ready on Friday.”
On the face of it, he knew it was ridiculous—it is not necessary to listen to people. Not to do every blessed thing they request. Yet to be four-square, K. religiously kept track of the lilac slip, and folded it inside his wallet. Several times before Friday, he peeked inside and was filled with childish satisfaction that the lilac tag was still there.
Friday he went to the dry cleaners, anticipating a snowy-white clean shirt whose underarms would thrill the nostrils and whose breast you could bounce a pfennig. In the back of the shop, dense clouds of hissing steam rose as other clothes were pressed. The crone appeared. As they uttered pleasantries, K. kept his hand on his wallet.
“Do you have your ticket?”
Smugly he opened his wallet, and smugly he reached for his ticket. The lilac ticket was gone. K.’s heart sank. He poured the contents of his wallet on the counter and only became more frustrated. The crone was obstinate and refused to give him his shirts without the lilac slip.
“You have the goldenrod copy,” he fumed. “You know, I’m a busy man at the Ministry. I can’t afford to keep track of every little scrap of paper. . .”
“You people think you can breeze through life without paying attention to your documents,” the crone said. “When you find the slip, I’ll give you your clothes.”
“I’m going to call the Ministry of Better Business!” he sputtered.
“Mr. K., will you kindly get out of my shop until you retrieve your ticket.”
- lost his nerve and retreated. Spring became summer, summer became fall. One day Josef K. was run over by a steam roller, flatter than joke-shop vomit and just as dead. He’d been on his haunches seeking an elusive piece of lilac paper, floating in the gutter.
* * *
Every Friday afternoon in a certain cafÃ© of Hollywood, populated mostly by out-of-work actors, a polka-dot shirt floats over their heads and out the door. They are too engrossed in their laptops to be astonished by the polka-dot shirt.
And no one alive today can remember when, eons ago, the cafÃ© had been a dry cleaners. One thing is certain: the cafe had never been in Prague. It has never left Hollywood. Moral of the story: ghosts have a very poor sense of geography.