“I hope you don’t mind me asking,” I say, “but aren’t you a little old to be a new hairdresser?”
The fifty-something woman in the reception area looks up expectantly, holding her job application and freshly-minted beautician's license in her hands.
“I earned a perfect score on the cosmetology exam,” she offers almost apologetically, with a thin smile. Her feet are fidgeting underneath her chair.
I stand with my callused hands on my ample hips. I audibly sigh.
Finding experienced hair stylists is hard enough, but breaking in new ones? Hard pass. I’ve trained plenty of would-be hairdressers who have left me to work across town for a dollar more an hour. Besides, with no visible tattoos, nose rings, or piercings, she will not fit in with our crowd.
I look her over again, now standing stoop-shouldered and unsure. She tugs at her beige cardigan, a decade out of style.
I’d be doing her a favor by dismissing her out of hand.
I shake my head.
My other beauticians don’t say a word. They are used to my blunt style. They continue dyeing gray hair into golden coppers, rich auburns, and buttery blondes. The sharp staccato of their scissors sends snippets of hair sailing through the air. Later on, I’ll have to sweep the floor myself since Millie the Shampoo Girl called in sick, using the twenty-somethings' chief complaint: “I have too much anxiety to come into work today.” But she is not anxious enough to keep off social media, as I watch her Instagram and Snapchat light up with new adventures.
I’ll have to fire Millie. I hate firing people almost as much as I hate hiring them.
“I’m a fast learner.” The older woman interrupts my reverie, waiting for me to take her seriously. “I’ll come in early and stay late. I don’t mind working weekends.”
Working weekends. She’d have the shop to herself! No one under the age of forty would consider working Saturdays and Sundays. It’s usually just me.
“And I see you’re shorthanded. I could start today—on a trial basis,” she proposes, accompanied again by her small smile, the one that didn’t quite reach her eyes.
“All right,” I reluctantly agree. “You can work here. I’ll teach you what I know. But you need to promise to work here for at least a year and a day. Does that seem fair to you?”
“Fine,” I mutter. “Let’s get you started.”
She spends most of the morning cleaning parts of the salon that haven’t been scrubbed in years. I watch her effortlessly greet customers, offer coffee, answer phones, make appointments, and cashier. In between helping the front of the house, she manages to shampoo customers before their cuts and carry on polite conversations between sweeping up piles of hair. I see her organize the hair dyes in the back and lug black bags of trash into the dumpster.
For lunch, she takes out an apple from her purse along with a few soda crackers.
“We’re getting some cheesesteaks from next door," I say. "You want one?”
She shakes her head no.
Months later, the two of us are closing up the shop. I ask her if she wants to work at her own station.
“Do you think I’m ready?”
“Only one way to find out.” I plop myself down in her chair. “I’m your first customer.”
She pumps the chair up to the appropriate level, draping a cutting cape around my neck, fluttering it as elegantly as a queen’s robe.
“So what can I do for you today?” She mimics my southern drawl, standing directly behind me as we look into the mirror.
“I want what all our customers want.”
“And what’s that?”
“To feel special.”
For a moment a dark memory crosses her face, but she quickly prepares to work.
“How about a shorter cut with tons of layers?” she suggests. “I’ll add in loose waves for volume and dimension.”
“Perfect,” I reply. “So, I bought you a gift for all of your hard work this month. It’s in your top drawer.”
Curiously, she opens the drawer and pulls out a new texturizing iron, festooned with a big bright red bow on top.
“It’s got titanium-coated plates,” I brag. “Only the finest.”
She doesn't reply.
“It’s yours now, but be careful,” I warn. “Crimpers can be good for styling but bad for hair. Make sure you use heat protection spray before you—”
I notice she is crying.
“Are you all right?”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“No,” she replies. “I don’t.”
I get up from her chair.
“Sit down,” I order, and she complies. I take off the cutting cape and place it around her shoulders.
“So what can I do for you today?” I ask her.
She buries her face in her hands.
“All right,” I sigh. “What’s his name and how long were you together?”
“Forrest,” she whispers. “Twenty-seven years.”
“Probably twenty years too many,” I mutter. I hold up a long strand of her hair. “We’re going to darken this a bit, then give you a shaggy mid-length cut. Then I’ll do a foilayage in a caramel mocha.”
She looks up. “I can’t afford all that. I’m sorry.”
“Oh, I need to work on my technique, so you’re my test dummy. I’m going to practice my makeup application skills, too.”
She says very little while I work. At the end, I spin her chair around.
She looks a decade younger. We are both staggered by the transformation.
“I don’t remember the last time I was beautiful.”
“You were beautiful before all this paint and powder. Forrest doesn’t get to take your beauty from you. You get to keep that.”
“I get to keep that,” she agrees.
“And he can go straight to hell.”
“With his ugly girlfriend.”
“Who probably has frizzy hair,” I add.
Before she leaves, she flashes a dazzling smile, one that lights up her whole face, one that makes her absolutely beautiful.