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I knew Petra would be the first person to see me when I returned from Big Rapids. She’s my twenty-four year old graduate assistant who convinced me to attend my thirtieth high school reunion. I had skipped all of the previous gatherings despite fervent entreaties from the class officers. Too busy with work in the lab had been my alibi. “You know that’s a bullshit excuse,” was my outspoken helper’s acerbic observation. “You’re just chicken to go back because you’ll be the only unmarried female. You shouldn’t be ashamed of that; you should be proud. Better to be an old maid than to be married to one of those backwoods bozos out in the boondocks.” Although I cringed at her words, deep down I knew she was right. No one else understands me as well as Petra.

Despite a quarter century difference in our ages, three years working together in the cramped confines of my lab had forged a sisterly bond between us. Being women carving out careers in the male-dominated world of biochemistry further strengthened our connection. As we toiled side by side Petra regaled me with stories of her sexual adventures and multiple lovers. She urged me to reciprocate with juicy details of my personal affairs, but I refused; truth be told, there wasn’t much to relate. I led a very dull life compared to her exploits. Her depiction of me as an “old maid” was not far off the mark.

Sometimes on Fridays after work we stopped in at a local watering hole for a beer or glass of wine. Petra pointed out eligible men from various departments of the university. It seemed that she knew everyone’s current relationship status. She was a natural born matchmaker. “Kate, you need a man in your life,” she insisted. “You’re too attractive to be sitting home on Saturday night.” Although I did nothing to discourage her efforts, I didn’t have high expectations; I was resigned to my fate as a spinster. Marriage or even a live-in boyfriend would be nice, but while still in graduate school I decided that cancer research was my top priority. When they learned about my occupation and the hours I devoted to my work men seemed to lose interest.

In retrospect, it probably was a mistake to tell Petra about the reunion. “You’re gonna go, aren’t you Kate?” she insisted as soon as she heard about the invitation. “You’ll knock those good old boys flat on their asses when they get a look at you. Of course, we’ll have to do a bit of fix-up work to get you ready, but it’ll be a hoot.” I didn’t share my young friend’s enthusiasm about going back to Big Rapids. I left that world for good many years before and returned only for infrequent visits with my sister and her kids who still lived there. Yet, Petra was persuasive. It might be fun, I agreed, to go back for a day or two and see some of my old friends.

As soon as I mailed my RSVP Petra went to work on her “fix-up” project. “You need to make a huge impression on those country bumpkins; show them that you’re a successful career woman,” she explained. Although I protested, I must admit her plan captured my imagination. Three weeks before the reunion she took me shopping. She was adamant that finding the right dress was essential. “This can’t be just any old party frock,” she declared. “You need to wear something that will stop them dead in their tracks; make the women jealous; make the men wish they were single again.”

She led me through a series of fashionable stores without success. Nothing seemed to suit; I despaired of ever finding a gown that would meet her exacting standards. Finally we entered Simmons & Simmons, the most exclusive dress shop in the University Plaza. “There, that’s it,” she exclaimed almost as soon as we entered. “That’s the one.” She pointed to a slinky black cocktail number on a mannequin in the center of the store. She corralled a sales lady and asked, “Do you have that dress in a size six?” How she knew my size was a mystery.

“I believe we do,” the woman replied. “Come this way.”

Petra practically shoved me into the changing room. “That dress is gonna look so great on you, Kate,” she enthused. When I looked at myself in the mirror I had to agree. It fit perfectly. All those hours exercising on the treadmill and swimming laps in the pool were finally paying dividends. The hem barely reached my kneecap, showing my legs to good advantage. The neckline plunged lower than anything I’d ever worn before. “It really puts all of your assets on display,” she leered. “Those good old boys are going to have their tongues hanging down to the floor.” Petra’s excitement was contagious. I began anticipating the looks from my classmates when I walked in wearing that dress.

As we stood at the cash register I glanced at the price tag. When I saw how much it cost I nearly put it back on the rack. Five hundred and fifty dollars was three hundred more than I had ever paid for a dress. Petra sensed my alarm. “Don’t think about the price, Kate,” she counseled. “It’s gonna be worth every penny.” Then she helped me select a push-up bra to support my “assets,” the right pair of high heels, some dangling earrings, and an expensive little black bag. The tab for everything topped a thousand dollars; for once in my life I didn’t mind the extravagance.

Next Petra insisted that I do something about my hair. This had been a crusade of hers for the past year. Up till then I had resisted her efforts. “You can’t go with your hair up in a bun looking like an old maid school teacher,” she insisted. I winced at her critique of my everyday hairstyle. “You’ve got beautiful hair, Kate. You need to show it off.” She booked a Saturday morning appointment at the Jean Pierre salon. The beauty regimen began with a manicure and my very first facial. A luxurious shampoo and conditioning treatment followed. Then the stylist announced she needed to trim my split ends. “Not too much,” I cautioned as she cut away nearly two inches.

“Honey, you’ve got plenty left,” she assured me and she was right. My blunt cut hair still reached well below my bra strap. “Now we’re going to make you look like a Hollywood star,” the young stylist announced. She set my hair on enormous rollers while a makeup artist applied bright red lipstick, dark eye shadow and mascara, and sultry eye liner. Combing out was the final stage. Instead of hanging straight as a stick, new waves cascaded down my back. They bounced and shone as I turned my head. The staff of the salon proved that their reputation for miraculous makeovers was well deserved; they had converted a drab looking lab rat into a middle aged glamour girl. It was an amazing transformation.

Petra’s apartment was my last stop before leaving for Big Rapids. “Dahling, you look marvelous,” she proclaimed in her best Billy Crystal imitation as she snapped my picture. “You’re gonna knock them dead.”

“I hope you’re right,” I answered. “I feel so strange, like this new woman is not really me.”

“Don’t worry, Kate, you’ll get used to it,” she assured me.

I arrived at the lab before eight on the Tuesday after the reunion as I usually do. It was nearly an hour before I heard the footsteps of my young assistant. I steeled myself for her reaction. At first she didn’t see me; then she exploded.

“Holy shit, Kate, what have you done?” Petra exclaimed as soon as she spied my new hairdo.

“I got my hair cut,” I replied as blandly as possible, pretending that my day old haircut was no big deal.

“You didn’t get a haircut, you got scalped,” she retorted.

“What’s the matter? Don’t you like it?” I answered defensively.

“No, I think it looks totally cool. It’s a pretty bold step for a woman in your position,” she observed.

“Well, thanks for the compliment,” I answered with a large dose of sarcasm.

“Kate, you’ll have to forgive me,” she apologized, “but this is such a shock. Saturday you had hair down your back; today you have hardly a
ny. This is so completely out of character. Didn’t you tell me that you had basically the same hairstyle since high school?” she asked, knowing full well that she was right.

“That’s true,” I admitted. “I guess it was time for a change.”

“Don’t try to con me, Kate. I know you better than that. It had to be something or someone pretty powerful to persuade you to cut off all your beautiful hair.” Of course, she was correct. For twelve months I had turned a deaf ear as she doggedly lobbied me to adopt a new hairstyle. “Whatever made you decide to cut your hair like that?” she continued.

“Well, it’s a long story,” I stalled.

“That’s okay. We’re not going anywhere,” she answered as she fixed a cup of coffee and settled back in her chair. I understood she would not be satisfied until I related the full story.

“Okay, if you insist. I guess we need to start back to grade school,” I said as I began my tale. “When I was in fifth grade our family moved into a rambling old house on the edge Big Rapids. Our next door neighbors were the Stevens family. Their son Bobby was my age; we were in the same class at Eagle Hill elementary school. I was a real tomboy; Bobby and I did everything together. We rode bikes, played baseball, traded comic books, caught frogs down by the stream, went for long hikes in the woods. There weren’t many other kids in the neighborhood, so we spent a lot of time together.”

“Was he your boyfriend?” Petra interjected.

“Oh no, it was all perfectly innocent,” I protested. “You could say he was my best friend, but we were completely unaware of sex. That would come later.”

“Was he cute?” she persisted. As always, she was interested in the guy’s looks.

“You bet,” I answered easily. “I thought he was the best looking boy in our class. He had sparkling blue eyes, a wonderful laugh, and long dirty blonde hair that always flopped down in his face.”

“So what does this have to do with your haircut?” she asked. “I don’t understand.”

“Well, if you’d let me get on with the story you’ll find out,” I admonished her. “In June after we finished fifth grade Bobby’s dad decided that his son needed a short haircut for the summer. Bobby didn’t much like the idea. This was when the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were popular; all the boys wanted long hair. But Mr. Stevens was a sports fanatic. His big hero was Johnny Unitas of the Baltimore Colts. Since Bobby had begun to show some athletic skills, his dad decided that a haircut like the square jawed Baltimore quarterback would boost his son’s football career. So Bobby reluctantly went with him to the barbershop and had his hair cut just like Unitas.”

“When I saw my friend the next day I hardly recognized him. The hair on the sides and back of his head had been clipped close to the scalp and the top was buzzed perfectly flat. He wasn’t too happy with the haircut at first because some of the guys teased him about it. I told him that he looked really cool. Perhaps my words helped him feel better. In time he got used to it; the flattop became his trademark.”

“So that was when your first learned about the flattop?” Petra inquired.

“Yep,” I acknowledged. “My dad was balding and I had no brothers. Most of the boys in our school wore their hair in shaggy mops or more conventional haircuts. Bobby was the only one with a flattop. His dad insisted that he return to the barbershop every four weeks for a trim. One day I tagged along.”

“You went with him to the barbershop?” she asked eagerly. I could see that her curiosity was aroused.

“Yes. I was an inquisitive child. Perhaps that’s why I became a scientist,” I added. “Anyhow, one afternoon Bobby announced it was time to get his haircut; I asked if I could come with him. He said sure. We rode our bikes downtown to Mr. Grimm’s barbershop on the courthouse square. Everybody knew Mr. Grimm. He was a community institution. I don’t know how long he had operated his shop, but it seemed like he had been there forever.”

“Bobby and I parked our bikes in front of the shop. Mr. Grimm welcomed Bobby like a valued customer. ‘Well, it’s young Mr. Stevens. How are you today?’ he inquired.”

“‘Just fine, Mr. Grimm,’ Bobby replied.”

“‘Come to get your flattop spruced up?’ the barber continued. You could tell that the old man was proud of his work.”

“‘Yes, sir,’ my friend answered politely.”

“‘And who’s your redheaded friend?’ Mr. Grimm asked, pointing in my direction.”

“‘Oh that’s Katie Crandall,’ Bobby informed him.”

“‘You Frank Crandall’s daughter?’ the barber inquired of me. I suppose because of his business he knew every man in town.”

“‘Yes sir, he’s my father,’ I answered proudly.”

“‘I should have known by your red hair,’ the barber observed. ‘You’re the spitting image of your mother. Just take a seat while I take care of our young friend here.’ I had always been self-conscious about the color of my hair and his comment made me feel doubly embarrassed. My bright red head and my fair skin set me apart from my classmates. I dreamed of being a brunette like my sister Barb or a glamorous blonde. Mom said I should be proud of my fiery hair; very few women were so blessed. But I viewed it as a curse.”

“Kate, I know lots of women who would die for hair like yours,” Petra interrupted.

“Well, that’s not how I felt at the time,” I told her. “Now let me continue.”

“Sure, go ahead,” she said.

“I sat down as instructed while Bobby climbed up into the large chrome and leather barber chair. Although I had ridden past the barbershop and peered through its plate glass window many times, this was the first occasion I had set foot inside. Everything was fascinating from the distinctive bay rum aroma to the men’s magazines piled on the low table in front of me. It was so different from the ladies’ hair salon on the opposite side of the square where my mother had her hair done.”

“So you were the only girl in this all-male establishment,” Petra observed, her interest obviously piqued. “What happened next?”

“Well, I watched in amazement as Mr. Grimm applied his clippers to Bobby’s head. Blonde hair rained onto the tile floor beneath the chair. It took only a few minutes to shear the back and sides. The barber kept up a steady stream of chatter while he worked, mostly about the fortunes of his favorite baseball team, the Chicago Cubs. But all conversation ceased when he reached the top of Bobby’s head. First he sprayed his hair with water, then vigorously brushed the damp hair upward. Bobby sat motionless with a serious expression on his usually smiling face. The buzzing of the clippers was the only sound in the shop as Mr. Grimm stood poised at the side of the chair. I sensed this was a very critical moment. He peered intently at the straight standing hair as he slowly and deliberately passed his clippers over the top of Bobby’s head. I watched breathlessly as the old barber carved the blonde hair into a perfectly level plane.”

“Mr. Grimm continued cutting until he was satisfied that every hair was the same length. Finally, he switched off his clippers and rubbed some wax into Bobby’s hair. Another attack with the brush put the finishing touches on the flattop. The barber held an oval hand mirror so Bobby could inspect his fresh haircut. ‘Well, what do you think young Mr. Stevens? Is it short enough to suit you?’ he asked.”

“‘Yes sir, it looks mighty fine,’ my friend replied. I thought he looked incredibly handsome. I found myself wishing that I was a boy so I could have my hair cut like his. It would have been wonderful to forego the painful hours spent removing the snarls and tangles from my hair. My summers would be so much cooler with short hair. My baseball cap would fit better if I didn’t have to jam my braids in
side. I thought of a hundred reasons why short hair would be preferable to my long-haired condition.”

“So you’ve been thinking about that haircut all these years?” Petra exclaimed, delighted that she had unearthed this hidden information from my past.

“Yes,” I conceded, “all these years. But wait, there’s more.” Now that I was divulging my secret history, I didn’t want to be interrupted.

“I’m all ears,” Petra announced, her dark eyes shining.

“Mr. Grimm undid the cape from around Bobby’s shoulders and shook his clipped hair onto the floor. My friend climbed down from the chair and fished a crumpled five dollar bill out of his jeans. ‘Thank you’ sir,’ the barber intoned as he deposited the money into his ancient cash register.”

“Then he turned to me, dusted off the empty chair, and said, ‘Now it’s your turn, Miss Katie.'”

“I was rendered temporarily speechless. I felt my face flush as red as the stripe on the barber pole outside. Why was he asking if I wanted my hair cut? Surely he didn’t expect me to get my hair cut in his barbershop.”

“‘I saw you watching your friend’s haircut,’ he teased, ‘You’d like one just like his, wouldn’t you?'”

“What did you do, Kate?” Petra asked with bated breath.

“I was paralyzed. I couldn’t believe what the old man was saying. He must have been a mind reader. How did he know what I had been thinking? I yearned to take Bobby’s place in the chair, to feel the clippers against my scalp, to be rid of my cursed red hair, but I knew there was no way I could accept Mr. Grimm’s offer. My mother would die if I came home with short hair. I would be the laughingstock of Big Rapids. ‘No sir,’ I stammered. ‘I just came with Bobby. I didn’t come for a haircut.'”

“‘Nonsense,’ the barber continued. ‘You have entirely too much hair. You could use a nice short cut for the summer.’ He smiled warmly and held the white striped cloth expectantly, as if he really thought I would be his next customer. I clutched my braids in panic. Did he really expect me to get my hair cut like Bobby? I looked to my friend for support, but he seemed to enjoy my predicament. ‘Go ahead, Katie,’ he taunted, ‘I dare you.’ Ordinarily, I never backed away from a dare, but this was different.”

“‘But I didn’t bring any money,’ I protested, desperately searching for an excuse that an adult would find acceptable”

“‘Your credit’s good with me, Miss Katie,’ Mr. Grimm promised. ‘You can pay me next week when you get your allowance.'”

“‘I’m sorry, sir. My mom wouldn’t like that,’ I cried as I whirled and ran out of his shop. I couldn’t stand any more teasing. As I flew down the street on my bike I heard Bobby and Mr. Grimm sharing gales of masculine laughter. They enjoyed a good joke at my expense. It was weeks before I forgave him although I was thankful that he never told another soul about my encounter with the barber.”

Petra took advantage of the pause in my narration to probe for psychic wounds. “That sounds like a pretty traumatic experience for a young girl. Seems like you would be permanently scared away from short hair. I don’t understand how this explains your haircut.”

“It’s strange,” I responded, “but for weeks afterwards I could think of nothing else. What would it feel like sitting in that big barber’s chair, watching my hair fall to the floor as Mr. Grimm cut my red hair into a perfect flattop just like Bobby’s? I couldn’t get the idea out of my mind. I was fascinated and terrified at the same time. Every time I passed the barbershop Mr. Grimm gave a knowing smile and beckoned to me. He didn’t have to say a word; I knew his offer was still open. Part of me wanted to accept his invitation, but I never stopped; I just kept walking. When I entered high school my long red hair was the envy of all my girl friends. Any thought of short hair was sacrificed in the name of teen-age conformity. Being accepted by my peers stifled the urge to get my hair cut. Yet the compulsion never completely disappeared.”

‘For years I avoided getting my hair cut, perhaps out of fear that in a moment of weakness I might order the stylist to cut it all off. When I graduated from the university it hung past my waist. Yet every time I saw a red, white, and blue barber pole I felt the same longing; every man with a flattop reminded me of that day; every woman with a radically short haircut made me wonder if I ever would work up the courage to do the same.”

“So what happened with you and Bobby?” Petra asked, ever the matchmaker. “Did you remain friends after that?”

“We gradually drifted apart,” I explained sadly. “That August I had my first period. In sixth grade little titties blossomed on my chest. Mom said I should start wearing dresses and stop playing with boys. When we got to high school Bobby was involved in sports and I was a bookworm. His buddies wore leather jackets and worked on their hot rods; I hung out with the college prep crowd. Sometimes he would stop by my locker to chat, but we didn’t have much in common. After graduation I went away to study science at the University of Michigan. Bobby hoped to win a football scholarship at Michigan State; he was a pretty good high school quarterback. The college coaches liked his arm, ‘Little Unitas’ they called him, but at five foot nine they agreed he was too small to be a big time quarterback. I heard he got a job driving a truck for a meat packing plant. I saw him a couple of times playing basketball at the park near our house when I was home for summer vacations. He still wore his hair in a flattop. With his skin tanned deep brown and sweat covering his muscular torso he was my idea of a Greek god. I never saw him after I started graduate school, but I often thought about him. In my mind he remained the cute blue eyed boy with the distinctive haircut. I guess I was secretly in love with him, but never had the nerve to tell him.”

“Hmmm. This is getting more interesting by the minute,” Petra confided. “Was Bobby the reason you went back for your reunion? Were you hoping to hook up with your old flame?”

“Perhaps I was,” I admitted. “I drove the five hours back to Big Rapids wondering if I was making a big mistake. Coming back into the town was like going back in a time machine. The population is still around eighteen thousand. There’s a big Wal-Mart out past the city limits and the old Rexall drug store is now Dunkin’ Donut franchise, but otherwise it hasn’t changed that much. The house where we once lived badly needs a coat of paint and a rusted out Chevy sits in front yard. I was pained to see how the current owners had let the place deteriorate. But otherwise Big Rapids looked like the same sleepy town where I grew up.”

“I found the Bell-Aire Motor Court on Main Street without any difficulty. It’s no longer the only motel in town, but it hardly has changed since the Sixties–the same knotty pine paneling, the same stuffed deer heads on the wall, the same bell at the check-in counter, only the color television looked new. I checked into my room, slipped into my new dress and shoes, and brushed my hair. I couldn’t believe I let you talk me into spending so much money just to impress my old high school chums.”

“Come on, Kate,” Petra chided. “Don’t put the blame on me. You enjoyed the shopping and the beauty salon every bit as much as I did seeing you get so excited. Admit it.”

“Okay,” I agreed. “I admit I enjoyed myself. Now, let me get on with the story.”

“I hope we get to the good stuff pretty soon,” she teased.

“Be patient, it’s coming,” I pledged. “The gathering was scheduled to begin with a cash bar at seven. I didn’t want to be the first to arrive, so I timed my entrance for seven forty-five. A folding table in the lobby of the Elks hall was manned by two middle aged matrons distributing name tags to the guests. ‘May I help you?’ the
plump one inquired.”

“‘Yes, I’m here for the reunion,’ I said.”

“‘Your name?’ the skinny one asked, looking over the list of registrants. She didn’t recognize me even though we suffered through four years of Spanish together.

“‘It’s Kate Crandall, Billie Jean,’ I announced.”

“‘Oh my god, Katie, is that you?’ she cried. ‘I didn’t recognize you after all these years.’ She came out from behind the table to give me a big hug, then pulled away to inspect my attire. ‘So this is how professors dress today,’ she observed snidely. ‘College sure has changed a lot since my day.’ Petra, you warned me that the women might be less than thrilled to see me looking so elegant and you were right. I got comments like that all night.”

“Was Bobby there? Did you two get together?” Petra eagerly demanded. She couldn’t wait to hear if we had connected.

“I’m getting to that,” I told her. “After getting free of Billie Jean I plunged ahead into the bar. Several classmates stepped aside to let me pass. They didn’t recognize me and that was fine with me. I ordered a gin and tonic, scanning the crowd for one face in particular. I hadn’t seen Bobby Stevens in twenty-five years, but I prayed he would be there. As I searched for him in the throng I realized he was my real motive for coming back; he was the reason I allowed you to make such a fuss fixing me up.”

“My thoughts wandered back to our grade school years. I wondered what Bobby looked like now. Would he be fat and balding like half the guys in our class? Then I spotted him in the far corner of the room talking with some of his former football buddies. He hadn’t changed that much; a bit heavier, but the same sparkling blue eyes, the same infectious grin; as handsome as ever. His blonde hair was mixed with gray. It was a moderate length, neatly trimmed and parted on the side. I was a little disappointed that he no longer wore the flattop that had been his hallmark in high school. I ignored everyone else and casually sauntered up to his group. His friends stepped aside to let me enter their circle. ‘Hi Bobby. How’s it going?’ I asked, trying to hide my nervousness.”

“He turned around and a huge smile creased his face. ‘Katie, I heard you were coming,’ he greeted me warmly. He looked me up and down as if he couldn’t quite believe his eyes. ‘Gosh, you look good.'”

“At that moment I knew all of our preparation had been worthwhile. ‘You look pretty good yourself,’ I answered.”

“‘How long has it been?’ he asked.”

“‘Too long Bobby,’ I replied earnestly, ‘much too long.’ We found a table in a dark corner and spent most of the evening together. We danced a couple of times, but mostly we just talked. It was as if we had been carried back to our youth. I asked if he was married; he said he had been engaged a couple of times but things hadn’t worked out. I noticed him checking my ring finger for a wedding band. He wanted to hear all about my work at the university. It seems that I am being used as a role model for science students at the high school. I inquired what kind of work he did. ‘I tried several jobs after high school,’ he told me, ‘but never really found one I liked until five years ago. You’ll never guess what I’m doing now.'”

“With a Rotary pin in the lapel of his navy blue sports coat, he looked like any small town businessman; I had no clue about his occupation. ‘I have no idea,’ I confessed.”

“‘I’m the town barber,’ he proudly announced. ‘Mr. Grimm was getting up in years and started looking for someone to take over his shop. He asked if I was interested. At the time I was a butcher at the supermarket, but I couldn’t picture myself slicing sides of beef for the rest of my life. A barber doesn’t make a lot of money, but the work is steady; you don’t have to worry about layoffs. You get to talk about politics and sports all day. Plus, the idea of being my own boss was appealing. So I quit the supermarket and went to barber college in Chicago. Six months later I had my license, Mr. Grimm retired, and I took over.'”

“So your old boyfriend is now the town barber,” Petra interrupted. “Is he the one responsible for your haircut?”

“I’m getting to that. You’ll have to wait a little longer,” I told my agitated young assistant. “I never would have guessed that Bobby would become a barber, but I had to find out if my memory was correct. ‘Wait a minute,’ I asked, ‘is this the same barbershop where you got your haircut when you were eleven years old?'”

“”The same,’ he confirmed. “It’s still the only one in town.'”

“‘Do you remember the day I tagged along and watched you get your hair cut?’ I inquired.”

“‘Sure, how could I forget?’ he replied. ‘I had a flattop back then; my dad insisted on it.'”

“‘And when your haircut was done Mr. Grimm asked if I wanted my hair cut like yours.’ I said, picking up the tale.”

“‘Your face went red as a fire truck,’ he recalled. ‘I don’t think I ever saw you get so flustered. You grabbed your braids and ran out of his shop as fast as your legs could carry you. Mr. Grimm loved to tease. He wasn’t serious about cutting your hair, but you sure thought he was. We had a good laugh at your expense. I always felt bad about that. We shouldn’t have picked on you like that. He should have known better; me too.'”

“Apology accepted, Bobby,’ I replied. ‘But you know something funny? I never forgot that day and his offer to cut my hair. I still think about it.'”

“‘I see that your hair is as long now as it was then, maybe longer,’ he observed.”

“‘Yes, that’s one thing about me that hasn’t changed,’ I confirmed.”

“‘So, you’ve never had short hair?’ he continued.”

“‘Nope, never. But I’ve thought about it quite often,’ I confessed.”

“Oh Kate, that was your big mistake,” Petra observed. “Never tell a beautician or a barber that you’re thinking about cutting your hair. They’ll keep after you until you give in.”

“I suppose you’re right, Petra,” I acknowledged, “but in this case he didn’t have to work very hard. Now, may I continue?”

“Sure, I’m all ears,” she responded.

“Bobby spent a minute closely examining my head. He pulled back a lock of hair to inspect my ear. ‘You’d look good with short hair, Katie,’ he concluded. ‘That’s my professional opinion.'”

“Now we were getting into really dangerous territory. It would have been easy to steer our conversation in a safer direction, but I didn’t want to change the subject. ‘Do you really think so?’ I asked earnestly. ‘I’ve worn my hair this length for so long that any change would be awfully difficult.'”

“‘Yes, I’m sure you’d look great. But then you’d look lovely any way you chose to wear your hair.’ From the way he blushed I knew for certain that he still cared for me.”

“Oooo. This is getting good,” Petra squealed, “just like a soap opera.”

“Please shut up and listen,” I scolded.

“I think I know what’s coming next,” she practically shouted with glee.

“Well, you’ll have to wait a little longer,” I said. “Anyway, Bobby wasn’t going to let the subject drop. ‘Katie, you’ve got a nicely shaped head, small ears, and good facial features. You should try short hair some time.'”

“‘I’ve considered it many times, believe me,’ I told him. ‘There’s just one problem.'”

“‘What’s that?’ he wanted to know.”

“I paused and took a deep breath. What I was going to tell him I had never revealed to another living soul, not even you. Petra.”

“I wonder what that could be?” she speculated.

“I said, ‘The problem is that if I got my hair cut short I would want to go all the way.'”

“He seemed genuinely puzzled, ‘All the way. What do you mean by that?’ he probed.”

“To make sure no one overheard, I leaned over and whispered
in his ear, ‘If I ever get the nerve to cut my hair I will ask for a flattop.'”

“‘Just like the one I used to wear?’ he asked. If he was shocked he didn’t show it. I think he anticipated what I was going to say.”

“‘The same,’ I confessed. ‘For thirty-seven years I’ve thought about that day in Mr. Grimm’s barbershop. There’s a part of me that wishes I had accepted his invitation. I’ve always wondered how it would feel to sit in that chair and have my hair clipped very short and the top buzzed flat as this table.”

“‘Katie, that’s amazing,’ he said. ‘You mean you’ve been obsessing about this haircut for thirty-seven years?'”

“‘Yup, kinda sad isn’t it?’ I concurred.”

“I expected Bobby to be surprised or amused by my revelation, but he was remarkably sympathetic. ‘Perhaps it’s time you stopped living in fantasy land and took some action,’ he suggested. I couldn’t believe that he took me seriously.”

“‘What do you mean?’ I asked, but I already knew what would come next.”

“‘Remember, you’re talking to the town barber. Katie,’ he reminded me. ‘I can give you the haircut you’ve been dreaming about.'”

“‘I don’t think I should,’ I objected halfheartedly. ‘After all, I just paid a lot of money to have my hair done like this.”

“‘And it looks fabulous,’ he continued. ‘It would be a crime to this hair if you weren’t one hundred percent certain that you were doing the right thing. But if I hear you correctly, this is something you really want to do.'”

“‘Bobby, am I totally insane?’ I demanded. ‘What woman in her right mind would contemplate such a thing?'”

“‘None of us ever acts in an entirely rational manner,’ he explained. ‘We like to think we are logical, but much of the time our actions are based on deep seated needs, not on logic.'”

“He had me pegged. Bobby understood me better than any other guy; he always knew the right thing to say. His calm analysis of my condition was reassuring. I was teetering on the verge of accepting his offer. ‘Oh Bobby,’ I gushed like a school girl. ‘It’s such a small town. What would people say?'”

“‘Let them talk,’ he continued. ‘Plenty of folks have seen us together all evening. Their tongues are wagging already.'”

“I glanced around the room and sensed several pairs of eyes fastened on us. ‘You’re right, of course, Bobby,’ I said. ‘But what would my students say? What about my colleagues?'”

“This student would say, ‘Go for it, honey,'” Petra interjected.

“Yes, I know what you would say,” I told her. “I was thinking about the others.”

“Well, screw them,” she declared.

“Yes, that’s kinda what Bobby told me, only using much nicer language,” I said. “‘Katie, you’re on summer vacation, right?’ he pointed out. ‘If you don’t like the way your hair turns out, it will grow out by the time classes start in September. Besides, I think your students will love it. Young people are always more open to change, especially a radical one like the one you’re considering.'”

“Bobby was persuasive, but I just couldn’t make the commitment. I waffled and stalled. ‘Bobby, I just don’t know. It’s such a difficult decision.'”

“He understood my dilemma and was remarkably considerate. ‘Katie, I don’t want to pressure you,’ he said. ‘This has to be your choice.’ Then he made a final proposition. ‘I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. We’ll make an appointment for ten o’clock Monday morning. You’ll have all day tomorrow to think it over. If you chicken out, you can just drive out of town and no one will be the wiser. But if you decide to cut your hair, show up at my shop Monday morning and I will make your dream come true.'”

“Wow, kinda like a modern day Prince Charming,” my young friend observed. “Did you say yes, Kate?”

“I told him I would consider his offer. We kissed and I drove back to the motel, but I didn’t get much sleep; I tossed and turned all night. It seemed my brain was split down the middle. The impulsive left side said, ‘Go ahead. What are you waiting for? You know you really want to do this.’ The reasonable right side said, ‘You must be out of your mind to even contemplate such a crazy idea. Act your age. Don’t do something you’ll regret for the rest of your life.'”

“I guess we know which side won the debate,” Petra gaily announced.

“Yes, but it wasn’t easy,” I told her. “When I woke up Sunday I still hadn’t made up my mind. I spent the day with my sister’s family; Bobby’s offer was never far from my mind. Barb could see that I was preoccupied. ‘You got something on your mind, Katie?’ she asked.”

“‘Just thinking about the grant application that’s due next week,’ I lied.”

“So when did you decide?” Petra demanded.

“Not until the last moment,” I replied. “Monday I got up early and took a shower wondering whether it would be the last time I shampooed my long hair. I tried to recreate the wonderful waves from Saturday night with a curling iron and blow dryer, but it was useless. I just didn’t have the hairstyling skills to make it look the same. Finally, out of frustration, I braided my hair just as I had done in fifth grade. Over breakfast in the coffee shop I made a mental list of the pros and cons. On the one hand, I argued, ‘Change is good. This is something you’ve always wanted. You’ll never have a better opportunity than today.’ On the other hand, I countered, ‘This is too radical. You will look so butch. People will think you’re a lesbian.’ You might say I was profoundly ambivalent.”

“As I packed my suitcase, I still hadn’t made up my mind. I checked out and threw my bag in the car. It was quarter to ten when I left the motel. I took Main Street into town and circled the square. I parked opposite the barbershop. The courthouse clock rang ten times. I thought, ‘Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for your hair.'”

“That’s funny,” Petra wryly observed.

“Believe me, I wasn’t feeling very jolly,” I told her. “I could see that Bobby was tending an elderly customer. I didn’t want anyone to observe me entering the barbershop, so I waited. If another customer had come along I probably would have driven away, but none did. Finally, at ten minutes after ten the old man shuffled out the door. I couldn’t stall any longer.”

“I took a deep breath, screwed up my courage, and stepped out of the car. I saw Bobby in his white smock as my shaky legs carried me across the street; his back was turned so he didn’t see me approaching. The jangling bell over the door announced my arrival. Bobby greeted me with his million dollar smile. ‘Well, as I live and breathe, it’s Miss Katie Crandall. Have you finally come for your haircut?’ he crooned.”

“Bobby was mimicking the accent and mannerisms of old Mr. Grimm. He was inviting me to join in a game of let’s pretend and I was happy to play along. ‘Yes, sir,’ I meekly answered. ‘I’ve come to get my hair cut and I’ve got five dollars from my allowance so I can pay you.'”

“‘Well, it’s about time,’ he said with mock seriousness. ‘I’ve been waiting for you.’ Bobby dusted off the chair and gestured for me to step up. I marched forward and slid into the leather seat, still warm from its previous occupant. Bobby lifted my braids and wrapped a white tissue strip around my throat just as I had seen Mr. Grim do for him many years ago. He snapped the white cape, sending a shower of gray hairs to the floor, draped it over my shoulders, and fastened it behind my neck. He removed the elastic bands from the ends of my braids and carefully undid them. Then Bobby began to comb my hair. He was so tender and gentle, it seemed he was bidding farewell to my bright red locks with great regret. As he combed my heart was racing. I couldn’t believe that I was actually sitting in this old-fashioned barbershop waiting for my haircut to begin.”

“After what seemed like an eternity Bobby asked in Mr. Grimm’s deep voice, ‘Now Miss Katie, how are we going to cut your hair today?'”

“‘Please sir,’ I replied, reciprocating his formal tone, ‘I’d like a flattop.'”

“‘Just like that rascal Bobby Stevens?’ he continued, playing our game.”

“‘Yes sir, that’s what I want,’ I told him with as much confidence as I could muster. ‘Short on the sides and flat on top.’ I’m sure Bobby didn’t need the extra instructions, but I had been rehearsing them since Saturday night. Uttering those words made my heart beat even faster. It was such an unreal feeling, like I was watching a dream unfold–a dream in which I was the main character.”

“‘Won’t your mother be upset?’ he quizzed me. ‘Last time you were in here you said she wouldn’t approve.’ I was amazed at Bobby’s memory. The details of my previous visit to the barber shop remained as vivid in his memory as they did in mine.”

“‘Oh no, Mom’s changed her mind,’ I improvised. ‘I told her I needed a short haircut so I can play baseball with the guys this summer. I brought a note from home if you’d like to see it.'”

“‘That won’t be necessary, Miss Katie. I believe you,’ he said with a wink. We both knew my mother never would have agreed to such a radical shearing for her darling daughter. My imaginary note obviously was a forgery.”

“I began getting choked up. I wanted him to stop procrastinating and get started. Bobby must have sensed my impatience because he stopped arranging my hair and announced, ‘Miss Katie, you’ve got an awful lot of hair. Usually I charge extra to cut so much hair, but since you’ve only got five bucks, I’m gonna give you a discount; a special price for young ladies.'”

“‘I sure thank you, sir,’ I said in my most sincere eleven year old voice.”

“Kate, I still can’t believe you walked into this barbershop and calmly asked your old boyfriend to cut off all your lovely red hair,” Petra declared.

“Believe me, Petra, I was not calm,” I informed her. “My knees were trembling, my mouth was dry, and my stomach was churning. If it had been any other barber, I don’t think I could have gone through with it. But Bobby had been my closest friend. He was gentle, kind, and playful, yet completely professional. He made my haircut seem perfectly normal.”

“So tell me what happened next,” she insisted.

“Bobby said nothing else, but went right to work. He selected a pair of silver shears and lifted a strand of hair from the top of my head. Fully extended, it was at least twenty inches long. I knew that the first cut would be the hardest part. He placed his scissors two inches above my scalp and paused for a moment. If I was going to back out, this was my last chance. ‘How about those Cubs?’ he said, echoing Mr. Grimm’s best known refrain, as he snipped off the long lock and deposited it in my lap. A second and third lock quickly followed. He began whistling ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ as he reduced all the hair on top of my head to the same brief length. Without interruption he continued clipping the right side of my head. I could hear his scissors snipping around my ear and saw its pale outline emerge from a thick covering of red hair. He continued around to the back of my head. I watched in amazement as the pile of hair in front of me grew into a huge mound. Before long he switched to the left side and kept cutting until he had removed every trace of my long hair. I wondered what the beautician at Jean Pierre’s would have said if she could have seen what Bobby was doing to the locks she had so elaborately styled just two days earlier.”

“She would have had a cow, I’m sure,” Petra answered.

“‘There, Miss Katie,’ he announced as he completed the first rough cut, ‘that should feel a whole lot lighter.'”

“It does, sir,’ I replied, ‘it feels much cooler.’ It was like a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I looked at the severed hair that only moments before had been attached to my head and realized I had completed the passage to short hair. For better or worse, my long-haired days were done. My journey was not yet complete, but the outcome was assured. Bobby then began playfully massaging my abbreviated locks. I realized that he was erasing the part that had been etched down the center of my head for so many years.”

“In the big mirror in front of me I beheld a middle aged redhead with an extremely short pixie haircut. Short tufts of hair sprouted in all directions. The length was rather ragged and uneven, but not unattractive. It looked nothing at all like Bobby’s haircut of thirty-seven years ago. I realized that he was offering me a last minute reprieve. If I stopped now I would still be left with a feminine haircut. But that’s not what I wanted.”

“‘You’re not done yet, are you, sir?’ I pleaded earnestly, giving him permission to proceed.”

“‘Not by a long shot, Missy,’ he assured me with gusto. ‘We’re only getting started. The best is yet to come.’ I knew what was coming; next he would use his clippers. This was the part I was most anticipating. I had never felt clippers on my head before, but I had imagined the sensation many times. There was something unbearably exciting about the prospect.”

“Bobby tinkered with his tools for a moment, selecting the proper attachment to slip over the blades. Then he switched on the power; the clippers’ insistent buzzing drowned out every other sound. He placed his hand on top of my head, firmly pushing my chin down toward my chest. I felt the vibrations at the base of my neck as he slowly slid his clippers up into the thick hair on the back of my head. I closed my eyes and concentrated on the sensation. I imagined how the back of my head would look shorn of hair. It was a frightening, yet strangely erotic feeling.”

“A real turn-on?” Petra observed. “Maybe I should try it.”

“Maybe you should,” I said suggestively. The prospect of her Mediterranean curls being shorn by a ruthless barber was a delicious possibility.

“So what happened next?” she insisted.

“Bobby continued running his clippers up the back of my head until he had chopped every single hair down to a microscopic length. Once again he was whistling; this time it was ‘Yellow Submarine.’ Then he gently lifted my chin and continued clipping the side of my head. I opened my eyes and observed him running the clippers up to my temple and around my ear. Short red hairs flew away from the blades, coating the cape covering my shoulders. Where the clippers passed I could see that no more than a quarter inch of my hair remained. My pale scalp gleamed beneath the stubble. This was exactly the way I remembered his haircut at the hands of Mr. Grimm. Some things had not changed over the decades.”

“When Bobby finished buzzing the side of my head he switched off the clippers. Now only the hair on top of my head was longer than regulation. With the sides clipped short and the top still relatively long, I was a strange sight, but I knew this would not last for long. He exchanged his clippers for a spray bottle and began wetting my head. A fine mist soaked my hair. Next he took a stiff brush and brushed the top of my head until every hair stood erect. I gripped the armrests to control my shaking hands; I knew the defining moment of this haircut was imminent. The shearing of the top gives the flattop its distinctive shape. In the hands of an unskilled barber this can result in disaster, but I had full confidence in Bobby.”

“Bobby held a long toothed black comb in his left hand and the pulsating clippers in his right. ‘You need to sit real still now, Miss Katie, so I can get it perfectly even.’ His warning was unnecessary; I knew that the slightest movement on my part would ruin the flat surface that he planned to carve across the top of my head. I was frozen in place, struggling to control my raging emotions. I couldn’t wait for him to begin, yet I feared the outcome. Like it or not,
I had come too far to turn back.”

“Bobby inserted his comb into the first section of hair above my forehead. He slowly passed his clippers along the comb, neatly chopping off the inch of hair that protruded above the comb. He flicked away the severed hair and began another pass cutting the second section level with the first. My eyes were glued to the big mirror in front of me, trying to memorize every detail of my shearing. Bobby worked deliberately from front to back. As he proceeded, the characteristic flat surface began to emerge. I watched breathlessly as he mowed my red hair into a perfect plane. When he finished the top he turned his attention to the sides. Holding the comb vertically, he ran his clippers up and down, each time removing another fraction of my hair.. When he was done, two straight walls intersected with the flat surface on top to form a square frame around my face.”

“Bobby paused for a moment to critically inspect his handiwork, and then resumed lightly passing his clippers across the top of my head, searching for any uneven spots. When he was satisfied that every hair was precisely the same height, he took a large dollop of gel and massaged it into my scalp. Once again he took up his brush and forced every hair into exact alignment.”

“I thought he was finished, but one more step remained. Bobby took up a smaller pair of clippers and ran them diagonally up around my ears and down the back of my neck. Instead of cutting square sideburns as he would for a man, he carved mine into sharply pointed arrows. This was the only difference between my haircut and the one he received from Mr. Grimm; the only concession to my femininity.”

“He switched off the clippers and dusted the clippings from my ears and neck with a soft brush. He stood behind the chair with his hands on my shoulders; we gazed into the mirror together. ‘Well, what do you think, Miss Katie?’ he said, finally breaking his silence. I studied his creation as carefully as I would examine a specimen in my lab. The hair that rose above my forehead was no more than an inch long, further back along my crown it was less than half an inch. The sides were about a quarter of an inch and I knew the back was the same length. My ears were fully exposed and my neck was bare. But it was the top that held my attention. Perfectly level, it was an exact replica of the haircut I witnessed thirty-seven years earlier. Of course, my hair, what remained of it, was red and his was blonde. Otherwise it was the same.”

“‘Is this what you wanted, Miss Katie?’ he asked, interrupting my reverie.”

“‘Oh, yes sir,’ I answered, still in character. ‘It looks swell. Thank you very much.’ All my uncertainty and anxiety vanished; now I knew I had made the right decision. It had been a long time between visits to this small town barbershop, but it was worth the wait.”

“Bobby unsnapped the cape and gathered it up by the corners. ‘You want to keep this for a souvenir?’ he asked about my severed hair.”

“‘Nope, I’m done with long hair,’ I answered decisively. I didn’t need any reminder of my former image so Bobby unceremoniously dumped the whole pile to the floor. I felt only a slight twinge of regret as viewed the final resting place of my crowing glory. He removed the tissue from around my neck; I stepped down from the chair and over to the cash register. I dug in my pocket for a five dollar bill. ‘Oh no, Miss Katie, this one is on the house,’ he insisted. ‘You can pay me next time.'”

“So, is there going to be a next time?” Petra asked. “Are you going to keep your hair like this?”

“Yes, I think I will,” I told my young assistant.

“And what about Bobby?” she continued.

“Well, he and I have a standing appointment for the first Saturday the month.”

“That’s a mighty long drive for a haircut,” she observed.

“Who said I was going for a haircut?” I grinned. “I can get my hair cut here. Bobby provides other services besides barbering.” Petra joined in my laughter. I glanced at my watch and realized we had wasted most of the morning. “Time to get back to work,” I commanded.

Last month I escorted Petra to the University Barber Shop. It took three months of persistent persuasion to convince her to join the ranks of fearless short-haired women. This time the tables were turned; I was the instigator and she was the reluctant one. When she told her then boyfriend of her plan he threatened to dump her. I think that’s what pushed her over the brink. Petra can be mighty stubborn when someone tells her she cannot do something. We agreed that her curly locks were not well suited for a flattop, so she settled for a half inch buzz cut. Watching my young assistant being shorn by the swarthy barber was nearly as exciting as viewing my own haircut. There was a moment when I thought she was going to start bawling, but she regained her composure and emerged triumphant. Petra looks absolutely stunning with her dark hair cropped so short. She had little difficulty finding another boyfriend who is wild about her new look.

With winter coming on, Bobby and I agreed that I should let my hair grow longer. It gets pretty cold in Ann Arbor in January and February. Come spring, however, I will return to Big Rapids for another flattop. Already I’m counting the days.

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