THE BEARD, by K. Chess

In celebration of her novel, Famous Men Who Never Lived, dropping on Tin House Books just now, we offer you this jarringly good story from a past issue. There was a little Elliot Smith in here, according to her author note.

The Beard


I have a tattoo of the cult pop musician James Henrichon on my right inner forearm, glowering, shielded by the big beard he grew the year he killed himself.When I first moved from New York to eastern Wyoming, I noticed how often strangers here would glance at the tattoo and then physically shy away from me. I saw how they would try to look very pointedly at my face while they counted out my change, their expressions sad or closed-off or disapproving, and I thought that these must be the people who had known Henrichon – he grew up here, after all, and this is a small place. I felt sorry then, for intruding on a private grief. I didn’t understand what was really going on until a gloating old man in a POW-MIA ballcap confronted me outside the Party Store last May and called me Osama. “You’ll get your’s, too,” he said. “See if you don’t.”  That’s when I stopped wearing tee-shirts in public.

            It’s not that I mind attention. My mark is not a birthmark, after all. I’m a grown man and I chose it, so normal rules about staring ought to be relaxed. What offends me is the fact that no one here seems to remember James Henrichon, dead less than ten years. He never made it big, but he was certainly the biggest thing ever to emerge from the obscurity of this rinky-dink town where for months at a time the moveable letters in the sign at the gas station off 410 spelled COME TRY OUT OUR NEW PUMPS!

            I go about my duties, listening to other music but hearing his in my head. The songs are about work, sometimes. They’re about happiness and sadness, about control and drugs and the stupid things we do, but like all great songs, they’re mostly about love. Frustrated love, painful love, love that you try to bring to a screeching halt, you dig your heels in, but it’s stronger than you are. Love that limps on. I know firsthand how terrible it is to feel that way, but when it’s over, how could you forget about it? How could you want to cover it up?

            I’m sure that I was wearing long sleeves the day I met Shane. The day I met him wasn’t actually the first time I’d seen him; the same ten people are always in Rudy’s, especially if you’re hanging around during the late afternoon, just after it opens. I go there regularly after my shift at the grocery store, because there are men there who are as bad as me or worse and though I don’t want to talk to any of them, it’s a comfort to know that they’re around. Officially, Rudy’s is not a gay bar, but everybody knows. If you were to get very intoxicated and throw a chair at the jukebox – which I saw a man do once – and got yourself banned from the premises, you’d have to drive across the state line and all the way into Salt Lake City to hang out with as many ugly old queers.

            On the day I met Shane, I was sitting at a table by myself at the black-painted window, underneath a blow-up bottle of Dos Equis that spun around gently in the internal breeze from the vents, and a Henrichon song came on the jukebox in the bar. It was “Black Fork Riding.” Not one of my favorites, maybe, but I felt a thrill go through me just the same, and before I had a chance to look up from my drink, somebody in the back corner was saying, “James Henrichon – I knew that guy!”

            Shane wasn’t the man who said that. Shane was the man who didn’t say anything.

            He was seated at the bar right in front of the taps, also by himself, nursing a tall yellow beer. The only reason I noticed him was that the bartender and he shared a sympathetic look then and the bartender – a straight-looking-but-gay-talking guy around my own age, which is to say ten years younger than anybody else in the place – poured out a double and slid it over next to the unfinished pint and said, “Here you go, Shane.” A sympathy drink. And I don’t know why, maybe because “Black Fork Riding” was still playing in the background, but I immediately thought of Shane Douglette, Henrichon’s childhood friend and musical collaborator. Douglette was the drummer, background vocalist and co-songwriter in Henrichon’s first band, formed when they were just boys. Then Henrichon grew up, moved away, went solo. Who knows what happened to Shane Douglette.

            What a coincidence.

            Then, I was blessed with a rare flash of insight.

            There are disappointments and setbacks in the produce business – insects, bruises and worse. Unpacking a crate of Fujis, I might reach for an apple and find, as my fingers compass the sound-looking fruit, that the side I can’t see is soft, collapsing with rot. It’s a betrayal, a reversal of expectations. But there is also order and sense, and I have developed a feel for what is right. I know when a wipe-down with a damp cloth can save a cloudy-skinned piece of citrus. I know whether I ought to send a box of celery back to the distributor without even putting it out for sale. I know if I need to check the fans in the depths of the cooler. Not because of the sounds they make inside their housings. I just know.

            This was the selfsame Shane.

            We stayed in our places, me and the stranger at the end of the bar, suspended in the music like that Dos Equis bottle twisting in the air above our heads. I didn’t have to ask him. I was sure. And I was equally sure that he didn’t want to hear this song. I knew it, even if his friend the bartender didn’t.

            I’d heard Douglette’s drumming before. I had even heard his adolescent singing voice – preserved on a rare demo tape – as he harmonized with the teenage Henrichon for a chorus. But I’d never seen a picture of Douglette at any age. Now, I observed him, a man in his early forties with a long nose and a square face, his curly reddish hair clipped short, his cheeks dusted with rusty stubble. He downed his whiskey, hunched over. He would never make it stop himself.

            The TV over the bar showed a Cher concert from 1997 on mute, the kind of shit they always seem to have on at places like Rudy’s. My instincts were still operating at an usually high level. I picked up my own beer and stepped over to the bartender. “Hey,” I said. “Is there any way you can turn off the music?” I pointed up to the TV. “I really want the sound on this.”

            The bartender spared a glance at Shane, who’d begun rubbing the empty shot glass against the surface of the bar as if it were a tool he was using to remove the finish. “Sure,” the bartender said, “Not a problem,” and reached under the bar near the POS system where the controls were.

            There was a sound of protest from the back of the room when “Black Fork Riding” cut out, presumably from whoever had paid fifty cents to hear it, and someone yelled “James!” in a plaintive way, which the bartender and Shane and I all three ignored. And then there was only Cher.

            I settled myself on the bar stool nearest the door where I could see the TV, but not all that well.

            “Thanks,” Shane said.

             “You’re welcome. I hope you don’t mind the, um.” I gestured again toward the TV. “The interruption.”

            He shook his head. “I like this fine.”

            “Everybody likes this concert,” said the bartender staunchly. “It’s a good one.”

            “Yeah,” said Shane and he looked at me in a way that I liked, humorous and appraising. I could tell that he felt well-disposed toward me then. That was when the unusual certainty of the emotional intuition or whatever it was that had been guiding my actions deserted me. I wanted to be able to make easy conversation, but I just couldn’t. The problem with me is I freeze. I flee. I’m a coward.

            I took out my wallet and paid for my drink as quickly as possible, in cash.

            It was on the drive home a few minutes later that I noticed they had switched the sign at the gas station for summer. It now read THE COLDEST DRINKS IN TOWN, and that made me angry, angry at myself. It occurred to me only then, driving past the gas station, that I might have paid for his beer and his shot – Shane Douglette’s. That would have been something, at least.

            Sometimes, even this doesn’t feel like it’s far enough west. Sometimes I wish I’d kept driving all the way to the ocean.

            Back in New York, my ex always knew when I was thinking about leaving. Not when we were fighting, I mean, but when I would go somewhere else for a while, out of his orbit, and find myself a little and make resolutions – somehow he would sense that. He would know and he’d be so sweet to me. When I returned to him, prepared to have it out, he wouldn’t apologize. He would just act so reasonable, like someone who would never do the things he routinely, absolutely did. Then, for a little while I could feel that I must have misinterpreted something. Against my will, I believed again that I had made up that other side of him. How well he had me trained. He’d taught me to eat from the blade of his knife.

            The music used to help. It was the only thing that did. When he was perversely assaulting me, disrupting my processes whenever I was vulnerable – just at the edge of my sleep or in the middle of normal daily routines – I might have sung out loud. Certain Henrichon songs I could have sung in the bathroom, looking over the shelves in the medicine cabinet at the sharp things, the pills.

            Now, I’m out. He let me leave.

            And I don’t bother to make resolutions anymore. That never worked. Now, I just wait for things to happen to me.

::::

            Shane came to see me at work on a Wednesday afternoon, just as I was getting ready to take off for the day. I was breaking down the boxes from the produce delivery, as well as some from the packaged grocery department which the stockers had left piled outside by the delivery ramp overnight. We have a designated corrugated cardboard Dumpster at the store, and the only thing that can go in it is corrugated cardboard, so all tape must be removed. I’ve gotten very good at understanding the tabs and folds of boxes, at pushing on the weak points and sliding my fingers under the tape and flattening them. There are some boxes, though, that are made in such a way that it’s easiest just to step inside them and kick out the sides. That’s what I was doing when Shane pulled his truck around to the back of the store. It was a sunny afternoon, and I had taken off my flannel overshirt and thrown it on top of the Dumpster. As he climbed down out of the driver’s seat I looked for the shirt, but it was too far for me to get it. I gave the box another kick, right arm carefully concealed behind my body.

            My reasoning: if he didn’t want to hear the song, he wouldn’t want to see the beard.

            “Woah, there!” Shane said. “Go easy on the poor thing.”

            I turned to face him. One of my hands clasped the opposite wrist behind my back, like I was some kind of a foreign dignitary on a pier about to make a speech. “How can I help you?” I asked; when I feel foolish, I always try to compensate with formality. There was no good reason I could think of that he would be at the delivery door.

            “I’m helping my nephew move later on this week,” he said. “I was wondering if you might have some boxes I could take away.” He looked down at the wrecked cardboard at my feet, which had once contained bananas from Chile. “Maybe not that one, though.”

            “Sure,” I said, sidestepping as he came forward. “You’re welcome to any of them. Even the boxes I’ve already broken down – I can put them back together for you.”

            “He doesn’t need that many. He’s only moving across town and he’s got most of his things packed already in garbage bags, I think. The ones you haven’t busted up yet should do us fine.” Shane lifted up two of the still-intact cases, big ones that had once held corn chips or cereal. He was wearing a snug gray tee-shirt. His hair was receding a bit on each side of an exaggerated widow’s peak. There was something boyish about the way he held himself.

            Reluctantly, I picked up a third box. I saw his eyes move to the blue-black stain of the tattoo on the inside of my arm and I felt my shoulders stiffen.

            I have a right, I reminded myself. He’s mine, too, in a way.

            “Is that that Russian guy in your tattoo?” Shane asked. “Man that wrote Crime and Punishment?”

            I looked where he was looking, down at Henrichon hiding behind his inky beard, and to my shame, I nodded yes.

            “I bet people around here don’t know what to make of that. Did you get it done in SLC?”

            “No,” I told him. “In New York. I used to live there.”

            “It looks like good quality work.” He tossed the empty boxes into the bed of his truck and then pulled a battered-looking flip-phone out of his pocket to check the time. “It’s really warming up out here,” he said. “I was thinking about getting a drink. Want to join me?”

            I freeze. I flee. It’s a survival mechanism.

            “I’m not quite done yet,” I heard myself say. “I’d better not.”

            “All right. Well, thanks for the boxes.”

            “Not a problem.”

            That night I lay down on my back on the bare boards of my enclosed front porch, which slopes down at a perceptible angle toward the street. I lay with my head downhill, my feet inside the open front door of the house, and stared at the ceiling, which is painted sky blue. I don’t know how long this house has been a rental, but it is clear from its general condition that it has been passed directly from college student to drug addict to careless bachelor like myself over the course of many years and although it meets my needs, there are few signs around the property that anyone has ever taken a proprietary interest in the place. The raised bed I built in the backyard to plant my lettuce is one. That pale blue ceiling on the porch is another, and I was hoping the unaccustomed bloodflow would do something good for my head.

            I had thought that here at the source I might hear the music more clearly.

            James, the hopelessness you felt, it must have been more immense than mine. I don’t doubt that, but I don’t completely understand it, either. You with your many friends and fans and lovers.

            I mean, I’m a real failure. Look at the facts. At least you left behind your songs.

            A few months ago, there was a tornado warning while I was at work, unusual in this part of the country. My boss, Dick Torres, and his business partner Marie and the guy from the meat department – my enemy, I hesitate to call him a butcher – and the check-out girls all got into the walk-in cooler to wait it out. Armored in my rubber apron, I stayed at the front of the store to watch. It seemed like someone should. The big plate-glass windows behind the registers all face east, and there was one shopping cart left out in the empty parking lot. I watched the cart slide where the wind carried it under the yellow sky like a shuffleboard puck, back and forth from one end of the lot to the other. I waited for it to crash through the windows, but it never did. Something was playing on the stereo, on the 5-disc CD changer and radio that serves as our sound system at the store, but I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t care what happened to me then. It can’t be normal to feel that way.

            Like I said, though, there’s an order in produce. I’m aware of that order as I cull, ruthless as a god, and as I rotate stock, making sure the newest bananas are always on the bottom. As I pare away a thin layer, oxidized red, from the base of each head of iceberg lettuce, the slices falling from my knife like perfect coins. As I regard the Bosc pears, every piece of fruit wrapped in tissue paper like a gift and resting with the others inside the case. I might choose one to unwrap and hold it in my hand, still cold to the touch from the refrigeration but warming, and I know this place of exile is right for me.

            I had to tell Shane that. I had to show him who I was so that he would leave me in peace.

            I asked around at Rudy’s to determine where he lived, and then drove out to the south side of town after work. It was a neighborhood to which I’d once made a stealthy pilgrimage, back when I first moved out here. Henrichon’s parents’ old house was a small white split-level on a busy road; I remember snapping a picture as I cruised by. Shane lived just a quarter of a mile further in a two-story house on a big lot with pink siding and an attached carport. As I approached, I heard the sounds of frenzied ping-pong playing emitting from inside, the plastic ball cracking off the plastic table. Once I got close, I could tell it was coming from the basement. I thought about turning around, but before I did, the sound stopped. I found I could reach the doorbell mounted to the siding while standing on the ground, without even climbing the three cement steps.

            He answered the door barefoot, in jeans and a ribbed sleeveless undershirt. “Hi,” he said. He held a paddle with a pebbled blue rubber surface in his hand. He actually seemed pleased to see me, as far as I could tell.

            “Is someone here with you?”

            “Yeah, my nephew. Do you want to come in for a beer?”

            I’d taken a tomato box from the store with me, a pathetic sort of offering. I held it out to him now. “I brought him one of these. They’re the sturdiest. Is he still going to move?”

            “Well, he moved here, for now. He’s trying to figure some things out.” He looked at me critically, in my flannel work shirt. “Aren’t you hot?”

            “No,” I said.

            “You can just toss it on the lawn,” he told me. “The box. Toss it over by the foundation. I can probably find another use for it.”

            I didn’t want to let go. I compressed its cardboard edge in my hand. “Look,” I said. “I have to confess something to you. The tattoo I have – it isn’t Tolstoy.”

            “Tolstoy?” He tossed the paddle pointlessly from hand to hand. “I thought it was Dostoyevsky. You said, the man who wrote …”

            “I’ve never read any of those Russian novels,” I told him. “It’s not an author. It’s James Henrichon.”

            “Oh.” Shane seemed taken aback. He sank down onto the lowest step. “Wow.”

            “I know that’s probably strange for you. If you knew him. Since you knew him. I thought I ought to tell you instead of lying, because it’s really important to me. Maybe it seems creepy. I know he’s dead now. That’s why I came out here: to live where he ran away from. Alone.”

            “Can I see it again?”

            Wordlessly, I dropped the tomato box and unbuttoned my cuff to push up the sleeve. I watched Shane consider.

            “Do you think it looks like him?” he asked at last.

            As a performer, Henrichon was undramatic, but even the poorest-quality audience recordings are rewarding to watch – or at least to me they are. Henrichon kept his head down while he played, absorbed throughout most of the set. His concentration was evident as his hands moved on the strings. And then, in the middle of a song, his chin would tilt up for a brazen second as he looked out to see what kind of an impression he was making. It was like an eclipse. That look is what I would want as a tattoo, in a perfect world, but some things don’t translate well to permanent. That’s why I went with the beard, the most obvious feature. So that people would know who he was.

            “I’m satisfied with it,” I said. “If that’s what you’re asking.”

            “Huh.” Shane laid down the paddle and stretched his legs out in front of him and I saw that the soles of his feet were dusty. “He looks so old. And he didn’t even get to be very old. I guess he must have been about your age when he died, wasn’t he?”

            That was something I hadn’t considered before, but I realized it was true. “Do you mind if I sit?” I asked.

            “Go ahead.”

            I sat next to him on the hard stair. “Maybe something is off about it,” I admitted. “No one in Wyoming has ever recognized him.”

            “We don’t think about him here as much as you might guess.”

            Sometimes, back at home in New York, I used to feel like I was standing on the deck of a great ocean liner halted in the middle of the North Atlantic, surrounded in the dark by dangers, intersecting lines of threat I could not make out. I didn’t know where the icebergs were or how big they were or how many, and I couldn’t move for fear of hitting one. I was paralyzed. Frozen. And then, on the horizon, I saw the flares from another ship. I didn’t know if those onboard were also in distress. If they were, I had no way of going to those people to help, and they were not coming to assist me, either. But at least I knew someone else was alive out there.

            That was Henrichon’s music to me.

            “So you know,” I said, “I only meant it as a tribute to a great man. Like Dostoyevsky.”

            Shane laughed quietly. He put his hand on me, flat against my back. I felt it, warm through my shirt, and he leaned in then and kissed me. It felt good – the warmth, the pressure – but after a second, I scooted up two concrete steps away from him, against the closed door. It was dusk now, but it wasn’t that dark. What could he be thinking? I didn’t want his methhead neighbors to see anything, and I didn’t want to make any more mistakes.

            “I think I should go now,” I said.

            “Please.” He was two steps down from me. He rubbed a hand across his stubble and said it again: “Please.” My heart, then, a drum. A drum played by a teenager in a garage somewhere who didn’t know what he was doing. “Don’t you want to come inside?” Shane asked.

            So I did.