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The Small-Town Allure

A little while later, we were gathered around the table again, as though nothing had happened. Except that when the food arrived, brought by a sheepish and silent Greg, nobody touched it. We simply drank. We were like survivors in a lifeboat, afflicted with an overwhelming thirst. Ann Brown stared at her husband as if, any minute, he might disappear. Every so often she'd turn to me, shake her head, and murmur, "You just saved my husband's life." Then she would fall to staring at him again.

The Browns drove me back to my hotel. In the spectral darkness of the car Ann recounted how Dick had driven home to pick her up after my reading. On the way to dinner, she said, he'd suddenly turned to her and declared how much he loved her and their daughter, and how excited he was for the rest of their lives together—not the typical speech that quiet, modest Dick Brown was known for making, even in private. And then, said Ann, they'd arrived at the restaurant, sat down, and a few minutes later he was choking to death.

While Ann talked, Dick was silent. But he was nodding, as if to say, Yes, that's how it was.

He'd been with me, a total stranger, all that day. He'd been courteous, generous, a perfect guide, showing me Kansas City. And among the sights were certain intimate symbols of his own life, certain places, certain people, certain things whose meanings only he could know. He had shown me those too, and told me their stories. And in so doing, I believe, he'd come to see his life, almost inadvertently, for a day, through a stranger's eyes, and had been filled, quietly, with feelings of gratitude and wonder at his own good fortune.

That, in brief, is what happened to me one day in Kansas City. It remains in my memory as a small story of humdrum travel disrupted by an act of genuine connection: that rare occurrence when the ordinary proves to be anything but, and a place you'd already marked as forgettable turns out to be a place you'll always remember.

JOHN BURNHAM SCHWARTZ is the author, most recently, of the novel Claire Marvel (Vintage).

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