Michael Love, 11
Terror comes in many forms. It can be found in spooky gothic castles no more easily than in a fat man slipping on ice. For me it came in a run-down Asian barbershop.
The wooden building had never been painted and the cement floor had never been unchipped. On the sidewalk, to the left of the shop, a couple of samlor drivers hunkered over a chess game made up of bottle caps and scratches on the cement. The boards used to shut the place at night were propped against the nearest corner. Blue and yellow greasepaint letters crawled in neat files across the smudged window. One corner of the grimy pane had been knocked out and the keen edges were covered by a fine talcum.
A tattered strip of red paper strung with Chinese cabals hung simply from the doorway The hot air in the street was a musty washrag thrown in your face and clinging wetly across mouth and nostrils. Inside the air was the same but the overhead fans stirred it in thick sluggish currents. The left wall was covered with photographs, pin-up pictures torn out of magazines, calendars, paper flowers and indiscriminate patches of gold leaf. As I stepped in, a cock squawked and bolted frantically across my path, causing me to stumble slightly. Then it resumed scratching through the dust on the floor. There were two chairs. The one nearest me was occupied by a plump man who was either a minor official or a minor merchant; a slender bamboo straw was being delicately drawn in and out of his ear by a boy in his late teens. He lay back in delicious contentment.
The owner, a smiling Chinese, bowed to me and gestured to the empty chair. You felt it had probably never been new, though perhaps the sagging strips on the seat and back had once been oil cloth and may even have covered some padding.
As I sat down it wobbled and creaked threateningly but held. The owner bowed profuse apologies for touching my head and then deftly unbuttoned my shirt and folded the collar under. Quickly my long foreign neck was wrapped in a scrap of ancient dusty toweling. A sheet that had been white earlier in the day was cast over this.
I told the man how I wanted my haircut and he seemed surprised I could speak in his language. But he didn’t ask the usual questions; and I leaned back content not to go through the usual answers. He disappeared into the back room and returned carrying an ornate straight-edge razor. The handle was old ivory inlaid with gold swirling lines and the back edge of the blade was lightly scalloped.
Carefully, he set the razor by the mirror. Then the clippers, in a syncopated meshing, buzzed nearer, lacing the air with the clean odor of hot oil. Minutely, almost hair, by hair, the clippers and scissors nibbled at my hair. And the air trapped under the sheet melted into a warm sticky jelly.
Idly I watched him swimming in the green mirror. There was a certain excitement playing across his face….or was it just a ripple in the glass? The snipping and clacking lulled my attention, A young woman, perhaps the boy’s wife, lay asleep on a sheetless army cot in the back corner. There was just enough light to see that her white cotton blouse slid up above one breast. Her child lay against her in drowsy satiety. The brown nipple gleamed wetly in the dim light.
I hadn’t realized how drowsy I had become until I was eased backwards in the chair for the shave. Now I definitely noticed that my barber was agitated about something. His hands trembled slightly as he whetted the ancient straightedge razor. He flicked several quick glances at himself in the mirror. So for the first time I began to look closely at the man.
He was older at second glance than I had thought. His hair was thick and close cropped; his left eyebrow turned up slightly at the end because of a small scar. I couldn’t tell whether it lent that side of his face a clownish look or a Mephistophelean leer. From a mole on his chin dangled a salt and pepper colored wisp of 7 or 8 long hairs, He wore a Mae West undershirt and a pair of black shorts.
I called jokingly to him, “Say if you sharpen that razor much more, you won’t have any left.”
He bowed to me. “I have to make sure it’s sharp.” He smiled widely as he came over to me and laid the blade against my upturned neck. His voice dropped, “Because I’m going to cut your throat.” He bowed and smiled again.
It was a joke. I strained to get my arm out from under the sticky sheet, and brush his hand away. And with my move the sharp edge began pressing into my windpipe. I pulled my arm back and the pressure slackened, it had felt like a stiff wet worm. I lay silent a few minutes deciding whether it really was a joke or not. Sensing my calm, the razor began crawling over my face dragging its tail like a small rat. In quick short bites it gnawed the whiskers, leaving bare patches of smarting skin. One bite near the chin was too’ deep and I winced.
Then a muscle in my leg began twitching independently and I knew I believed him. The man was serious. For some reason he was going to slash my throat. I started talking, hoping to distract him, maybe change his mind.
“Why?” I asked.
“You’re a foreigner,”
“Yes. I have to kill the first foreigner who enters my shop.”
“Look here man . . . you’ve never seen me before.” The hot air picked under the sheet was stabbed by a needle prick of cold sweat which vacillated a minute, bunched its energy, and suddenly wiped itself down my ribs in a single chilled snail track. “I’ve never done anything to you.”
“I know. I’m sorry.” Regretfully I believed he was sorry. I say regretfully because granting his sorrow meant granting his intention, I had no doubt now—if something didn’t happen soon, my life would splash out across the dingy floor.
I wanted to stall off the mess. Push it out in front of me a few, more seconds. Time was a coin spinning in the sun; each second at once shadowed with terror and glittering with the greedy bliss of life. I shifted slightly in the chair.
“Look here,” I threatened, “You’ll never get away with this. Now take that razor away or I’ll start yelling for help.”„
He bowed politely and his left eyebrow hiked up slightly. Now it was a leer, evil, chilling….yet still clownish.
“Ah, yes. But it will be accident.” The razor rasped across my larynx like the edge of a piece of fine sandpaper. “But to yell for help, even a foreigner must have vocal chords.”
Here he dampened my upper lip with a wad of moist tissue paper. “Please don’t worry,” his voice was reassuring, courteous. “I have a sure hand. And I intend to finish shaving you first. You see, there’s nothing personal in this.” The tickle of the razor now left my throat and a second later was scratching at my temples. To my left, the plump merchant, his ears cleaned, eased out of his chair and gave the boy a single wadded bill. The boy hurried in back while the merchant tugged at one earlobe and scrutinized a calendar picture. It was a semi-nude foreign woman giving the eye to a superimposed Eiffel Tower. I wanted to call to this man for help, but before I could clear my throat the razor’s rough tongue was licking my neck eagerly, like a woman promising consummation. I hung fire, torn between another second of life and wanting to at least let someone know. The boy came back and gave the man’s change to him.
And my security, my straw to clutch, tugged his ear, ogled the picture one last time and waddled out into the afternoon heat. One of the squatting trishaw drivers grunted happily over a winning move. For a moment I hated the merchant because he had gotten out of the shop alive and I wouldn’t.
And I hadn’t even called to him. Each second had been too precious to quite let slip. And now they were gone too.
The blades of the overhead fan spun in lazy buzzard circles above the vacated chair. The boy flicked the switch and they fluttered to a stop. It was only above me that the blades still hovered and swooped. . The boy fiddled with a portable Japanese radio until he found an American rock and roll station.
He squeezed the knob to the highest volume, then stationed himself in front of a mirror to comb his hair and peer with fascination into his own pupils.
The twin brown-rimmed holes were his world. The soggy afternoon was the plump merchant’s world. The bottle-cap chess game, the samlor driver’s world. And the world of the patient, inexorable straight-edge razor was mine. In tiny strokes, like a cat’s tongue licking raw meat, and in long wet strokes like an idiot licking ice cream, the razor wiped clean my jaws, upper lip and neck.
It could only be a few minutes now. Nothing had been said. -In the corner the radio babbled to itself unintelligibly. My face was now clean-shaven and he was carefully shaving my ears, long rasping strokes along the tips and short itchy ones on the pancake flats of the lobes.
“Why….” my voice cracked with static, like the bristly sound the razor made pulling across the chin whiskers. “Why do you have to kill a foreigner?”
“My father told me to. He said some day a foreigner would come into my shop and I was to pull this razor across his throat.”
He tugged gently at his mole whiskers as he held the razor out. He looked at it as you might look at an ancient ceremonial dagger. “I don’t know why he wants me to do this….but he is my father.”
“Where is he now?”
“In the back room.”
“Why don’t you bring him out and —”
“Oh no….You see, he’s been dead for twenty years.”
“In the back….?”
“His ashes and tablet.”
Gently, almost affectionately, the razor caressed my forehead, smoothing away the tiny white hairs. What was it like having your throat cut? What hurt? The cut. No, probably the not being able to breathe. Could I suck air through the open trachea? Would it be cold or hot?…l was afraid it would be cold. What would it look like? Hamburger? a second mouth grinning below the chin and filled with betel?
I touched my hands under the sheet but they were somebody else’s hands. Like a couple of starfish bumping into each other in a tepid slimy lagoon. My mouth was a dusty cotton wad found in back of a long uncleaned medicine chest. The blade flickered and grinned and winked as it scraped down my nose and around the edges of my nostrils.
“When he died,” the crooked eyebrow turned toward me, “each of us gave him one promise. This was mine.”
“Good God, man! You mean you’ve waited twenty years? “
“ Waiting is easy. I knew a foreigner would come some day and I only need to kill one.”
The man had waited twenty years as if it were a single afternoon, sure one day the victim would come to him. Meet him completely on his own terms. And one had.
“And I’m the first foreigner in twenty years?”
“Yes. But there’ll be others.”
“And you won’t kill them?”
“Yes. I won’t.”
“Why did your father tell you to do this?”
“I don’t know.” The razor chipped with precision at my eyebrows.
“You didn’t ask?”
“What difference would it make? It was probably something to do with the Boxer Rebellion. Something probably happened, but I never asked. I really don’t know why. But what difference would it make today?”
“But what good will killing me be today, either?”
For a second the stroking of the razor stopped. He pulled on the mole whiskers.
“None,” he replied, “But my father told me—.”
“Never mind. I understand.”
I lay tense, my whole body focused on the single burning thread pulled taut and drawing across my face. It would come at any moment. It was hunching to spring, when he calmly began to shave my eyelids. The slightest movement on my part could….I repulsed a shudder. But I couldn’t help imagining the blade slitting open the lids and orbs in a single jerk. And then I began trembling in rage, in helplessness and yes, in fear. How completely this small man and his knife held me captive. A gun, chains or manacles could have done no better.
As the moment approached in nibbling strokes my body was streaked with cold rivulets of sweat, and my bowels were like ice water. The razor had stopped nicking at my eyelids….Where was it ?
Slowly, I pushed open my eyelids not knowing whether I would see the long blur of the razor an eighth of an inch away or whether I’d see that last motion below my chin.
A flash of white. A dry burst of cloud. And a sweet stench stung my eyes as the powder puff slapped my cheek. Startled, I forced my eyes to remain open and through the stinging mist I saw the razor….lying quietly beside the mirror. The barber bowed to me as he removed the sheet and the scrap of toweling.
“l changed my mind.” He smiled and his twisted left eyebrow made him look like a mischievous clown.
I blinked out his face for a second and felt my body give an involuntary jerk. I opened my eyes and was standing at the door of the shop staring inside at him.
“Why?” I demanded.
“I don’t know. But I’m in no hurry. Someday there’ll be another foreigner.” Wordlessly, I turned and started out of the shop. Gently, his hand touched my elbow.
“You forgot to pay, sir,” he said.
I grabbed a bill and thrust it at him, kept walking. Again, the gentle restraining hand.
“You forgot your change sir.” He extended his right arm with his left hand cupping it at the elbow and bowed from the waist.
“Come back sometime,” he said.
I walked on. I walked into my new world. The odors of the street were like warm spiced wine washing away the talcum smell of death.
Categories: Past Issue