By: DC Foster
Scar tissue mottled the old man’s hands, the thinner the lighter; it ran like Desert Storm camouflage from his wrists into his fingers toward the jaundiced nails that tipped each of his ten digits. No, nine digits. His left hand had only four fingers, the pinky severed halfway. The patches of skin between the knuckles were hairless and almost maroon, as if trapped just beneath the surface was a thin pool of blood. His palms were a chalky gray and waxy like linoleum. Stiff, starched white sleeves covered his forearms, but the unbuttoned collar around his neck revealed the same murky patchwork of skin that covered his hands. His chin rested on his protruding collarbone and his head was bent as if he were hiding tears in his eyes. His right hand, where all five fingers were intact, gripped the blade – an old-fashioned straight razor with a bone-white ivory scale that curved in a gentle concave. The shank and tang were thin and black and looked fragile as the stem of a wine glass. The spine was speckled and unpolished, as if it had been sitting in a drawer or someone’s back pocket for too long, while the blade, thin as a sheet of paper, glistened in the room’s overhead fluorescent light like an unhinged fish scale. It seemed so shiny it glowed, almost in anticipation of meeting skin, as it knew its job and looked forward to the work. The old man wore no expression as he ran the blade back and forth, back and forth in practiced repetition over a leg of his brown trousers. The old man’s wrist turned each time the blade crossed the fabric of his slacks; the motion reminded Marcus of a violinist touching bow to string in quick lashes. But the music was silent.
Marcus gripped the chair’s arms with all ten, fully functional digits. Sweat streamed down the back of his neck, down the back of his arms and onto the tiny black hairs that covered the backs of his evenly pigmented hands and the spaces between his knuckles where the saline beads gripped the hair like morning dew on grass. He wanted to dab his moist skin against his own pants leg, but the sight of the blade kept him paralyzed with a cocktail of fear and intrigue. So instead he watched and waited.
For six months, Marcus Whitmore had lived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where he taught English to teenagers who paid a dollar a day to sit in windowless classrooms and listen to foreigners explain noun-verb agreement and the proper use of a semicolon. The boys, seemingly all of them, had ambitions of attending business school. The girls were biding their time until motherhood. The teens treated English like currency – something they could stow in their back pocket and pull out when needed. The speaking of Khmer was forbade in the classroom, frowned upon like the use of subversive code, which it basically was. Marcus had hoped the language exchange would go both ways – him gleaning as much Khmer as the teens picked up English. Instead, he developed the deft skill of parsing fragmented English and speaking his native tongue at half-speed. Marcus wanted to try a few words of the native tongue on the wielding the blade, but the sight of the razor blinded his voice and obscured his memory of even the most perfunctory phrases.
The old man didn’t smile, didn’t grimace, didn’t frown. He betrayed no emotion beyond concrete focus and concentration. He continued stroking the blade of the straight razor across the leg of his trousers, swiveling his wrist with each pass as if the thin fabric were the hard leather of a taut strop. The blade seemed an extension of his hand, the missing top-half of his pinky. The baby-blue wastebasket near Marcus’ feet held at least six used blades and maybe more beneath the wet tissues dotted with blood. A white sink with a tarnished gooseneck faucet sat in front of him. Below the sink was a mirror that reached nearly to the ceiling, angled to provide a slanted, encompassing perspective of whomever was in the chair. The old man, who’d been silent since guiding Marcus to the seat with an authoritative wave of the arm, stood in profile. He wore a crocodile-skin belt that matched his crocodile-skin shoes. The creature’s skin had been black. The raised bumps looked like a cobblestone road. The old man wore no socks. Marcus had always been impressed with the Cambodians’ ingrained tolerance of the country’s seemingly intolerable heat. How they dressed in slacks and long-sleeved shirts even in the depths of the eye-crusting dry season seemed beyond Marcus’ comprehension. But now, sitting in the padded chair, gripping its padded armrests, the tolerance frightened him, suggesting that the Cambodians possessed an inner heartiness he’d never attain. Back and forth, back and forth went the long blade.
Phnom Penh is alive with ghosts. You can feel them watching you from the blackened balconies of French villas where the rounded corners mirror the curvature of the cracked sidewalks and potholed streets below. You can sense them along the shores of the Mekong and in the shadowy alleys that smell of fish guts and piss and motorcycle exhaust. The spirits trail behind shoppers in open-air markets where pig carcasses are dotted with fat flies the color of motor oil, where unsmiling women call to unsmiling customers who all seem to communicate without locking eyes. The ghosts sing when the wind blows and cry when it rains; their tears clog the sewers and flood the streets with putrid water. It’s a city of ghosts and killers and victims. Half the population was tormented; the other half were the tormentors. Now they work together and shop together and speak without looking at one another. Everyone had lost at least one family member to the Khmer Rouge. Many had lost entire generations. Some had killed entire generations. Marcus wondered which category the blade-wielding old man claimed. Or if he straddled both camps. Or if it even mattered. Most Cambodians know Death by its first name.
When the old man finally opened his mouth and spoke, the words emerged like a terse vulgarity or a challenge to fight. They seemed heated and charged. “What you want?” the man asked in a clip that sound like wa chu wan. He wouldn’t take his eyes off the blade, refusing to make eye contact. Marcus couldn’t respond. He thought the presence of the blade, the mirror, even his sitting in the chair was answer enough. All he could do was shake his head and point his eyes toward the man’s straight-lipped mouth. “You – wa chu wan?” the man repeated, this time ever-so-briefly darting his eyes toward Marcus’. This man was almost certainly a killer, a taker of families.
“I just, uh … well, I want a, uh …”
The old man’s body shifted toward Marcus, who for the first time saw the deep grey wells beneath the man’s eyes. His nose was flat and the high cheekbones that rested at either side of his face cut the skin at sharp angles. His sinewy jaw muscles flexed and jittered between words, as if dancing with silent anxiety. The blade never stopped moving. “You wan full?” the man asked, cocking his head with the words. “You wan full o’ you wan part?” Par.
Marcus wanted to run. He wanted to stand and sprint out the door into the blistering heat of the outdoor afternoon pressure cooker and race to the nearest bar where he could join the familiar cluster of alcoholic expats drinking away the prime of their lives. But he still could not move. A chair squeaked behind him. A woman’s hand fell on his shoulder. The hand was light and full-fingered.
“You lie tea?” the woman asked, not pronouncing the “k” in “like” as she smiled and made near eye contact with an almost sexual stare. “You lie hot tea?”
Marcus didn’t want hot tea. Sweat darkened his shirt despite the overhead air conditioners’ powerful hum. He also didn’t want to say no, so he nodded rapidly and smiled. “Tea, yes. Please.” The hand lifted from his shoulder. Marcus eyed her image in the mirror; her face was round and a crescent of bangs hung along her forehead. She wore a tight pink dress with white piping along the hems. Marcus tried not to watch the sway of her ass as she turned and disappeared behind a dark curtain. He retrained his eyes on the old man with the blade. “I want full,” he said. Marcus’s thoughts remained on the woman fetching his tea.
Cambodia’s debauchery is legendary. Where Thailand is Southeast Asia’s sex tourism capital, Cambodia is its filthy backwater, a Wild West where everything goes for half-price, as if the country is trying to play catch-up to its better-developed neighbor. Massage parlor sex starts at ten-bucks a plunge; brothels run about the same. Child prostitutes are offered by their handlers – often their parents – on the streets for even less. Assault rifles used to be had for less than fifty dollars a pop in the city’s claustrophobic markets. Tourists and locals alike get stumbling drunk with the change they have left over from lunch. So much marijuana is mixed into the marinara at street-side pizzerias that sauce oozes green like pesto from the sides. Burmese heroin, so pure its white, is sold to foolish travelers looking to score cocaine. Policing is as much entrepreneurial as it is enforcement. No cop is above pocketing a bribe. Military police shoot first and don’t bother asking questions later. Marcus considered offering a crisp American tenner to slip out of the chair and cavort with the young woman behind the curtain. It seemed like a reasonable thought at the moment. And probably wouldn’t have been denied, or at least not frowned upon. But the blade kept him frozen in place.
The straight razor sat dully on the counter next to the sink. Marcus hadn’t seen the man set it down. Before he could reach into his pocket for the tenner, the back of his chair fell from behind him and slid nearly vertical with an aggressive jolt. The nine-fingered man was preparing to do business. “You wan foo shave an cut o foo shave an no cut?” the man asked in a hushed bark.
“No cut, no cut,” Marcus said, now staring at a whirling ceiling fan with five bamboo blades that spun like an enormous pinwheel. “Just shave.”
The old man offered silence in reply. Marcus tried to follow an individual fan blade as it made its revolutions. He heard the clatter of a bowl strike the counter harder than it should have. The air took on the smell of menthol. The facet was running. The old man’s hands, calloused but slippery, touched each side of his face, and the smell of eucalyptus singed his nostrils. The old man hadn’t bothered wiping the sweat from Marcus’ face before applying the pre-shave oil, which was warm and clung to the three-day growth that poked from the skin. Marcus heard the bowl slide across the counter. He lost track of the fan blade. The cool menthol cream was lathered onto his jowls and chin with a soft brush fashioned from the fir of a small animal, possibly a badger. The product was oily and thin, probably an Italian cream like C.O. Bigelow. Marcus had always preferred its English counterparts, which were thicker, more substantial and sometimes smelled of sandalwood. But he wasn’t prepared to voice that opinion. A soft clatter announced the bowl’s return to the counter. The faucet was silenced. Marcus didn’t hear the blade being picked up, but he knew it was coming. He saw the young woman return with a half-full glass of golden tea. She set it on the counter, now far out of his reach.
Cambodian women covered their mouths when they laughed and wore pants underneath their skirts. Their shorts fell to their knees and undershirts covered cleavage. They possessed a subjugated modesty. Marcus’s female students wore Mickey Mouse T-shirts and carried Winnie the Pooh backpacks. They wore no cosmetics besides the canisters of skin-whitening cream they kept in the zippered pouches of their Pooh bags. Khmer culture demanded women remain pure, which, in essence, meant they remained children, manacled by cultural shackles. Few were killers of families. Some were, no doubt, like Ing Sery, but most harvested the killers’ fields and raised the killers’ children and cooked the killers’ dinner and fetched the killers’ tea. The woman in the pink dress had fragile porcelain skin that proclaimed she never worked a day in the field in her life. She looked too young to have experienced the Khmer Rouge and, like many of her students, she probably knew tragically little of the blood-thirsty regimes atrocities. Marcus wondered how much money she made and if she were married. He wondered how many English classes similar to the ones he taught she attended before graduating to this downtown barbershop. He wanted to ask her name.
Marcus tried not to flinch when the cool blade touched his neck, where the jugular extends above the clavicle. A wave of insecurity and vulnerability swept through his torso and emptied into his limbs. He could feel the sweat pushing through his pores. The blade slid upward, pressing into his skin harder than he liked. The old man, as if still gliding the razor against the fabric of his trousers, slid the blade over the same stretch of skin five or six times. The man’s hand moved methodically and inched along so incrementally Marcus thought he could feel an epidermal layer being scraped away along with the oily whiskers. This potential, probable killer of families was running an ultrafine blade against the grain of Marcus’ throbbing jugular and one slip of the five-fingered hand could send a geyser of crimson blood soaring toward the bamboo fan. The old man was in complete control; a single flashback to Pol Pot’s starvation camps or an illegal American bombing campaign would be all that was needed for the blade to cut into Marcus’ white skin. The tables seemed turned. Was revenge on anyone else’s mind other than his own’? Marcus hoped not. He pondered what instrument this old man used to inflict death back in the 1970s – a blade, a gun? The blunt force provided by the unbending strength of a tree trunk? A plastic bag wrapped tightly around a squealing face? A farmer’s hoe? Maybe his bare hands? What would one more life cost the man emotionally, spiritually, monetarily? Did he have enough saved in the bank to pay off the cops after slitting the throat of an American scumbag drinking and screwing his way through Southeast Asia? Probably. Marcus closed his eyes.
The razor moved up past the jawline and worked the right cheek with what felt like long, steady sweeps, the motion of a rake clearing fallen leaves from a lawn. Was this blade even fresh? Marcus couldn’t remember seeing it pulled from the drawer and unwrapped of its cellophane sheath. Was its heel infected with a speck of the human immunodeficiency virus or some far-out strain of jungle syphilis? Marcus couldn’t be certain. His mouth was dry with worry. He wanted a sip of the tea. Or maybe a fifty-cent can of Anchor beer, warm or cold, didn’t matter.
The old man moved to the other side of Marcus’s face, ignoring the hard to shave contours of the chin and delicate area below the nose, choosing instead to scrape and re-scrape the flat expanses of flesh along the jawline and cheek. He continued shaving against the grain, as Marcus did at home with a store-bought safety razor. The man wiped the blade on a towel slung over his shoulder after every third or fourth pass along the skin. Marcus opened his eyes and tried to angle them toward the towel, searching for a splotch of blood. His peripheral vision blurred as if looking at something underwater. He saw no red and again closed his eyes. The old killer moved to the area below his nose, still shaving upward so that Marcus could feel the blade’s edge tickle the bottom of his nostrils. Pointed noses, common in the West, are considered especially beautiful in Cambodia; Marcus wondered if the old man was jealous, and if the jealousy might insight a fit of razor-wielding rage. Marcus steeled his body, withholding the urge to squirm or writhe. Up once, up twice, up thrice. Wipe. Four times, five times, six times. He felt the irritation building, his skin warming and reddening as layers of old skin followed the whiskers off his face. The old man seemed intent on removing even the follicles, almost digging the blade into the skin and testing its breaking point. Seven times, eight times. Marcus wanted to yell, wanted to implore the man to move on, but the threat of losing half a lip seemed too great. Finally the blade moved to the chin, where it slid up, down and sideways as it navigated Marcus’ indented cleft. These were quick strokes, like an artist filling in the background of a painting. The old man finished the chin in five deft movements, as if to make the point that the fifteen he’d used on each cheek were unnecessary and purposely sadistic. He was certainly a killer.
Marcus’ minds’ eye, trapped behind two closed lids, wandered through a murky sea of grey and black. Edges of light protruded at the sides and the darkness was most concentrated in the middle. The swells of grey around the pitch-black epicenter undulated like tidal waves or a kelp forest. There were no images, but there wasn’t nothing. It was a two-toned moving Rorschach, bending like liquid or storm clouds.
The final strokes were applied just above the ear, behind the sideburns. They were quick. And they burned. The old man dragged the blade, from point to heel, across the thin, fatless skin that folded between Marcus’ ear and skull. The warm, slick slip of metal into flesh made his toes bend. It was quicker than a needle jab. The man had cut him. On purpose. Why? Marcus had no clue. He refused, for reasons he couldn’t understand, to speak or protest or even open his eyes.
Then it was over. Marcus hadn’t realized the old man had finished until the warm embrace of a moist towel slipped over his face like a veil. He opened his eyes, but still saw the same melting black and grey patterns. He figured that was what blindness felt like. The back of his chair rose. Marcus sat behind the curtain of the towel for at least a minute, letting its soggy embrace seep into his freshly shaved, virgin skin. He wondered how badly he was bleeding behind his ears.
The old man was gone when the towel was removed. The same woman who’d fetched the untouched tea stood beside him, smiling. “Finich, sir,” she said, her eyes pointing toward the waxy floor. Marcus hauled himself out of the chair as if pulling himself out of bed in the first light of morning. His legs seemed almost asleep and moved with tepid agreement as he followed the woman to the cash register. “Three dollar,” she said. He pulled his wallet from his pants pocket and examined the mix of American greenbacks and Cambodian riel. He fished out twelve-thousand riel along with two America one-dollar bills as a tip. The young woman accepted the money with two hands while smiling meekly and still looking at the floor. Marcus glanced over his shoulder but didn’t see the old man, the Khmer Rouge child-killer who’d probably lost half his family no matter what side he’d once embraced. The man was gone, another vanished spirit. The woman tried to return the greenbacks, not understanding they were gratuity, but Marcus refused, his head wagging and an open hand waving in front of him. She held them curiously before tucking them into the crevice of a Buddhist alter placed on the floor behind her, figuring they’d be better spent by the ghosts in the Cambodian afterlife.