The Use of the Imperative
I believe that this barber means to murder me. I cannot be entirely certain, of course. Perhaps I am suffering from paranoia - an elaborate fantasy I have spun from plain cloth. But he and the small man certainly have some plan in the making, and I believe it to be more sinister than merely a haircut and shave.
The small man assumes that I can’t understand the machine-gun Cuban spoken between him and the barber, and he’s right. But I pick up more than he thinks I do. I have heard the verb matar, ‘to kill’, four times. Once in the future tense, twice in the infinitive, and once, most distressingly, in the imperative.
I do not know how they plan to do it. I assume it will be with the rusty straight razor that sits in a position of prominence on the dirty sink in front of me, but I have not heard the verb tajear, ‘to slash’, or cortar, ‘to cut’. Perhaps they have a garrote, or something more prosaic: a knife. Perhaps a gun.
I’m not sure it would make sense to murder me. These streets are small and dense with neighbours. The barber, I think, doesn’t consider it a good plan. He’s used the verbs manchar, ‘to stain’, desmembrar, ‘to dismember’, and ocultar, ‘to conceal (an object)’ in tones that suggest these are all disadvantages to the small man’s plan.
I believe the only reason to murder me would be financial. I am a man without enemies, a scholar of sorts, here to retrace the steps of Bernal Diaz’s La Conquista de las Americas, and the coming of European civilization to the continent. But I am wealthy, it is true; and today I have taken less steps than usual to obscure this wealth. I assume this to be the reason for my hypothetical murder.
It does seem an extreme act, though. Why not simply rob me of my belongings and set me on the street? Perhaps they will. The barber, I think, wants this. But I am a foreigner, traveling alone, and nobody knows I am here. And perhaps they believe me to possess an excellent memory. To be able to lead the PNR here, retracing my steps.
I do not, however, possess an excellent memory. Though I try desperately to remember the series of turns which led me from the Plaza de Dolores to this dark room with the dirty sink and the cracked mirror and the curving wooden stairwell of fine Cuban mahogany, my recollections are distant and dim.
Had the small man been the one to approach me in the plaza as I sketched the facade of the church in a notebook I carry for that purpose, I should have been more wary. I have, after all, dealt with my share of beggars and scam artists since I flew into Havana a week ago. But as it was I who approached him, asking in clumsy, broken Spanish if he knew where I could find a barber, I assumed the risk of his being some shady miscreant to be negligible. He made me repeat myself three times before he understood me. He seemed ashamed for me. I was ashamed for myself. Three decades of reading this language, becoming expert in its particulars, and here I was, unable to make a simple request.
And so, when I finally gained his understanding with elaborate gestures and he beckoned me to follow him, I did. Down Aguilera, right on to Calvario, and at that point my knowledge of the geography of Santiago de Cuba becomes less assured. A left, a right. Teenage boys, shirtless, playing some sort of ball game, bouncing it off the facades of the buildings on either side of the street. A vendor selling sticks of dough deep-fried in oil. A right, a left. An elderly couple in a horse-drawn cart, rolling along on car tyres. A living room in which a couple danced, their bodies touching at every conceivable point, a glass of rum in the man’s hand. Left, right, the alleys becoming narrower and less populated. Only a paperboy, lifting the money for the paper from a wicker basket lowered by an elderly woman on the fourth floor of the building to my left. Then several more turns, the small man turning and smiling with his crooked teeth, urging me on until he guided me through an unassuming doorway into the dark room in which I am now seated.
Since I must sit with my back to the barber and the small man, I will not be certain that they intend to murder me until the act is already underway. The razor will be piercing my pharynx; the gun’s barrel will be smoking behind the padded cushion of my chair before I have the relief of certainty. My only chance for escape, therefore, is to jump up now, while the barber is still in the act of cutting my hair. I could run for the door, and if they did not impede my progress, I could run down the street shouting ¡Asesinato!. They would not be able to catch me before someone heard me.
But I am overreacting, surely; this is an old, entrenched habit of mine. What proof have I that they are to kill me? A couple of words, probably misheard. I could not even ask for a haircut in this language, and yet I have the temerity to condemn these men based on my knowledge of Spanish verb conjugations. I am being ridiculous.
Were I to run now, I would look the madman, and later, in days and weeks following, I would forget the terror that I feel now. I would never learn the true intentions of these two gentlemen, and it would seem to me, upon reflection, that I had simply panicked without reason. I would berate myself. I would convince myself that I have neither the requisite courage nor trust in my fellow man to travel as I must through these tropical nations.
When I entered, the barber had smiled and shaken my hand. He shouted, Hello, in English, but when I responded in the same it became obvious that this was one of only a handful of words he knew. He whistled to a boy who sat on the dark stairs at the back of the room. The boy disappeared upstairs and returned with a bottle of rum and three lowball glasses, dirty with the residue of previous drinks. The barber poured out a shot of rum for me and the small man, and we clinked our glasses together. I had smiled. I felt, then, that this was something of a breakthrough for me, an experience that would cross the cultural divide.
Then the boy left, and the barber began conversing with the small man in staccato murmurs. The rum, then, seemed to augur badly. The barber and the small man argued in their low voices quite fiercely, careful to keep the words flowing fast, beyond my comprehension. Twice, the barber had become angry and forced the small man to leave the room. It was on the second occasion that the small man had used the imperative, hissing ¡Matalo! - Kill him - as his face disappeared through the doorway.
The barber snips away at the hair above my ears, then reaches his other hand around and pulls back the loose fringe of hair at the front of my head. He grins. His teeth, too, are crooked, and two are capped with gold. Un secreto, he says. A secret. He laughs. He is referring to my receding hairline beneath my fringe. I smile at him weakly and look away.
But his words rouse me. There is one other possibility of escape. I have not spoken in Spanish since my botched question to the small man; perhaps, if I now demonstrate some fluency, they will realize that that their plan is no secret and abandon it. I must compose a question carefully. But on what subject?
Martillo. I heard the small man with the crooked teeth say martillo. A hammer! They plan to crush my skull with a hammer. While the barber shaves me, the small man will approach quietly from behind and bring the blunt steel crashing down upon my upturned and open mouth.
But no: a hammer would be too loud, too messy. Teeth and blood and bone fragments. A tool far too clumsy for the neat traceless murder of a wealthy foreigner. Perhaps it was not martillo but mi tio. Trying to pluck the words I need from this viscid soup of nouns and prepositions is more difficult than ever I could have guessed.
The barber finishes my haircut and sweeps the clippings from under me with a small wooden broom missing most of its bristles. Then he takes the scissors and, pulling the edge of my nostril out with his left hand, trims my nose hair. His fingers are stubby, grubby and unwashed; it feels as though he has left a stain of grease on my nose. He trims my beard back to a more civilized length, and reaches for the straight razor.
Baseball. I will ask about baseball. Something simple, but colloquial. Who is going to win the World Series? Easy. Common words, familiar to me. A subject no doubt of interest to these men. A simple construction in the present future. Who is going to win the World Series? I don’t even know who’s playing.
The barber begins the shave on my cheeks. The blade is old and rough. It tugs at the stubble and makes me shudder. It will be tough to plunge that through my carotid artery. If it is to happen I want it to be quick and clean, not a series of botched slashes with a tool not fit for the job. The barber, noticing me flinch, whips the razor away, pulling a new blade from a drawer under the mirror. New, he says in English. New.
I turn in the chair and look back at him. No problems, I say in Spanish. So. Who is going to win the World Series?
The barber does not respond. He acts as if I have not said a word. The small man, smoking a cigarette at the back of the room, begins to murmur to him and they begin a conversation whose meaning is lost on me.
The barber places the razor to my cheek again and draws it down. On the second stroke, he places it too heavily. A thin line of blood beads along the top of my cheekbone.
Sorry, he says in English, searching for each word individually and waving his hands. I, am, sorry.
He wets his fingers under the tap and wipes the blood clear. He waits to see whether it will bead up again and when it does not, he continues with the shave, careful to use a lighter touch. The small man gazes at my reflection in the mirror, taking anxious puffs on his cigarette.
Ahora, he mumbles. Now.
My time to act is diminishing. The barber places his crooked forefinger beneath my chin, a silent cue to tilt my head back. I look up, fixing my eyes on a cluster of cobwebs on the musty ceiling. In a few moments this situation will be cleared up. Either I am a paranoiac who has concocted a morbid death-fantasy, or else I will be dead, my body dumped in some deserted concrete canal.
The barber is not satisfied. He nudges my chin further up. I roll my head back, my eyes registering only more cobwebs, more dust. I am wealthy, but I am not sure that I deserve death. The folds of my neck stretch and tighten. His finger is on my chin and I can feel the blood thick in my arteries. I breathe deeply. I am a scholar; a man with no enemies. Out of the corner of my left eye I can see that the razor is high above me. Perhaps this is the moment in which he swoops down, the avenging angel come to extinguish all life from me. Perhaps he is simply shaking the cream from the razor. It hangs there above me, dull and ungleaming. I cannot wait. I push my throat toward it, urge myself to it, my back arching, my blood pulsing, my stubbled skin suddenly impatient for the razor’s kiss.
Lachlan Prior is a short story writer and essayist from the western suburbs of Sydney.
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Vol 18 No 1 April 2014
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo