November 10th, 2009

Pencil Sharpener

This is probably cheating, but I’m doing it anyway. Last night, when Roia and I met to write, the magic envelope produced the word basement. We each generated a list of images/memories to go with the word, detouring to see if another word provided something better (it was responsibility, which was easier to make a list for, but personally, I wasn’t emotionally prepared to dive into any of the potential stories that came up). Then we picked one each and wrote for a good chunk of time. We’re supposed to time it, but I can either write or look at my watch; guess which one is more important to me.

So, here is what I wrote. It’s not finished. I may or may not finish it later.


Pencil Sharpener

In dreams, houses are supposed to represent the self and thus the basement, like Spot, embodies the id, or in a more Jungian jungle, the unconscious. Maybe, maybe not. But the pencil sharpener in my basement could instantly transport me into childhood.

The sharpener came with the house, screwed to the fir framing long enough ago that the rusty screws split the wood just enough to give the act of pencil sharpening a precarious wobble, not significant enough for the pencil to be in real danger, but enough that the act seemed brave, the work of someone deft, fearless, and bold.

It was the old-fashioned kind I remember from the classrooms at Oak Street School: Mrs. Peck, Mrs. Carlson, Mrs. Hill, Mrs. Skillman, Mrs. Kelly all had them. Even Mr. Scorolla, the only man among the teachers, frightening in his three-piece suited majesty, presumably had one in his room full of impossibly large and terrifying sixth graders. On the outside, it [the sharpener… antecedents get confusing when the goal is to keep moving the pen…] looked like a somewhat flattened egg, maybe a turtle egg with a shell that could conceivably be pressed between heavy tomes so that the two opposite sides became smooth planes between the ovoid curves of the rest of the structure.

One side, the right side (poor lefties in those days before the electric pencil sharpener with the central hole—first the indignity of green rubber handles on their awkward scissors and then the bafflement of maneuvering the mechanism necessary to allow for writing in that awkward [I should delete this word since I just used it and I go on to use more adjectives anyway], looped over, crouched, and laborious way), the handle protruded, the grip fluted and free-spinning around the shiny metal core. The other side, toothed like an escaped wheel from a Spirograph, displayed its graduated circles, ready to accommodate the chubby red pencils of first grade as well as the slender number 2 wands of those mature enough to attempt cursive. Both sides fascinated in their own mechanical brilliance, the startling perfection of their forms, but even more glory hid within.

The way the appliance actually sharpened pencils was by grinding the wood away between two ropes of steel, two threaded cylinders, two meshing helices of inorganic origin, two tectonic plates rubbing shoulders around the inconvenient girth of the pencil. That gnashing, that grinding, that dusty, fine-pointed ritual! What words could I write with the freshly burnished graphite tip of the pencil tapering into infinity! No mere calculation or concatenation of syllables could overcome a pencil so honed. I could scoff at the serried rows of bubbles on any standardized test.

To say nothing of the smell…