I try to schedule field trips into my writing life as often as possible. Sitting at a desk and staring at a sheet of paper can dull the senses. It contracts you. The Out There gets lost in all of the In Here. It’s nice to get out every once in a while and wander about the world.
That’s how I found Archie’s store. Because when you are driving down a lonely country road and you happen across a dilapidated building masquerading as an antiques store and the sign on the marquee says Dead People’s Junk, you have to stop and look. You just do. Very often the places that seem too good to be true are true after all.
The creaky wooden door finally gave way with a hard push, ringing the bell that sat suspended over the archway. The old man behind the counter—“Name’s Archie,” he said, and then added, “You break it, you buy it, even if t’ain’t worth nuthin’”—offered me both a Coke and the general layout of the building. “Furniture’s in the back. Art—and I use that term loosely—is to the right. Guns are over by the far wall.”
I sipped and walked, letting my mind wander. Antiques are such because of their age and their scars. They have endured through the years, survived countless moves and deaths and threats of the landfill. And it is because they have endured that they are all rich in story. Antiques are a form of living history.
That’s what I was after in the land of Dead People’s Junk. The stories.
Like the kitchen table that sat stately and dignified in the corner of the back room. Solid oak, with the worn shine of countless years of meals and gatherings. The price tag made me wince and whistle a long exhale. 1927 was written on the tag beneath the dollar amount, as if to justify the value. I took a step back. This was not something I was interested in breaking.
But still, a part of me felt the price would be more than satisfactory if the story of the table was included along with the chairs and the center leaf. Two years after it was built, the stock market crashed. Then Hitler rose. The Japanese attacked. The bomb was dropped. Kennedy was shot. Interspersed between those were times both hard and soft, the ebbs and flows of the great tide that was life. Who had sat at that table through the years? What family had broken bread there? What joys did they share, and what sorrows? To me, those answers—those possibilities—were worth more than the quality of the construction or the grain of the wood.
I exercised my mind in that manner for about an hour, moving through the crowded aisles of castoff belongings. There was a rocking horse I imagined once belonged to a small boy who grew up to be deathly afraid of horses after taking a tumble from that wooden substitution on one long ago Sunday afternoon. A desk where a young lady once sat to write a Dear John letter to her boyfriend at war. An opulent set of china—Never Used, said the tag—that was an expensive wedding gift to a couple who chose a simple life over the extravagant lives of their parents.
I roamed and touched nearly every surface of every object, listening. I thought about the sign out by the road and wondered if that had been Archie’s idea. I wanted to ask him. But by the time I made it back around, he was asleep in his chair. His half-finished bottle of Coke sat by the cash register—an antique in itself. Orange crumbs from the pack of crackers he’d snacked on littered the front of his shirt.
I managed to leave without waking him and pointed my truck toward home. I was satisfied. In my opinion, no better field trip could be had.
But I thought about that sign again as I passed it and decided it was all wrong. That was not Dead People’s Junk. Archie’s store may have been filled with remnants of the past, but they also spoke to our shared future.
To a time when perhaps our own dining room tables will be stuck in the corner, and when people will come and touch them and wonder. That brings me a great deal of comfort. Because we leave more than our belongings to this world when we pass on to the next.
We leave our stories, too.
As speaking of stories and writing and whatnot, my friend Matt Appling posted an interview with yours truly over at his blog, The Church of No People. He asks some not-so-typical questions, and he’s giving away a copy of Snow Day. You can find the interview here.