What Falls Away

Reflections on the test of time

I have returned to the fold after many years away.

In search of the ultimate blunt cut, I strayed up and down Kingston Pike to a string of different salons and a parade of different stylists. Some of them were good and some of them were adequate and each of them had contradictory techniques coupled with strong opinions.

In the end, weary of experimentation, I came back to my original Knoxville hairdresser. He welcomed me graciously, with no reference to my long-term defection.

I was 30-something when I first met him, new to Knoxville, and miserable most of the time. In that first oppressive summer, there was nothing here for me. Not a decent pizza or an edible Chinese meal. No Saks. No Neiman Marcus. No circle of supportive, smart friends. And certainly no haircut.

It's the little things that drain your soul in those early weeks of relocation: the supermarket where you can't find anything, the unfamiliar streets that lead to unfamiliar stores where they won't take your check because of your out-of-state license. Everything about you says stranger. Or in my case, Yankee stranger. Add to that the fact that every humid, stifling day is a bad-hair day, and you have a surefire recipe for chronic discontent.

A well-coifed neighbor sent me to him at the end of August. He worked in New York, she told me. You'll like him.

I watched him warily in the mirror above the sprays and tubes of mousse. He turned my head this way and that, assessing my too-long bob with interest. "Can you follow the line?" I asked him. To his credit, he did not snap my head off, but simply nodded and picked up the scissors.

We talked. He had indeed worked in New York, at a salon I knew well. He had worked in a number of impressive places for a number of impressive people before deciding to set up on his own. He had gone away and learned what he needed to know and come back to do the things he did best: flawless haircuts, and active listening.

He bore my complaints about Knoxville with cheerful equanimity. He had no illusions about the place—he'd been an ex-pat long enough to gain a certain wry perspective on the local scene. Still, it was where he had chosen to start his business. It was home to him, and the people were his people.

I stayed with him for a long time, and then I began to wander. I can't even remember why. Midlife restlessness, maybe. A thirst for change. And then one day, cleaning out a drawer, I found an old photo of myself with perfect hair. Whose work was that? I reached for the phone and made an appointment.

Back in his salon, I am like a fish restored to water. It's calm, with an absence of towering egos and thunderous techno music and stylists with tattoos and multiple piercings. When I am here, it is as though the hair is an afterthought. He has done this so long and so well that now the familiar work frees his mind for other things. We talk politics, about which we mostly agree. We talk about elderly parents and looking back and planning ahead. We talk about what we cling to and what we have finally let go.

He knows a lot. In this small town disguised as a medium-sized city, he has seen it all: triumph and tragedy, rise and fall, rags and riches. He has a gift for telling a great story without ever divulging a confidence. He still listens with his whole attention.

Our eyes meet in the mirror above the sprays and brushes. Decades have passed since I first sat down in his chair. We're older, wearier, certainly wiser. Once, long ago, he thought he would be a minister. You all are my flock, he says now, and we nod together. Back in the fold, I know it's true.