A woman walked into the salon. Mateo, a new hairdresser, observed what appeared to be separately dyed chunks of hair, each strand moving independently so that the whole had an effect of a dark crazy nimbus around her face. For some reason, no one seemed to notice, but he was working on the rougher side of town now, having struggled to find an opening. Maybe a lot happened without notice or comment.
No doubt he would be assigned to the striped headed woman being that he had more of the walk in clients. As he finished with the client in his chair he briefly mused on the challenge of his afternoon: This once trendy way of dying large swaths of hair in contrasting colors to jarring effect was going by the wayside, and thank God. He had seen it work for a few regal beauties. But for the average person: Quel dommage!
He tried to honor the customers who wanted extreme hair dyes, but he always found himself secretly compromising with expressed wishes when it came to actually applying color. He always told himself they would be amazed at how becoming his magic would be and they wouldn’t mind he altered their plans ever so slightly. And usually, he was correct. A few light streaks in strategically located places around the face and crown and they looked ten years younger, brighter, smarter. And no walking around town with a Ringling circus tent for hair, not on his watch.
At last he had the wild haired woman – whose name he learned was Willa – on his chair, hair bouncing on her head long after she sat still. He grabbed for his readers on the dresser of his station. He needed them to do the detailed work he expected of himself. Having situated them on his nose he saw something most unexpected: Willa’s hair was full of life because her hair was indeed alive. The chunks of hair weren’t individually dyed, they were each an independently writhing and hissing snake! Mateo jumped in alarm as if bitten. His heart was racing. And he almost fell to the floor. But he maintained enough composure to hold up a finger indicating “just a moment” as he raced to the bathroom.
He threw up his lunch, the leftovers from the dinner his partner, Ray, had made him the night before. His throat and nose burned and he washed out his mouth and splashed water on his face. He gazed at himself intently in the mirror. Often when he did this he could imagine Ray’s soft brown eyes looking back at him. And he saw them now, encouraging him, believing in him. He needed this job. Desperately. The whole of their lives hinged on his resourcefulness.
He stole out of the back door of the shop and drove to the bait and tackle to fetch a container of crickets. From years of fishing with his dad, he knew where to buy them and he knew from Ray, who kept their garden, this is one thing many of the nonpoisonous ones liked to eat. Ray kept for them a beautiful garden full of plants they used every day, roses, citrus. But Mateo’s father had cut off all contact.
In the back room at the salon, he managed to get all the crickets into a hair dryer cap, having sealed off the tube that attached to the dryer. And then he worked the cap over Willa’s head, trying not to think of anything but Ray’s soft brown eyes, even as the snakes were whipping his hands and arms. And at last, there was less and less movement under the cap as the snakes sated themselves. Willa seemed happier and more satisfied too. Now he could talk to her in peace.
“How did you come to have snakes for hair?” he said, watching her face, trying to determine what was going on.
But Willa didn’t speak, or she was unable to tell him. She looked at the floor.
He brought her the lemonade Ray made for him every day specially with lemons from their garden. He was right in guessing this would help. When she seemed open to talking, he arranged to make special visits to her home for what he jokingly told her was “the cricket cure.” He saw her smile, just a little, and he knew he had a client.
He and Ray began visiting every Saturday, bringing their little dog Matt Junior.
Until one weekend, they arrived at her home to discover her head was full of hair instead of writhing serpents. And at last Mateo found out the cause of the poor woman’s affliction: She had been attacked on a Sunday as she was coming back from church. The attacker must have been watching her for some time and knew her schedule and when she would be most vulnerable. He dragged her out into the garden, and her house, being remote from neighbors, meant no one could hear her or see what was going on. She was raped in her garden. And her grief in the months following resulted in an unruly head.
It had been a year since the tragedy and Mateo and Jay were helping her to feel like herself again.
The first day of Willa’s normal hair, Mateo smiled in the good lady’s sunny kitchen, a glass of wine in one hand and a handful of Willa’s healthy hair in the other. “It’s time to get back to gorgeous,” he said, and he put down his wine and began to section off her hair for his signature radiant style.