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Bruce Finds Self Worth and Purpose by Manny

"Bruce! I'll be in the car," my father bellowed from the top of the basement steps. "I want you looking presentable, hear me? Smarten up, comb your hair!"

My father was determined that I get a job. Any job! Having a college drop-out boomerang back and take up residence in the basement had taken a toll on him.

There was no way I wanted to spend my afternoon's at Don's Right-a-Way Car Wash, but I really had no option. It was go along with things or find someplace else to live.

Unfortunately, I did not move quickly into compliance, opting instead to finish my computer game. When I heard the horn blowing in the driveway, I rushed up the steps without tidying myself first as I'd been instructed.

My father was ready to explode. "I've been sitting here for almost ten minutes. We'll be late. If Don's gone when we get there, consider yourself evicted from the basement. And you didn't change! You look like a slob! And that bush of hair... Geez!"

I wouldn't have been surprised if my father succumbed right then and there to a massive heart attack. Instead, I was the one whose heart was pounding wildly as we careened through the streets at top speed, screeching around corners, and plowing through pot holes.

Fortunately, Don was still at the car wash when we arrived. "I was about ready to give up on you, Ted. Is this your son?" Don asked.

"Introduce yourself, Bruce!" my father hissed.

"Bruce Motram," I said, extending my hand. I needed to be on my best behavior. My father was still fuming.

Don looked skeptical as he gave me the once over. "It's minimum wage, you know. From 4 pm to closing. We get a bit of a surge at the end of the work day. Periodically, I might ask you to come early, to service the fluids and tidy the place up," Don said businesslike.

As he talked, I fought a not-so-discrete and losing battle with my huge mop of curls, trying to push them away from my eyes.

"Yes, sir, that sounds fine. I don't have any other commitments," I said respectfully, trying to sound excited.

"Except with the computer games. He spends hours in the basement glued to the screen. Like a zombie," my father smirked.

"Before you start, uh, um," Don said, clearing his throat a bit. "That hair in your face. Um, it doesn't lend itself to the image we're trying to project here. Plus, when the clients are giving special instructions, about what they want...you know, triple foam, or towel dry at the end...that's extra. I want them to be able to look you in the eye. So, before tomorrow...."

My father cut in, "Let's take care of that right now! Do you have a pair of scissors, Don?"

"There's no hurry. I mean Bruce can swing by the barber tomorrow morning. And really, it's just the bangs that need trimming....although that huge mop of hair....I mean, it gets hot in that tunnel with the air dryers blowing constantly."

But, as he spoke, Don pulled out a big set of heavy duty shears and held them up for my father's inspection.

"Those will do," my father said.

"Dad," I whined, "I'll go get a trim tomorrow. Promise."

"You're not so great at following instructions, from my experience this afternoon. And you don't have a cent to your name. How will you pay for a professional haircut?"

My father took the scissors, and in a most humiliating way resolved the matter of my overgrown bangs right then and there.

I sat still and submissive as he clamped his hand near the top of my forehead, flattening out the mass of auburn hair that formed my forelock. Then I felt the cold blade of the shears halfway between my hairline and my eyebrows -- right in the middle of my forehead.

CRUNCH, CRUNCH! A swirl of auburn hair fell. Clumps 2-3 inches long accumulated quickly on my lap.

"You ought to become a barber, Ted!" Don chirped. "That's a very straight line you cut, despite all those curls. And, Bruce has such nice green eyes, now that I can see them."

Then my father grabbed the mass of curls that covered my head, my 'bush' as he called it. "Once the lad's saved up enough for a proper haircut at McClintock's Barber Shop, he'll have this reduced to something more manageable." I felt a gentle yank. My father's way of conveying his disapproval of my long hair.

As I stood, the auburn swirls of hair fell to the floor.

"Get a broom and sweep that up!" my father ordered.

"It's behind the door, there," Don said. "That's very nice of you, Bruce."

Judging by the length of the clumps, I reckoned my bangs had been cut extremely short. But, at least most of the bush had been left alone. I surmised that the whole issue would blow over before my first paycheck.

And, I determined right then and there that I would be the model employee. Don would be gushing and singing my praises about what a reliable employee I was -- indispensable, how had he done without me?!

I started the next day, right on schedule. Despite our awkward start, Don and I got an great. He was warm and friendly. I admired the way he greeted each driver as the car pulled up and said something witty or cheery to them. Anyone who was dissatisfied with the wash got a full refund.

Don had been right, though, about how hot it could get in the tunnel (as he called it) with all the blowers going.

I was a quick study with the machines and prices and hustled my best to ensure I stayed in Don's good graces.

At the end of our first week, Don asked, "Do you want to get paid weekly or monthly?"

"Monthly," I replied quickly. That way the haircut would be put off for at least three more weeks.

As we were approaching my one month at the car wash, I received a phone call. Don had slipped in his kitchen and hit his head. He was in the hospital. Could I operate the carwash full time until he'd recovered?

I felt awful about Don's fall, but glad I could keep the car wash operational. It was a lot of work, there by myself all day, but I felt great that I'd kept things going! I even got the idea of suggesting a few extra purchases to the drivers as they pulled up -- a packet of wipes for the dashboard or an air freshener to hang from the mirror. I also laid it on thick about the way triple foam could add sparkle to the car.

As I was ending that day, the phone rang at the car wash. "Bruce? It's Don."

It was great to hear his voice again! He sounded a bit better, more with it. "I need to stay in the hospital another evening. There's some bleeding, internal bleeding that they are trying to address. Can you keep things running by yourself for a bit longer at the car wash? Two or three more days, I guess."

"Of course, Don. Things went smooth today -- busy, but not overwhelming. And, we made over $300! Can you believe that?"

"Wow, that might be a new record, Bruce. Listen, add up your hours and pay yourself from that amount. If it's not enough, I'll make it up when I get out of here," Don said. "I'm proud of you, uh, yeah, um Bruce."

It was almost as if the word 'son' had slid off his lips.

I felt so great about my success at the car wash, especially being able to convey the good news to Don. But, as I noticed the wad of cash in my hands, I remembered the haircut. Surely, with Don's hospitalization, no one would be keeping tabs on that. And the huge bush had never once been mentioned. Of course, my bangs were still hideously short, thanks to my father's amateur hack job.

As I got in his car, I thought I might swing by the hospital to check in on Don. Maybe take him a magazine. The man was a widower with no kids. Poor guy. Perhaps he had some siblings who would visit him, or people from his church. Don did talk a lot about his pastor.

Then, I had another idea. Why not get the bush chopped back, pruned nice and short? Surprise Don and my father! No nagging, no reminding. Just get it done, cut nice and tidy. I googled McClintock's Barber Shop and saw that Thursday was the day of the week that it stayed open till 7 pm. I had twenty minutes to get there.

I felt a bit excited, actually quite mature, pushing the door of the barber shop open and strolling in. I hadn't been there in years! Perhaps I was 13 the last time one of the geezer barbers had taken a clippers to my auburn curls.

I glanced at the huge bush of hair in the reflection of the glass as I walked in. Wow! It was quite a sight! Wild and needing some professional attention.

"You'll be the last client of the day. Turn the sign on the door to closed, if you don't mind, son. First chair there," the man said, instructing me.

I took a seat and stared at myself in the mirror. I squirmed a bit in the chair as the barber cast the big white cape and fastened it snuggly around the neck.

"So, what'll it be?" the barber said, staring at the bush.

I hesitated slightly. Of course, I knew the question was coming, but hadn't decided on an instruction. The barber kept his gaze fixed on the bush.

"Short," I suddenly blurted out. "Very short. It's been forever since I've had a proper haircut."

"My length all right?" the barber asked nonchalantly.

I looked up at the man with his salt and pepper hair clipped close all over, like a crewcut. That was MUCH shorter than I had ever imagined going.

The barber reached for the clippers. My heart beat quickly. I needed to adjust course now or watch virtually the whole mass of curls hit the cape.

My leg trembled a bit. "Um, uh, yeah, your length," I quickly said, unable to come up with an alternative.

Click! The machine whirled to life. A steady low-key hum that grew louder as the barber raised his hands toward the bush of tangled curls.

The geezer took a comb, expertly lifted my short bangs and brought the chattering teeth straight into the mass of curls.

The barber chuckled a bit as the divestiture began, "When I saw you coming towards the shop, I figured you'd be leaving most of this mop behind."

Hair began raining down in torrents on the cape. Huge clumps of auburn curls. I felt like he was in bootcamp as I watched a huge cauldron of hair begin collecting in my lap.

"You going to leave me with any hair?" I asked, trying to sound ho hum about the haircut. The fact was, my stomach was churning and in knots. My hair was being shorn to a shockingly short length.

"Not much," the barber said. "This is quite a mass of hair you had growing up here!" The barber pushed the machine forward and a massive shank slid toward the cape.

"Yep, sure was time to have it all clipped off. And it'll be a whole lot more practical clipped short," I said, beginning to believe what I was saying.

"You bet, and more comfortable with the summer scorchers we're supposed to be in for soon." With that, the barber pushed my head forward and began clearing the nape and back.

A shiver went down my back. I loved the feeling and actually began to feel excited about leaving the barber shop transformed. My father would certainly approve -- coming home with a paycheck and a very short haircut.

I totally enjoyed the feel of the clipper, especially at the nape.

"It's hard to believe that's me," I exclaimed as I took in my new streamlined visual.

The barber took the duster and whisked away stray snippets of hair. He brushed the shorn clumps off my shoulders, as well. The tickle inside my ear made me almost giggle. "Good riddance, that's what I say," I commented as the barber pulled off the cape and cut curls fell to the floor.

I looked in awe at the amount of his hair on the floor as I got up from the barber chair. Then, I rubbed the short pelt with my hand. Over and over again, against the grain. The back, especially, felt wonderful.

"Pleased?" the barber asked as he handed me the change.

"Very pleased, sir," I replied returning two dollars as a tip.

"Can I expect you to become a regular here?" the barber asked.

When I got to the hospital, I checked myself out in the rearview mirror again, for the umpteenth time. Don was going to be pleased, I thought. This haircut was probably more in line with the image he wanted his business portraying. Neat and tidy and cleancut.

I picked up a glossy magazine about classic cars in the gift shop -- ugh! another $12 gone! But, Don was worth it. Then I asked for Don's room number at the reception and headed up to the 7th floor.

I peaked in. There was a woman in the first bed, and I figured Don must be in the bed near the window, behind the curtain.

"Don?" I asked quietly as I approached the far side of the room.

There was no response, just heavy breathing.

"I think he's sleeping," the lady said.

I felt disappointed.

"Are you his grandson?" she asked.

"No, just an employee," I answered.

Suddenly there was a bit of stirring.

"You've got a visitor, Don!" the lady called out cheerfully. "Your pastor came earlier, but he didn't want to disturb you."

I poked my head around the curtain.

At first Don did not recognize me.

"Here, I brought this for you," I said, holding the magazine out.

"Bruce?" Don asked, recognizing my voice. He was amazed. "Bruce, is that really you? Your hair!"

I let out a laugh, "Yep, it's me all right. I just got it cut. With my first paycheck. How do you like it?"

"I can't believe it, you look totally different!" laughed Don.

"But do you like it?" I insisted.

"Of course, I do! Crewcuts are classics," Don said. "I just can't believe you cut it so short."

I pulled up a chair next to the bed. "Well, you were right about that tunnel getting hot. And, well, I'm trying to save money to go back to college. So, I figured this haircut would last quite a long time. Maybe thru the summer. Although my hair tends to grow rather fast."

Don lay still in the bed. He fingered the glossy magazine. "I'm proud of you, Bruce," he said. No explanation was given, no context. But, I knew it was more than the haircut.

Then I reflected a bit. I realized that never once had I heard those kind words of affirmation from my father.

"Bruce, the doctor is worried about my head injury. He doesn't think I should be alone at home, in case I should lose my balance again and fall. They want to put me in a nursing home or some sort of institution," Don said bleakly. "I'm not ready for that. I'm only 64."

"I'm sorry to hear that. Maybe you could live with a relative? Or someone could stay with you for a while?" I suggested, feeling sorry for Don.

Don was silent. Obviously, that wasn't an alternative.

"Or maybe I could help somehow?" I suggested.

Don's eyes lit up. He reached his hand over and gently touched my arm. "There's plenty of room in my house. I was even thinking maybe you could take over running the car wash. Hire a part time helper. Or, I'm just going to close it. Retire. Watch TV all day."

"No, Don, not that! I'll help you through this rough patch. I don't want you throwing in the towel yet. You've meant so much to me...you can't imagine the influence you've had on me. I can't explain it," I mumbled in a sort of embarrassed way.

Don reached up and stroked my crewcut, "I like your haircut. But, I liked all those curls too. You're a nice kid, Bruce."

"I'll stay with you at your house, as long as you need me too, and run the car wash, as well," I stated, suddenly feeling a real purpose and worth in life. I would be able to help someone! And Don deserved it, if anyone ever did.

"And, I'm going to pay you a proper salary. And also cover your college tuition come fall. You can enroll in night classes," Don said.

"And I'll put to use what I learn. Your car wash will churn out more profit than you've ever known!" I exclaimed.

From behind the curtain came a comment from the woman, "That is the sweetest thing...."

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