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Penciled In

by John I Leggett

part 1

Henry worked in a pencil factory. He boarded the city bus every day at Springer Avenue, sat in the rear seat, rode to Tenth Street, and got off. There were three other regulars already on board, and Henry gave them names.

“Mr. Litter” occupied the fourth seat from the front on the right side of the aisle. Henry had Initially named him “Mr. Coffee,” because he always had a plastic cup from a local takeout. When Henry noticed he left his empty cup on the floor every day, he changed his name to Mr. Litter.

Across the aisle and three seats back was “Specs.” Specs wore thick glasses and usually had her face buried in a romance novel, which perplexed him somewhat, because she was quite attractive, and he couldn’t imagine her longing for companionship.

The third passenger, “Sleeper,” was an older guy: either an army vet or pretending to be one by wearing an army coat and an old camouflage cap. Henry thought the cap an oxymoron because he saw it every day, meaning the camouflage wasn’t really working. Sleeper sat two seats behind Specs, arms folded, presumably sleeping. His feet were always pushed out into the aisle forcing anyone wanting to sit in the rear of the bus to climb over them. Henry knew the guy was only pretending to be sleeping because he got off at Fourth Street and never missed his stop.

Occasionally transients rode the bus — shoppers or people with a doctor’s appointment — but transients didn’t warrant names. Only riders who eventually made the commitment to ride every day got names.

Henry sat in the back seat where he could sit and think, keep an eye on the other passengers and have the safety of knowing no one could sneak up on him from behind. The seat stretched across the entire width of the bus, but he sat in the middle, which allowed him to extend his legs into the aisle. Unlike Mr. Sleeper, no one had to climb over his feet, making it acceptable.

The only real name Henry knew of people on the bus was the driver’s, J.R. Thatcher. J.R. wore a name tag over the pocket on his shirt, and his engraved name plate was displayed next to the coin box. He decided the J.R. stood for Jason Robards because he always liked him as an actor.

Henry was forty-six. His wife had recently walked out on him. Devastated, and wanting to get into a better line of work, he quit his job at the Tied-Right Shoelace Company and gained employment at Write-On Pencils, where pencils were made, boxed, and shipped all over the world.

He punched in at three o’clock and sat on a stool until his first break at 5 o’clock. He watched cartons filled with boxes of pencils pass by on a conveyor belt and put dabs of glue on the flaps.

During his interview, he admitted he knew very little about glue but was told his glue gun was programmed to ooze out just the right amount. “Just direct the nozzle to the corners of each flap before the conveyor carries the box to the next worker and pull the trigger, and you’ll be okay.”. And then, as an aside, the interviewer said, “The next worker will fold the flaps down and put tape over the seam in case the glue doesn’t stick, so don’t worry about it.”

Since starting the new job, he gave a lot of thought to pencils. Like most people, his prior knowledge was pretty much limited to the No. 2. He knew it was the pencil everyone used to fill in the bubbles on questionnaires. Fortunately, his daily bus ride to and from work gave him time to “pencil ponder” as he called it, and he asked himself many questions about pencils.

Is the No. 2 pencil the world standard, he wondered. The universal lead so to speak?

What about pencils with the other numbers? What purposes do they serve? Why does the factory make them, and who decides what they write?

Do dark pencils rule? Because, how often do you see white pencils, and what practical purpose could they possibly serve humanity?

Are erasers a pencil’s worst nightmare? Do pencils view them as assassins?

What happens if a pencil crosses the line? Does the other pencil draw another line?

Do pencils get upset when people attempt to draw a straight line without using a ruler or do they view them as risk-takers?

And, of course, he had those “what if” questions. What if two pencils wrote into each other on a street corner or a restaurant, and one was a No. 2 and one was a No. 4? Would they understand each other’s writing? But if the No. 2 actually is the universal number, wouldn’t it be able to understand the No. 4 or any other number for that matter? But would the No. 4 be at a total loss for communication from the No. 2 lead?

And colored pencils? A whole different ballgame! What happens when different colors move into a kid’s pencil box? Are there fights inside backpacks as they travel to and from school every day? Are the brown ones made in India, and the yellow ones made in China? Did it all start with the red pencil? Is that why teachers use them? Always trying to correct things?

Are colored pencils jealous of colored chalk, he wondered. Are the bigger, stalkier, colored chalks the “bullies” of colored pencils or do they stick up for their smaller siblings? These were just a few of the things Henry thought about each day as he rode the bus.

On the assembly line he stuck to work although, during his breaks, his thoughts were different. He went to the break room and perused the items in the vending machine for longer than necessary, and then inserted a quarter and two nickels and pulled lever 32.

He always had the correct change because he once put a dollar bill in the machine, and the machine ate it. Since then, it was fun watching other workers, unaware of the machine’s eating habits, put in dollar bills. Those who had dollars eaten sometimes tried a second one, and Henry had no sympathy for those workers. So he put in his quarter and two nickels, pulled the knob on number 32, and retrieved his second choice, which was a box of Good ‘n’ Plenty candies.

He preferred the candy bar housed in number 17, which released Butterfingers, but the Butterfingers always got stuck for some reason and dangled there for hours before falling. Some lucky person walking by when it fell reaped the benefit. Henry wondered if perhaps the person who filled the machine placed the Butterfingers in the coils in a way that made them hang like that. A machine-filling sadist perhaps, someone who held a grudge against people who liked Butterfingers.

The first time it had happened, he jiggled the machine and got yelled at by the foreman. “If you want to get your money back, get a form from the office and mail it to the address on the front of the machine,” the foreman said.

Filling out a form might get him his money back, but it wouldn’t put a Butterfinger in his mouth, and that was what he wanted. So, for Henry, dollar bills and the number 17 for Butterfingers were off limits.

A few days after the machine-shaking incident, the same foreman explained to Henry that he was going to lose his job at the end of the week, explaining the factory was going to be “modernized.” Evidently someone had invented a machine that automatically directed the nozzle of the glue gun to put the drops on the correct flaps, and Henry was no longer needed.

He wondered if the new glue machine might fail some day and leave glue drops hanging like Butterfingers, and the flaps wouldn’t stick shut, and the boxes of pencils would fall out, and different numbered pencils would get mixed up.

Maybe they would invite the colored pencils over and have a big party and write notes to each other. Or, perhaps when they modernized the factory, he could get a job filling the vending machines. He would make sure people could pull any lever they wanted, and nothing would be left hanging. Nothing would be left to chance.

At seven o’clock, Henry ate his dinner in the break room. He sat with a few other workers who were forced to sit in chairs along the wall because the PUPpies used the big table for their tournament. PUPpies were workers who had commandeered pencils from a box that had broken open, and used them for a “Pick-Up-Pencils” tournament. It was the same game as pick-up sticks, except they used pencils. Once Henry realized the acronym of pick up pencils was PUP, he referred to the players as PUPpies.

They were loud and inconsiderate of people who wanted to eat at the table, and any time someone moved a pencil that wasn’t being picked up and ended their turn, irritating yelling ensued.

The dinner hour became tournament hour, and large sheets of paper with brackets for upcoming matches were hung on the wall naming competitors, along with times and dates for individual matches. It forced Henry and the few others who had declined to enter to sit along the wall, and Henry took on the mission of getting the table back.

When no one was in the break room, he wrote fictitious names of winners in the brackets of upcoming matches. Names like Chuck Wagon, Ilene Dover, and Frank Fritter. He wrote them with a permanent marker which made the real players mad because scratching them out made the chart look sloppy. Warnings were posted to the anonymous perpetrator but, as reckless a person as Henry was, his sabotage continued.

On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, his lunchbox contained a ham and cheese sandwich. The ham and cheese were layered: first ham, then cheese, then ham, and then cheese again. Slices of tomato were in a separate baggie so they wouldn’t make the sandwich soggy, and he always opened the sandwich to the dead center of the ham and cheese to insert the slices in the middle. Tuesdays and Thursdays he had tuna mixed with chopped-up celery and sometimes green olives after removing the pimento.

Two days after the Monday of his last week of work, he boarded the bus, and there was a new rider. She was attractive and, hoping she would be a regular, he named her Myra. Myra was the name of the girl he once had a crush on in his high-school chemistry class. The name was temporary, although he hoped she would become a regular.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2018 by John I Leggett

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