Fifteen years ago, my mother gave me a pen. A gold-plated Cross Ballpoint in a green box. Although the gift came at Christmastime, when I read the attached note it was obvious that this wasn't a Christmas present in the strict sense. The note said.:
Dear T --
Merry Christmas! Use this pen to autograph all the wonderful books you're going to write.
Right, I thought. Use this pen to sign all the unpublished manuscripts I can palm off on loving family and friends because I'm a terrible writer and I'm more likely to grow another head than I am to ever have actual books to autograph. But thanks anyway, Mumsey--nothing like a little blood-confidence to make a soul feel like he should at least keep trying.
So I did. I spent another year, then another, working on a book about a young police detective in Laguna Beach. It was fun work, but it was anguishing too, because I was almost certain the thing would never turn out right, never be read by anyone except for the Fictionaires--my workshop cohorts--who would smile wanly at my final reading, shift uncomfortably in their chairs and say, "It's well-written."
(In case you don't know, "It's well-written" means several things to professional writers. These are: The writing is OK, but the story is boring; the characters are poorly drawn; the manuscript won't be published; the structure of the piece is fully collapsible; the whole thing is improbable, if not ridiculous, or, too much ego, not enough skill.)
Meanwhile, I had set the pen, in its box, on an upper bookshelf over the typewriter table. I was taking Mumsey literally--the pen would be for autographing books and nothing else, not even the suicide note I composed (in pencil) during the fourth unfruitful rewriting of the manuscript. The little box sat unmolested above me for five years, a hope chest of dreams, a talisman against failure, a stern and patient Muse.
When my first book was published in 1985, I ran to the shelf to whip out the pen and inscribe a book for Mom, but the box was gone. I ransacked the room, then the whole apartment, then my car--but no luck. The box had vanished along with the pen, Mumsey's note and whatever power it had lent me. Crushed, I signed my first editions of "Laguna Heat" with a black plastic Parker pen (a simple-minded attempt at oneness with my universe), but it had no totemic weight whatsoever--it was just a pen.
Happily, the gold Cross showed up some months later, in my closet--though I had no idea how it had gotten there. I grabbed and opened the box and took out the golden shaft. It was slender and heavy and perfect. It would last forever. Just like my talent! I read the note again and called Mom with the good news.
I signed a lot of copies of "Laguna Heat" with that pen. Three years later, I signed a lot of copies of "Little Saigon" with it, in places as far away as Boston, Seattle, Houston and Chicago. It traveled with me and my wife to the Cayman Islands, Key West, Mexico and New Orleans. It became international, if not worldly.
Halfway through the fall of 1991, while helping promote "Pacific Beat," the pen disappeared out of my pocket one evening for a reason no more fathomable than why it had moved from the bookshelf to the closet. I ransacked the house again, then the car. No dice. I called the store where I had signed, then the restaurant I had eaten at afterward, then the bar I had closed after dinner, only to find someone else's gold Cross pen in the manager's hand. I thanked and blessed him, Pope-like, but admitted that his pen was nothing more than an impostor. I became withdrawn.
My pen showed up a week later in the dryer. It was cleaner, and worked perfectly. I embraced and kissed it, and offered up a little admonition about "sticking around." I thought of Mom--no longer with us on Earth--jammed the Cross back in my pocket and felt good.
The pen finished my 1991 "tour," then vanished again in early 1992. It materialized at a friend's house. It disappeared later that year for a full month, only to resurface in the bottom pocket (where I never carry a pen) of an old jacket I was packing up to give to the thrift shop. Over the next two years, it traveled to Hawaii, the Fiji Islands and Costa Rica. By then it was dented and scuffed, and the elegant lengthwise striations were worn in the places where thumb, index and middle fingers rest.
Six months ago the pen left again. It happened after a festive night on the town, one of those occasional nights when you feel so expansive you just have to illustrate everything. I sketched on a napkin for my yawning date the basic tennis doubles' strategy as taught to me by the great Ray Thornton. Later, I drew for my companion (who was by then nodding off) the outlines of some rooms I hope to add to my house some day. I think I drew a picture of my dog. I certainly signed credit card slips with abandon, only to awaken the next morning with a penless shirt thrown over the chair.
I called every place we had been--no pen. I searched the house, then searched it again, heaving items around the rooms, reducing my home to little more than a Colin Powelled Baghdad. I explored every nook and cranny of my car. I called all the places again. I checked the dryer, old coats, the closet, even the driveway where I had stopped the night before to try (stupidly) to run after a deer bouncing along the asphalt ahead of me.
The pen was gone as yesterday's sunshine, and that was that.
So I went into my collection to find a replacement. I tried one of those big, fat, ostentatious pens appropriately named after a mountain. It was about the size of an XLNT tamale, and you had to hold it like a caveman holds a chisel, making your signature look defective. I hated it.
I tried one that had the standard push-button in-out control, but it looked nerdy in my pocket. There was simply no replacement for the balance, poise and utility of the Cross. I even considered buying a replacement, but as I stared down through the glass display cases, the new Cross pens seemed to lack spiritual heft. How do you replace a dream your mom had for you?
Last week at the carwash, the interior man approached me with a handful of items he was uncertain about discarding: three empty shotgun shells, an ancient deodorizer shaped like a miniature pine tree, a Counting Crows cassette with the tape looping out like fishing line and a rather battered Cross pen.
I lunged for the thing, confirmed its identity, fell on my knees and began speaking in tongues. I tipped the interior man extravagantly. I was given a personal escort off the premises, because everyone was so happy for me. The pen is in my pocket right now, and, after six months of wondering if life is just a long series of losses, I can state absolutely that it is not.