Friday, October 31, 2003

"In Longhand" (a short fiction excerpt)

Peter Bernstein put down his fountain pen and stared at the words he had just spent four hours writing. He had resisted the feeling at first, but it had come with increasing certainty until he could no longer deny it: he couldn’t finish this story, either. He carefully screwed the cap back onto his pen and placed it in the cup with the rest of his pen collection, and then he put the story in a drawer with all the other ones that he couldn’t finish. It was never a case of not knowing how the story should end; it wasn’t uncertainty as to what to write next. It was the certainty that what he was writing wasn’t any good. Surely he could do better than this. Surely he could write something better than a mere bodice-ripper. But maybe not. How many months since he had finished a story? And how long since that wondrous first sale, which had never been followed by a second?

He glanced at the index card taped on the wall with his credo written on it with his broad-nib Parker Duofold: Nulla dies sine linea. Never a day without lines. But his lines, his writing, never amounted to anything at all. How ironic that he had become a pen collector to have writing instruments equal to his prose – and now the prose was hardly fit for a disposable ball-point.


Early the next morning Peter got up and went to work. His classes were scheduled so that his teaching day was always done by two thirty, which gave him ample time for office hours and his various other duties. On Tuesdays his first class was at ten thirty, so he looked through a pile of papers from his freshman comp classes. When his mind began to wander, after the third time he read some teenager’s outrage that his or her tax dollars were going to keep murderers alive, he got up and walked to the Humanities Lounge to get some coffee. Sitting in the lounge, as always, was Professor Lawrence Tatum of the History Department.

"Peter!" Tatum yelled. He said everything in a near yell. "Find anything over the weekend?" A very large man with a great shock of red hair, Tatum had his day’s work spread across one of the lounge tables; the common joke was that his office might just as well be converted to a broom closet

"Nope," Peter replied. "I actually didn’t do any shopping this weekend."

Professor Tatum tsked. "You should always be on the lookout, Peter! For all you know, some stranger found a pen that was destined for your pocket."

Peter laughed. Professor Tatum was a voracious collector of antiques of all types, and he had amassed a very valuable collection over the years. He was planning to open his own shop when he retired. In fact, Tatum could have probably opened a shop now; he had some items of great value indeed that would fetch a high price at any auction. He only delayed because he still loved teaching history. Peter had actually met Professor Tatum at one of the local antique dealers, when Peter had been looking at vintage pens. Tatum knew of Peter’s pen mania, and he occasionally would acquire an item that would pique his friend’s interest.

"Never a day without shopping, young man!" Tatum said with a laugh as he gathered his papers and headed off to class.

He knew that Peter was a writer of sorts, and found Peter’s credo amusing.

On his way home that afternoon Peter walked through part of downtown, which he did a few times a week; he liked the variety of it, and he liked to observe people to incorporate into his stories. He walked through Chinatown, which was just a two block area with three Chinese restaurants, a Japanese place, and a couple of Asian gift shops. He loved this particular area, and he ate there at least twice a week. Today he stopped with interest at a formerly vacant storefront that had just acquired a new tenant; they had removed the tarpaulins covering the storefront just that morning. To his surprise, it was an antique shop. The front door, one of those heavy wooden doors that rattled threateningly when opened and closed, bore fresh gold lettering that read "Karl Strassheim, Antiquarian." Below these words was a picture of Anubis, the jackal-headed Egyptian god of death, and below that, written in smaller lettering: "By appointment only." Peter peered through the glass in the storefront and saw that this Strassheim dealt in very fine antiques. Peter doubted very much that a place like this would ever be in the price range of an English professor.


Later that evening Peter went to Queequeg’s, a coffeehouse in his neighborhood. The owner was a freak for nautical decor, and her favorite novel was, as one might expect, Moby Dick. The walls and ceilings were covered with sea charts, fish nets, lobster cages, harpoons, old photographs of fishermen, and the like. Peter ordered his usual, the "Captain Bligh" (double mocha cappuccino topped with nutmeg) and then took over a booth. He loved to write here, and he pulled out some paper and the fountain pen he was using that week. Since he was currently "between stories", he wrote character sketches of the denizens of the coffeehouse. Most were younger than he, and some were even his students. He wrote about a number of these, describing physical characteristics first and then creating life stories for these people. And then a new arrival, someone he hadn’t seen before, caught his eye.

This man was elderly, possibly in his eighties. His thinning white hair was perfectly combed. A pair of rimless spectacles was perched on his slightly red and bulbous nose. He wore a white silk dress shirt under a black pinstriped jacket with a red silk handkerchief folded into the breast pocket. Peter watched the way the man very precisely measured three spoonfuls of cream into his coffee. Then he opened three sugar packets, one at a time, by flipping each one three times before tearing along a crease he folded in the top of each packet. After three sips of coffee, the man produced a leather-backed journal and began to write in it using a pen that Peter recognized even twenty feet away.

He had seem pictures of it in his pen collector’s books. It was a Pelikan M-900 Toledo. The black acrylic barrel was encased in a series of engravings in twenty-four karat gold. The manufacture of this pen, by the makers in Hamburg, required almost one hundred steps. Suddenly the vintage Sheaffer in Peter’s hand felt very inadequate. Peter was still staring at the gentleman when the gentleman looked up and met Peter’s gaze.

Peter shuddered. The man put him in mind of his Uncle Saul, who had traumatized Peter when he’d been a boy and his parents had taken him for monthly visits. Uncle Saul had been a stern man, a cold banker whose home had smelled of antiseptic and was full of things that little boys dare not touch lest they be locked in the cellar with the Beast Beneath the Stairs. Peter had no idea why a complete stranger should remind him of Uncle Saul. He gave a quick smile and then dropped his eyes back to the page again. He put his left hand across his brow, blocking his upward gaze with his fingers as he tried to refocus his attention on his writing and give off the impression of uninterruptible intensity of work. Let’s see, where was I….he took a slip of scratch paper and scribbled to restore the flow of ink to his pen.

"Here, try mine," a voice said. The voice was foreign – Northern European. Not French. Peter looked up and found himself face-to-face with the gentleman from across the room. He was holding out the Pelikan Toledo. He nodded and smiled genially. "You may find the nib to your liking, I think." Not Swedish or Norwegian, either….

"Thanks," Peter stammered as he accepted the pen. It was fairly lightweight, and when he unscrewed the cap and posted it on the opposite end the balance was almost perfect. He touched the silver and gold nib to the paper and wrote a few lines in his miniscule script. The pen left behind a smooth, thin line in sapphire ink. "I prefer black," he said as the man took the seat across from him.

"Chacun a son gout," he replied. He picked up Peter’s pen and looked it over. "Very nice," he began, peering at it as a jeweler would a diamond. "The Balance, made by the W.A. Sheaffer Company. Gold and palladium nib. Well preserved indeed; this pen has seen a number of caring owners. But look here: a few hairline cracks in the cap, where the clip is fastened." Age had not diminished this man’s visual acuity at all.

"You know fountain pens?" Peter asked as he handed the Pelikan back to its owner and recovered his Sheaffer.

"I know many old things," the man said, waving a hand of dismissal. "There is much business to be done in things that are old."

German! Peter realized. "You’re the new antique dealer in town," he said.

"Indeed." The man nodded slightly. "Karl Strassheim. I am new here in town; I lived in the South for a long while, but I regret that my life has come to the point where I need the cold. It reminds me I’m alive. I could not bear to take refuge from the world behind the gates of a sterile community in the bosom of the Tropics. Don’t you agree?" He smiled throughout, saying all this in a single unbroken breath.

"Yes," Peter said, momentarily taken aback. He did in fact prefer the colder climes.

"I thought so," Strassheim said. "May I have your name?"

"Peter Bernstein."

"Ah, Bernstein! Any relation to Leonard?" Peter shook his head. "Pity. I have one of the Maestro’s earliest batons in my shop. Tell me, Mr. Bernstein – may I call you Peter? I do like some informality – tell me: are you a practicing Jew, or do you merely carry the name?"

Peter’s eyes narrowed as he tried to judge this man. "I’m not what you would call religious," he finally said.

"Not many are," Strassheim said. He reached into his jacket, drew out a small brass case, and pulled a business card from the case. He placed the card on the table and wrote something on the back with the Pelikan Toledo. His fingers were long and fine-boned. "I may be able to help you, Mr. Bernstein."

"With faith?" Peter stared at him.

Strassheim raised his eyebrow. "With pens." He handed Peter the card, tipped his hat, and left the coffeehouse. Peter looked at the card. On the left was a gold-ink Anubis, the same design that Peter had seen on the door to Strassheim’s shop. Next to Anubis was Strassheim’s name and his shop’s address in raised purple ink. At the bottom, in red: "We know not for what we seek." Peter turned the card over, to where Strassheim had written: "Monday, precisely 4:00 p.m." His penmanship was perfect and patrician.

[Enter Keanu Reeves, doing ninja-battle with Hugo Weaving]

(I wrote this story a few years ago. It's the first horror story I ever wrote, so I'm putting up a piece of it today -- Halloween -- even though the horrific stuff doesn't come until later on. I suspect that the "Guy with writer's block" thing is something of a cliche; in fact, that was cited as a reason for one of this story's rejections. This was not meant as any kind of roman a clef; the writer in the story is not based on me, except in one detail: his fascination with fountain pens, which leads to the other stand0by horror cliche I used here: the "Mysterious Antiques Dealer", who actually is based on someone from real life, one of the very few times I've drawn inspiration from real people.)

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