Last stop of the day, pulling in to fill up the gas tank. I set the pump trigger latch in place and walked around to the passenger side for something. While there, I took a moment to get my small boar-bristle brush out of the glovebox and give my beard a smoothing-down. I’ve been letting it grow for the last few months, so it requires a lot more grooming now.

“Feels good, don’t it?”

I turned around to look over at the next pump island for the source of the voice, where I saw what appeared to be Billy Gibbons dressed in biker leather, next to his beat-up old pickup.

“I brush mine like that all the time. Love it,” he said, affectionately patting the fringe of his long, grey facial mane.

“Oh, yeah,” I concurred. “I wish someone had told me about these earlier. I used to use a comb, but it made it all—” I used my hands to indicate the universal sign language for wild, frizzy hair.

He winced as if he’d seen someone brandish a set of electric clippers in his direction. “Ooh, no, never a comb, no. Always gotta be a brush.”

He made as if to get back in his truck before hesitating, his head still turned halfway in my direction, as if listening to some internal monologue. A moment later, he turned back and ambled over toward me.

“Now, look, young feller,” he began, in a friendly-conspiratorial tone of voice, “I made myself a promise a long time ago never to get involved in another man’s beardly business. You can see I’ve been around a good long while, and I tell you what, you never get over the pain of seeing a man you’ve encouraged spend years growing out his beard the way the good Lord intended, only to cut it all off because of a job or some damned woman.”

He spat to punctuate his disgust before fixing me with one steely eye from under the brim of his hat. Taking the measure of me, I thought. I kept quiet and stoically bore his scrutiny, letting my beard do the talking for me. Was that the slightest crack in his stony façade, a tiny upturn in the corner of his mouth?

It was. He grinned an almost-imperceptible grin and shook his finger at me in a mock-admonishing way. “You, though…damn it all if I ain’t a sentimental old fool, but the careful, dedicated way you wield that brush tells me you ain’t gonna go that route.”

“No, sir,” I agreed. “My woman, she loves my beard the more it grows out.”

He sighed, his breath the sound of so many hair clippings fluttering, unmourned, to the floor. “Be that as it may, son, in this world, there’s many a cold winter wind blows through a man’s life with no woman there to share it with. You treat that beard like the brother it is, because it’ll be there for you when that wind’s a-whistlin’ somethin’ fierce, no questions asked.”

Pausing to make sure his words had sunk in, he reached deep into a jacket pocket and fished something out. He held out his hand, and as I took it, he clasped his other one tight around the back and held it for a moment.

“I’m trusting you’ll use it wisely, son. Don’t let me down.”

“I won’t. I promise.”

I unclenched my hand and looked down.

Good stuff.

When I looked up to thank him, he was already gone.

The overall sleek shine, the way the potion enhances the blond hairs to glow like a golden fire, and the lively notes of pine, cedar and mint that aromatically dance around my face now are the only things that convince me I didn’t imagine the whole thing.

Some parts of this story are truer than others.