afternoon," a low, slightly hoarse voice said. I couldn't
see the face or the body very clearly since the sun was coming
in the window at the wrong angle and blinding me when I looked
"That pen is a Sheaffer Sentinel with a triumph nib.
It fills by means of a snorkel. That keeps your hands, the
section, and even the nib clean when you fill the pen. An
ingenious invention, the snorkel-filling fountain pen. Have
you ever written with a triumph nib before?
I shook my head, suddenly feeling shy.
"Well, feel free to play around with it for a while longer
if you like. It's not at all flexible, so you shouldn't have
any problems getting a decent line out of it. It takes practice
to learn to write with a flexible nib, but you don't have
to worry about that."
I kept trying to see the speaker, but my eyes teared up, and
I couldn't tell who was talking to me. Whoever it was seemed
to know a lot about fountain pens. And all this time I thought
Mr. Harmon was the only person in town who knew what a fountain
"I won't need the pen until a few minutes before four,"
the voice said. If I squinted I could just barely make out
a tall, thin figure leaving the room.
sure if it had been young or old, a man or a woman. The voice
had sounded old. The walk had something springy about it,
so I felt sure it wasn't an old woman. Grandma Lore Harnisch
walked as if the world were weighing on her shoulders, and
so did her friends. The light was so intense that all I'd
been able to recognize with any certainly was a fedora hat
atop a large head. At least I thought it was a fedora. The
speaker could have been an old man. There was something about
the look of the figure that reminded me of Grandpa Edgar.
I shook my head and thought I was being ridiculous. Was I
going to see Grandpa in everyone who had a fountain pen? Would
I think Mr. Harmon was Grandpa next? I decided not to think
about Grandpa Edgar right then. I was just too relieved at
finally being able to sit down with my pad of paper and write
down some of my thoughts with a real pen. The pen didn't look
or feel like my Esterbrook, but it was close enough so that
I experienced a comfortable familiarity using it. I didn't
know how long I'd been sitting at that desk when Ed Conley
stuck his head through the door and called out my name.
When I looked up, he gestured me out of the room. I carefully
capped the pen, put it down, and followed him into the hall.
"Now, Jason," he said, "I don't want you to
be nervous. I'll intervene if Miss Carswell starts to give
you a hard time."
"Do you know her well?" I asked, suddenly alarmed.
He made a face. "Yes too well. I had her for algebra
Great, I thought. I hope she doesn't ask me to determine the
trajectory of my fountain pen after Willard tossed it. I cleared
my throat. "I meant as an adult," I explained. "Have
you gone before her a lot representing clients?"
He didn't answer my question. "The most important thing,
Jason, is to tell her the absolute truth as best you can.
She becomes very unpleasant when lied to." From the look
on his face I was pretty sure he'd tried to lying to her once
upon a time. Maybe he'd told her the dog had eaten his homework.
I shook my head. What was it about Miss Carswell that seemed
to reduce adults to looking and sounding frightened, guilty
Before he had a chance to say more, my mother came into the
room. "Tom and the principal are here, Ed," she
announced. "And Alex DeContreni is here as the representative
of the school board. He's the only one who doesn't have an
Ed Conley looked at her hard. "And you're really prepared
to say in public that Tom Willard took out his resentment
of you on Jason?" he asked.
I did a double-take. "What?' I squawked in my astonishment.
My mom gave me a weary look. "Tom used to want to date
me when we were in high school. I was never interested in
him. Then after your dad and I divorced, he, uh, well, he
expressed his interest again, and again I rejected him."
"But he's married," I barely got the words out.
"Some men are like that," Ed said smoothly, a little
astonished, I 'm sure, at what he took for my incredible naivete.
I wasn't naïve though, just surprised. Willard had put
moves on my mom? My mom?
"I'm not sure," Ed continued, "how Anita Carswell
will respond to that tack, but I guess we can hope we don't
have to take it. She has little tolerance and less sympathy
that kind of thing." He smirked and mumbled
something under his breath about dried up old maid school
teachers, and I realized I'd never really liked Ed Conley
It was only three-thirty, and Ed told Mom and me to try to
make ourselves comfortable until the hearing began. He advised
us not to talk to anyone connected with the school. We walked
past Dr. McCallister and Mr. Willard, who were standing with
their lawyers in the hallway, and went downstairs. Ed Conley
told us he'd be back in time for the hearing, so Mom and I
went into the empty auditorium and sat down.
We sat quietly, my mom just looking at the print-out of her
latest cartoon. After a couple of minutes I got antsy and
pulled out my pad with the notes I'd taken upstairs and tried
to calm down enough to read them. But I was nervous, there
was no denying it.
"Mom?" I asked.
She looked up from her cartoon and raised her eyebrows. "Do
you think I'll ever get back Grandpa Edgar's pen?"
She smiled. "I certainly hope so. Even if Miss Carswell
upholds your suspension, I can't imagine she'll allow Tom
or the principal to keep something that belongs to you."
"Did Willard really
She smiled at me. "I'll tell you about it some time.
Not now though. Now I want to warn you that I also have a
little bit of history with Miss Carswell."
I scratched my head, irritated, What a time to tell me! "History?"
"I had her for math, but I also took art classes from
her friend, Miss Clarence. Miss Clarence was a very good art
teacher, and I learned a lot from her. She wanted me to go
on and study art seriously. Instead I became a cartoonist.
She was disappointed."
"Miss Carswell didn't like her friend to be disappointed.
She didn't like the caricatures I drew of her in math class
I looked at her, trying not to laugh. "You got caught?"
She nodded. "Pretty stupid!"
I shook my head. "But you can't really think she'd hold
that against me."
Mom shrugged. "This is a small town with a long memory."
"Do you really think Mr. Willard was out to get me because
you'd rejected him""
She shrugged again. "I don't know. But it is possible."
I didn't know what to think, so I just sat silently musing
on what I'd learned for a moment. "Mom? How come I don't
know Miss Carswell?"
She smiled, but her smile didn't look very authentic. She
looked as nervous as I felt. "Once Miss Clarence died,
she became reclusive. She'd never exactly been popular with
the other old ladies in town even before that. They disapproved
of her. And everyone else had had her for math in high school
and was intimidated by her. Even the math whiz kids. She was
a holy terror in the classroom. I think your generation or
maybe those only a few years older than you are the first
who really don't have history with her. And they hardly know
her at all, since she keeps to herself."
"So how come she keeps getting elected town mediator?"
Mom reached out and patted my arm. "Since she's a loner,
she's seen as objective and neutral. Besides, no one else
wants the job."
That was pretty much what Ed Conley had said. I had more questions
for Mom about Miss Carswell, but just then Ed came in to escort
us upstairs. The questions would have to wait.
I realized, was to be held in the room where I'd sat and written
with that Sheaffer. The pen was no longer on the desk when
we walked in. Neither was the notebook. The principal, teacher,
school board representative, and the two lawyers were already
settled in folding chairs to the left of the desk when Mom
and I entered with Ed. They didn't look at us.
On the dot of four a door I hadn't even realized was there
opened behind the desk and a very tall, old woman with short,
iron-gray hair walked in. Although I'd seen her several times
around town I'd never really looked at her before. She was
at least six foot tall with hooded eyes, and the most severe,
scowling face I'd ever seen. There were deep creases between
her eyes. She was wearing a long ugly skirt and a white blouse
that looked like a man's shirt. I could see why Mom called
her a holy terror. Her expression was enough to scare an angel.
Forbidding was the word that came to mind. Over her white
shirt she wore a blazer that looked a lot like one Grandpa
Edgar wore when we walked in the park. She took large hands
with slightly swollen knuckles out of the pockets as she seated
herself behind the desk and cleared her throat with a raspy
"Good afternoon," she said, resting her hands on
the desktop, and I gasped when I heard the same deep, hoarse
voice that had offered to let me write with the Sentinel and
held forth on the virtues of the snorkel filling system. I
must have looked as surprised as I felt because my mother,
who was seated next to me, leaned over and asked if I was
all right. I just nodded and returned my attention to Miss
Anita Carswell, mediator, dragon lady, and
pen collector? Suddenly I felt better than I had in days.
Ever since Mr. Willard had tossed my pen onto the floor I'd
forgotten what it felt like to have hope. Maybe, just maybe,
even if she was a rule-bound monster everyone was scared of,
Anita Carswell might understand how I felt about losing my