The old fingers just don’t work right anymore, she had thought, when she left her place beside the chair and dryers after almost thirty-five years. Perms, styling, simple trims, she had been fast and she had been good. She bought out the prior owner of Anapole’s, Anna, and decided not to change the name. Berthapole’s just wouldn’t sound as chic. She had phased out of practice by keeping a few of her regulars for a while, as she “leased chairs” to added operators. She still scheduled clientele appointments, set prices and operating policies for the “Shoppe”. Bertha managed the flow, and kept a contracted share of each operator’s profits.
There were now twelve chairs and operators, her girls, eleven girls and Henri, that is. Henri had signed on about three months ago; he wore a name badge and a sign at his station that identified him as Henri Toulouse, although the partially obscured operator license had been issued to Henry Burroughs. A little pencil-thin moustache swept out from beneath his nose over two inches to either side, waxed to a dainty curl at each end. An artist’s smock, delicate purple, and a matching beret added to his planned impression. He injected a few careful French phrases now and then to impress his growing clientele. A high school teacher had tried to chat with him in French while in his chair. Henri protested, “Non, non, Madame! I am speaking only English in America”
He had signed his rental contract as Henry Burroughs, and had an Oregon driver’s license to match. Bertha had leased the chair to him with clear emphasis, “I don’t care what you call yourself, but you keep your private life separate from the shop, and no funny business.” She phoned several of the references he had offered, from some small town in Nebraska. He joked to her that he had once walked past a French restaurant in Omaha.
She enjoyed watching him work; work the ladies, that is. He was slowly improving as a stylist, small nimble fingers, a good eye, but still a good bit slower that most of the veteran operators in the shop. But he was a master at dealing with the older women, who Bertha had begun steering to his chair. The most vivid in her memory was that day she scheduled Mrs. W. for him. Mrs. W. was the wife of the mayor of a small nearby town, both of which shall remain nameless here. Mrs. W had earlier found several of the other operators in the shop so far below her requirements.
Perhaps Henri, Bertha had suggested, and heard a heavy sigh through the phone. Mrs. W said, “I’ll give Henri a try.”
Mrs. W came into the shop more than five minutes late as was her custom and glared, daring anyone to be in Henri’s chair. As she stomped to his station, he removed his beret, held it to his chest and said, “Madame, you came!”
“Yes, and I need you to be quick. The mayor will be waiting for me in his office.” She settled awkwardly into Henri’s chair.
“But, of course. You wished only a comb out, I believe.” He carefully smoothed the smock about her shoulders, allowing his knuckles to brush lightly on each side of her neck as he reached for the ties. “We’ll be, how you Americans say, be quickly.” But I want for you only perfection, Madame. You must be ready for the ball.”
When she snorted rudely he protested, “Oh, but you must. You must stay always so young.” He reached for his comb and brush, and stepped behind the chair. He stared into the mirror at her eyes for too long until she looked up and gritted, “What is it now?”
In a low voice, he murmured, “Your eyes! Ah, if you only had more time. Perhaps another time we can capture that.”
“What are you saying? Go ahead. Tell me what you would do.” A short pause, “Tell me, Henri.”
Henri chanced a careful wink at Bertha and said, “But it is most expensing. No, no, I mustn’t. And the procedure takes an added hour. Let’s do it when you have the time. I would love to see us do a graduated tint, a gentle blush of color to match those marvelous eyes. It will move from a tiny pin point over your left eye and shading to a full two inches wide over the right ear. So dramatic it would be!” His hands were sweeping as though dancing to music, and her eyes were following his every movement.
“I have time,” she said, “Do it! The mayor can wait.”
“But, but,” Henri gasped as though shocked. “”Don’t you think we should wait until we have more time? And I have other appointments.”
After a studied pause, he said, “Let me check with the manager. Perhaps she can move them to someone else, or schedule them to another day.”
He moved to Bertha’s desk and asked, “How’s your sportin’ blood/? I watched and you heard the whole thing. I don’t have any more appointments until after four, do I?” He was flailing both arms in apparent argument.
Bertha shook her head as though protesting, but whispered, “I have good liability insurance, and I don’t care if the witch ever comes back. Go for it. If she sues, I’ll just ship you back to Nebraska.”
Two hours later Mrs. W. had a new hairdo, the shop was almost two hundred dollars richer, and Mrs. W. had demanded an appointment for next week, but only with Henri.