It’s been two decades, now two decades and two years, since I found the pencil. Sounds odd, doesn’t it? I was working on a bridge project in Valdosta, where the two bridges and the field office were close to the State Prison. What roguery men committed to be enclosed in such a place, I cannot say, but I never looked upon those shining spirals of razor wire on those fences without wondering how it is that a man could find his way there, and how other men could find a way to keep him.
There was a set of scales, like you’d see at a farm, or a woodyard, where a truck would pull up to be weighed, and perhaps at one point I knew what they were for, but I have since forgotten. The scale house was an old trailer, falling apart and in ruins, but I pried the door open one day at lunch and looked around.
There was a soft drink bottle on the floor and a trash can with paper in it. All manner of evidence of the office not being used, the smell of urine, recent signs that rodents had taken over, and there on the floor, was a pencil.
Once upon a time, if you used a pencil, and everyone did, the instrument had to be a No. 2 pencil, and that had something to do with the darkness of the graphite that was the part which wound up on the paper. Most people referred to it as “lead” but it never was. This pencil was rather old, having survived many trips to the pencil sharpener, and I wondered why, at the point of its life it had ceased to be possessed by a particular person, it had been left lying on the floor.
It was a big deal, when I was a kid, that everyone had a pencil every day of their lives at school. The worst crime, and all crimes were the worse crimes, was not to have a pencil. We were led to believe we might have a job one day, go to work without a pencil, and be fired for it. True enough, I once worked with a manager who despised anyone who was not, at any given moment, in possession of an ink pen, but for some reason, the world kept spinning and the work was done, and no one, ever, was fired.
I kept the pencil, pondered its existence, and wondered what it had been used for, by who, and when. Had some great work of literature been sweated and scrawled into being by this very instrument? Had a love poem been written during lunch to the object of some man’s affection? Did someone write the letter to their wife or husband, explaining why things had gone wrong, and nothing could fix it ever, and this was the end?
Or, more likely, had this been the tool used to mark official forms, with its No. 2 darkness, date, time, load number, weight, tare, and truck number? Its future sealed in wood, the tiny rubber eraser nubbed at times, day in and day out, like the man, or men, who used it, and then one day, the office closed for the last time, and the pencil lay on the floor, abandoned and forgotten.
How many pencils have I owned? In grade school, middle school, and into high school, dozens perhaps, each one of them gone, forgotten, lost, broke, stolen, loaned, given away, but nevertheless unaccounted for. Perhaps, incredibly unlikely, this pencil was one of those I released into the wild, only to be found accidently, unrecognized, like a chance meeting of the same stranger, twice.
I took the pencil, put it in a plastic water bottle, then sealed the cap with glue. The contractor didn’t notice me digging a hole at the bottom of the form and the next day they poured a footer for the bridge, and underneath that, the pencil lies waiting to be discovered again. It’s damn unlikely, I know, that one day someone will find an old plastic bottle, with an even older writing tool in it, and they’ll wonder, much as I have, why and how, and when, and who.
But it is entirely human, for memory to kick to the surface, the image of that time and place, and that pencil, and it is entirely human for me to write about it now, and you to read it. The prison is filled with men who might be freed if the right words are read, or written, and we must understand the power of this. Yet for all the men, and all the pencils, this is the most likely outcome, memories, laid to letters to be read, and perhaps, found again one day.