I just remembered that Jim Everest gave me this pen.
When I was fifteen, my mother gave me a sketchbook. With a Sharpie, I wrote PAOLA on the front of it in big, hollow letters, and then I doodled small tunneling animals inside the lines of the them. I left the O empty. I was waiting for inspiration to hit. You have to leave yourself room to maneuver when you’re working with something permanent.
Inside, I mostly worked with pencil. I would have rather used a pen, but the pages were so thin that every pen I tried bled through to the other side. It only took me a few sketches to work that out, so I only have a few pages where I had to make an ink blot into a lion’s eye or the button on a long coat.
One month into the school year, Jim fell into stride beside me as I walked to school and he said, “I’ve found you something better.”
It was something better. It was a pen with the sharpest nib I’d ever seen; when I pressed it to the paper, it left behind a needle thin, deliciously wet thread in its wake. I flipped the page over, scrutinizing the paper below for any ink stains. There was nothing but a slight imprint of the nib’s path. I rubbed my thumb over the dip in the paper.
“Well done, Everest,” I said, but I wasn’t surprised. Jim tended to find things. By the time I was fifteen, we’d known each other for awhile, or at least we both walked the same way to school. He was embarrassingly earnest and unflinchingly loyal, and would have probably been the kindest boyfriend at Freeley High, which was probably why he never had a date. The problem was that he was a reliable Ford Taurus and all the girls in school were trying out Ferraris and Aston Martins. They hadn’t yet gotten tired of wrapping them around trees or breaking down by the side of the road with something too complicated to repair without a specialist. As for me, I preferred to walk. I just wasn’t ready for anything that required seat belts.
But I was content enough to walk with him to school. He’d show me the things he’d found, and I’d show him what I’d sketched.
“I prefer when you do the faces like this,” Jim remarked, opening my book to a page of portraits. They were sketched in painstaking detail, every crease at the corner of every eye and every parted lip visible. Jim was the only one who liked them better. At gym, a few of the boys had asked me to do their portraits, but they meant my caricatures.
“Maybe,” I told him. “What did you find this week?”
Jim twisted his backpack around so that it made a mother kangaroo lump on his chest. He dug out an object and handed it to me.
“This rock,” he said. It wasn’t a rock. It was a geode, cracked open wide as a muppet’s mouth, showing a glittering throat.
“Sick,” I said, and he smiled his small smile that was more about the skin beneath his eyes than his mouth. “Where did you find it?”
“They just come to me. Like your sketches.”
Anyone else might be flirting by saying that, but Jim wasn’t the sort. He didn’t pretend to be interested in what girls were saying. He just was. I gave him a knowing look and left him on the stairs of the school.
Even though I used the pen all day long, I didn’t think about Jim until English. We both had Ms. Poitier for English, and Jim sat four seats in front of me, always the same way, back perfectly straight, leaning on his elbows. I noticed that the hair on the back of his neck was trimmed in a perfectly even line. Most ninth grade boys smell, but I suspected he didn’t.
I remember we were talking about Brave New World. Ms. Poitier asked a question that I didn’t hear most of, and Jim answered, “I think he just wanted to feel something real. When she took off her clothes, just like that, it wasn’t real.”
All the girls giggled, even though it was a true enough answer. I felt a little bad for Jim, right at that moment. Like I wanted someone to tell him that if he just didn’t answer, the girls wouldn’t giggle, or if he didn’t answer in such a serious way, the boys wouldn’t cast each other those long, slow looks that are like rolling your eyes without so much effort involved. But Jim didn’t seem to notice the giggles, or if he did, they didn’t seem to bother him. He merely studied the copy of Brave New World in his hands.
I don’t remember what he looked like when he left class.
The next week, Jim caught up to me and said, “How is your pen?”
Both of us were trudging a little. Extra reading weighing down our backpacks. I replied, “It is legend. Kings write about it. Scholars dream about it.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” he said, and I knew he meant it. “I found something. It might interest you.”
“What is it?”
“Eggs,” Jim replied, handing them to me. But they weren’t quite eggs. They were hard, fossilized memories of eggs, a bit of sediment sticking them together, imprinted with a partial pattern of a leaf. Later, I would try to sketch them, or the memory of them.
“These must’ve been buried deep,” I said, and Jim shrugged. “Let me guess. They just came to you.”
Again he smiled. I thought it would probably be an interesting thing to draw Jim’s face one of these days, to try to catch that smile that was under his eyes, but I knew better. It was one thing to walk to school with Jim Everest. It was another thing to draw him in my sketchbook in permanent ink.
It was a good thing, too. In Civics 2, Blake and Caden snatched my sketchbook away from me as I doodled before class. I didn’t try to get it back from them, because I’d learned my lesson back in seventh grade. The more you struggle, the tighter the Chinese finger trap gets. Instead, as they paged through it, mouths tilted into grins, I asked, “Are you looking for your face in there, Blake?”
“Hoping, hoping,” he said. He laughed when he found my caricatures of Gaskin, our phys ed teacher, and kept flipping through, the pages hissing softly as they fell against each other. I’d ripped out the serious portraits with the crinkles by the eyes, so there was nothing to mock.
“You’re a regular Van Gogh,” Blake said. I knew he really meant you’re good, but he’d never have actually said that.
I pretended to have not caught what he said, so I wouldn’t have to say thank you. Blake tossed the sketchbook back onto my desk. I remember feeling so pleased that the entire exchange hadn’t bothered me. Back in seventh grade, I might’ve cried over it. It was hard to remember being that person.
I remember that I walked home with Jim once; that didn’t normally happen because of my lacrosse practice, but we got rained out. Freeley High swam in rain. The wet came down so profoundly that before I left the school, I asked the cafeteria ladies for a plastic bag to wrap my sketchbook in. I tucked it into my backpack, braced myself for the soaking, and the moment I stepped outside, I found myself under an umbrella.
“It’s raining,” Jim noted as he walked with me down the dark-stained stairs to the sidewalk. He stood a little bit out from under the umbrella so that I could fit under it entirely. His right shoulder was fast growing damp. I saw that he was wearing a watch, a nicer one than most high school boys seemed to wear, and very Jim-like, as if he’d spent some care picking it out.
“I didn’t think to bring an umbrella,” I told Jim. “I thought it was supposed to be a heat wave and a sauna and eternally sunny. What did you find this week?”
“A dinosaur claw,” Jim replied, withdrawing it from his slicker pocket.
It was a claw, but I didn’t know if it had ever been a dinosaur’s. The longer I looked at it, the more I thought it might be a hooked blade instead. I didn’t think it looked like a fossil. It gave me a strange tickle in my guts, as if I could feel the point of it dragging along them.
As we walked, I thought about telling Jim that I was sorry about what had happened in English earlier that day, but I wasn’t sure how to word it. We were supposed to write a paragraph about joy, and while the rest of us were reading paragraphs about our parents mysteriously granting us the car keys and revised endings to Dr. Seuss books and sentences that included the word “hobo,” Jim had delivered a paragraph about what it would feel like to hold a girl’s hand and know she really cared for him. I didn’t know if it would’ve been so bad if he hadn’t been so genuine about it, or if he hadn’t clearly ironed his button down shirt before he came to school, or if he hadn’t read it out so well. By the time he’d gotten to the end, the room was full of so much hooting I couldn’t hear Jim at all.
I’d been dying for him, but he’d only sat back down like he was supposed to, folding the piece of paper away in his folder and waiting for the next person to read.
Someone really needed to explain to that boy the difference between feeling serious things and saying them out loud. Preferably before college.
I felt that hooked blade on my guts again. I wondered how deep in the earth it had been before Jim found it. I said, “I think you should stop finding things.”
“I told you,” he replied. “They find me.”
I remember wondering if Ms. Poitier just didn’t like Jim; if she liked to hear the half-audible laughs of the boys in the back row when she asked Jim to read his work aloud. I remember the day that Reilly told Jim that he was just so sweet but she didn’t mean it like it was a compliment.
I remember being so angry about her that I told my mom that evening that Reilly was a foul snake and that I’d never be as horrible as she was.
Mostly, though, I remember being angry at Jim. He seemed willfully incapable of grasping that high school didn’t want the honest wrinkles. Popularity was so easily attainable, and he either couldn’t see the way, or he didn’t want to. Instead, he sat in the same chair every day, his shirt pressed before he came to school, his hair perfectly trimmed straight above his collar.
It wasn’t raining that last day. I caught up with Jim, and he didn’t say anything at first. I let the sound of the concrete beneath our shoes fill the silence for several long moments before I said, “Hey.”
There was still another long moment before he said, from a long way off, “How is that pen holding up?”
It was holding up great, but I said, “Better than a sharp stick in the eye.”
Jim nodded. I noticed he didn’t have his back pack. There was still silence between us, and I felt like my words were being sucked out of me, pulled into the vacuum.
“What did you find this week?”
Jim said, “Trouble.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. It wasn’t exactly like something I could hold in my hands. In the end, I didn’t say anything at all. If he had something more to say, he’d say it, wouldn’t he?
When he still didn’t speak, I showed him the sketch I did of his geode at the beginning of the year, using his pen for the black outside and a pink marker for the reflective edges of the crystals inside. It wasn’t supposed to look real. More like the feeling of a geode than the actual face of a geode.
“It’s good,” Jim said, and I knew he meant it’s good.
He didn’t come to school the next day. In my sketchbook, I drew the hooked claw he’d found. They showed a photo of it on the news. The curved edge of it mirrored the ‘g’ in ‘missing.’
The next day, when I opened the door to go to school, there was a shovel.
The handle was worn and the blade was stained and clogged with three different colors of dirt. I wondered how many feet of ground it had dug through to acquire all those stripes. A layer with geodes and a layer with fossils and a layer of claws. I wondered if this shovel was a thing that had found me or a thing for finding other things.
For a moment, I studied the shovel and the strange, long muddy footprints up the walk to our house on the other side of it. I imagined what the day would look like if I picked up that shovel and cut class to follow those footprints. I let the whole day wind out in front of me. Not just the idea of the day, but the real thing, with all the gritty details. The decisions to pick up that shovel and put down my back pack represented something bigger.
I held the shovel in my hand.
This weekend I was free. I didn’t think I had anything to do on Saturday, unless I was forgetting something before my lacrosse game. I didn’t have to do it now.
I remember I looked for a long time to find a place to lean the shovel against the garage wall; I was nearly late for first period. English with Ms. Poitier was quiet. I doodled animals in tunnels in the margins of my notes.
Until I found this pen, I’d forgotten all about that shovel. I wonder whatever happened to it.
Author’s Note: musings on school after a week of school visits.
image courtesy: pmeidinger