It is Wednesday afternoon, and I am on the step just outside the open garden door. The weather has been cold and wet all day – rain is still dripping from the trees – but the sun has come out and the air is warming up.
Twenty minutes ago: it’s so dark that all the lights are still on in the kitchen, where the oldest one is working and the youngest is dicing onions, while they both listen in silence to an audiobook about the American civil war.
“What’s with that?” the youngest says.
“What?” the oldest says.
“That,” the youngest says. There is a pause.
“Oh yeah,” the oldest says. “Mad hobo shit.”
At first I assume they are talking about conditions faced by the Army of the Cumberland prior to the Battle of Chickamauga, but then I realise they are watching me shave my beard while crouched on the wet back step holding a mirror stolen from the middle one’s bedroom.
“Are you talking about me?” I say.
“Then again,” the youngest says, “I don’t suppose hobos would have access to electric beard-grooming clippers.”
“I dislike the term hobo,” I say. “I prefer gentleman of the road.”
“It’s not normal,” the oldest says.
“And these are dog clippers,” I say. “This is the only outside spot where the cord will reach an outlet.” My wife walks in.
“Why are you shaving off your beard?” she shouts. “I need to photograph you sitting on a support cushion!” I’m not sure what she’s taking about, but I think it has something to do with the social media campaign for her new business: she wants me to play an elderly person, and my beard is the greyest thing about me.
“I’m not shaving it off,” I say. “I’m just cutting a mouth hole so I can eat.”
“Well, come in when you’re done and sit on this cushion,” she says.
“Ow,” I say, catching my top lip between the blades.
A magpie lands on the grass in front of me. It’s the same one (the one with the crooked tail) that the youngest one has been feeding from his bedroom window for weeks; the one that clamps itself to the gutter below the sill and begs for mealworms with a call like a rusted gate.
It reminds me that this time last year I had just embarked on my first quarantine project: an attempt to get the birds of the air to land on my outstretched arms whenever I stepped into the garden. I figured this would impress my friends when lockdown ended, but I quit after people sent me loads of encouraging videos of their own efforts in this area, and I decided I didn’t really like the idea of being covered in finches. The birds of the air can make their nests from the hairs of my beard, but our relationship ends there.
It is odd to think that a year ago I was contemplating the deliberate cultivation of eccentric behaviour in order to pass the time. Twelve months on, I’m wondering how much social re-education I’ll need to be able to eat in a restaurant.
The middle one walks into the kitchen and opens the fridge.
“How far in are you?” he says.
“Still building up supplies before we cross the Tennessee river,” the oldest says.
“And what’s he doing?” the middle one says, still staring into the fridge.
“Mad hobo shit,” says the oldest.
“Is that my mirror?” the middle one says.
“It’s the only portable one I could find,” I say, turning off the clippers to switch attachments. “I’ll put it back.”
He shuts the fridge and leaves the room empty-handed. The magpie bounces across the lawn and makes a sound like an expiring hedge-trimmer. Colonel Wilder’s forces hammer on empty barrels and send pieces of scrap wood floating downriver to trick the Confederate army into believing that rafts are being constructed for a crossing north of Chattanooga.
“It’s insane, when you think about it,” the youngest says, leaving it unclear as to whether he’s talking about the audacious scrap wood deception, or my new grooming regime. I turn the clippers back on. In the mirror I can see huge storm clouds gathering behind my head.