in a big city, calling your lawyer is a sure way to get a
lawsuit started. But we small town folk had another option
until very recently anyway. We had a town mediator, elected
each year at a town meeting. The mediator the year that I
was in twelfth grade was Miss Anita Carswell. In fact, she'd
been the town mediator for as long as I could remember. Mom
knew her and was very dubious about her impartiality since
she was a former teacher and, in Mom's words, a stickler for
rules, but Ed, the lawyer, said that going to the mediator
was only a first step. "If we don't get satisfaction,
we can always take the school board to court," he stated
to reassure us both. "Though I can't imagine anyone overturning
a decision by Anita Carswell."
I both knew that Ed was being decent by offering to take our
case to the mediator rather than starting a lawsuit. He'd
make a lot more money from a lawsuit, but it was money he
knew we didn't have. Mom made a face and told me that I was
about to face a real dragon of an old lady, someone who'd
make Grandma Lore Harnisch look like the sweet, old thing
that grandmothers were in old-fashioned story books. I'd seen
Miss Carswell, but I didn't really know her. She wasn't one
of the church ladies Grandma spent her time with. In fact,
she didn't go to church at all, which made her suspect in
a the eyes of a lot of people. She also dressed funny, wearing
clothes that were comfortable rather than presentable. And
she lived way out on the edge of town in a ramshackle old
farmhouse with an overgrown garden. Grandma Lore Harnisch
had once referred to her as a witch, a heathen, and a disgrace
to womankind. All I really knew about her was that everyone
seemed to be a little afraid of her, even Ed Conley.
figure out how someone with her reputation had gotten chosen
as town mediator year after year. When I asked Ed Conley,
he just chuckled at me. "No one else would take on the
job," he explained, "and I can't say I blame them."
He looked at me hard then and said, "No matter what anyone
says about her, don't underestimate Anita Carswell. She's
been mediating disputes since she retired from the classroom
twenty years ago, and no judge has ever overturned a single
decision she'd made."
I didn't really know what to think, and since I wasn't allowed
on school property until my suspension was over, I couldn't
easily talk things over with Mr. Harmon, the one person I
trusted to make sense of them for me. That really bothered
me. He was also the only person I knew of who could tell me
if an Esterbrook could survive the kind of abuse mine had
undergone. If he'd lived right in town, I'd have waited for
him near his house and made it seem as if I just happened
to be passing by, but he lived about ten miles from town,
even further out than Miss Carswell. I could have taken Mom's
car and driven out there, but I couldn't have made my being
there seem like a coincidence. Besides, I wasn't sure if there
was some rule against my going to him for advice. I didn't
want to get him in trouble.
"You could phone him," Mom suggested at dinner.
But I said I didn't feel comfortable bothering him. Actually
I was a little afraid he wouldn't talk to me.
most of the next morning moping around the house. At lunch
my mother told me I had a choice, "Go for a long run
or clean out the basement. I'm tired of hearing you pace."
I'm sure she expected me to go for a run,, but I didn't. What
if the cops thought I was playing truant? What if Grandma
Lore Harnisch got hold of me? So I worked on the basement
for a few hours and then decided to have a nap. When I came
upstairs, mom was on the phone.
"Yes, Ed," I heard her say. "Four o'clock on
Friday is fine with us."
She hung up and smiled at me tentatively. "We have a
mediation hearing in the town hall at four on Friday."
Friday was the last day of my suspension.
I could tell she was nervous. I thought it was just about
dealing with Miss Carswell. Her fear of the old woman worried
me since my mom was usually fearless. I imagined Miss Carswell
as a cross between my fussy, proper grandmother and a dragon.
I tried not to think too much about her or the upcoming hearing.
member of the track team phoned, supposedly to catch me up
on homework assignments but that was just an excuse since
the last time I'd seriously done homework was when I had Mr.
Harmon last year. He just wanted to talk.
"Hey, you're a hero," he told me. "The word
is that you threw your pen cap in McCallister's face."
Dr. McCallister was the principal.
"I wish I had," I said bitterly. "He's such
"Willard went on about how he'd teach us to bring dangerous
objects to school," Ben told me.
"So what happened to my pen after I left?" I asked,
afraid of what the answer might be.
"I dunno. It was still on the floor behind his desk when
"Well, what did you expect?" Ben retorted. "We're
talking about Willard, not a human being."
I wished that Ben had picked up the pen on his way out, but
I couldn't tell him that. Ben was a skinny, easy-going guy
whose motto in life was, "I don't want any trouble."
I thought I knew exactly what he would and wouldn't do, and
standing up to authority figures was simply beyond him. We
were both long-distance runners, and that was our only bond.
"Coach Benson is really pissed at you," he continued.
"Says that your missing practice could cost us our standing."
"Well, that's too bad," I said. "If he had
any guts he'd protest this stupid suspension and get me back
to school and attending practice."
"Yeah, right," Ben replied. "I'll let you know
if there are any more assignments or anything." He hung
up quickly and I wasn't sorry to get off the phone with him.
My pen was on my mind. I just couldn't get rid of the image
of it bouncing across the floor. I worried that it had been
swept up with the trash, but I couldn't figure out what to
do. I was grouchy during dinner, and my mom, who is a pragmatist,
told me again to phone Mr. Harmon and ask him about the pen,
but I just couldn't do it.
"You know," Mom said, "I think you're more
upset about that pen than the injustice of the suspension."
Of course, I was. Missing school for three days didn't matter
to me. And as far as my record went, well, I'd already done
some college applications, and I expected to get an athletic
scholarship, so who'd care if I'd been suspended once?
The next day was sheer hell. I was edgy even though I went
for a long run in the morning when I was positive no one I
knew would be around. When I got back home, sweaty and tired
but no less tense then before I'd gone out, I was greeted
by my grandmother who gloating about my suspension. She stopped
though when Mom told her that Miss Carswell was hearing our
"Hmmph," Grandma Lore Harnisch sniffed loudly. "Anita
Carswell is a hard, hard woman. She never goes to church.
And she doesn't like boys. Jason is in for a rough time."
She actually smiled at me, or at least she showed her teeth.
"You're about to be chewed up and spat out by a real
I could see Mom trying to control herself. Her mother's comments
always got a rise out of her, which is, I think, why the old
lady said what she did. I had trouble keeping a straight face.
Grandma's smile faded and she started in on me. "I'd
have thought you'd know better than to get into trouble. Your
mother is working hard to raise you right. That would be a
lot easier if there were a real man around the house. Even
that no-good father of yours would be better than nothing."
"Stop it, Mother!" my mom said crossly. "I
don't think you should criticize Don in front of Jason."
Grandma glared at her. "I'll say what I want, Amanda.
Far as I know it's still a free country."
Uh, oh, that free country line always led to a political argument
between my ultra-conservative grandmother and my leftist mom.
I went upstairs and did some stretches while I waited for
the old lady to go home. I could hear my mom's voice though,
yelling about how in a free country a boy wouldn't get suspended
from school for using a fountain pen. I had to laugh when
Grandma retorted that fountain pens were out of date and it
was no wonder mine got mistaken for a bomb.
"Not a bomb, Mother! A tear gas pen!" Mom shouted
"Same difference!" Grandma shouted right back at
I was relieved when the shouting died down and the door slammed
behind my grandmother.
of the hearing came and Mom was a wreck. "This is going
to be an ordeal," she told me. "I just hope you
hold up okay." Then she did what she always did on Fridays:
she started working.
I wondered what kind of ordeal the hearing was going to be.
I'd read a little about trials by ordeal in my history classes,
but I knew that in modern America, no one was going to make
me walk on burning coals or tie me up and throw me in a river
to see if I was telling the truth.
Ordinarily I slept pretty well, but that night I'd kept dreaming
that my pen was being torn apart to make me admit to something.
I had no idea what I was supposed to admit to, and I woke
up sweating with my heart beating fast.
When I got out of bed the morning of my hearing, I decided
I'd been wrong not to get in touch with Mr. Harmon, but it
was too late. I tried to imagine what he'd have advised me
to do in preparation for what was going to happen. I knew
he was always telling me to make some notes, but how could
I make notes without my pen?
I know it sounds stupid, but I felt as if I needed that Esterbrook
in order to think straight. Somehow writing with a pencil
or ballpoint or even one of Mom's drawing pens, which I really
wasn't supposed to do but occasionally did anyway, didn't
feel the same. Of course, I could have tried to write out
my thoughts on our computer, but I was only allowed to use
that when she wasn't. Mom did her drawings with pen and ink
but her final lay-out on the computer. And since the day of
the hearing was Friday and her cartoons appeared on Sunday,
she was busy with fine-tuning the lay-out, so I couldn't use
the computer even if I'd wanted to. And to tell the truth,
I didn't want to. It took the rubbing of the Esterbrook's
nib on paper to get my mind working, and every time I thought
about using something else, I started to get worried about
the fate of my pen and angry at the whole mess I'd found myself
Finally, a little after noon I decided to head downtown, figuring
that if I couldn't make notes, I could at least think out
in advance what I wanted to say. Being housebound was bothering
me, and walking was the next best way to think things through
to writing about them.
"I'll see you at the hearing," I told my mother.
"Get there early," she replied, not looking up from
her work. "Ed said he needs to talk to you before the
I walked downtown slowly, trying to collect my thoughts. I'd
decided that I'd try to make a good impression on Miss Carswell,
though how exactly to make a good impression on an eighty
year old dragon escaped me. So I wandered around downtown
trying to decide if I needed to get a haircut or buy a blazer
and a tie. I was wearing my khakis and a clean shirt under
my parka, but I wasn't sure if I looked neat enough to keep
an old lady who started teaching over half a century ago from
seeing me as just the kind of kid who ought to be suspended
and have his fountain pen confiscated.
After an hour of pointless meandering I stopped off at the
only non-fast food restaurant in town and bought a hamburger
since I hadn't eaten lunch. Then I headed slowly in the direction
of the town hall.
Now the town hall is nothing fancy, just a small, squat office
building with the police station in the cellar and an auditorium
on the first floor. Upstairs on the second floor were a bunch
of meeting rooms, and I knew that one of them was where my
hearing would be held. So after walking around the building
a couple of times, I went inside and climbed up to the second
None of the meeting rooms was in use, but there was a notebook
on the desk at the front of the one nearest the west side
of the building. And atop the notebook was a fountain pen.
I couldn't resist going in and looking at it up close. It
had a metal cap and a burgundy barrel. At first I thought
there was something wrong with it because when I took the
cap off, the nib looked bent out of shape. It also didn't
have a lever or a piston knob either. I pulled a piece of
paper out of the little pad I always carry and tried the pen
anyway. It wrote perfectly. I'd never seen a nib like that
before and had to give it one more long look before capping
the pen and putting it back on the notebook. By the time I'd
done that and turned around, someone else was standing in
the doorway to the room.