There was a beard on the loose. It was a tricky beard. We only saw it at night. One guy saw it on the street. Somebody else saw it smiling in the corner. Everybody tried to catch it, but nobody could. It was one weird beard.

Maybe I was the first one to see the beard. It must have been lost, because one hot night, as I was trying to get to sleep, the beard came through my open window. Pretty bold, for a beard.

Get out of here, beard, I said.

The beard eventually went away, but really slowly, like it didn’t hear me. Stupid beard.

I didn’t tell anyone. But then everyone started talking about how they saw a strange beard flying around town, and I thought, hey—I know that beard. I still didn’t tell anyone. It would look like I was just making it up to get attention.

The beard didn’t hurt anyone, but most people said it was only a matter of time. No good ever came of a creepy beard floating around your town.

My best friend is a retired spy. He lives next door. He used to be a real spy, and when he went on his secret missions I had to watch his house and collect his newspapers and water his plants and feed his cat.

A couple years ago he got married to a beautiful woman. Her hair was bright blond and twice as big as her head. It was a big gold globe that made her face look tiny. She wore a lot of makeup and always dressed nice, even if she was just going to the store to buy a chocolate bar.

The wedding was great because all of his old spy friends came. One of them brought a rhinoceros, but then it turned out it wasn’t really a rhinoceros, it was two spies wearing a rhinoceros suit. Everybody laughed and talked about how clever the spies were. Then one of them shot the wedding cake.

That cake is KGB, he yelled, blasting the cake to pieces with his gun.

But then he realized he was mistaken and he apologized and offered to pay for the cake he had shot. The retired spy said that’s OK, the cake is still good, but you have to eat the parts that the bullets went through. That’s pretty fair, for a spy.

I think the spy’s wife married the spy because she wanted to have an exciting life. She wanted to say to her friends, My husband, the spy...and then brag about his adventures against the bad spies. Maybe she could go with him on secret missions to Moscow or Paris and cook for him or clean his room while he concentrated on spying. It was going to be a fine life.

But then the spy broke his leg while spying against Russia.

That’s it, he said. I quit spying. That was the third time he had broken his leg on the job. He decided to quit and stay at home with his wife and pursue his longtime dream, to breed and raise pigs.

His wife was horrified. Now she was married to a pig farmer. She tried to get him to go back to the spy office, but he said no, nothing doing.

She said, don’t you miss being a spy?

He said, I’ve been a spy for 20 years. Enough already.

She said, don’t you miss the excitement?

I don’t want any more excitement, he said. But I do want to raise pigs. In a way, pigs are more exciting than spying...

His wife became sad. But the spy couldn’t understand why. Now that he was no longer a spy, he could spend more time at home with her. Wasn’t it good to be together more?

The retired spy’s wife called up all of his old spy friends, but they said that they wished they could give up spying and become pig farmers too. One of the spies dressed up like a pig and sneaked into the pig farm. Then he turned back into a spy in front of the retired spy. The retired spy was really surprised and they both agreed it was a good joke and they drank beer the rest of the day and talked about the good old days at the spy school.

Every day I looked out my window and saw how sad the beautiful wife of the retired spy had become.

He noticed this, and he became sad too.

I can’t understand it, said the retired spy. She used to love me so much.

She loved being married to a spy, I said.

Well, I’m not a spy anymore, he said. I wish she’d understand that. I’m not a dangerous man.

You used to be dangerous, I said.

Yeah, but I didn’t like that part of the job. Now all I want to do is raise pigs.

Maybe she doesn’t like pigs, I said.

If she had really loved me before, she would still love me now even though I’m not a spy anymore...

She wants to be a dangerous woman, I said.

I’m gentle, not too dangerous, said the retired spy.

But every day the wife of the retired spy looked sadder and sadder. Even her hair looked sad.

Maybe if I became a spy, a really good spy, she would marry me instead. I felt guilty because the retired spy was my best friend, but his wife was so pretty.

It finally happened. A family was having a picnic down by the lake and it was getting dark and then the strange beard appeared. The mother got so scared that she dropped the baby. Of course, they blamed it all on the beard.

The family ran away and the beard, naturally enough, ate the rest of their picnic they left behind. So then the family told the police that the beard hurt their baby just so it could steal their picnic. This beard couldn’t get a break from anyone.

All right, said the mayor, if we’re going to have a civilized town meeting, then all these rodeo clowns have to go. And the rodeo clowns said, we live in this town, we have a right to be here just as much as anyone else. Well then, said the mayor, you can’t ride that mechanical bull while we’re having a town meeting. The rodeo clowns put away their mechanical bull. After that they were the most thoughtful and polite participants in the meeting, maybe to make up for the mechanical bull.

That beard is nothing but trouble, said the restaurant guy. That beard always gets into the trash cans behind my restaurant and spreads the garbage all over the place. I say, no more beard!

HOO! HOO! HOO! said everyone.

Quiet, everyone! said the mayor.

Studies show, said a scientist, that this beard will only get bigger and bigger, until this whole town is just one big beard.

We would have to rename the town Beard Town, shouted a schoolteacher.

I saw the beard try to sneak into the movies, said my friend Danny.

But then everybody looked at him and said, did you REALLY see the beard sneak into the movies? And Danny finally said no, but it would be really easy for the beard to do it because it’s just a beard.

We should take a vote, said the mayor. Who wants to get rid of the beard?

Aye, said almost everyone.

Nay, said one voice.

Everyone turned around.

It was the wife of the retired spy. She was wearing a bright yellow dress and sandals. Her hair was bigger and shinier and prettier than ever, like a giant gold bell.

I think the beard is OK, said the wife of the retired spy. I don’t think it meant to scare the picnic family.

You’re pro-beard, yelled someone.

I just think we should leave the beard alone, said the spy’s wife. It’s a gentle beard. I don’t think it would ever intentionally hurt anyone. Anyway, it’s cute.

She is a card-carrying beardist, declared the editor of the newspaper.

No, said the wife of the retired spy.

Hey, said a guy. Somebody told me you want to build a giant beard factory in the middle of town. And then that factory will make millions of beards to replace all the people. Is that true?

No, said the wife of the retired spy.

WIFE OF SPY TO BUILD EVIL BEARD MACHINE, wrote a newspaper reporter.

This is crazy! barked the fire chief. While we’re sitting here talking, that beard could be starting fires!

Get the beard! Get the beard! everybody shouted, and not even the rodeo clowns could get them to be polite. So they took out their mechanical bull again. Everybody had a fun time riding it for a while, but then everybody got so excited that they decided to go out that very night and get the beard once and for all.

It was dusk but everyone had to stay inside and lock their doors in case the beard tried to hide inside someone’s house. The mayor picked ten strong men to find the beard and put it in jail. But a lot of other men also wanted to go and so the group became 20 men, and then 30 men. Finally, the mayor got tired and said he was going to bed. When they found the beard they could wake him up.

It was weird to think that they were finally going to catch the beard. I was excited but a little bit sad. I was used to the beard wandering around our town. It wouldn’t be the same town without the beard.

The men weren’t sure how to catch a beard. How fast could a beard go? Was a beard dangerous when cornered? How did beards fight?

A lot of men showed up with razors and shaving cream, but they looked pretty silly. Still, nobody knew how to fight a beard, so they were allowed to bring them. But how could you hold down a beard long enough to shave it? And what would be left?

Somebody said, Look, we’ll know what to do with the beard when we find it. And so all the arguments ended and the men went out looking for the beard.

It was dark. The air-raid siren was slowly wailing somewhere, getting loud and then soft and then loud again. It sounded lonesome. I wasn’t scared of the beard but I felt strange and nervous. It was like a tornado or a war.

Even still, I didn’t want to be stuck in the house with my mom while all the excitement was going on outside. So I opened up my window and crawled out and then walked over to the retired spy’s house. The door was unlocked like always. I noticed the windows were open too.

Why aren’t you chasing the beard with all the other men, I asked. If they had let me go along with them, I would have gone. It seemed exciting.

The retired spy sighed. I don’t feel like chasing a beard all over town.

Oh, but it’s a dangerous beard, I said.

Do you really think so? said the retired spy.

Maybe it’s dangerous, I said.

We sat there for a while.

Where’s your wife? I asked.

She’s not talking, said the retired spy sadly.

Can I talk to her? I said.

I think she’s asleep, said the retired spy. I’m going to go feed my pigs. Sorry. Maybe you should go home.

Someone thought he had seen the strange beard sneaking around by the school, so everybody rushed over there. The men with their torches and razors and shaving cream and nets—they all ran over to the school and searched the playground for a hidden beard, under the slide, on the swings, inside the monkey bars.

The beard came in through my window again. This time it wasn’t so bold. You could tell it knew that everybody was looking for it. It nervously waited in my window frame, as though asking permission to come in.

Well, now you’ve done it, I said. You know they’re all after you now, don’t you?

The beard moved up and down.

Do you need help? I said.

A long pause. Then the beard moved up and down again.

OK, I said. Here’s what we’re going to do.

The men gave up looking for the beard. They all went back to the bar for a drink. The air-raid siren shut off.

Did you get the beard? asked their wives.

We were THIS close, said the men. Then it used a kind of beard magic and got away.

My husband, grumbled a woman. Defeated by a beard.

It’s a very tricky and dangerous beard, huffed her husband.

Outside, a car pulled up in the parking lot. There was laughter outside.

I think we scared it away, said the fire chief. I don’t think that beard will be coming back to our town anytime soon.

That’s right, said a rodeo clown. The beard panicked. It went really fast. I bet it’s in another town already.

You think you really scared it away? said the rodeo clown’s wife.

Sure, said the rodeo clown. What beard wouldn’t be intimidated by 50 men with razors and shaving cream?

We got the beard, said a wife. Our men got that beard out of town!

Just then, the door to the bar opened and the retired spy walked in with his wife. They were laughing and joking with each other. Their arms were around each other’s waists and they were so happy and light and free that it looked like they were from another world.

They went up to the bar and bought some drinks. The retired spy said, Hey, how about some music? And the bartender said, I think the jukebox still works. And the retired spy said, I want to dance with my wife tonight.

Something looked different about the retired spy. Nobody could put their finger on it. Maybe he was wearing a new suit. Or it could have been that he changed his hairstyle. No, it wasn’t any of those.

Suddenly, one of the men saw it. He yelled it out. Hey, spy, isn’t that a new...?

Nobody said anything for a second. Then everybody noticed it at once. One of the men started to clap, and then everybody was clapping and pounding the retired spy on the back and offering to buy drinks.

And the wife of the retired spy looked up into his eyes and around the room and thought about how happy she was, to be married to the man with the most dangerous beard in town.v