Monday Stories: Bernie

Bernie always wondered what was so special about number two pencils that they were the chosen ones for filling out the little bubbles of the many standardized tests awaiting him at school. He knew it had something to do with the lead and the scanning machines but he was not a pencil person and he didn’t know if it was the tests that he hated or the fact of having to use a pencil. Bernie was picky about writing instruments. In fact Bernie was picky about most things: how the barber cut his hair, how his food was placed on his plate, the way his bed was made and the friends he had. He was so picky he didn’t really have many friends or eat that much food, but he got his hair cut every other week and that was something he looked forward to. You might think someone like Bernie would revel in standardized tests—filling out those little bubbles that were all in straight lines and reading absurd questions from thin booklets that were supposed to evaluate your various skills but really just evaluated your ability to fit into test makers ideas of intelligence. But no, Bernie disliked those tests and Bernie disliked the number two pencils with their pink erasers held onto their yellow stems with gold fittings. 

As much as Bernie disliked the tests, he excelled at them. His pickiness extended to wanting to be the best, in a logical sense. His test scores were consistently high and his pickiness translated to academic precision and later an ability to follow market trends for big banks, making them and himself a lot of money. While most of his work took place on dueling screens of powerful computers, Bernie still kept his preferred pen in his pocket at all times. With his many degrees and graduations and promotions Bernie had quite the pen collection, along with a mix of expensive and technologically advanced watches. But Bernie preferred his black Bic rollerball, and wore the simple Tag watch that he had had since college. The pen was for writing and the watch was for telling the time. They both worked just fine for Bernie. 

Bernie didn’t spend time contemplating things he didn’t like or his pickiness in general. But if he had, he might have surmised that his dislike for pencils stemmed from an overall dislike of weakness. Pencils, by their erasable nature, were weak. Writing with a pencil meant leaving room for error. It meant the possibility of retracting what already was. Bernie did not support this. Bernie was picky and precise and when he made decisions or wrote things down, he was sure they were right. Bernie did not make mistakes. Or if he did and when he did, he kept them in ink to remind himself of times he had failed (rarely) and how not to make the same mistake. 

Bernie kept to himself. The unpredictability of people clashed with his desire for control and order and sureness. He was jovial with his coworkers and cordial to his family but he got his energy from numbers and words and ideas on a page or a screen rather than from being surrounded by people and their stories. The only person with whom Bernie maintained a semblance of continual relationship was a professor from his high school days. He had taught Latin (something, again, Bernie thrived in because of its regularity and precision) and had attended the same good old boys university as Bernie many years before. The two kept in contact via email and met up when the now retired professor made trips into the city for various cultural events. During these meetings Bernie allowed his precision and pickiness to fade and the two embarked on the most philosophical of conversations Bernie’s mind could manage. Bernie felt something akin to familiar love for this man—something he didn’t quite feel for his parents or siblings. With this professor Bernie allowed his analytical mind to momentarily be distracted and venture into a world of uncertainty. A world where hopes and dreams and ideas dominated over numbers, plans and projections. 

Bernie hadn’t heard from this professor in a couple of months (not usual) but what was unusual was coming home to find a handwritten letter in his mailbox. Bernie opened the letter and read the messy words in plain black ink. There was little poetry or flourish to the words. It was from the niece of the only man Bernie had thought to let into his ordered life. The professor was in a bad way. Cancer had swept across his lungs, leaving him uncomfortable, a bit angry and unable to spend his last days in a valuable way with people he loved. He hadn’t shared his struggle with others because he felt just a shadow of his former self—vulnerable and weak and embarrassed that something could infiltrate his body and mind with such ease. The niece wrote to tell Bernie that he was mentioned often, and extended him the invitation to visit—an invitation the professor was unable or perhaps unwilling to offer. 

Reading the letter Bernie felt a bit betrayed by the dark ink on the soft page. He felt sad that the words came from the niece and not from the professor, but he also allowed his mind to wander, imagining himself in a similar situation. Bernie didn’t even have a niece to plead on his behalf. In fact Bernie just had the professor, who was now no longer himself. The next days Bernie contemplated making the trip upstate to see this man who had allowed him a glimpse of life outside his typical world. He went so far as buying a ticket and planning a day off work, but when the day came he couldn’t make himself get on that train. He knew the niece was acting out of good will but he worried that he would ultimately be rejected by the professor. He doubted himself, and the professor’s desire to see him and the impact he would make. Better let him go in peace, thought Bernie. 

But his indecision haunted him. Bernie spent nights tossing and turning in confusion and the unpredictability of the situation. He finally tore himself from bed in the middle of night and sat down at his desk to write a letter. He took his Bic pen and his ivory stationery and tried to write the words he couldn’t say out loud. He wrote. Then he crossed out his words. He threw away one sheet and then another and then put his head on the desk and sighed in frustration. The black ink on light paper felt cruel and harsh and too permanent for the thoughts Bernie had hoped to express. So Bernie grabbed another sheet of paper and this time rummaged through an extraordinarily organized desk for a pencil. There wasn’t one. Bernie disliked pencils. He threw on a jacket and slacks and went down the stairs, past the doorman and around the block to the corner shop that smelled like coffee and spices and day old pastries and bought a pack of those damn number two pencils that he disliked so much.

Then he went back down the street into the building and up the stairs and straight to his desk. The pencil was light in his hand and the lead hitting the paper had a soft feeling that made a scratching sound. Bernie took comfort in the yellow pencil with its pink eraser, knowing that his words were somehow not permanent. With this certainty of uncertainty, Bernie wrote things he didn’t know he was capable of saying. He wrote in a way that his black Bic pen couldn’t. He wrote of delusion and fear. He wrote about comfort in predictability and the thrill of uncertainty that had always eluded him. Bernie wrote pages of silver gray words. He addressed them to the man he would never see again, and to the man who would never have a chance to read those words of soft silver gray. Bernie felt the sting of knowing his biggest mistakes were all there in front of him, written in pencil, which he disliked so much.