The first time I saw Malcolm’s beard he was sitting on one of those city-funded stone benches at Washington Park--the kind with the big county seals engraved on it. He looked like he just woke up. And his beard was a mess. It was as if the tide had just rolled in and his face was a net capturing seaweed, bits of life and tiny shells from the surf.
Official benches don't make any difference to the transients who sleep on them. Their dirty blankets drape over the sides, hang over the backs, and cover the seals. Lifeless bodies in five a.m. slumber snore on them. And often like Malcolm's bags of bottles, alcohol drips onto the concrete, stinking up the ground beneath the benches.
Malcolm's eyes were half open as he sat there staring at a group of kids playing on a jungle gym. When a little boy toppled off, not from very high, but landed on a girl carrying a pink lunchpail, he didn't say a word. I ran over to pull the two crying kids apart. No broken bones. Just parents running around screaming "Oh my baby!" while Malcolm didn't even blink.
I sat back down and shook my head. I could sense Malcolm give a nod. His long beard gave a twitch.
My kid played on a slide. I could easily see his fat head and blonde hair from my seat next to Malcolm. In fact, I watched my kid sail headfirst down the hot metal slide and take a dive into the sandbox. He giggled and laughed as he spit a mouthful of sand and looked at me. I giggled too.
Next to me sat Malcolm who looked like a relic. He had this withered-in-the-sun gaunt look. Just add water and color for the forty-years-ago 1970s version, I thought. On his nearly bald head wiry wisps of hair electrified by life and years lay jagged and broken across his sunburnt scalp. His nose was a work of art the way it snaked into a sculpted point. Little round spectacles with water spots rested above his beak. And then there was his giant grey beard. A real explosion of hair. Not a single strand lay straight. White, with streaks of grey, the entire mass hung to his chest as if it struggled to get there.
My cell phone rang and I shut it off. I felt Malcolm’s eyes dart over. “Sorry,” I said.
“No bother,” he said. "I don't have a phone." I wasn't surprised but thought I should ask anyway. "Why not?"
"It's just too gaudy. You ever see gypsies on cell phones or computers? Just wouldn't look right. Gypsies should only write letters and they should only do so in ink. Blue ink."
I nodded, but not as if to agree.
Malcolm's lips moved. It took a little while for the words to stutter out. "You-you-you-you know," he pointed toward my kid who now swam backwards down the slide only to land on his back in the sand and laugh hysterically. "There was this writer I knew. He was obsessed with writing the letter T." He paused. "Who gets obsessed with the alphabet, right?"
"Writers. They-they-they're like a breed of wolves," he said. "Anyway, this guy hated using a typewriter. This was years ago. He would only write in blue ink. He was obsessed with it. He bought these leather-bound journals and pens, expensive pens, as if a hundred-dollar pen made a difference. And he wrote the most magical stories."
Malcolm pulled a bit of food from his beard and gazed at the crumb as if contemplating eating it. He looked at me and gave a chuckle and threw the morsel into the sand. We both stared where it landed.
"He could write these tales about faraway places. Not like here. Not this park or even his city. He wasn't from here. He was from some town in Belgium. He was in their heads," he said, nodding to the children running in the playground. "You ever see their imaginations?"
"No," I lied.
"He could. And he wrote a lot of blue Ts."
"How did you know him?"
Malcolm paused again to search his beard. "Oh that's a story about my youth. I published him."
"You published him?"
"I was a publisher."
"Made millions and millions."
"That's a lot of millions."
"Millions," he said again like it was a kind of fish swimming past. Something fat and gold with a lot of scales. He took a breath then looked around the playground and spotted my boy walking across the sandbox. Then he sighed. But not before grabbing his beard and giving it a tug. "Millions," he said again.
My son wandered over to an uneven area in the sand and scooted onto a rusted toy crane. He used it to lift piles of worthless dry sand.
All around us children ran through the playground. Laughter was like a carousel's floating music box symphony. Screams and squeals were playful and expected. Malcolm's face grew serene. "Millions," he said again as he watched my boy release the jaws of the crane, spilling dirty sand onto an imaginary construction site.
*NOTE: This story was written entirely on an iPhone.