In Schwartzbeeren, I wrote, “The high on Saturday, the day of the auction, was 105, but Kansas is full of Kansans and this was August, so they came, they bought and they took it all away, praise the lord, even the dead television and stereo consoles ($1).” That wasn’t completely true. One thing didn’t sell.
My Dad started collecting pens after he bought a glassed-in case at a sale with fountain pens sunk into a bed of styrofoam in equidistant isolation, as if embalmed and on view. These pens may have been mildly valuable. He got them for almost nothing. His own collection quickly expanded into humdrum ballpoints and even pencils. He mounted them with elastic string on a wire screen rectangle, which he then framed. The Hays Daily News did a feature on him and his hobby which got picked up by other papers, and people started dropping off cigar boxes full of decades’ worth of pens. He had so many that he could mount them by color, the gold ones taking up a row, the silver ones two more, accompanied by a partial row of purple ones, like a contingent of athletes from Albania, labeled SWEET BERRY. There were panels devoted to oddballs and panels of the drably functional, the ones the Coop and the hardware store gave away. There were panels of whatever was at hand, the orange frog pen separated from the hatchet by a triplet in flag-drag, with individual insignia: Malsam Repair, Arnold Sharpening, Hughes Security Office. Eventually the panels, which originally were uniform, grew variously sized, often in response to what space was still available on the basement walls. Eventually, all the walls were covered. By then, though, the collecting bug was on its last legs.
At the auction pens covered 2 of the 13 trailers like colorful quilts. That was only half of them. The others, 26 panels to be exact, were in stacks in the basement. During the lead-up to the sale Dad had wondered out loud if any of his kids might want the collection, which I interpreted as an unexpressed hope that someone would. Surprise, somebody did. Me. Surprise to me, too. His reaction was not altogether positive, seeing I had set aside so many. Was it fair to my siblings? They had had their chance, of course. But what if the pens sold well?
Not a bid, not even a quarter.
I bribed my nephew Chris, who had driven from Seattle and was returning via San Francisco, to stack the panels on the back seat of his Mom’s Subaru. I flew back to San Francisco, and a few days later Chris called. He and his buddy were an hour away.
We unloaded them, stacking them on the floor of my study and in the dining room. I had an idea but no plan. A day or two later I got out the electric drill. There was nothing to do but start in, see what happened.
Now I write under a firmament of pens. I’ll bet there is not one that has not gone dry. They are like stars whose light we see long after they’ve burned out. They clamor to be metaphors, or, in the way a colony of ants is a single organism, a single Metaphor, all the stuff that didn’t get written, or said. My father, during my time with him last week in Denver, mentioned that some years ago he had started writing his recollections, but he didn’t know what happened to the notebook. I said, I have it, you gave it to me. Truthfully, I don’t know how it came to be in my possession. I said I would send it back to him, which I will tomorrow.
The memoir stops halfway down page 11, with the line, “Surgeries. 37 tonsils and adnoids.” There is no question, he will not write another sentence. Since the move from Kansas, he has declined markedly, not able, perhaps not willing, to adjust to life in Denver. He sleeps most of the time. Reading, a great consolation in idle hours, is foreign to him. I have never known him to read a novel.
Every few weeks I hear something: a pen, its elastic too loose or too brittle, falling like space debris. One day you might find me slumped over my desk, riddled with pens like a postmodern St. Sebastian.