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Mac Arnett parked his vintage VW in front of Pleasant-ville, West Virginia's only barbershop, but the sign on the door didn't bode well. He got out of the car to read it, hoping it only meant that the barber had taken a short break.
"It's a boy! Grandpa Charley will be back Monday."
Good news for the new grandfather was bad news for Mac. He needed a haircut now, not five days from now, and he'd already checked the phone book. Charley's was the only barbershop in town.
He couldn't go to a job interview looking like a wild man, although that's pretty much what he'd become in his years of overseas missions. He could scrape off his scruffy beard himself, but experience told him that cutting his own shoulder-length hair would be a comic disaster.
The main business district extended for several blocks with bright, striped awnings in front of many of the shops. Big vase-shaped cement planters were empty now, but it was early April, too soon for flowers. He looked in both directions, at a loss what to do next.
Pleasantville was nestled in a valley, the wooded hillsides just beginning to show the green tinge of budding trees. Mac shivered a little, realizing that he needed more than a T-shirt in spite of the bright sunshine. After his time in East Africa, Haiti and Guatemala, he would have to get used to a cooler clime.
He thought of his last mission assignment, rebuilding a church destroyed by a Guatemalan mudslide. He worried about the good people he'd left there, but the church board had recalled him to the States with good reason. After three surgeries in Cleveland on a broken ankle that hadn't been set properly, he was more than eager to answer a new call.
On the surface, Pleasantville seemed to live up to its name, but Mac had grown up not far from here, the son of a dedicated minister. Underneath the cheerful facade, life could be hard for many in the West Virginia hills. The men did grueling, dangerous work in the coal mines with the specter of poverty always present if a mine closed.
At first Mac resisted the idea of continuing his ministry in his own country, but long hours of prayer and contemplation had eased most of his doubts. His faith had been honed by his years of missionary work since graduating from the seminary, and he was ready to serve wherever he could.
First he had to convince a church committee that he was at least partially civilized. It would take more than a new suit and a shave. He had to get rid of the Tarzan look by getting his long mane of dark brown hair cut off.
He started walking down the sidewalk, gratified that the twinge of pain in his ankle wasn't severe anymore. Across the street he saw a particularly colorful awning with pink and yellow stripes. He squinted into the sun and read the sign painted in gold on the large front window: Charlene's Beauty Salon.
He grinned and decided it was worth a shot.
More people were inside the shop than outside on the sidewalks, and ladies in bright pink capes occupied three of the four chairs. Mac went up to a reception desk and waited until one of the beauticians left her client and came up to him.
"What can I do for you today?" she asked with a broad grin that could be interpreted as friendly—or slightly amused, considering that he was the only male in the place.
"Is there any chance of getting a haircut? I tried the barbershop, but it's closed."
"Oh, yeah, Charley finally got a grandson. Bet he's excited. His first four grandkids were girls. Funny isn't it, how boys run in some families and girls in others."
"About a haircut…"
"Sure, we can take you if you don't mind waiting a little while. Jenny, when will you be done?" she called over to a tall willowy young woman wearing the shop's uniform of dark slacks and a pink tunic.
"Ten minutes or so, Charlene," she said with the slight drawl that only a native West Virginian would be likely to detect.
"Have a seat, and Jenny will be with you as soon as she can."
Mac perched on a low chair upholstered in a silvery fabric and took stock of his surroundings. Charlene, probably the owner and boss, was a heavyset woman with yellow hair piled on her head in layers like a wedding cake. The third beautician, combing out tight curls on a blue-haired elderly woman at the rear of the shop, looked as if she'd colored her hair with a crayon, an especially vivid purple one.
Mac had felt more comfortable in a Mayan hut with a dirt floor. The sinks, chairs and work surfaces in the shop were all a glossy black. Everything else seemed to be pink, even the tiles on the floor. He let his eyes wander to the young woman who was going to cut his hair, Jenny. He was good at remembering names, a skill that would serve him well if he was chosen to lead the Pleasantville congregation.
He had a feeling he was in good hands with Jenny. Unlike the other two, she'd left her hair a natural-looking dark honey blond, swept away from her face to fall in waves in back.
With nothing else to do, he found himself studying her face whenever it was turned toward him. Her brow was high and smooth with straight, even eyebrows not plucked too thin. Her face was oval with even features, although her nose was more classical than cute, reminding him of the profile on the ancient Roman coin his father had given to him when he started at the seminary. He used it when he preached about the widow's mite.
"It won't be long now," a melodious voice said, interrupting his musings.
He smiled at Jenny and assured her that he wasn't in a hurry, although in truth, he was eager to get back to his motel room. He needed to shower and shave before his interview, and he hoped for some time to pray and consider his vocation.
He shifted uncomfortably on the chair, wondering whether he'd gotten so used to sitting cross-legged on the ground that it would be hard to get used to furniture again.
Jenny worked quietly, unlike her two coworkers who carried on nonstop conversations while they did their jobs. He was grateful that he'd drawn the least talkative.
He didn't want to say anything about why he was here in Pleasantville, not until he received and accepted a call from the First Bible Church. It would be unprofessional and, worse, he knew how rumors raced through a small town.
Ten minutes passed like an hour, and he tried not to look at his watch too often. At last Jenny escorted her beaming client to the reception desk and checked her out.
"I can take you now, sir," she said.
"Mac, my name is Mac."
He was going to have to get used to being called Reverend Arnett, but he wasn't going to start today.
"I'm Jenny," she said and smiled.
He remembered her name but didn't say so.
"If you'll just take a chair," she said, indicating the one just vacated.
She swept up the hair around her chair with an economy of movement that was both graceful and thorough, then went to a sink at the back to wash her hands.
"Now, what would you like?" she asked, wrapping a strip of paper around his neck, then enveloping him in one of the pink nylon capes and fastening it at the back.
"Short and neat," he said catching a glimpse of his scruffy face in the big mirror in front of him.
What did she see when she looked at him? His blue eyes had dark shadows, souvenirs of several sleepless nights trying to decide whether Pleasantville was the place for him. When had he last shaved? He couldn't remember, but it was going to be a chore to get rid of the beard that always came in darker than his brown hair. Was this a face that a West Virginia congregation would trust to lead them? He thought of his father's silvery gray hair; warm, caring eyes and compassionate face and had his doubts.
"I have to warn you, I haven't cut many men's hair," she said earnestly. "Some of the high school girls were getting really short cuts a few years ago. I'll have to go by that."
"I'm sure you'll do fine."
He caught a glimpse of her eyes in the mirror but failed to decide what color they were. At first he thought they were green, but flecks of yellow and brown threw him off. Maybe they were hazel, he decided for lack of a word to adequately describe them.
"I'll cut for length first," she said, pushing down a plunger on a bottle that he assumed was water since it didn't add to the already pungent smells in the shop.
He watched her hands as she worked, fascinated by the sure snips of her scissors. His hair tumbled to the floor, leaving stray clumps clinging to the cape.
He felt awkward, sitting there swathed in pink in a ladies' beauty parlor, and wasn't sure where to focus his gaze. When he caught her eyes in the mirror, she looked away quickly, so he kept watching her hands. Her fingers were long and slender and unadorned by rings. Of course, she could have taken them off to work, but he didn't see a telltale indentation on her left-hand ring finger. Not that it was any of his concern. He might never see her again, especially if things didn't work out with the church committee.
Jenny hadn't been nervous about a haircut since her first few tries in beauty school, and that had been ages ago. Well, nearly eight years, but sometimes it seemed that she'd been doing hair forever, not that she didn't like her job. Charlene was a fair and considerate boss, and Nadine was fun with her fads and fancies, although she'd perhaps gone too far with purple hair. The older women who patronized the shop were having doubts about Nadine, but she managed to keep busy with younger clients.
Why did she feel odd cutting this man's hair? He was a stranger who'd only come into the shop because Charley's was closed. It was unlikely she'd ever see him again. And he certainly wasn't picky. He'd pretty much left the styling up to her, and she usually had confidence in what she was doing.
Maybe it was because he was watching every snip of her scissors in the mirror, though she couldn't fault him for that. There wasn't anything else to do during a haircut. She would much rather do someone else's hair than have to sit still to have hers done.
"Feels like spring today," he said.
"Warm weather is welcome. We had a hard winter."
She answered automatically, but she did prefer a neutral topic to the gossip that Charlene loved. Jenny sometimes suspected that the business would suffer if it weren't a conduit for all the news in town. With only a weekly newspaper, people relied on word of mouth to know what was going on.
"Do you like the part on the right or left?" she asked, still trying to decide the best way to style it.
He laughed softly. "I can't remember the last time I parted it on either side. You can decide."
What kind of man was indifferent to his looks? In her experience, even the scruffy ones thought they were making some kind of statement by the way they wore their hair. Her ex-brother-in-law once did thirty days in the county jail for DUI. He was furious when the sheriff forced him to get a haircut before he served his time and insulted because the lawman implied that it was to keep lice out of his prison.
The sure way to ruin her day was to start thinking about Duane and the way he'd left her sister, Sandy. She smiled at her client's image in the mirror and concentrated on giving him the best possible cut.
"There, how's that?" she asked, handing him a round hand mirror to see the back.
"Fine, you did a good job."
She hoped he wasn't just being polite. Without knowing anything about him, she'd been hard-pressed to choose between a short, casual cut or something more sophisticated. He had hair a lot of her clients would envy: a warm sable brown with no thinning or split ends. She was satisfied with the style that took advantage of a tendency to curl and hoped he was.
She was good at reading hair and guessed he was in his early thirties. What she couldn't figure out was why he was in Pleasantville. If they were hiring at the mine, Charlene would've been the first to know. Her husband, Ed, was a foreman, and she monitored the employment picture with intensity, worrying about his livelihood and the prospects for her business if it closed.
Jenny removed the pink cape, wishing that her boss had some alternative colors. Of course, most of their male customers were under ten, but some of them were known to protest the "silly" cape.
At the counter, she rang up his payment on a cash register that was fifty years out of date and protested when he added an additional five dollars as a tip.
"Really, it's too much," she said.
"I can't tell you how much I appreciate the cut. I hardly recognize myself." He smiled broadly and left, leaving the five-dollar bill on the counter.
Charlene came up beside Jenny while she waited to do the next step in a perm.
"He sure was handsome," the older woman said in a soft voice. "Wonder what he's doing here?"
"No idea," she replied, shrugging.
Jenny knew her boss—and friend—was angling for some bit of gossip to pass on to other clients, but Charlene knew Jenny wasn't one to pry into other people's business.
"What am I going to do with you?" Charlene teased. "A genuine, living, breathing hunk sets himself down in your chair, and you don't even find out where he's from."
Jenny smiled but shook her head. Charlene meant well, but she was a born matchmaker. She wouldn't rest until she heard wedding bells, but it wasn't going to happen.
Jenny had no intention of ever again being abandoned by a man. She'd expected to marry her high school boyfriend, Jack Henderson, but he'd left town with a promise to keep in touch that he never fulfilled. She'd also suffered along with her mother and her sister when their husbands deserted them, and she could get along fine without a man in her life. As far as she knew, falling for a man only led to a world of hurt.