I joined the neighborhood email list one week after my mother died, during a blackout that ran through my block before the others. I saw a flyer on my way back from the post office and felt nervous enough about being alone in the dark that I asked to be added to the group. I stayed on the list because I loved reading the trickle of offers for furniture, the requests for new signatures for a stop sign at the intersection without one. I didn’t write back, but I liked knowing they were there: the offers, the asks, the people.
One hotter than average afternoon the spring after I’d sold my mother’s things but before I stopped expecting her to call with her dreams, an email to the group popped up in my inbox with the subject: “I am in need of a quiet place to work.” I paused for a minute at the plain vulnerability of the sentence, thrust out to anyone with an email account in a 20-block-radius to see. I read it like a whisper: “I need peace” or “I need silence without loneliness” or even “When will I finally be able to do my life’s work?” I peered at the sender’s avatar, a blonde man in his 30s or 40s (the image was very small) with a slight smile and the sun in his eyes.
“Me too,” I whispered back to him. “I am also in need of a quiet place to work,” even though I was sitting in the middle of my own much-too-quiet apartment, working. I imagined I’d send my reply and we’d find a little studio together in the Bayview, a former storefront or backyard shamble that we’d tidy up and make our own. We’d work back-to-back, Jim on his novel surely (his email address said James, but I would call him Jim), and me on my miniatures until it was time to eat the sandwiches we’d packed for the day in crisp parchment paper. Every night, I would volunteer to wash the bag that brought the sandwiches to the studio. Sometimes when we were working, Jim would turn his chair to look at me and smile at the careful way my fingers shaped a tiny teapot. “Finally,” he would think of his new quiet place, but never say out loud because he didn’t have to.
I read the rest of Jim’s email with our future in mind. He was divorced with two small children. He lived in an apartment with no backyard. He didn’t have A/C so the heat was getting to him. Colorful toys crowded his thoughts even when the kids were at their mom’s. The sound of his neighbors arguing through the walls was getting to him, the smell from the car repair shop downstairs was getting to him. Jim needed another place, silent to all of his senses, and he was asking for my help.
I didn’t get many messages in those days besides Etsy orders and the neighborhood emails, so I let Jim sit in my inbox, moving up and down in rank as spam arrived and I shooed it away. I looked forward to seeing Jim’s tiny face every morning. I started multiple letters to him in response to his request. Sometimes I’d click on the Drafts folder and see the lineup of opening options:
“James, I saw your email.”
“I read that you need someplace to work”
“Dear James, I am your neighbor.”
“Hello James, I hope you’re doing alright.”
“Jim, I know exactly what you mean.”
I couldn’t settle on the right thing to say. I didn’t have a quiet place to offer him except for my own.
I lived alone in a garden studio apartment and did my work at a big IKEA desk in one corner, piled high with paper and cardboard and cutting boards and tools. My best brushes stood tall in a glazed mug shaped like a foot, next to a budget 3D printer and a good sewing machine shoved against the wall. The needle was broken, I’d replace it later. Two fraternal task lamps sat on the edge of the desk, because I’d bought the cheap one online and then found the better one waiting on the sidewalk. The rest of my materials shamelessly spilled out everywhere, covering the floor between the bed and the desk, between the bed and the slim dresser, between the slim dresser and the green couch. Unassembled priority and flat-rate boxes leaned against my closet door; bags of biodegradable packing popcorn clustered next to the one window. Sometimes I slept on the couch instead of clearing a space for myself on my own bed. When David lived there, he’d spend a few minutes cleaning up each time he passed through. After a while, he nagged me to do it myself. Towards the end, he refused to enter the apartment until I reformed. My mother had urged me to listen to him. But I liked the mess, it always felt like company.
After graduation, no one was hiring for anything without previous experience. I couldn’t wait tables if I hadn’t already waited tables, I couldn’t sell clothes if I hadn’t already sold clothes, I couldn’t assist in any task if I hadn’t assisted for that exact task before. I marveled at this infinite fractal of employment. Where was the origin point of experience? Did I already miss my chance to begin? To pass the time while I waited on unlikely approval, I started hand-stitching napkins and pillowcases out of the dresses that had become too small for me since I started eating to pass the empty time. I always liked crafting—it was something my mom and I did together when I was growing up—and it felt good to make something again that required no permission. I don’t remember where the idea came from, maybe a dream or a mistake, but I decided to try making the napkins and pillows smaller—like really, really small. I loved how I could disappear into the work for hours and end up with so many little neat stacks of fabric. I opened an Etsy shop and posted my tiny home goods. They sold fast, so I moved to sofa cushions, then sofas, then plants, then food, and along the way I stopped applying for jobs that never responded to my email. I watched YouTube videos to learn new techniques, I followed miniatures people on the socials, and when they followed me back, I wrote to ask about their pricing strategies. I looked up the most cost-effective shipping options and started accounts in my business name. Soon I was earning enough to make rent without my mom’s help.
I specialized in 1/10 scale home goods. My regular customers liked how my pieces were precise but still felt handmade, unlike other shops where the work was so perfect it hurt to look at. That’s what inspired me to name my shop Hannahmade. Handmade, made by Hannah, that’s me.
My most recent Etsy review read, “I am in awe! But how??”
“Thank you,” I replied to that one, “I wanted to get it just right for you.”
My second most recent review said, “So CUTE!” I didn’t like this kind of diminutive praise, which so many buyers liked to lavish on my pieces. “It’s cute” is the “she’s nice” of miniatures. “Thanks for supporting my work,” I usually responded in those cases, because customers liked to see that I was an active communicator.
On occasion, someone would custom order a small version of a beloved chair, or their grandmother’s china redrawn from memory, or their first baby’s first shoes. Those were my favorite commissions because the buyer understood what they were asking of me: that I spend hours staring at something unfamiliar, getting to know it so well that I could recreate its form without reference, just my hands moving to the places I remembered. They were asking me to fall in love with an item, take precious care of its likeness, and then surrender it without attachment. Sometimes these buyers cried when they received my pieces; sometimes I cried when I mailed them off.
But my biggest sellers were kits: tidy boxes of pre-measured, cut, and painted pieces that a customer could then fit together to create a picnic scene or a bag of fresh groceries from the farmer’s market. I made versions of those same items fully assembled too, but for every finished piece I sold, there were 10 to 15 orders for kits. I cut and glued Hannahmade-branded packaging for each box and printed out a tiny set of encouraging instructions. It took me far longer to make a kit than to just finish the thing myself. But I charged my customers accordingly and the orders still appeared. I learned that so many people love to “do it themselves” if someone has already done the hardest part.
I let myself read Jim’s request twice a day for the first couple weeks. But after a month, I stopped resisting the pull. I’d check on him before making lunch, I’d reread his message when I got out of the shower, without even drying off first, drip drip dripping as I walked across the hairy rug. A year after my mother died, I Googled Jim’s name for the first time, and scrolled through the familiar search results: his clean-fuel tech company profile, his street photography Tumblr from 2006, a news article about biodiesel that asked him for a quote. He hadn’t posted anything new on his Twitter account, but I read through the old tweets just the same. They were mostly retweets, a few heady quotes, and one plaintive statement that felt like a clear shot into Jim’s soul.
JEndwood September 22, 2019
Sometimes you just need the world to stop for a minute so you can catch up
I felt this thought myself so deeply and privately that I wondered sometimes if I had invented Jim. But he really existed somewhere out there, needing more space to breathe. That’s when I realized that I did have a place for Jim, or at least, I could make one. I started planning a quiet studio for us—a small version of the one I dreamed for our future—where we could both work in peace, away from the mess of our real lives.
I researched places for rent on Craigslist, clicking through the photo carousels for small details like a meringue-peaked ceiling, or a closet hastily converted into a half bath. I liked the images that looked like the renter had just left for a snack, pencils and paper waiting for their return. Big windows would be important, so we could see the endless Bay Area sky, often grey with fog, sometimes clear blue, bright orange during fire season. Should the windows fully open? I wondered. What size air purifier would make sense for the space? A fancy room wasn’t necessary; charming was better for us. That meant no new construction to mimic another city’s style. I knew Jim would agree that authenticity was the most important thing.
Later that night I got high, turned on the movie Netflix recommended for me, and lay on my couch looking out the window onto the dark street. I never replaced the beige plastic horizontal blinds that came with the apartment, and the one on the left now tilted at an uncomfortable angle. When did that start? The tile in the bathroom was cracking behind the sink, and the white paint in the kitchen had peeled away to give a partial view of the lime green stripes from a previous generation of tenant. There was no point in replacing this stuff since I wouldn’t be in the apartment forever. Or at least that’s what I had always told myself. I would buy a house one day and move my mother into it with me. She could tell me her dreams in the morning instead of reaching for the phone. But now my mother was gone. My head sank further into the couch cushion as I counted the years I’d spent in the apartment on my fingers, starting with the first summer after college and counting by July fireworks. Five. I’d lived in the apartment for almost five years, alone for two, an orphan for more than one. I reached for my one-hitter and the remains of the baggie to smoke a little more before falling asleep to the sound of a single car driving by every few minutes.
I couldn’t decide if the studio should have blond wood floors or checkered linoleum. Wood would be prettier, it would make the place feel more modern and intentional. But the linoleum would be a quirky choice, a nod to the room’s former life as a barbershop, a sign that Jim and I respected its history. I Photoshopped both options and printed them out to pin to the corkboard above my desk. It was the Jim board, the Jim and Hannah board. I named the project “39 ½ Peace Street,” and I mocked up a street sign to pin at the top. The model would be slightly larger than my regular work, 1/6 or “Playscale” they called it, as in large enough to play with without breaking. Progress was slow because I had to get through the barbecue kits, then the back-to-school kits, Halloween kits and Thanksgiving kits. Now I was deep into the winter holiday kits, and I’d already shut down new orders so I wouldn’t get oversubscribed. Last year I forgot to do that and fielded so many angry messages that just seeing the Etsy logo made my hand start shaking.
39 ½ Peace Street was my treat after a big order. I made Jim’s desk after an all-nighter on a birthday spread with two different cakes and monogrammed napkins. The desk was a slab of reclaimed wood placed on top of two metal filing cabinets. I carved Jim’s teeny initials into the bottom of the wood with a paperclip. I had some ideas for Jim’s chair. Maybe he’d be passionate about ergonomics and want to get a good office chair, a Herman Miller even. But he’d find one used, with a gash in the mesh that didn’t affect its function. “Caring about the environment doesn’t sentence me to discomfort,” he might say when I gently ribbed him about his expensive taste.
Or maybe he liked to lean back in an old dark wooden swivel chair that creaked when it spun. He would take good care of the brown leather seat, and make sure it didn’t crack more than it already had by smoothing oil over it once a month with an old rag he kept in the bathroom cabinet. It was his father’s chair. He rescued it from the clutches of his step-mother in Arizona, who wanted to sell all the office things after his father died. Of course, Jim had just lost a parent—like me. We’d understand that about each other.
I had to get one lingering Thanksgiving kit out to a repeat buyer. I didn’t usually do things like that for customers, but she’d bought some of my favorite pieces, even the ones that sat in my store for ages because they were too weird. She gave me five stars for a tiny “Just Laid Off” cardboard box with desk leftovers like a dying plant, a stack of printer paper, and a little keyboard. She reposted on Instagram about my “Heartbreak on Valentine’s Day” kit that included a DVD of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and two bottles of Trader Joe’s wine. I could take an extra trip to the post office for her.
I put the package on the passenger side and buckled the seat belt over it, making sure the lap band didn’t dig a crease into the box. It was nice to get out of my apartment, I forgot that too easily. I almost wished there were more traffic, so I’d have an excuse to linger in the car listening to the satisfying monotony of the Top 40 station, each new song scratching the same itch over again.
The post office wasn’t crowded so I don’t know why I didn’t see him at first. But when I did, I knew without a doubt that it was Jim. It was Jim’s face and Jim’s hair, and Jim’s slight smile before he pulled up his light blue mask to approach the counter. He was the same height as I’d imagined, slight but significant. He spoke in a solid voice, no hesitation, a voice accustomed to being heard. He was sending letters with important content to the East Coast. He wanted them insured, he wanted them tracked, he wanted to know when they would definitely arrive, not when they might arrive.
“Next Tuesday,” the woman behind the glass told him a third time without looking up from the tasks that were necessary to ensure his letters would arrive next Tuesday. Her mask was pink with “Diva” on it in large white cursive that looked like a toothy smile from where I stood two people behind Jim.
“Thank you,” he said, “It’s important, very important to me.”
I played his voice in my head—a firm, flat alto—and then I made it say “I need a quiet place to work” first gently, then desperately, then sweetly. I couldn’t get it to sound right.
As Jim turned around to leave, I willed his clever tote bag to snag on the packing supplies rack, or his clean white shoes to trip on the black extension cord running across the peeling floor. I willed the building to knock Jim off his pre-planned track so that he might look up and see me. It didn’t and he didn’t, and time was running out, so I took two steps out of line to block his way to the door. Jim kept walking towards me as if I had already corrected my mistake. He walked until he could touch me if he wanted, and then he made a subtle curve to the left so he didn’t have to. The door to the post office opened with the force of his body slamming against it. It whooshed closed again on its own and Jim was gone. It wasn’t even my turn at the counter yet.
I checked Jim’s email in my inbox when I got home. I checked his Google search results that evening, his Twitter in the morning, and around and around again every day for weeks. No new tweets or emails or results. No more Jim but the one I already had. I heard his request in my head over and over, but the old and new information refused to match up. The message now seemed demanding, exasperated.
“I need a quiet place to work.”
“I need a quiet place to work!”
I played Jim to myself on repeat while I worked on my desk for the Peace Street studio, ignoring the remaining “Dreidel and Latke” kits, “Traditional Dickens Feast” kits, a few Christmas hams. The tiny desk on my side of the mini studio was white and clean and had one small built-in drawer with a lock, and a red file cabinet on wheels that slid under with one push. Each drawer of the filing cabinet had neat little dividers to keep the pens separate from the scissors separate from the rulers. I lined my miniature chair in soft red fabric, more pink in some places from wear. It had a goose neck spine that let you lean back just enough, and casters that would stop turning unpredictably and then start again once you’d given up trying to fix them. It was my mother’s chair, the one she sat in every night after dinner to help me with homework or pay bills or talk on the phone to her sister. My mother complained about the chair constantly but when it finally broke years ago, I could see that she was sad to let it go.
I finished 39 ½ Peace Street a week before the second Christmas I spent alone. The miniature studio looked perfectly lived in—as if the two of us had left it for a long walk to stretch our legs. I took photos of it from all angles, lighting the space as if it were the middle of the day, then magic hour, and finally sunset. I uploaded them all to the shop and added a new item to my inventory:
“Artists’ Studio on Peace Street.
A warm space for two like-minded spirits to share. Abandoned special order—half off.”
No one bought it, not for Christmas and not the months after. I stopped hearing Jim’s voice in July. I deconstructed the Peace Street studio for parts and made a new kit: “Home Again.” I made one crisp IKEA swivel chair that could be assembled with a tiny set of Swedish instructions I printed out and folded into a perfect square. I included slats of new blond wood, a set of fog-grey window blinds, and tiny fresh white terry cloth towels for the bathroom. Finally, I added my mother’s old chair, pre-made, no assembly required. My own full-sized blinds still hung at a resigned angle. The middle cushion of my full-sized green couch kept sinking further into its frame. But that kit turned out to be my biggest seller ever.
Rebecca Ackermann is a writer, designer, and artist living in San Francisco. Her short fiction has appeared in Catapult, hex literary, Jellyfish Review, and elsewhere, and has been nominated for Best American Short Stories, Best of the Net, and Best Small Fictions. Her essays have been published by MIT Tech Review, Electric Lit, and The New York Times, among other outlets. She is an alum of the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop and the In Cahoots residency, and she reads fiction for Split Lip and Okay Donkey magazines.