A Day in the Shoppe

by Claire Stringer

      Rennie Acorn knew perfectly well what day it was. He didn’t need the impersonal, inky reminder from the Baskerville Times. His eyes glazed and darted away from the top of the newspaper, where the date displayed itself for everyone to see. He thought it a bit ostentatious.
      He rifled through the pages, looking for a good distraction. Two mounds of old newspapers and bills framed his bony figure in the dank, stuffy breakfast parlor. Particles of disintegrating paper drifted about in the air. Rennie had paneled the walls himself, many years ago, when he and his sister, Emily, moved in. He’d sanded the oak panels, rubbed and stained the natural grooves and ridges, and they’d borne witness to his life in the house ever since – the clean brightness of his time with Emily, the shadows collecting in the corners with her sudden illness, the darkening of his years of grief, and his more recent years of allowing dander and filth to accumulate and engulf him.
      He pushed his glasses up on his nose and set aside his French-pressed coffee and poached eggs. Sunlight sifted in through the murky window, gleaming on his bald spot. He had to wear thick glasses after spending thirty-six years asquint in the dingy cartography shop and studio downstairs, hunched over his work desk. With his adherence to a life of stolid authenticity, he insisted on working only by the light of his whale-blubber candles at night.
      When he came to the Travel section, his rough, baggy face folded itself into a scowl. There, sprawled across the page, was an article about Iceland’s geysers and popular mineral pools. One of the first maps that Rennie had ever made was of Iceland—or rather, a second Iceland. When he was twelve, he tried to make friends by offering people the opportunity to customize and rule any country or territory. He walked around during lunch and asked his classmates to scribble their names on his world map and reinvent their new lands, but only his friend Diane, the girl he sat behind and admired in his science class, took him up on his offer for fantastical world domination. With an impish glint in her eye, she claimed the ice caps north of Greenland, denominating the desolate cluster “Iceland.”
      Rennie had set to work that day, disregarding his Algebra for long nights of tracing the slightest squiggling meander lines, rendering the metes and bounds of her country’s ice chunks with as much precision as the hand-cut type in the Gutenberg Bible facsimile that he often spent afternoons inspecting in the antique bookstore. Her new Iceland bristled with its frosty blue borders and lightly shaded tundra, peppered with bits of foliage and arctic foxes. He embellished the parchment map with an inked calligraphy cartouche and title—“Iceland, Clenched by Diane’s Iron Fist”—that wound its way along the top like a ribbon flapping in the wind. She gushed that it was lovely and suggested that he become a cartographer. He replied that that was his life plan, that he longed to traverse the globe but guessed that he would lack the funds and the desire to encounter other people. “Don’t be ridiculous,” Diane had said, “I see a great voyage in your future.”
      With a violent crinkling and creasing of the paper, Rennie grumbled and set it down next to his half-eaten, lukewarm breakfast. Beneath the table, his graying corgi, Ortelius—named after Abraham Ortelius, who charted the Theatris Orbus Terrarum, the world’s first atlas—gurgled and stood up to get ready for work. He joined his master in step as they plodded through the papery shambles of the house.
      March 27th: the date itself seemed to follow alongside Rennie. Perhaps he would go for a walk in the afternoon, just like he and Emily always had on the days when they just felt like closing the shop early. He hadn’t done that in three years – closing up early. Three years! The truth was, he’d barely left the house since Emily died. If he wasn’t careful, another three years would go by: the newspapers and bills would tower higher and higher, the dust and stasis would suffocate him. He would feel like a sap walking alone that afternoon, under the cherry blossoms. Maybe Jesse, his apprentice, would join him.
 
At nine, Jesse came in the back door, as she did nearly every morning. She walked past the counter littered with the debris of Rennie’s previous sleepless night: a plate with breadcrumbs and streaks of jam and a glass encrusted with milk residue atop his list of future projects. She prepared the studio, laying out the solvents and tools and drafts in a neat stack on his enormous, custom-built desk, just as he had shown her on her first day working with him two years ago.
      She flipped the sign in the window to pronounce that it was Open Seas to the bustling, old-fashioned mountain village of Baskerville, Vermont. A group of hippies had established the town in the 1970s. They foresaw the impending technological boom and clung to the novelty of old traditions like letterpresses, shoemaking, and mapmaking. The knickknacks in the shop were geared mostly toward the few tourists—most often professors and young, quirky couples who embraced the crafts movement—who tumbled into the town and found the ancient cartographic tools great additions to their worldly bookshelves. The maps often wound up wheat-pasted on college students’ bedroom walls or framed in the houses of supportive neighbors who expected a pricy purchase in return.
      The storefront had been designed as a ship to keep with the kitschy theme of the village and entertain visitors, much to Rennie’s chagrin. His sister had hung up old sails and chunks of shipwreck debris from the Eastern shore. His maps of crude world visions papered the walls, reeking with the dank dust of years untouched and unnoticed.
      Jesse cleaned the front counter and rearranged the “antique compasses,” which were actually cheap compasses that they had set in hydrogen peroxide to rust and then affixed with fake sea moss. The shop’s once-shiny mahogany floors were worn and dark, dulled by years of foot traffic, mostly by Rennie and Emily. Now Jesse, taking over Emily’s role, manned the shop during the day.
      Jesse’s unruly black hair caught Rennie’s eye as he plodded down the creaky stairs and watched her from behind. She was hunched over, inspecting one of the carvings from his youth: a woodcut of a territorial map of the Roman Empire. Her left hip leaned against a table behind the counter while she followed the grooves of the woodcut with her knobby, leathery fingers.
      “Jesse,” he said.
      “Morning, Rennie,” she said, straightening up and pushing her hair back.
      He stood there for an extra moment, his mouth slightly open, before he awkwardly turned away. Ortelius trailed behind him as he made his way to the back studio. Jesse had laid out all of his materials. Behind him, the dog mounted and nestled into his small cushioned throne, the stubby legs of which Rennie had carved and dyed for him with the Scheldt River of (the first) Ortelius’s native Antwerp winding up and around. He slipped on his leather gloves and wiped the desk clean with an old rag. He pulled out a copper plate, a duplicate of a Mappa Mundi from 1400s France.
      “What do you want me to work on?” she asked. She strolled into the grand doorway that joined the shop and studio.
      “I want to finish the etching for this map today, so whatever you can do in the periphery might be best. You could fix up the shop or get started printing the other Mappa Mundis.”
      “The facsimiles? Were you thinking they should be a certain color scheme, maybe gold hues? Also, I’ve been reading about William Smith and was thinking that next we could look into some of his stuff, if you’re interested.”
      “Gold sounds good.”
      “I also wanted to talk to you about something when you get a second.”
      “That’s fine.”
      “I got a job offer in San Francisco. It’s still completely up in the air—”
      “We’ll talk later.” His face arranged itself into its usual glower as he clomped back to his desk, his clogs hitting the wood floors with a clean thud.
      He could hear her perch on her stool and resume her work in the front room. Her line work was exceptional, perhaps even better than his in his prime. She shared his choking, natural grip on the burin and his obsession with neat details. She had adopted his entire style and technique down to the finest hairlines of inland streams and winding mountain roads. But her cartographic imagination was undisciplined, loping like a clumsy, wild buck through classical maps of contained lands, soiling historic oeuvres with her modern ideas. Emily used to tell him that he should be more creative, that he ought to unchain himself from his classic style and find one he could call his own. What would Jesse do in San Francisco?
      The market for replicas of old maps, though never buzzing, had recently fizzled. Squirreling away bits of money since the first month they’d opened the shop, Rennie planned to one day retrace the voyages of his favorite explorers and compile his own journals and maps of foreign lands. He had grown and nursed a plump little nest egg that was about ready to hatch and carry him from the clench of his musty self-confinement. He would leave soon enough.
      An hour later, already restless, Rennie felt that this day needed something other than the usual murmurings of two pained artists, the scrapings of metal on metal, and the unannounced emissions from Ortelius. He rummaged through his record collection, all relics from his college days. Keith Jarrett seemed an appropriate guest for the morning. Emily often would listen to Jarrett when she painted on the back porch. He slipped the vinyl record onto the turntable and plucked the needle up, everything smooth and falling into place like the perfectly parallel, final ridges on a topographical map. The phonograph burbled with the beginnings of a jazzy stamp of approval.
      Rennie returned to his station and slid the copper plate into the corner slots that fixed it in place, settling on the wood like a fine coat of glaze. The desk contained forty-three tiny drawers, staggered, rather than in rows, and wrapping about the smooth curves of its façade, each with an intricate gold-plated knob and no distinguishing feature besides its contents that Rennie had committed to memory. Everything was classified based on size, importance, age, function—measuring gadgets, writing utensils, washes, woodblock engravers, acids, dyes—and had been collected since his teenage years. He accumulated some antiques from map fairs and conventions, bazaars, renaissance fairs, old book festivals. His favorite tools huddled together in the top right drawers, the wooden handles oily with years of handling and arduous labor.
      He still hadn’t touched the map. A burin had found its way into his sweaty palm. He squeezed it with a sense of purpose. Hunched over, with his engraver finally kissing the copper, Rennie began to lightly trace the lines that he had already chiseled.
      He looked across the studio to his tiled Waldseemüller and Ringmann map replica that Emily had found at an estate sale. Why didn’t he live in that era, when maps were still an art form with mystique and infinite potential for revolutionary discoveries? Now, maps were no more than an answer to quick logistical questions – they didn’t invite people to linger in front of them and inspect their precise depictions of clustered archipelagos and spidery deltas. No one took an interest in the beauty lurking in every bit of terrain, every minute contour that sculpted the earth into its mysterious concavities and curves, its perfumed, womanly figure always in a gauzy evening gown with glistening, sultry eyes and a knowing smile. No one cared about aesthetics anymore.
      Ortelius snorted in his sleep. Sighing with defeat, Rennie slumped back onto his seat and tried to focus on the soothing piano as it melted like cheddar cheese over the hard, worn surfaces of his den. He decided that he would invite Jesse for a lunchtime walk; he needed to clear his head. He would take her to the nearby quarry, where he and Emily used to go. He had to work more first.
      The original reference map depicted three pastoral scenes on three different continents. It had been one of Emily’s favorites. In one corner, a man in jester’s garb milked a cow with his body turned towards the viewer; another showed a woman bearing a cornucopia of harvested vegetables; and in the third, a boy waved, standing next to his pet goat. Oceans separated the seemingly contiguous scenes, from back when the world was but a cornfield to till and wander. His meticulous etching resembled Albrecht Dürer’s religious portraits, the focus moving from the great scope of the world in another day to the hairy mire of a mapmaker’s inner life.
      Rennie had stopped after rendering the woman’s dowdy figure—it was the first time he’d drawn anything more corporeal than a body of water since he had discovered topography in the ’80s. He’d set aside such thoughts for much of his celibate adult life: a woman’s body, the tiny folds of her skirts bunching around the waistline. He looked up at Jesse, for a point of reference, and scrutinized her thick hips and wildly rolling contours, all contained within the understated denim of her workman’s shirt. The fabric vaguely gestured at her toned swimmer’s back while she bent over the front counter, working on a miniature map. San Francisco! Emily would have insisted that Jesse was his ideal successor. It was time for him to get out and explore the world on his own terms.
      Jesse scratched the back of her thigh, the rustling skirt revealing a cut on her ankle, round and whirling like the eye of a storm on a climate map. She turned around and returned his gaze.
      “How’s it going?” she asked, setting down her burin.
      “It’s fine. Where’d that cut come from? On your leg.”
      “Oh, running.”
      “Did you forget to make yourself vertical?”
      “Sort of. It was dark, and I was getting a thrill out of the idea of being attacked by a mountain lion. The fear makes me faster, and I tripped.”
      “Fair enough. Any plans for lunch?”
      “Not really.”
      “It’s almost noon.”
      “I might actually keep working on this a bit longer – I’m finally getting a handle on my renderings of cities, with all these identical little buildings.”
      “Hm,” Rennie grumbled a bitter note of congratulations. He had taught her how to imitate the minutia of the Nuremberg Chronicle, the first attempted aerial perspective maps of European cities. He could hear her settling back onto her stool, with an uncomfortable squeak, as he returned to his own cumbersome project. The cherry blossoms around the quarry were starting to bloom. Maybe they could picnic beneath them like he and Emily used to.
      With his burin melded into the grip of his contorted hand like a sixth finger, Rennie traced his way into the curves of choppy waves, burrowing into the image like a sand crab. The tip of his engraver sliced and tunneled through the placid copper plains and soiled the plate’s smoothness with metal shavings, tumultuous seas, waves lapping at the consciousness of his ancestors and their pastoral idealism, diminished by the now-simple recognition of the world’s rotundity. Small victories, Emily always said. It’s just a matter of leaving the house to find them.
      “Okay,” he said to Jesse, standing in the doorway. “It’s lunchtime. Put down your burin.”
      Jesse looked up, wide-eyed, from her desk. “Sorry, I really can’t — I’m on a pretty serious roll here.”
      “Oh. All right.”
      Rennie turned and took off his glasses to massage his dry, twitching eyes. Ortelius woke from his chortle-filled slumber and leapt down from his throne, wiggling over to accompany Rennie as he shuffled back upstairs.
 

In the gray afternoon light of the living room, Emily’s paintings of springtime landscapes breathed salty ocean air and burst with fresh wildflowers and grassy knolls that they had tumbled down as kids. She always loved looking and picking at flowers; she donned the straw hat of a guerrilla gardener in her later years, infecting every median strip in town with her good intentions and failure to grow anything besides weeds and mustard grass. Her abandoned and fruitless vegetable patch in their backyard still awaited those seeds of hope, the old mulch blanketed with dead leaves and bursting with thorny reminders of her absence.
      Growing impatient with his reverie-steeped companion, the dog trotted past him into the kitchen and lapped up some grimy water. Rennie poured a bowlful of lamb-and-rice mix and watched him dive in, his jaws chattering and crushing the vitamin-fortified pebbles, shards and shells falling from the sides of his frothy mouth. Emily used to joke that Ortelius was their inbred son. She’d brought him home one day, without any warning or discussion, from a neighbor’s house—their dog had just given birth. The robust, slobbering intruder initially infuriated Rennie, but he quickly found the dog’s affection and company superior to those of any mate. Ortelius would suffice as his travel companion when the time came for him to leave.
      Rennie opened the refrigerator, which housed his usual peanut butter, milk, and eggs. He made himself an open-faced peanut-butter sandwich. One of the greatest things about Jesse, he thought, was that she also valued a simple lifestyle and agreed that complexity belonged elsewhere – in work, in mind, in interests. Their aligned standards made her a suitable heir to the shop.
      Something broke and clattered downstairs. He grabbed his peanut butter-slathered bread, the remains of the milk, and hurried down, Ortelius scuttling and babbling behind. Crouched in the sunny storefront, Jesse was sweeping up the remains of a ceramic vase—one of Emily’s lopsided productions from a pottery class. Chips of violet glaze freckled with daisies were spread across the floor. Rennie groaned.
      “Oh god, Rennie, I’m so sorry! I’m going to buy you a new one.”
      He took a bite of his bread, assessing the damage. Emily had always quipped about her graceless hands and terrible crafts – she tried to hide all of her creations throughout the shop so that no one would know they lurked there besides her and Rennie. “Don’t worry about it.”
      “Oh, no, I’ll get you a new vase. Or I’ll make you one! I used to throw pots a lot. God, I can’t believe I just did that. Anyway.” She filled the dustpan with the clay crumbs and dumped them in the trash.
      He leaned over the counter, where a pomegranate glistened with its rubies veiled in white flesh. “What are you eating?”
      “It’s a pomegranate. Want some?” She walked over and sank her fingers into the fruit, mining out a small handful of red beads. A thin layer of its sticky blood coated her fingertips as she dropped the gems into her mouth and chewed thoughtfully.
      “You shouldn’t get your hands so messy when you’re etching.”
      “Sorry.”
      Rennie walked back through the studio, haunted by the glimpse of her shiny, darkening eyes and slight frown. Trying to shake off the day, he stood out on the back porch, his arms set on the wooden railing, casting his gaze out into the sea of the backyard, down onto the garden that Emily had never finished, or really even started. The sweet mountain air seemed to transform in his nostrils from crisp winter to fruity spring. He could hear Jesse inside, walking from the store to the studio. She was whistling to the scattered, fuzzy tune of the record. The same pine trees that he had looked at every day for the past thirty-six years reached towards the shrinking sky, their shadows inching across the yard, gripping the mess of a garden with their tendrils. There was a blue jay nest seated in the grips of a frail hedge in front of them.
      He walked down the rotting wooden steps into the tangles of the garden, his worn clogs lazily cutting through nettles and dead weeds as he grabbed for the hoe that Emily had left leaning against the porch steps. He fingered the grooves of the staff, looking into the furrows and remembering Emily’s sweaty back as she beat the dry dirt in the afternoons, preparing it for seeds that would never break the topsoil. Jesse’s high, sweet voice that she saved for Ortelius wafted out of the screen door, conjuring the image of her drinking green tea and rubbing the dog’s bulbous belly. Rennie gripped the hoe and slammed it into the earth, ripping away the thick, resilient mesh of branches and dead plants. Before leaving, he would have to plant something for Jesse, leave her with a reminder, something to hold her accountable for continuing to work, but also to serve as a lingering substitute for himself. Perhaps a prickly-pear tree would do, or maybe just the clean slate of a fresh plot of earth. He batted away the spider webs, the accumulation of wilted, shriveled memories, and unearthed rich new soils, untilled and untrammeled. Wiping the warm, trickling sweat from his temple with his flannel sleeve, he smelled the change of season, his shirtsleeves billowing with the gales that would carry him to his new life outside of this house. He was almost there. Or almost somewhere.
 

Claire Stringer unconditionally supports any and all things oat-, pie-, or dog-related.