There was a light, wet snow falling this evening as I drove up on I-91 from Northampton to participate in Charlie Hunter’s art discussion group at Oona’s, in Bellows Falls, Vermont. Big bully trucks roared by unfazed and sprayed swills of icy, grimy spit on my windshield. I pulled in for gas at a convenience store and did a once-over with the brush. Five minutes later, I parked in front of Village Square Booksellers.
I was surprised by the sizeable number of cars parked downtown. When I slipped into Oona’s, no one was there yet, so I took a walk around the village. I love to stroll at night in wintry Vermont towns, and this was a special one. With the Christmas decorations up and the wet flakes looking oversized amid the street lights, I felt like I was in some little Austrian hamlet.
At the gymnastics studio, there were dozens of slim, graceful children bouncing and twirling earnestly. The wide plate glass windows of the storefront created the impression that the street was a theater and the studio was the stage. The bookstore was closed, but the owners were still working, enhancing the feeling of nighttime activity. As I approached the historic and recently restored Exner Block, I noticed what sounded like a rock band rehearsing, with the drummer taking a solo. The sound kept getting louder. Between the showcases of colorful and mostly celebratory paintings, a large drum circle filled a room with their spirited improvisations.
I walked past Oona’s again. There were a couple of men at the bar. I walked on. Two coatless young guys were carrying stuff back and forth from car to apartment, and I couldn’t figure out if they were moving in or moving out. The Miss Bellows Falls Diner was taking the night off. “What Women Want” was playing at the New Falls Cinema. Two employees uniformed in red shirts chatted by the popcorn counter. The wedge-shaped block on the south corner was dark, and I could almost hear it cry out for a brightly-lit coffee shop or even a shadowy jazz club.
I stood sheltered in the doorway at Sam’s Outfitters and watched as a few people wandered into Oona’s past a young woman who was dragging on a cigarette. I felt like a character in a Film Noir movie. When I noticed Charlie Hunter coming up the street, I walked up to him and announced:
“Hi. Remember me? I’m the writer who’s been visiting your town a lot lately. Nice to see you again. I decided to come up and talk about it.”
Charlie graciously introduced me to some of the folks, including Dot, who was friendly and talkative. I felt comfortable already. When Charlie assembled several tables in sort of a circle and beckoned us to start, I grabbed an O’Douls and joined them. We went around the circle and introduced ourselves: Charlie, Audrey, Mary Ann, Tom, Jim, Peter, Joe (me), Dot, Robert, and Roberta. Each of us had ten minutes to talk about our artistic projects. We shared poetry, photographs, even an idea for a creative tour guide (Charlie).
Facing the window, I could see the snow still coming down, and the red and white Sam’s sign glowing back at me. Oona’s was playing moody jazz. At one point, I recognized “Kind of Blue,” my favorite CD by Miles Davis. For two hours, it all seemed to fit together. As I left, I told someone that I thought the village was headed in the right direction, and I was excited about its burgeoning recovery. He said, “We’re not looking for this place to boom. We just want to see it function again.”
On the way home, I listened to Tom Baehr’s lovely dulcimer music (I traded one of my books for his CD). The night was bright, and I could see the silhouettes of barns in the snowy fields along the highway.