Character Study: The Pencil Collector

Origin story: When my (now very tall) son Malcolm was little he had a worksheet on “the apostrophe;” laying down the rules, telling you when and how to use an apostrophe. Like all good grammar packets, it had sentences to illustrate the possible applications of this particular punctuation mark. These sentences aren’t supposed to be interesting or memorable, they just have to be informative and correct. You can imagine somebody straining their brain to come up with something dull and appropriate, trying to think of a name they haven’t used yet for an imaginary possessor or omitter of letters and numbers. The sentences in this particular package were a little strange, they were even almost funny. Viz: “the girls’ logrolling team.” (Is that even a thing?) And “Lucas’ hobby is collecting pencil stubs.”

Lucas walks along, brow furrowed, searching the hallways for discarded pencil stubs. He’s probably collected about 547 so far, and he used to keep them in a box in his room, but then he had so many that they spilled out of the box and fell to the floor. Maybe he stepped on them one night when he was half-awake in the dark, and he rolled on them like they were tiny logs, until he found himself splashing around on the floor in a pile of blankets and toys. So he decided to move them to the garage.

He liked the garage, because it was quiet and private and full of interesting and possibly dangerous objects. It felt rain-washed and dusty. It smelled like fertilizer and gasoline and dried cut grass. And now it smelled like pencils, which was his favorite smell in the world.

He separated his pencil stubs by color, of course, and of course he had more yellow pencils than pencils of any other hue, so he put these in a big green rusting metal box with a broken latch. And the rest of the pencils, the green, blue, red and black ones, he organized in little drawers of a plastic case designed to hold screws and nails and nuts. He dumped all the nails into a clanking pile on the floor, and he lovingly separated his pencils of many colors. The pencils with designs: covered with hearts or rainbows or foil stars or slogans like “reading is my superpower!” these pencils he kept in some old cardboard box. He wasn’t too crazy about them.

He was a pencil purist. He liked the plain bright colors, the perfect lettering in black or metallic green. He was a true collector, an enthusiast. He would take note of each pencil’s condition in a special notebook (he wrote in ink): did it have an eraser, or had it been rubbed down or pulled off? A perfect eraser on a stump of pencil was a rare and wonderful find, a prized possession. Did the pencil still have a point? Was it a sharp point, or a stubby point with the wood of the pencil frustratingly longer than the lead? Did the pencil have teeth marks? He’d chewed on a few pencils himself, and he understood the appeal, the feeling of wood yielding to his teeth, the flecks of paint like tiny inconsequential shards of glass.

He liked to think about all of the words that had been written with each pencil. Lots of homework assignments, sure, but what else? Stories? Love notes? In the art room he’d collected quite a few drawing pencils, black or green with a rounded white end instead of an eraser. Soft, thick leads. These were his favorite of all. If he stared at them long enough he could almost see all the pictures they had drawn: still-lives, self-portraits, dream scenes.

He felt bad for the pencils. It made him sad that they’d worked so hard, and then been cast aside. Did they not still contain lead? Yes they did! (Well, most of them did) Could they not still write? Of course they could, if you didn’t mind a little hand-cramping. He himself didn’t write with them, ever. They were too perfect, too special, and so little of them remained–they would be gone so soon.

What could he possibly write that would be worthy of these little stubs of possibility, these small stumps of potential? What picture could he draw that would justify using up the small store of unused lead? He lay awake thinking about it. Someday he’d write the most perfectly beautiful story ever written, and he’d use one pencil for each word, and then he’d put each pencil back in its chipped plastic drawer until the next time. Some day.

2 replies »

  1. Love it! I used to have a box of stubby pencils, many colours and sizes. Some sharpened at both ends … Mostly chewed. Gave them aw to only last year to a “quiet” child who likes drawing!


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