House Rules by Deke Cutter
I looked across the cube farm toward Frank’s work station. I liked the guy, but we were quite different. I had broken up with Linda after a romance that had taken us through the end of college and the beginning of our careers. I was commuting almost an hour from my parents’ house since I split with Linda and Frank had a room available in the house his grandmother was letting him live in. She had moved to Scottsdale, AZ, and didn’t plan on coming back. The house had three bedrooms. It was just 15 minutes from work. Frank and Gary, the other roommate, had interviewed three of us. Frank made it clear that "Nanny," as he called his grandmother, had rules that all residents had to agree to. The candidate would be given the list if chosen. Frank was going to let us know this morning. I saw Frank’s closely cropped brown haircut rise above the partition. He caught my eye and motioned me toward the little kitchen in the middle of our floor.
"Well Chuck, here’s Nanny’s list, if you can live with it, the room is yours. The other two guys tried to weasel around on it before they even saw it. So, if you turn us down now, it’s back to square one."
We both sat down at the kitchen table. I ran both my hands through my thick wavy blonde hair, patting it down as it curled onto my collar. The list said:
1. A neat personal appearance
2. Religious or ethical community
3. Civic participation
4. Cleanliness of home inside and out (NO SMOKING)
5. Act like a gentleman
"Yeah," Frank said, "Nanny knows what she wants. What do you think?"
"What, exactly, does Number 2 mean?"
"Well, we were brought up Episcopalian. Nanny thinks its important to believe in something and be part of a community, but she’s a pretty broad thinker. Were you brought up in a religious tradition?"
"I was baptized Catholic and made my First Communion, but then my mom decided we’d go Episcopalian too because of the women priests. She wanted my sisters to see that. Linda said she was Buddhist, but her mom said the family was Jewish. We both kind of let things slide while we were together. What about Gary?"
"He goes to the Unitarian Church downtown. He says they kind of blend everything together. You need to choose, though. I belong to a very progressive church, Saint Andrews, why don’t you come on Sunday? If you are cool with everything else, you can move in this weekend. Why don’t we get together after work Friday to finalize things after work." I was real excited about getting back on my own. My folks were great about me coming home, but with my sister out of the house, they liked being alone and I didn’t blame them. Frank’s house was furnished, I was just bringing a new mattress and a few items like a TV and my clothes and some kitchen items that I managed to get from Linda when we split. So, Saturday wouldn’t be too tough.
The workday finally ended on Friday and Frank stopped by my desk. "Hey, lets’ stop by the house and pick up Gary. You can leave your car there and we’ll go on together." He was gone before I cold ask any questions, but I got in my car and reached the house shortly after him. "Don’t know what happened to Gary maybe we’ll see him there."
"Frank, where are we going?"
"We’re taking care of Item 1. Gotta be done before you move in. Nanny is very specific about ‘a neat personal appearance. Haircuts once a month. This barbershop knows the rules. (I must have rolled my eyes.) He pulled over and took out his phone and showed me some "before" pictures of himself and one of Gary. Their current short, neat haircuts contrasted with their former longer styles. "Sorry bro, it’s not too late to back out, I figured, looking at the two of us, you’d have sussed that out."
He was right, I should have. It took me about 30 seconds to weigh a haircut against the hour drive and being home when mom and dad’s friends came over for cards night. "OK, lead me to my fate. But, what’s up with your grandmother and men’s hair?"
"Well, my grandfather was a hippy. They were both political activists, but when Viet Nam ended, they both went to law school, with Nanny’s parent’s paying for it. She became pregnant with dad just before they graduated. Grandad, left her to live on a commune. She had to give up her dream of public interest law for work in her father’s family firm to make a life for my dad. It hardened her and changed her into a real traditionalist. My dad bore the brunt of it. This was the 70s and 80’s and she wanted him boy’s regular cuts and summer crew cuts. That was until my grandad became a media savvy bigtime advocate for hopeless causes and got visitation. My dad loved him and rebelled, demanding to grow his hair long like his father. It got to the point where she had to allow it to stop dad from going to live with grandpa. To this day, dad has a long shaggy mop and he and Nanny argue about it. That’s how I ended up in her house. She wrote the rules, so he can’t even visit me for more than a day without getting a short haircut. The great irony is grandpa started losing his hair in his early fifties and is mostly bald."
We had arrived at the barber shop and I prepared myself for what was to come. There were three barbers, the one eight in the front of the big glass window was the shop owner. His chair was open and waiting. "Andy, this is Chuck, the new housemate I mentioned. He’s ready for that haircut we discussed."
Andy shook my hand and invited me to sit. He said, "that’s a beautiful head of hair Chuck, seems a shame to cut it so severely. Are you sure you want to do this?"
"Now Andy, is that any way to treat a new customer? Of course, he’s sure. He’s moving in tomorrow. Now, less talk-talk and more clip-clip."
I found Frank a bit abrupt, but I guessed he might be in a hurry and a bit embarrassed by Nanny’s grooming rules. I didn’t have much time to think about it before Andy’s big black clippers had obliterated my right sideburn and left me with about half an inch of hair about half way up the side of my head. He continued to attack the back and sides giving me a very aggressive taper. Further up the sides and back, he used his clipper cutting over comb to leave and inch or so of my wavy hair lying flat against the sides of my head. My neck felt strange with the hair gone for the first time in years. Andy began to work on the top of my head. He sprayed it lightly with water and combed through it. I expected to hear the scissors, but instead, the clippers fired up again and began taking down the top, again using the clipper over a comb. He worked methodically from back to front, switching to scissors only for shaping the very front. He cleaned up the edges and my hairline with clippers and then proved himself of an expert with the single blade razor. When he swung me around to the mirror, I know it’s a cliché, I didn’t recognize myself for a second. The hair on top of my head still had a slight wave, but the waves sat in orderly rows like the tops of Vanilla Wafers. The sides lie tightly against my head. I now had a very tight taper in the back with my hairline raised to the bottom of my sideburn-less ears.
As Andy removed the cape, I said "Wow. Chuck, this is one heck of a haircut. I sure got my money’s worth."
"By the way Andy," Frank asked, "has Gary been in today."
"No, I haven’t seen him and we’re closing up shortly."
I paid for my haircut and we left. Frank left me at my car and I returned to my parents’ house for my last night at home. I was surprised to find a note in my dad’s typical goofy style, "Gone up the country (he loved those commercials), not really, mom and I got a pair of cheap tickets to Boston, good luck with the move." I was kind of glad they were gone. My mom would have freaked at the short haircut and dad would have given me a good ribbing about it. So, I just went into the bathroom and stared at myself looking like a young military officer. I rubbed my neck and felt the strange scratchy sensation. It wasn’t unpleasant, in fact, I kind of liked it, but I liked the way I used to look more. Well, that ship had sailed, and it was time to move on.
The next morning, I packed my stuff into my car and headed over to the house. I knocked on the door, as I hadn’t received my set of keys yet. After a few minutes, Frank came to the door. "Gary and I are busy in the kitchen, if you need some help we’ll be with you in about 10 minutes," he said. I went out to the can picked up a box and returned to the house. I put the box into my room and as I was going out, I thought I would stop by the kitchen and greet Gary. As I got closer I heard a vaguely familiar buzzing sound. As I turned into the kitchen, I saw Gary sitting on a chair with a sheet around his neck with Frank completing a brutal shave of his head with guard-less clippers. The normally cheery Gary, was near tears. Frank had put down his clippers and picked up an electric shaver and begun going over Gary’s head with it. "What’s going on?" I asked.
"Gary missed his haircut yesterday, NOT, for the first time. Gary and I have discussed this before. This is what we agreed would happen the next time." He had continued shaving Gary as he spoke. After another two or three minutes he finished and removed the sheet. "OK Gary, let’s get this mess cleaned up. Come on Chuck, you and I can move your stuff." We had my car unloaded quickly. I thanked Frank and began unpacking and hanging clothes.
An hour or so later, Frank went out to run some errands. I took the opportunity to seek out Gary. "Hey Gary, what the heck, man?"
Gary sat on the porch staring into space, eyes red, face like thunder. "I’m bald man! He ‘freaking’ did it. He said "get your butt in that chair or start packing. He said I showed him up yesterday by not going with you guys and damn, he got you scalped. I had a deadline at work. I warned him about it. I told him I’d go first thing this morning and even go shorter than normal. He knows I need this room because its so cheap and close to work. I support my disabled mom and it costs a fortune. He’s lost it."
"I feel badly about this Gary. Maybe we can work together to calm him down."
"Be careful Chuck, go slow," Gary said, rubbing his bald head.
Work on Monday was rough. People were brutal about my haircut. The women were furious that my golden locks were gone, and several gave me a real verbal lashing. The guys were full of the typical one-liners, head rubs and buzz sounds. I’ll give the devil his due, as my grandma says, Frank stood up for me, as did a couple of other short haired guys in the group. And as the weeks went by, the newness wore off and life went on.
I didn’t get to see my folks until the day after my second haircut. Poor Gary, with half an inch of stubble, was with us. (I had taken a chance and stopped by to warn the barbers that Gary had shaved his head and was pretty sensitive about it. He’d becoming in for an outline shave and to please go easy on him.) Frank looked very pleased when we all left freshly barbered and even paid for Gary’s as a gesture of good will. When I got to my folk’s house on Saturday, they had seen pictures, but my mom was still not pleased with my GI look. My dad pulled me aside and whispered, "no nooky for you, huh?" Over dinner, I explained the situation with Frank’s "Nanny’s Rules." I also told them the disturbing story about Gary’s head shave. Dad asked, "what’s this guy’s name?"
I replied, "Frank Fordyce."
Mom gave dad a strange look. I had seen that look pass between them before. "Charlie" (my dad), mom said, "do you want to start?"
"Son, you know that house is in the neighborhood I grew up in, right? And your mom was not too far away, though we didn’t meet until later. I know Frank’s dad and grandparents. His grandfather was a wonderful man. He was surgeon and a leader in the local civil rights and anti-Viet Nam movement back in the 60s and 70s. His grandmother was by his side throughout and she ran her own very successful real estate business. Dr. Fordyce only passed away a few years ago. Mrs. Fordyce, bless her, is remarkably active and divides her time between homes in Arizona and Paris. Frank’s dad, we called him Woody, and I played basketball and baseball on our high school team and neither of ever had very long hair. We were jocks. In fact, the baseball team all got crewcuts senior year for Spring season. We all knew we’d grow our hair out at college."
Mom picked up the narrative. "I have known Frank’s mom professionally for years. Frank was a difficult kid. He had compulsive-obsessive disorder. His parents were constantly trying to find therapies or doctors that worked for him. In some regards, he sounded a bit like that character Michael J. Fox played on "Family Ties." He wanted to dress conservatively and was neurotic about his hair being militantly short. Mrs. Fordyce dotes on him and lets him live in the house rent free. She is one of the original non-conformists. I can assure you those rules are not ‘Nanny’s Rules.’ And by the way, Mrs. Fordyce Senior loves long hair on men, doesn’t she Charlie?"
"She wanted to kill Woody and me both when we came home from the barber with those crewcuts. Two years laters, he tried to convince your grandpa to let me keep my ponytail after sophomore year of college, but, at least he compromised on a nice feathered cut."
We then decided on approaching Frank’s parents about "an intervention." But before we took any action, I got Gary alone and told him the whole story and offered him my folk’s promise of a free place to stay, if this whole thing blew up in our faces. Gary agreed.
To be continued