The Bottle Shop, a mystery and memory.

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A VG Serial: Hills of Eden

Episode 6

The old man looked up at me from over his bifocals that hung precariously from his nose. His wizened face seemed shrunk to his skull, the skin cracked with the desiccated rivulets of age lines, but his crystal blue eyes sparkled with youth. He wore a green eyeshade, faded purple shirt, elastic armbands on the sleeves, a vest that showed signs of moth larvae having fed on the cloth, and loose gray trousers that must have been cut from a fairly expensive bolt.

His shop bristled with a clutter of objects, artifacts, actually, that seemed more appropriate to the last century than this one. Certainly there was nothing in there of this present era, yet the sign outside had not proclaimed the proprietor to be a dealer in antiques. In fact, the sign outside appeared quite modern, freshly painted in the latest Branson vogue.

THE BOTTLE SHOP, the sign read.

Amos B. Abernathy, Proprietor

The fogged windows had not allowed me to see inside. I stood in the doorway and wondered why I had never seen the shop before. It was right there on West Highway 76, crammed in between music shows and motels, go-cart rides and water slides. All of the other establishments were familiar to me, but not this one.

Curious, I went on inside. The man seated at the ancient roll-top desk had to be Amos B. Abernathy. Good name. Uncommon in this day and age. There wasn’t a bottle in sight, oddly enough.

Just Abernathy, peering at me through those tiny lenses. “Is this an antique shop?” I asked.

“No, sirree,” said Abernathy. “Everything’s brand spanking new.”

I looked around more carefully. Were these replicas? The items on sale did look new, yet they appeared to have been manufactured more than a hundred years ago. The brass shone, the wood gleamed, the pewter looked freshly cast.

Eccentric old coot, I thought. “Your sign says Bottle Shop.”

“Yes, sirree, sir,” cackled the old gentleman. “Right this way.”

He stood up and I noticed he was wearing spats. He had been writing in a ledger with a turkey quill pen. Puzzled, I followed him through a curtain at the back of the store. There almost seemed to be an atmospheric change between the two locations.

We seemed to step into a strange world of shifting light, wispy, uncertain colors, and a heady stream of exotic aromas.

The long shelves attached to the walls of the storeroom were lined with rows of various sized bottles which were filled with unknown substances.

“These are my bottles,” said Abernathy.

“They all seem to be filled with something.”

“Indeed they are.” The faint trace of a smile flickered at the corners of the old man’s mouth.

“What’s in them?” I asked.

“Would you like to see?” He took a gallon bottle off the top shelf. The glass was clear and I could see a swirling mass inside. He handed it to me, somewhat gingerly. I held it close and looked inside.

Clouds, small and full, floated in a blue sea of a miniature sky. It looked like the sky over Table Rock Lake. Mesmerized, I seemed to be able to smell the cedars and oaks, the fresh lake air, although the bottle was tightly closed.

“What is it?” I asked. “It looks like…”

“Like the sky,” he said. “Here’s another.”

I set the first bottle down and took the other one from him.  The bottle was pure blue inside, flawless cobalt, but the mass seemed to be moving as though a wind were stirring within. Looking into its depths, I felt as though I were lying on a high treeless hill looking up at a summer sky. I looked at all of the other bottles. They were many-hued, orderly, beautiful in their neat rows on the shelves. Each one seemed to contain some different vision of the Ozarks sky. Now I could isolate the fragrances in the room. There was the faint scent of honeysuckle and morning glories, the smell of the lake before the sun has warmed its waters, the crisp aroma of roses, the winey scent of daffodils, the musty tang of deep-woods cedars wafting on an afternoon breeze.

Fascinated, I looked at each bottle as the old man stood silently by, watching me.

There was one bottle with ribbons of clouds colored gold by the setting sun. There was another with high thin altocumulus stretched all through the container. In still another, I saw silvery cirrocumulus lit by dazzling sunbeams. Each one seemed to contain a special part of our sky here in the Ozarks hills, a miniature fragment of the heavens. A chill crept up my arm, the hairs on the back of my neck rose prickly as a spider’s thread.

There was more.

Some bottles contained sections of a mighty river, white-capped and frothy over the rapids, serene and motionless on wide bends. It seemed I saw wild trout leaping in one bottle, a flock of geese rise off the miniature surface of another. One bottle had what appeared to be a spring bubbling up from a deep cavern, spilling over flat stones, into a woodland brook. My heart caught in my throat to see those wondrous, unexplainable things.

“I don’t understand,” I said, turning to the man at my side.

“Relics,” he said. “For those who have forgotten what it’s like to see blue sky, wild water and sun. Look at this one.”

He handed me a bottle that radiated a pure bronze light at the very bottom, then turned the color of peach in the middle and shimmered golden at the top.

“Sunrise over the White River,” he said. “The old White River, before it was dammed up, tamed.”

“Incredible.”

“These are very valuable bottles, my friend,” said the man, his voice a serious rasp in his throat. “They are worth a great deal. In fact, they are as precious as life itself.”

“You mean these represent atmospheres that we no longer have on earth?”

“Yes. The pure air, the clean water, is all gone. This is the last place in the world where people can see the sky and taste the air. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” I said. “I think I do. It’s been some time since I’ve been to the big cities, but it was very hard to breathe there. May I buy a bottle or two? For souvenirs?”

“Oh, no. They’re not for sale, my friend. They’re not for sale at all. You see, this is a museum, this bottle shop. This is where all of the beautiful vapors of this planet, the last airs and humours of life on earth are stored.”

“But, it’s not all gone. Not yet,” I insisted.

“Isn’t it?”

He led me back into the other room before I could say any more. He ushered me straight out the front door, back onto West Highway 76. I stepped into a sunny world that was every bit like a magnification of the substances inside the bottles.

Dazed, I walked to my car, got in. I drove to the park on Table Rock, near the dam, to the place where the pretty girls go in summer, where the boys bring their boom boxes and Frisbees, where children fly kites and swim by the shore. The lake was dancing like a blue mirror. There was laughter. A few clouds floated cottony over the hills. The sky was a piercing cobalt.

The old geezer was crazy, I thought to myself.

Later, I drove back down West 76, stopped and parked the car. I looked for the sign that read “The Bottle Shop.”

It wasn’t there.

Instead, there was only a vacant building, ramshackle and weatherworn. I  walked up and down the boulevard a long time before I gave up and went home.

It felt good to walk through our woods, to look out at Bull Shoals Lake from our back porch. The air was clean and fresh. The sky was clear. What a wonderful time and place to be alive in, I thought.

It was good to breathe deep of the good air and to lookup at the sky.

Hills of Eden will be published every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Please click the title, Hills of Eden, to read more about Jory Sherman and his books.

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