Author : Ryan Swiers

“My beard, son,” Ivus Hadler said to Heather Brantley, Solipsister correspondent. The old man rocked back in his chair, tapping one weather-bulged knee with his pipe’s stem. “That’s how I know so much.”

“Your beard?” Heather asked, ignoring his mistake. She was familiar with her androgyny.

“You betcha. All wise men have beards for a reason.”

“There’s certainly wisdom in not having to shave every day.”

“Exactly! It ain’t no crop o’ corn. Why would you cut what you can’t eat?”

This she also had to ignore. This was her interview. “Mr. Hadler, what I’m most curious about is how your beard allows you to know so much. It’s said you never forget a conversation or a date or any fact you’ve heard and even some you shouldn’t. Skeptics say–,”

“I’m an old man done too many turns at the coffee grinder, son.”

“I…,” She flipped through a notebook on her lap, “I’ve never heard a skeptic say that.”

Ivus chuckled. He scooted and leaned his chair closer to her. “Mr. Brantley, why don’t you tell me what you think? I know all that hubbaloo. Let’s not waste words that they already have. Say what you’re gonna say.”

“Okay. Mr. Hadler–,”

“Ivus, son. Call me Ivus.”

“Ivus, I don’t think you’re any more special than the next wise, old man,” Heather leaned in closer herself, his tobacco strong and persuasive to his habit, “You just have something they don’t.”

“Yup, they don’t get as many hemorrhoids as I do.”

Heather gave that a hearty grin. What a coot, the grin said. “No, I think that you never actually grew that beard.” And then she tugged it off for proof.

The beard slid off with a slight, electric discharge, like unplugging a television. Ivus’ chin emerged bruised and blackened but otherwise normal. No slots, no ports, only face and follicles.

Before the old man could start an objection—his bare mouth slack, his expression stunned, a glazed looked to his eyes—Heather placed the beard to her own chin. At first she felt only the coarseness of the thick hair. Then, slowly, like a sleeping limb, a prickling sensation started near her ears, along the top of what would be the side-burns. This sensation travelled along the mutton chops, through Lincoln’s curtain, and then pooled around the goatee, the fu-man chu, the soul patch, the handlebars, and the moustache. Her skin tightened and burned. Finally, an agonizing pain flared to life inside her skull, as if her sinus cavity had been filled with gasoline, the beard a brand, consuming all fuel of thought for frantic arm-flapping.

Despite the pain, Heather began to understand. Information was a scratchy, grey weight through which an old man’s memories ran perpetual: spilled scotch over paper, one sheet scarred with formulas; hot, sweaty nights; the first fiber he’d attached, light-spun; cold, shaking mornings; a woman, too many turns at the coffee grinder, she had said before she shut the door behind her for the last time; and his obsession, growing one strand, one data drive at a time.

It was too much. Heather slumped low in her chair. Many years from now it would be more than her knees that ached in the weather.

“Son, any idiot can tell you, you can’t swallow the ocean in one gulp.” Ivus peeled the smoking beard away. “The trick is to do it one sip at a time.” He settled the beard slowly, tip-tapping it snug with his pipe.

When he had snugged the last hair, he gave a startled blush. “Apologies, ma’am. Don’t know everything yet.”

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