memory is a trickster, carrying a big full of both laughter
and tears. Sitting in my car with Anita I looked back on the
past few months and wondered how I'd coped.
Betsy had quit her job as a volunteer coordinator for the
public library as soon as she'd learned that the numbness
and tingling in her extremities, the tiredness, and the loss
of coordination were early symptoms of multiple sclerosis.
She sat at home reading, watching TV, and brooding. Whenever
I tried to get her to talk about her feelings, she got angry
"Hey," she'd snarl at me, "are you trying for
the New Age sensitive man award? If I need a shrink, I'll
It seemed to me that a shrink was exactly what she needed.
The more she withdrew, the worse her symptoms became, but
when I tried to tell her that, she told me that if I didn't
want to live with her anymore, she'd be glad to divorce me.
That hurt, and I turned to Anita for solace and reassurance,
who told me Betsy's fear was speaking.
I smiled as I remembered my reaction to that. "Well,"
I'd barked at Anita, "if that's her fear speaking, I
sure wish it would just shut the hell up."
Anita had looked at me sympathetically for a moment and then
started to laugh. Soon I joined in her laughter. It was the
first time I'd laughed like that since Betsy first took sick.
That was when Anita suggested I take some time off and go
to Chicago with her for the pen show.
"It'd be good for you, Bob, and a help to me. You know
I've not been since Dora died. It'd be hard to be there alone,"
she said. I was surprised, shocked really. Anita often spoke
of Dora with great warmth, and it was clear that she missed
her terribly, but she'd never before hinted that Dora's absence
had stopped her from doing anything she had a mind to do.
It was hard to imagine her being daunted by anything, let
alone anything as pleasurable as a pen show. Of course, she
might not have meant the show itself. I tried to picture her
driving all the way to Chicago by herself in that old boat
of a Pontiac she'd owned since the early seventies and had
I wanted to go to pen show with Anita. Of course, I wanted
to go, but I felt guilty. I was sure Betsy couldn't manage
on her own, and despite the increasing tension in our marriage,
I couldn't imagine anyone else taking care of her. So I turned
Anita down. She was disappointed, I knew. I could tell by
the slight increase in the downturn of her mouth. But she
didn't pressure me. Anita's motto could have been, "Friends
don't pressure friends." Sometimes that seemed to me
an unnecessary reticence, but I respected her too much to
challenge her. I suggested she find someone else to go with,
but she brushed me off.
"It's all right, Bob. I certainly have enough pens that
I'm not desperate to go. I just thought it might give us both
a chance to get away."
I didn't ask what she wanted to get away from. At that moment
I didn't care.
afternoon about three weeks after Anita first made her suggestion,
Betsy's youngest sister Maggie phoned. She wanted, she said,
to come for a two week visit. Maggie's husband was a geologist
whose work often took him abroad. Usually Maggie went to one
of her other sisters since she and I didn't get along. Betsy
always told me she didn't mind that a bit since Maggie got
on her nerves, but this time it was different. After month
of complaining every time I left her alone, even if only for
a few minutes, Betsy suddenly wanted me to leave so she could
spend time with Maggie.
"Why don't you go off to that pen show you were moping
about?" she suggested. "You said the hag wanted
to go. You could drive up together while Maggie visits."
"But Maggie isn't reliable," I argued.
Betsy just shook her head in exasperation. "I don't need
a babysitter," she told me, though it seemed to me that
was exactly what she needed. "And I haven't seen Maggie
since Christmas when we were all at Angie's. We hardly got
to catch up on things there. It was too noisy, too busy, too
full of family."
She'd always complained that she and Maggie had very little
to say to each other, but in my desire to avoid a fight I
didn't remind her of that. Instead I told her that I'd talk
to her doctor before agreeing to anything. She just snorted
at me in disgust. "Doctor Hughes doesn't run my life,
Bob, and neither do you. So get on the phone to that hag and
make your plans."
I hemmed and hawed and procrastinated for almost a week, so
Betsy phoned Anita herself. I was right there in the living
room with her when she did it. After a brief greeting, she
asked Anita, "Can you get this man out of my hair for
about ten days? My sister is coming and they fight like cats
and dogs." Then she handed me the phone.
Anita was laughing. "Well," she managed to croak
between gasps of laughter, "how about the pen show?"
I don't know why Anita found Betsy so funny while I found
her difficult bordering on obnoxious. I wasn't amused and
my tone of voice wasn't either when I agreed to go to the
"It doesn't take ten days to drive to Chicago, attend
the show, and drive back," I informed Anita, as if she
didn't know. "I'd like to visit my college friend who's
teaching at Purdue, if you don't mind."
"You mean that Stew fellow, the one who collects those
safety pens that don't work?" she asked, with just a
trace of mockery.
"He collects safeties, yes," I replied, feeling
irritated by her amusement, "but he uses a Parker 51."
"Oh right!" Anita answered, still snickering, "the
man with the buckskin 51. How could I forget?"
"He's also a mathematician," I added stiffly. "So
I thought you might have that in common, but if you don't
want to visit him, we can just go to the pen show and come
"I'm not a mathematician, just a humble, former high
school mathematics teacher," Anita reminded me unnecessarily
and inaccurately, as she was anything but humble. "Even
with my mathematical limitations," she observed, "I
know you're quite right. A trip to Chicago for the pen show
won't take ten days."
I knew she was mocking me, and it made me angry, but I controlled
myself and remained civil.
"We don't have to be away for ten days," I replied.
"The show runs Thursday through Sunday. We could leave
here Tuesday morning and be back the following Tuesday afternoon
and not break the speed limit once."
She snorted at me. "If Betsy needs ten days with her
sister, we have to be away for ten days."
I knew she was right but I resented it. I didn't want this
to be about pleasing Betsy and making sure she got what she
needed or wanted. Everything in my life, every decision I
made lately seemed to be about Betsy. For once I wanted something
in my life to be about me. Maybe that's one reason why I wanted
to visit Stew Laszlo.
Stew and Betsy had never liked each other. She found him pompous
and rigid and he distrusted her. Stew had been my best friend,
but after I married Betsy we gradually grew apart. I went
off to grad school in Michigan and he headed to Harvard, prompting
Betsy to label him an Ivy League loser. I had seen Stew only
three or four times in all the years that Betsy and I had
been together since college. We kept in touch by email and
phone, but suddenly I really wanted to hear his voice call
me Bobbo, a nickname he'd inflicted on me in college that
I'd always hated, and to see him smile in satisfaction after
silently solving some mathematical problem that had been plaguing
him, a small, very private smile that most people might have
taken for a smirk.
"Well, do you want to meet Stew or not?" I demanded
of Anita, still bristling.
Anita stopped laughing. "You've been after me to meet
this man ever since you were his college roommate. Of course,
I want to meet him. Is there someplace to stay in or near
West Lafayette, Indiana?"
called Stew Laszlo, he insisted we stay with him. He had a
house within walking distance of the campus in a quiet, residential
neighborhood, he told me. I was surprised. I'd imagined him
living in a small apartment with his living room given over
to mathematics books and his bedroom full of pens and pen
parephenalia, but he told me his house was quite spacious
with three guest rooms, only one of which was full of pen
and pen parts.
"What about your math stuff?" I asked him.
"I have an office," he reminded me. "This is
a university after all, and I am a tenured professor."
I tried hard not to be envious. One of the things I hadn't
missed during my semester's leave from teaching high school
was having to move from classroom to classroom without anything
resembling an office. I carried everything I needed for my
day with me. When I spoke to students it was in a classroom
no one was using at the time. I lugged my books back and forth
to work everyday. And any grading that I did was done at home
at the kitchen table. Of course, I had a study at home, but
it was too full of pens and ink and tools to work in.
"I'm looking forward to meeting Anita Carswell,"
Stew said at the end of our conversation. "I feel as
if I know her, but it will be interesting to compare my image
to the real person."
"And you're sure we're not coming at an inconvenient
point in the term?" I asked him for the third time.
"No, a week later would be inconvenient, but the week
leading up to the pen show is fine. Classes will be winding
down, but I won't have a bunch of panicky students worried
about exams and final projects lining up at my door yet. Besides,
you're only staying for a couple of days."
I invited him to come to the pen show with us, but he refused,
saying he had to present at a conference shortly after the
end of the academic year and needed to work on his talk.
"I hope our presence won't interfere
," I began,
but he cut me off.
"It's all right, Bobbo. It's one thing to have guests
and quite another to desert the ship for three or four days."
So that was settled. Now all I had to do was arrange to pick
up Maggie at the airport in St. Louis, make sure Betsy's car
ran okay, so Maggie could use it in my absence, get my own
car serviced for the trip, and decide which pens to take with
me. Of those tasks remaining, the only one I looked forward
to was picking pens for the trip. That little ritual always
pleased me, and I was all the more delighted by the possibility
of surprising Anita with my choices. The only question was
what to do first, pick the pens or do the more mundane and
less enjoyable tasks. On the one hand, picking the pens right
before the trip would, I thought, assure that I started the
trip in the right state of mind. But I didn't want Maggie
looking over my shoulder while I went through my collection.
Unlike Betsy, who, until the onset of her illness, had always
considered my pen collecting exotic and charming, my sister-in-law
couldn't help trying to calculate how much money I'd "wasted"
over the years on my "ridiculous mania." No, I really
didn't want to have to pick my pens while Maggie was here.
That meant making my selection before I went to get her at
the airport, and since I'd planned to drop her at home so
Betsy would have company when I took my car to the mechanic,
I'd have to pick my pens before any of the other tasks. The
more I thought about it, the better that sounded. No time
like the present, I thought, to make a preliminary selection.
So while Betsy napped, I wandered into my crowded den and
started to sort through my pens.