The storm door squeaks and Alfred Jones rises from the barber's chair, stashes his folded newspaper and pats the red Naugahyde, stark and shiny under the fluorescent lights. "How you doin' Mr. Brown?"
"Okay," says Brown, an every-other-week flat-top.
"If spring came and stayed, be a lot better."
"Cold probably hurt some of the fruit."
"Probably," says Jones.
Brown hikes his green work pants and sits down. Jones jacks the chair, rolls the collar, and flaps the cloth into the air, letting it settle, parachute-slow, over Brown's shoulders. Then he bends at the knees and inspects his job, a gardener sizing a hedge. Brown hasn't had a cut lately, and the bristles on top have grown a little long. Heavy like blades of grass after rain, they tilt slightly to one side.
Then, as the electric clippers buzz, the hairs settle to the red tile floor. There they gather with black strands from a management technician at Atlantic Research, red curls from an acoustical-ceiling work apprentice and blond ones from a 12-year-old winger on a Manassas soccer team.
This is Jones Barber & Beauty Shop/Unisex Styling in Gainesville in Prince William County--not really country, not really city, a room fragrant with talc, with a soundtrack of soaps, in a low white building that was once a barrack for the Vint Hill Army base and later a rental cabin for tourists. Lately, there is no need for rooms in Gainesville. I-66 has rendered it a pit stop 40 miles west of Washington, an automotive oasis along Lee Highway where the gasoline is cheap and the restrooms are out of toilet paper.
The unincorporated town of Gainesville may be too close to be considered country, too small even to be considered a "place" by the Census Bureau. It is mostly service stations and burnt-out farmhouses that sit along a half-mile strip and find an identity in Happy Jack's Ham House, where nightcrawlers and Slush Puppies (frozen slurpies) are sold, and in booths at the Diamond Horseshoe Restaurant, where the special is hamburger steak and lima beans for $3.15, and in Alfred Jones' barber chair, where Brown's flat-top can be made once again flat and where the eyes of a freckle-faced boy with a plastic comb in his pocket will strain upward to see how much blond curl is being butchered.
Jones' place isn't really the barbershop of old. Though you can buy an Ajax comb, displayed as always under the smile of a muscle man, there is no smell of Genteel or moist steam from towels in the air, no flap of straight razor against leather strop, no click of checker being kinged. The talk comes in bursts and then there is silence; partly because in this new world of strangers there is less gossip to exchange, partly because of a feeling that if the barber talks too much, one side is going to come out longer than the other.
Jones has been cutting hair for 20-some years, a farmer's boy from Tazewell County who wanted inside work. His hair is swept and stylish, with long sideburns slanting to a pointed chin. The fingers are graceful enough to pin an ear forward without pain, big enough to grab hold of a head and position it firmly to one side. When he moves back and forth around his chair, he passes his electric clippers behind his back with a flourish. He does most of the standard cuts, crews and shorts, mediums, and longs, examples of which are framed and numbered on a wall to his left. His hair in front resembles No. 4, in back, No. 6.
To his right is his daughter, Connie Allison, hair curled and fluffy, a graduate in high school cosmetology. She does the unisex work, uses a spray and Hask Blow Wave Lotion with Placenta to his talc brush and Stephan's Barber's Butch Wax.
"You got to go with the times if you're going to survive in a business these days," says Jones of the unisex business, neither lamenting nor particularly proud, more just talking what seems to him good sense.
His approach must be working. He gets a rush at lunch hour, men from Atlantic Research or Atlas Industries who prefer the meat and potatoes approach in Gainesville to the disco styling dens that one of Jones' customers says litter every street corner in nearby Manassas. The second rush comes after school.
It happens just after four, while Jones is putting a finish on Brown's eyebrows. Almost at once, three mothers and five children crowd the shop. A boy with a shock of brown hair hops in Connie's chair and his mother talks to Connie.
"How about one of those wet cuts and stylings?" the mother asks. "I don't know what to do with his hair. Shorten it up a little, too, maybe with half the ear showing."
"Mo-om!" whines the son.
"Okay," relents his mother. "Make it three-quarters, but your father's going to kill me."
These days, mothers bring their boys, the father-son ritual having dissolved in two-hour daily commuting. They come in running shoes and jeans, these women, transplants to Gainesville from the more populated suburbs. Their links to the city are day trips to museums and shops, but they are home before dark, back to the safety of a place they like to call country but they know isn't far away.
"I guess you can say we're kind of in the middle of the old and the new," says Jones, and the mothers in the barbershop nod and agree. Like Gainesville, Jones' place is a little bit of country not too far away. Like Happy Jack's Ham House instead of a roadside 7-Eleven, like the Diamond Horseshoe Restaurant instead of Pizza Hut, there is Jones' Barber & Beauty Shop/Unisex Styling, where the smell is sweet talc instead of rotten egg perm.
"We like to think we got something here," says Jones, brushing the hair from the seat of his swivel chair. "Now which one of you boys was next?