by Philip R. Dunn
Philip writes: I live in Costa Mesa, California while writing features and a web column for Coast Magazine. I studied (and attempted to write) fiction with Leonard Michaels at UC Berkeley (undergrad History B.A.) and with Ben Masselink at USC (grad Journalism M.A.). Those were elective creative writing courses. Currently, I'm working on a novel titled "The Wrong Castle," which follows a manic trail loosely based on Franz Kafka's "The Castle." It reads a little more like Voltaire's "Candide." I also conduct information searches for law firms and general business.
One time a little boy from the hood named Jolly found a magical pen. He found it near Pico and La Cienega amongst some yellowed newspaper and barf remnants. One of the beauty salon patrons must have dropped it after receiving a sweet coiffure. The magic pen looked swell, with a black enamel finish, gold accents and a blue streak running the length of it. Jolly was thrilled to be the new owner of such a fine pen. He buffed some of the grime off of it and clipped it to the front pocket of his jeans. He knew that the day was going to be good - starting off with such a neat find and all.
The school bus passed him up as he strolled up the sidewalk, but he didn't care because he figured he'd find something else cool. He passed a bum who smiled at him. He chased a cat up an overpruned tree. He kicked a rock for a few blocks until he and his magic pen arrived at school. Up the stairs he went to room 23, Mrs. Cooper's second grade circus.
She took roll as he sat in his lift-top, convertible desk storage unit. He thought about keeping the pen in the desk but then thought again. Daniella Hatch had once taken a pack of sour patch kids from his desk when he wasn't looking. He wouldn't make that mistake again, that's for sure. So it stayed in his jeans and pressed against his leg in this sitting position. As roll call winded down, he felt heat coming from the pen. It seemed very warm, he thought. That was the first indication Jolly got that the pen was magic.
Mrs. Cooper called, "Jefferson Zenz."
"Here," said Jolly. All the kids called him Jolly-Jelly because he was kind of fat. He was pretty happy, too. He wasn't very disturbed about the nickname since there were two other Jeffs in the class, and they weren't very nice.
"I'd rather be Jolly than a Jerky Jeff," he told his friend Donyell.
So Jolly felt the heat of the magic pen press against his leg as Mrs. Cooper passed out the first assignment of the day. She dittoed off a little form sheet that had questions and spaces for the students to write in their creative answers. Mrs. Cooper passed the last one out to Jolly and smiled at him warmly. She liked Jolly. He was a good student with a remarkably positive attitude. It was remarkable to her because he always seemed to get picked on the most. Jolly really didn't notice all that stuff. But he did notice always being last. Mrs. Cooper's class was designed so that he was always called last on roll and he always got the last assignment. He rather liked that, though. It gave him plenty of time to imagine what the assignment might be.
This assignment was fairly standard. The first question asked, "If you could drive a car, where would you drive it to?"
That was easy for Jolly. He'd known his answer for quite some time. He'd drive his car to the huge, twisting metal, pipe, conduit, smokestack refinery off of the 405 freeway. His mom's boyfriend once told him that it was the Arco gasoline refinery, but he had his own ideas. He thought it might be a giant chemistry set where they could make anything in the world. That's where he wanted to go, though.
So Jolly slipped the magic pen from his jeans and pressed the tip to the paper. He wrote down his idea just as he thought it. But what appeared on the page was something quite different. Where Jolly had written "I want to drive to the chemistry set" some different words appeared. The paper read, "I want to drive to places known only by the heart, not by the location." He puzzled at this for a while, then felt the heat of the pen. It was getting warmer, he thought. Jolly didn't completely understand what this phrase meant about "location" and all that, but he seemed pretty happy about the abilities of his new pen to write things he wasn't even thinking.
The next question read, "What is your favorite TV show?"
Jolly put the pen to the page, and this time the magic pen took off, jerking his hand around with it. Before he knew it, Jolly had written a paragraph on the ditto, filled in the back of the page, and had his hand in the air to get some more paper. Mrs. Cooper seemed puzzled but nevertheless directed him toward the supply cabinet to get more.
The answer he wrote down was more of a thesis or a treatise. The magic pen went on and on about the vacuous nature of television viewing and programming, how the news has just become entertainment, how programs portray kids as smart and adults as stupid when in reality the world enforces the opposite standard. The pen wrote, "Television exploits children, turning kids into consumer-empowered, advertisement archives that order their parents' shopping carts around the supermarket floor." The tirade ended up with an indictment of the education system for promoting passivity as a means to education. And this is the weird part. The last line read, in print not cursive, "Stupid fucking teacher - what kind of question is this?"
Jolly tried to read it, but couldn't figure it out.
The last question was: "Who is your best friend, and why?"
Jolly had a hard time with this one. He couldn't think of what a best friend would be like. He was fairly sure that he didn't have one. His mind raced to concoct something believable. He should at least know enough of the best friend qualities in order to make a credible sentence about it. Is a best friend someone you can put your arm around? he asked himself. Is it someone who will give you money when you need it. Maybe Donyell was his best friend. No. Donyell was just someone who let Jolly talk to him. Donyell had his own best friends and they were in junior high. Jolly had seen them drinking beer together and igniting circles of lighter fluid.
Just as Jolly conceded that he was going to mess up the last part of the assignment, the magic pen heated up like one of those electric lumps in his mother's blanket. Well, he figured, here goes nothing. So, without an idea of his own, he pressed the tip to the paper one more time.
Read the conclusion of this story...