I’m a pen. Not a fancy pen. Your average retractable. My uniform - green necktie, green top hat - is standard issue, though I must say the milliner who made my topper is quite skilled. When the time comes to put pen to paper, as they say, my hat can be pressed into a boater, exposing my ballpoint, while giving me the overall look of a solitary member of a barbershop quartet. (In such an arrangement, I’d surely write tenor.) I’ve never been one of four though. More like one of four hundred million.
The SKU4375 inkline is one of the oldest and largest in the factory. The day four hundred and ninety-nine of my siblings and I shipped out, donning ‘Fuller Family Dentistry 555-9975’ down our sides, much the same way some families wear matching khakis to the beach, the fanfare was minimal; we were hardly an order of notable size.
Admittedly, most of that is a blur, if not a total reproduction of a memory, pieced together from details I’ve heard from pens who’ve been around the drawer. That is to say, I can’t possibly remember as much about my origins as I seem to: self-awareness for a pen doesn’t come into focus until we write for the first time. Only by creating space inside ourselves to receive the world, can we become real members of it, can we hold on to real parts of it. For every drop of ink I give up, I gain space for something new.
My first real memory then, the first line I ever jotted down, was the time of Jay Moore’s root canal. The receptionist’s computer had yet to boot up when Mr. Moore called so I was delegated the task of knowing “Jay Moore RC 5/10 4pm”. It wasn’t the most illustrious uncapping, but it did add to the diversity that has been my writing career, my life. I spent the rest of that first morning less-than-gracefully somersaulting between the receptionist’s fingers. The seemingly endless tumble of my ink rendered me rather queasy, and I feared that the next time I stepped tip to paper, I would get sick. Many a bin of fresh-off-the-line pens had been rattled into sleepless nights by tales of what happens to young pens who spill the guts, too much learned too soon. That was when he walked in.
He leaned on the portly side, his lean on the counter shelfing a fair amount of his stomach. I imagined how cozy it must be nestled amongst the overstuffed cushions of his fingers. He was well-dressed though, and hadn’t loosened his tie for this lunch break errand: he was the type to have his own pen, most likely a monogramed refillable with a pearlized finish.
Such a pen was not in attendance, however, and as he stood phone to ear, the expression of someone continuing to talk only for want of something flattening his features, he did the customary pocket tap of seeking an instrument of my genus. My part-receptionist, part-finger-acrobat guardian handed me over, not knowing that it would be end of our brief relationship. This gentleman, it turned out, was a pen thief.
It is a fairly circulated statistic, at least in my world, that eighty-five percent of pens will become the victim of abduction during their lifetime. I stepped my way across his undulating palm, before being absentmindedly, or seemingly absentmindedly, placed inside his jacket.
For five days, I was held there, the dark around me blacker than what I held inside. I hardly slept despite the endless night, preoccupied was I with whether I should hope to be found or forgotten. When the morning came that he pulled me from the pocket - though in reality it turned out to be late evening, any light after such darkness is a blinding sunrise - his unexpected enthusiasm at seeing me made my ink swell with relief. My fears were unfounded, I was in good hands after all.
Over the next few weeks, I dashed from pocket to pocket, desktop to desktop, making fast friends with a daily planner, with whom I coordinated all of our patron’s business affairs. I reached the level of comfort that one feels when the training period of a new job is over and a routine is in place. Then it happened.
The afternoon was normal enough. My benefactor, married to a woman with suggestions of ‘healthier habits’, walked to our lunch meeting. Given the weather report that had preceded the suggestion, his suit coat was left on his office chair, and I slid into his pant pocket alongside one of the lollipops his secretary secreted for him.
Within a few blocks, the sway of his stride turned my cubicle into a breezy, tropical hammock. I practically had no choice but to fall asleep.
A thumb had just pressed my yellow slider, popping the blue slider back up, when a strong gust of wind woke me. I must have rolled over in my sleep: gone was being an eight-color multiclick, there was being a slim stick dangling over a gaping precipice. If not for where my clip snagged on a thread, I would have already fallen through the tear in the pocket lining that ‘TLC Cleaners 11am’ was to repair on Thursday.
I pushed from my mind the image of crossing off the original drop-off, the one that would have sewn up the situation days before. I closed my eyes against the inevitable, feeling rather then seeing my descent.
Despite the limited space between leg and pant leg, neither fabric nor hair offered any resistance to my departure. Each, scruffy in their own way, let me pass with little more than a quick chafe to my sides and pride.
To this day, I’m grateful we were not passing over a sewer grate at that fateful moment, for I spotted many such dungeons in the inches of time that separated hem from sidewalk. As I rolled away, each rotation glimpsing him farther away, though unchangingly unaware of my absence.
There I laid for a timeless stretch. The sun yellowing my plastic and reddening my eyes. Then those five little fingers, grappling for me. He couldn’t have been more than two years old, and I knew in my well that he was the only one who could have lifted me up in that moment. But I couldn’t be heartened. He was too young to be deemed capable of deciding for his own hands.
We’d only turned the corner onto the next block when his mother, noticed me. The assault on my character was swift and that on me, swifter. She pried me from from his hand with disgust, nicking the tail of not just one, but both of my y; Fuller Familv Dentistrv. I would have felt prematurely judged, had I not also wished myself a little cleaner.
The momentum of that second drop rolled me under a loafer with uneven wear a few feet behind the mother-son pair. Even from so low down, I saw contemplation of my worthiness creasing the young woman’s brow. I flinched for the kick. The physical rejection. The additional scuff to my shell and my spirit. None came. Instead she pinched my midsection, giving me a cursory swipe on her jeans - as though that could have done anything to remove the microscopic hitchhikers that I no doubt picked up - before dropping me into her tote bag.
The next light I saw was the purposely dim cast of low hanging pendants. We were in a coffee shop. Looking around, I spotted few other pens. The vast amount of information being transcribed that afternoon was simulated ink on simulated paper on backlit screens that worried not about the minimal wattage in the air. What business had I there?
It was then I spotted her and knew. I was being set up on a blind date. Across the table from me, sitting open and expectant, was a lovely unruled notebook. I knew not what to say. Which is to say, that while she was no doubt the best kind of notebook - when the pages are ruled, one is forced to never lose focus, always toeing the line, but with unruled paper, there is freedom to side step a bit - I also quickly realized, given the venue, the purpose of our union, and I had no adequate words for this exceptional specimen of bundled pages. How could I possibly write poetry in the state I was in?
It’s hard to say now, whether it was all of the -ove combinations - love/above, love/shove, love/glove, love/dove - but I gave away my heart that day. The words I inked at another’s behest could have been my own, and I yearned to leave behind a few stray marks telling those beautiful pages as much, but our affair ended just as quickly as it began. The poet and her journal departed, leaving me beside the empty mug and beside myself, empty.
I must say I found myself beginning to question if it was really worth exchanging what was inside me for the space to let others in. Doing so hadn’t proved to be a filling in, but rather a hollowing out. Though I gave, I had yet to receive. Oh to have had paper then...
I can’t recall how long I wallowed, but at some point I was clipped to the brim of a barista’s apron and carried away from that fateful, frightful, table. After the espresso machines stuttered to sleep for the day, and the over-caffeinated, but under-stimulated stragglers ventured out into the street, the apron and I went home with the barista.
Her countertop was fairly tidy, which gave me hope that I wouldn’t be so easy to misplace, and from some doodles scattered about, I knew I would at least have work to keep my mind off of things.
Doodlers are hit-or-miss, however. Some give a pen the brief opportunity to flex their creative muscles. Maybe it’s a set of concentric circles, or a series of flowers and stars, or stars made into flowers, or flowers within stars, but whatever it is, that sort of doodling is the recess of pens. It can be meditative too. Peace found in the carefree, but methodical, movements.
Then, there are the Blackouts. The doodlers who completely eradicate the pristine surface of their paper. I’ve heard of many brothers and sisters in arms dying valiant, if not futile, deaths in the hands of such a creature. With relentless dedication, these pens hemorrhage their lifeblood in hopes that their sacrifice will be enough, only to have the empty shell of who they were shaken for proof of death, flippantly disregarded, and replaced by an equally devoted and fated comrade.
This doodler proved harmless. She sketched cats and wrote and rewrote her name, sometimes in print, others cursive. We’d been sharing her tiny apartment for nearly five months, drawing every variation imaginable of spots, stripes and patches on hundreds of different felines, when one Sunday morning we ventured out. Our destination was the park, the air being cold enough to loosen the leaves from their trees, but not the city dwellers from their park benches.
She untucked a newspaper from beneath her arm and together we sought out job options. My knowledge of arithmetic was limited at the time, but I could tell the crumpled bills from the jar at the coffee shop didn’t amount to much. Then we turned to the puzzle section.
As in most families, the pen family has its smattering of intellectual types. Those who can not only complete the Sunday New York Times crossword, but can do so within the hour. They have poured themselves into knowing all about Greek gods and Roman mythology, classic movies and their even more classic stars, obscure Nobel Peace Prize winners and an entire dictionary worth of banal sayings. Real spell-it-alls.
Up until that point, I had been able to pride myself on, one Wednesday afternoon after underlining a few rousing sentences in an article about the Dow Jones, having assisted my former boss with a Wednesday puzzle that included the clue ‘Pen, in Mexico perhaps.’ Effortlessly, I filled in the five boxes: P-L-U-M-A. Sunday, however, was more than I could handle.
I blanched. I didn’t want to let her down, didn’t want her to see how unseasoned and unworldly I was. I sucked in, holding my breath. The first shake was gentle. She didn’t even look up from the page. She shook again. As my insides quivered, my resolve solidified. I sucked in deeper once again. The shakes grew from reminder to question to demand. I fought each shifting insistence that I make a mark. I held and held until she believed me out of ink.
Thankfully there were no garbage cans around or the repercussions of this plan would have been much worse. Without bothering to copy down the details of the jobs we’d circled, she set me atop the newspaper and strode away. If I'd been quick enough to find a seven letter stretch in that puzzle of our undoing, I would have liked to have said goodbye.
It was from that black and white surface that my most recent sponsor acquired me. He is in the tenth grade at a high school three blocks from Dr. Fuller’s office - not that I have much time to think of my childhood now, what with the endless homework. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy it.
My favorite subject is math. There is something hypnotizing about numbers. How things always add up. I like some of his other classes too. For instance, just this week his English teacher assigned a creative writing project where he is to experience the world from an entirely different perspective.
As a thank you for all of the things he has taught me, I’ve agreed to let him use mine.