“The Contest”, a short story

There comes a time when Elk Tooth residents no longer take an interest in winter. Toward the end of March the count of semis tipped over by the wind fails to amuse and driving the long way around to anywhere—Angle Iron pass is closed even in a mild winter—has become an odious chore. Elk Tooth residents can take no more of reality. They embrace fads and fancies, and fortunes ride on rash wagers.

A few years ago the idea of a beard-growing contest inflamed the male population. Too late in the season to start then, but the Pee Wee regulars signed an oath (in Guinness, for its ink-like color) to put aside their razors the next winter beginning on the day of the first snowfall. The beards would grow and there would be a prize for the longest, to be presented on the following Fourth of July. A few snowflakes drifted on September 12, and M. J. Speet, the large animal vet, whose opinions were widely respected, declared the start of the contest.

Amanda Gribb, copying rodeo procedure (the rule of law in Elk Tooth), established a prize purse by collecting ten dollars from each contestant. The only businesses in Elk Tooth were the Elk Tooth Bank, the Western Wear & Feed Store, and the three bars—Pee Wee’s, Muddy’s Hole, and the Silvertip. Each put fifty dollars in the pot. The propane gas route man pitched in ten but said he’d forgo the chin grass. The money was stowed in a clean mason jar on the mirror shelf at Pee Wee’s.

Twenty-seven contestants, from fourteen-year-old Kevin Cokendall to octogenarian Len DeBock, signed up. Kevin Cokendall’s father, Wiregrass Cokendall, told the kid he didn’t have the chance of a pancake in a pigsty, but Kevin was determined and bought hair restorer with his allowance to help the nascent whiskers along. The other contestants demanded that Old Man DeBock shave before the contest started, as he showed a two-inch frizz in his normal appearance. He shaved, protesting, but it seemed to the others that within days the two-inch frizz had returned. They were heartened when the whiskers seemed to stall at that length without going on to glory. Darryl Mutsch said it was because the hairs were set deep in the crevices and wrinkles of DeBock’s ancient face, great furrows indicating a toothless condition. (The story was that back in the 1950s, at some branding or other, a calf had kicked out DeBock’s front teeth. With the blood seeping down his chin, he had picked up the teeth, rinsed them with coffee and jammed them back into the vacant spaces. When they and their loosened neighbors failed, he had yanked every one, cowboy style, with a pair of pliers, bracing his forehead against a gatepost for leverage. Over the years he had become an expert on culinary variations of cornmeal mush, his favorite recipe beginning, “Take a quart of deer blood …”)

The nascent beards showed odd color and texture variations. Old Man DeBock’s whiskers were short and yellow-white. Deb Sipple’s, as crinkled as ramen noodles, came in black with streaks of grey down each side, and Wiregrass Cokendall showed thick and fiery red bristle in contrast to the anemic blond hairs of his son, Kevin. The Game and Fish warden, Creel Zmundzinski, also grew a red beard—no surprise, as his hair all over was the orange-red the paint store called “Mandarin Sunset,” a color that clashed unmercifully with his official red shirt. Hard Winter Ulph, who’d been born during the blizzard of 1949 in some shack south of Wamsutter, showed jet-black, pencil-straight whiskers that stuck out like the spines on a hat-pin cactus. A suet-faced En-glishman with the chewy name of Lobett Pulvertoft Thirkill, working on Fiesta Punch’s ranch for the winter, joined in and contributed a faceful of tan five-o’clock shadow. He was closely watched by Creel Zmundzinski, who knew that men with criminal pasts often took hired-man jobs on remote ranches and that their warped inclinations found outlet in poaching and carnal knowledge of anything warm. By January the contestants’ facial moss had thickened and lengthened to the point where most could scratch their fingers through the underbrush and delighted to do so. Amanda Gribb complained, for the zinc counter was sprinkled with loose hairs night after night.

“Worse’n havin a cat on the bar,” she said.


Shortly after Valentine’s Day it was clear that three or four men had forged ahead; Darryl Mutsch, Wiregrass Cokendall, Willy Huson (color of mashed sweet potato), and, to his father’s chagrin, Kevin Cokendall, whose few whiskers made up in length what they lacked in profusion.

“It’s goin a be terrible a shave all this hay off,” said Mutsch.

Deb Sipple, who did not like to hear references to hay, said it would be easy. “Just cut er down with scissors first, then take you a good hot shower and put on plenty shave cream and you’re home.”

“Best thing is go over to Lander to Thone’s barbershop. He’ll make it easy. Just lay back and let him get it done.”

“No, best way is to go down to Saratoga or over to Thermop to them hot springs and let the waters come up to your nose, then skedaddle for the barbershop before them whiskers dries up and hardens. The sulphur in the water sort a rots the hair or at least softens it up,” said Quent Stipp. “Course the best way would be to bring your razor in the hot pool but I don’t believe they’d allow that.”

“Rots the hair? You must a been duckin beneath the surface pretty frequent,” said Mort, looking at Stipp’s retreating hair line. “Anyhow, I ain’t goin a shave nothin off. Got this far I’ll go end a the rope.”


Although the contest started out with jocularity, it turned cruelly competitive. Questions about beards came up which no one could answer. Amada Gribb tired of bar arguments that beards were or were not good protection against bronchitis, that vegetarians favored beards more than creophagists, that beards inspired political radicalism. Beard talk made a change from speculation on the whereabouts of Darryl Mutsch’s missing dog, Cowboy George, but none of the questions raised could be answered. Amanda, on her day off, sought out Mercedes de Silhouette, widow of Bill de Silhouette, a sheep rancher who had graduated cum laude from Princeton and over the years amassed a tremendous number of books on diverse subjects. Mercedes had inherited the sheep, the ranch, the house, and its contents, including the books.

“Oh yeah, I still got em. Sold the sheep, kept the books. I dunno why, don’t hardly go in that part a the house. It’s like a liberry in there. Stinks a Bill’s old cigars, too. Like a ghost was in there ever night smokin cigars and readin books.”

Mercedes led the way around knotty pine corners, through log-girdered passageways, into rooms of trophy heads and leather chairs, and at last into a large, dim room with a northern clerestory. There were thousands of books from floor to ceiling, in shelved stacks running the length of the space. She switched on the overhead track lights to augment the natural light, and book titles sprang forth: Saddle Galls, The Rooster Book, Into Surinam with Colonel Mascara, and the like.

“How do you find a particular thing?” said Amada. “Has he got them put up like at a liberry?”

“No. And that’s the trouble. He known where the books was, but nobody else can find a damn thing. I spent days here once lookin for somethin on cowboy songs. He had the books and I knew he had em, especially the dirty ones, but find em I could not. Part a them he arranged by color. See over there? All them shelves a red ones? There’s a blue section and green and after that I think he give up. No, there’s mystery stories is yella, and that’s the most I know.”

“Well, I’m lookin for books about beards. You wouldn’t happen to know if there’s some a them, would you?”

“Honey, there’s everthing else here.”

“How did he ever get all these books?” The idea that there were shops devoted entirely to books would have astonished the Pee Wee cow crowd, except for Erwin Hungate, who was a reader, his big tallow-colored face buried in a book even at the bar. Give Deb Sipple a book, she thought, and he’d probably chew the covers off.

“Well, he bought em at junk stores and on the Internet, but mostly he’d get em when he went to sheep conferences in different cities. The other men’d go roosterin around, but not Bill. He’d get right at the yellow pages and find him some secondhand book dealers and then he’d go there and claw through them shelves until he’d picked out fifty or sixty he liked and have em sent up home. While he was in the hospital they kept comin, boxes and boxes a books. Over there in the corner. I never even opened them. So, I’m just goin a leave you to look, and if you find what you want you can keep it.”

Amanda Gribb began with the color-coded books and discovered that most of the blue books concerned the ocean or exploratory voyages, that green books focused on natural history or forestry. She scanned the titles, alert for the words “beard,” “hair,” and “mustache.” After several hours she discerned some kind of order in the groupings of dusty books, and she was briefly hopeful when she found something titled Haircults. But this was an annoying collection of photographs of American and English hairdos from the 1960s and ’70s, nothing whatsoever to do with the beard. There seemed to be a conceptual separation between head hair and facial hair. At the end of the afternoon she had nothing but grimy hands.

“It feels like there ought a be somethin. I’ll come back and look some more if it’s all right,” said Amanda to Mercedes.

“Honey, you come back much as you want. I’m real sorry you didn’t find nothin.”

The next afternoon when Amanda Gribb arrived at Pee Wee’s to relieve owner Lewis McCusky, he said, “Mercedes de Silhouette called up. Says you come by after your shift, don’t matter how late cause she sits up watchin old movies. She found what you want. I’d say go on ahead any time because I’m goin a be right here tonight watchin the game.”


Mercedes de Silhouette was wearing a pair of her dead husband’s pajamas and his claret-colored silk bathrobe. She smelled of bourbon.

“Come on in,” she said. “I think I found you a good one. But it’s hard readin. A lot a foreign language and them sideways leanin words.”

“Italics?”

“Yeah. Here it is. Too bad it don’t have pictures.” She handed Amanda an orange book titled simply Beards. It was an old book, dated 1950, but she saw, opening to a page entitled “Culinary Instructions for Christian Cannibals,” that it was rich in beard history. Richard the Lion-Hearted, she read, once ?entertained his warriors with a feast in which the pièce de résistance featured the roasted heads of captive Saracens, who had been shaved before going into the oven. Farther along she spotted a passage on beards and vegetarians.

“This is good,” she said. “How did you find it?”

“It was funny. I was cleanin out that big chest in the hall and I come on some a Bill’s notebooks. There was one he’d written on the cover, “Book Key.” I looked in it and it was the system he used. Made me mad he didn’t tell me about it before he went. Each one a them bookcases has a little number at the top, you seen that.”

“I sure did.”

“Well, in the notebook it tells what kind a books is in which bookcases. I looked for beards but there wasn’t nothing. So I tried hair, and there was about seven books and this one. You can keep it.”


Amanda placed the book in a prominent position on the bar, and it was soon well-thumbed and stained with various alcohols. No one could quite understand what the author, one Reginald Reynolds, was saying, as it was written in an abstruse and sarcastic style freckled with irony and untranslated Latin and French. The author also favored maze-like circumlocutions and assumed his readers possessed profound knowledge of history, literature, seafaring, religion, military strategy, dialectic, nursery rhymes, and philosophy. He was given to mossy jokes, as one about the Egyptologist who discovered a bit of wire in an excavation and declared the Egyptians had invented telegraphy, only to be aced by a rival who said that since no such piece of wire had been found in Assyrian site excavations, the Assyrians must have enjoyed wireless telegraphy. Still, the Pee Wee regulars sifted enough wheat from the chaff to make perusal of Beards worthwhile. Amanda brought in a dictionary to aid Mr. Reynolds. Gradually the vocabularies of the Pee Wee’s patrons swelled with such splendid words as pogonophile, finookery, gnostic, countenance, postiche, obelisk, serendipity, and the stirring phrase Floreat Barba!Enlightenment did not emerge but curiosity flowered as they read of ancient bearded horse-eaters, of a certain abbot who believed that eating too much was the cause of beards and thus explained why the American Indians, who lived on frugal diets, did not have beards. Adam, they discovered, had no beard in the Garden of Eden, the hairy growth punitively linked to the expulsion.

Wiregrass Cokendall was thrilled to find a footnote referencing a Muslim story that the devil had only one hair on his chin, though of exceeding length, and used this nugget to taunt his son, Kevin. Kevin thumbed through until he found a passage describing a civilization that killed the red-bearded men among them.

There were many examples of beards as fashion statements—metal threads worked in, dyes and gold dust, the pointed beards of Arabs, the rectilinear faux beards of the Egyptians, the curly extravagances of the Assyrians, the Hittites’ square-laced beards, plaited beards, immensely long beards that could be parted and looped around the ears, but tempting as these arrangements sounded, no contestant dared sacrifice length to style. Vic Vase took up the book often and read passages aloud, mangling his way through medieval French, church Latin, and antique English.

“Jesus,” said Erwin Hungate, the reader, “lay off, will you? Sound like Umberto Eco.”

“Who?” said Vic.

“I know him,” said Old Man DeBock. “Bert Eckle, used a work for Bob Utley. He’s out in Nevada now in a home. Home for old cowboys.”

Erwin Hungate lifted his hand slightly and let it drop to show it was hopeless to explain.

The beard-growers combed through the Wal-Mart pharmacy in Sack looking for unguents and lotions that would impart vigor to hair. They urged the druggist to order new, improved products. Old Man DeBock, rustling through the boxes under his bed, discovered a 1946 Real Western Stories magazine that featured an advertisement for a device that when cranked sent mild charges of electricity through the body and was, the ad claimed, a no-fail encouragement to hair. Pictured were three men whose combined hair could have stuffed a mattress. He dug out an ancient electric blanket from his storeroom and slept with it bunched up under his chin, happy to be absorbing whisker-stimulating electric juice. Darryl Mutsch rinsed his beard in a Viagra solution, immediate results not known.


By late April most of the beards were thick and bristly. Men sat around in Pee Wee’s eyeing one another’s facial adornments. Darryl Mutsch was in the lead, but he had been in the lead before and then had fallen back as Willy Huson passed him by half an inch. Amanda Gribb was called on six times a day to measure someone’s beard. She had a little tape measure Creel Zmundzinski once had given her. He had used it for sizing animal tracks and the trout of out-of-state fishermen. Then, two springs back, he had developed a crush on Amanda and brought her the kind of presents that Game and Fish employees believed superior to chocolates and flowers—an untenanted hornets’ nest, a wolf scat, the pelvic bone of a sharp-tail grouse, the miniature tape measure. The romance faded and died when Amanda took an interest in a fellow from Casper who had invented a lotion he called “Buckaroo Hand Cream,” sparking vulgar witticisms among the ranch hand clientele.

Amanda said her friend was going to be a millionaire by the time he was thirty-five.

“Accordin to my arithmetic that ought to a happened about ten years back,” said Creel meanly. He had taken to spending his afternoons in the Pee Wee, one eye nervously on the front window watching for the Game and Fish vehicles. Because of his unpopular liberal views he was a thorn in the flesh of his superiors, who plotted ways to fire him. Amanda Gribb kept a lookout as well, and when one of the Department’s trucks idled outside, she hissed, “Go fish,” and Creel ducked into the back room with its cases of empties and smelly mops.

Creel’s best friend was another bachelor, Plato Bucklew, his counterpart in the Forest Service, a big, axe-headed blond often mixed up in fights and referred to as “Plate-Head” by those who found that his advocacy of roadless wilderness areas, wolves, and horse-logging veered dangerously from traditional attitudes. Amanda had a warning for him, too. When she said, “Sure wish I had some pistachio ice cream,” she meant that a Forest Service vehicle of that color was in sight. The two troublemakers drank, hunted, fished together, and talked about the possibility of quitting their respective services and setting up a consulting business, though who would consult them and on what subjects was vague. They often spent Saturday afternoons in Creel’s kitchen, Creel tying flies, Plato fashioning turkey wing-bone calls. There was another bond: both of their great-grandfathers had done time in the territorial prison at Laramie; Cephas Bucklew, a plasterer from Ohio, had stolen a horse blanket from a Cheyenne livery stable, and C. C. Alkerson, a ship’s carpenter from Boston imprisoned for perjury when he tried to claim bounty money on three nonexistent wolf hides, enlivened Creel Zmundzinski’s maternal lineage. But Zmundzinski’s father, who wrote Western love stories for true confessions magazines under his wife’s name, fell afoul of a jealous rancher. Most of his story ideas came from ranch wives; one suspicious husband who found the elder Zmundzinski’s attentions to his wife proof of infidelity shot him as he was fastening the ranch gate. Creel’s mother died two years later of complications from breast cancer, and after a few wretched months with his mother’s sister and her husband in Encampment, he was sent to a boys’ home and raised as an orphan. The two friends helped each other out of tight spots, as the time when Plato, driving through a blinding whiteout with no visibility, ran off the road and into an open burial pit for a horse Darryl Mutsch had put down and, except for the horse, which was in situ, put off filling the hole. The cavity was precisely the same size as a Forest Service truck. It took the two friends most of one night to get the vehicle out with a heavy-duty tripod and winch.


On this April afternoon Creel was, aside from Amanda and Old Man DeBock, the only one in the bar. He was deeply thirsty when he came in, for the state was up to its eyebrows in drought, and the small lakes and ponds on the wind-clawed prairie had dried up. The wind lifted fine alkali dust from the bottoms of the dead ponds, streamers of mineral particles blowing east. Creel, his throat stinging, had driven through clouds of the stuff. Rarely had beer soothed a more parched throat.

He could see his beard in the mirror and was not displeased. It had grown in thick and had a tendency to curl under, thereby disguising its true length. He thought that when the tape measure came out on the final day, he would be a front-runner.

“I’ll have me another,” he said to Amanda, who pulled him a fresh beer and slid it skillfully down the bar. He had barely lifted the glass when the throaty guzzle of a motorcycle out front drew his attention. An overweight, elderly man got off a silver bike the size of a short-legged horse. He wore a bandanna on his head and a red silk scarf around his mouth in the classic style of stage-coach robbers. As he came into the bar he unwound the scarf and pulled off the bandanna and Creel Zmundzinski’s mouth fell open. From under the silk emerged a huge white beard that could have filled a bushel basket. It covered the man from upper lip to belt buckle and was of a snowy, radiant white that seemed backlit by a full moon. Flowing into it as twin Missouris into the Mississippi were masses of hair that on a lesser man would have been sideburns. And from crown to shoulder blade cascaded heavy, silvery waves of hair. Creel Zmundzinski slowly grasped that he was looking at a tsunami of a beard.

The stranger, ignoring Amanda Gribb’s stare, called for a beer, but before he drank he removed a silver straw from his breast pocket, an accouterment favored by maté drinkers of the pampas. Amanda Gribb nodded with approval. Too often she had been called on to measure damp beards, whiskers clotted with hardened egg yolk, residues of mustard, individual crumbs clinging to hairs like boys swinging on ropes above a swimming hole. Here was a man who cared about his beard. Its luteous glow, its fluffed fullness, the mild fragrance of rose petals that wafted from it, all declared a pogonophile-meister, as Reginald Reynolds might have said.

Creel Zmundzinski wanted a look at the stranger’s license plate, and he slipped out expecting it would be a Montana plate. There was a belt of eccentrics and oddballs from Cooke City to Livingston. Or maybe he would be from Nevada, a state which featured heavily bearded men everywhere except Las Vegas. This stranger would be a threat in Las Vegas, for he could easily hide a full deck of cards in his facial hair. Creel was nonplussed to find Rhode Island identification, a state he imagined the size of the Wal-Mart parking lot. The motorcycle got a second look as well—one of the new Harleys, a soft-tailed V-Rod. Creel had been saving up for eleven years to buy a Harley, but not this water-cooled model, which he knew had to have set the bearded one back seventeen big bills. He reentered the Pee Wee shaking his head. Amanda caught his eye and he mouthed “Rhode Island.”

“Find what you were looking for?” said the stranger, and Creel realized belatedly that the man had been watching him in the bar mirror.

“Just wanted to see where you were from,” mumbled Creel. He could feel his own beard withering and turned half away from the easterner.

“Since you want to know, I was born in Secaucus, New Jersey, on October 13, 1939. Name is Ralph Kaups. My father, Hayden Kaups, was a successful limnologist, and my mother, Virginia Rusling, studied batik in Borneo before the Second World War, then served as curator of Asian fabrics for the New Jersey Textile Institute. I went to Princeton, graduated summa cum laude, did my graduate work in ergonomics, married, divorced, one daughter, taught for thirty-two years at various eastern rat-holes, and last week I retired. I am out here to see Mercedes de Silhouette, whose late husband was my roommate at Princeton in the sweet long ago. I plan to buy the old line camp on their place and fix it up. Moving to Elk Tooth for my retirement. That help you out?”

Creel, his ears burning, said, “See you later” to Amanda and left the bar.

As he got in his truck he saw Plato Bucklew coming out of the Western Wear & Feed store with a hat box under his arm. His bruised face and black eye showed the results of a weekend fight in a distant parking lot with a man he suspected of being a crafty old poacher. His suspicions were frequent, as Plato liked to fight.

Creel beckoned him over.

“You want a have the heart tooken out a you, go in Pee Wee’s and see what’s settin at the bar. There’s no sense in goin along with this damn beard thing another day.” But as he spoke the stranger came out of Pee Wee’s and began tying his monstrous beard up in its scarves.

“Jesus,” said Plato, scratching his crotch, a nervous habit he’d picked up in the army.

They stared as the man started up his V-Rod and swept away.

“He’s movin a Elk Tooth,” said Creel morosely. “Buyin the old line camp on the de Silhouette place.” There was a considerable silence.

“You know,” said Plato Bucklew, “I don’t care for them new V-Rods. If I was to get a motorsickle it would be one a the old Buffalos. You ever hear a them?”

“Heard a them but never seen one. Heard they never got it off the drawin board,” said Creel Zmundzinski.

“That might just be the best part of it,” said his friend enigmatically.

“Take a horse, myself.”

As far as they were concerned, the beard contest was over.

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