Brave Captain Harvey and the Barbers of Berlin

I sat in the first chair inside Cristo’s simple barbershop with my head pitched forward, staring at a pinup poster from World War II.  The girl was labeled ‘Ensign Edie,’ a smiling redhead wearing an adapted sailor’s outfit and cap, a sweet little composition of curves and right angles.  She had an arm swung around a bold flagpole topped with a swirling forty-eight star U.S. flag and one leg raised and pointed.  She held her hand in a salute right above her over-pronounced eyelashes.  Cristo collected these sorts of things and displayed them around his shop, the victim of a latent nostalgia for the icons of other generations.  Cristo works slowly on your head, but he has license to be: he’s one-armed.  He drew the comb down the back of my neck, held between his pinky and ring finger, then flipped his hand and snipped with the scissors.  The front door opened and hit the bell.  Cristo had me facing the back wall, so I couldn’t see who had just entered, but I knew as soon as I heard a rough, rooty voice ask, “Ya got time for me today, Cristo?” that it was Brave Captain Harvey.

Cristo’s hand paused behind my right ear.  “You got money today?”

“Aw, come on, man.  I wouldn’t show my face in here if I didn’t.”

“Which government check did you get this week?”

“I can take my custom elsewhere, you prick.”

The barber snorted up a chuckle.  “Yeah, but you know I’m the best.”

“Well, best alive anyway.”

Harvey hung up his bomber jacket on the rack and walked past us to the mini-fridge in the back.  He opened it and retrieved two bottles of Abita Amber, opened both of them quickly with the help of a disposable lighter, then emptied them both simultaneously into a glass growler.

“That’s the only two you get, Harvey,” Cristo warned.

The old man sipped his beer and sat down with a huff into the other barber chair.  “And a good afternoon to you, Cass.”

“Cap.”

He looked almost chipper, which meant that he was unemployed yet again, out from under yet another shitty side job he’d cajoled from someone who’d never dealt with him before.  Harvey never lasted long in the good graces of foremen, kitchen managers, or warehouse supervisors.  He stomped his boots against the footrest, broke the filter off of a 100s cigarette, and lit it.  His eyes fell on Ensign Edie, and he whistled.

“You know why you never see pinups from World War I?”

“Why’s that.”

“Would you be inspired by a schoolmarm in a frock?”

Cristo laughed.  “I guess not.”

“Halter tops, short shorts, fishnets.  Great achievements of the forties.  I feel sorry for those bastards in the Great War trying to divine the shape of a woman’s tits underneath seven layers of petticoats.  Dear God, you move slow.  Are you cutting his hairs individually?”

“Look,” Cristo countered, “this ain’t no wham-bam-thank-you-mam VFW joint, all right?  You want to look like you did back when you enlisted, go down to Golden Shears.”

Brave Captain Harvey took another swig of his beer.  “They don’t give you beer down there,” he said.  “A good barber serves beer to his customers.  I learned that in Berlin.”

“Here we go,” I said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing, let’s hear it.  When were you in Berlin?”

“I was helping occupy it in the fifties.”

“What branch were you with again?”

“Classified.  But this was early in my career.  Me and a handful of other guys—mostly these old carryovers from the European theater—were formed into a sort of marshal unit.  You know, tracking down fugitives and other persons of interest.  I was still in school when FDR put us in the war, and I started learning German right away.  Threw my heart into it, really.  Thought I’d be a codebreaker or some shit, I don’t know.  So my fluency combined with these vague—yet handsome—features of mine made me a perfect candidate for a unit that needed to blend into all quadrants of the city.  So anyway, I get transferred in with these old timberwolves and the C.O. tells me to start growing my hair out.  I was still sporting the uniform crew cut, you understand.”

Cristo made a final snip at my temple and brushed me off.  He flipped the cape away and Brave Captain Harvey and I switched seats.  Cristo rolled his eyes at me indicating Harvey’s mound of unkempt black and gray hair.  Cristo deftly wrapped a paper collar around Harvey’s mottled neck, snapped the cape closed, then picked up his tools again in his only hand.

“Just a little off the top,” Harvey said, winking at me.  “Anyway, at first I didn’t grasp the delicate nature of our work.  We didn’t just have to dance with the Russians and the French.  We had to work around the spooks from the Company, too.  Nothing was ever cut and dried.  All the agencies in the area could want to track someone down for five different reasons.  No one had a complete picture of all the multiple personalities these guys needed just to survive in Berlin at the time.  The dossiers were a real mess.  Some of them were translated from stolen files, half of them didn’t include photos.  Sometimes you had a folder on an unnamed man compiled from three tiny reports.  Those reports could each have been on a separate person, but some analyst back home was convinced they were all applicable to one mystery man.  Or the opposite could happen.  Three separate files that were really describing the same man, just no one had talked to him long enough—or hard enough—to figure out he had all these aliases.

“I came to realize that jurisdiction was a nicety, a formality agreed upon in public but shat all over when it came to the dirty, daily work.  The borders, the fences, the wall: the emperor’s new clothes, know what I mean?  If you wanted someone bad enough, you took them from somebody else, even if they were your ally.  It didn’t matter on paper that someone classified as ‘Fugitive’ was currently detained in the Eastern Sector and awaiting trial for embezzlement or sedition or stealing bread.  It didn’t matter whose toes you stepped on or what protocol you disrupted.  If the brass wanted them, we went and got them somehow.”

“That must have been real heady,” I said, “getting in on the ground floor of American military arrogance.”  I instantly regretted it and braced in the chair for some kind of improvised projectile.

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”

“Don’t move your head!” Cristo shouted.

“Nothing, Cap.  Go on.”

“My hair grows fast, as Cristo here will tell you.  I soon found that my frequent trips to the barber were great for picking up bits of rumors and having chance encounters with all kinds of known associates and men living double lives.  And in the rocky maze of Berlin there were all these great barber shops.  Warm little one-room joints with these big Jerries wearing striped aprons and mustaches and offering you liters of beer.  Men lined up against the wall reading the papers and drinking and talking recklessly.  For some reason, men will talk in a barbershop with no qualms.  It’s relaxed, it’s old-fashioned, no matter the decade.  Sit in the chair and open up.  What else are you going to do?  It didn’t take long for me to be able to decipher the double-speak or the way a man with a past would talk around things.  Ex-Nazis were always the easiest to spot.  They were maniacal about how brightly their shoes should be shined.  They wanted all the dust and grime and evidence of the blown-out Berlin they’d been responsible for wiped clean.  It bothered them.  I’d wait for a man to get into the chair, then run out to a phone.  I could have a crew down there by the time the man paid and put his hat on.  We’d tail them until we could take our chance and put him in a bag.”

“A literal bag?” Cristo asked.

“That’s just what we called it.  Puttin’ the ghosts in the bag.  That was our job description.  All those ghosts, man.  A whole city of ‘em.  The ghosts of smugglers, sympathizers, prison guards.  The ghosts of old soldiers possessing a businessman’s body.  Everyone in Berlin had two or three lives to live.”

Brave Captain Harvey paused, taking time to enjoy one of his own poignant sentences.  It was one of his disgusting habits.

“Anyway, there was one shop, in particular, that I loved.  Herr Klauten’s.  The old man had about a half dozen chessboards in the back corner of his shop.  He played games with customers.  They’d come in and make their move.  Klauten would make his move a day or two later, then wait for the three or four weeks to pass before his opponent came in again.  He kept six of these games going in his head at a time.  Incredible.  One day I was in there, and as I was getting my trim I studied the games and noticed that he had a chance to put one guy away in about three moves.  I asked if I could take over the spot when he did.  I’ll never forget, he pauses and licks his lips and goes, ‘What do Americans know about chess?’  I asked him how he knew I was American.  He said it was something intangible that we picked up in boot camp.  ‘American soldiers,’ he said, ‘they learn a different way of moving their eyes.  A different way to watch things.  They are unlike any other soldier of the world.’  Well, that got me a little self-conscious, and I tried to backtrack, distract him with talk about the weather.  But when I’m about to leave, though, he tells me, sure, he’d like to play a game against me.”

“Who won?” Cristo asked.

“Why you wanna rush me?  I’ll tell this story the same pace you cut my hair, how about that?  Now stop a minute, let me drink this before it gets warm.”  Cristo pulled back half a step.  Harvey reached for his growler and took a few good swallows.  He set it back down and put his gray eyes back on mine.  “Now, Cass, you’ve got to understand a thing or two about World War II.  Yeah, it was big, it was bad, it was chaotic and murderous and massive.  But as it wore on, it somehow picked up on its own drama, its own narrative.  At a certain point, everyone guessed the ending and planned accordingly.  It made the war easier to leave behind.  The boys came back home and opened up car dealerships and insurance agencies and invented plastics and got their wives pregnant.  It was the war you could wash your hands of.  Now, it was easier for us cause we’d never had it in our backyard.

“The Germans had the same idea, but it was much more difficult to get rid of this bad Nazi hangover.  Some of them managed it, though.  Klauten was one of ‘em.  The man was boisterous and smart and all his stories seemed to be about men getting cheated on by their wives or girlfriends in humorous ways.  Walking into his shop was a true relief from duty.  All the grimy bird-dogging and beatings and back-stabbing got trimmed away with my excess hair.  Our chess game progressed over the months.  Klauten told me, ‘You Americans know your opening maneuvers.  Just like Normandy.  I am not so sure about the endgame, though.’  Now, I’m no great prince of chess or anything, but I can hold my own.  I’d never been up against someone like Klauten, though.  He played the game with a different mindset.  He had an essential philosophy about the game that confused me a lot of the time, switching often between offensive and defensive schemes, or sometimes accomplishing both with a single move.  Between my eagerness to see what he was going to do next and his inborn desire to prove how good he was, we abandoned the slow one-move-a-month format.  I would drop by at closing time and we would play for a couple hours every evening, kept fresh by that good German beer.  It was only later in life that I came across that style of play again…when I passed the time with this old Russian priest while on assignment in San Francisco.”

I let out a low whistle.

“See, Cass here already knows where this is going.”

“Where what is going?” Cristo asked.  “You’d better hurry, I’m almost done here.”

“Don’t forget the sideburns.”

“I’ll get them, I’ll get them.”

“So, one night, both of us get up and stretch our backs and light cigarettes and stare at the board while we make small talk.  Neither of us, I think, has a clear advantage.  We both have our queens and one rook.  He has a few more pawns than I do, but I’ve got plans for them.  Klauten looks at me like he’s trying to get up the courage to ask a big favor.  I ask him what’s up, and he says, ‘I like you, Harvey, but you still make me nervous.  A soldier without a uniform is one of the most dangerous kind.’  I stared him down for a moment.  Still young, not as intuitive as I am now,”—Cristo rolled his eyes again—“I tell him, ‘I’m just an advisor.  I know about metals and manufacturing.’  That’s what our cover was.  He looks at me hard and says, ‘People talk about you when you’re not here.  I can’t in good conscience admit anything beyond that.  Just know that you’re not anonymous.’  I laughed at that at the time.  I went out and got drunk without knowing why.  I charmed a cabaret dancer with money and we fooled around in a hotel room.  You see what I’m saying here?  His little warning put the fear of God in my young heart, but I was too blind to the fear.  I didn’t stop by his shop for awhile, making excuses to myself.  Eventually, though, I had to.  I had to keep up appearances.”

Cristo pursed his lips and decided he was finished.  He worked the brush over Brave Captain Harvey’s shoulders then unclasped the plastic cape and threw it over the back of a chair.  He went to the fridge and pulled out three beers, one for the each of us, tucking one under his upper amputated arm and cradling the other two between his solid fingers.  He was sold now on the mystery, lost in the evocative fog of embarrassed, confused, thwarted post-war Berlin.  I opened his beer for him and he drank, leaning against his desk.

“When I entered Klauten’s shop that day, he had a man reclined in his chair with a towel over his eyes and lathered up for a shave.  The barber was in the back on the phone and our eyes met.  He looked for an instant like a trapped animal then turned to face the wall.  The only other person in the shop was a napping drunk waiting his turn.  I sat down and opened a paper, but kept my eye on the man about to be shaved.  Something was up.  Klauten ceased his whispering into the phone then resumed his preparations, drawing his razor across an old leather strop.  I put down the paper and walked over to the chessboard where our pieces were frozen as we had left them that strange night.  I moved my remaining rook opposite his stubborn queen in a gambit to move her away from a defensive position near the king then walked back to my seat.  As I passed the man in the barber’s chair Klauten uncovered part of his left cheek with the razor and I saw the man had a distinctive scar below his eye, exactly the type of scar described in one of my dossiers.  I struggled to sit down nonchalantly and wrack my brain for the details.  It didn’t really matter if I could come up with the name or not: when I called the old bastards of my unit in, they were so rabid they would descend on an infant in a carriage if I told them to.

“Klauten continued to shave the man and make small talk with me.  He knew something was up, and I could feel the tension in his voice.  We played a separate game of verbal chess then and there, neither of us speaking in our home tongue.  I figured it out almost instantly that afternoon, but about twelve months too late.  Klauten was a Russian, working a different angle at the same job I had.  I had decided to leave him be, make an excuse and just walk out of there, content to let the respect we shared for each other remain anonymous, but then something happened.  Two American soldiers in MP uniforms bustled up to the door and spread inside throwing slang like a jukebox.  They were obviously the victims of a few too many pints of well-made beer and harmless, but their boisterous advance spooked Klauten.  Before I could do anything, he drew his straight razor across the neck of the man in his chair, pushing it down hard like on dull pencil, coaxing the blood to erupt and spray across his apron.  As soon as he knew he’d done irreparable damage he dropped the razor, opened a drawer at his station and withdrew a pistol.  He shot wildly towards the door, hitting one of the servicemen clean through the shoulder and another in the ear before darting toward the back door, upsetting all the chessboards in his haste.  Pawns and knights and bishops rattled across the hardwood and rolled, a half dozen games and months of maneuvers laid to waste.  I bolted upright as soon as the barber was through the door, pulled my own Colt from inside my jacket, and followed him.  But it was too late.  He was gone in the maze, claimed by the city, sheltered by one of a hundred dark spots on our worthless maps.

“It turned out, later, that the man he’d killed was a low level Nazi Intelligence officer, someone who knew the location of a cache of files on the Soviets.  Useful information for both sides.  Klauten—or whatever his name was—decided it was more desirable that no one know the truth than for us to gain a negligible foothold.  Two months after the incident one of the GIs was dead from sepsis and I was reassigned.”

Cristo and I sat in silence for a few minutes, sipping our beers and evaluating our lives.  Harvey basked in the afterglow of another successful recounting of the life he may or may not have led.  He appeared to be suddenly drowsy and layered with sweat.

“I guess I owe you some,” Harvey finally said.

“And for last time, too,” Cristo told him.

“That’s right.  Damn.”  He pulled out a couple twenties from his wallet.  Then, as if exhibiting an ace in the hole, he unfolded a wrinkled, faded deutschmark bill and laid it in Cristo’s only palm.

“Here’s your tip,” he said.  “I’ll catch you boys around.”

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