He came to me first in a dream, as a crippled dog angling down a country lane, puzzled by his sudden age, his bum paw, the dry stick clamped between his teeth. I'd been expecting this dream for a very long time, and I woke up moving.
Not a day later I saw him at the back of the church basement of Trinity Congregational, cluching a cardboard coffee cup hard and close to his chest. The way he held that cup was the way he held everything: his thoughts, his passions, all his ordinary wishes, those poor dry sticks.
He was not a handsome man. Flattened atop his broad, pink scalp were thin filaments of hair that glistened like beach sand. I paused near him, catching the clean scent of laundry from his cotton shirt, pressed and buttoned to the top and tucked so tightly into his trousers that a roll of stomach showed all the way around like a second belt. His tie was the sort you see a lot in this part of Massachusetts, the navy-blue emblem of an accountant or middle manager. Up close I could see that despite his translucent hair and soft waist he was not yet out of his thirties, not much older than me. And yet he seemed old, the way all sad people do.
There are two kinds of people in the world. One kind likes the half-empty glass, the I-told-you-so, the nobody-knows-the troubles-I've seen. John Reed was the other kind, only he didn't know it yet. He had come for an Alanon meeting, not realizing that the Alton town council had kicked the Alanons out for the evening in the expectation of a bigger-than-usual crowd for a zoning hearing. My next-door neighbor, Danforth Outlet Centers, INcorporated, with whom I had a long and acrimonious history, intended to purchase the old ball field and the Osgood block. On all of East Main, my house and beauty shop was the one holdout from the "before" version of Alton, which was in the process of being transmorgrified from an expiring mill town into the outlet-store shopping capital of eastern Massachussetts.
Which is more or less what I was explaining to John Reed as he stood in the back with his cooling coffee. "In other words," I told him, "your meeting is canceled."
"Oh," he said. "Oh, well. Sorry." He put the coffee down quickly, as if he'd stolen it, and made to leave.
"No," I told him, returning the cup to his hands. "Stay," I said. And he did.
I sat down front, next to a woman from one of the real-estate offices that had popped up on every streetcorner since we'd started selling our town brick by brick. It had seemed like good news at first, those engineer types in good suits eyeballing our peeling shingles, our weedy yards, our boarded-up mill. But that was only step one, as it turned out. I had a pretty good idea whose side the real-estate woman was on, so when the call came for comments from the citizenry I leapt to the podium before she could so much as lift an eyelash.
Although the basement of Trinity Congregational is sizable, one of the largest meeting spaces in Alton, from the podium I had an excellent view of John Reed. I looked him over to make sure he was the right crippled dog, which, as we all know, the world is full of. He looked up at me with a face round as bread, his rose-brown eyes squinted ever so slightly above the ample arcs of his cheeks.
"Hello," I said to those assembled, who knew me well from meetings past. "I'm Rita."
"Hello, Rita," John said from the back, very softly, which of course is waht you say at an Alanon meeting, which this wasn't. He blushed to a shade of purple, too mortified even to get up and leave, which was a relief to me.
I tapped my index cards to even them up. "When I was ninth-grader at Alton High," I began, "I took an aptitude test and topped the chart in a category called 'spatial perception.' Back then I considered it a useless skill, but lately it's been coming in awfully handy." A Danforth rep in the second row rubbed his face, his sweaty fingers spreading peevishly through his hair. John Reed leaned forward, gripping the back of the chair in front of him as if he meant to drive it. "I see two towns when I walk these streets," I went on. "It's been long enough now that people can hardly remember what Alton looked like--before. But I can spatially perceive what used to be. I can go to the Broad Street Starbucks, stand on the new sidewalk, and point to the exact spot where the wooden threshold of the sewing shop once met the old sidewalk. And I remember the one worn place in the wood where the door opened and shut a hundred times a day."
I believe John Reed was the only one listening.
"Thank you," said the mayor. The other council members stirred at the table, eager to move on.
"I'm not quite finished," I said. "We can pretend nothing died here, that we're all pioneers on some kind of frontier prepared ahead of time by the hired hands, a pleasant town on a river with lots and lots of ploeasant places to shop, safe from the howl of the city, a bedroom community where people are hardly ever in their beds what with all the meals out and the jogging on the new river path and all that last-minute rushing for the train. But in the mantime, just downriver behind a screen of trees, there's an empty paper mill abandoned in teh weeds like an exhausted elephant left to rot in a field."
For a moment nobody said anything, then the Danforth rep called out, "And our point is?"
"My point is you've taken enough already," I said. "It's wrong to erase things." Before I stepped away from the podium I turned toward the council members and added: "My father made paper her. That was not nothing."
After another pause, I got a smattering of applause. There were still afew of us left.
John Reed was edging toward the door, so instead of resuming my seat I beelined to the back of the room and heaved myself into his path.
"Do you have a name?" I asked quietly. He looked like somebody from the "before" Alton, like somebody I might have gone to high school with.
"John," he murmured. Then he made a sweet kind of bowing motion with his head. "John Reed."
"John Reed." I sidled into the only space between him and the door. The new year had brought in some frigid air that seeped through every door and window, reminding me that January was about the worst time of year to expect people to begin anew, to brim over with resolutions when the earth gave back nothing but naked trees and frozen thermometers. Still, people do. They begin and begin.
I motioned him outside, away from the clabber of voices behind the council table. We stood in the cold street, looking at each other.
"That was, that was a very good speech," he said. "I liked the part about the elephant." He swallowed nervously. "The speeches at Alanon aren't quite as interesting."
"You know, I went to a few Alanon meetings myself right after I left Layton," I told him. "He's my ex-husband."
"Oh," he said. "Well, I'm sorry for your troubles."
"Don't be. Ancient history." I folded my arms against the cold, sizing him up, trying to figure out how exactly he might ned my help. "If you're the Anon," I asked him, "who's the Al? Your wife?"
"It's my brother," he said. "I'm not married."
"Does it help?" I asked. "Those meetings didn't help me much with Layton."
"They help some," he said. He paused. "I just listen. I don't talk or anything He blushed again. "Except for that hello part at the beginning."
"Maybe you should try talking," I suggested. "Might help you get over that shyness."