“Twelve Pencils” by Renée Thompson


Nigel Dawson walked to Big Red’s Mercantile in the heart of Sayward to buy pencils – Ticonderogas, twelve to a box, yellow with graphite filling. In the store, he admired the red crepe paper hanging from the rafters, the sprays of mistletoe. A fire blazed in the woodstove, and workers from the sawmill – mechanics, sawyers, edgers and trimmers – stood around its black potbelly warming their calloused hands. Nigel smiled when they glanced up, excused himself and squeezed behind them to gather his supplies: two tablets, one quill, a bottle of ink and the last box of Ticonderogas. When he set his bundle on the counter, Pleasant Humphrey, the store’s proprietress, refused to help him.

“Why would I sell you pencils,” she said, “when you’ve been dethroned by Gideon Cooper?”

Nigel stood, blinking. “Beg pardon?”

Pleasant seized The Mendocino Free Press from beneath the counter, snapped it open and read: “‘The author from Staffordshire spent twenty-four words on a sentence not worthy of eight; I suggest he return to his Motherland, where they respect long-winded writers – perhaps he’ll find his crown there.’” She gazed at Nigel over the top of the paper, raising one hairless eyebrow. “He’s talking about you, you know.”

Nigel did not know. He learned rather quickly, however, that Gideon Cooper, a renowned writer from Mississippi, had drafted a twelve-page treatise detailing twenty of Nigel’s most egregious errors, all of which had appeared in his recent novel, Extraordinary Thinker. The book was Nigel’s triumph, he believed – evidence of his cleverness and future potential. But Gideon had thrashed it, establishing in his essay a set of writing rules, as if he were Moses at the burning bush and his rules commandments from God.

‘“A tale must accomplish something and arrive somewhere,’” Pleasant went on, again reading from the paper. ‘“Not only does Dawson’s latest carry on a garden slug’s pace, but the slug often travels in circles.’”

Nigel’s face flushed, and his ears flared red at their tips. “What else does he accuse me of?”

“He says your grammar is sloppy, and that you possess an annoying habit of posing a question at the end of every sentence.”

“Well, he’s resentful, then, isn’t he? I’ve threatened his position as America’s premier storyteller, and he’s made it his goal to lift himself up by bringing me down.” Nigel brought himself to his full height. “My grammar is impeccable.”

Pleasant seemed not to have heard him. “He’s not fond of your characters either. Says the ‘personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and the reader shall know the difference.’” She slapped the paper shut. “He’s right, you know. The people in your last book had no pep at all.” At that, she raked the pencils, writing tablet, quill and bottle of ink into the hammock she’d made with her apron, and turned to make off with the stash.

“You didn’t seem to mind my corpses when you were selling my books by the dozens.”

“Well,” said Pleasant, pausing, “I won’t be selling them now – there’s not a man here who will buy them.” She indicated with a nod to the workers she had so often harangued, insisting they pick up a book now and again and read a chapter or two. “Physical exertion isn’t enough in this world,” she had scolded, “your brains need sharpening too.” It was a clever ploy to get the millworkers to part with their money, as well as a reminder that the seven daughters of the sawmill’s owner had no interest in marrying dolts.

“I’ll buy ‘em,” said Leon Toh, a single man of thirty-seven. Leon had not been a reader in his younger days, but the moment Pleasant took him to task, he’d become one. Hoping to court the mill owner’s oldest daughter, he’d bought the first of Nigel’s books and cracked it open, trailing his finger beneath the path of each sentence as he sought to follow its meaning. Having finished that book, he bought a second, as he found Nigel’s frontier stories foreign and virgin and wild. Gideon’s landscapes, on the other hand, were sodden places, dark and dripping and clotted with swamp bugs, which Leon found unsettling.

Pleasant glared at him. “I said you will not buy them.”

Leon scowled but didn’t argue, nor did the others standing with him. Big Red’s Mercantile was the only store in town, and crossing Pleasant risked banishment, which meant no horehound cough drops, sweet tobacco, or their favorite peppermint candies.

Nigel narrowed his eyes, as he knew what she was up to. Pleasant thought herself a writer, and believed she could edge him out and move up one notch by taking up Gideon’s campaign. She often displayed her religious musings in the window on a chalkboard: God wrought this and God wrought that, and woe be to commandment breakers. But the notion she could further her writing career by denying him pencils was so far-fetched that Nigel stood stupefied.

Pleasant eyed him as he’d eyed her, and sucked in her cheeks a bit. “You’ve lost your cleverness is what you’ve done – become a doldrum writer. And like Gideon says, ‘only a slug will bite at that.’”

Nigel found his tongue then. “You want clever, I’ll give you clever: Go bloody shag yourself.”

Pleasant’s mouth formed a perfect little O. The entire store went quiet. Olney Humphrey, Pleasant’s brother, poked his head from a door at the rear of the store. A lug of a man with rust-colored hair and a face like a fist, he looked around, spotted Nigel and strode forward. Slugged him hard in the stomach. Nigel folded. When he stood again, Olney socked him in the nose.

* * *

That Gideon Copper had likened Nigel’s work to a slug’s so demoralized him, he could no longer write at all. By New Year’s he was doing nothing more productive than staring out the hotel window.

His room, on the second story of the Sayward Inn, provided a panoramic view of the mill town. If he looked north he could see a white church with a steeple, set back in the woods a bit. A school with a dirt yard stood next to it, and beyond there was a barbershop, blacksmith, and livery stable. To the south stood Big Red’s, the butcher shop and creamery, two banks and the Lively Saloon. The sawmill was just past the Lively, abutting the Nickel River. It was a sight that had once delighted him, but with his spirits as dark as the gathering clouds, he found no joy in the scenery.

Rain began falling in a pewter curtain. Nigel looked toward the ocean, saw the rough-hewn cabin on the side of the hill where a man of about thirty lived. Each Sunday – the one day the sawmill ceased its operation – Nigel spotted the man standing on the porch. A millworker, he guessed, based on his uniform: baggy blue trousers held up with suspenders, blue shirt and a sweat-stained cap. The man stood there now, hands in his pockets, gazing toward the horizon. He must have felt Nigel watching him, as he slowly turned and raised his eyes to meet Nigel’s. The acknowledgment cheered him and he waved, feeling a bit more hopeful. The stranger did not wave back, however, but turned and walked into his house. Nigel’s spirits sagged again.

By late afternoon the wind began to rip through Sayward, blowing so hard that the towering firs and redwoods bent like twigs over the brittle houses. Preoccupied with his own sorry situation, Nigel gave no thought to the town’s architecture. Did not worry that as the wind howled, one of the trees would snap and land on the hotel’s rooftop, or that the creek, muddy and swollen and clogged with debris, would lift the structure from its foundation and send it spinning into the ocean. Where the creek met the Pacific a perfect riptide formed, so that rafts of driftwood and tangles of kelp swirled in a semi-circle. Farther out – twenty miles or so – where the mud and sand hadn’t yet mixed, the ocean was the darkest, blackest blue.

“Bloody hell,” Nigel lamented. “Might as well throw the towel in.”

He donned a black topcoat and a felt hat, and walked barefoot toward the ocean. He’d never done that before – walked barefoot in the sand – and he wished now, in his last breathing moments, to feel it between his toes.

The rain pelted his head and shoulders. When the water rushed in and slapped his ankles, he skittered back, as it was colder than he’d imagined. He glanced over his shoulder at the stranger’s cabin, saw that the man was again standing on the porch. Smoking a pipe and watching Nigel, with his head slightly cocked. While Nigel studied the man and the man studied him, a wave surged forward and knocked Nigel down. Rolling repeatedly, his arms and legs akimbo, he thumped toward shore, bumping his chin and knocking his knees against the sand. He tried to stand, teetered sideways, and the waves sucked him out again. It seemed an eternity that he was thrashed so, before the stranger grabbed his collar.

“Let me be,” Nigel sputtered, swinging both arms. The fingertips of his right hand clipped the stranger’s forehead, and then his left hand grazed the man’s chin. When he swung a third time, the stranger knocked him out.

* * *

He awoke in the man’s cabin. The millworker had removed Nigel’s wet clothes and cocooned him in a quilt so only his head stuck out. From the light of a kerosene lamp, Nigel saw that his trousers, shirt, and underclothes, along with the stranger’s, had been draped over a broomstick propped between two chairs. There was a woodstove against the wall, where a smoky fire burned, and a chest of drawers in one corner. The man had adorned the top of the chest with hand-carved figures, a village of redwood people.

The stranger sat at a table. He had dry clothes on, and a pair of woolen socks. Nigel cleared his throat. “You had no right to save me,” he said brusquely. “I intended to kill myself.”

The man looked up. Turning in his chair, he propped one elbow atop it. “If you’d wanted to drown, you would have.”

“I beg your pardon. I fought like the devil –”

“You threw two measly punches.”

Nigel lay quietly then, admitting, if only to himself, that he had indeed behaved stupidly. He looked over at the stranger. The fellow didn’t appear stout enough to pull so much as a sea bass from the water, let alone a human walrus. His cheekbones jutted from his face at sharp angles, and his wrists, emerging from sleeves two inches too short, were ropey with sinew and muscle. His trousers were wrinkled, his hair unkempt. He looked liked an orphan in a poor man’s country.

Nigel wrangled his arms from beneath the blanket, sat up and leaned on an elbow. “If I might have a cup of tea?”

The man got up, plucked a tin cup from a shelf and filled it with dark, steaming liquid from a pot on the woodstove. He handed it to Nigel. “Coffee,” he said. “I don’t keep tea in the house.”

Nigel took the cup and sipped at its rim. “You’ve heard of Gideon Cooper?”
The stranger nodded.

“He claims my novels lack substance and humor and style. Hell of a mess then, isn’t it? To be cuffed by America’s master?” The hot beverage had revived him somewhat, and he all but spat the words. Coffee dribbled down his chin. When the man made no comment, Nigel blurted, “Pleasant Humphrey’s on his side, and half the town is with her…” and then his voice trailed off and he scowled, setting his cup on the nightstand. “What possessed that woman’s mother to name her Pleasant is entirely beyond me. She’s as cheerful as a blowfish.”

“She’s not an agreeable woman.”

Encouraged that the stranger would give him that, Nigel offered a modest smile. “What’s your name, young man?”

“Moffett,” he said. “John Moffett. But no one calls me John.”

“You work at the mill, I assume.”

“Three years last December.”

“What do you do there?”

“Pull green chain. Me and a couple others.”

Nigel seized the opportunity to engage Moffett, hoping to make at least one ally in this world. “Green-chain puller,” he mused, infusing his voice with interest. “What pray tell is that?”

“Me and one other man stand on one side of a pulley, two stand on the other. Leon Toh chucks us some boards, and we jerk them off and stack them in a pile.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“Well, what sort of job is that?”

Moffett’s forehead folded and his jaw went tight. Nigel caught his mistake at once, and would have apologized, except Moffett spoke first. “Your clothes are dry,” he said, before he’d tested them. He plucked Nigel’s shirt and trousers from the makeshift rack, then flung them onto the bed. “Best put them on and go now.”

Moffett stood so sternly before him that Nigel got up and dressed. Tucking in his shirt, he stood, barefoot, his still-sodden coat draped over one arm. “Well, then,” he said, twirling his hat between his fingers. When Moffett didn’t speak, Nigel walked toward the door. Pausing, he raised his chin. “You won’t intervene, if I try to kill myself again?”

“No,” said Moffett, “I won’t intervene. Go on and die, if you want to.”

* * *

By the azalea’s first bloom, Nigel’s life had turned around. He’d put his thoughts to paper again, creating fanciful new paragraphs, all of which greatly pleased him. But now more than ever, he needed pencils. So he knocked on Moffett’s door. Moffett answered, took one look at Nigel, then leaned against the doorjamb.

“I see you haven’t yet killed yourself.”

Nigel shouldered his way into Moffett’s cabin, his tablet beneath one arm. “I dare say I’ll be forced to do so, if you refuse me this one simple favor.”

“What do you want now?”

“I’m happy to report I’m writing again, but not nearly as much as I’d like to – I’m in dire need of pencils. I simply can’t think with a pen.”

“Why don’t you just go buy some?”

“I’ve tried – as recently as yesterday, in fact. But the minute Pleasant sees me, she clucks for Olney and there he is, rifle in hand, ready to fill me with buckshot.”

“Rifles use bullets,” Moffett informed him. “Shotguns use buckshot.”

“What difference does it make?”

“You’ll know when Olney shoots you.”

Nigel was quiet as he thought about the Humphrey clan. Olney was no crumpet, but it was Pleasant he truly disliked. “I’d like to shoot his sister,” he said, thinking aloud. “She thinks she’s a writer, you know…” He would have gladly taken three hours of Moffett’s time to spew vitriol on the subject, but Moffett had begun, almost imperceptibly, to shake his head. Nigel took it as a sign the man was nearing his limit. “Pencil?” he said. “If you can kindly spare one?”

“I’m not even sure I’ve got one,” Moffett told him. He walked toward the chest with the hard-carved figures and rummaged around in a drawer. Pulling out a small green stub, he handed it to Nigel.

Nigel wouldn’t take it. “I use a Ticonderoga,” he said.

“It’s a pencil, for Christ’s sake. Take it.”

Nigel shook his head.

“If I go to Red’s and buy your pencils, will you promise to leave me alone?”

“I will absolutely leave you alone.”

“I’ll need some money then.”

Nigel withdrew thirty-six cents from his pocket and gave it to Moffett. But when the man tried to pass through the door, Nigel cut him off, stepping in front of him. “Before you go,” he said, notebook in hand, “might I just read you something?”

“You may not. I don’t want to hear it – don’t read me anything.”

But Nigel had already flipped the tablet open and begun to read, stepping first one way and then the other, blocking Moffett as he tried to pass. Finally Moffett leaned against the wall, dipped his chin to his chest, and succumbed to Nigel’s story.

It was a tale of a schooner captain who had wrecked his ship off the coast of Mendocino. The schooner careened into the cape during a fabulous storm, shattering the cages held in the cargo. Two thousand exotic birds escaped, and another thousand perished. “Parrots flew wildly in every direction, like a spray of wayward bullets. In two hours time they’d vanished completely, taking with them the captain’s profits and dashing all hope for the future.”

Nigel glanced at Moffett, his eyes moist and shining. “I’ve written the thing ten times now, and with each new draft cut it in half. How does it sound so far?”

Moffett sat at the table. “I could hear the rest, I guess.” Nigel picked up where he’d left off, and when he was done, Moffett nodded.

“You liked it then?” said Nigel.

“I did,” said Moffett, standing. “And I’ll fetch your pencils like I said I would. But when I get back, I want you gone, you hear?”

“But you agree my story has merit?” Nigel pressed. “That it’s accomplished something and arrived somewhere, that I haven’t repeated myself?”

Moffett hadn’t the expertise to speak to anything other than what intrigued him. “I don’t know about any of that,” he told Nigel, “but there is one thing, the birds in your story – the ones that died? Would be nice if most of them lived.”

“If I let them live,” Nigel said, “Gideon will claim I’m too sentimental, then create some rule to address it.”

“Well, that’s your concern, not mine.”

* * *

Nigel kept his promise. Read to an audience of rocks and redwoods, kept his head low and declined to wave to Moffett when he caught the man watching him. For the first time since Christmas, Nigel was happily preoccupied with the business of writing, keeping at it until it displayed, he believed, not only a new wit and intelligence but marvelous timing too. As his confidence grew, so did his courage, and he decided to again brave Big Red’s Mercantile and buy pencils on his own.

He set out for the store, intending to apologize to Pleasant. His generosity wasn’t guileless however, as he also intended to ask her to read his story – claiming he needed her expertise, when in fact he wished her to see for herself how greatly he’d improved. How he was as good as – or better, even – than the inflated Gideon Cooper. While reading Nigel’s latest story, Pleasant would no doubt realize she was no competition for the man from the swamps, or for the man from Sayward, either.

As he strolled the redwood plank in front of the store, he spied four men at a distance. Two of them looked to be shuttling something across the street – a log, most likely – one man running along each side of the thing, a small crowd gathering around it. There was some shouting too, as the group began to travel en masse, in the direction of town. But as they got closer, Nigel realized the mass wasn’t a log at all, but a body on a stretcher. Someone hurt from the mill.

He stood, craning his neck. Someone called, “Which one is it?” And someone hollered “Moffett.” Nigel fixed his gaze on his friend as he passed on the stretcher: his left leg was gone, sawed off above the knee cap. More blood than Nigel thought possible soaked John Moffett’s trousers.

* * *

Nigel installed Moffett in his bed, as Moffett had once done for him. Too, he kept a vigilant watch on the man, and on the man’s leg, changing the bandages every three hours the first two nights as the doctor ordered, and then every six, and finally, eight, when it looked like Moffett would live. He was delirious much of the time, his forehead burning with fever. Nigel fed him laudanum and chicken broth, spilling into his mouth the smallest spoonfuls of the lukewarm liquids, until on the fifth day he finally rallied.

“You’re awake,” said Nigel.

“I fully intended to kill myself. You had no right to save me.”

Nigel thought it was the opiate talking, but then he spotted a glint in Moffett’s eye. “If you’d wanted to drown, you would have,” Nigel softly told him.

Moffett’s eyes welled and he turned his head. Soon he was asleep again. When he next awoke, Nigel pulled a stool alongside the bed and quietly asked what happened.

“Boss asked me to replace a worker named Leon Toh,” he said, licking his lips. “He’d collapsed with a lung infection. I told him I’d never worked a gang saw, but he didn’t have no one else to call on, so he put me there. I’d just begun to catch on to how it worked when one of the logs jammed, so I hopped onto the frame and kicked it, as I’d seen Leon sometimes do.” Moffett grimaced. Nigel gave him a spoonful of laudanum, propping the millworker’s head in the palm of his hand until Moffett had safely swallowed.

“Log didn’t budge,” Moffett went on. “I kicked it again and that’s when I slipped – slid clean into the gang saw. If I’d fallen forward instead of sideways, it would have sliced me in thirty pieces. Just sawed my leg is all.” He was quiet then, and when he spoke again, it was to ask for his things at the cabin.

“What things?”

“My figurines – they’re trinkets I carved for a friend.” That Moffett had a friend surprised Nigel, as he assumed the millworker was as friendless as he was. He was about to ask Moffett who his friend was and where he lived, when the laudanum took hold, and Moffett fell asleep again.

* * *

Inside Moffett’s cabin, Nigel placed into a pile two shirts, a pair of socks and a clean pair of trousers, although he hesitated a moment before setting them atop the modest stack, as Moffett’s missing leg had not yet been addressed. On top of the dresser were the figurines, and they too went into the pile. Nigel had not brought anything with him to hold the items, however, so he pulled a drawer from the dresser, intending to use it as a catch-all. He emptied the contents onto the bed; a box of pencils fell out.

It took him a moment to put it together, and then he understood that Moffett bought a second box of pencils the day he’d bought the first, and that he used his own money to do it. Nigel understood too that Moffett had been holding onto them all this time, waiting for Nigel to come back. Wanting, despite all he’d said, Nigel to come back.

Nigel turned the box in his hands. Ticonderogas, twelve to a package. Yellow, with graphite filling. All this time, twelve bloody pencils he hadn’t known were there.

He put the box in his jacket pocket, strode down to the beach and pitched it hard into the ocean. And when he next wrote, some two weeks later, he used a pen, looking up at Moffett every now and again to read aloud what he’d written: a story of three thousand parrots, following a shipwreck, and how splendidly they had lived.

Renée Thompson’s short stories have twice appeared in Narrative magazine as Stories of the Week, and in Chiron Review. Her novel, The Bridge At Valentine (Tres Picos Press), debuted in August 2010. Her second novel, The Plume Hunter, is forthcoming from Torrey House Press in fall 2011. She lives in Northern California.

To read Ren
ée Thompson’s comments on Eric Wasserman’s “Fade Out,” click here.

Notes from Chad Peterson, Managing Editor
“Twelve Pencils” is a finely textured, well thought-out and richly layered story in which an unlikely friendship begins to form out of the depths of a life-changing depression. The dialogue is fluid and does as much to describe the characters as the author’s narration, the writing is crisp and clean, and the realization that these two disparate men need a brush with tragedy to uncover their potential for deep friendship makes the story profoundly resonant and deeply satisfying. A thoroughly enjoyable read.

Comments on this story by Alison Grifa Ismaili, author of “Shape-shifters”
In this story, Renée Thompson crafts another world for us through well-considered dialogue, attention to details, and precise diction. She creates a sense of timelessness in this small mill town, where people use kerosene lamps and Big Red’s Mercantile sells horehound cough drops, Ticonderoga pencils, and quill pens. At each pass, the author subverts our expectations, especially in the case where the gruff millworkers are squabbling over who is in fact the best storyteller of the times—Nigel Dawson or Gideon Cooper.

While this is a story about an unlikely friendship between two men, it is also a story about definitions: How do we define ourselves and our livelihoods? Our friendships? Our stories and storytellers? How do we let the media manipulate our definitions and expectations? As Nigel reaches his epiphany, we, too, as readers, take moment to examine ourselves, our own anxieties, and our own definitions of what’s important.

Simultaneously, a fun and thought-provoking read.

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