only a few times in life, my Grandfather Edgar once said,
when something happens quickly and unexpectedly and changes
how you see things. The first time that happened to me was
when he died. The second was when one of my high school teachers
confiscated and destroyed the fountain pen I'd inherited at
his death, making me feel as if I'd lost him for a second
time. When it happened I'd have hit anyone who told me to
look for the silver lining. Fortunately no one did.
The pen wasn't expensive or fancy, just an old Esterbrook
lever-filler in a washed-out ugly green. It was as short and
squat as Grandpa Edgar's wife, Grandma Lore Harnisch. Yes,
I know the name is odd, but that's what my grandmother called
herself. Harnisch was her maiden name, and though she took
Carson, Grandpa's family name, when she married him, she continued
to refer to herself as Lore Harnisch until the day she died.
She was known for it all over town. And for her stinginess
and self-righteous attitude. Grandma didn't merely exemplify
judgmental; she invented the word. She and her friends were
the town's gossips and scolds. If we'd still had ducking stools,
Grandma would probably have drowned or died of pneumonia long
before her heart gave out.
ten when Grandpa Edgar died. He and I had been close, closer
than most kids and their grandfathers, I think, because I
didn't have a father. Mine had left when I was only two, and
I never saw him again after that or got to know anyone in
his family. Grandpa used to walk me around the small park
at the edge of town and encourage me to look at everything
as if I were seeing it for the first time. "Look Jason,
look!" he'd call out across a patch of green, pointing
at something ordinary. "Imagine that you're from Mars
and you've never seen a squirrel before in your whole life."
That used to make me laugh so hard he had to pound me on the
back so I didn't choke.
One of his favorite sayings was, "Things are never the
way they seem." I didn't understand what he meant. Certain
things, I was convinced, were exactly the way they seemed.
Grandma Lore Harnisch, for example.
No one expected Grandpa Edgar to die suddenly, but one day
he just didn't wake up in the morning. He was only sixty,
and I know the neighbors said that he did it to get away from
Grandma and her constant criticism. My mother always says
that life with Grandpa had embittered her mother. "She
thought she was marrying money when she married my father,
a lawyer with a promising career ahead of him," Mom told
me a few years after Grandpa Edgar's death. "But that
career never came to much. He was just too soft-hearted to
make money off people's misery. She never got over it. She's
the one who should have been the lawyer. Maybe a prosecutor.
Or better yet, an executioner!" I was always amazed when
my mom took off on Grandma Lore Harnisch that way. I guess
I expected children to be loyal to their parents, no matter
what, the way I was to mine, even my dad, whom I didn't know.
I still remember Grandpa Edgar's funeral. When the coffin
was lowered into the ground, I started to cry. Mom stood on
one side of me and Grandma Lore Harnisch on the other. My
tears made my mom cry, but Grandma just reached out and stuck
her long, blood-red fingernails into the skin of my forearm.
"Stop your sniveling, boy, "she hissed. "Life
is nothing but loss and change, so you'd better get used to
That saying of hers didn't impress me the first time I heard
it, but I got to hear it lots more, every time I was sad or
hurt by something and she found out about it. Whenever I think
of it, I have to contrast it with Grandpa Edgar's delighted,
"Look, Jason, look!" Those two sayings pretty much
defined my grandparents for me for a long time.
Grandpa Edgar had owned a whole bunch of pens. He used to
write with most of them, but some of them he just kept because
the way they filled or their nibs interested him. "Look
at this crescent, Jason," he'd say, pointing to an old
Conklin. "Isn't it neat?" I'd look and admire the
pen, but I wasn't really interested until he died. Then I
wanted his pens. Grandma Lore Harnisch, however, had other
"Damned things might be worth something," she growled
when my mother asked her on my behalf for some of Grandpa's
fountain pens. She rummaged around in the box she'd tossed
them into right after his funeral. "Here," she said,
handing my mother the squat green Esterbrook, "he can
play with this thing. Probably not worth a dime."
I never found out what happened to the rest of his pens. Mom
said Grandma probably sold them to an antique store in St.
Louis, the nearest big city, ,but mom didn't know which store,
and even if she had known, we didn't have the money to travel
to the city and buy them back. I just took the Esterbrook
and threw it in a drawer. I didn't want the pens anymore.
I didn't want anything, especially not to remember how much
I missed Grandpa. So I literally and figuratively started
Grandpa Edgar died I was what most folks in town thought of
as a good kid. I was an above average student, obedient and
respectful towards adults, and quick to smile and say a friendly
word. After Grandpa died, however, I withdrew. It was as if
nothing mattered to me. It's only now that I understand how
lonely I was. At the time though I was just angry, and I had
no one to talk to.
My mother was great. But she was also busy, supporting herself
and me with what she could earn doing the only thing she's
ever really wanted to do: cartooning. Most of the time her
mind was on her next cartoon. She listened to me with half
an ear, and I knew it. She knew that I did, and she apologized
often for her lack of attention. She's still the same way.
I don't mind now, and I don't think I realized when I was
a lonely ten year old how much I minded then, but I did.
My grades plummeted, and I developed an attitude towards my
teachers and kids my age that was nothing short of contemptuous.
I'd probably have ended up in a lot of trouble right off if
it hadn't been for the fact that I could run. I mean really
fast. Faster than anyone else in my school. When my sixth
grade gym teacher realized how fast I was, he started telling
me I should try out for the track team when I got to junior
high. I wouldn't have done it, except that I found out that
being on the track team would get me out of a lot of classes,
so I tried out and made the team easily. I was a good middle-distance
runner and not a bad sprinter either, but what I loved was
running long-distance, cross- country. It took me far away
time that second life-changing event occurred, I was already
a junior in high school, a confirmed loner, star long-distance
runner, mediocre student in most subjects, and confirmed fountain
pen user. My one strong subject at school was English, and
that was because of Mr. Harmon, my English teacher. Though
he, like most of my teachers, was born and raised right here
in town, he hadn't gone to the local branch of the state college
but had gotten a graduate degree on the west coast, in San
Francisco. That made him seem exciting, if not downright exotic.
And when he'd gone to high school right here in the very same
high school I attended, he too had been on the varsity track
team. He was also a good teacher, able to make literature
accessible and even relevant to a bored kid like me who wanted
nothing more than to shut out everything that made him think
I found myself wanting to impress Mr. Harmon, so I actually
did my English homework. And since he used a fountain pen
in class, usually an old Pelikan piston filler from before
World War II, but sometimes a silver Parker with cross-hatching
on the barrel, I brought him the Esterbrook fountain pen that
Grandma Lore Harnisch had grudgingly handed over when Grandpa
Edgar died and asked him if there was some way he could get
the old thing to write. It had been sitting around so long
that I couldn't make the lever move at all.
It only took him two days to get the pen writing again. He
brought it back to me fully operational and even gave me a
bottle of black ink to use in it. "That pen has a nice
broad stub nib on it," he told me. "It's great for
signatures and fancy writing, but you may want to get another,
less specialized nib for note-taking."
I stared at him blankly, and he grinned. "The nibs are
replaceable. They screw out easily. You can get replacements
from a few online pen dealers."
Online pen dealers? I had no idea what he was talking about.
Of course, I had a computer at home. Actually it was my mom's,
and she used it for work, but I was able to use it to do research
for term papers. I didn't know how she'd feel about my researching
pen nibs on it, but she didn't seem to mind. In fact, she
didn't even notice. As long as I only used the computer when
she didn't need it, she paid no attention to what I did with
So I got a general writing nib and another narrower stub with
the small amount of money I'd saved, and I started using the
Esterbrook constantly. Whenever I didn't have track practice
after school I'd stick around and talk to Mr. Harmon about
pens and writing. He seemed to know just about everything
there was to know. At first, a big part of the joy of using
Grandpa Edgar's pen was being the only person at my school
who wrote with something like what Mr. Harmon used, but eventually
I just started enjoying using the pen for its own sake. And
that made it a little easier to think about Grandpa Edgar
without feeling cold inside or thinking about life as nothing
but change and loss.
When I moved up to twelfth grade I no longer had English with
Mr. Harmon, but I still dropped by at the end of the day whenever
I could to talk about pens and look at his. Every couple of
days he'd bring a different one to show me. He never pressured
me to get more pens, though he had quite a few. He and everyone
else in town knew that my mom and I were always strapped for
cash. Unlike some of Grandma Lore Harnisch's friends, who
constantly commented on our lack of money, he was too tactful
to mention it and never made me feel inadequate.