It was one of those nights in Chi-town. You know the kind. The rain taps against the front window of your favorite gin joint while a live singer belts out the blues just a little too loud for the small space, and just a little too blue for the bleary-eyed patrons. The kind of night where the dame with a sad face and a wrinkled black dress, sitting at the other end of the bar and nursing a dirty martini, keeps looking your way. But she’s not looking at you. She’s looking for the restroom and your bar stool is right near the sign. When you think about it, it explains the intermittent sounds of running water you’ve heard all night and the hushed conversations about some creepy guy at the end of the bar sitting underneath the restroom sign. You look around for him because he sounds like trouble, but you don’t see anyone.
But I wasn’t at the bar yet. I was still at the office, wrapping up loose ends before deciding what kind of whisky goes best with a cold and rainy Chicago night. Of course, the answer was simple: any whisky. That’s why they call it whisky. …Probably. It’s not like I’m going to waste my time researching it. What do I look like, a history professor?
I was about to call it a night when an unexpected guest arrived.
The young man couldn’t have been more than nine years old. He looked excited about something. Excited in the way only a kid can get. Like when he ran up to you and showed you that weird white and gray rock that he found and you had to tell him, “No, that’s a goose turd. See, it’s from one of those geese over there. Geese like to poop. Especially on that prime piece of fairway leading up to the fourteenth hole.”
“Oh. But you never hit the fairway.”
That night, the boy walked into my office and immediately sat down in one of the comfortable chairs across from my desk. Without asking, he made himself at home. Normally, I would have thought that was presumptuous, but it was my home office so I let it go.
I looked at him without saying anything, letting the moment stretch out, making him wonder if I would help him or not. But then he said, “Listen to this,” and he started burping the alphabet. He’d seen another kid do it during lunch break at school and he thought it was hilarious. Well, not in my office.
I said, “What brings you around here at this time of night?”
He looked confused for a moment and then said, “…Because that’s where you are.”
“There must be a hundred other offices in this town, but you walked into mine. And with your shoes still on, which I know are muddy from this afternoon.”
“Why are you talking like that, Dad?”
“Just go with it, son.”
“I need a number 2,” he said.
A number 2? Like I was going to fall for that. Not a second time. I said, “Is this one of those jokes you kids make up at school and then try to use on your parents?”
“No, I need a new number 2 pencil.”
“A pencil? Didn’t I just buy you some? Those fancy Dixon ones?”
“Yeah, but those were the Triconderoga series.”
“And the ones before that?”
“Those were the Ticonderoga Black.”
“What’s the difference?”
“The Triconderoga has three sides. The Ticonderoga Black is a regular pencil painted black.”
“And now you need more pencils?”
“I’m collecting them.”
“You collect pencils?”
“I just heard about these new ones called the Ticonderoga Noir.”
“You’re saying that Dixon makes a moody pencil that only writes in the first person and calls women ‘dames?'”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“Tell me about this pencil,” I said.
“The wood is black. That’s what makes it noir.”
“I think you have enough pencils.”
“But they’re sooo awesome.”
Maybe he had a point and maybe he didn’t. But he did. After all, we were guys and so we liked awesome things.
I said, “Okay, let’s go.”
We hopped in the car and went out into the night. I was concerned about this new fad of collecting pencils. Did parents know this was going on? Did the school? Buying school supplies is annoying enough, but if I had to start doubling up on 3-ring binders and highlighters for some kid’s “collection,” I was going to start hitting the drink.
I figured our best bet was Office Depot or Office Max. But I only found a Home Depot and a T.J. Maxx, so I bought some power tools and a fashionable hand bag at discount prices. Then I bragged to my friends about it. Finally, I located an office-supply store and we went in. Sure enough, there they were. The Ticonderoga Noir. Finding them had been an easy night’s work, but now I had to buy them.
I grabbed the slick-looking 8-pack of pencils and brought it up the register. The clerk took one look at the pencils and said, “Hey, what do we have here?”
I said, “A cedar stick with a carbon core.” I wasn’t going to give anything away to him. The truth was, those pencils looked shiny on the outside, but inside they had a black heart.
The clerk looked annoyed and said, “A cedar stick with a carbon core?”
“That’s right,” I said. “It’s the stuff that pencils are made of.”
As we walked back into the night, the kid said, “Was that supposed to be a joke?”
“It wasn’t funny. It was embarrassing.”
“You’re not going to make people read about this are you?”
“I wouldn’t dream of it.”
But I wasn’t so sure I could keep that promise. Not on a cold and rainy Chicago night.