The strip mall had fewer shops open than closed and the Sunday setting sun couldn't find any shoppers. Long gone businesses had removed their signs some time ago and a few stubborn ones remained to do everything they could to combat the lack of commerce.
Fl-Hair Shop sat at the end of the lot. It was next to a space that used to be a pet store. The salon didn't have a proper sign at all. A banner made with the cheapest font and one color (on white) flapped a little in the frugal breeze.
A jeep with a single passenger tore out of a u-turn and hit the drive to the parking lot with just enough speed to frighten a flock of dirty pigeons.
Reese hit one of the speed bumps, but he really hadn't slowed the jeep down enough to make it not lurch.
Most times, hopping his jeep would give him a light thrill, but this afternoon he was too upset to really notice the bounce below his roll bar. He'd driven clear across town in search of a place to get his haircut. He'd passed lots of other places, but he ignored them in favor of indulging his stress and worry about his upcoming job interview.
He hated hair places that worked too hard at being clever with their names. D'hair to Be Different, Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow, and Hair-Free were fine examples of salon titles that sounded more like long form jokes than places for serious business. He was annoyed to see that the salon he'd arrived to was something quaint called Fl'Hair Shop.
It was complete with a twenty-something woman with dyed hair puffing on a cigarette out in front. The employee's only company was an empty chair and a metal bucket that Reese deduced was for a cigarette butt collection. People who took cigarette breaks in front of their job places annoyed him to no end.
Reese's jeep parked right in front of her while she tapped her new cigarette on the near-empty pack in her hand. The engine trembled to silence and Reese got out of his jeep and slammed the door shut.
"You open?" He called to her and she set her cigarette between her lips.
"That's handicapped," she said and lit up with the end of a match.
Reese looked down at his parking spot and then stepped onto the sidewalk that contained the break chairs. He gave the thin woman a once over there in the orange sunlight. Her red dye job was in desperate need of a touch up. Light freckles were splotched on her flushed face. It looked to him like she had sunburn all up and down her long neck.
"You smoke in your apron? Is that sanitary?"
"I'm wearing sandals too," the woman shrugged and held her feet up for him to see. The red paint on her toenails was chipped and without its glossy sheen. Her smile was already tired of the visitor. "Gonna write me up?"
"How much is this?" He asked and drew a circle in the air that included her and the salon.
"I'm closing in twenty minutes," the stylist said and pursed her lips to inhale more smoke. She seemed more concerned with smoking than making money and the demeanor offended him.
"I just need a trim," he said and approached the salon's glass door. "You'll wash your hands at least first, right?"
He didn't wait for an answer. He just flung the door open and stepped into the salon's unremarkable space. He sighed at the sight of the space. The off-white walls held posters of hairstyles and they'd been hung up without care. They proudly displayed outdated styles with a crooked perspective. The tile floor was the cheapest anybody could find and sported a color less inspired than the walls. It was a lot like the girl smoking out front --neglected on purpose by its owner.
Nobody was in the shop.
She stepped in behind him with her cigarette still burning in her hand.
"Really?" Reese said over his shoulder at her. "You smoke in here?"
"Your not the boss of me," she said and her thin bottom lip dropped some.
He eyed her distant blue eyes and shook his head. "Well, could you not? It stinks."
"Get a magazine then," she said to him and returned to the parking lot.
The door closed behind her and Reese looked at her back while she smoked facing his jeep. She wore baggy shorts that reminded him of the punk rock girls from high school. She wore a camoflodge tank top and he could see the girl's skin was sunburned all up and down the backs of her legs.
He thought about leaving. The girl was rude. The place was dank. She was probably one of those girls who had some college, partied too much, and hurried to catch up when she realized her life was going nowhere and grabbed the last skill she could before her credit was totally destroyed.
Reese really needed his haircut. With Sunday burning itself out fast, his job interview was creeping closer and closer.
He looked at the coffee table and its uneven legs. It was littered in magazines that had out-dated subscriptions. He could also see the lame books with the hairstyles pictured in them. The table was framed without care by chairs that were worse for wear.
He looked out the shop window at the hairstylist.
She was looking at him now and smoking behind the glass.
He was appalled that the girl was going to finish her cigarette even though he was there for business (with money in his pocket). While she held her arm and continued what appeared to be an unearned break, he wondered if he could get a haircut somewhere else in the morning.
His job interview was at ten-thirty. He wasn't sure what time hair shops opened. The painted letters that indicated the Fl-Hair Shop's hours had their numbers scraped off, so there was no way to deduce if such places opened at ten am or sooner. He blinked his tired eyes shut and embraced the lack of information.
He would have to do it here. And she would have to it.
She dropped her still-burning cigarette butt into the sand bucket and blew her last breath of smoke to the sky while she reached for the door. When she stepped inside, he held his ground. He knew the customer was always right and it was a shame that she didn't know it too.
The lady walked right up and invaded his personal space. She was just a hair shorter than he was. The smell on her lips was revolting. How anyone could smoke his or her face in the scent of a nicotine burn was beyond him. It was on her face and stuck in her hair.
He had come up with something clever to insult her, but before he could speak, she put her hands right in his hair and combed it through her fingers.
Reese felt her fingers and they were delicate against his scalp. They weren't clumsy like he'd thought. Light pressure from her fingertips against his scalp actually felt pretty nice. He stared at her expressionless eyes.
"Go to the sink," she said to him and dropped her hands from his head.
He turned and went to the back of the shop. He passed the four hair stations. Each was littered in dryers, combs, and scissors. The mirrors were plastered in personal photographs and health documents.
There was only one sink for washing hair. The weathered seat cover was torn and shedding yellow stuffing.
Reese took a seat and she approached him.
"Do you have another apron? A clean one?" He asked and looked up at her. "One that you haven't marinated in carcinogens?"
It pleased him that he'd saved that particular insult for an even more opportune time. But she spoke over his punch line.
"No, I don't," she said and her expression was a comical shrug. "Lay your head back."
The unclean nature of his surroundings and the girl's disinterest in being clean was getting more and more annoying to Reese.
"This is no way to run a business," he remarked without laying back.
"It's not my business."
"If it was your business, it would be like this. It would be messy like this. It would be lazy like this," he refuted her. "You'd probably run it into the ground because of your lack of consideration for the customer. There'd be ashtrays at the hair stations—"
"There are ashtrays at the hair stations."
"Inconsiderate," he blurted. "And probably illegal."
"Lay back," she said again and reached around herself. She untied her apron and lifted it up and off. She balled her apron in her hand and tossed it to the floor. "Happy now?"
Reese gazed up her camoflodge tank top. Her top smacked of her lazy appearance. This was a girl who probably drank herself into a coma every night and ran out the door without a shower. The obvious bra behind the fabric of the uninspired shirt held her breasts back. Even though they looked like generous handfuls, he wondered if they weren't the type that had hair around the nipples.
"You don't have a girlfriend, do you?" She said with the slightest spec of s.
"That's none of your business," he said after he made a light adjustment in his head. Her question made a little hiccup in his brain because her assumption was right. He hadn't had a girlfriend in over a year.
"And if you did have a girlfriend, it would be disappointing to you when she slept in. She'd upset you when she left a dish out. If she dripped pizza sauce on your bed you'd be so mad about the 500 thread count sheets?"
"Lay back," she repeated and he leaned back in the chair.
Reese felt hair squeeze between the ceramic and the back of his neck.
She then crossed her arms and lifted her tank top up and off.
"What are you doing?" Reese asked from the sink as her flat red hair bounded free of her cotton. She stood before him now in her flower-patterned bra. He could see how it was twisted over one red shoulder. She tossed her top away with her apron.
"I smoked in this too," she said with disdain and went to the sink. His nose was level with the pooch of her belly. He looked up and over her bra at her face before she leaned down. "And let me guess," she said above a whisper. "You can smell it on my pants."
Before he could speak, she popped her shorts open and shook them all the way off of her hips. From his position, Reese could see that her panties were hip-huggers. They were plaid. His brain registered that they didn't match the bra, but he dismissed the thought right away.
Her fingers stabbed into his wet hair and she shot the rinse all over the back of his head. She held the water close, so that it ricocheted around the ceramic and onto the floor.
"How's that?" She asked in a flat tone. "Too cold?"
"It's a little cold," Reese confirmed.
She touched the hot water knob and gave it a quick twist. "And that?"
The girl slammed the hose into the sink and shut the water off.
Shampoo was squirted into her hand and she rubbed it into Reese's soaked hair.
"You like strawberry?" She asked as the artificial scent activated in the soap. Her question sounded more like a statement.
Reese was quiet while her fingers stroked the shampoo into his scalp and hair. Her fingers were deft when they rubbed the crown of his head. She was fast and precise with her actions. Reese held back telling her how good it felt to have his head rubbed and massaged.
He looked up her neck to her face. She wasn't looking at his eyes because she was watching her hands. The pervert in the back of his mind let his eyes travel down to her breasts. He'd handled his fair share in his time and so he worked to estimate her cup size. They looked to be somewhere between a C and B. They moved slightly with her breath and the force behind her arms.
His eyes darted back to hers. He was caught. He could see it in her smirk.
He wanted to voice an apology, but she was faster with action. She rubbed her soapy hands down his forehead and scrubbed shampoo into his open eyes. The sting of the soap caused his eyes to close and he missed the smile on her face.
"What the hell—" he burst out before her fingers smeared the soap into his mouth. He felt the soft soap pressed into his lips and fingers slipped to the inside of his cheeks some before her hand withdrew.
"Quiet, you big baby," she said from above him.
Reese reached for his eyes to wipe the soap away, but she knocked his hands back. He thought for a second about storming out of the salon with his head still wet. He thought about asking his friend to ask a lawyer about "soap damages". He thought about all the things that made sense in a professional world and then he dismissed them.
Her hands were gone from his face and he kept his eyes shut. He knew that she was doing all of this on purpose, but he didn't know why.
Temperate water hit his face.
The gentle stream and her fingers rubbed over his eyes and over his hair. He could feel her running her fingers through his hairs to chase shampoo down the drain. Her fingers kept up the same quaint motion of one-part rub, one-part pull.
With the soap rinsed out of his eyes, Reese blinked water out and looked up at the hairstylist.
While his eyes had been shut, she had taken off her bra!
His eyes went to her face and she had a sinister smile spread across her lips. He looked back at her naked chest. The shapes of her breasts were the sorts he looked at twice whenever he surfed the Internet. Her nipples were flat against the pink circles of her areolas.
He looked back up at her and she splashed the hose water in his eyes.
The stylist turned off the water and slapped a clean towel into Reese's face. She took the towel and stroked it against his hair.
"There," the woman said and left the towel on his face.
Reese sat up and the towel dropped to his lap. He rubbed water out of his eyes and strained to focus on her topless form walking away.
In the blur, he could see her perfectly centered against the broad storefront windows. The nighttime sky stretched over the parking lot and contrasted her white and alabaster frame. She took a set of keys from a nearby station and went the shop's front door.
He stood up at the sound of her locking it. The towel fell down to the floor. He watched her flip the shoddy sign from "open" to "closed." Then the stylist turned to face him from the other side of the room.
"It's dark outside," he said.
"Yeah," she said back.
"So people can see in."
"Go on," she spoke over his words again and pointed to the hair stations. "I don't have all night."
His feet knocked the towel on the floor away with a lack of consideration. He approached the stations. He had no idea which to choose. The four cluttered spaces had so much in common.
He was completely flabbergasted by the topless hairstylist. He didn't know if she wanted to seduce him or if she was playing with his head or if she was planning some kind of practical joke. He just knew he wanted to know which (if any) of his assumptions might be true.
"Fucking just choose one," she said and closed the distance between them. She was right next to his ear when her thin lips whispered: "Yeah. I said: 'fuck-ing.' How unprofessional of me, right?"
Her words embarrassed him a little and he wasn't sure why he had that particular reaction. This lady had taken the rug out from under his way of thinking. He felt like he was central player in some HD porno, but he also felt like the guy who got kicked out of the scene before the fucking got started!
He felt the strange need to impress her. He wondered if he would be able to choose her exact station! In that moment, Reese thought that if he could somehow take her normal station, her place of office, he just might get some of the control back.
Photographs framed each mirror, but he didn't want to take the time to examine each of them. He didn't want her to know what he was up to. He also knew he didn't have a lot of time to make his choice.
He couldn't see her in any of the photographs. All of the mirrors had pictures of children. This made him realize that the topless woman must be a mother.
There was nothing about the children to indicate their parentage. Of course, he knew he was always bad at that sort of thing. He never saw the resemblance when proud parents asked.
"You can't guess my station, can you?" She said and he caught her face in one of the mirrors. She stood there with relaxed posture. One hand was on her hip. He looked at the reflection of her eyes in the mirror. "Are you trying to impress me?"
Her words woke up his instincts for defiance and he went to the nearest chair and sat down with an abrupt tantrum.
"No," he said. "There's just a lot of children in the pictures."
"A lot of mothers work here," she said and walked toward the sink. With his back to him she spoke again: "And that's the wrong station, by the way."
He felt disappointment in his throat. Some odd part of his memory whispered rules for true love and indications of love at first sight. When two people were destined to be together, it seemed tests like the one he just failed were strong signs of a happy future. This thought made him furrow his eyes.
He had no idea why he'd go to such strange and romantic places. Especially about a girl like the one in the shop. A woman who got undressed in front of a total stranger. She was somebody's mother and she obviously cared nothing for her own cleanliness and attitude.
No, this woman wasn't his true love and to entertain the notion was to be as pathetic as any thirteen year old who just wants to hold hands.
She returned to him with a cape. She set her cigarette pack and lighter on the station and draped the cape over him. As the plastic fell over his chest and lap, her neck was close enough for him to kiss.
He looked up her naked chest and then he took in her neck, cheeks, and ears. He noted that her earlobes weren't attached. He was annoyed that he picked up on that detail.
"What am I going to do with you?" She asked with a flat frown. She picked up her comb and her scissors. When she reached, her naked tit just missed his nose.
He could smell the sweat on her skin. She very well might not have worn deodorant that day. Everything about her scent confirmed that the girl just didn't care about much of anything. He always showered. He always wore deodorant. He always shaved. When his contact ran out, he bought new ones and didn't continue to wear plastic that faded in his eyes.
They were exact opposites.
"Do you have tattoos?" He asked her out of the blue. He made the question up to do something to put her off. He wanted to make her feel as unsteady as he did, even if it was just for a moment to begin with.
"Do you see any tattoos?"
He realized his attempt to take over the game didn't work. She just took his pawn off the board by giving him permission to look at her body. So he did. He assessed her pieces and could see nothing that indicated what he must often associated with tramps.
She turned his chair to face the mirror.
He thought about objecting to her moving him. He wondered if it might not be cute of him to say that he needed more time to look at her. He entertained the notion that she might move him back.
Then again, it was probably best to just skip that level and get onto the next.
Her fingers pulled his hair up and she knocked the ends up with her scissors. She repeated the motion and more of his hair fell to the floor. As more hair fell from his head and down the cape, Reese realized he could touch his pants without her knowing.
He placed his hands between his opened legs and felt his mild erection. It felt good to touch it while he looked at one of her free tits in the mirror. He pushed against his opening hard-on with his fingertips and let the fabric of his underwear smear the point of it. It responded in kind and grew more rigid.
He knew that his cock wanted to be touched by his hand and he wanted to do it. If she was naked, why couldn't he be naked? Besides, it was possible he could get away with doing it without her knowing. The cape plainly hid his lap completely.
More hair fell with the sound of her scissors.
"Are you from here?" He asked. If he were going to do this, she would have to be distracted. He had assumed so much about her, but he didn't think she was stupid when it came to observation.