Muhammad Ali's Ballpoint Pen
by Ben Loory
Muhammad Ali had a favorite pen. He found it in a drugstore one day. The pen wasn't anything particularly special—just a ballpoint, clear plastic. It had a blue plastic top.
Muhammad Ali found this pen while he was on a break from boxing—he'd been banned from fighting in any fights. The Supreme Court was debating, considering his refusal to go off and fight in the Vietnam War.
And as a result of this ban, Ali spent a lot of time out walking, and one day he stopped off to buy some gum. In the drugstore, he saw a pen. It looked just like all the others.
But somehow, this one seemed to be beckoning him.
So Ali picked the pen up and held it in his hand. His hand was very big, so the pen looked small. But he liked the way it felt there, nestled between his fingers.
And as he held the pen, he had a thought.
Maybe I could write a book? Muhammad Ali thought.
He looked up and stared into the distance.
He didn't know what kind of book the book he'd write would be, but the thought of writing one made him smile.
So Muhammad Ali bought the pen, and turned and took it home. He kept it in his pocket for a while. Sometimes he'd take it out and hold it in his hand, and think about what his book would be about.
Maybe it'll be a book about America, he'd think. A book about his people and their struggle. Or maybe it'd be a book about courage, or about boxing.
Or maybe it would be about something else.
And Muhammad Ali spent a whole lot of time thinking, staring off, holding that ballpoint in his hand.
But he never actually got down to writing the book.
And then finally, one day, the telephone rang.
The telephone rang, and it was Muhammad Ali's lawyer. The Supreme Court had decided his case. And suddenly, Muhammad Ali was perfectly free to go back to boxing again.
And so that's what he did—I mean, could you blame him? He was the greatest boxer of all time. So he went back to boxing with all the strength he had.
And he became the most famous of men.
He went to many countries; he traveled the entire globe. He met a million people and charmed them all. And he laughed and he joked as he danced around the ring, and he fought with his back against the ropes.
But he never actually sat down and wrote himself that book. And one day, he stopped carrying the pen. He just left it at home, lying on his desk.
And he never, ever picked it up again.
Of course, as the years went by, he did put out some books—there were two different autobiographies, in fact. And they were interesting—after all, they told the story of his life—but as for writing, there were ghostwriters for that.
And by the end of his life, Ali's case of Parkinson's had progressed to the point where he could barely move. He had trouble standing up. He had trouble sitting down.
Even if he'd wanted to, he couldn't have held a pen.
And when Muhammad Ali died—and after his family had mourned—they decided to have his effects put in order. So they brought in an archivist to go through all his things.
And it's that archivist who this story is about.
Now, this archivist had been a fan of Muhammad Ali his entire life—ever since he was a little boy. He'd grown up watching Ali's fights on TV with his dad.
And one time they'd even gone to see one.
They'd stood there in the crowd, laughing and cheering, hollering and jumping for joy, while Muhammad Ali danced around that ring like a spotlit king—until suddenly, he got laid out on the floor.
Muhammad Ali had been knocked down! The entire crowd went silent. And everybody's eyes were on Ali.
And what did Muhammad Ali do?
He climbed back to his feet.
And then he took the other guy apart.
And after that night, the archivist had known that he, too, wanted to be a boxer. So he'd trained and he'd tried and he'd fought for years and years.
But it turned out he just wasn't good enough.
And the archivist had gone though a hard time after that. He'd felt like life had knocked him down. He didn't know what to do, or even what he could do, couldn't remember what the point of doing things was.
But as he lay there in his room one night, considering ending things, he started thinking about what Muhammad Ali would do.
And in the morning, he got up, and he tucked in his shirt, and he went down to where the college was.
And so now, these many years later, the archivist was an archivist. And as an archivist, he was the best there was. He'd come in, and take charge, and get everything sorted out.
And he'd never leave a single object out.
So the archivist came in, and he went through Ali's things. He did it very carefully, room by room. He looked at every object and examined it closely, made a list of every item and its likely worth.
There were watches and there were hats, and necklaces and scarves, and letters of congratulations from kings and queens. There were medals and there were trophies, and giant stacks of gold.
But the archivist wasn't interested in any of them.
Because the one thing the archivist found himself drawn to was a single ballpoint pen he'd found in a drawer. The pen wasn't anything particularly special—just a ballpoint, clear plastic. It had a blue plastic top.
So the archivist picked the pen up and held it in his hand. His hand was normal-sized, so the pen fit right. But he thought about how small it must've been in Ali's hand, and he smiled to himself at the imagined sight.
And the archivist stood there and stared at this pen. He wanted, more than anything, to take it home. It was just a cheap old pen, he thought, a crappy little ballpoint—surely nobody would notice if it was gone.
But still, at the same time, the archivist was a professional, and professionals don't steal; they have a code.
So the archivist slowly put the pen back on the desk.
And then, all of a sudden, he had a thought.
What if, thought the archivist, what if I wrote something? What if I wrote something with the pen and took that home?
And that made him smile—it seemed the perfect thing. Writing was, after all, what pens were for.
And what would it mean, in the grand scheme of things, if he used a little ink? the archivist thought. Nobody would know. And even if they did, who in the world could ever possibly begrudge him that?
So the archivist sat down and took out his notebook.
But what should I write? he suddenly thought.
It had to be something well-suited to the occasion. The time, the place—the pen— demanded that.
He couldn't just write his name, or Muhammad Ali's name. He couldn't just sit and describe the room. And he couldn't just write about something unrelated—it couldn't just be a grocery list.
So the archivist sat there and thought about Ali. He thought about all the things he'd done. He thought about the fights he'd had, the brilliant things he'd said, and how much he'd meant to, well, pretty much everyone.
But what could he say about Muhammad Ali that hadn't been said a thousand times? The archivist wasn't a writer; he was just some guy—he didn't even have a way with words.
And what was he doing here, even asking this question? How was he qualified to speak about Ali? When he'd tried to be a boxer, he'd lost every single fight. But now he wanted to pronounce judgment on one of the greats?
And for a moment, the archivist was filled with self-pity. But then a tiny voice inside spoke up: No, he hadn't become a great boxer like Ali, but he had done something with his life.
In fact, thought the archivist, he had actually done a lot! And more than that, what he'd done was good. And he thought about his children then, the smiles on their faces, and his job, and his wife, and their life.
And then the archivist thought back to that night, that one night—that very worst night he'd ever had. That night that he'd washed out of boxing forever and didn't know if he could go on with his life.
And he remembered himself lying there, down in that basement, staring at that wall, at that floor. And he remembered the thought of Muhammad Ali coming to him then, like he just walked in through that basement door.
And he remembered the thought of Muhammad Ali hovering over him, waving him up, telling him to rise.
And the archivist smiled to himself and gave a nod.
And then he wiped the tears from his eyes.
And the archivist reached out and picked up the pen, and he opened his notebook back up.
And there on the page, with that blue ballpoint pen, he wrote just three words:
Thanks a lot.
Ben Loory is the author of the collections Tales of Falling and Flying (Penguin, 2017) and Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day (Penguin, 2011), as well as a picture book for children, The Baseball Player and the Walrus (Dial Books for Young Readers, 2015). His fables and tales have appeared in The New Yorker, Fairy Tale Review, BOMB Magazine, Electric Literature, and A Public Space, and been anthologized in The New Voices of Fantasy and Year’s Best Weird Fiction. They have also appeared on This American Life and Selected Shorts, been adapted to short film, live theater, chamber music, and dance, and been translated into many languages, including Arabic, Farsi, Japanese, and Indonesian.
Loory is a graduate of Harvard University and holds an MFA in Screenwriting from the American Film Institute. He lives in Los Angeles and teaches short story writing at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.