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A Time To Every Purpose II
Continuation of our Tuesday serial
from the fountain pen of Myra Love
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 Chapter II


Sometimes memory is a trickster, carrying a big full of both laughter and tears. Sitting in my car with Anita I looked back on the past few months and wondered how I'd coped.
Betsy had quit her job as a volunteer coordinator for the public library as soon as she'd learned that the numbness and tingling in her extremities, the tiredness, and the loss of coordination were early symptoms of multiple sclerosis. She sat at home reading, watching TV, and brooding. Whenever I tried to get her to talk about her feelings, she got angry and sarcastic.
"Hey," she'd snarl at me, "are you trying for the New Age sensitive man award? If I need a shrink, I'll hire one."
It seemed to me that a shrink was exactly what she needed. The more she withdrew, the worse her symptoms became, but when I tried to tell her that, she told me that if I didn't want to live with her anymore, she'd be glad to divorce me. That hurt, and I turned to Anita for solace and reassurance, who told me Betsy's fear was speaking.
I smiled as I remembered my reaction to that. "Well," I'd barked at Anita, "if that's her fear speaking, I sure wish it would just shut the hell up."
Anita had looked at me sympathetically for a moment and then started to laugh. Soon I joined in her laughter. It was the first time I'd laughed like that since Betsy first took sick. That was when Anita suggested I take some time off and go to Chicago with her for the pen show.
"It'd be good for you, Bob, and a help to me. You know I've not been since Dora died. It'd be hard to be there alone," she said. I was surprised, shocked really. Anita often spoke of Dora with great warmth, and it was clear that she missed her terribly, but she'd never before hinted that Dora's absence had stopped her from doing anything she had a mind to do. It was hard to imagine her being daunted by anything, let alone anything as pleasurable as a pen show. Of course, she might not have meant the show itself. I tried to picture her driving all the way to Chicago by herself in that old boat of a Pontiac she'd owned since the early seventies and had to chuckle.
I wanted to go to pen show with Anita. Of course, I wanted to go, but I felt guilty. I was sure Betsy couldn't manage on her own, and despite the increasing tension in our marriage, I couldn't imagine anyone else taking care of her. So I turned Anita down. She was disappointed, I knew. I could tell by the slight increase in the downturn of her mouth. But she didn't pressure me. Anita's motto could have been, "Friends don't pressure friends." Sometimes that seemed to me an unnecessary reticence, but I respected her too much to challenge her. I suggested she find someone else to go with, but she brushed me off.
"It's all right, Bob. I certainly have enough pens that I'm not desperate to go. I just thought it might give us both a chance to get away."
I didn't ask what she wanted to get away from. At that moment I didn't care.

Then one afternoon about three weeks after Anita first made her suggestion, Betsy's youngest sister Maggie phoned. She wanted, she said, to come for a two week visit. Maggie's husband was a geologist whose work often took him abroad. Usually Maggie went to one of her other sisters since she and I didn't get along. Betsy always told me she didn't mind that a bit since Maggie got on her nerves, but this time it was different. After month of complaining every time I left her alone, even if only for a few minutes, Betsy suddenly wanted me to leave so she could spend time with Maggie.
"Why don't you go off to that pen show you were moping about?" she suggested. "You said the hag wanted to go. You could drive up together while Maggie visits."
"But Maggie isn't reliable," I argued.
Betsy just shook her head in exasperation. "I don't need a babysitter," she told me, though it seemed to me that was exactly what she needed. "And I haven't seen Maggie since Christmas when we were all at Angie's. We hardly got to catch up on things there. It was too noisy, too busy, too full of family."
She'd always complained that she and Maggie had very little to say to each other, but in my desire to avoid a fight I didn't remind her of that. Instead I told her that I'd talk to her doctor before agreeing to anything. She just snorted at me in disgust. "Doctor Hughes doesn't run my life, Bob, and neither do you. So get on the phone to that hag and make your plans."
I hemmed and hawed and procrastinated for almost a week, so Betsy phoned Anita herself. I was right there in the living room with her when she did it. After a brief greeting, she asked Anita, "Can you get this man out of my hair for about ten days? My sister is coming and they fight like cats and dogs." Then she handed me the phone.
Anita was laughing. "Well," she managed to croak between gasps of laughter, "how about the pen show?"
I don't know why Anita found Betsy so funny while I found her difficult bordering on obnoxious. I wasn't amused and my tone of voice wasn't either when I agreed to go to the pen show.
"It doesn't take ten days to drive to Chicago, attend the show, and drive back," I informed Anita, as if she didn't know. "I'd like to visit my college friend who's teaching at Purdue, if you don't mind."
"You mean that Stew fellow, the one who collects those safety pens that don't work?" she asked, with just a trace of mockery.
"He collects safeties, yes," I replied, feeling irritated by her amusement, "but he uses a Parker 51."
"Oh right!" Anita answered, still snickering, "the man with the buckskin 51. How could I forget?"
"He's also a mathematician," I added stiffly. "So I thought you might have that in common, but if you don't want to visit him, we can just go to the pen show and come back."
"I'm not a mathematician, just a humble, former high school mathematics teacher," Anita reminded me unnecessarily and inaccurately, as she was anything but humble. "Even with my mathematical limitations," she observed, "I know you're quite right. A trip to Chicago for the pen show won't take ten days."
I knew she was mocking me, and it made me angry, but I controlled myself and remained civil.
"We don't have to be away for ten days," I replied. "The show runs Thursday through Sunday. We could leave here Tuesday morning and be back the following Tuesday afternoon and not break the speed limit once."
She snorted at me. "If Betsy needs ten days with her sister, we have to be away for ten days."
I knew she was right but I resented it. I didn't want this to be about pleasing Betsy and making sure she got what she needed or wanted. Everything in my life, every decision I made lately seemed to be about Betsy. For once I wanted something in my life to be about me. Maybe that's one reason why I wanted to visit Stew Laszlo.
Stew and Betsy had never liked each other. She found him pompous and rigid and he distrusted her. Stew had been my best friend, but after I married Betsy we gradually grew apart. I went off to grad school in Michigan and he headed to Harvard, prompting Betsy to label him an Ivy League loser. I had seen Stew only three or four times in all the years that Betsy and I had been together since college. We kept in touch by email and phone, but suddenly I really wanted to hear his voice call me Bobbo, a nickname he'd inflicted on me in college that I'd always hated, and to see him smile in satisfaction after silently solving some mathematical problem that had been plaguing him, a small, very private smile that most people might have taken for a smirk.
"Well, do you want to meet Stew or not?" I demanded of Anita, still bristling.
Anita stopped laughing. "You've been after me to meet this man ever since you were his college roommate. Of course, I want to meet him. Is there someplace to stay in or near West Lafayette, Indiana?"

When I called Stew Laszlo, he insisted we stay with him. He had a house within walking distance of the campus in a quiet, residential neighborhood, he told me. I was surprised. I'd imagined him living in a small apartment with his living room given over to mathematics books and his bedroom full of pens and pen parephenalia, but he told me his house was quite spacious with three guest rooms, only one of which was full of pen and pen parts.
"What about your math stuff?" I asked him.
"I have an office," he reminded me. "This is a university after all, and I am a tenured professor."
I tried hard not to be envious. One of the things I hadn't missed during my semester's leave from teaching high school was having to move from classroom to classroom without anything resembling an office. I carried everything I needed for my day with me. When I spoke to students it was in a classroom no one was using at the time. I lugged my books back and forth to work everyday. And any grading that I did was done at home at the kitchen table. Of course, I had a study at home, but it was too full of pens and ink and tools to work in.
"I'm looking forward to meeting Anita Carswell," Stew said at the end of our conversation. "I feel as if I know her, but it will be interesting to compare my image to the real person."
"And you're sure we're not coming at an inconvenient point in the term?" I asked him for the third time.
"No, a week later would be inconvenient, but the week leading up to the pen show is fine. Classes will be winding down, but I won't have a bunch of panicky students worried about exams and final projects lining up at my door yet. Besides, you're only staying for a couple of days."
I invited him to come to the pen show with us, but he refused, saying he had to present at a conference shortly after the end of the academic year and needed to work on his talk.
"I hope our presence won't interfere…," I began, but he cut me off.
"It's all right, Bobbo. It's one thing to have guests and quite another to desert the ship for three or four days."
So that was settled. Now all I had to do was arrange to pick up Maggie at the airport in St. Louis, make sure Betsy's car ran okay, so Maggie could use it in my absence, get my own car serviced for the trip, and decide which pens to take with me. Of those tasks remaining, the only one I looked forward to was picking pens for the trip. That little ritual always pleased me, and I was all the more delighted by the possibility of surprising Anita with my choices. The only question was what to do first, pick the pens or do the more mundane and less enjoyable tasks. On the one hand, picking the pens right before the trip would, I thought, assure that I started the trip in the right state of mind. But I didn't want Maggie looking over my shoulder while I went through my collection. Unlike Betsy, who, until the onset of her illness, had always considered my pen collecting exotic and charming, my sister-in-law couldn't help trying to calculate how much money I'd "wasted" over the years on my "ridiculous mania." No, I really didn't want to have to pick my pens while Maggie was here. That meant making my selection before I went to get her at the airport, and since I'd planned to drop her at home so Betsy would have company when I took my car to the mechanic, I'd have to pick my pens before any of the other tasks. The more I thought about it, the better that sounded. No time like the present, I thought, to make a preliminary selection. So while Betsy napped, I wandered into my crowded den and started to sort through my pens.

 


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