Recently I went to a huge sale held by a man who cleans out local estates, auctioning the best stuff and selling the rest out of his warehouse. Rows of tables filled the room, all of the covered with boxes filled with everything from commemorative plates to old VHS tapes — all the detritus that fills up our storage spaces and junk drawers. I was moving quickly through the rows when I stopped short. In a box, mixed in with plastic jewelry and old pens, was an old bottle with a photo of a boat shoved into it. It was just my kind of thing: a small object involving old paper and old glass. But that wasn’t the reason I stopped short at the sight of it. What really surprised me about the bottle is that I had seen the very same one before, about ten years ago, when I sold it to a customer in my little shop on Main Street. More than that, the old bottle had a vintage photo inside because I was the one who curled the photo up and pushed it through the neck of the bottle, like a message.
I made a bunch of these photos-in-a-bottle for my shop. All the bottles were old, all of them were different from each other, and eventually, someone always came in who understood the spirit of the thing and found it charming enough to buy. And that was that. When merchandise left the shop, whether it was something I made, or something I found, I never expected to see it again. In fact, like anyone with a store, I desperately hoped that people wouldn’t return anything, ever.
This was how my retail store worked: I found things or made things, I brought them in the store and put them on display, someone came in, found something they liked, bought it, left with it, and then — I generally had no idea what happened. The object continued its life without me. Which meant I always hoped that the object went on to a better life. And I know for a fact that some of the pieces people bought from me had a very good time of it, heading directly to lovely places, installed in kitchens and living rooms that I would pay an admission fee just to look at. Some even traveled overseas to live in Europe (which made me just a little bit jealous).
It was bittersweet to see the bottle again. Because it was like recognizing an old friend. An old friend who has died, consigned to a graveyard of stuff. The whole warehouse, in fact, began to look like a graveyard to me, and everyone pawing through the stuff was there to exhume the bodies, picking them clean of anything of value. This little bottle with the curled-up photo wasn’t valuable of course; no one would have wanted it except me.
So I bought it, I took it home, and now it has another shot at existence, at least while I’m around to keep an eye on it. And now, every time I look at it, I see a message in a bottle. A message sent from the self of ten years ago to my older self of today. Something a little ominous, about mortality, the passage of time, the obsolescence of stuff. All of this stuff, passing from the living, to the dead, and then back again, if luck prevails. But sometimes — usually — it doesn’t.