by Ben Nardolilli
Julia was a pencil sharpener. She was attached to the cinderblock wall of Mrs. Karfunkel’s third grade classroom. All of the students had to use her at least once a week. There was no coffee pot or water cooler, so Julia became the place where the students would meet, putting a pencil inside one of her many holes and then exchanging silly stories and knock-knock jokes. Julia was also located in the back of the room, the farthest anyone could get from the teacher without going into the cubby room that was fully hidden from her view.
Julia was made of stainless steel and wore a coat of nickel plating that made her shine across the room. Four screws held her in place. She was completely mechanical. An Amish person could use her, or the students whenever there was a blackout. Julia was a simple, sentient machine. She never got tired of the pencils. She enjoyed the feel of the wood sliding between her teeth, the taste of the paint she slowly chipped away, and the sound the shavings made when they landed in the trash can under her. It was like listening to snow falling.
Sometimes she got very hot because of all the work she did. When there was a test, all the students in the class would get up and sharpen their pencils in her. Some of the students put them in the wrong setting and Julia would have to work extra hard to keep the pencil in place. Occasionally a student would bring a pencil that was new and she had to gnaw on the flat sides of it until it was sharp. Whenever the class bully, Tommy Paterson, had to sharpen his pencil, she made sure that it never got too sharp. One time she had made the mistake of doing her best to make the point of his pencil as sharp as a needle, which Tommy then used to poke the girls in the class. If Tommy kept shoving his writing implement into Julia’s mouth and turned her crank in frustration, then she would sometimes bite the end off altogether and send Tommy back to his seat to complete his test in crayon.
The work was enjoyable for her because she got to see the wonderful things the students did with the pencils she sharpened. Their assignments and creative endeavors were often hung on a bulletin board that was made of soft cork, right next to Julia. Sometimes she was able to take pleasure in the simple curves that the students used to imitate the black letters that wrapped around the top of the classroom. Or she could enjoy the high scoring multiplication tests that Mrs. Karfunkel pinned up with gold stars attached to them. The best thing to look at were the drawings the students made of what they were learning, of Pilgrims and Indians, Egyptians and pyramids, or knights and castles. None of it was possible without her and she was happy to be of service.
One day a freckled girl with auburn colored pigtails came over to Julia with a pencil that needed to be sharpened. It was a new one that had been given to her by her grandmother as part of a plethora of school supplies the elderly woman gave her for her birthday. The pigtailed girl was happy to receive them, but wished that the present had included a toy or something edible.
The pencil was different from the others that Julia was used to. Its body was green instead of the bright yellow that matched the color of the school buses that Julia could sometimes see going by in the window. It was flat on the top and had no eraser. Whoever used it could make no mistakes. Julia waited as the pigtailed girl tried to figure out which of the settings was right for the pencil to go through and she felt the cold glossy skin of the pencil between the spinning blades of her throat. The girl’s small fingers turned Julia’s crank and the pencil ground inside her.
Soon the friction wore away the top and brought the wood out, with a charcoal colored top that was pointed and ready to make letters, lines, and numbers. Julia was ready to let the pencil out but the girl reached for a nearby box of tissues to blow her nose, keeping the sharpened stick inside her. Julia sighed and looked at the pencil inside her. She could only see its green body. She could feel the sharpened parts, but they were hidden from her view.
Julia looked around.
“Hello,” the same voice said again. It rumbled and echoed inside her, and she knew then that it was the pencil.
“Oh. I’m Julia.”
“Nice to meet you. Thanks for sharpening me.”
“All the other pencils were laughing at me. The pens too, but they’re always such jerks.”
“I never meet many of them.”
“I guess you don’t. I’ve heard that being inside one of you guys is like hell, but you were actually very gentle and soft, I barely felt anything.”
“I bet lots of pencils say that to you.”
“No, actually none of them ever talk to me. They just get sharpened and leave.”
“They don’t ever tell you how smooth the grooves inside you are, or how quiet your gears turn?”
“Well I guess I am pleased to be the first.”
“It’s getting hot in here. You’re not moving, right? I mean, that’s not friction.”
“Oh, I don’t know.”
“You’re not blushing… are you?”
The girl was done blowing her nose and she removed Raul from the slot inside. Julia looked at him. His owner was holding him up upright, with the sharpened point up in the air. She had never seen a lovelier pencil. He was thin, tall, and his sharp graphite coif was the cleanest and shiniest she had ever seen. Raul took a bow towards Julia in the girl’s hands. Julia had never felt so hot after sharpening a pencil before.
The next week, Raul was back. Julia received him gleefully, but spun her gears a little slower so that her metal teeth could run over Raul’s body just a little longer. Julia talked to him while he was being sharpened.
“That feels good, Julia.”
“When you go slower. I mean I like fast too, and normal, I like all of your settings, but slow is really good. I think it is my favorite.”
“Julia, is there anything I could do for you?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Nothing to make it easier on you?”
“No, no, I enjoy the work.”
“What if I spin against your little blades?”
“Let me try it.”
With that, Raul spun himself against the turn of the gears and wheels with riffled edges that were inside Julia. She loved it. It was the most wonderful feeling she had ever had. No pencil, regular or colored, had ever made the insides of her tingle. The pigtailed girl had to stop because it was getting to tiresome to keep spinning the pencil and the sharpener simultaneously. Her wrist and fingers were getting sore. She decided to pull Raul out. She grabbed his body with a pinch and with her other hand tried to get some leverage out of Julia. Once her hand touched the nickel plating, she gave a slight yelp.
Mrs. Karfunkel turned around from the chalkboard at the head of the classroom. “What is it, Jane?”
“Oh, nothing. The pencil sharpener is really hot.” She waved her hand to cool it off.
“Well, I think you’ve been using it for too long, why don’t you take a seat?”
Jane obeyed and walked to her desk. Raul was in her hand during the trip and he waved his body at Julia to let her know he was thinking of her and regretted having their meeting disturbed.
While she cooled down, she looked out across the classroom at Jane. She saw her holding Raul and she was angry with her. Her hands often rubbed her nose and then touched Raul’s otherwise immaculate green body. She held him as if he was a weapon, a blunt object that she would use to hammer out her letters. She put so much pressure on him that Julia was afraid his top would snap right off or, worse, that he would break in half.
But Raul took his sufferings and his scratching as best as he good. He leaned and squeezed himself within Jane’s hand so that he would not make squeaking or screeching sounds, which he was sure Julia found irritating. She appreciated the effort, but still she was sad. She wanted Raul to be near her, inside her if possible. There was something about him which made being apart almost unbearable. It was a form of torture she had never experienced in all her years in Mrs. Karfunkel’s class. She suffered, but never enough that it would completely overwhelm her. She still had the pleasure of thinking of him, and this was enough to let her carry on to the next moment. Her heart felt like it was breaking when in reality it was only her gears growing dusty, longing for him.
The pencil continued through the rest of the day making drawings for Jane and when the teacher was not looking, doodles. Raul wrote a love note for her to give to Tommy Paterson, but was so disgusted with the thought of anyone having a crush on such a bully, that Raul snapped his writing top off deliberately. The sound shocked Jane and she dropped Raul. He rolled until he landed in front of Tommy’s worn shoes. Tommy picked him up and smiled at Jane, who blushed as she took the pencil from him. The teacher told both of her students to face forward and they continued to learn about long division.
Raul was put inside the desk with the other pencils. They disliked the attention he had been getting and that he had hurt himself rather than be an instrument for his owner. This was something pencils were not supposed to do. If they had known about him and Julia, they would have been even angrier with him and tempted to cover him in glue if he continued to be troublesome.
Raul hated being in the desk. It was dark and he had no idea what was going on in the rest of the world. It smelled like old rubber and banana peels. Jane had taken another pencil and Raul could hear him writing whatever she wanted. The point ran above him like the dull blade on a pair of ice skates. He could not see it, but he knew it was there being drawn over a piece of paper, line after line.
There was nothing Raul could do except sit and wait. But his pigtailed owner would never pick him because he had made himself blunt and could make no useful marks for her. The bell rang and the knees and thighs of the pigtailed girl that had been so close to him now were gone altogether. The class was going to lunch and then recess. A pair of heels left along with everyone else. There were no human eyes left in the room. Raul decided he had to act.
“Do you think you could do me a favor?”
“I want you to come down here so I can try and get up there.”
“I just want to.”
“No. I’m not going anywhere. You’re a bad pencil.”
Raul rolled through the plastic surface of the desk and found his friend, Yolanda, who was an eraser. She was shaped like a parallelogram and was bright pink and lived in the desk. They were friends. Yolanda helped to clean up all the marks that Raul left behind. They helped to make each other useful.
“I need your help, I want to get on top of the desk.”
“Because I… I want to be held by Jane.”
“I thought I was the only one for you,” she jokingly said.
“Well she is just so… comfortable and powerful.”
“You pencils are all alike, you fall for anything big. You guys have to stand up for yourselves.”
“I know, I know, but the revolution will have to wait. I need to get up there and knock Percy out.”
“Percy is up there?”
“Percy, Mr. I-Have-My-Own-Eraser-And-Don’t-Need-You-Or-Anyone-Else?”
“Yes. I believe that is his maiden name.”
“Okay, I’ll help you.”
The other pencils had gone into the neon orange box that was wide and narrow enough for them to fit in. It was their own private club. Percy was left all alone on top of the desk. Yolanda moved a ruler with Raul’s help and they drew it out like a plank to the top of the chair that Jane had slid right next to the desk. Soon the ruler was touching the inside of the desk as well as the top of the chair and Yolanda gave a big push to Raul, who rolled up the ruler and then held himself from going over and falling to the floor.
“Alright, Yolanda, press hard and downward on your end of the ruler so that it will fall and send me flying to the desk.” He had gotten the idea from pictures of catapults and trebuchets in Jane’s history textbook.
Yolanda followed the instructions and the ruler fell, propelling Raul forward. He landed on the desk and rolled over the faux wood finish. There was nothing to stop him until he got to Percy, who was taking a nap. When he woke up, it was too late. Raul’s green skin bumped up against his yellow one and Percy absorbed all of Raul’s movement. He began to roll as Raul came to a stop, heading all the way to the edge of the desk and falling off.
When recess was over, Jane had gotten to the head of the line through some pushing and shoving that the teacher did not see, her eyes distracted by the gardener’s firm arms planting marigolds outside. Jane ran ahead of the rest of the students and saw that her desk was a mess. She had no memory of leaving Raul the green pencil out, but she figured it was a trick and that it was best to put everything back the way it was before anyone saw the ruler and Percy on the floor.
But Raul was still blunt and would have to be sharpened again. Jane picked him up and went over to Julia who was looking brighter than she had ever seen her. Jane figured that the janitor must have come and given her a nice shine. She knew that he sometimes came when no one else was around to make things nice. He must have knocked over her things when he was leaving. Jane slid Raul into the proper hole and began to grind the wheels inside Julia in order to sharpen him.
Julia was ecstatic, she wanted this moment between them to last forever. Raul wanted it too. They held on and spun in opposite directions from one another once more. Julia was starting to heat up. The handle on her crank was plastic, so Jane could not feel it. But the pencil shavings that were still inside her from Raul and those who had come before him, yet had left nothing else behind, started to smoke a bit. Luckily they fell out before they could start a fire. The air was dense between the two lovers and Raul continued to go deeper and deeper into Julia, even as his shiny rear end began to come closer to his tip.
Jane realized that the sharpener was eating up her pencil and decided she had to get it out or else it would soon disappear inside her. She decided not to touch Julia because she did not want to burn her hand again. Julia felt her gear stop and knew that Jane was done.
“Don’t worry, I will continue to spin into you, until I vanish. I cannot go back to her.”
He was about to begin spinning on his own, but Jane grabbed him and started to pull him out. He shook and did his best to stop, banging from side to side. Jane pulled harder. When Raul had jammed himself into Julia by leaning to one side, Jane just changed direction and continued to drag him. She thought it was like playing a game of pull the tail off the donkey.
“Come out! Come out!”
“Jane, what’s the matter?”
“The stupid sharpener. My pencil is stuck.”
“Please do it quietly or don’t do it at all, Jane.”
She calmed down and let go of the pencil that was now hanging out of Julia at an angle.
“I think she’s gone, Julia, I think we’re alone now.”
But Jane gave the green end of the pencil one final tug. Raul came flying out of the sharpener and out of Jane’s hands. The pencil looked back at Julia with the fluorescent light overhead giving a nice gleam to his sharpened head. Jane’s auburn pigtails fluttered and her pale hand reached out to try and grab him but he was too fast for her. Raul wanted to take another pencil hostage and draw a smile on his face. He was happy.
Raul left a mark on the whitewashed cinderblocks right across from the pencil sharpener. He actually left two because the force of impact had split him in half. They were very faint marks, but could be seen by anyone who paused for a moment in front of that particular space and stared. Jane was angry. No part of Raul was usable. The top half had a fissure down the middle and the bottom part was too jagged to be held in place long enough to be sharpened.
She tossed him in the garbage can beneath the sharpener. Raul regained some consciousness and realized that his body was broken. His sharpened top was sitting upward as he surveyed what was around him. This was the end for him. There was no one to help him, no one to save him. The remains of fellow pencils were all around him; they had been sharpened down so far that they were no longer useful. But mostly he was surrounded by the shavings that Julia let out from under her.
“My love, my love…”
Julia looked down and saw Raul struggling to see her. She tried to bend quietly so that no one would notice, but it was hard. She moved a little more than she was used to and was surprised. The screws had become loose because of all the extra heat she had given off and the tugging that Jane and all the students before her had put them through. She pressed further and, though she was held back, the restraints were weaker than ever before. Raul was in the trash can still, and neither had a good view of the other. Julia looked over and saw the class was busy having story time. She continued to bend herself.
One screw was gone, it fell out and it landed in the trash can with Raul. Julia did not see where it landed but hoped it did not hit him on the head. Soon she shook another screw loose, and then one more. There was a single screw left and it was the most firm in its place. Julia now hung under it, dangling in the air over the trash can and trying to call out to Raul to let him know she was coming.
Julia kept swinging and even though any of the students or the teacher would have seen her tracing wide arcs in the air, nobody noticed because they were engrossed in the story about a boy who was trying to find a dragon that had belonged to his father. Julia could feel the edge of the screw going thin and friction finally eating its way through it. Her weight was starting to sink her closer and closer to the trash can. Julia took a deep breath and took in all the air she could. She blew out hard and went backward, spinning the whole way around the screw in a full circle. When she came down to where she had started, she had cut herself off from the small metal holder and gravity could now do its work to bring the two lovers together.
Julia sailed through the air and when she landed in the trash can, the sound went ignored by the class. She heard only laughter from them and while they were busy, she looked down, Raul was nowhere to be found. She called out for him but there was no response. Then he started laughing and the vibrations from it filled her insides. She saw a green tip sticking out from the hole in her front. There was never a more perfect fall.
BEN NARDOLILLI is a twenty five year old writer currently living in Montclair, New Jersey. His work has appeared in the Houston Literary Review, Perigee Magazine, Red Fez, Baker’s Dozen, The Puritan, Quail Bell Magazine, Elimae, amphibi.us, Gold Dust, Scythe, Anemone Sidecar, The Delmarva Review, Contemporary American Voices, Gloom Cupboard, Black Words on White Paper, and Cantaraville. In addition he maintains a blog at mirrorsponge.blogspot.com and is looking to publish his first novel.