first started collecting fountain pens I used to classify
other collectors by which pens they collected. That began
with Stew. I thought of him as the quintessential Parker guy.
Stew was the second fountain pen collector I ever got to know.
Anita was, of course, the first, only I didn't know she collected
pens until well after Stew got me hooked on them. I initially
thought of Anita as a Sheaffer collector, until I realized
that she used a Sheaffer Sentinel with a fine Triumph nib
for note-taking and had a few Sheaffers around her house,
but she collected whatever struck her fancy. She had gone
through a brief phase of collecting Conklins, then she decided
that she had to accumulate what she called a small number
of English pens from the period immediately preceding World
War II. That small number was huge by the standards I had
when I first talked with her about collecting. The pens she
liked most to use, however, were vintage Waterman self-fillers
with flexible nibs, and if she was a collector of any single
brand, it was of vintage Waterman fountain pens..
Actually, I had Stew's specialty wrong too at first. Stew
didn't really collect Parkers back in college; he just used
them. What he collected were safety pens of all sorts. The
first time I realized that he had over two hundred pens that
he didn't use at all, I was floored. But then I accepted that
as just another thing about Stew that I didn't quite understand,
and there were many, including his mathematical interest in
K-theory, about which I know nothing to this day, his fascination
with rare, inedible mushrooms, and his strange but predictable
attraction to utterly eccentric and unattainable women, most
of whom were married and not the least bit interested in him.
It didn't surprise me that Stew was and remained a bachelor.
He had close friendships with several women, including the
current, young wife of his department head, about whom he
talked in the same ridiculous way that he had about his unattainable
I don't mean to sound judgmental, but for a man of exceptional
intelligence, Stew could be an awful dope. But when he wasn't
chastely adoring some woman from afar or going on and on about
some species of mushroom or some new twist to his mathematical
conundrums, he was an exceptionally entertaining companion.
He loved all sorts of music and could tell incredibly funny,
often raunchy stories with great style. The other thing that
made me want to see him was that he was simply one hell of
a nice guy, whether he was being dopey and boring or witty
I was sure he and Anita would hit it off. In fact, I had a
secret fear that they'd have so much in common that I'd feel
excluded, but I pushed that into the back of my mind, determined
to see myself as giving two of my oldest friends the gift
of getting to know each other. So I was cheerful when I started
ransacking my collection for pens to take with me to the show.
In previous years, I'd occasionally taken a pen or two that
I was willing to part with for the right price, but this year
I was only packing pens I wanted to show off or to use. I
hoped to limit myself to less than a dozen pens, simply because
I wanted to be able to keep track of them at all times. I
knew that Anita would bring what she always carried: her Sheaffer
Sentinel for use in case she needed to take notes rapidly,
her Waterman Patrician for its beauty and because it had been
Dora's last gift to her, and something else. Often that something
else was a modern pen with a specialty nib, occasionally an
italic or an oblique, but most often a stub. Anita had a wonderful
oversized Stipula Etruria with a stub nib that she loved signing
her name with. "There," she'd say whenever she appended
a bold signature to a quickly scrawled note, "that makes
up for my chicken scratching."
Anita actually had lovely handwriting, but only when she wrote
slowly and used pens with flexible nibs. I remember when I
first became aware of that. I'd been trying unsuccessfully
to learn to write with a black, hard rubber Waterman 52 with
an unusually flexible nib. Betsy had found it for me in an
antique shop. (That was years ago, not long after we'd gotten
married.) I was sitting at Anita's kitchen table scribbling
and drinking coffee as we waited for the rest of the pen club
to show up for one of our monthly meetings.
"Damn!" I yelled, as I smeared a blob of ink my
pen had just dropped on the page. "I can't believe people
actually wrote with these things." I started to put the
pen away when Anita stuck out her hand.
"Let me see it," she ordered, so I did.
Anita examined the pen. "Nothing is wrong with it as
far as I can tell," she said, pulling my notebook over
and making a few loops on the page. She signed her name, then
my name. She looked up and grinned at me.
"If you don't like this pen, I'll trade you something
for it. Or buy it from you," she offered.
She continued writing, and I found myself reading a beautifully
inscribed copy of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address" with
my head tilted at an odd angle since she was seated diagonally
across the table from me.
"Ouch," I protested, "you're giving me a sore
She stopped writing and laughed at me. "I'm doing no
such thing." She passed the notebook, back to me, and
I got a chance to admire an elegant, extremely legible script
that wasn't in any writing style I was familiar with.
"If you can write like this," I began tactlessly,
"how come the notes you leave me are so
"Ugly?" she completed my sentence for me.
"I've never written you a letter with a pen that had
a flexible nib, Bob. Besides, those notes are always spur
of the moment jottings that I compose standing up because
you've stood me up."
It was true. The only notes I'd ever gotten from Anita, aside
from comments in red on my high school math assignments and
tests, were left at locations where I'd failed to show up
on time after agreeing to meet her. I had the good manners
to blush, and she laughed at me again.
"Dora taught me how to write like this shortly before
her thirtieth birthday," she said, her smile turning
to a big grin. At that time Dora was still alive and well,
and not yet exhibiting symptoms of the heart disease that
would claim her life. "She said that she wanted to be
able to show off my birthday card to her brothers and couldn't
if the signature was illegible. So I practiced and ended up
enjoying the experience of learning to write legibly."
"But you only can do that with a flexible nib?"
She shrugged, "I can write legibly with any pen under
the right conditions, but this particular script gains its
flair from the nib's flexibility."
betting she'd bring a pen with a flexible nib as her something
else this time around. Maybe even that very Waterman 52 I'd
traded to her for a Sheaffer Crest. I knew she still had it
because I'd seen her using it that last time I'd visited.
I wondered where I'd put that Crest and started ransacking
my pen cases, then the drawers where I kept the overflow of
An hour passed without my noticing. When I finally looked
up from my pens, Betsy was standing in the doorway to my study,
a look of mingled amusement and reproach on her face.
"You promised to wake me forty minutes ago," she
scolded me. "If I sleep too long during the day, I won't
Although her scolding had an affectionate tone to it this
time, I was too used to defending myself against her reproaches
to respond to fond exasperation.
"You need to sleep as much as you can whenever you can,"
I lectured her. "There is no guarantee that you'd be
able to sleep at night if you didn't sleep during the day."
"Don't remind me!" she mumbled, all fondness gone
from her voice. "Do you want take-out for dinner tonight?
I feel like Chinese."
I shook my head, still defensive because I had forgotten my
promise to wake her after a forty minute nap. "You eat
too much salty, oily food. You need to pay more attention
to your diet, Betsy. I'll cook something, okay?"
"Chinese food is healthy," she protested. "They
don't even use msg anymore."
I shook my head. "Too much oil and too much salt,"
I reiterated my previous evaluation in my best "I know
what's best tone."
"Okay, do what you want," Betsy said ungraciously.
"You always do anyway, no matter what I say."
"I'm just trying to make sure you eat properly,"
I snapped at her. "You're not in the best of health,
in case you've forgotten."
She looked at me as if I were insane. "Forgotten? Oh
right. I've totally forgotten I have an incurable, degenerative
disease." She turned and walked out of the room.
Feeling hard done by and misunderstood I turned back to my
pens. I'd spend another fifteen minutes, I decided, and then
I'd stir-fry some chicken and vegetables and put on rice for
dinner. That way Betsy could satisfy her craving for Chinese
food without the drawbacks of take-out.
I hadn't found the Crest I was looking for, but I did manage
to pick out three OS Balances and two Sheaffer Flattops to
take to the show. And there was also an excellent writer in
the form of a Sheaffer Imperial. I added these to the four
PFMs I'd already set aside as possibilities and turned my
attention to the Parkers in my sanded and polished, wooden
crate with homemade shelves and pen slots.
I'd bought the crate from a furniture store that went out
of business and made the shelves and slots during the summer
after my first year of teaching. Betsy had helped with measuring.
She had a better eye for measurements than I did back then.
The crate held over 200 pens when fully loaded, and it had
been fully loaded ever since the day it was done. Betsy had
gotten her friend from the library to stencil the exterior
with fountain pen and ink bottle designs as an anniversary
present to me the year after it was done. That was the same
year she'd bought me an antique inkwell from the 920s.
I patted the crate absentmindedly and let my eye run over
the rows of Parker fountain pens. I finally pulled out a couple
of Vacs, a 51 flighter, and a 75 that my Uncle James had given
me when I finished my masters degree. He was the only fountain
pen user in my family, and I inherited a dozen pens when he
passed away the same year as Anita's Dora did.
My reverie was interrupted by the ringing of our doorbell.
I went out to see who could be appearing unannounced and unexpected
at eight-thirty in the evening, but Betsy got there before
me. I saw her hand the delivery boy what looked like a twenty
dollar bill as she took the slightly damp, brown paper bag
from him. The smell of black bean sauce reached my nostrils
as she closed the door.
I don't think Betsy was aware of my presence until she turned
towards the kitchen. I saw her spine stiffen and her eyes
flashed a warning at me. I didn't know whether to be angry
or guilty, but I was hungry, so I followed path of her unsteady
gait into the kitchen and started pulling plates and chopsticks
out of the cupboard and the drawer.
Once we'd eaten, I apologized (while doing dishes) for having
broken my promise to cook for her.
"No problem," she replied wearily. "I wanted
Chinese food anyway."
"I was going to make stir fry," I told her.
"Your stir fry is health food, not Chinese," she
countered. "So forget it. No harm done."
," I continued.
"Bob, give it a rest," she ordered. "I'm tired
of being alternately bossed and whined at."
"I'm just trying
She waved her hand in the air. "I know, I know, you're
just trying to take care of me. But if I wanted a nurse I'd
hire one. I thought you were my husband, not my nanny."
I had no answer to that, so I finished washing up and went
back to my pens.