Thomas Eugene McNamara is a friend of mine. He related this story to me over several drinks one night, following the death of a mutual friend and co-worker. It seemed odd that a funeral would be cause for such thoughts, or memories, but we, as human beings, take strength from others.
For all of you who share the passion, I can only hope there’s a Danielle in your lives… This story is for Vyv.
It’s funny what acts as a memory trigger. “The mind will figure out everything, except itself,” I remember learning many years ago in a College Psychology class.
In July of 1998, I attended the funeral of Dennis Biggs, a close friend from childhood. At age 43, dead of prostate cancer. Strange how our past sins have a way of catching up with us I remember thinking as I left the funeral service that day. And stranger still were the other memories that had been re-kindled from attending the service.
Dennis was a successful high-tech Corporate executive pulling in 6 figures a year. He had struggled, like most of us, on the way up, but became a “self-made man” nonetheless. It was a source of great amusement (for both of us), to ponder what went through the minds of prospective, young, up-and-comers, as the youngsters would consider the fact that they had an appointment to see “Mr. BIGGS!” (Dropping the “s’ at the end of the name, of course…)
Dennis was as generous as he was driven, and took more then one green pea beneath his wing over the years.
43 sounds like a very young age to die. But I never felt the slight at the wake, or the funeral, or the service itself as the Priest intoned his virtues. For I knew that Dennis had paid his dues, served his Country as an Air Force Computer technician for 4 years, and received a Business degree (cum laude, no less) from the University of California.
A monthly vacation during the summer of the 13 years prior to his last encompassed something exciting, vibrant, challenging, and dangerous. He’d taken the Lewis and Clark Kayak trip, expeditions to the Outback in Australia and the Tundra in Alaska.
Though Dennis and I had grown up together, through our freshman year of High School, his family moved across the County in Dennis’ Sophomore year. We would see each other a couple dozen times between High School and his death. They were all happy occasions, like parties or holidays, or his wedding, but, unfortunately, we had drifted apart, as so many childhood friendships are apt to do.
Yes, Dennis had led a good life. So I took solace from that as I sat in the Church, looking around at the hundred and fifty mourners and family assembled.
As I looked around the congregation, I was taken with one woman in particular. She sat with Dennis’ mother, Angela, and his brother, Ben, neither of whom I’d seen in over 10 years since his wedding. She was tall, very striking looking, with incredible chiseled features, and a perfect complexion. Her deep red hair was in one of the most feminine and beautiful up-dos I’d seen in the last few years. Partially hidden by a black veil did not diminish the vision I had of this woman.
My mind began racing, almost frantically, trying to remember where I had seen this woman before, or even if I had seen her before.
Seconds ticked in my mind to a point where I was so engrossed with the mental search that I felt myself flush, and the sound of the Priest’s voice trailed off into the distance.
I began trying to be analytical… she is seated next to Dennis’ family. Surely that must be a clue.
Suddenly, the sharp wire of thought pierced my memory’s eye… could it be this was Dennis’ sister, Danielle? Was it possible? I hadn’t seen her in 30 years, since she was a lanky, clunky, 16 year-old girl. It couldn’t be….
But it was.
From where I sat in relation to her, she would not have been able to see me, without turning completely around and looking over her right shoulder. She was obviously grief-stricken and with her family, as well as her in-laws, although she retained a quiet dignity and grace which intensified my attention to her.
And that’s when it happened. A flashback, so vivid and real in my memory that it was as if a time machine had transported me to August of 1968. My mind became a whirling torrent of thoughts, visions, memories. All inter-connected and entangled, as if from a whirlpool forcing them together. As quickly as it had jumbled, it stabilized.
I found myself walking through the old haunts of my youth. A warm summer afternoon, wearing shorts, a T-shirt, and sandals….
It was a time of great enlightenment and discovery. For a 14-year-old coming of age in the late 60’s, the “Summer of love” had been a great eye-opener. Now, a year following that auspicious summer was giving way to bigger and more important things. I would be starting High School in 2 weeks and there were all kinds of things I needed to do. Back to school shopping, clothes, supplies.
The School’s welcome orientation would occur in a week, and there I’d be given my schedule, my locker, a tour of the Campus, a Senior “contact” who would help me through my first difficult days of the Freshman Fall Semester (as I remembered it years later, he gave me his home phone number and, basically, told me: “Keep your mouth shut, don’t try and pick up any girls in their Junior or Senior year, and don’t call ME unless you’ve been marked for death by the Football team.”)
Sage advice. The Senior was a running back on the football team and three times my size.
As I walked along, looking around, (and in the dream of this memory I was a participant, looking through my own eyes, not just an observer) a voice from the distance solidified. The words, first nothing but a Mosquito buzz in my ears became fully audible.
“TOM!” a voice next to me loudly exclaimed.
I looked to my right to see Dennis, a tanned cherub of a boy with a shock of thick, brown hair, looking at me quizzically.
“Did you hear what I said?” he asked.
“Yea, I heard ya,” I replied. “So did every moose up in Canada. What now?”
“We better get the haircuts out of the way while it’s still early. I don’t want to go back to school looking like I’ve been scalped,” he suggested.
“My Aunt Zoë is on Vacation until just after Labor Day,” I said. “I don’t know where else to go. She’s the barber I’ve been going to for years.”
“I really don’t want to have white walls when we go back to school. Two weeks should be enough time to let it grow out some. There’s a new place that just opened at the Mall. I think it’s the ‘Ram’s Horn’. We can go there. It’s a 4-chair shop. We can get in and out quick. It’s only 10 am. There won’t be a crowd…”
“OK,” I reluctantly agreed, and as we walked, I found myself in front of Dennis’ house.
“I’ll be right back,” Dennis said, as he ran inside the house, to appear moments later with his sister, Danielle.
“OK, let’s get gone,” Dennis said, as we walked to his garage where our bicycles were.
To my amazement, Danielle, who everyone called ‘Dani’, got on her bike, too. I remembered it all so acutely. She had a Schwinn 5-speed bike, in this beautiful blue. As we rode down the driveway together, Dani smiled at me sheepishly.
“What’s up, Dani?” I asked. “Coming with us?”
“My Mom wants to make sure you guys get over to the shop OK,” she answered. “I’ve got stuff to do so we’ll meet afterwards.”
Dani Biggs was a tall (5-8), lanky (maybe 100), sort of klutzy tomboy, who, at 16, was beginning to blossom from puberty into young adulthood. She had pretty skin, piercing blue eyes, and the most beautiful red hair I’d ever seen. It was full, and thick, with a slight sheen to it in the sun that almost sparkled. She wore it between shoulder- and chin-length short, almost always back in a stubby pony tail, and the hair on her neckline would form perfect little corkscrew curls.
Unlike most boys of our age and that era, neither Dennis or I ever made fun of Dani, chided her, or treated her with anything less then common courtesy. She never seemed to fall into that “older sister/kid brother” attitude, and even Dennis’ brother, Ben, who was the oldest (at 19) was never less then cordial, even when he was mad at Dani.
Dani, despite her awkwardness, got along with everyone.
I remember pulling into the Mall on our bikes, locking them up at the rack, and walking the four or so store fronts to the barbershop. I remember walking in and feeling how cool the air-conditioned shop was, and how pleasant, in comparison to the mid-90s it was outside. There were three of the four chairs occupied, and the fourth chair not in use for the morning. Mel, the owner, had taken the day off, we were told.
Dennis and I both asked how long a wait, were told, “Just a few minutes,” and I remember being so hot and sweaty that I went to the bathroom to throw cold water on my face.
I emerged a few minutes later to find Dennis climbing into one of the chairs, and Dani seated in a waiting chair. I sat down next to her, and began to ask: “So, Dani, are you…” and before I could finish the question, the barber at the far side of the shop snapped his white and black-pinstriped cape, looked at Dani, and said: “Hey, Red, you’re next.” It wasn’t a command, just a businesslike invitation. Only Dani and I were in the waiting chairs, and I had dark blonde hair. I knew he wasn’t talking to me.
I sat, transfixed, and paralyzed, not knowing what to do. I figured if I waited for a few seconds, she’d speak up and say something like “No thanks,” or tell me to go instead.
My paralysis turned to a sudden wave of nausea, light headedness, and chilled excitement, as, without a word, Dani rose, pulled her ponytail out of the rubber band which held it, and walked simply and nonchalantly to the waiting, red, Koken barber chair. I’ll never forget the view from behind, as she sauntered to that chair, her tight buttocks pushing against the cut-off blue jeans, her tanned, long legs so perfectly contoured.
She shook her head as she walked, freeing her hair from its binding completely, and then running her hand through it. Dani sat in the chair in one neat, smooth movement, more like an adult model entering a sleek, low convertible sports car, than a 16-year-old tomboy climbing into that big chair.
I looked at Dennis, who by this time was getting his own hair cut quite quickly and was in no position to do anything himself. He raised his eyebrows and then mouthed the words “I don’t know!” with a puzzled look on his face.
I returned my attention fully to Dani’s chair, where the barber had already caped and neck-stripped her. The barber looked to be in his mid-40s, with a short “Floyd the Barber” salt and pepper moustache and Ivy League haircut of his own.
He began combing Dani’s hair out and getting the feel for it. It did not seem to bother him in the slightest that it was a teenaged girl sitting in his chair as opposed to a boy.
After a few cursory and perfunctory strokes of the comb, he asked: “So, what will it be today, young lady?”
Dani, looking straight ahead in my direction, but not really at me, said: “I want to cut it short, but I don’t want it to be drastic. Can you cut it so it won’t look like a boy’s haircut, but still be short?”
The barber turned the chair to face the mirror. He studied her face for a moment, pulled her hair back tightly to simulate what an extremely close cut would look like, and then offered:
“You have excellent features for short hair. I can cut it into a pixie-type cut, which will leave you some length on top, but will still be nice and short in back and on the sides. I can go shorter than that, but then we’re getting into that “drastic” stage. How’s that?”
Dani sat looking at the mirror and then at the Barber.
“That pixie sounds good. Go ahead and do that.”
The barber picked up his clippers almost immediately. They were the big old-fashioned model 111 that became so popular for that era. He snapped on a blade, picked up a barber’s comb, and turned the clippers on. Lifting the hair on the right side away from her head, the barber began making rapid, long, continuous strokes, removing huge amounts of Dani’s hair so quickly it seemed unreal. The hair came away in large quantities, and Dani’s face began to take shape as the hair was cut to less then half an inch on the sides.
The speed and skill of this barber was amazing… with swift, deft strokes of the whirring clippers, he rapidly transformed the moppish, wavy, red hair to a neat, tapered look within minutes.
As he moved around to cut the back, he tilted Dani’s head ever so slightly to make the angle more reachable. The barber would lift the hair up and away, clip it off, then use short, quick strokes against the undercut hair itself. He trimmed the edge line in as he worked, making the back and sides even more defined.
The corkscrew curls on Dani’s neck were no match for the machine; its teeth gently caressed them, leaving an only just perceptible stubble behind.
Hair floated gently down to her shoulders, settling on the cape. Dani’s eyes were barely closed, a slight, sweet smile on her face. She appeared to be enjoying the quickness of the cut, but I seemed to be the only one transfixed on her.
No other customers aside from me waited, and the two other barber chairs were occupied by Dennis, and an old man who seemed to be asleep himself. Dennis talked to the barber cutting his hair about baseball, but I could not hear what they were saying.
I remember Dani’s back and sides being done within only a few minutes. When the clippers were turned off, she opened her eyes. She still faced the mirror, unusual for a barbershop, I thought, and her face seemed passive when she looked at her new short hair. Although there was still long hair on the top, the back and sides had been tapered to perfection, even in this rough stage.
The barber sprayed the hair on top with water until it was damp, combed through it until it went straight, and then began scissoring the top. He gathered up section after section with his comb, placing the 3″ wide lines of hair between the fingers of his left hand, and then slicing them off in three, quick, even strokes each time. He was nearly as fast with his scissors as he was with his clippers.
I remember her hair taking shape rapidly; maybe 5-6 minutes passed before the barber was pulling the hair on top with his fingers and tousling it to give it some lift. He made a part in the middle, another one towards the front, and another one towards the back, forming a large letter “I” on the top. The bar towards the front formed Dani’s bangs, which the barber deftly cut just above her eyebrows.
The one at the back on top formed a slightly bouffant-like rise, which, when scissored in through its lower sections, blended perfectly with the back and sides that had been undercut with the clippers. The bouffant-like look was the epitome of the 60’s “pixie” hairdo, and Dani, visible only above the cape, no longer looked like a teenaged tomboy.
For the first time in my life, I began to realize that Dani, like most budding young women, was different in more ways then simple gender. I looked upon her with a profound sense of desire. I know it now, but then, I couldn’t, wouldn’t have known.
I was in love with Dani, the sister of my best friend. It was a haircut that had awakened the desire within me. It had released the passion.
The barber finally, after around 15 minutes of silent shearing, asked her: “How’s this?” He held a hand mirror and moved it around the back so she could see the haircut from all angles.
“I like it,” Dani said, with the same, sweet smile on her face, her eyes bright.
“Let me do a little clean-up here,” said the barber, gently running his fingertips over the back of her neckline. “And we’ll be all done.”
The barber looked at me. I remember the look on his face. If I could draw, I could illustrate it perfectly, because I cannot describe it. To put it simply, the old guy knew. He was obviously someone who’d been around the block a few times. He saw me staring at Dani, wide-eyed. He knew what I was thinking, even though I didn’t even know it then.
If I were to try to put his expression into words, it would be: “You’re enjoying the show, ain’t you, Boy?”
I watched, aroused beyond description as the barber took up a small pair of edging clippers, snapped them on, sending a soft hum into the shop.
“Bend down for me, please?” the barber said as he gently pushed her head forward, and loosened the cape and neck strip from her neck.
He quickly shaved the strays away along the back of her neck, leaving a clean, naturally rounded hairline.
I saw the soft downy fuzz come away without resistance. I saw Dani shudder as the clippers nibbled away at her hairline.
As quickly as it started, it was over.
Within the space of 20 minutes, Dani’s hair had been cut into a soft, feminine, attractive haircut, every bit as short as a boy’s haircut, but with enough volume on top to make her look simply beautiful.
The barber brushed her face, head, and neck with a dusting brush, a soft talcum powder leaving her freshly shaved neck as smooth as a newborn infant’s behind.
I remember being hit with a sense of want, of desire, of demand more intense than anything I had ever felt before.
Dennis’ haircut was being finished up just as Dani walked over to her seat next to mine. As she sat down, I stared at her, unabashedly. I tried to speak, but nothing came out.
“What do you think, Dennis?” she asked as Dennis approached us.
“God, sis,” he stammered. “It’s short. What’s Mom gonna say?”
“Mom said it was OK,” Dani replied. “I asked her if I could get my hair cut too, and she said it was alright.”
“Well,” Dennis said, “I think it looks pretty good. Do you like it?”
“Huh, I don’t really know. It feels good, though,” she said, running her hands through the 3 inches on the top, and pulling the thick bangs away from her face.
“OK, Tiger,” the barber said to me, “You’re next…”
I remember hearing him snap the cape, but I don’t remember getting a haircut that day. In fact, I don’t remember much of anything that day.
I remember several days went by before I was over at Dennis’ house again. I didn’t have the guts to go anywhere near Dani. I didn’t know what I’d say to her. What she’d say to me.
If she smiled that sweet, “I know” smile at me I didn’t think I could handle it. But I did wind up seeing her. When she answered the door, I tried, in my best “no big deal” attitude to deal with the face-to-face meeting I knew was inevitable.
“Hi, Tom,” she greeted. “Dennis is upstairs. C’mon in.”
“Thanks,” I said, entering.
Then it happened. Suddenly, I was hit with the desire, the want, yet again. Seeing the back of Dani’s still shaved neck set me off.
I stammered “Dani, I, I, I wanted to tell you that…”
She stilled my speech by placing her right index fingertip on my lips and saying, “It’s OK. I did it for you.”
My eyes became as wide as saucers. “What?”
“I heard you talking to Dennis last month when you said you always wanted to see what I’d look like with short hair. I heard you tell him you had a crush on me. I did it for you. Do you like what I did?”
I was speechless. How was I to have known I was overheard? How could I even speak in response to this?
I wanted to tell her I loved her. That I cherished her. That I adored her. That I wanted her.
But I was 14 years old with my virtue still intact and naïve to boot.
So, I did what most 14-year-olds do when confronted by overwhelming emotional overload.
Adrenaline is a wonderful thing.
I saw Dennis 2 days later, and he asked me why I had left so suddenly. I told him I hadn’t been feeling well, and that everything was OK now.
When school started, I would see Dani walking around campus, she being a Junior and I a freshman. Sometimes she’d be with her girlfriends, sometimes with a guy. It would kill me to see her with a guy. But life is filled with disappointments.
The next year, the Biggs moved across the County to another School District. I wouldn’t see Dennis for another several months. I wouldn’t see Dani until 30 years later.
She went away to College (Vassar, no less) and married a US Naval Aviator. I knew that she had been widowed three years earlier when his F-14 crashed during a training flight.
I knew she was a successful ad agency executive (seems the entire Biggs family did well in business) and I knew I carried a torch for her, all these years.
As the people filed out of the Church, a hand on my shoulder brought me back to reality. It was a smooth, perfectly manicured hand, free of veins.
It was Dani’s hand. She still wore the same sweet, “I know” smile, although now somewhat somber for the occasion.
“Come with us,” she said.
Several days after funeral, we met again over coffee. After much small talk, I asked her if she remembered that haircut in the summer of 1968.
I began to stammer again, now, as an adult, knowing more then I did then.
“I have to tell you that I…”
Her right index fingertip again silenced my lips. Her eyes bright, her face open, her smile as sweet and beguiling as I remembered.
“I know. I did it for you….”