February 2015


By David Feela

I handed the monk $50, then thinking back to the page he showed me in his catalog for extravagantly priced Swiss pens, I handed him an additional $25. To be clear, this was not a purchase. Rather, it constituted a donation to the monastery. You see, he offered me the pen as a gift, and as a writer I appreciate a good pen, but as a capitalist raised in America, I also crave a smokin’ deal. Eventually the Catholic in me negotiated a settlement. I would pay the full catalog price (plus a bit extra) to avoid leaving any indelible mark on my soul.

It is an exquisite pen, a Caran d’Ache, from Switzerland. A black ceramic casing, hexagonal in shape, the most expensive pen I have ever owned. I carried it home from southern New Mexico, this awkward purchase that defined the depth of my Catholic guilt – and at least until the pen’s cartridge ran dry and my thrifty Midwestern upbringing refused to pay the price for a replacement, I’d be satisfied. I had been hustled by a monk and with God as my witness, one of the seven deadly sins must have been violated. I’m just not sure which.

I used the pen for at least a week, signing my name and doodling, and it felt good until one morning when, twisting the pen’s stock in the usual manner to expose the nib, I found myself nibless. I twisted it again, pulling the pen apart and shining a flashlight up its, well. . . let’s say its tubular structure for lack of a better description. The pen was a dud. A black lemon. A flat note in the choir invisible.

For a short time I was irate, I wanted a refund, until I got to thinking about it. I couldn’t drive back to the monastery, tucked into a patch of the Gila National Forest over 700 miles away. Not for $70. And worse, I’d never been given a receipt, though I do remember the monk giving me his blessing.

Shoddy merchandise is produced everywhere, no doubt since the beginning of human history. Noah probably sold his ark after the flood on the assurance that the smell would eventually go away.

And returning merchandise is a frustrating and humiliating experience. It’s psychologically debilitating to have to rehearse your dissatisfaction in polite terms. You can’t just arrive at the counter and say, “This is stupid, take it back.” Manage a refund and you will be required to sign a form, as if submitting an affidavit certifying that indiscretion is part of your nature; you return things, perhaps habitually.

My experience with the pen showed me what should become an American business model. Too often, cost-cutting and gimmicks establish a commitment to customer satisfaction that only extends to the nearest store exit.

Because no viable location existed for any Caran de’ Ache distributor or repair facility nearby, I had no choice but to contact Switzerland. To my surprise I received a prompt reply, asking for photos of the pen. I grabbed my camera, digitized my sorrow, and attached it to my email.

After a series of rapid communications, a woman explained that no solution could be mailed to fix my pen. I would have to send it to Geneva, where it would be repaired, then sent back. Like many Americans, I suspected a subtext of additional fees and who knows what maze of hurdles to clear. But instead of a bitter pill, the Swiss handed me sweet surcease:

Dear M. Feela,

It will be much faster and we will not charge you anything for the repair and the return postage, you will just have to pay shipping to Switzerland, that’s all.

Not only did my pen find its way back to me in perfect working order, the package contained two complimentary replacement cartridges. What I had expected never came about and what came about I could never have expected. A monk might call this a miracle.

David Feela writes from Cortez, Colo.