Captain K was about to climb into a taxi when an Iraqi major walked out of a munitions warehouse and stood with his two feet on top of K’s, preventing K from stepping into the cab. K considered pushing the man aside, which in ordinary circumstances he might have managed, but the Iraqi was carrying a 50-pound artillery shell under each arm, and this made him immoveable. Besides, he outranked K. As the waiting taxi driver grew visibly impatient, K lost all control and hissed at the major. Only then did K look closely at the officer’s face, which he had not done before, and saw that he was not an Iraqi major at all, but K’s childhood Hebrew teacher from Prague, now an old man. “Thanks for the pronunciation tips,” said K, as his taxi sped off without him. The old teacher said nothing, but went on standing on K’s feet until night fell and the taxis all started exploding.
In the park one afternoon, Lieutenant K discovered the secret language of squirrels. All he needed to do was lift his arms up and down in a beckoning motion, and the animals came down from the trees and scampered over the ground toward K. Soon a hundred or more of the gray rodents were all sitting at his feet and staring at him, shaking their tails in anticipation of something more, but since K only knew the simple arm motion and not what came next, his communication was at an end. After an uncomfortable silence, one of the furry creatures cleared its throat and asked K why he had called them all together if he had nothing to say. “All right,” K cried in desperation, “everybody in my tank. We’re going after the insurgents’ nuts.”
Sergeant K was dreaming: In a special back room inside the palace, he awaited his turn to qualify as a body-double for the paranoid dictator of a small country. All the other tryouts waiting with K had defects that eliminated them. One was lame, whereas the leader had normal legs; one was left-handed, whereas the leader was right-handed; another was female, whereas the leader was—to all appearances—male. One by one, as the applicants failed to please, the leader shot each dead on the spot with his pistol. At last it was K’s turn. Knowing he did not resemble the leader in the slightest, he hesitated while the leader waited expectantly. Finally K did his Groucho imitation, having heard that the leader himself sometimes did Groucho at private festivities after he’d killed an important enemy and had a few drinks. The leader laughed at K and clapped him on the back. He didn’t take K on as a double, but he let him live and only cut off one of his ears. K felt relieved, but discovered after he woke up that his tour of duty had been extended.
Corporal K went to the theater to see a new Iraqi play and review it for an American military publication. The drama critic from Al-Jazeera was there as well, sitting next to K. As the play began, a line of Iraqi men came out on stage and one after the other fell over in a pile as if dead. After the pile had grown to 25 or so men, there was an intermission. K took the opportunity to speak to the drama critic, asking him what he thought of the performance. “It’s like watching a Koran go down the toilet,” the man replied. “And you?” K could only agree, saying, “It’s like drinking menstrual blood.” The critic and K left the theater at once and went to a bar together, where the critic bought K drinks until late at night. The next day K appeared on Arabic TV urinating in a mosque.
Private K ran the elevator in a new government building. When people got on, K asked “What floor?” The passengers said “four, six, and three,” for example, and K pressed the buttons for two, five, and seven. It took him a while to get that right (try it; it’s harder than you think), but now he rarely pressed a floor that someone had requested. K then laughed quietly to himself as the elevator made extra stops and the passengers had to press the correct buttons themselves. Riders who had gotten to know K and the kind of service he provided now thrust their hands right past him and pressed the buttons for their floors without speaking to K. No one ever requested seven, however, since for some reason no one worked on that floor. Often, as now, K rode up alone and got off there, walked across the vacant floor and out a glass door, and stood on a lofty balcony in the open air, looking down at war-torn Baghdad. On six he could still see the smoking wrecks and the planes firing missiles. But on seven all he saw in any direction was clear sky, a beautiful city, and peace. Then, as always happened up here, a pigeon crapped right on his jacket.