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Beard Science(4)

By:Penny Reid

So I stripped off my dress, kicked off my shoes, peeled off my false eyelashes, tied on an apron, and did the dishes in my undies and garter belt. Many might consider cleaning while nearly naked as odd behavior, but I did it often. I was frequently alone after dark (or before dawn) at the bakery.

I was just finishing up, washing the last of the bowls, when my phone rang. It was my mother, likely wondering where I was.

I used my pinky finger to answer the call because my hands were wet. “Hey, Momma. I’m just finishing up at the bakery.”

“Are you working on those popovers for tomorrow? Already?”

I fought a groan. I’d forgotten about the big breakfast order. “Uh, no. Not yet. I’m . . . trying out a new recipe.” I grimaced at the lie. I didn’t like lying. It made me feel hot and sweaty, like I was walking on rocks and eating a chili pepper.

“Oh, that’s good. You can tell me all about it later. I’m calling about that video, the one with the sheriff?”

“Yes, I—”

“Well, you’re going to have to do it next week. It seems there’s been a big to-do at the station.”

I flipped off the faucet. Whenever my momma said the phrase big to-do, it meant she was about to gossip.

“Uh, what do you mean?”

“I guess some important evidence has gone missing, and Sheriff James, the poor man, is furious. Dolly Payton told me that the judge said he’d signed a warrant and everything for that wretched biker, Laser or something.”

“Razor. Razor St. Claire.” My heart jumped to my throat.

“That’s the one, terrible man. Anyway, Dolly called the station to congratulate the sheriff and see if his boys were interested in a trifle to celebrate and, what do you think happened?”

“I . . . I don’t know.”

“That Flo McClure sassed her on the phone. Dolly finally got ahold of one of the back office secretaries and she told her that the evidence had gone missing and that the place was in an uproar. And well, you know . . .”

My momma was still talking, but I was only half listening because the hairs on the back of my neck were standing straight up. I dried my hands and tapped the touch screen of my phone, navigating away from the call interface as my mother continued her story while on speaker. I clicked on the video I’d recorded earlier that day and scrolled through the frames without pressing play.

My mouth fell open and my heart stopped and my palms started to sweat.

I knew what happened to the evidence—or rather, who happened to the evidence. I’d recorded the whole thing.


“Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure.”

 Herman Melville, Moby Dick


“How can a transmission be so expensive? I don’t got that much money to spend on a new transmission!”

Despite my best intentions, I was going to have to tell Deveron Stokes a falsehood.

“The transmission is only part of the bill. We’ll give you a deal on the transmission, Mr. Stokes. See here? Your muffler needs new bearings. And your tread fluid is running dangerously low, not to mention the undercarriage spark plugs and crank chortle.”

Crank chortle was a new one. I’d just made it up on the spot. Beau was better at this than me, but he wasn’t here. The cretin.

Deveron sighed, blinking rapidly at the bill on the counter between us. His frown intensified. He shook his head. “Well, all right. I mean, I guess the car does need a lot of work. I appreciate the deal on the transmission.”

I nodded somberly. I was good at somber nodding. It was probably my best, most well-received nod. People always felt comforted when I did it, so I employed it liberally.

Mr. Stokes lifted his eyes. “You’re a good friend, Cletus.”

I nodded somberly again, but said nothing. Mr. Stokes wasn’t my friend. Mr. Stokes wasn’t a nice person. He hadn’t paid his child support in six years, but always managed to stay well stocked in whiskey, women, and cigarettes. However, even before I’d discovered this unsavory fact about Mr. Stokes, I hadn’t liked the man.

I don’t like to judge people.

I love it.

Writing people completely off was liberating.

First impressions were typically correct. My first impressions were always correct. This was because I employed a very scientific approach to forming impressions and was born with infallible logic.

I allot ten minutes. If I didn’t have ten minutes, I’d put off forming an impression until such a window of time was available. I never deviated from the ten-minute rule. I once put off forming an opinion about our new pastor for six months because I hadn’t found the ten minutes required.

My momma hadn’t liked that I’d refused to look at the new pastor over those months, but you couldn’t bend or distort the scientific method. It’s sacred. And ten minutes was all I’ve ever needed to sum up the character of any given person.

For the first five minutes, I didn’t look at him or her. I closed my eyes, or studied my feet, or glanced to one side. In this way I delayed forming an opinion based on outward appearance.

I extended my hand—every single time—saw what kind of grip he or she gave me. Was it limp? Too tight? Tentative?

I listened to her voice and his vocabulary, the lexicon of their thoughts. Was she confident? Learned? Pompous? What subjects did he bring up? Was she interested in talking only about herself? Or did he shy from the spotlight?

After the five minutes of passive listening, I interrupted the conversation to ask what kind of car he or she drove. Then (and only then) did I look at the person. It’s not the car that matters. It’s how he talked about the car. You could tell a lot by how a person talked about his car. Proud? Embarrassed? Ambivalent?

The answer to this question typically took anywhere between ten seconds and five minutes. By the end of this motoring monologue I’ve made up my mind.

Of course I loved my neighbor. My momma brought me up right. I certainly saw the wisdom in loving neighbors, and doing unto others, and being nice for the sake of being nice. I just preferred to love my neighbors from afar. I subscribed to long-distance relationships, where speaking and listening didn’t occur with any frequency.

I only had time for twenty-four people (tops) in my life, and I already had six siblings. Twenty-four people was an average of two birthdays a month. Ain’t nobody got time for more than two birthday celebrations a month. That’s a lot of cake, and I’m particular about my cake.

But back to Deveron Stokes and his transmission.

He was rubbing his neck, frowning at the bill. “The thing is, Cletus. I, uh, I don’t have the money at present to pay for all this work.”

I nodded, more thoughtfully than somberly this time. “Well now, Deveron, you have two options. You can tow the car out of the parking lot at your own expense until you do have the money. Or maybe we could work out some sort of agreement.”

I was not surprised. In fact, I was counting on him reneging on payment.

The bell over the door chimed as it opened, announcing the entrance of a new customer. I tilted to the side, looking around Deveron to see who’d entered.

It was Jethro, my oldest brother. Next to him was a tall woman I didn’t recognize. I made a point to avert my eyes before I could comprehend too much of her exterior.

“What kind of agreement?” Deveron asked, looking mighty shifty.

“Oh, nothing untoward, Mr. Stokes.” That was another falsehood.

Mr. Stokes was a presser at the dry cleaners and a waiter at The Front Porch, though he was paid under the table and wasn’t technically on staff—another way to avoid child support. Later, much later, I would explain that the first of my favors would require Mr. Stokes to place itching powder in Jackson James’s starched police uniform. Officer James had made the mistake of pulling me over last week for no reason when I was not in the mood to be pulled over.

A small number of plagues would befall the sheriff’s deputy over the coming weeks. I’d considered leprosy via an armadillo infestation, but decided against it. Maybe next time.

Mr. Stokes swallowed nervously. “Well . . . I guess. I mean, sure. Anything you need, Cletus.”

I grabbed a set of keys from behind the counter along with rental car paperwork, and placed them between us. “Good. I have a few favors in mind. We’ll work out the details later, but I’ll need them done before we start work on your truck. In the meantime, I’ll be happy to offer you one of the shop’s cars as a loaner at the rate of ten dollars a day, paid up front in cash.”

Deveron Stokes nodded nervously. He wasn’t a nice man, but he wasn’t devoid of brain cells either. He withdrew his wallet, handed me over a hundred-dollar bill—like I said, well stocked in whiskey, women, and cigarettes—and grabbed the key and the paperwork. He turned to one of the chairs scattered around the small sitting area and began scribbling on the sheet.

All of our loaner cars were 1990s Dodge Neon sedans. I kept a fleet of them standing by and in good working order for customers like Deveron Stokes. We had a lot of customers like Deveron Stokes.

Without a glance, I motioned my brother and the tall woman forward as I busied myself writing notes on Mr. Stokes’s repair quote. “Greetings, Jethro. What brings you to our humble shop of auto fixery?”