The Town Center

When you were little, you threw rocks up against the shore that ricocheted with meaningless violence off of larger boulders settled by time. You did this without cause and without regard for anything but the boredom that forced you to do it. Some of these stones careened past your ear as they found their way back into the shallow waters. Some stuck hard in crevices between the heavier rocks.

The men disappeared down the street to drink coffee and the women weren’t invited. Some of the men disappeared because their wives were drunks and divorce wasn’t an option back then. Not if they had retired with distinction from the service and certainly not if they survived tours in two different wars.

Sometimes they met there to escape the shadows of their own fathers, and sometimes they followed those shadows into the same familiar dark places with hope that maybe if they could fuck it up just a little bit less, it would be ok. 

Sometimes they just needed a paper and some night crawlers or a six pack. All of these things could be found at the Corner Store.

The men talked. They talked about sports. They talked about their artesian wells. They talked about politics. They also argued about these things and more. Arguing here was safe and acceptable. They sometimes argued for so long that they were ejected from the very premises in which they sought solace. Sometimes, one or more of these men was banned from the corner store for a period of weeks or months for poor behavior. But they were always allowed back, because stubbornness doesn’t apply to a small business owner in the geographical center of a small town. Such was the nature of things.

Think about this for a second: this was a community so close-knit that you could be banned from a corner store for argumentativeness. A community that enforces norms of behavior – some, admittedly with negative consequences – but norms that make a small community that quadruples in size for three months every year feel like one you’d still want to be part of when it was just a really small town the rest of the time. This corner store wouldn’t just be a corner store then, would it?

It would be a Town Center.

The coffee was good, too. There’s no way for you to know that – you were searching for minnows and crayfish under those rocks near the shore back then. But the coffee was good. Those men found solace in that coffee in that place and in that time and so do you because some things get passed down. And the taste of that coffee more than 30 years ago is one of those things.

By the time you were old enough to experience it yourself, there was a new sign above the front door at the place on the old maps that says Wolfeborough Center. It won’t change that much, they said. The tables in the corner stayed for a few years, then without warning, they were gone.

Without a table to sit in, the men stood outside by their trucks for a few minutes then returned to their families. Habits changed, but the store still stood. A place to get gas, a paper, some scratch tickets, a banana. And they still had the coffee.

One day, years later, you came back to this familiar place and noticed the night crawlers were gone, the home-made snacks were gone, the beer was a little more generic – no more Molsen Golden and no more LaBatts. You poured yourself a cup of coffee in a branded cup and waited in line while 2 men, discussing a business matter, hurried out the door. It was just another fucking 7-Eleven.

Back in the car, you took one sip, then billowed the soot of years of worn down machinery and malaise out the already open window of your rental car. 

The coffee had gone bad.

It was sour. Maybe you can wade through the jewelry and the yoga pants and preteens who have never felt such as a cold breeze across their shoulders and grab a cup at Lydia’s on your way out of town. That woman with the golden doodle puppy might be there.

Back at the lake, the wind has grown a little colder. Soon the stones will get smashed and turned over by the bowl of ice and snow, conjuring frostbite in your unprepared fingers. But for now, the minnows and crayfish dance across the shores in unison, arguing about one thing or another for no reason at all.

You look down at your phone and pull up a map of your current location. A few miles down the road, in the geographic middle of the town, a little dot that says “Wolfeboro Center” still pops up where the building stands.

But the town center is gone.