The Beard

By Jim Heskett

Swebhe suggested, in passing, that I might shave my beard before the onset of summer to spare my face the heat. The initial discussion was terse yet cordial, which is a microcosm of how all conversations with my wife had become over the last year or so.

A month later, when I get the call from a neighbor that Roger has run away, I leave work and drive home to look for him. Since I only work about a mile from my home and most of my bosses are in various meetings, I simply grab my keys and walk out the door. No one will notice that I’m gone.

I find him sniffing around a bush at the end of our street. This is not the first time he has run away, just the first this summer. His audacity surprises me, because being a ninety-pound pit bull, he tolerates the summer heat about as well as I tolerate my company’s corporate speak-infested meetings about scalability platforms. I’m trying to say that he doesn’t tolerate the heat well. In the wintertime, it was standard fare to find him hopping the fence and madly working his stumpy legs up and down the street in search of rabbits. But with this heat, I worry something is wrong. I’m not the craziest guy in the world for thinking that my dog is trying to tell me something.

When I finally get a handle on his collar to yank him from the bush, I give an uncomfortable wave to the neighbors who watch the scary pit bull from behind the safety of their glass front door. The husband stands next to the wife, a protective arm around her shoulder. Oh heavens, what will we ever do if that monster gets to our house?

I spin him around and stick my finger in his face to scold him, but he is so excited to see me that he licks my beard. Left side, right side, connecting mustache and chin-fur. A wanton splashing of slimy dog-tongue seals the fate of my facial hair. All decisions are final.

I walk him home, stooped and holding him by the collar since I have forgotten his leash. Roger bounces along, probably dreaming of the treats that might await him once we return to our house. What a shock he must feel when I open the door, let him inside, then shut the door and return to work.

At the office, I have a meeting with our marketing guy who has a plan to take some of the zany internal corporate videos that the media team has created, “leak” them, and then make them go viral. He actually says something like, “Dave, how can we make these videos go viral?” I decline to explain how the mechanism of the internet viral video phenomenon works.

While he talks about this, I keep rolling my fingers through the kinky tufts of beard. I think about Roger, so happy to see me, slathering his wet tongue all over my face. I can’t get the image out of my mind. The last time I saw my wife (she works nights, so we cross paths only on weekends), she kissed me with those diffident lips, and then frowned as she pulled back. She rubbed the side of her face. “Scratchy,” she said, which is her mantra in my now-furry life.

After work on Friday, I take Roger for a long walk around the neighborhood, the sweltering heat causing me to wipe my shirt sleeves repeatedly against my face. After each swabbing, I glance down at Roger—he with tongue out and lips peeled back in the pseudo-smile that really just means he’s trying to cool off—and he squints back up at me, resolute. We’re going to get through this together, big guy. Or is that what he means? So hard to assign intention to dog’s actions, I think sometimes.

Saturday morning I wake up and find my wife in the bed next to me, as per the weekend routine. I’ve grown used to the phenomena of her occasional warmth in the bed. Startling at first in those initial post-waking moments, when I expected to see her but found only vacant space across the expanse of our king-sized bed. Now it’s just the way life is.

I roll over to place my front against her back, and fling my arm over her shoulder. Spooning, they call it. When I nuzzle against her neck, she immediately raises a hand to push me off her. “Scratchy,” she mumbles.

Her single unpleasant word is enough to rouse me from my half-slumber, so I exit the bed and wander downstairs. Roger follows, so excited that the family is up and around and now fun things are going to happen. I open the back door to allow him to greet the day with his pee.

After opening a cupboard, I grab the bag of poppy seed bagels and retrieve one. I consider taking two, but then hesitate. I don’t know how much longer she’ll sleep. If I make two bagels, but she doesn’t wake in time and I therefore have to put the uneaten one in the fridge and she has to reheat it later, it’s a wasted meal.

Five minutes later, I let Roger back in, and then the toaster ejects my single bagel. I’m spreading a paste of almond cream cheese over one half when she wanders down the stairs in yoga pants and a t-shirt. Her fleece house shoes muffle the sound of her approach, but I detect her when she yawns. I look up, and she’s not happy.

“You didn’t make one for me?” she says.

With the bagel an inch from my mouth, I lower it because I don’t want to seem rude by eating while she’s asking me a question. “I thought you might sleep longer.”

She crosses her arms, which happens often these days. “You woke me up. Would have been nice if you’d ask me if I wanted breakfast, too.”

“Jenny,” I say, in the most forlorn tone I carry in my arsenal.

“Whatever, it doesn’t matter,” she says in the voice that indicates that it matters more than anything does. “I’m going to be late for yoga so I don’t have time to eat anyway.”

She kicks off her fleece slippers, slips on her sandals, and snatches the coiled yoga mat next to the front door. With barely a glance in my direction, she leaves the house. The screen door smacks closed in her wake.

Seated at the edge of the rug with his ferocious brown eyes on me, Roger angles his head. I haven’t paid attention to him in several minutes. I sit across from him in the high-backed leather chair, sighing as I take a bite from my breakfast. “I was hoping we’d get our weekend off to a good start,” I say to the dog.

“Then you made the wrong choice,” Roger says.

I stop chewing. “You can’t talk,” I say.

Roger rolls his eyes, which I also did not know he could do. “You’re right, Dave, I can’t. We can sit here all day and talk about the known and unknown, or we could get real. Maybe we should talk about the elephant in the room.”

“And that’s not you?”

“I’m a dog, not an elephant.”

“I know,” I say, “what I meant was—”

“I know what you meant. I’m saying that you and Jenny are at the precipice of either great opportunity or great turmoil. When I look at you, I see a pattern of abject dependence that you have perpetuated for at least a year.”

I attempt to dissect Roger’s words while picking a poppy seed from between my teeth. “Abject dependence. Okay, what do you suggest I do about it?”

“You’re going to have to make some tough choices in the next few months. Do you know how frequently I have seen the two of you neglect to seize upon chances to organically build genuine maturation, when instead you feign some brand of apathetic banality?”

“How can I be abjectly dependent and apathetic at the same time?” I say.

Roger sighs. “You’re missing my point.”

“I completely agree,” I say. “I don’t understand your point at all.”

Roger flops his belly down on the carpet, paws out front. “Let’s go with the low-hanging fruit. Life is a series of moments,” he says. “I know that when you examine cross-sections of your life, it seems like there are trends and big, cumulative swings, but that’s not truly indicative of change. There are a thousand little decisions each day that make up the mission-critical decisions you encounter the next day. Each moment is vertically independent of all the others, and so each moment is an equally important paradigm shift.”

I find Roger’s grasp of the English language impressive, but also slightly condescending. “Are you trying to say that whether or not Jenny and I have kids is as important as whether or not I put cream in my coffee?”

“No,” he says, shaking his head as a sliver of drool cascades from his jowls. “Maybe we’re getting too granular too fast, so let’s start with the 30,000-foot view. Tell me something that’s bothering you.”

“Jenny hates my beard. She wants me to shave it.”

He tilts his head, his fuzzy brow scrunching. “That’s more like a series of results, but we can start there.”

“I don’t know what to do because she clearly hates it. But I like it.”

“Obviously,” Roger says.

“I thought you liked it too,” I say.

“I love your beard. I must admit I found it scary at first because you looked different. Once I realized that you still smelled the same and now that I’ve had an appropriate amount of time to adjust, I like it more every time I see it. But you’re right; Jenny hates it. It’s a lack of synergy.”

“I don’t know why I have such a reluctance to part with it.”

“That’s what I’m talking about, Dave. The overall trend of moments is that you recognize you should be gracious enough to undertake sacrifices for your wife, but in the little moments, in the life-altering micro-decisions that you might hardly notice, you want what you want and you continually fail to establish a results-based best-practices for the big picture. It’s the tiny decisions that create the archetype for the big decisions.”

“I hate the big decisions,” I say.

“I know you do, buddy,” he says. “Let’s put that in the parking lot for the time being and you can think on it. Now, how about a walk? Don’t you want to go for a walk?”

I do, so I retrieve his leash from the coat rack. As soon as I have it in my hands, he bounces up, rushing for the door. His tail whacks against the table next to the door. The table where we always lay our keys when we come home. The table that Jenny’s aunt gave us for our wedding.

Outside, against the backdrop of the rising sun, Roger and I walk to the end of the block and then down to the neighborhood park. I keep one hand on his leash (as he is wont to lose his mind at the sight of a loose squirrel or rabbit), while the other hand strokes the beard. My fingers twist bunches into coils. I replay the conversation with Roger in my head, each time coming to a different conclusion about what he meant.

“Vertically independent decisions,” I say to myself as I unhook Roger’s leash from his safety harness. I let him run free here because the fence on three sides gives me a better chance to catch him if he goes bunny-crazy and loses all regard for boundaries.

My mind wanders to the marketing guy and his asinine viral plan. The quality of virulence that most escaped him is the inherent nature of such memes… ideas multiply according to no rational plan. It’s random and chaotic and uncontrollable.

After a few minutes of gleeful free-running time, I collect Roger and we trudge home. The neighbors are beginning to venture forth from the homes, and we give them affable waves and head-nods and the occasional sidewalk greeting. I feed the dog his breakfast, then I return upstairs to the bedroom and shed my clothes for my morning shower.

“Paradigm-shifting micro-decisions,” I say as I take a towel from the shelf in the closet.

When I walk into the bathroom, I notice Roger has taken up position in the hallway, and now has trained those eyes upon me. He flicks them from my face down to the counter, and then back to my face. After a few more repetitions, I finally I look where he looked, and see my razor on the edge of the counter, its five blades fresh and lanolin strip unblemished, since I haven’t shaved in months. I don’t remember taking it from the medicine cabinet.

I look back at the dog. He cocks his head to the side. I pick up the razor, and get in the shower.


Jim Heskett is a writer of short and long fiction based in Colorado. He posts free music, travel pictures, music & book reviews, and writing samples on his website, and he is also the founder and editor of the Five Suns Literary Journal.

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