Pen Ink: Spilled Ink and a Father’s Day Story

John Skoyles writes the column “Pen and Ink” and is a professor, a poet, and author of the memoir, Secret Frequencies: A New York Education.

I’m sure that many of the ink-stained wretches who frequent this site have colorful stories to tell about their encounters with the luminous fluid. Here are a few of mine.


My friend broke up with his girlfriend. She cried the day she moved out of their apartment, to return to her parents. Her things were packed to be shipped. My friend took them to the post office when it started to drizzle. He ran back and forth from the car to the PO, carrying box after box. Only after he got all ten inside did he notice that she had addressed them with a fountain pen he had given her in happier days, using bright turquoise ink…

Each letter had washed away, leaving streaks that he said resembled mascara running together with tears. He brought the boxes back, which she took as an omen that they shouldn’t split up, and days of painful conversation ensued. He ended the tale by recommending waterproof ink.


Our history teacher in high school loved to write on the board with colored chalk. His diagrams of the lineage of English kings were worthy of a museum. He marked our papers with pens filled with assorted inks. These, too, looked like treasure maps of rough terrains, with copper arrows dashing hither and yon, pointing to saffron yellow marginalia.

One day a student asked about the pen he used to write a letter while we took an exam. He made the most of the opportunity to address the class, holding up what he told us was a Montblanc, and very expensive. He pronounced the name in French, with great reverence, yet it didn’t sound at all distinguished the way he said it, but more like two honks from a goose. The next day he brought in his collection of Pelikans, Sailors, Lamys, and garish Italian pens that dazzled. From his attaché case, he set out six squat bottles, showing us how to plug in a cartridge, fill a converter, and suck up ink with a piston. Sunlight from the window illuminated each glass container like the tempting cathedral-like array of liquor bottles in a tavern.

He was relishing his display when one of the golden Italians rolled off his desk and crashed to the floor. He knelt quickly and somberly, as to a fallen comrade.

It was cracked, and a bit of him cracked with it. His hands shook as he continued his demonstration, and he tipped over a green bottle. He wiped up the puddle with a rag from the blackboard ledge, but the spill flummoxed him even more and another pen rolled away which he caught mid-air. He knocked a bottle of red ink, caught another recalcitrant Italian, and by the end of the presentation the ink had transferred not only to his fingers and sleeves, but to his cheeks and forehead from his wiping sweat from his face. We stared at our teacher who had suddenly become one of his drawings, a man festooned with so much spilled ink you could almost read him.


When I was a teenager I wanted to buy my father a tie for Father’s Day. And not just any tie, but a good tie, from a good men’s store on Fifth Avenue in New York where we lived. I went to Rogers Peet. The salesmen ignored me. I couldn’t blame them. I was an unlikely customer, wearing a beat-up army jacket, jeans and sneakers and, as it was raining, my long hair was plastered to my head and neck. I saw the prices, yes, they were steep, but after all it was Father’s Day, so I would splurge. I held a red tie, and made an imitation knot. It looked beautiful and genteel, but as I handled it further, I saw that my fingers were also red. How could this happen? How could ties of this quality lose their dye simply because my fingers were a bit wet from the storm? I held another tie, a darker red, and another, but by now I was doubtful that I wanted to pay a high price for such poor quality. I left. Outside, I saw that the pen I had in my jacket had somehow leaked. And it had leaked its red ink onto my hands. The stain had nothing to do with the ties. But now it had everything to do with them. And in those days, there was no Ink Nix. You had to wear the red badge, the scarlet letter, for days, and so did the ties…

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