Whitham-Renova Ghosts & Co.
There is exactly one stationary shop in all of East Rennerdale Township.
This shop is located in the Whitham-Renova Shopping Plaza, two minutes from the dog park and ten minutes from the weekly farmer’s market and thirty from downtown’s skyscrapers and ghettos. The Whitham-Renova Shopping Plaza is one hundred and two years old and is all brick and was once known as the Whitham-Renova Asylum for the Mentally Decrepit, although somehow, during renovation or advertisements, the outside of the building changed from stark white to soft eggshell, the red roofs atrocious to cheerful. The inner walls resemble a modernistic fireplace. The curvature of the archways is not foreshadowing of anything save bargains. There were exorcisms performed; it is technically no longer spooky.
The owner of the last stationery shop is 75-year-old Hawthorne Miller, and she does not believe in doctors. She does not believe in blood testing either, or medicine, and has never been a particular fan of psychotherapy.
“This is a bunch of CAPITAL B, CAPITAL S, I tell you!” was the first thing out of her mouth upon arriving to her first appointment with a therapist. It was in a cozy sitting room, complete with fireplace, velvet couch, and hippopotamus stuffed animal. There was a Ph.D. certificate on the wall, a few photographs of serene landscapes surrounded by clean brown frames. “That stands for BULLSHIT, doc. Bull. Shit.”
Like most people, Hawthorne does not believe that there is anything wrong with her, despite everyone’s apt insistence otherwise, despite the fact that she has been (still is) required by law to attend these biweekly sessions, and despite the parking lot incident, (in which she ran over a racoon with her shopping cart and strapped its rotting carcass to her back, continued as planned into the grocery store, paraded down the cereal aisle, blood hardening on the linoleum).
“What? I’m just trying to be MYSELF,” she’d said, “An INDIVIDUAL! Unique! We were all born different, I know we were, and yet we’ve got tens of thousands of handfuls of boring little fuckers living life exactly the way they’re expected to!”
Hawthorne knows “boring” is not actually an adjective; it is closer to an object, some tangible thing that swirls out of street corner sewers, twists around ankles like black foggy snakes, curls up near earlobes; hisses. It sinks into the walls, ingrains itself in brick. It is sticky, forms webs between fingers. It is near stillness, and Hawthorne cannot, will not, stand for such a languid slow.
“So go ahead, tell me I ‘OFFENDED passing vegans’ or ‘petrified the children,’” she’d said, a bit of spittle flying from her lip and landing on the clean yellow pages of the therapist’s notepad, “but I’ll be DAMNED if I am not, at some point, a conversation starter. I’ll be damned if I am not what makes a day INTERESTING. I’ll be damned if I let life be just sunrise and sunset, sunrise and sunset!”
At this point she stood and toppled over a coffee table holding an antique teapot and several small china saucers, things that landed on the lush carpet with a thump-chink-chink-chink and brought her to the next therapist. She had worked her way through five before making it to the current one, with the bowl cut and the circle glasses and the tilted collarbone and the mauve pencil-skirt-blazer combination. Hawthorne has not bothered to remember her name, but yes, she has to admit Bowl Cut is a persistent one. Three meetings, and she has not sighed once. The most recent one—in which Hawthorne had gone on for ages about the cable t.v. guys leaving her on hold—“for forty goddamn minutes! with that goddamn jazz in the background!”—had ended with Bowl Cut, in fact, acknowledging Hawthorne’s recent improvement.
“Great, great, great; you’re doing absolutely great! I think one thing we’ve gotta work on though, is compassion.”
Hawthorne scratched at the shock of white hair atop her pasty scalp, rolled her eyes the slightest bit. Wrinkles on anyone else would seem to make the features sink into the skin, be absorbed by its flaps, but Hawthorne’s simply made her eyes pop, her big seafoam eyes pop.
“That is what I think is missing right now, Ms. Miller—compassion, a friendship of some kind. Hey, make one friend in the next few weeks and I bet I could talk the officials into turning this,” here she gestured between the two of them, “into a monthly thing.”
Hawthorne mocked Bowl Cut, mouthed along with her words and turned her own hand into a gabbing Bowl Cut puppet. The instant the clock ticked 8:30, the end, she grabbed her coat from the hook, waltzed out the door while whistling a tune, drummed her fingers on her leg like 2-3-4, 2-3-4, done.
It can be counted on one, perhaps two, hands how many regular customers a stationery shop receives. As it turns out, people do not like stationery. Or do not have extra money to spend on stationery, or do not know what it is, or are not aware of its existence.
“Mommy, what’s a stawt-tee-own-ary?” was said enough times, however, to take up two or three sets of hands.
“Paper, kiddo, just paper,” the mother would say and tug the kiddo off into a floral shop or faux fur jacket shop or gourmet dog treat kiosk.
To say Hawthorne does not mind this quiet would be an understatement; she savors it, practically breathes it, all the alone time in a place where skinny black boredom reptiles do not exist—she even arrives two hours before opening, not just early, but early early.
At a precise 7:00, often with a croissant in mouth, coffee sloshing over the rim of her mug, she pulls into the cul-de-sac parking lot on her lilac vespa, ties it to a nearby tree with a rusted bike lock that no longer locks and instead has to be knotted. In her homemade woolie socks, she pads her way through the expansive lobby, past the motionless fountain, past the skinny cafe tables, and past the vending machines disguised cleverly in the shadiest corner. Once she gets to the iron-wrought black gate that separates her shop from the rest of the plaza, she pauses momentarily, cocks her bony neck, tugs at her earlobe. Although she is not alone, she never hears a thing.
By the time it is thirty minutes before opening, all the kitschy notebooks on the rear counter are stacked, the envelopes reordered in accordance to color and size, the vintage leather-bounds in the glass cabinet dusted. Sometimes she takes the remaining time to meditate, or feed her sugar glider bits of dried mango, or practice sign language, but today she is working on a new way of displaying her pens—hanging them from the ceiling.
She is balancing precariously on her purple stool, a close to invisible fishing line clenched between her teeth, wrestling with a roll of masking tape in an attempt to rip off skinny enough strips. Finishing with her third pen, she is leaning back to admire her work (it is nice enough, the ballpoints dangling like surrealistic spiders, twirling in one of those slight wind whispers that can never quite be explained) when someone bursts through the archway.
Hawthorne is so startled she wobbles on the stool, planting her hands on the ceiling at the last moment to regain her balance.
“How’s it hanging!”
Marvin Schomaker bursts through the store’s stone archway straight into a pricy French ballpoint. A gangly 6’3” tall, he is prone to these kind of accidents, though they never seem to stop surprising him.
“Oh!” It had landed smack in the middle of his forehead, and his eyes crossed momentarily as he stepped backwards, then chuckled. Pointing at the pen, now swaying back and forth like an ink-filled pendulum, “It’s hanging well, I suppose then!”
Marvin is the only regular customer of Stationery and More. He is 32 years old, a journalism major and dropout, living above a pornography shop on the outskirts of downtown. His television receives only two channels, one flush of the toilet causes water to churn for hours, and the mail slot in his door was made too wide, wide enough for a surprisingly plump stray cat to fit through (on occasion they do). Everything radiates an odor of Cheez Doodles and cigarette butts. He goes through over one-hundred-fifty dollars worth of paper in a month, is surviving off an inheritance from his great uncle who died of rabies, and makes his own toothpaste to save money, stirs it up out of dish soap and crushed peppermints he gets for free from the barber’s. Hawthorne knows all of this even though she does not care to, has had these facts drizzled through and then stuck to her mind like melted popsicle.
She hops down from the stool and carries it back behind the cash register with a rather haughty sweep of the arms.
“Would you like a doughnut!” Marvin holds out a salmon-colored box, the clear plastic top revealing an assortment of jelly-filled, lemon-iced, and/or glazed concoctions.
“No,” she says.
“Are you sure!”
“I’m not hungry.”
“They have sprinkles!”
Marvin rarely stops talking. Which is strange, because he also rarely stops writing, and even Hawthorne does not understand how he maintains the mental capacity for this, going from actual conversation to note-taking on a constant loop, from paying bills to writing of fairies or thieves or elementary school teachers or whatever it is he writes about (if asked, he would say “everything,” but she has not asked). He writes while waiting in check-out lines, while guzzling down pop in the Irish pub down the road from the pornography shop, while watching the Hispanic man across the street perform devil worship behind half-closed blinds. He writes while he is driving, so that all the police officers monitoring his most oft taken route have come to know him by name.
Right now, though, the only thing in his hands is the salmon-colored box, and Hawthorne sighs before reaching into it and pulling out a chocolate-frosted, red-and-blue-sprinkled number. She opens her cash register, wordlessly places the doughnut inside the drawer, and tries to jam the drawer shut, so that half the pastry is in and half is out and it makes that irritating ding every time it almost closes.
“Oh.” Marvin’s voice is quiet for only a moment before regaining vigor. “Haha, yeah I never understood the whole patriotism thing either! All the red and blue and it’s not even independance day, am I right!”
“I’m sorry!” He goes to hold his hands up in surrender, nearly forgetting about the box, and catches it at the last moment before it falls. “I forgot! You don’t like visitors before opening I’m sorry! I just woke up early today, and thought some doughnuts might be a nice snack, and I really hope I didn’t mess things up, are we still,” here his voice gets a little softer, “you know, going to do that thing tonight?”
“Goddamnit Marvin, you make everything sound awkward.”
“Meet me in here at closing. A minute late and I leave without you.”
He is out the door before Hawthorne has even the time to roll her eyes, think, Christ, that boy will never give up. He just never gives up.