Thursday, March 02, 2006

Just Lather, That's All

Yes, I know, tis a long post. Not apologizing. This story is one of my favorite short stories. Ah shiver in suspense every tahm. (No, I do not suffer from any kind of memory loss, thank G-d)

To the scores of students, thinkers, readers and lizards that have come here to this post on my blog via googlation ('the act of googling'), be it the meaning of, the theme of, or just the actual story of "Just Lather, That's All", welcome! I'm glad I can be of service. I know what a relief it is to find a text online. There is some discussion in the comments section but please feel free to add your own thoughts on the story so that the next visitor can use your views and ideas for his/her own school work, personal growth, or brand new shredding machine.

THE STORY:

He said nothing when he entered. I was passing the best of my razors back and forth on a strop. When I recognized him I started to tremble. But he didn't notice. Hoping to conceal my emotion, I continued sharpening the razor. I tested it on the meat of my thumb, and then held it up to the light. At that moment be took off the bullet-studded belt that his gun holster dangled from. He hung it up on a wall hook and placed his military cap over it. Then be turned to me, loosening the knot of his tie, and said, "It's hot as bell. Give me a shave." He sat in the chair.

I estimated be bad a four-day beard. The four days taken up by the latest expedition in search of our troops. His face seemed reddened, burned by the sun. Carefully, I began to prepare the soap. I cut off a few slices, dropped them into the cup, mixed in a bit of warm water, and began to stir with the brush. Immediately the foam began to rise. "The other boys in the group should have this much beard, too." I continued stirring the lather.

"But we did all right, you know. We got the main ones. We brought back some dead, and we've got some others still alive. But pretty soon they'll all be dead."
"How many did you catch?" I asked.
"Fourteen. We had to go pretty deep into the woods to find them. But we'll get even. Not one of them comes out of this alive, not one."
He leaned back on the chair when he saw me with the lather-covered brush in my hand. I still had to put the sheet on him. No doubt about it, I was upset. I took a sheet out of a drawer and knotted it around my customer's neck. He wouldn't stop talking. He probably thought I was in sympathy with his party.
"The town must have learned a lesson from what we did the other day," he said.
"Yes," I replied, securing the knot at the base of his dark, sweaty neck.
"That was a fine show, eh?"
"Very good," I answered, turning back for the brush. The man closed his eyes with a gesture of fatigue and sat waiting for the cool caress of the soap. I had never had him so close to me. The day he ordered the whole town to file into the patio of the school to see the four rebels hanging there, I came face to face with him for an instant. But the sight of the mutilated bodies kept me from noticing the face of the man who had directed it all, the face I was now about to take into my hands. It was not an unpleasant face, certainly. And the beard, which made him seem a bit older than he was, didn't suit him badly at all. His name was Torres. Captain Torres. A man of imagination, because who else would have thought of hanging the naked rebels and then holding target practice on certain parts of their bodies? I began to apply the first layer of soap. With his eyes closed, be continued. "Without any effort I could go straight to sleep," he said, "but there's plenty to do this afternoon." I stopped the lathering and asked with a feigned lack of interest: "A firing squad?" "Something like that, but a little slower." I got on with the job of lathering his beard. My bands started trembling again. The man could not possibly realize it, and this was in my favor. But I would have preferred that he hadn't come. It was likely that many of our faction had seen him enter. And an enemy under one's roof imposes certain conditions. I would be obliged to shave that beard like any other one, carefully, gently, like that of any customer, taking pains to see that no single pore emitted a drop of blood. Being careful to see that the little tufts of hair did not lead the blade astray. Seeing that his skin ended up clean, soft, and healthy, so that passing the back of my hand over it I couldn't feel a hair. Yes, I was secretly a rebel, but I was also a conscientious barber, and proud of the preciseness of my profession. And this four-days' growth of beard was a fitting challenge.

I took the razor, opened up the two protective arms, exposed the blade and began the job, from one of the sideburns downward. The razor responded beautifully. His beard was inflexible and hard, not too long, but thick. Bit by bit the skin emerged. The razor rasped along, making its customary sound as fluffs of lather mixed with bits of hair gathered along the blade. I paused a moment to clean it, then took up the strop again to sharpen the razor, because I'm a barber who does things properly. The man, who had kept his eyes closed, opened them now, removed one of his hands from under the sheet, felt the spot on his face where the soap had been cleared off, and said, "Come to the school today at six o'clock." "The same thing as the other day?" I asked horrified. "It could be better," he replied. "What do you plan to do?" "I don't know yet. But we'll amuse ourselves." Once more he leaned back and closed his eyes. I approached him with the razor poised. "Do you plan to punish them all?" I ventured timidly. "All." The soap was drying on his face. I had to hurry. In the mirror I looked toward the street. It was the same as ever: the grocery store with two or three customers in it. Then I glanced at the clock: two-twenty in the afternoon. The razor continued on its downward stroke. Now from the other sideburn down. A thick, blue beard. He should have let it grow like some poets or priests do. It would suit him well. A lot of people wouldn't recognize him. Much to his benefit, I thought, as I attempted to cover the neck area smoothly. There, for sure, the razor had to be handled masterfully, since the hair, although softer, grew into little swirls. A curly beard. One of the tiny pores could be opened up and issue forth its pearl of blood. A good barber such as I prides himself on never allowing this to happen to a client. And this was a first-class client. How many of us had he ordered shot? How many of us had he ordered mutilated? It was better not to think about it. Torres did not know that I was his enemy. He did not know it nor did the rest. It was a secret shared by very few, precisely so that I could inform the revolutionaries of what Torres was doing in the town and of what he was planning each time he undertook a rebel-hunting excursion. So it was going to be very difficult to explain that I had him right in my hands and let him go peacefully-alive and shaved.

The beard was now almost completely gone. He seemed younger, less burdened by years than when he had arrived. I suppose this always happens with men who visit barber shops. Under the stroke of my razor Torres was being rejuvenated-rejuvenated because I am a good barber, the best in the town, if I may say so. A little more lather here, under his chin, on his Adam's apple, on this big vein. How hot it is getting! Torres must be sweating as much as I. But he is not afraid. He is a calm man, who is not even thinking about what he is going to do with the prisoners this afternoon. On the other hand I, with this razor in my hands, stroking and re-stroking this skin, trying to keep blood from oozing from these pores, can't even think clearly. Damn him for coming, because I'm a revolutionary and not a murderer. And how easy it would be to kill him. And he deserves it. Does be? No! What the devil! No one deserves to have someone else make the sacrifice of becoming a murderer. What do you gain by it? Nothing. Others come along and still others, and the first ones kill the second ones and they the next ones and it goes on like this until everything is a sea of blood. I could cut this throat just so, zip! zip! I wouldn't give him time to complain and since he has his eyes closed he wouldn't see the glistening knife blade or my glistening eyes. But I'm trembling like a real murderer. Out of his neck a gush of blood would spout onto the sheet, on the chair, on my hands, on the floor. I would have to close the door. And the blood would keep inching along the floor, warm, ineradicable, uncontainable, until it reached the street, like a little scarlet stream. I'm sure that one solid stroke, one deep incision, would prevent any pain. He wouldn't suffer. But what would I do with the body? Where would I hide it? I would have to flee, leaving all I have behind, and take refuge far away, far, far away. But they would follow until they found me. "Captain Torres' murderer. He slit his throat while he was shaving him a coward." And then on the other side. "The avenger of us all. A name to remember. (And here they would mention my name.) He was the town barber. No one knew he was defending our cause."

And what of all this? Murderer or hero? My destiny depends on the edge of this blade. I can turn my hand a bit more, press a little harder on the razor, and sink it in. The skin would give way like silk, like rubber, like the strop. There is nothing more tender than human skin and the blood is always there, ready to pour forth. A blade like this doesn't fail. It is my best. But I don't want to be a murderer, no sir. You came to me for a shave. And I perform my work honorably. . . . I don't want blood on my hands. Just lather, that's all. You are an executioner and I am only a barber. Each person has his own place in the scheme of things. That's right. His own place.
Now his chin bad been stroked clean and smooth. The man sat up and looked into the mirror. He rubbed his hands over his skin and felt it fresh, like new.

"Thanks," he said. He went to the hanger for his belt, pistol and cap. I must have been very pale; my shirt felt soaked. Torres finished adjusting the buckle, straightened his pistol in the holster and after automatically smoothing down his hair, he put on the cap. From his pants pocket be took out several coins to pay me for my services. And he began to bead toward the door. In the doorway he paused for a moment, and turning to me he said:
"They told me that you'd kill me. I came to find out. But killing isn't easy. You can take my word for it." And he headed on down the street.

By HERNANDO TÉLLEZ and Translated by Donald A. Yates

24 comments:

wandering said...

chava please post your aliya essay..

elisheva said...

Chava darling, this story earned me a nickname from Mrs. Gottesman:

blood thirsty ellie

How cool is that? Pretty much i played devils advocate, and i played it pretty well :) My argument was that the barber was a coward for not murdering the enemy while he had him in his chair. The barber lacked the courage, the risk, the "fight for your land" drive. Actually now that im recalling that debate from over two years ago, i can go on and on. But i won't. Layla Tov

wandering said...

actually elisheva i was kind of thinking the same thing... I felt like he was a liberal- imagine that was an arab in your hands. Sure its hard to kill him, but if you don't you are causing the death of countless other people.

Nemo said...

Look at it from this angle- who is this barber to judge the guilt of this man. There is little information given to assert that Torres is acting in bad faith.

the sabra said...

Ooooh I just love this story for the fact that every time I change my mind on who is what. Also for the fact that everyone always has an opinion on it.

Wandering, I already told you-I don't think its anything 'postworthy', but toads loads!

wandering said...

bad faith? he is a murderer! it doesnt matter what his intentions are... a lot of arabs are very idealistic- they are doing it for the sake of 'G-d'.... and 70 virgins...
and sabra i disagree about postworthiness (if that is a word)

elisheva said...

Ah Nemo your view is so limiting. Your taking sentences without giving any thought, or allowing the possibility of a double meaning. Wandering brought in a relevant example, that of an Arab.

By walking into the barbershop and walking out, Torres asserted himself. He silently proclaimed "Let it be known that i will be victorious. I walked into the lion's den, the enemy's fort, and walked out untouched". He was so arragont to actually sit in that barbers chair, and let a blade swipe his neck. And if the story was written from the viewpoint of Torres, there would be little room to doubt this theme.

ellie said...

Forgive me.

Good Shabbos Chava, and to all the boys and girls who play in the bloggesphere.

Nemo said...

Not short sighted, playing devil's advocate-

Murder is not evil in all instances. Perhaps he was fighting for the cause of good- American in Iraq for example.

The one thing that always got me going in school was short stories. What it lacks in length, it'll gains in intrigue. Because of the shortness in length, authors will often put you into the circumstances by way of account and not description {Word for it, but I've been missing school too long}.

Also, a key element to all short stories is ambiguity- While we know that Torres is a killer, it's at our discretion to detemine the motives for the murdering. We do not have the barber's backround and neither that of Torrence. The immediate assumption for people of our upbringing is that murder is bad in every situation. We don't consider that he could be fighting for a just cause.

The barber may be from a wayward land that has been invaded by Torrence's army, and he is naturally justifying of his countrymen's believes. This theory is credible considering we're getting the perspective of the barber and not of Torrence. It's further collaborated by Torrence's last statement "They said you will kill me..." Perhaps he was led on to this by his fellow soldiers who feared him using one of the civilian, and enemy barbers.

AMBIGUOUS!

Nemo said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Nemo said...

I'm sorry- TorrES

Nemo said...

Also, the barber's vilification of Torres affirms to us that this is only a matter of perpective vs. absolute evil.

We also see that the barber himself lacks true believe in his revolution. Why didn't he kill him. He's insecure in his belief in rebellion.

I must admit though, after a {proper] rereading of the story, there is little that we can do to credit Torres' good intentions. His merciless acts while killing his prey shows his enjoyment in suffering. Fighting for protection can be justified. These acts such as letting his victims die slowly are despicable and inhuman. It does paint HIM as guilty, though his cause may be just {in some twisted way, lol}

wandering said...

touche

Anonymous said...

i totaly disagree eli, yo the barber was doing his job it was not his place to kill the enemy!!
am yisrael chayle

elisheva said...

Not his place? Chayale, c'mon ... Am i alone is saying things that should be said unsaid to people who should not be told? (Well, i don't do that sooo often.) Seriously, everybody needs to step out of his/her little parameters occasionaly and brazenly take a powerful action.

And Nemo, i only said your views are so "limiting" because they were the standard reactions i have seen after the story was read. The p.o.v. i took, that the barber was a coward, was the Devil;s Advocate. And then you came and said you were playing the d.a. to me. So i didn't like that!!!

Nemo said...

Eli-
LOL- Sorry, overlooked that-

But we were advocating for two different protagonists in the story and I think that the view I took was less conventional than yours.

Reading, and short stories in particular were meant to be read critically... I was just doing it for kicks!

the sabra said...

Nu! So many of you guys are coming and reading--help each other out!

-me- said...

he came to find out if he'd get killed? niiice experiment there!

and also, i wonder: was he trying to prove a point that when he killed ppl it was hard but he had to do it anyhow cuz it was that important? was the visit in order to promote the worthiness of his stance?

the sabra said...

This story is so real in my mind.

the sabra said...

I got myself a shave today and I didn't even think of this tale. Outrageous.

"The" Batman said...

Wow. What an epic tale. This story leaves me trying to find my own opinion mixed in with all these other perceptions. Should I be disgusted with the barber, because he didn't have the "courage" to murder the man or should I commend him because of his self-control? Is the general still a cold-blooded killer or is there now a hint of doubt of whether he's putting on a show for everyone else or not? A story with no answers and a story with many answers. Hats off to Hernando Tellez.

the sabra said...

O wow, this is very exciting, I must admit, to get a new comment on this story!

yes, i agree, so many questions, so many answers, incredible story...

ibrahimramze1995 said...

the sabra is in palestaine.....

ibrahimramze1995 said...

there is nothing called Israel.It is not a country....