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The young woman slowed her battered Honda so she could look into the shop’s windows as she drove past.  When she reached the corner she pulled into a parking lot, turned around, and returned from the other direction.  After a second rolling inspection, she made a right hand turn and parked in front of the bakery down the block.  She sat there for a minute, waiting until the sidewalk cleared before exiting the car and approaching.

              It was a cold day in early spring.  The snow had melted, but no leaves had yet appeared on the trees.  She wore a light tan jacket drawn up around her neck to guard against the chill.  A brisk wind tugged at the ends of her hair, whipping them around her face. 

              When she reached the building she paused for a moment to peer inside before pulling the door open.  As she entered the shop all eyes turned in her direction.  “Good afternoon, miss.  May we help you?”  It was the owner of the shop who welcomed her–an older man with a thick Italian accent.  “Yes, I think so,” she replied hesitantly.  “I’d like to get my hair cut.  You do cut women’s hair here, don’t you?” she asked.  “Sure, we cut all kinds of hair,” the proprietor assured her.  “You just take a seat over there and wait your turn.  Someone will take care of you in a couple minutes,” he said, directing her to row of plastic covered chairs where two men sat reading dog-eared magazines.

              She sat down as instructed and looked around the shop.  Four large, throne-like chairs were arrayed along the back wall.  A quartet of barbers wearing identical white smocks stood at each chair.  Three of the barbers were men, but the fourth was a woman with teased blonde hair, considerably younger than the rest.  All stole glances in her direction as they continued to work.  The presence of an attractive young woman in the shop was an unusual event and they wondered who would have the privilege of cutting her hair.  She studied the barbers intently, her eyes wide with curiosity. 

The young woman appeared to be about twenty-five years old.  She wore faded blue jeans and beat-up sneakers.  The cuffs of her jacket were worn and frayed.  Her dark brown hair was parted in the middle and hung past her shoulders, framing her pale face and brown eyes.  She wore no makeup or jewelry, not even earrings, but her natural beauty was evident to everyone in the shop.  The two men sitting near her pretended to read while they surreptitiously watched her, but she seemed totally unaware of them.  Her attention was focused on the four barbers working in front of her.

              The blonde barber was the first to finish.  She removed the cape from her customer and escorted him to the cash register where he produced several bills from his wallet.  “Thanks, Crystal.  See you next month,” he said as he headed for the door.  She then walked over to the young woman and spoke directly to her.  “Miss, I can take you next,” she said.  “But these people were here ahead of me,” the young woman protested, gesturing to the waiting men.  The barber turned to them and asked, “I’d like to take the lady first. You guys don’t mind waiting a little longer, do you?”  Both men shook their heads.  “No, go right ahead, Crystal,” one said.
              “Step this way,” Crystal commanded.  The young woman rose and obediently followed.  “Let me take your jacket, honey.  You sit right up here,” she said, pointing to the vacant chair.  The young woman surrendered her jacket and climbed up.  Her slender body occupied only half the spacious seat.  Crystal returned from the coat rack and addressed her cheerfully, “What can I do for you today, honey?” 
“I’d…I’d like a haircut,” she stammered. 

“Sure, honey.  I kinda figured that’s why you’re sitting here.” Crystal teased.  “But I’m a barber, not a beautician.  I’m not trained to give fancy cuts like you’d get in a salon,” she cautioned. 

“That’s…that’s OK,” the young woman replied.  “I’m not looking for a fancy haircut.” 

“Well, I’m glad we got that straight.  I don’t want you suing me for malpractice or anything,” Crystal joked.

              “Now, honey, I’m not a mind reader.  You need to tell me what kind of a haircut you have in mind,” Crystal said.

“Can you give me a short haircut?” she asked, brushing her long hair off her face. 

“But honey,” Crystal cried in alarm, “you have such lovely hair.  It would be a crime to cut it.” 

“But I’ve made up my mind.  That’s what I want.  You can do it, can’t you?” she asked.  

“Sure, honey, I can do it, but why do you want to cut your beautiful hair?” Crystal inquired. 

“Well, it’s for my boyfriend.  It’s going to be a surprise,” she explained. 

“If you come home with short hair he’ll be surprised all right, but will he like it?” Crystal queried.  “Most guys are crazy about long hair.  The last thing they’d want is for their girlfriend to cut it off,” she continued. 
“Well, my boyfriend is different,” the young woman replied.  “I’ve worn my hair long ever since we first met and I thought he liked it this way.  He always said how nice my hair looked, but a few months ago while we were at the movies I noticed him checking out this girl with really short hair,” she continued.  “He just couldn’t take his eyes off her.  When I asked him about it he said it was nothing, but a few days later it happened again.  We were in the mall and he almost walked into a post while he stared at another short-haired woman.  Then I found a pile of pictures hidden in his room.  Every one was a different woman in a short hairstyle.  I confronted him and he admitted that he had a thing about short hair on women.  He said that he finds it really sexy.  He told me that he didn’t want me cutting my hair, but that’s when I started thinking about it.  Today’s his birthday and I decided to cut my hair as my present to him.  It’s kind of like O’Henry’s story, ‘The Gift of the Magi.’”

              “Oh yeah, I read that story in high school,” Crystal recalled.  “That’s the one where the guy sells his watch to buy his wife a co
mb and she sells her hair to buy him a watch chain.” 
“Yes, that’s the one,” the young woman said. 

“Well, that’s just about the sweetest thing I’ve ever heard,” Crystal declared.  “I’m sure he’ll be delighted.  But you really should have your hair done in a salon, not a barber shop.” 

“Yes, I thought about going to a beauty parlor,” the young woman replied, “but I don’t have a lot of money and we’re saving every penny for our wedding.  I figured it would be cheaper to have it done here.” 

“You’re right about that, honey,” Crystal agreed.  “I’ll be glad to help you surprise your boyfriend, but boys come and go.  This should be something that you do for yourself, not just for him.” 

“Yes, I’ve considered that too,” the young woman responded.  “The more I thought about cutting my hair, the more I curious I became.  I’ve worn my hair like this for ages.  For once in my life I want to see how I’d look with short hair.  If I don’t like it, I can always grow it back.” 

“But what will your folks say?” Crystal objected.  “Won’t they have a fit when they see you with your hair cut off?” 

“My mom died from breast cancer when I was ten.  My dad remarried a couple of years ago and moved to Florida.  I don’t see much of him any more.  I’ve been on my own since I got out of college,” the young woman replied.

              “Well, I guess no one’s going to complain if I cut your hair, but you still haven’t told me how you want it,” Crystal resumed.  “There are many different short hairstyles.  I need to know the look you’re after.  Do you have any particular style in mind?” she asked. 

“Well, there was this one cut that my boyfriend seemed to like better than the others,” the young woman replied.  “Here, I brought a picture,” she said, reaching into her pocket and unfolding a page torn from a magazine.  Crystal took the paper and examined it.  The raven-tressed model sported hair about two inches long that bristled out from her head in all directions.  It was radical fashion statement, but one that looked stunning on the young woman in the photo. 

“Wow!  Your boyfriend really picked a winner, here,” Crystal exclaimed.  “This is one of the most extreme styles I’ve seen.” 

“But can you do it?” the young woman pleaded.  “Can you give me that haircut?” 

“I’ve never done anything like it, but it doesn’t look too complicated.  It’s basically the same length all over.  Sure, I can do it,” Crystal replied.  “With your long hair it will take a lot of cutting, but it shouldn’t be too difficult.” 

“Well, that’s what I want you to do,” the young woman said decisively.

“OK.  Why don’t we get started?” Crystal suggested.  She pulled a fresh cape from the cabinet behind her and draped it over the young woman’s shoulders.  “Would you pull your hair up, honey, while I fasten the cape?”  Crystal asked.  The young woman gathered her hair in both hands and lifted it off her shoulders.  Crystal fastened a tissue around her neck and then secured the cape.  “You can let it down now, honey,” she instructed.  Her shiny brown hair bounced down and hung over the back of the chair.  Crystal raised the height of the chair and combed through the young woman’s hair till it hung perfectly straight.  “I’m going to do this in two stages,” she explained.  “First I’ll get rid of the bulk.  Then, I’ll go back to cut it the same length all over.  When I get done, you’ll hardly recognize yourself.” 

Standing behind the chair, Crystal picked up a pair of scissors.  “Once I start cutting, there’s no turning back.  Are you sure this is what you want?” she asked. 

“Yes, I’m sure.  You can begin,” she said.  Crystal picked a lock of hair from the young woman’s forehead and pulled it twenty inches above her head.  All conversation in the shop ceased as the men stared at the two women.  Crystal placed the scissors two inches from the scalp and deliberately made the first cut.  The long hank of hair floated free of her head and dangled from Crystal’s fingers.  “Do you want me to save this?” she asked, holding the hair aloft like a trophy fish. 

“Yes, I thought I’d put it in a gift box and give it to my boyfriend,” the young woman answered. 

“Well, here’s the first installment,” Crystal announced, carefully placing it on her customer’s lap.  She returned to work, methodically lifting and cutting hair from the top of her head.  It took only a few minutes for Crystal to remove all of the long hair from the young woman’s crown.  Short brown spikes replaced the glossy surface that had covered her head.  A large mound of severed hair rested in her lap.

              Crystal walked in front of the chair and looked directly into the young woman’s face.  “That takes care of the top,” she announced. “Now for the sides.”  She grabbed a section of hair from her customer’s temple and resumed her steady rhythm—lift and cut, lift and cut—till the right side was completely clipped.  Crystal turned her attention to the left side of the young woman’s head and repeated the operation.  “Now to do the back,” she said, circling to the rear of the chair and continued cutting till the back of her head was shorn to the same length as the rest.  After the last lock had been removed, Crystal deposited it atop the pile in the young woman’s lap.  “That’s a lot of hair there,” she remarked.  “You’re lucky I don’t charge by the foot.”

              Then, without warning, Crystal spun the chair around so the young woman faced the mirror that covered the back wall.  “What do you think?” she asked.  “Sure looks different, doesn’t it?”  The young woman gasped when she saw the ragged tufts of hair that now covered her head. 

“Oh my God,” she cried.  “That’s not what I wanted.” 

“Relax, honey.  I’m only half done,” Crystal tried to reassure her.  “It will look much better after I go over it the second time.” She approached the young woman and used a comb to force her short hair to stand erect.  Then she carefully cut the uneven ends to a uniform length.  She deliberately worked from the top of her head to the back.  When the crown was clipped Crystal turned her attention to the side of the young woman’s head.  She snipped the hair around her ear into a sharp point and continued up her head.  Crystal repeated the operation on the side and back until all he
r hair was precisely two inches long.  She put down her scissors and comb and returned with a stiff brush.  For several minutes she groomed the young woman’s cropped head, but she didn’t seem satisfied with the result. 

“Honey, we’ve got a problem here,” she announced.  “Your hair just doesn’t want to stand up.  I don’t know what they did to the girl in the picture; probably used a ton of hair spray to make it stick out like that, but your hair is just too fine.  It keeps lying down.” 

“Yes, I can see that,” the young woman said with a note of alarm in her voice.  “What can you do?” 

“The way I see it you’ve got two choices,” Crystal offered.  “You can keep it this length and comb it down into a sort of pixie cut.” 

“What’s the other choice?” the young woman inquired. 

“Well, I could use the clippers to buzz it closer.  If you want it to stand up all over, I’ll have to cut it shorter,” Crystal informed her. 

“Wow, that would be awfully short,” the young woman gulped. 

“Yep, it sure would.  But those are your choices, honey—a pixie or a buzz cut,” Crystal said. 

“There were several women with real short hair among my boyfriend’s photos.  I think he’d like to see me like that.  I guess I’ll go with the buzz cut,” she replied. 

“That’s pretty drastic.  Are you sure, honey?” Crystal asked. 

“Well, we’ve come this far.  Another inch or so doesn’t matter now.  Go ahead.  Give me the buzz cut,” she ordered.

              Crystal laid the brush on the counter and picked up the large black clippers.  She attached a plastic guard over the blades and turned to the young woman.  “You want to watch while I buzz you?” she asked. 
“I guess so,” her customer replied, staring straight ahead into the mirror. 

“Well, here goes,” Crystal announced as she switched on the power.  The clippers began to hum and the young woman’s eyes widened as Crystal gently pushed her head forward.  She applied the clippers to the back of her neck, deliberately guiding them up though her dark hair, shearing off all the hair in their path.  Short hairs rained down on the cape as Crystal repeated the upward strokes around the back and sides of her head.  When she stopped the young woman’s ears and neck stood exposed.  Only the hair on top of her head remained unclipped. 

“Now for the final touch,” Crystal announced.  She raised the clippers above the young woman’s forehead and slowly lowered them to her scalp.  She pushed them forward into her dark hair.  As Crystal guided the clippers across the crown to the back of her head short hairs fell onto her nose and brow.  The young woman sat as if frozen and made no effort to remove the hair from her face.  She stared into the mirror at the inch deep furrow down the middle of her head.  Crystal returned the clippers to the front of her head and made several more passes till the top was trimmed to the same length as the sides. 
              
Crystal switched off the clippers and returned them to the counter.  Next she squirted a large dab of gel into her hand and rubbed it into the young woman’s scalp.  Then she took up the brush and repeatedly attacked the short hairs till all were standing erect.  Finally she stood back and inspected her work.  “There.  That should about do it,” she announced.  Crystal dusted the short hairs from the young woman’s face and neck.  “You’ve got a good head for this cut, nice and round,” she said.  “A lot of women couldn’t wear this style, but it looks great on you.  What do you think, honey?  You don’t look exactly like the model in the picture, but this is as close as I could make it.” 

The young woman looked at herself in the mirror and then pulled both hands out from under the cape to feel her newly shorn head.  “Wow!  I hardly recognize myself.  This is so unreal,” she exclaimed, turning her head from side to side. 

“You wait here,” Crystal said.  “I’ll go find a bag to put all this hair in.”  When Crystal returned a minute later the young woman was still looking into the mirror, marveling at her new haircut.  Crystal began picking up large handfuls of severed hair and stuffing them in a plastic bag.  “I hope your boyfriend appreciates the birthday gift you’re giving him,” she said.  “Not many girls would cut off such beautiful long hair to please a guy.  You must really love him.” 

“Oh, I’m sure he’ll like it, but more important, I like it,” said the young woman.  “I was really scared when I came in here.  I nearly turned around and went home a couple of times, but now I realize there was nothing to be afraid of,” she said.  “I like my short hair, Crystal.  Thank you so much.”

              Crystal pulled the cape from the young woman’s shoulders and removed the tissue from her neck.  She stepped down from the chair and turned to Crystal.  “How much do I owe you?” she asked. 
“You don’t owe me anything, honey.  It’s on the house,” Crystal replied.  “It’s not every day I get to do a haircut like yours.”

“Gee, thanks Crystal,” said the grateful young woman as she reached for her jacket.

“Don’t forget this,” Crystal said, extending the bag containing her long hair. 

“You’ve given me a haircut I’ll never forget and my boyfriend will get a surprise he’ll always remember,” she said.

              As the young woman walked out of the shop she turned and waved to Crystal.  She rubbed her hand across the short hair on her head and smiled broadly.  “I’d like to be there when she gets home,” Crystal remarked to her fellow barbers.  “I’ll bet her boyfriend has never seen a birthday gift like this one.”

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