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Sam Apple

Beard

I'm going to grow my beard long. Thick and black, it will be very handsome. Amy will say that it makes me look too serious. I will reply that I am a serious man, that the beard will be a nice complement to my already well-established seriousness. Amy will laugh, or kick me softly in the shin, or tickle my earlobes with her index fingers. I will tell her that I'm glad she finds the prospect of my chin hidden beneath a mound of distinguished black curls amusing, but that I am not joking. Amy will suck her thick lower lip into her mouth and warn me that my mother is going to have a fit.

Mother will have a fit. She'll grow increasingly distressed as she observes the beard's progress. During the stubby stage (I expect this to last between seven and ten days), she'll refer to me as the bum. Once it grows a bit more dense, I'll become the hooligan. By the time I have two good inches, my very own thicket on the tip of my face, I will no longer be welcome in her home.

"Please let me in, Mother. Beard or no beard, I'm still your son."

2

From talking to the boys at work, I have learned that the itching will be most intense during the initial weeks. After a month, you'll hardly notice it's there, Alan, a beardless stock boy, informed me. John, the express-lane cashier, also beardless, announced that he knew of a barber who gives a good trim.

"I have no intention of trimming the beard," I responded, in a curt but not impolite voice.

2

The inspiration for the beard came from Jesus Christ or, more precisely, from Mathis Grunwald's Isenheim Altarpiece. The altarpiece is divided into four separate frames. The frame on the far right depicts the Resurrection of Christ. Against a starry sky, a brilliant orange circle, not unlike the planet Jupiter, emerges, outlined by vanishing shades of light blue. In front of the orange circle hovers Christ, His hands raised self-consciously in the air, as if to ensure us that no trickery was involved in His fantastic feat. Above Christ's chin is a subtle but undeniable smirk. He is proud of His resurrection. Below His chin sits a blond beard so enticing in its fullness, so exasperating it its tranquility, that to see it and not attempt to emulate it is to concede an absurd existence.

Though I have on more than one occasion imagined my own crucifixion, and even more often wondered what it must have been like to be the Christ Child, warm and snug in His mother's celestial robes, I do not believe I have a Christ Complex. The project (this is how I often refer to the growing of the beard) is neither a sacrifice on my part nor an attempt to save someone. I am not, per se, a religious man. Jesus Christ is my favorite philosopher, that is all.

"I do not usually think of him as a philosopher," people never fail to comment.

"I suggest you look at the texts more closely," I shoot back.

2

My best friend Sara's father is a salesman. According to Sara, he is against beards, at least for salesmen. The customer, he argues, will fear that the salesperson has something to hide. I am hiding nothing. My father, who I am told maintained a dark brown beard his entire adult life, hid many things: liquor, mistresses, himself. I do not miss my father, though I suspect Mother might.

2

I was standing behind Amy in the bathroom brushing my teeth when she made the following prediction: "You will eventually shave the beard, and as the black clumps fall from your face and fill the bathroom sink, you'll weep for your lost youth."

"Quite a poetic sentiment, Amy," I said, as I caught her blue eyes in the mirror. In truth, I am nervous--not only for my lost youth but for the progress of the project. Three weeks after my bold pronouncement, my facial hair is still referred to as "scruff" by the boys at work. In addition, people have begun to treat me differently. Amy has threatened to stop having sex with me on the grounds that I'm too scratchy. And Harold, my supervisor, thinks that it is about time I found my razor. While I am not yet convinced that there is a direct correlation between the length of my beard and the degree of irritability I perceive, it is a subject worth investigating.

Most difficult of all has been Jun Chan's wholly unprovoked attack on the project. Jun Chan, only recently arrived from Korea, speaks little English and rarely talks to me, unless I first make the effort to engage him. So it came as an unsettling surprise when he blurted out those three words. We were standing in the dimly lit storeroom, boxes of cat food and laundry detergent rising high above our heads. "Too much beard," he said. I still do not know whether he meant that the beard was too long or that I talk about it too much. Either because he did not have the words or because he had said all he had to say, Jun Chan refused to mention the beard again. I have asked him numerous times to elaborate on his observation. Each time he nods a seemingly tacit understanding and says nothing.

Mother, by contrast, is taking the beard surprisingly well. Every day for the past two weeks she has told me I look like garbage, but she has not denied me entrance to her lush suburban home. Nor has she failed to have my fish sticks ready upon my arrival. In moments of weakness, I worry that the project has nothing to do with Jesus Christ at all. What if it is little more than a cruel and partially conscious attempt to spite Mother, to avenge the years of humiliation she caused me by appropriating the power to humiliate? Perhaps the beard was inspired by Christ's Resurrection, but only in a more figurative sense, in that I am now emerging from Mother's shell for the second time. Perhaps she will be ill again. I should relieve her worries by telling her I'm growing the beard for a play.

"I'm going to star as Abe Lincoln, Mother. I'll wear a tall hat and get shot in the theater."

2

The beard, a good half-an-inch thick around, can now be objectively described as full. I appear pious as opposed to burly. My once pale, narrow face is full and vital. My brown eyes have taken on a new confidence; they are proud outlooks on a refurbished vessel. My nose, after 25 years of cringing in its inescapably central role, has begun to sniffle in public. And, close your ears, Mother, for the first time in my life, I am considering the piercing of an ear.

As it turns out, I now look more like the Christ of Masaccio's Trinity than of Grunwald's Issenheim Altarpiece. In Masaccio's fresco, Christ's eyes are closed, his head tilted downward. Though he has been crucified, his face is calm and serene. My beard is not yet as full as Christ's, but in its curly texture and naturally rounded edges, Christ's facial hair greatly resembles my own. At the surface of the fresco, two robed patrons kneel. Below them lies a crumbling skeleton. Between the skeleton and the patrons there is a warning written in Latin. "We are all going to die," it says.

When I told Amy about the warning on the bottom of Trinity she laughed and said that she'd keep it in mind. I should not have expected Amy to understand. She comes from a good family. When she visits her mother, there are salads and desserts in addition to the entrees. And the house she grew up in, she tells me, had three baths. No person with so many baths in her childhood home can be expected to recognize the importance of death.

2

Mother failed to prepare fish sticks for me today. Her wrinkled cheeks remained poised as she mouthed, "I'm all out." In the 25 years I have walked this earth, I have never known Mother to be out of fish sticks. Unsure of how to respond, I paced the living room. In the frame above the television set, where Father's picture once hung, there is now a picture of Mother's hero, Dwight Eisenhower. Dwight has my father's stern eyes but lacks a brown beard.

"Did you look in the freezer in the garage, Mother?"

"Yes."

"And there were none there?"

"None."

2

Alone, in my bedroom, I find myself filled with a powerful desire to snip off clumps of my beard, place them in envelopes, and mail them to my friends and loved ones. Each clump will arrive with a personal note. To Amy I will write, "A bit of beard to brighten your day"; to Jun Chan, "A gift of beard for you"; and to Mother I will send an extra large envelope with this note: "Enclosed are some hairs from the chin of your son."

I won't send them, of course. Mother would call the police, and Amy would dismiss it as a pathetic attempt at rebellion. I would prefer she think of the project in a more positive light; I would prefer she stop calling me her "little beard-head."

2

Too much beard? Mother will no longer open the door.

"Open up, Mother."

This morning I stood outside her front door for fifteen minutes before Mother acknowledged that she was home by peeking at me through the curtains. Her eyes were as cold as I have seen them. By the dent in her lips, I could tell that she was not wearing her false teeth.

"Shave it," she yelled through the window in a horrible voice.

"I will not shave it, Mother."

Mother would have me study hard, though I am not a good student, have me move with grace, though I am ungraceful, but she would not have me grow a beard--and look like my father.

2

I invited Jun Chan to the movies the next night. He nodded O.K. We did not speak during the seven-minute drive to the theater. I ordered a large Dr Pepper; he, some chocolate mints. Before the lights were turned off, I smiled at Jun Chan, made a pretend scissors with my middle and index fingers, and snipped at the beard. He nodded a solemn yes. I sipped my Dr Pepper. Perhaps in Korea they look down upon facial hair.

When I returned home Amy was riding her exercise bike and listening to her earphones. Fifteen minutes later, I hugged her sweaty body and told her that I loved her. Amy smiled and told me that she had to take a shower. I watched prime-time television while Amy cleaned herself. When she walked through the living room in a towel ten minutes later, I noticed large suds of soap on her shoulder and pointed them out.

"Oh," she said, "I was so deep in thought, I forgot to wash off."

"Amy," I said, "I'm sorry that my beard scratches you."

"I'm sure," she replied as as she returned to the shower.

I am not sorry and I do not have a Christ Complex, but the desire for crucifixion grows stronger. Recently, it occurred to me that as a joke I might shave the beard and nail only it to the cross. Mother might not laugh. Then again, she never laughs when I do unexpected things--not when I quit school, not when I moved in with Amy, not even on the night she caught me writing poems.

2

The boys at work have lost interest in the beard. The hairs that unfurl themselves from the pale skin of my face are no longer the subject of discussion during breaks. Alan has stopped saying "There's the man" in an excited voice when I enter the employee lounge. John no longer makes the joke about my beard getting caught in the automatic doors. And Jun Chan has left, off to a higher-paying job on the other side of town.

2

Too much beard. Amy is gone. She left behind three pairs of shoes, and I am hoping she will return for them soon. In the meantime, I lie naked on my bed stroking my beard. The room spins. I run my sweaty left hand down the long black strands, brushing them against the soft skin above my collar bone. It is hot. I stroke faster. Then I am calm.


Sam Apple graduated from the University of Michigan in 1998. He is currently the editor of New Voices, a national magazine for Jewish college students.

 

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