Harmon!" The voice I knew so well crackled with irritation.
"It's over a year since Tom Willard destroyed Jason Hardy's
Esterbrook. How many times do I have to tell you that I did
not place the fragments of that young man's pen in an envelope
that already contained a pen clip? I may be old, but I'm not
Jason Hardy, now a freshman at the University of Virginia,
had been a student in one of my high school English classes
a few years ago. In addition to teaching him "Romeo and
Juliet" and "Othello,," I'd introduced him
to the joys of fountain pen use by repairing an Esterbrook
he'd inherited from his grandfather. That pen was at the center
of a controversy that Anita Carswell, our town's eighty year
old, former mathematics teacher turned mediator, resolved
with a little help from me. I found the fragments of the Esterbrook
in a trash receptacle inside the men's staff lunge at the
high school and turned them over to Miss Carswell. Somehow,
an extra fragment, a pen clip, ended up among those she brought
to the mediation hearing. It played no role in the final resolution
of the dispute, but Jason noticed it and brought it first
to my and then to Anita's attention, once the hearing was
over. I dismissed his concern with a rather thoughtless, I
admit, remark that Anita's advanced age had probably led her
to place the fragments in an envelope that already contained
a pen clip and not notice that she'd done so. Jason, whose
admiration for her knew no bounds, took umbrage at that, I
knew, but he said nothing until a few months ago when he accidentally
let what I'd said slip in one of his biweekly phone calls
to Anita from college. At least he claimed it was an accident,
though I had my doubts.
Anita was offended and let me know it. I was astonished, though
I should not have been, that she was more upset that I had
directed my comment to Jason rather than confronting her directly.
I'm sure that if I'd been willing to apologize and recant,
that is, take responsibility to "tainting the evidence,"
which I most assuredly had not done, Anita and I would have
laughed off the whole matter. But I couldn't do it. I found
myself raising the issue every time I saw Anita and was so
intent on making my case for her negligence and my innocence
that I almost broached the topic at a recent meeting of our
local pen club, of which Anita and I, as well as Jason Hardy
when he's home, are regular members and attendees. Fortunately
I caught myself just in time and avoided a confrontation that
might have led to a breach in one of my most longstanding
I looked sideways at the old woman sitting bolt upright in
the passenger seat of my beat-up 1987 Corolla. Her hooded
eyes stared straight ahead of her, and her face wore its familiar
scowl. A gray fedora was perched firmly atop her short, iron-gray
hair. I knew what she was wearing, an old chambray shirt topped
by a corduroy blazer that was so worn that it looked as though
it had come from a thrift store and a cotton skirt that looked
as if it had been made from an old tablecloth.
"Keep your eyes on the road, please!" she ordered
me. "You know what I look like and my face hasn't gotten
any prettier in the last hour."
Exasperated, I pressed my foot down hard on the gas pedal
and the car jolted forward. She didn't say a word, but a faint
hiss escaped her lips. Her hands, folded sedately in her lap,
didn't move or betray any sign of the annoyance that her voice
"You could be wrong though, Anita," I persisted.
You'll admit, won't you, that even you have made mistakes
in the course of your eighty years?"
I listened to myself and realized how sarcastic my voice sounded.
I was shocked at my behavior. I'd known Anita Carswell almost
my entire life, we'd been good friends throughout my adulthood,
and I'd never spoken to her like that. I could hear a voice
in my head say, "Well, maybe it's time." I shook
my head to clear it. I was no stranger to internal conflict,
but Anita Carswell was the one person I'd always been sure
of. Ever since the day she stood up for me, the worst math
student in her entire tenth grade algebra class, I'd known
she was someone I could count on to be fair.
I felt her large, bony hand on my arm for a second. "Betsy's
illness is really taking its toll on you, Bob," she said
softly. "I'd hoped that once there was a clear diagnosis,
things would get easier, but that's not been so, has it?"
I felt relief flood my body. That was it, of course. I hadn't
really forgotten, but sometimes I didn't realize how much
my wife's recently diagnosed multiple sclerosis colored my
reactions to everyone and everything. I pulled over at the
next rest stop.
"Would you like to drive for a while, Anita?" I
She nodded and got out of the car without a word to change
places with me.
"By the way," she said, as she pulled back onto
the highway, "it's eighty-one years, not eighty."
"What?" I asked, puzzled at what seemed to be a
"You asked if I'd admit that I'd made mistakes in the
course of my eighty years, but I am eighty-one. I had my eighty-first
birthday last week, remember? You and the other pen folks
threw a party for me."
I shrugged. "So what? Eighty, eighty-one, what's the
She smiled, carefully passing a slow-moving RV. "If you
can't remember what happened last week, how can you remember
whether or not there was a pen clip in with a bunch of fragments
you dug out of a trash can over a year ago?"
I snorted. "That's not fair, Anita," I protested.
"A year ago Betsy hadn't been diagnosed with multiple
"But you've been distracted ever since she first mentioned
not feeling well. And that was just a month before Willard
smashed up Jason's pen. Anyone in your situation would have
been distracted, Bob. There's no reason to feel bad about
"There was no clip among the pen fragments I gave you,
Anita," I said sharply. "Be logical! How could there
have been? Jason Hardy had his pen cap with an intact clip.
How many Esterbrook clips do you think get tossed into the
trash at the high school?"
She nodded. "All right, Bob, I'll grant that your finding
an Esterbrook clip in the high school men's room trash is
not a very likely. But what makes you think it was I who mixed
the clip in with the pen fragments instead of you? You certainly
have as many pen parts at your house as I do at mine. More
Esterbrook parts actually, as those are not pens I am particularly
"No, you're a pen snob, Anita," I replied heatedly.
I regretted my comment immediately.
"I'm sorry," I said quickly. "I must be more
distraught than I thought."
She nodded. "It's a good thing you're getting away for
a few days, Bob. You need a little time to yourself."
I wasn't about to have time to myself. I was off with Anita
Carswell to the Chicago pen show by way of West Lafayette,
Indiana, where my college roommate was teaching in the Purdue
University math department. I'd always wanted Stew Laszlo
and Anita to meet, and now twenty-five years after I'd first
told them about each other, I was getting my wish. Too bad
I didn't feel more excited about their meeting. I couldn't
even get excited about the Chicago Pen Show, the first I'd
had a chance to attend in two years. Anita was right. Betsy's
illness was taking its toll.
I leaned back in my seat and closed my eyes, hoping that I'd
doze off instead of seeing images of Betsy as she was until
last year interspersed with images of her now, increasingly
disabled, frail, and desperate. What was worse than the physical
degeneration was that the strong streak of independence that
first drew me to her when we met my junior year in college
had turned into irritability and fussiness now that she was
unable to do all the things for herself that she was used
I gnawed my lip and sat up. Anita's eyes were still on the
road ahead, but I knew she'd sensed my movement and probably
picked up on what I was feeling as well. It always amazed
me how intuitive she was, I suppose because I always thought
of intuition as a capacity of the less than down to earth,
oversensitive people who read tea leaves and palms. I'd never
met a more down to earth person or better judge of character
than Anita Carswell, and I knew I probably never would. The
fact that few people were able to get past her forbidding
exterior and brusque manner made our friendship all the more
precious to me. I really didn't want to pick a fight with
her, but I was so tired and my emotions were raw. I'd taken
the semester off to have more time with Betsy, but I found
myself unable to be there for her in ways she wanted. I couldn't
even figure out what those ways were.
"Multiple sclerosis does sometimes go into remission
for long periods, Bob," she said. "We can only hope
that will happen in Betsy's case. Until then, the best anyone
can do is keep her spirits up and her mind active. And make
sure she doesn't miss her treatments and does take her medication."
I sighed. "She's angry, Anita. Angry and scared. Much
of the time I can't reach her at all. She reacts as if I'm
an insensitive boor."
Anita smiled faintly. "Well, you know you're not and
so do I. Betsy does too, but as you know she can use whatever
situation she finds herself in to get her own way. There's
probably something she wants from you, Bob. She's just not
telling you directly."
I suppressed an almost automatic tendency to bristle at anything
that might seem like a criticism of my wife. The more difficult
our relationship became, the more protective I was. But Anita's
voice was level as if she were stating a well-established
fact, rather than making a judgment. When I looked over at
her, I was surprised to see that her face wore an expression
of amused tolerance that could easily have been fondness as
she spoke of Betsy. I'd never understood how she could be
so unfailingly kind to my wife who made no secret of her dislike
for Anita. That was one of the few sources of tension between
Betsy and me until Betsy became ill. Now, just about everything
was a potential bone of contention. I shrugged my shoulders,
unable to fathom the relationship of these two very different
Betsy always referred to Anita as "that hag," but
when months of medical tests had yielded no definitive diagnosis,
it was Anita she consulted late one afternoon last summer.
I overheard Betsy's end of the conversation without her being
aware of it. I was supposed to be out in the garden, weeding,
but I'd come inside after getting a painful laceration in
my thumb from a thorn. I was cleaning the wound when I realized
that Betsy was on the phone with Anita. Her voice was polite
though not warm, and I could tell from her repeated affirmations
that Anita was giving her information she found useful. Three
phone calls later and Betsy had gotten her medical records
sent to a clinic at Washington University in St. Louis and
had set up an appointment with the specialist Anita had recommended.
That's who made the diagnosis two weeks later.
I had no idea why Anita had the name of the specialist, and
I never asked her. Nor did I say anything about the phone
call I'd overheard to Betsy, who continued to refer to Anita
as "that hag" and to resent her importance to me.
I told Anita though that I'd overheard the phone call and
apologized for Betsy's lack of gratitude for the help Anita
had given her.
"You'd think from the way she acts that you were responsible
for her illness, not for her finally finding out what she
had and what could be done for it," I'd complained to
Anita after a particularly contentious day. Anita shook her
"Some part of Betsy really didn't want to know what she
had unless it turned out to be something minor and easily
curable. I can't blame her for wanting to kill the messenger.
That's a very human response, Bob," she said calmly.
"But you weren't really the messenger," I whined.
"She isn't rude to her doctor, and he's the one who made
Anita chuckled. "Well she needs his good will, but you'd
be hard pressed to convince her that she needs mine."
"She has it though, doesn't she?" I asked needlessly.
Anita nodded. "Of course, she does, Bob. You both do."
back to Anita who was again passing a slow-moving vehicle,
a dump truck this time.
"Are you okay driving?" I asked.
"Yes," she said brusquely. "I'd pull over if
I grunted and folded my arms over my chest. "So do you
think Betsy and I are going to make it?" I asked suddenly.
My question shocked me, but Anita replied calmly, "That
depends on how much you both want to. No one ever said intimate
relationships were easy. And illness doesn't make them any
I knew she was speaking from experience five years after she'd
tended her long-time companion, Dora Clarence, through her
last, long illness.
"Being willing to set aside one's own desires and perceptions
in order to listen to what is said and what is left unsaid
is essential, Bob," she continued. "And, of course,
both people have to want the relationship to survive."
"I do listen," I protested. "If she told me
what she wanted, I'd do it in a minute, but she doesn't tell
me anything anymore."
"She may not be able to right now," Anita answered
gently. "Not in words anyway."
"So am I supposed to be a mind reader?" I demanded,
feeling all my frustration rise.
Anita looked quickly over at me. "No, of course not.
As I said, it's a good thing you're getting away for a while."