So there’s this guy, Gus McLaren, and he just shows up in Lakeville one day—this is before the whole ‘Lake Valley’ business, back in the old days before the name change. And nobody knows where this guy’s from, he never tells, and nobody thinks to ask until it’s been established that nobody knows where he’s from and everyone here just sort of assumes that he’s not even from anywhere, like he’s some 6’4” tumbleweed that just materialized one day out of thin air and a cloud.
This guy quickly some kinda town legend. There were tall tales about him. The kids used to see Big Gus—they took to calling him ‘Big Gus’ when he was out of earshot—taking his evening walk, cane in hand, and they’d whisper about him. They’d whisper about the length of his stride, the small clouds of dust that only he managed to kick up, the way that whenever you took your eyes off of him for even a split second he’d reappear a few feet behind you like he had rewound time.
But nothing was as important as his red, red beard. It looked like it was crocheted from some sort of divine moss that hung from the goddamn Tree of Life. The Herbert kid—what was his name again? Lawrence?—told everyone that Big Gus had been born in his beard and grown out of it, like some hidden, contemporary member of the Greek pantheon. It was thick and terminally well-groomed and it looked like it could either be coarse enough for a sparrow’s nest or soft enough to swaddle a newborn. And the beard—I’ve seen the beard, and I’ll tell ya, this is no exaggeration—was some kind of miracle. Something you could’ve seen from space.
And Big Gus was—is, I guess, since he’s still alive—a good-lookin’ fella, to be sure. Lantern-jawed, firm brow, all of that. But everyone was way too intimidated by this guy, this massive man that moved out by the lake and whose mouth was always hidden by that afghan blanket of a beard and whose emotions were completely unknown to anyone. Anyone but Annie.
Nobody really knows how Annie and Big Gus ended up together. There’s conjecture, sure—when isn’t there conjecture?—but the only living person that knows is Big Gus himself, and no one in town has heard him speak for years. Rumors of Annie and Big Gus and their rendezvous were fireflies in Lakeville’s damp air of cheap gossip, but no one’s certain, so it’s not even worth speculation.
What matters is what everybody knows now: they fell in love and she moved into his lakeside cabin. We’d see her once a week, coming back to town for groceries, for laundry soap, you know, whatever they needed, and we’d see the two of them on those evening walks, a tradition that he continued and brought her in on. Whether or not she appropriated the tradition or the tradition appropriated her is irrelevant. The fact remains: those two dug a deep, deep hole, named it love, and leapt down to the bottom.
Have you met any of their kids? No? Seen them, at least? I bet you’ve seen them. You have to have seen them. They’re unmissable. You can tell them by their father’s beards, which litters their faces like they were born with it.
And that’s the other rumor, actually. The three sons—Dave, John, and Gus Jr., from oldest to youngest—were all blessed with their dad’s facial hair and you’d never see them clean-shaven, but did you ever meet Jennifer, the midwife’s assistant? Yeah, she moved out of town—what was that, twenty years ago?—but she told her replacement that Gus Jr., the youngest of Big Gus and Annie’s children, came into this world with a layer of scarlet fuzz to protect his face from the elements.
And it’s assumed that Annie’s shock in seeing Gus Jr. crawl out of her with more facial hair than a goddamned fifteen year old boy was what killed her. Sorta this reverse-Samson thing with some kinda ironic Oedipal twist, I guess. And by all accounts, Big Gus didn’t shed a tear. It’s impossible to know how often he smiled before that day, what with the beard and all, but everyone could tell that he didn’t ever smile again. Didn’t frown, neither—no emotion. Sure, his shoulders slumped just enough for someone familiar with him to notice, and his evening walks were a few minutes longer—no Annie to go home to, I guess—but he did right by those boys.
But I’m sure you’ve heard about the Thanksgiving where everything went straight to shit, right?
Oh, well, pull up a stool, fella. This is where it gets all compelling.
So this one Thanksgiving—hey, Merle, how many years ago was the Big Gus Thanksgiving? Yeah yeah, the beard sto—yeah, that’s the one—five or six years ago, Big Gus, Dave, and John are all sitting at the dinner table, Big Gus got this big ol’ carving knife in his hand, and he’s waiting for Gus Jr., who came home from college back east for the holiday, to get out of the bathroom before he cuts that turkey up.
I swear to God, my kid nephew Bill heard about this straight from John himself, seeing as how they did demolition work together when that building collapsed, but that’s a whole other pile of rumor, but I’ll swear on my own mama’s grave that this is how it happened. Only thing makes any damn sense, seein’ as how tight-knit Big Gus and his boys were since Annie passed, God rest her soul.
So they’re all waiting there, right, and they’re all hungry, there’s a game on soon, they want to get cracking. Big Gus, Dave, John, all stroking their beards in anticipation for the biggest meal of the year, when Gus J. strolls out of the bathroom, his face as naked as one of those freaky James Bond villain cats, and just sits down at the table like nothin’ was nothin’. He looks like shaving the beard took about ten years off of his age, too, considering how no one had ever really seen his face—any of their faces—and now there’s the four of them. Four men, three beards.
And they all just sit there. They stare through those massive red raccoons that’ve lived on their faces as soon as they could grow ‘em in what I always imagined to be a show of solidarity for Big Gus, ‘specially if Gus Jr.’s beard was what made Annie’s heart stop—literally—and there he is, clean-shaven and looking about fifteen years old, as opposed to his twenty-three.
They’re all staring at this new stranger that made his nonchalant way to their Thanksgiving meal, and nobody says anything. Gus Jr. knows he’s being eyeballed—hell, I’m sure anyone within a twelve-mile-damn-radius could feel somethin’ in the air—but he doesn’t say anything. Just sits.
And Dave says ‘What happened to your face?’ and no one says anything for two whole minutes. Seriously, it was two minutes of pure silence—John told Bill he counted by the clock—and that may not feel like a hell of a lot, but you sit still for two solid minutes after being more or less told that you’re unrecognizable by the only family you’ve ever known. Tell me how little time it is then.
Gus Jr. says “My girlfriend says it’s scratchy.” Everyone’s ears shoot up. This girlfriend was not common knowledge among anyone; it was the first mention and everyone’s caught off-guard, right? But nobody wants to ask any questions, because they don’t know who this stranger is, coming back from college, shaving his beard, now the only one of ‘em without one, and now he’s got some girlfriend he’s been keeping to himself?
So Big Gus is just bewildered as all hell and starts cutting the turkey just to be doing something. He passes big slices down to Dave, a few down to John—who’s on his third Jack and Coke and hasn’t left much room for anything not containing whiskey—and then a sorta medium-sized helping down to Gus Jr. at the end of the table. The three bearded ones load up their plates with stuffing, cranberries, all that Thanksgiving stuff, and Gus Jr. just sorta picks at it with his fork.
John’s all, “Hey Junior, what aren’t you eating for?” and Gus Jr. takes a deep breath and says “I’m a vegetarian and I don’t eat turkey anymore.”
Now they’re all freaking out. Clean-shaven, girlfriended, vegetarian that answers to Gus Jr. but otherwise seems to have nothin’ in common with the brother or son they once knew, you know? They’re all starting to glare a bit, and you know, maybe it’s rightly so, seeing as how Gus Jr. just runs off to New England and comes back after, what, three months away, unrecognizable, never telling anybody nothing.
I guess Gus Jr. feels more uncomfortable than anyone, so he just stands up, picks up his bag that he left by the front door, and leaves without a word. They think he took a bus to his girlfriend’s house for the rest of the holidays. Nobody hears from him until Christmas, when he just shows up at the house.
And John says that Gus Jr.’s grown his beard back, and he’s chomping on a cheeseburger cooked so rare you can practically hear it moo, and he walks in, throws his bag on the floor, and sits down next to his dad like he’d come home from a day at the lake, not some dorm room a thousand miles away.
And Big Gus, shocked as he is, is still no big emotional man, so he nods at Gus Jr. and says “Hey,” never taking his eyes off the TV.
And Gus Jr. says “Hey” and starts watching the game or whatever.
Big Gus goes “So still got that girlfriend?”
and Gus Jr. says “No, I broke up with her.” He stops, waits a few seconds, and then says “I think I’m gonna move back home for a while. Is that cool?”
and Big Gus says “Yeah, sure, but you’ll need to help me fix that porch. Goddamn blizzard took down one of the columns and the roof’s all wobbly now.”
and Gus Jr. says “Okay.” and, five or six years later, Gus Jr. still hasn’t gone back to school.
But they fixed the hell out of that porch.