Dunn’s flight had arrived late and so we drove through the night, past Pensacola, past New Orleans, arriving in Baton Rouge just after daybreak. Both professors sat in the backseat, which did not put me any more at ease, and only the throbbing pain in my legs from the drubbing Dunn had administered kept me awake. Ardanuy directed me to a ramshackle motel on the edge of the bayou called the SoCo Inn. The carpets were damp and the mattress smelled like an overfull ashtray someone had urinated on but I was beyond caring, and as Dunn and Ardanuy sat down at the warped card table in one corner of the room I passed out.
“Up, little Jeffrey,” Dunn’s cane poked me in the armpit and I rolled out of bed before he asked a second time. My sore legs gave out underneath me and I collapsed on the floor. I would give anything to unsee what I saw growing under the bed, but this is neither the time nor the place to discuss the less savory corners of motel mycology.
“Come on, Wellington,” said Ardanuy, clearly disgusted. “Have some coffee and wash up, we’ll be late if you keep lollygagging.”
“We will not be late,” Dunn smiled. “Will we, Jeffrey?”
The carpet squished as he tapped his cane on the floor and I was on my feet despite the spasms this brought on. Splashing my face with rust-flecked water, I could see in the cracked bathroom mirror that I had been crying in my sleep. Coming back out and sipping the scotch Ardanuy poured me I wondered if they had gotten any rest, but gauging by the undisturbed, moist film coating the other bed I doubted it.
The setting sun cast a bloody haze over Baton Rouge as we coasted into the parking lot of the venue where our quarry had scheduled their panel: New Directions in Grossbart Studies. Rather than being held on one of the city’s campuses we were at a dive bar called the Rousebird Roost. I had been briefed by the professors on the defensive tactics Rahimi and Tanzer were liable to employ, and apparently choosing venues far removed from reputable auditoriums and lecture halls was typical.
“Always trying to throw us from the stink, yes, but we hounds are quick of snout,” Dunn’s chuckle did not wholly cover the sound of his pistol being cocked. “I have what you call inside beard.”
“This is your first time at a conference, isn’t it Jeffrey?” said Ardanuy, not without a trace of pity. “Just follow our lead, and save any accusations for the Q and A no matter what slander they sling. Better to take it on the chin than come off as amateur.”
“I’m done with the both of you. Get the hell out of my car, you crazy coots,” I almost said, but at that exact moment Dunn’s cane shot out of the backseat and poked the rearview mirror so that he could meet my eyes in the reflection. He did not speak, and I looked away. It was time.
Security was tight at the conference, the door flanked by an ibis-like man and a robin-ish woman wearing uniforms embroidered to look like a rousebird’s bright plumage. They patted me down but nodded the professors through—Dunn’s “inside beard,” I wagered. The interior of the bar was as unlike the exterior as I am unlike a hedgehog. Very different, is what I’m getting at.
Rows of folding chairs had been set up just inside the door, and Ardanuy and Dunn claimed the empty seats closest to the door and ordered me to fetch drinks. I walked along the rear row of chairs, taking in the polished floor, the mahogany podium at the front of the almost-filled seating area, the quiet hum of academic jargon from the well-dressed assembly. Everyone in the audience wore beards. Reaching the bar I ordered three neat singlemalts when a liverwurst breeze tickled my ear and chorizo fingers swatted my shoulder.
“Jimmy! Jimmy Billings!” My former creative writing professor had sidled up to the bar beside me, a sandwich in one hand and a drink in the other, a fake beard dangling around his chin like a third-rate mall Santa. “Didn’t know you went in for this Grossbart business!”
“Professor Dewsack?” It could be no other, the man’s jowls vibrating as he drained his highball of sambuca and absinthe. “Are you here for the panel?”
“Wouldn’t miss it,” he smacked his lips, the licorice-fart smell of his drink making my eyes water. He popped the rest of the sandwich into his mouth, pink crumbs of dried-out meat-spread caught and glistening in his false beard. “They’re mad, the lot of them. I tried to get Ralph and David up here, but you know those guys…”
Dewsack was constantly alluding to his close friendship with Ralph Berry and David Kirby, but despite being on the same faculty the only professor I had ever seen Dewsack talking to had been Mark Winegardner, and that was only after one of Winegardner’s readings when Dewsack had ambushed the poor bastard. Then I realized Dewsack had mentioned Ardanuy’s name and I came back to the present.
“I’m sorry, what was that?”
“I said just make sure you aren’t sitting close to Ardanuy. He’s the worst of them, except for that mad swamp-German he sometimes brings. That one’s worse. It’s all good fun provided you aren’t too close when they get into it with the speakers.”
“Dunn,” I said to myself, and Dewsack wagged his waddles.
“Dunn, that was his name. He and Ardanuy—”
“Hello, Cedrick,” Ardanuy had appeared on the other side of me, and Dewsack’s face faded from excited liverwurst red to the greenish-yellow of old headcheese. “I see you’ve met Jeffrey.”
“Jeffrey?” Dewsack blinked at me, and seeing what passed for an out, snatched it. “I’m sorry my boy, I thought you were a Jim I had last semester. My mistake.”
Dewsack’s chubby shadow followed him back to his seat, and Ardanuy paid for the three scotches that the bartender had placed before me. He drained them, one after another, his eyes never leaving mine, and ordered six more. When they arrived he somehow balanced three in each palm, his cane tucked in his armpit, and without a word returned to his seat. I followed, abashed, and saw the only available chair was between Dunn and Ardanuy.
“Mecky little Jeffrey, sleeping with the enemy,” Dunn tut-tuted as I sat down, the lights dropping.
“I—” was not allowed to finish as the barrel of Dunn’s pistol pressed into my side.
“Is alright, Jeffrey, is A-okay,” Dunn inexplicably winked at me. “Inside beard is better than no beard at all.”
“Look at them, Wellington,” Ardanuy murmured from my other side, passing a brimming glass of scotch to me. It had not been half as full when he had received it from the bartender. “Look at their beards, and then tell me if you think we’re mad.”
Taking the drink, my shaking hands splashed Islay on my sweat-soaked shirt as I brought it to my lips, wondering if I could drain the glass before Dunn murdered me. I looked around as I was told, surreptitiously scanning the room for a restroom to escape through. As the scotch warmed my throat, however, I focused on the beards of the audience, and the sight sent chills up and down my swollen legs—they were all fake, every one of them. Dewsack was eccentric enough that it had barely registered but now, seeing the sea of synthetic fibers passing for beards, the fire the scotch had lit in my belly began to spread, indignation blazing into anger, anger flaring up into rage.
“Fakes,” I tugged on my own beard—it was still far shorter than I would have liked but at least I was making the effort. “They’re all goddamn fakes!”
“Ah, now Jeffrey is seeing the problem,” said Dunn, removing the gun from my side as I finished the scotch. “New historicism is polluting field like rat turds in a beer barrel.”
“Not anymore,” said Ardanuy firmly. “Not after tonight. Tonight we end this.”
“Jeffrey,” said Dunn, and feeling cold pearl in my sweaty palm I looked down to see he had pressed the gun into it. “If one is to be as Grossbart, one must do as Grossbart. Yes?”
Before I could answer applause ripped through the bar, and looking up I saw two figures now stood on either side of the podium. One was a short, skinny fellow with the longest beard yet seen, the other a woman with bobbed hair and neatly trimmed Lenin beard. Rahimi and Tanzer—the revisionists.
“Ladies and gentleman,” Rahimi intoned, his pleasant, cultured voice immediately setting my teeth on edge. “We come with a message.”
The audience leaned in as Rahimi stepped back, allowing Tanzer to take the podium.
“Death to the Grossbarts,” the woman said triumphantly, and as the collective gasp of the assembled sucked in she went on before the human tide could push back out a wave of shouts and cries. “Long live the new beards!”
Dunn and Ardanuy, for their parts, both went completely apeshit, and the conference got underway in earnest.