“Pencils” by Suzanne Tague

When my first husband got his first serious job, he brought home a box of mechanical pencils he’d taken from the supply room. He said that if he were caught bringing supplies home he’d be fired. This was some months before our divorce. He gave me a handful, and I moved out with a few. Now there’s only one left.

After living in five different places and getting married to someone else, I’ve held onto that pencil for over 30 years. It’s not like I’m attached to it. In fact, I’ve never trusted the smudginess of lead, the danger of it fading away. I write boldly in ink, even on my calendar, although plans inevitably change and I will probably have to cross them out. But this pencil may live forever, with its stingy lead and shell of hard black plastic and steel. The tiny green eraser, hidden inside the cap, is still fresh, almost new. The green is too bright to be found anywhere in nature. It’s the same green as the carpet tiles we put down in our first apartment, which seemed like a good idea at the time. Each time the eraser is uncovered I’m surprised by its unpredictable rawness, its hardiness and endurance.

When my grandfather was a soldier in World War I, he kept a diary, “The Soldiers’ Diary and Notebook: Containing Useful Information Invaluable to the Soldier at Home or at the Front.” Years after my grandfather died, my mother gave me the diary, its own miniature pencil still safely tucked alongside the spine. His pencil scribbling is blurred and smudged. Bits of things are maddeningly unexplained. “Rained all day today. Am on guard duty on dock. Nasty night.” Then on April 21: “Man from KCO fell out of car was killed outright. Reached Brist. 10 p.m. Ate at tr. sheds.” Then there’s something about Millie, his wife, coming to meet him in her red stockings. “Ooh la la,” my grandfather said in his diary. That was all.

Millie had inscribed the diary in ink: “To Steve From Millie. July 22nd 1918. Don’t forget, Steve. I won’t. You understand.” But when she found out my grandfather had diabetes, she ran off to California with another man, an officer who retired early with a pension. While I was growing up, my mother would only say her mother was gone. I didn’t know my grandmother still existed until after I was married and divorced and had a child of my own.

When my grandmother and I finally met, it was a month before she died. She’d just gotten out of the hospital that day. In her bedroom I watched her change from one furry pastel bathrobe to another. We sat on her bed. She showed me her angel collection. After her second husband died, she said, she sat on the street and cried. She told me all this in a five-minute conversation. Then she asked about my divorce and if I was dating. “Find somebody,” she told me. Not just like that. More urgently: Find somebody.

The pencil markings in my grandfather’s diary, scrawled in slanted block letters, are faded and worn. All his life he had stayed between the lines. He lived with us, alone in our house. Perhaps he thought he could not marry again. Most likely, he thought he should not marry again. Such things were not talked about. Who can say if talk would have made it better or worse?

Why do I keep my first husband’s stolen government pencil? What should I do with it? Return it? Sometimes I have the urge to call him and have us talk like two rational adults, which never works, because we both only complain. We could try, and then I could pull this pencil out. “Remember this?” I could say. “You remember when you gave me these?” He’s retired now, so he wouldn’t lose his job if he were exposed for pilfering supplies. He’s done well; he’s worked his way up. He drives an expensive sports car, which annoys me. A couple of years ago he almost died. He had an infection in his liver. His new family gathered around his hospital bed, but he recovered and went home to his house in the suburbs. We’ve rarely talked since.

The other day when I sat down in a bookstore I found a mechanical pencil on the chair. This one was bright yellow, cheerful and optimistic, like a schoolchild’s pencil. I looked around, but I didn’t see anyone looking for it. So that’s not stealing, is it, when you help yourself to a pencil that someone has no intention of claiming? Maybe it was a parting gift. Somehow I feel guilty whenever I see the yellow pencil stowed in my purse.

You can never go back to how things were. Not that I’d want to. It’s enough to find an old steel pencil hidden in a drawer. It calls to mind both giver and receiver and that old conjoined life with all its causes and conditions. Better to leave stolen pencils alone. They might cause a further strain which, given the temporary nature of things, is probably unnecessary.