A Welcome Mistake
I was thinking back to my childhood the other day. It was a dangerous pastime, remembering. My younger years were a torrent of mixed emotions and hard knocks, but I seem to remember that it all started one day shortly after summer vacation began. My name is Max, and if you think that’s an odd name for a girl, read on.
I winced as my mother dragged a comb through my shoulder-length hair, small blonde strands lodging in the teeth of the evil instrument of torture. Every morning and every night she would painstakingly straighten out the damage an active nine-year-old girl could render.
It was summer, and we were just out of school. That long break from the monotonous drone of teacher after teacher drilling us on whatever useless knowledge they were relegated to impart. At least that’s what I thought.
Despite my appearance, I was a tomboy through and through, my mother insistent upon maintaining my girlish coif. I used to hang out with my brother and his friends, the company of girls being strange and uncomfortable. I would only discover why in my teens.
Tommy, my brother, was your typical rough and tumble boy, a year older than me. We got along famously and would stick together when challenged. Although most of the kids in the neighborhood were cool, there were a few that tested us. One might refer to them as bullies, I suppose.
The one kid, Adam Asher, was the worst of them. He would always get on my case for hanging out with the boys. He wasn’t part of ‘our gang’ as it were, but he was around often enough to be a thorn in my side. It had almost come to blows one day, but Tommy stepped in, and Adam backed off. I hated that he had ‘come my rescue’ because I was confident I could have fought my own battles.
It was the second weekend of the summer when my mother announced that it was time for a summer haircut. Unfortunately, she was referring to Tommy, even though I would have liked nothing better than to rid myself of my hair. I envied the boys, for their short summer crew cuts, the evil comb a thing of the past.
Tommy was nearly eleven, so my mother, for the first time, trusted him to go to Keller’s Barbershop by himself. She handed him a twenty-dollar bill and ran her fingers through his tousled blonde curls. “I’ll miss these, but your father insists.” She lamented.
With that, she disappeared into her household duties, leaving Tommy and me to our own devices. We slipped through the back door, sitting together on the top step as we always did.
“You wanna come with me?” Tommy asked.
“To the barbershop?” I asked, astonished. I had never been to one before, and the idea intrigued me. “What else have I got to do.” I pulled my hair back into a ponytail, wrapping a blue rubber band around it. My mother always hated me doing it, saying that it damaged my hair.
Tommy and I looked so much alike, that if it weren’t for the hair, one might confuse us for twins. The blonde hair, light complexion and commensurate band of freckles scattered over our cheeks and nose painted us with the same brush.
Unfortunately for us, the morning was not going to be as simple as my brother getting his hair cut. On the way down Main Street, we ran into Adam. He was in a foul mood, as he almost always was. He was accompanied by his crony sidekick, Paul Moody. Paul was smaller than Adam, but meaner too.
“Well, if it isn’t the Tommy and Maddy show!” Adam taunted, pushing me against the wall as he passed. I’d had enough. Turning, I closed my fist and punched Adam square in the mouth, bloodying his lip and probably loosening a few teeth in the process. He got a good shot in before Tommy tackled him to the ground and set him straight. Paul was suddenly silent.
I could feel the left side of my face smarting as we broke away from the two bullies, having given them something to think about. Tommy was scuffed up pretty good, and I noticed both our T-shirts were torn.
“You’re gonna have a shiner.” He grumbled as he straightened out his own shirt and ran his fingers through his ‘soon-to-be-gone’ hair.
I looked at my face in one of the store windows, noticing the stark redness on my cheek. So, when we arrived at Keller’s I looked anything but the girl I actually was. Apart from the ponytail, I was any boy who’d just been in a tussle.
The shop seemed busy, nearly all the chairs being taken on the far side of the large room. Six swivel chairs stood in a row in front of large plate glass mirrors, a barber manning each. It was a surprise to see so many kids. I guessed, being a Saturday, it was the only time the parents could find the time.
Tommy took a number and grabbed a seat towards the back of the shop, snagging a comic book on the way. I did the same.
“Don’t forget to take a number, young man.” One of the barbers chided, as I walked past. Taken off guard and suddenly very aware of what my appearance must have been, I slowly made my way back to the front door and slipped a number off the rack.
When I got back to where my brother was sitting, he looked at me sternly. “Maddy, what the hell are you doing?”
“He said, take a number, so I did,” I said, defiantly.
“You’re not a boy. You can’t get your hair cut here. Besides, Mom will kill both of us.” He pointed out. He wasn’t wrong. I tried to imagine what my mother might say if I showed up at home with a tonsured head.
“The barber doesn’t know I’m a girl. Let’s keep it that way.” I whispered as I opened the comic book, too nervous to really pay attention to it.
“Okay. It’s your funeral.” He kidded, smiling knowingly as he yanked on my ponytail. “Say goodbye to this, kiddo.” He reached into his pocket, pulling out the twenty and frowning. “All I have is this. Might not be enough.”
That’s when I pointed out the sign on the wall. ‘Boy’s summer buzz special $8’. “I think we have enough,” I said, excited and terrified at the same time.
“I hope you’re ready to look like a boy, Mad…”
“Max. I blurted. Call me Max.” If I was going to do this, I wasn’t going to blow it with a slip like my name. “I’m your little brother, remember.” I scolded, quietly.
“Whatever you say, ‘Max’.” Tommy chuckled, spinning the number in his fingers deftly.
It took a while, but Tommy’s number was finally called. I watched as he confidently strode up to the open chair and slid in, the cape wrapped securely around his neck before he was settled. I was taking notes.
“Summer buzz?” The barber asked, cleaning the blades on his clippers.
“Take it all off,” Tommy said, running his hands through his hair as if he was disgusted with it.
“You got it, kid.” The barber switched out an attachment on the clippers and turned them on, the whirr of his machine barely separated from the others in the room. He wrapped the cord of the clipper around his arm and proceeded to peel the hair from Tommy’s head. Fast, sure strokes revealed Tommy’s bare scalp as they worked, barely a whisp of stubble remaining.
Whatever he was doing, it was a lot shorter than any of the other cuts I had seen that morning. I was fascinated. Tommy was smiling as his stubbled head came into view, his jet-white scalp in sharp contrast to his face and neck, which were already sun-kissed.
I was so distracted that I didn’t hear the barber calling my number. It was the one who had sent me back for it when we first came in. I tried to mimic my brother, quickly slipping into the chair as the cape swung gracefully around my shoulders to be fastened securely around my neck.
“You seem to have forgotten we’re here, kid.” The barber joked as he slipped the rubber band from my hair, allowing my blonde mane to fall forward into my face. “What’s your name?”
“Max!” Tommy called out, his head now resembling a bristled cue ball, his golden curls lying in a pile around his chair. “He’s my kid brother.”
“So, what’s the story, Max? Your Momma must think you’re a girl or something.” He prodded. “You ready to look like a man?”
“Take it all off.” I sneered, copying my brother as I ran my hands quickly through my locks.
“One short summer buzz, coming up.” The barber quipped as he switched out his clippers. “Just like your brother, there, or are we going all the way?”
Not really paying attention, or even realizing what he meant, I simply echoed his question. “All the way.” I looked over at Tommy, who seemed to be surprised by my request.
“Well, let’s get rid of this mop, then.” The barber smirked, as he brought the slender machine to my forehead. The sound it made was different from the others in the room, higher pitched and angrier. I felt the bare blades bite into the long hair that covered my face, and then quickly slide over the top, the cold air instantly apparent as my scalp lost its covering.
For a few seconds, all I could see was hair falling past my face, sliding down the cape and onto the linoleum tiles. Then, with the veil of hair suddenly missing, I looked up to see my reflection in the mirror.
If I thought my brother’s head was bald, mine was truly skinned. The light blonde color of my hair aside, I could actually see the reflection of the fluorescent lights in the shiny surface of my scalp.
I laughed, and if I hadn’t been so shocked by the image, I would have enjoyed it more. The entire top of my head was bare, and I resembled some bald old man.
Reacting to my amused giggle, the barber paused. “Maybe I should leave it like this, huh, Steve?” The barber joked with the one running a razor around my brother’s ears. “What do you think, Max?”
All kidding aside, he continued with the clippers, peeling the back and sides of my head as efficiently as he had the top.
“I do love these new trimmers.” The barber commented, as the last of my hair cascaded to the floor. “Cut as close as a blade.” He ran a hand up the side of my head, feeling a slight resistance. “Well, almost, Max. Let’s get you polished up then, what do you say?”
All I could do was nod as he dispensed a generous dollop of foam from a machine on the counter and spread it over my entire head. “Boy, your momma’s in for a shock when she sees you.” He chuckled, as he artistically carved the foam from my scalp.
“You have no idea.” I finally mumbled.
“Well, you won’t be needing another haircut this summer, that’s for sure.” He pointed out, as he finished the last strip with a flourish. “One last thing.” He dipped his fingers into a tub of white goo and spread it over my head, rubbing it in. The feel of his fingers on my scalp was strangely pleasant, and I couldn’t wait to feel it for myself.
He grabbed a cloth from the counter and began rubbing my head, like he might have been polishing the fender on his Buick. After a minute, he was satisfied and stepped out of the way, allowing me to see myself in the mirror. Not only was my head completely bald, it was shiny bald. I slipped my hand out from under the cape and ran it over the top, surprised by the glass smooth surface.
“That short enough for you, kid?” The barber asked with a grin, displacing my hand with his own as he scruffed the naked skin a few times. I felt the cape slip away, as the last of my hair fell silently to the floor. “Look at the mess you made of my floor.” He laughed. “Tell you what, Max; you sweep it up, and I won’t charge you for the shave.”
Amused, my brother looked on as I grabbed the broom from the corner and swept up my own silken curls, depositing them in the trash. It was a bit humiliating, but at that age, I just shook it off as a little weird.
Tommy left the barber with the twenty anyway, paying for both our haircuts and a tip to boot. As we made our way home, he couldn’t help but run his hand over my head, something I’d been doing rather continuously. “Madeline Schuster, you look awesome, but Mom is absolutely going to kill you.”
Needless to say, I lived through the harrowing experience of my mother’s scorn. She almost fainted when she saw me, and has never let me forget it, either. I went through that summer bald as a coot and loved every minute of it. By the time school started in the fall, I had what anyone might call a brush cut. Thankfully, my father seemed to warm up to the look and, much to my mother’s dismay, began bringing me along when he took Tommy to Keller’s.
I never shaved my head to the bone again, settling on a short bald fade, which I have worn to this day. Of course, it wouldn’t take a lot of convincing to go ‘all the way’ again. Maybe next time.