“Kafka’s Hairbrush” (Story)
Someone’s having a bad hair day.
Anxious writer Franz K. waits for the pharmacy in Prague’s old square to open so he can purchase a bottle of his favorite hair tonic. Why are they late? What is wrong with the clerk? Why can’t he understand a word he says?
“Kafka’s Hairbrush” is an analeptic literary love story. A little pick-me-up.
Can the fretful writer ever settle his nerves?
‘I think it’s about a man in love with writing falling in love with love. At least that’s how it started, although after a few lines it started to write itself. Hope started to shine through the words.’ Stefano Boscutti
‘Fine and thought provoking, full of insight into the creative process and the obligations of the writer.’ Yvonne Thibault
‘Dark, unsettling pastiche of the life and times of Franz Kafka slips easily under the skin.’ Paul Stein
‘Polished, elegant and impeccably written. Never strained or fussy.’ Robert Seban
Rated PG-13 / ISBN 9780980712599 / 4,000 words / 16 minutes of slightly uptight reading pleasure / Buy Amazon / Buy Barnes & Noble / Buy Smashwords
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‘The deplorable mania of doubt exhausts me. I doubt about everything, even my doubts.’ Gustave Flaubert
Copyright 2012 Stefano Boscutti
All Rights Reserved ISBN 9780980712599
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Something is surely amiss, thinks Kafka.
He has been pacing outside the pharmacy in the old town square for almost half an hour, waiting for the store to open on this fine autumn day.
Perhaps his watch is broken? A glance at the astronomical clock on the southern wall of the city hall confirms the lateness of the hour. Perhaps Herr Hermann has taken ill. Even pharmacists must get sick from time to time.
The clock, the tower, the worn arches and stolen alleys lost in their own shadows. This old square, this old city has been his life. A beautiful place, a miserable place.
The remarkable light of the summer is easing into autumn, the shadows growing longer, deeper. An old charlady with white hair sweeps the darkened doorway to a boarding house.
As a boy, he once walked for hours, ducking in and out of the vaulted arcades in order to give a beggar-woman a succession of single pennies. Too embarrassed to give her a large coin, he wanted her to think the money was coming from different children.
Kafka looks out across the square and traces a small box in the air with his finger. His whole life. Where he was born, attended school and university, lives with his parents and works in the insurance office. Surely where he is going to die.
The city will not let him go. Its claws clench tight around his heart. He is never going to be free.
On the way to the office this morning, he had seen a pale white horse amongst the passageways, seemingly lost in the middle of the city, no doubt wishing to escape. He had not realized how long it had been since he had seen a horse in the city.
Kafka needs quiet for his writing, but the city is never still. Automobiles and electric tramcars rumble and clatter through the main thoroughfares. The city is ablaze with noise.
It is no quieter in the family apartment, except for very late at night when everyone else is asleep.
He dreams of moving to the country where his sister lives, but perhaps such quietness makes one’s hearing all the more acute. The whisper of the grass, the rustle of the leaves, the wind brushing over a field becomes unbearable.
Kafka looks over at the pharmacy. A golden crest of a snake, mouth agape, hangs above the narrow door. The window display of perfumes and the latest women’s fineries holds little interest.
He sees his reflection in the glass. Tall, thin, with neat black hair swept back. He wears his usual dark suit, but his tipped shirt collar feels tight around his neck. Perhaps he should loosen his tie a touch.
‘Away with you, loiterer. Away, away.’
The old charlady is trying to shoo Kafka away with her broom. Dust flies onto his pants.
‘Madam, I am hardly loitering. I am waiting for the pharmacy to open.’
‘Why are you not at work? Do you not have a job?’
‘I have a career, madam.’
‘Why are you shopping in the middle of the morning? What sort of a man goes shopping with himself? Where is your wife?’
‘I am not married.
‘A bachelor, is that it?’
Kafka sighs under his breath. Why is this old woman talking to him? Every time she says something, he feels compelled to answer. Why does she not be quiet, why does she not keep to herself?
‘Madam, please keep your voice down?’
‘What shall you do? Arrest me? Where is your hat? What sort of man wanders the streets without a hat?’
Kafka had misplaced his hat at the office. Surely it had not become a crime to misplace one’s hat?
‘They came at dawn.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘The men, they came at dawn?’
Kafka has no idea what the old woman is gabbling about.
‘They came in a truck, they did. It took four of them to pick up the wooden box, and take it inside. Herr Hermann was shouting at them at the top of his voice not to drop it.’
‘What kind of box?’
The old woman steps inside the entrance of the boarding house.
‘The kind that you can fit a child in.’
Kafka straightens his vest, pats his pocket lightly to check the letter to F. is still there. He had written last night to convince her of his unsuitability as a husband. He wrote that he had misled her, that she had failed to understand who he really is. No lighthearted chatter, arm in arm along the promenade, but a monastic life at the side of a man who is peevish, miserable. A man chained to invisible literature by invisible chains.
He will mail it on the way back to the office.
For Kafka, breaking the engagement from F. would free him to return to the solitude that seems so necessary for his writing.
His doubts and anxieties have been growing. His thirtieth birthday is only days away. He has told himself many times that if he cannot work, he cannot live.
He looks through an open window into a ground floor apartment. A young mother and child look up, he shuts his eyes embarrassed.
The only thing he never doubts is his own guilt.
As a child he would write to God, but God never replied. His fate as a writer has thrust all matters into the background. His life has dwindled dreadfully.
As a boy, an Uncle once took away his notebook, and read the pages. He said it was nothing, the usual stuff.
Kafka never forgot or forgave the remark. He burnt his first manuscript.
Now he writes reports on industrial accident and health hazards in the insurance office by day, and works on his stories by night. His profession marks the formal, legalistic language of his stories which avoid all sentimentality and moral interpretations. Such decisions seem better left to the reader.
Earlier this morning he had hidden in his room and waited for Father and Mother to leave. He could never face Father.
His brothers died when he was very small and his sisters came along only much later, so that he alone had to bear the brunt of it, and for that he was much too weak.
Father had strength, health, appetite. He felt Father could trample him underfoot, so that nothing was left of him.
Kafka was a slight, weakly son. A quiet boy, spoiled by Mother. Whenever he did something Father did not like, he felt the prospect of failure. He lost confidence in his actions, he became wavering and doubtful in his very marrow.
He is afraid his shame will outlive him.
He hears the front door of the pharmacy quietly open and pushes in, ahead of a middle-aged woman. The blonde haired sales clerk scurries back inside, behind the counter. Herr Hermann steps out from behind the red velvet curtains at the back of the pharmacy, buttoning his crisp, white pharmacist coat, a large man with a booming voice.
Herr Hermann greets the woman as if she is a long lost relative.
‘So, how do you like it.’
It was more a statement of fact than a question.
Herr Hermann passes an open hand over the rotund new cash register that had been delivered at dawn.
‘The finest money can buy. The latest model from the National Cash Register Company in Dayton, Ohio. In America.’
The woman seems startled by the colossal brass machine, with row upon row of mechanical buttons. It looks like an enormous typewriter with numbers for letters.
Herr Hermann snaps his fingers.
‘It is the first cash register fully powered by an electric motor. It is a marvel of the modern age, and you, my dear, will have the honor of being the first sale.’
Herr Hermann has never been afraid of the future. Even at sixty years of age, he grabs for it with both hands. A man whose self confidence is so great, he never ceases to be right.
Even his hair is confident, full, lush, vibrant.
‘May I help you, sir?’
Kafka looks around at the clerk behind the counter, a young man he has never seen before. Soft haired, and slightly effeminate.
‘A bottle of Acqua di Tebe, thank you.’
It is Kafka’s favorite hair tonic, produced and bottle in Genova. From an early age, he has been deeply concerned with his health, clothes and personal hygiene. The afternoons he has spent on his hair. One afternoon he locked himself in his room, and shampooed his hair fifteen times in succession.
The clerk looks over the shelves, concerned. A display of English hairbrushes sits on the counter.
Kafka coughs, a little irritated. The clerk purses his lips, and slowly shakes his head.
‘I am afraid we no longer have that brand, sir?’
‘But I have always bought that brand here.’
‘May I recommend some of our newer brands, from America?’
‘I do not wish for any brands from America?’
‘I can guarantee you, sir, these formulations will keep your hair looking handsome. They are preferred by America’s most successful men.’
Kafka smothers a cough.
‘I prefer my Italian brand.’
‘I am afraid we are completely sold out, and we are having difficulty obtaining stock from Italy.’
Kafka hears a faint scratching noise from underneath the counter.
The clerk takes a small bottle filled with opaque red liquid from the shelf, the lid sealed in wax. It looks more like a delicate bottle of wine than a hair restorative.
‘Koch’s Quinine Hair Tonic is the finest in the world, sir, produced by the Theo A. Koch Company in Chicago.’
The clerk glances outside. Three men are huddled in the square. They seem to be studying Kafka. One is wearing a raincoat and jotting down something in his small notebook.
Kafka is hardly impressed by the new hair tonic. He tries to live a simple, uncomplicated life where decisions are kept to a minimum. He has been practicing vegetarianism for several years now. To aid his digestion, he experimented with chewing his food slowly thirty-two times before swallowing, but all that resulted was an aching jaw and an escalation of his headaches.
He has tried writing these past few weeks. He had begun with such hope, but was then repulsed by all the stories. He had started again on the Russian story, and the effort has left him shaken.
Outside in the square, two of the men have left. The one in the raincoat heads towards the open pharmacy door and steps in.
The clerk looks up.
‘May I help you, sir?’
‘No, thank you, I am only here to berate my friend.’
The man pulls a small note folded in half from his pocket, and holds it up towards Kafka, who recognizes it almost at once. The man opens it slowly, draws in a breath, and begins to read.
‘I beg you to forgive me for not being able to come tonight. I have a headache, my teeth are falling out, my razor is blunt, I am an unpleasant object to look at.’
Kafka hangs his head in shame.
‘I am a completely useless person, Oskar, really, nothing can be done about it.’
‘You look as if you still have a headache.’
‘I am tired, and I still have a headache.’
Oskar slips the note back in his pocket. Kafka notices Oskar’s notebook.
‘What were you writing when you were outside?’
Oskar opens the notebook to the page, and offers it to Kafka.
‘There is more to life than words.’
‘A sketch of me?’
Oskar has drawn a quick sketch of Kafka hunched by the pharmacy counter. When had Kafka developed a hunch? Perhaps it was curvature of the spine?
‘Perhaps I may interest you in Evarosa, sir, a Remedial Tonic for the hair and scalp. It is guaranteed by The Tolietine Company in Greenfield, in Massachusetts.’
‘It is for women.’
‘It is for hair, sir. Sprinkle into the left hand and rub thoroughly over the head once a day, leaving the hair saturated.’
Oskar looks at the portrait of woman on the label, lush hair flowing around her face and bosom.
‘You could have hair like this.’
‘I really do not want a tonic from America. Do you not have anything else.’
The clerk looks over the shelves, and plucks out a tiny rectangular brown bottle.
‘Vigorator Foaming Hair Tonic and Head Rub. It dissolves dandruff in a single application. It is from Bellefontaine, in Montreal.’
‘I do not want anything from France.’
‘Montreal is in Canada, sir.’
Kafka covers a cough with the back of his hand.
‘I do not want it as I do not have dandruff.’
The sales clerk eyes Kafka carefully. He hesitates before pointing to Kafka’s temple. Kafka runs the edge of his finger through the hair near his temple. He looks at the tip of his finger, there is nothing there.
The clerk smiles.
‘You are quite right, sir, it is merely a gray hair. Astol Hair Color Restorer will soon bring back color to gray, white or faded hair.’
Oskar smiles to himself.
‘It is from Sheffield, sir.’
Kafka spots a large, hideous bug scurrying across the floor. He can hear its skinny feet, its numerous legs scratching across the wooden floorboards.
Herr Hermann walks towards Kafka with a thin, clear bottle in his hand.
‘A man’s crowning glory is his hair, correct.’
Herr Hermann snaps his fingers, and holds the bottle aloft. It has long neck with a small gold crown atop its lid.
‘Crown Hair Tonic and Scalp Cleanser. Apply liberally at least every other day, massage the scalp well with the tips of the fingers. See, it has a crown carved on the lid. You will be like a young aristocrat.’
The thought does not appeal to Kafka. Herr Hermann moves closer.
‘Have you not seen the series of fine advertisements. Have you ever seen such lovely hair, such bountiful hair. Such elegant, luxurious and beautiful hair.’
Kafka does not read advertisements, as he would spend all his time wanting things.
Whatever distracts is evil. His writing goes forward at a miserable crawl. One good night would stand him in good stead.
Herr Hermann leans forward as if to offer a secret.
‘It is prepared by Doctor J.B Lynas and Son.’
A well-dressed young man enters the pharmacy. The clerk acknowledges him with a nod, and a soft smile.
They talk in hushed tones before the clerk moves to the back of the pharmacy, parts the red velvet curtains and steps within. He returns almost immediately with a bottle of Aqua di Tebe, which he hands over to the young man.
The young mans nods approvingly. The clerk rings the sale up on the new cash register, and hands over the bottle as Herr Hermann looks on, pleased.
Kafka cannot believe his eyes. The young man leaves, and the clerk smiles at Kafka.
‘It was the last bottle, sir.’
‘But I had expressly asked for that brand.’
‘The young man placed his order via telephone earlier this morning, sir. I can guarantee I spoke with him personally.’
Kafka clears his throat.
He turns and sees Herr Hermann part the red velvet curtain at the back of the pharmacy, and walk in. Apprentices are frantically working in a laboratory, adjusting burners and stirring glass beakers and flasks, pouring tinctures and lotions into small bottles.
‘May I suggest a vapor oil treatment, sir. It is ideal for asthma and spasmodic affections.’
‘I do not suffer from asthma.’
Herr Hermann steps out from behind the curtain and heads towards Kafka.
‘Are you positive?’
Kafka had the whole night for writing, yet managed only one page that was not very good.
There is in writing, a certain blend of sincerity and manipulation, of trying always to gauge what the particular effect of something is going to be. It is an asset that can leave one rather lonely.
Kafka is not here to enquire about cough syrup. He is here to purchase hair tonic. He smiles at the clerk.
‘Do you have any English hair tonics?’
‘Of course, sir.’
‘Batley’s? Clubman? FitzClarence? St. James? Truefitt & Hill?’
The clerk nods.
‘Then I shall buy them all.’
‘All the bottles of English hair tonic, I shall like to buy them all.’
Oskar shakes his head.
‘You cannot be serious?’
‘I do not see why I should be denied a simple request. This is a pharmacy, after all.’
Herr Hermann shakes his head.
‘Out of the question, you are trifling with science.’
Kafka has heard reports of a man in a poor section of the city dying from an ingrown hair. A small inflammation of the skin, the infection spread throughout his body in a matter of days, and then he died.
Herr Hermann admonishes him.
‘Such a volume of hair tonic could well be injurious to your health. Do you wish elegant, luxuriant, and beautiful hair? I know you will answer yes.’
Oskar is transfixed. Herr Hermann plucks a hair out of his own head, and holds it up for Kafka to see.
‘Each hair has a root in the skin, and is itself a hollow tube, through which there is constant circulation of fine blood. By this circulation, the hair is nourished and held fast, its glossy color is given and preserved.’
Herr Hermann frowns.
‘Anything which injures the skin of the head, or over-regulates the blood shall stop its growth, and cause it to turn gray, or fall off, or both.’
To Kafka, Herr Hermann seems more like a butcher than a man of science.
Kafka coughs. The pain he has been feeling in his chest has gotten worse.
Deep at night, Kafka tells himself he wants to write books that people will read one hundred years from now.
For the past four days he has written almost nothing at all, only an hour or so, only a few lines. But his sleep seems better.
‘Oskar, how much money can you loan me?’
‘Not a penny. I am not going to fund this ridiculous scheme of yours.’
‘Why is it ridiculous? Once I purchase all the hair tonic, I shall never run out, I shall be free to choose whichever I wish, whenever I wish.’
‘You are being preposterous.’
‘I am being posteritous.’
‘Either way you are being a fool.’
‘You feel I should purchase them all, Oskar? English, Czech, German, French, even the American brands, every last one of them.’
Oskar cannot believe his ears.
‘You cannot buy everything, you cannot have everything. Why must you be so selfish? Choose one bottle and be done with it.’
‘There is more to life than you.’
Kafka clears his throat. Yesterday he was incapable of writing even one word. Today is no better. Who will save him?
‘To prove to you how selfless I am, Oskar, I shall purchase no hair tonic at all. Not even one bottle.’
Kafka swallows hard. His short collar is pinching his neck.
It has been difficult, during the summer, to watch his sister be married.
It seems so dreadful to be a bachelor, to become an old man struggling to keep one’s dignity. To never being able to run up a stairway beside one’s wife, to lie ill and have only the solace of the view from one’s window. To never feel oneself grow older since there is no family growing up around one.
Kafka’s writing is completely at a standstill. Thoughts so futile that he cannot write them down.
On the edge of the city, the pale white horse lies dead by the side of a road, struck by an electric tramcar. Flies hover up and down above its open mouth.
There will certainly be no one to blame if Kafka should kill himself. Once, half asleep, he pictured the scene that would ensue in anticipation of the end. Laying the letter on the table, going to the balcony, breaking away from all those who run up to hold him back, and, forcing one hand after another to let go its grip, jumping over the ledge. His place is down below, he can find no other solution. His shirt collar is squeezing his neck, he gasps for breath.
When Kafka’s Grandmother died, only the nurse was with her. She said that just before Grandmother died, she lifted herself up a little from the pillow as if looking for someone, and then peacefully lay back again, and died.
The beginning of every story is ridiculous at first. There seems no hope that this newborn thing, still incomplete and tender in every joint, will be able to keep alive.
But one should not forget that the story bears its complete organization within itself, even before it has been fully formed. For this reason, despair over the beginning of a story is unwarranted. In the past, Kafka has suffered much from the lack of this knowledge.
At the counter, he picks up a long-handled women’s hairbrush. The fine bristle is stitched into the brush. It feels reassuring in his hand.
It is made by G.B. Kent & Sons in England, the same brand as his own hairbrush.
It is housed in a silk-lined red presentation case, with a delicate gold snib.
Kafka hands it to the clerk.
‘This will be fine, thank you.’
‘Would you like it wrapped, sir?’
He thought he needed to write to live, but now it seems he needs to live to write.
He unbuttons the top of his collar, and loosen his tie. He can breathe again.
He once told F. that even if she considered her feelings for him insufficient to warrant marriage, his love for her is great enough to make up the insufficiency, and strong enough to take everything on itself.
In truth, Kafka’s love for F. is great enough to overcome doubt.
In the course of a long correspondence, he has alarmed F. by his peculiarities. But he now knows he loves her enough to rid himself of anything that might trouble her.
He will become another person. He can confess that he often had forebodings and fears, founded on trifling occurrences, that F. did not love him very much, not with all the force of the love she was capable of. His love would overcome this.
When his sister married, her personality had transformed. She became cheerful, carefree, brave, generous, unselfish, hopeful.
By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, you create it. We create it.
He will write his own life. He will marry F. and devote himself to her, devote himself to life.
Kafka and Oskar step out of the pharmacy into the old square, into the midday sun.
Kafka had once believed that one wrote in order to live. Now the truth seems to be the opposite, that one lives in order to write, that life and love are inseparable.
He sees his shadow disappear beneath him as the sun reaches its zenith. He pats his pocket, but the letter has vanished, evaporated. His fears fade away.
He smiles at Oskar.
‘Why don’t we go to your favorite coffeehouse. We can order those raspberry pastries you like so much.’
Tomorrow Kafka will catch the train to to see F. and begin planning for the wedding. He will hand her the hairbrush without a card.
It will be his first wedding gift.
Stefano Boscutti is a freelance creative director and award-winning writer based in Melbourne, Australia.
© Stefano Boscutti All Rights Reserved