Choices, but none that I am in love with. I came upon this conundrum in the ordinary way: over commitment, under achievement. The usual stuff. On the corporate ladder looking at the glass ceiling one day, selling everything to open a coffee shop in a forgettable place the next.
Two years ago, I chose to open my new business in Silverbrook for all the right reasons. The first was location. I wasn’t buying a Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks franchise and neither of those were convenient to the area. The second was demographics. Silverbrook is a bedroom community. It has no local jobs to speak of. It’s on the way to Hartford, Willimantic and Providence and myriad places between. The third was price. I was able to buy the white clapboard building which once housed a small restaurant on the ground level and an owner apartment on the second floor for a song. And, last of all, I was familiar with the place. I’d grown up in Tolland; it was the kind of place the wilder kids liked to go.
Silverbrook isn’t so much of a place as it is the memory of one. The southern edge is identified by a state historic marker on route 74 identifying the location of the old Silverbrook mill. The mill isn’t there any more. The hurricane some years back took down what was left of wood framed second and third stories leaving rubble and broken brick walls. That got bulldozed later so that all remains is the sign marking a vacant lot.
The area called Silverbrook consists of a half mile stretch of the highway, which the locals call Main Street and one intersection, Spring Street. The northern boundary, which is is more east than north, as is typical for New England highways, is the old abandoned high school, an institution that has been vacant since before I was in school.
My business, Mort’s Coffee and More, is located at the intersection of Spring and Main. Next door is a larger two story clapboard building with three storefronts. The left and right are vacant. Sandwiched between is Marchant Frames and Collectibles, owned by Doris Marchant. Across the street is the Silverbrook Animal Hospital and shelter, Luce Morgan, DVM. It’s a low brick building in front that sprawls back along Spring Street in a series of wood frame additions and a parking lot in the rear. Next up is an ugly brick office building that might have at one time been offices for the mill. Now it housed a realtor, tax account, insurance and space for rent. Next door to that is the Silverbrook United Methodist church built in the tradition of a New England church with white clapboards and a steeple. The rest of Main Street is populated with crumbling old houses, once nice single family homes, most now converted to low rent apartments.
Despite Silverbrook having not much of a downtown, it had been a thriving mill town back in the days when factory power was a matter of having a source of running water. The mills continued producing sweaters and blankets well into the age of electricity until the whole textile industry went south. That was before I was born, so all I know about it is empty lot at the other end of Main. Factory on one end, high school on the other end of the street. And everything a small community might need between the two. But that was a long time ago. Now, Silverbrook is nothing but a bedroom community and Main Street is the road folks take to get to the highway.
Which is why it is possible to make a living operating a coffee shop on Main Street. A decent amount of commuter traffic and my prices are cheaper than Dunkin Donuts. I don’t have a drive up window, but I offer curb service. Marcy Robins, my part timer, stands on the sidewalk taking orders and collecting money while I fill and deliver the orders. It works pretty well. Curb service operates from 7:30 a.m. until 9:15 a.m. After that Marcy leaves for college and I work the counter alone. I put on fresh pots for the locals. Dr Luce Morgan, the vet, usually stops in first, followed by Ernie Thompson, the realtor, and George Dever, who sells insurance. The only time I see the accountant, Brian Baker, is when he runs out of K-cups. Besides that, there will usually be a few professionals meeting or working because my wi-fi is better than the Pannara’s by the highway. Even though I bake a fresh batch of muffins every morning by 6:00 a.m., no one ever says that they come for the muffins. Even though I sell out before 11 when the sandwiches and cookies are delivered.
During the slow periods, I wonder if the notion of a small town community is dead, or if there is some way to revive it for a place like Silverbrook. I don’t like the idea of people finding their community some place other than where they live. Can the internet substitute for face to face interaction? How much do you feel with selfies and emoticons?
Doris, from the frame shop, and I talk about this when she stops by for lunch. She fancies my coffee shop as the heart of the community, where locals come by to connect, swap news and share ideas. That may be true for the handful of local business and home owners struggling to keep Silverbrook alive as an identity, but for larger community who shared the same zip code, the shop was either a convenient place to stop for their morning caffein or so far off the center of their daily lives that it would be a chore to even think about it.
Doris sees me as a kind of mayor and town hall for the neighborhood. I think that’s grandiose. I have a bulletin board beside the front door for lost cat notices and the like. Marcy decorates it with seasonal paper cut-outs—bats and pumpkins for October, turkeys for November—so that it doesn’t look too empty. Doris does a seasonal window display of items from her shop. I don’t know how many customers it attracts for her, but it makes my place look a lot nicer.
After lunch, I pack up the leftovers and take them across the street to Luce. I know it sounds weird, but I like the smell of animal odors and I find it relaxing to look in on Luce’s four-footed patients and boarders.
The sandwiches go to the make-shift pantry in the last addition to the building. It’s sort of a self-service food bank that Luce manages for families in the area. It stocks food and supplies for people and pets. I bring over my counter tips and what I don’t sell. Some days it’s a lot, others, not so much.
Luce and I are both in our late thirties. We went to the same high school. She was a couple of years ahead so we didn’t have classes together, but we were both flag carriers for the marching band. She keeps her hair the same shade of blonde she had in high school. I had orange streaks put in mine to celebrate the fall colors. Her style is denim and flannel. My style, well it hasn’t been all that predictable since I left the corporate world and became an entrepreneur. That day I was wearing a black leather mini-skirt, a vintage Grateful Dead tee-shirt, and red Nike’s. The calendar said that it was October, but the temperature still felt like late summer. Global warming, what’s not to love?
It used to be that we mostly swapped war stories, customer encounters that might not be particularly routine, just to convince ourselves that as small business owners we were doing the right thing. That was until things began to get interesting at the old high school.
“Have you heard about anything going on at the old high school, hun?” Luce likes to address people and pets by their given names. My given name is Sharon Mortimer. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always hated the name Sharon, so as soon as I could get away with it, I went by the name Mort. Luce can’t bring herself to call me Mort, so she uses terms of endearment, like hun.
“Is someone finally going to tear it down?” The school grounds served the locals as a park. The crumbling building had been boarded up for years.
“No, not that. I was walking Gordo last night and it sounded like there was music coming from the gym.”
“Kids and boom boxes? No trespassing and danger signs are like offering up a dare. Something needs to be done with that place before a kid falls through a rotten floor and kills himself.” I should know. I’d nearly broken a leg in there when I was a kid.
“It didn’t sound like that. You know, it was more like a live music concert. Early rock and roll. Not what kids are listening to today. More like what our parents might have listened to when they were young.”
“Someone in the neighborhood with a stereo? You know how sound can travel funny ways outside.”
“Yea, that must have been it. Music coming from somewhere else and just echoing off the building. But it was kind of cool. Made me and Gordo want to dance.” She paused to bump her hip against the shoulder of the unofficial mascot of the unofficial food bank, one of the ugliest dogs in God’s creation.
Gordo is a small spirit in the body the size of a great dane. He’s not any breed in particular but has mostly the poorer qualities of several large breeds. He’s not pretty. He’s sloppy and bathes in all the wrong places, but there’s something about him that makes you want to give him a hug anyway. He belongs to George, the realtor across the street, but spends most of the time with the vet either for grooming or being patched up for one thing or another. I think Gordo is in love with Luce. I heard that he doesn’t get along well with George’s wife.
The notion of the vet dancing in the moonlight with Gordo was a little too disturbing to consider. I could picture her dancing with most other critters of the four-footed persuasion. With that dog all I could imagine was those paws that were twice the size of my number nines tripping her and the pair rolling down the slope that leads up to the school like two blow-up lawn ornaments tossed in the wind.
I think they perceived my thoughts because as Luce turned toward the dog, he reached up both front paws to set them on her shoulders. Then his back feet lost their footing, he twisted mid-air, came down on one flank while his tail wiped boxes of pasta off the shelf. I went for the pasta while my friend lunged to contain the dog’s destructive momentum. No bones broken this time, but he limped for a few days after that.
People who hang out in coffee shops do so to meet, gossip or read. The readers don’t share much, although they often tip better than the gossipers. I keep their cups full of their chosen beverage and leave them to their Kindles or their papers.
Those using one of my tables for a meeting place like their beverages filled and the hostess to stay out of their business. Once they learn that the tips go to fund the food bank, they are more generous.
From the gossipers I learned that Luce wasn’t the only one to notice music coming from the abandoned high school. As always, and especially during the spooky month of October, kids snuck into the place on dares, for cheap thrills or to terrorize more naive youngsters with imagined hauntings.
I still remember the first time a gang of us kids went up there for an initiation. The once-grand main entrance was littered with all the props of make-believe violence: flickering candles, abandoned clothing, old animal bones and copious amounts of red paint artfully splattered on the floor and walls. To the left was the old principal’s office where it was rumored that you could still hear the thwacks of kids being beaten for misconduct. Once as an initiator rather than an initiate, I hid in there and beat a stick against a leather jacket stretched over my backpack. On the right was the old English classroom where supposedly a kid named Jamie Portman hung himself while reciting “The Raven.” Sometimes especially creative orientations included a hidden sound system playing scary bird sounds. Ahead were the main staircases going up and down. At the far end of the hall to the right was the old gym. To get there, you had to pass through a gauntlet of creepy stuff dangling from the ceiling and a floor so broken up and rough that you could easily twist an ankle in the gloom. The only light was wan moonlight filtered in from transoms above classroom doors that were either locked or otherwise fixed shut. To make it to the gym was the objective. In daylight, it probably wasn’t much of a challenge, but in near total darkness, it was harrowing business.
That kids still performed the same rights of passage was no secret. It was practically the only custom that the area called Silverbrook had as a community. I’m all for custom, but why couldn’t it be a strawberry festival, or skunk cabbage cotillion?
These days, there weren’t as many kids willing to risk life and limb to explore a condemned building, which was a good thing since the place got more unsteady every year. Still, there would be a few crazy adventurers, or maybe others looking to score drugs or sex. When the activities got noticed, the neighbors would call the state police who, during daylight, would look around, find someone to put new locks on the doors and board up any broken windows, and stop by my shop for fresh coffee.
Officer Vinny just crossed into the four-decade. He’s good looking, even for a cop, black hair, brilliant blue eyes, and six foot two of lean muscle. He’s divorced—single girls have to know these things—and still straight. Not that he’s my type; I can’t see spending my life with someone who writes speeding tickets for a living. We’re friendly, though, which is why he always stops by when he’s patrolling this area.
I didn’t have to ask him about the goings on up at the school. My customers, namely Ernie Thompson, began grilling the officer as soon as he stepped up to the counter.
“Been up to the high school again?” the insurance agent asked. If there was anyone that wanted that building erased from the scenery, it was him. He said it was bad for business; caused the property values around here to be depressed.
“Yeap.” He didn’t have order, I was already making him his extra-large Afternoon Delight, skim-milk, four sugars.
“Where did they break in this time?” Ernie, balding and in his late fifties had a way of making anything he didn’t like sound like a major offense.
“Nowhere that I can tell. The place is tight as a drum.” The officer took the lid off his take-out cup to stir his coffee. He claimed that I never stirred it enough.
“I know there were kids up there. I heard the music myself.”
“Echoes from somewhere else, maybe. No one has been in the building.”
Ernie had his hands in his pockets, jingling the change from his hazelnut decaf, one cream, two sugars. He did that when he was bothered by something. “I don’t think so,” he said to the officer, “there’s something going on up there. If you guys would come up when we called instead of when you get around to it, you’d know.”
“I hear you man. But it’s the cutbacks, you know. We have to take care of the real emergencies first.” He put the lid back on his coffee.
Vinny gave me a quick nod goodbye and left. This was an old, tired argument and he didn’t feel like getting into it with Ernie again. I understood. When Ernie starts in on something, it can be like a runaway train with soft brakes. It will stop eventually, but it will be a long ride before you can get off.
Ernie looked at me, hoping to continue the conversation. I smiled and ducked into the kitchen for supplies. The napkins needed replenishing at that exact moment.