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Pens and Paper

by Maureen Hirthler



Maureen Hirthler holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Her work has been published in Hippocampus, The Intima, The Yale Journal of Humanities in Medicine, Hospital Drive, Hektoan International, the Mulberry Fork Review and most recently in Creative Nonfiction. Her essay “They Also Serve”, published in Touch-A Journal of Healing, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.


I have a problem with pens and paper, or maybe with my husband.

 For example, I do the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle in black ink, using the finest line I can find—a point of 0.5mm or, even better, 0.38mm. I require that the ink flow like liquid glass in order to fill in the squares neatly and precisely, without blots or smears, the way my father taught me as a child. I buy these pens in bulk and store them in my home office. I do not leave them anywhere else, but they disappear nevertheless.

Did I mention my husband is frugal—some might say cheap—and cannot throw anything away? Pens reside in our cupboards, on the countertops, in various mugs randomly placed, in drawers of the kitchen, in pieces of furniture. Plastic giveaways from pharmaceutical companies, expensive gifts and pens carelessly left in a pocket and brought home from work can be found anywhere. The inks are black, blue, and red; purple is likely to be there, too. Few of them write, clogged with ink the consistency of glue or with points cemented into an unmoving block. All the forceful scribbling in the world won’t make these useful again. Attempts at organization or culling are unsuccessful; more continue to appear, a seemingly endless supply. I am reduced to rooting through the collections, trying to find one of my special pens. I know if I take out a new one, no matter where I place it, under my pillow or in my purse, somehow it will be drawn as if by a magnet to some other place.

Additional hurdles in the pen hunt exist. In the containers, pens are joined by a wide variety of surgical instruments (he is a surgeon). Hemostats, scissors, and needle drivers fight for space, crammed in like the final sardine. I do not want to think too much about their previous life. I simply want a pen.

Next, consider legal pads. I require heavy paper, white as the egrets on our shoreline. The lines must be crisp as a cracker and as blue as the Gulf of Mexico. My husband offers me a box of yellowed legal pads he’s had for twenty years; I’m surprised they haven’t disintegrated into parchment-like dust by now. I decline (“These are perfectly good, you know”) and order the better ones through work and keep them in my office.

Our main conflict, though, concerns the quality of personal and household paper products. When he goes grocery shopping (and he does all of that, much to his credit), I write down specific brands on the list. He knows not to mess with my Starbucks Sumatra or Oikos key lime yogurt, but considers all paper products a potential waste of money and therefore brand negotiable. He spends an inordinate amount of time searching for the least expensive ones, because he doesn’t understand that at least in paper, price is often a measure of quality. I wonder how he personally deals with wafer-thin toilet paper that dissolves long before it adequately performs its function.  I suspect he simply uses more, negating his perceived savings. “Quilted Northern,” I say. I don’t even ask for Charmin, which clogs up the sewer system anyway. Nevertheless, toilet paper in brown wrappers appears, cleaning like a wire brush scraping sensitive areas.

My husband has allergies, and we do use a significant amount of tissues, so he tries to justify the cheapest brand. Kleenex and Puffs have no meaning to him. When I catch him blowing his nose in a paper towel (see below) because his choice falls apart, dumping snot into his hands, I smile until I realize I will have to use these myself. Like unusable pens, boxes with tissues left cannot be thrown away; they continue to reappear like an unwanted ghost.

We fight the battle of paper towels with the seriousness of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. He apparently cannot read the name Bounty. I write it in larger and larger letters on the list, but it never appears.

 My husband uses big gobs of paper towels for inappropriate things: blowing his nose, as mentioned, drying his hands, and working on the boat or the car. He has an aversion to any sort of cloth towel, believing them to be inferior, or worse, filled with germs.  He cleans the granite countertops and glass top stove with a soapy sponge, leaving streaky residue—and probably Salmonella—behind.  I come behind him, spraying cleaner (Fantastic—I won because he never uses it) and wiping things down to a shimmering shine. That’s the plan, until the paper towel dissolves in the liquid, leaving something resembling products of dog indigestion behind. 

For months we have a variety of store brands, generics, and sale items. “You know where the store is,” he says when I complain. I do, but that’s not the point. In fact, there are many points to be made, but fighting over paper towels feels absurd.

I know the exact moment things changed. His latest purchase was as flimsy and transparent as over washed cotton. An unidentifiable substance covered the surface, so it stuck to the under layer and had to be peeled off. At first, he persevered, taking a roll with him to clean the boat, but he soon came back. “These towels are useless,” he said, and grabbed a towel—one of my good dish towels—and returned to work.

After his next trip to the supermarket, he came bounding in, proudly brandishing his eight-pack of Bounty. One of the bags held Quilted Northern, another Kleenex (in the pretty boxes, even).

The pen issue remained, but I was feeling confident that I would eventually win this argument, too. Then I looked in the garage. Two boxes of worthless pens, pencil stubs, rusted paper clips, and mummified rubber bands sat on the new shelves.  Every leftover roll of disintegrating toilet paper, disastrous paper towels, and discarded half-full box of tissues was tossed in a corner.

Our son will have to sort through these things after we die, although he is frugal, too, and may consider all this a valuable inheritance. I just hope he finds a pen that works, decent toilet paper in the bathroom, and Bounty in the kitchen.


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