Sweet Sixteen by Shornlocks
Patti knew that she and her mother were in dire straits. For the past four years they had lived week to week off her mother’s paychecks from the three part-time jobs she held, and while things were never “comfortable” financially, at least they had never had to worry about keeping a roof over their heads or food in their stomachs.
But now, ever since Garland Realty had taken over the trailer park that Patti and her mother lived in, things had gone from bad to worse. The final straw came last week, when Garland Realty sent out a notice to all the park’s tenants that the cost of annual leases would rise by $200 per unit. In Patti and her mother’s case, the increase needed to be paid in full by the first of next month — the start of the new lease year — or else they’d have to pay monthly rent at the park instead of being allowed to lease. As the monthly rate added up to nearly $1500 per year more than the lease, it meant that Patti’s mother would either have to come up with the $200 or plan on moving out within a few months.
Patti knew that moving out of the trailer park would mean even more trouble. The park, however overcrowded and rowdy it became on weekends, was located on a major transportation route that enabled her mother to get to work at her jobs. The family hadn’t been able to afford a car since Patti’s father left them nearly five years ago, and jobs weren’t the easiest thing to find in this rural part of northern New England. “I’ve got to find a way to come up with that money,” thought Patti. “If I don’t, we’re one step closer to being homeless.”
Patti thought about it long and hard for the next two weeks, but to no avail. It was now the 25th of the month, and she and her mother had only five days left in which to come up with the money. Her mother had worked a few extra hours last week at one of her jobs, but it was nowhere near the $200 they needed to secure their housing for the next year. It wasn’t until she was sitting in her sophomore study hall at school one day that she realized the answer was sitting right in front of her.
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Like Patti, Julie and Bridget Ashcroft were juniors at Franklin High School, but they may as well have been from another planet. The Ashcroft twins were the daughters of Hugh and Jessica Ashcroft, owners of practically every major business in the county. The Ashcrofts owned the biggest house in town, and Julie and Bridget had always gotten special treatment in the town’s school system. Patti had never particularly liked the girls and their snooty attitudes, so she surprised even herself by having the guts to approach them following study hall.
“Bridget? Julie? Could I talk to you for minute?”
“Well, if it isn’t Patti Wilson,” said Bridget condescendingly. “What’s the matter, do you want me to talk to my father about getting your mother a FOURTH job?” Bridget and Julie giggled cruelly at their little joke, but Patti held firm.
“No, but I DID want to ask you a favor,” she said calmly and with as much dignity as she could to the Ashcroft twins. “I was wondering if I could borrow some money from the two of you. I’d… I’d be happy to pay you back over the summer when I’m able to work full-time.”
Bridget and Julie looked straight at one another in shock before they burst out laughing. Now it was Julie’s turn to gloat. “YOU want to borrow money! And just how do you think you’re going to repay it? You know there are no summer jobs around here. What do you think’s gonna happen… the Money Fairy gonna put it under your mother’s trailer?” Julie and her twin sister resumed their laughter while Patti felt her resolve begin to slip away.
“Well… Well…” stammered Patti, “maybe there’s something of mine that’s worth it to you.”
“What could you POSSIBLY have that we’d want?” shot back Bridget, not with sarcasm but with real venom. “My father could buy and sell you and your mother outright. Come on Julie, let’s get out of here and away from this… this… TRASH!”
“Wait a minute Bridget,” said her sister. “Maybe we’ve been too harsh on little Patti here. Maybe there IS something of hers we want. Say…. something that we could wear for our Sweet 16 party next month.”
Bridget honestly had no idea what her sister was talking about, until she noticed Julie’s eyes fixated on Patti’s thick mane of chestnut brown hair. Bridget and Julie, although pretty, had always been somewhat self-conscious about their hair. It was the same shade as Patti’s, but nowhere near as thick or as long. The girls had tried growing it long for years, but for some reason it always looked lifeless and stringy instead of the thick, luscious look they were after. They had finally both decided to keep it in a bob, where its thinness wasn’t so noticeable. As much as the girls hated to admit it, Patti Wilson’s hair was much, much better than their own.
It took Patti several moments to realize what they were talking about, and then she wished to God she hadn’t.
“Yeah,” said Bridget as she reached out a hand toward Patti’s long silky locks, “I suppose we may have just found the hair we’ll need to do our weaves next month.
Patti took an involuntary step backward. She couldn’t tell for certain whether the twins were joking with her, but her hunch was that they weren’t.
“Just how much were you looking to borrow?” said Julie.
“$500” blurted out Patti before she even realized she had said it. Patti’s mind had seemed to have created the lie in order to protect her most prominent physical attribute, the 2-foot mane of shiny, super-soft hair that tumbled down to the middle of her back. There was no way even the Ashcroft girls would pay such a huge price for something so… so insignificant as hair; even hair so thick and gorgeous as her own.
“Sold!” said Julie without even batting an eyelash. “Come to our house tomorrow night at 7:00. My mother will see to it that you leave with a cute short cut… something that may even flatter you once you get used to it.”
Bridget and Julie turned and walked away before Patti could even react to what had just happened. She couldn’t believe it. Were the twins so stupid, so… high and mighty to think that she would just SELL them her hair because she needed the money? “All that money and status must have affected their brains over the years,” she thought, “not even the Ashcrofts can be THAT dumb!”
But as much as she wished she could dismiss the idea out of hand, Patti found herself struggling mightily with it all night. The $500 would allow her and her mother to not only live in the trailer park for another year, but perhaps even to put a downpayment on a car; a car that her mother could use to get a better paying job down at the big food processing factory in Springfield. A job like that would mean that her mother could quit two, and possibly even all three, of her part-time jobs. Patti began to feel like she was being selfish. Her mother had worked 60- and 70-hour weeks for years to support her after Patti’s father left, without so much as a single complaint. She was always there for Patti when she needed her. “But… But this is my HAIR we’re talking about!” thought Patti, as a small tear made its way down her face.
Patti went through the next day at school as if she were in a fog. Even her mother had noticed her inability to focus that morning, having asked Patti two or three times whether something was on her mind. Each time Patti lied, saying that her mind was just on a test she had coming up today at school.
Once at school, Patti studiously avoided the Ashcroft girls all day. Today was Friday, and maybe if she didn’t see them today, all would be forgotten come Monday. But then she thought to herself: “Yeah, and so will the opportunity to earn $500.”
The 2:30 bell at the end of school brought to a close what seemed to Patti like an interminable day. Patti kneeled down and quickly threw the last of her schoolbooks into her locker. She was getting ready to stand up and head for the door when she sensed a couple people hovering over her.
“Don’t forget, Patti. Our house, 7:00” said Bridget, with her sister Julie in tow. Bridget pulled out a wad of $100 bills — five in all — so that Patti could see them clearly. “Tell you what,” said Bridget as she pulled out a small pair of scissors from her purse, “we’ll give you a hundred dollar downpayment right now if we can snip a little of this off,” reaching down to touch Patti’s hair.
Patti quickly stood up, slammed her locker shut and stormed out the school door. “Those Ashcroft bitches will just have to learn that money can’t buy everything” she muttered under her breath.
As she stood on the front porch of the Ashcroft house at 6:55 that evening, Patti honestly couldn’t recall how she had spent the past four hours, so consumed was she with the decision over whether or not to go through with this. She was all set to turn around and run as fast as she could from the Ashcroft house when the door opened.
“Well hello… you must be Patti Wilson,” said Mrs. Ashcroft, with what seemed like sincere friendliness. “Come on in. Julie and Bridget have told me so much about you.”
Patti allowed herself to be let into the Ashcroft residence. Stepping into the parlor, Patti thought she had never seen a more beautiful house.
“Bridget! Julie! Your friend Patti is here!” called Mrs. Ashcroft up the grand staircase. As though they had been waiting at the top of the stairs all evening (for perhaps they had!), Bridget and Julie Ashcroft came bounding down the stairs, barely able to contain their excitement. “Hello Patti,” the girls said in unison, without event the slightest hint of disdain or degradation that characterized all their interactions with Patti at school. “Won’t you come into the living room?”
For the next twenty minutes, Patti endured what had to be the strangest conversation of all time. After bringing Patti some iced tea, Mrs. Ashcroft proceeded to declare how wonderful it was that her daughters had such good friends like Patti, friends who knew how important next month’s Sweet 16 party was to her daughters, and who were willing to “help out.” The mood was made weirder by the fact that Bridget and Julie sat quietly on the couch the whole time, nodding politely and agreeing that Patti was the best friend the girls could possibly have.
“Well,” said Mrs. Ashcroft as conversation began to wane, “shall we move this affair into the next room?” Bridget and Julie agreed that they should, and politely escorted their friend Patti to what appeared to be Mr. Ashcroft’s den, where a folding chair had already been set up in the middle of the room. “Don’t worry dear,” Mrs. Ashcroft said to Patti as she pulled a pair of scissors and a cape from out a desk drawer. “Mr. Ashcroft is away on business, and shan’t mind if we use his space.”
Using Mr. Ashcroft’s space was about the least of Patti’s concerns. Concern number one at this point was the big pair of scissors the weird old woman was holding in her hand. Patti couldn’t believe it. Here she was about to take her seat in the folding chair, at which point the loooovley Mrs. Ashcroft here would start cutting into her long mane with those wicked looking shears. For the first time all night Patti felt herself coming to her senses. She was about to speak up and call this whole thing off when, out of the corner of her eye, she saw Bridget and Julie watching her closely. As her mother’s back was turned, Julie flashed the five $100 bills from beneath her blouse, gently imploring Patti with her eyes and mouth to go ahead and sit in the chair. For the briefest of moments, Patti actually felt bad for Julie and her sister. It was clear they desperately wanted Patti’s hair, and the only way they could get it was the same way they had gotten everything else in life, not through being real people with real friends and real emotions, but through money.
Whether this was really the way Patti felt, or whether it was just a thought that her mind had used to occupy itself while Mrs. Ashcroft wrapped the cape around her neck, Patti would never know. The next thing she was aware of was the feel of Mrs. Ashcroft’s thin, bony hands gathering up a long section of hair from the right side of her head.
“Don’t worry about a thing, Dear. I’ve given many a short haircut to girls like you, and not one has ever come back to me to complain.”
Just as the words that would bring this craziness to an end were about erupt from Patti’s throat, she heard the SHHH…SHHH…SHHH…SHHHNIIIIIIIK! of the scissors hacking through and finally separating the beautiful section of hair. In a daze, Patti saw the old woman’s hand pull away from head, clutching a thick fistful of the girl’s chestnut brown locks. She noticed for the first time Julie standing beside her, and saw Mrs. Ashcroft pass the handful of 20-inch-long cut tresses to her daughter. As Patti felt Mrs. Ashcroft’s hand begin to gather up more hair from the side of her head, she saw Julie grab the fistful of cut hair at both ends and hold it out horizontally over what appeared to be two cafeteria trays placed on Mr. Ashcroft’s desk. She watched in horror as Bridget, holding an even bigger pair of scissors than the ones her mother had, came up and began severing the already cut section of hair into two equal parts.
Patti couldn’t tell whether the cutting she heard was from the right side of her head, from which Mrs. Ashcroft had just severed another long rope of her supersoft hair, or from over by the desk, where out of the corner of her eye she could see Bridget tearing into the first batch of hair with the scissors. Patti figured the cutting had occurred simultaneously, for she saw Julie place each section of the now 10-inch hair onto one of the cafeteria trays before accepting a fresh handful of hair from her mother.
In shock, Patti watched and listened as the Ashcroft assembly line denuded the right side of her head. Mother Ashcroft would hack off big fistfuls of Patti’s thick hair and hand them over to Julie, who would then expose the silky 20-inch sections to Bridget, who would further chop the ill-fated tresses into equal 10-inch parts with her own huge pair of scissors. Julie would then place the equal parts onto each of the trays, where there had already begun to accumulate an impressive mound of hair.
Patti noticed for the first time that she could see a reflection of herself in the base of the big brass lamp on the desk. It was like looking at herself in a funhouse mirror because the base of the lamp was curved, but she gazed at her reflection while Mrs. Ashcroft gathered up a long section of hair from the crown of her head. She heard the cutting begin just above her forehead, and stared at her reflection in the lamp as the scissors hacked their way straight backward. It was hard to tell how much hair Mrs. Ashcroft was leaving on her head because of the weird proportions created by the lamp, but Patti estimated it to be little more than an inch. She would later find that she had been remarkably accurate.
When the right side and top of her head had been sheared, Mrs. Ashcroft asked Bridget to come and help her take off the rest of Patti’s mane. “You two can do that later,” she said, referring to the secondary chopping of Patti’s locks, “we need to make sure that this young girl gets home at a reasonable hour.”
The clipping of Patti’s head thus proceeded in earnest. Mrs. Ashcroft began lifting and cutting away at the hair covering Patti’s left ear, while Bridget started energetically attacking the thick 2-foot-long wall of hair on the back of her head. The clicking of both pairs of scissors now filled the room, perhaps sounding louder to Patti because they were both now hacking away within inches of her head. Several more cafeteria trays had appeared, and it was Julie’s job to stand between Bridget and her mother, holding out a fresh tray so that Patti’s superlong locks could be piled onto it. When one tray became full of hair, Julie would get another, and another, and another. Patti watched as Bridget and her mother carefully laid her shorn locks onto the tray, doing as best they could to lay out the snipped ends evenly atop one another (presumably so that the hair could then be cut and distributed more equitably… “No fighting girls!” she could hear Mrs. Ashcroft say after she left, “there’s plenty there for the both of you!”)
Patti didn’t know exactly how long it had taken to cut off all her hair, but she figured the ordeal was over when she heard the clicking of the scissors stop. She looked at the seated figure in the lamp’s reflection. She knew it was her, but it was still unrecognizable. Patti had had long hair since she was a child. The figure in the reflection looked like one of those little boys you see leaving the barber shop every spring with their fathers, the kids rubbing their heads in search of all the hair that used to be there.
Little did Patti know how good an analogy this would be. She jumped at the CLICK! and BZZZZZ of the electric clippers when Mrs. Ashcroft turned them on. Patti watched in silent resignation as the old woman attached what looked like a 1/4-inch guard onto the clipper blades. “Sorry about this Patti. I was leaving you at least a good inch of hair, but Bridget here seems to have gotten a little scissor-happy on the back. I think I can even everything out with this, though.”
Patti felt Mrs. Ashcroft gently push her head around as she guided the clippers along every contour of her head. Thick snippets of pretty brown hair, in lengths generally ranging from tiny slivers to some that were nearly an inch, rained down onto the cape covering her chest and shoulders. The biggest snippets came when Mrs. Ashcroft stuck the clippers on Patti’s forehead and pushed them up and over toward the back, causing her three-inch bangs to tumble down her face. In between passes of the clippers, Patti could hear the sound of scissors hacking through long hair. Apparently Bridget and Julie couldn’t even wait until she left to divide up the rest of the spoils.
Just as the clippers were getting pleasingly warm against her head, a loud CLICK! signaled the end of her haircut. Mrs. Ashcroft carefully folded up the cape so as not to get a lot of hair snippets on her husband’s carpet, took Patti by the hand and began leading her toward the front door. “It’s been such a pleasure meeting you Patti. I’m so glad my children have friends like you. Please come back again, won’t you?”
Patti found herself standing along on the Ashcroft family porch. Bridget and Julie hadn’t said goodbye. She could see through the window that they were too busy chopping up the last of her hair into equal portions. It occurred to her as she turned and walked down the porch steps that she hadn’t even gotten her money.