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My Waterman Roller Ball

A man's tools reflect his life

Sometimes one hesitates to tell a personal story because it exposes the authenticity of a person.

If you’re a member of my family, or a colleague of mine, you’ve heard me tell parts of this story in person. You’ll know my secret identity when you read this and you’ll hold secrets to my other stories that my pseudonym disguises.

And I will not know who you are and that’s unsettling to me. Makes me nervous.

(Leap of faith now. Take a deep breath.)

It’s a risk I don’t wish to take but I’m compelled to tell the whole story for posterity. I know why I’m compelled but I won’t tell you until the end.

I woke one morning in late November and dressed for work. Everything was where it was supposed to be. My wallet, my watch, my keys, my briefcase, my coat, they were all exactly where I’d placed them the night before. Everything except my Waterman rollerball pen. It wasn’t on the dresser next to my watch and keys.

This was curious. I figured I’d left it at work, but it wasn’t like me not to know where my pen was. Perhaps I left it on my desk or in the middle pull-out drawer with the paperclips and staple remover and other administrative weapons of war that middle managers conceal until they’re needed.

I slay dragons at work and I’m good at it. I had risen into middle management and I’d acquired the tools and weapons, the camouflage clothing, and the…wait for it… “accoutrements” of my dragon-slaying profession.

My first item of professional status was a chrome Cross pen. Blue ink. Twist body. Owning and using this pen put me in the inner circle of discriminatory people. You know, the ones you look at and you say, They are not like me.

Yep, that group. I believed I was one of them because I looked like one of them.

Blue ink. This was important at the time. If you always used blue ink to sign documents, you would know when and if the document you once signed was an original or a copy. No one had color copiers in the 80s.

Chrome barrel. Shiny, eye-catching, elite. No nineteen-cent Bic pen would ever be in my shirt pocket, or my hand, ever again. I was middle-management cool. But my hands were too large to use a thin Cross pen routinely. My fingers and hand cramped up whenever I used the pen too much. My hand and my pen were not matched for comfort. The pen was all about image.

So I upgraded to a more prestigious pen that fit my hand better.

The Mont Blanc. It cost quite a few hundred dollars to own one. I had the gold-tip cartridge pen with blue ink cartridges. The Mont Blanc was carried by executive teams in prestigious companies and I’d read Molloy’s Dress for Success book that said if you wanted to be promoted, you had to look like the people whose job you coveted.

The Mont Blanc white * on top contrasted with the black body and when it was in my shirt pocket the asterisk was a visible reminder to everyone that I was a rising star. (I took my Mont Blanc with me when the company sent me to Noel Tichy’s business class for executives at the University of Michigan business school. An honor and a privilege to attend, I was with other rising stars. Elite.)

I outgrew the ostentatiousness of the Mont Blanc when I was assigned enough responsibilities and a professional title that made the Mont Blanc a frivolous possession and affectation. What I now needed was a professional pen that didn’t scream Image but conveyed the more serious and practical characteristics as befit my responsibilities. Befit is the right word.

That pen was the Waterman Roller Ball. Professional grade, black barrel, gold trim, and less expensive than a Mont Blanc; every man who ever used my pen weighed it in his hands to feel the heft of it before he complimented me with the words, Nice pen. When a man compliments another man’s possessions, it means something.

Heft. That’s why I bought it; in addition to the professional look of it. It had heft. You knew you were holding something of value when you held it.

I loved that pen. It represented the man I’d become. I had heft, gold trim, and I was professional grade.

On that November morning when my pen was not on the dresser with the other tools of the professional trade, I was surprised. I always knew where that pen was. Like a mother always knows where her children are in a crowd, I always knew where my pen was. I remembered putting it in my pocket when I left work, I just couldn’t remember if it was when I left work last night or the night before.

No worries. I was positive it was on my desk at work. Where else could it be? I was so careful of that pen because it befit me and I knew it and I loved it.

It wasn’t on my desk when I arrived. Consternation set in immediately. I took everything out of my briefcase. Twice. It wasn’t there. I made a mental list of places it might be and I assessed the likelihood of each. I worked throughout the day and the Bic pen I used that day was a constant reminder of my carelessness in misplacing my Waterman.

When I went home I checked yesterday’s clothing, I checked the path from the driveway to the house, and I checked in and around the furniture. Twice.

Panic was setting in. I rejected the notion that I had lost it. Inconceivable. It was only misplaced. I would find it again. I just knew it.

Days passed and my Waterman was nowhere to be found. I searched everywhere and everything multiple times, including the laundry hamper because maybe it was in my pocket when I tossed the shirt into it and now it was buried down deep.

I couldn’t believe it was lost. I was disconsolate. I realized I was heartbroken it was lost and that I was personally responsible for losing it. I had not been a good steward over something I loved and it mortified me.

Christmas is coming, my wife said. Should we buy you another pen?

I barked out NO! Then I apologized and explained how distraught I was.

I couldn’t face the idea of replacing what I’d lost. I realized I was grieving over a pen and I told my wife I was ashamed for feeling that way. Every day, every time, I held a different pen in my hand it became a reminder that I had not taken care of something that I loved and that I’d personally lost it.

Today, even after twenty years, it is embarrassing to relate this story because, as a man, I should be able to suck it up and get on with life but I couldn’t. Not then anyway, and it’s embarrassing to admit it even today.

You ought to know, so I will tell you. I used cheap pens at work on purpose in order to punish myself for my carelessness. I was not going to buy a replacement. A new pen could never be a replacement for what I’d lost. I’d lost something I’d loved and now I grieved.

Silly, stupid me. I grieved over a pen. Of course, I wasn’t actually grieving about a pen, I was grieving over the relationship I had with it and the fact that I would never be the same without it.

People who worked with me asked Where’s your pen? when they saw me use a cheap Bic. They knew it was an extension of me. I knew it, too. I tried to hide the guilt in my voice so I said I misplaced it. I could not get myself to say I lost it. That was too much truth to share with anyone except my wife.

It was early April when I pulled into the driveway and it was dusk and the snow had been melting for a couple of days. My headlights swept over my parking spot which was half gravel and half blacktop. A flash of light came from a patch of snow. It should not have been there.

Yes, my Waterman Roller Ball pen was half-buried in that patch of snow. I’d been driving over it every day since early November. It was not bent but the lacquer had been scratched off in spots from being rubbed and ground into the gravel and ice of winter.

A sense of relief came over me. Scales fell from my eyes and I remembered that I’d not worn my overcoat home last November. I had put it on the passenger seat and I’d dragged it across the driver’s seat as I got out and that must have been when it fell out underneath the car. When I‘d left for work in the morning, I had packed it deep into the tire track driving over it.

People still ask to use my pen from time to time today. I’m no longer a fast-tracking up-and-comer though. Been doing the same work at the same place for fourteen years. Once a dragon slayer always a dragon slayer. Every once in a while I run across a new breed of dragon but most are the same type I‘ve been dispatching for decades.

Today when men use my pen they still weigh it in their hands and say Nice pen. They follow it up with Looks like it’s been around the block a time or two.

If I like them, I tell them about the time I lost it. I can say I lost it now without feeling guilty. The men leave with the heft of my pen on their minds and a story about it. I don’t know what they think but it might be something along the lines of why’d that old man tell me this story?

If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m compelled to tell this story to others because someday you might lose something of value. If and when you do, and if you feel bad about it, you are not alone. There is at least one other person on the planet that understands your loss.



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