Steve’s beard first spoke to him on a spring afternoon, the first warm day of the year. Steve had come home that day planning to shave off the beard, which he’d grown over the past winter. Mainly he wanted it gone due to several recent comments from his pre-med classmates—little jibes about how silly and wild the thing looked. “What are you, a hipster?” they often joked. And they were right: the beard cascaded impractically over Steve’s upper lip and bushed out at the sideburns and hung an inch below his chin, a reddish blur on his face. It served no purpose. Steve had never grown such a beard, but this was his last year as an undergraduate, and he’d already been accepted to a good medical school. He’d always been straight-laced, working steadily toward his goals. He wanted to be a doctor, after all, to help sick people, and that was important business. So he rarely drank, never partied, always stayed home to study on weekend nights, kept his appearance simple, neutral, boring.
Why not let the beard go for once? he’d thought months ago. It might be my last chance.
But that was all done now. It was time to get serious. About his appearance, about his important career as a physician, about life.
Plus the weather was getting warm; the beard had begun to itch.
So Steve came home that afternoon, found his electric clippers below the bathroom vanity, and admired his beard in the mirror one last time. He plugged the clippers into the wall.
“Please don’t,” a voice said.
“Um, what?” Steve said.
“Don’t shave me off. Please. I want to live.”
Steve slowly set down the electric clippers.
The voice was coming, distinctly, from his beard.
“Am I going crazy?” Steve said.
“Nope. I’m talking to you.”
“How can you be talking to me? You’re a beard.”
“I don’t know. I just am.”
“How is this possible?”
“I really have no idea.”
“Well,” Steve said, “I have been studying an awful lot.”
“Maybe,” the beard said. “You’ll just have to take my word for it. I’m alive. I don’t know how or why. The thing is, I might be able to help you with certain things. As long as you don’t shave me off.”
Steve thought about it, and he felt surprisingly unsurprised by this bizarre development.
“What do you mean, help me?” Steve asked.
“I’m glad you’re game,” the beard said with obvious satisfaction. “Let’s go to a bar and I’ll show you.”
“I could really use a beer,” the beard said. “There’s a nice place around the corner.”
So they—Steve and his beard—went to a bar near Steve’s apartment. It was a dark place, where hard music played at high volume and all the patrons were tattooed. Steve felt immediately out of place. But the beard instructed Steve in a whisper to relax and order a beer and wait. The beard even told Steve which particular brand to order: a craft stout from some tiny, off-the-wall microbrewery. Perplexed, Steve did as he was told, even though he wasn’t the kind of guy to sit in dark bars on sunny afternoons, drinking the day away.
A few minutes later, a woman approached Steve. She was short and pretty and a few years older than him and had a thick purple streak in her black hair. She wore a ratty black tee-shirt upon which “Death and Taxes” was printed in white block letters. She introduced herself as Tonya, and she sat down next to him.
Steve and Tonya talked for an hour. She laughed at all of his jokes. She told crass stories and seemed unembarrassed when she informed him that she worked at a pizza joint—a job description Steve had always believed to be life’s saddest possible fate. She touched his arm a lot, and soon Steve noticed that her knee was pressed against his thigh.
“Are you doing this?” Steve whispered to his beard when Tonya excused herself to the restroom.
“Yep. You’re welcome.”
“I’ve never had a woman—just talk to me.”
“She likes you. She likes us. Beards have that effect on certain people.”
Steve was truly amazed. He’d had a few girlfriends in the past, but they’d mostly been sorority sisters, the kind of women who know all the rules about what colors to wear at what time of year. He’d never spent time with a woman like Tonya. He liked her. A lot. She was different.
“Are you giving me supernatural powers or something?” Steve whispered to the beard.
“No,” the beard said, and it chuckled. “I told you, some women just like beards. Call it a fringe benefit. Keep me around, and who knows what else could happen.”
So Steve did. How could he even consider shaving off the beard now? Steve felt instantly more confident. Not to mention the fact that the beard spoke—that it was a sentient being capable of insight and the survival instinct. That was enough reason, morally, to spare its life.
Steve and Tonya dated for a few weeks. She seemed to enjoy kissing him immensely, burying her face in his ever-growing beard. Occasionally, at night, he would awake and find Tonya’s cheek pressed against his—her skin against the beard. When the relationship fizzled, as relationships that begin in bars often do, Steve was relieved that Tonya seemed to quickly get over the breakup. They remained on good terms, and Tonya even suggested that he start dating a friend of hers, Candi, who was also, it turned out, a big fan of his beard.
That was how it began: Steve and his beard went out nearly every night, and they spent time with fun, sassy, non-career-oriented women. Steve enjoyed himself. He’d never had so much fun.
A month after the beard had first spoken, it began to make requests of Steve. It requested, for example, to be bathed daily with a certain tea tree shampoo. It requested to be conditioned with a specific combination of essential oils: eucalyptus, cedarwood, a touch of peppermint. This made the dark red bulk of Steve’s beard shine in a way that made it, and Steve, proud. The oils had the added benefit of eliminating the itchiness that had been bothering Steve’s cheeks since the weather had turned warm.
“See,” the beard said. “Isn’t that better?”
“Now we’re both happy. But. I have another request.”
“Books,” the beard said. “I want to read books. Novels, specifically. I want to read some novels.”
“Novels? I don’t really read novels. I’m more into, you know, medical textbooks.”
“But novels are amazing! You should try one.”
“I’m pretty busy with—”
“I really must insist,” the beard said.
So Steve purchased a novel that the beard had recommended, and he sat down to read it at a local café—a hip joint with catty baristas and local art on the walls, a place also recommended by the beard. The beard read along with Steve, and quickly Steve found himself lost in the narrative. Five hours later Steve turned the last page, closed the book, and sighed in pleasure.
“Wasn’t that nice?” the beard asked.
“Yes!” Steve replied enthusiastically.
“Didn’t I tell you? Novels are the best. I hope we can read more.”
“Absolutely. As long as it doesn’t interfere with my school work. Midterms are coming up.”
“Of course. Though why do you care about midterms? You’ve already been accepted to medical school.”
“I still need to do well,” Steve said.
“I suppose,” the beard muttered. “Oh, I’ve been meaning to ask. What would you think about glasses?”
“I think a nice pair of simple, Clark Kent-type glasses would be a really great accessory to, you know, a beard like me.”
“But my vision is perfect,” Steve said. “I don’t need glasses.”
“Just buy some nonprescription glasses. Come on. It’ll look good. When have I steered you wrong?”
Thus the beard guided Steve over the next few months: in hygiene, in the arts, in fashion, in attitude. The beard corrected Steve’s opinions, when necessary, on books and movies. Steve’s old music? Out the door. The beard instructed Steve to buy secondhand blue jeans and plaid, flannel shirts and to discard the simple, preppy, inoffensive Oxford button-ups he’d always preferred. They continued to go out to local bars, wearing this new uniform; the beard somehow knew which bars had the best craft beer specials on which nights. Steve dated a series of eccentric, beautiful women, and he made an entirely new set of friends—struggling artists, struggling musicians, struggling writers.
This new lifestyle consumed much of Steve’s time and energy. Not to mention the beer drinking and the bar flings, which often left him exhausted the next day. Steve’s grades began to slip. But he was having so much fun. More fun than he’d ever had. Steve had lived his entire life by the book. Always with an eye toward his career. He’d always wanted to be a doctor, even from a very young age, for the simple reason that he wanted to help sick people get well. That was, fundamentally, a pure motivation. So he’d never allowed himself too much in the fun department. But that’s the thing about fun—It’s hard to stop once you start.
Interestingly, Steve’s new life wasn’t all partying. Often Steve and his beard stayed home and talked long into the night, just the two of them. Steve did most of the talking, confiding his insecurities—about his career, about the path he’d chosen in life, that he wasn’t even sure he’d ever chosen anything. The beard proved to be a great listener, as one might expect from an entity naturally positioned next to both the mouth and ears of another entity, and the beard would occasionally offer words of empathy or encouragement. “That must be really hard, Steve,” the beard often said. But mostly the beard just listened.
Steve’s final semester of college was drawing to a close. His beard had grown and now reached the collar of Steve’s thick flannel shirts. The beard was easily Steve’s defining characteristic. Other students would call out to him, “Cool beard, man!” and Steve and the beard would smile, and Steve would wave in appreciation.
One afternoon, about two weeks before his final exams, Steve’s anatomy professor called him into her office. Her name was Dr. Clara Davis, and last semester she had written Steve a letter of recommendation for medical schools.
“I’m concerned about you,” Dr. Davis said bluntly.
Steve shook his head, confused.
“Your grades have fallen. I’ve spoken with your other professors, and the story seems to be the same across the board. Is something going on?”
Steve found himself suddenly embarrassed. His face blushed. His hands fidgeted.
“To pass my class,” Dr. Davis went on, “you’ll need a nearly perfect grade on your final exam. And I’m not in the habit of giving out nearly perfect grades.”
“Give me a break,” the beard said.
Dr. Davis’s eyes widened, and she leaned back in her seat.
Steve clapped a hand over his mouth. The beard had spoken for him.
“What on earth!” Dr. Davis said. “You’re going to medical school, young man. This kind of behavior—”
“I’m just enjoying my last semester,” the beard said, muffled, through Steve’s hand. “What’s wrong with that, you old cow? Who says everyone’s life should look like yours?”
Steve jumped to his feet. There were tears in his eyes. He bumped into the professor’s bookshelf as he staggered toward the door, knocking a few dusty medical texts to the carpet.
“This is appalling!” Dr. Davis called out. “It’s time to get your life in order, young man!”
Steve rushed home, nearly at a sprint. The air was hot and muggy. He sweat through his thick flannel shirt.
“Can you believe her?” the beard said. “What did you do wrong? Who have you hurt?”
“Please stop talking,” Steve said. “I need to think.”
“Think? About what?”
“It’s OK, Steve. Lets go to a bar, have a nice beer, and relax.”
“I think I need to go home.”
“Fine idea!” the beard said, though its voice was measured, perhaps a little suspect. “A quiet night at home. Just the two of us.”
Back at his apartment, Steve walked directly to the bathroom. There he found his electric clippers, the same device he’d held three months earlier when the beard had first spoken to him. He plugged the clippers into the wall.
“Steve!” the beard cried out. “No!”
“I have to.”
Steve felt the beard quivering in fear. He’d never felt it move before.
“Please,” the beard whimpered. “I was just trying to help you. Haven’t you enjoyed yourself? Aren’t we friends?”
“We are,” Steve said sadly.
“Just one more night. Please. Just one more night. Give me until the morning.”
Steve set down the electric clippers.
So Steve and the beard spent their final evening together. They drank a few beers. They listened to one of the beard’s, and Steve’s, favorite bands on the stereo. They read a novel together—finishing off a weighty French tome that, in the end, the beard had conflicted opinions about—opinions that Steve would later repeat as his own, at dinner parties and medical school functions, much to the amazement of his instructors and fellow students.
And Steve and the beard talked—in low voices, late into the night. The beard listened, as always, to Steve’s simple problems, which were not really problems at all. The beard did not talk about itself. It did not ask for its life to be spared. When Steve asked how the beard was feeling, it somberly changed the subject.
Steve awoke on his sofa around 4 a.m. He felt something tight around his neck. He coughed. His throat hurt. He stumbled to his feet and flipped on a lamp.
“What are you doing?” Steve said to the beard. “Were you trying to choke me?”
The beard did not reply. It hung limply from Steve’s face.
“Hello?” Steve said angrily. “Hello?”
“I’m sorry”—was the beard’s sad, nearly inaudible reply. “I’m so sorry, Steve. I never would have—”
But Steve was bolting to the bathroom. He plugged in the electric clippers. He activated the clippers and drove them into the beard. For a moment he thought that he heard a muffled cry, but then there was nothing. The beard did not resist. It fell away in reddish chunks into the white porcelain sink. In five minutes, the work was done.
“Hello?” Steve said, looking down at the remains in the sink basin.
But there was no response. It was just a pile of hair.
Steve collected the remains, which came to four handfuls of thick, well-conditioned hair, and he flushed them down the toilet. Then Steve found a canister of shaving cream, and a razor, and he shaved off the last of his stubble.
Back in his living room, Steve found his anatomy textbook, and he sat down to study.
Two weeks later, he passed his final exams.
Years went by. Steve earned his medical degree, then worked in a series of hospitals in increasingly important positions. He was well-liked by both staff and patients. He saved many people’s lives. He shaved every morning, without fail. He married a nice woman named Sheryl, and they had healthy kids who grew up to have healthy kids of their own. His life was largely happy, though of course he suffered the discontents and disappointments most people do. Still, as his retirement neared, he believed his had been a life well-spent.
On the night of his retirement party, as Steve and his wife drove home, Sheryl turned to him and said,
“I noticed tonight that you’ve got stubble on your face. Did you forget to shave this morning?”
“No,” Steve said. “I was thinking of growing a beard.”
“Really?” Sheryl said, truly surprised. “I’ve never seen you with a beard, have I?”
“No. I had one years ago. In college.”
“How funny. You never told me.”
“It was a long time ago,” Steve said in a low, reflective voice.
Over the next few weeks, Steve’s beard slowly grew in. It was now completely white, of course. Every morning he would wake up and study the beard in his bathroom mirror, and he would condition it with a specific combination of essential oils. Sheryl would pass him in the bathroom, shake her head whimsically, pleasantly surprised that this man she’d known for forty years could still surprise her. Late at night, after Sheryl had gone to bed, Steve would pop open a craft beer, and another, and another. He would sit on his couch and read the novels he’d never had time to read until now. And he would speak into the darkness, telling the story of his life and waiting for a response, which he was certain would come very soon.
Jeremy Hawkins debut novel, The Last Days of Video, was published by Soft Skull Press/Counterpoint in 2015. His fiction has appeared at Electric Lit, Diagram, Molotov Cocktail, Independent Ink Magazine, and other venues. He holds an MFA from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and I is the founder of The Distillery (distilleryediting.com), a web-based editing service for creative projects. He lives in Chapel Hill, NC, where he teaches creative writing at the Carrboro ArtsCenter.