Why hurry her unlikely story, Maureen Kenyon was asking herself. Obviously her audience was totally engaged. Even Lane, who thought he knew what she had to say, was beginning to sense there was something more than he expected. In the meantime she was quite enjoying the sight of their collective anxiety.
“Here’s the deal,” she began, finally ready to continue. “We all understood that Lane’s scheme to fill empty houses with homeless folks was a non-starter. Right? I know he meant well. And he was certainly right that lots of fellows need shelter. But it could never happen the way he was thinking of.
“There are too many very powerful interests who would have fought that idea tooth and nail. And I can’t say that I’d blame them. After all, if someone came along and told me I had to let a bunch of homeless guys set up housekeeping in my vacant rental property, I’d definitely raise a fuss. I’ll bet you would too.
“Anyway, just a few days after that idea died I was learning again that Lane was still a dreamer at heart.” Once more she was grinning at Marla. “By then he apparently had decided it was more important than ever that he find a job.”
That had Marla squirming.....wondering why it felt like a finger was being pointed at her? “You make it sound like I’m to blame for something,” she protested. “And I don’t understand why.”
“I suppose in a way you are,” Maureen nodded. “But in a good way. In fact, if it wasn’t for you, Lane might have been quite willing to sit out the winter, waiting for whatever work came along in the spring. Instead, it seemed like he was suddenly in a hurry, anxious to find something now. And I have a hunch you were the reason for that.”
By then it was Lane’s turn to reel in Maureen’s explanation before she got further off track. After all, the lady was supposed to be explaining their new project, not his relational issues.
“Come on, Maureen," he grumbled. "You’re bouncing all over the place. Can’t you get back to why you’re here....and what you came to tell us about?”
“Okay.” Maureen answered, grinning at his embarrassed urgency. “Here are the facts of it. Our Mission House has twelve beds, which we have to ration out each night.
"Robert has gone through that routine. He knows how it works, how there are usually three or four fellows waiting for each of the those beds.
“There are a lot of folks out there who we can’t help on any given night. Those are the ones who end up on the street, under the bridges, or down on the Bluff.
"Truth is, we have a very big need that’s not being met. In the summer those numbers increase, but sleeping outside isn’t so bad when it’s warm. But in the winter, after lots of the men go south, the weather is really tough on the ones who stay.
“On top of that, when the Merchants’ Association approached me this spring, looking for a way to get those people off the streets during the day, I didn’t have an answer. They were quite concerned, because homeless people loitering and panhandling on the street is not good for business.
“Anyway, when Lane and I first talked about his empty house idea we agreed there was a problem. When he learned that we couldn’t use empty houses to deal with that, he was disappointed. But instead of forgetting about it, he kept digging deeper.”
“And he found a way to help?” Sally asked, glancing over at her brother. “Is that why you’re here tonight?”
Draining her coffee, Maureen leaned back in her chair and prepared to take the backseat for a moment. “Why don’t I let Lane tell you about that?” she said. “After all, it was his idea that led to what comes next....including some things even he doesn’t know about.”
Maureen's unexpected introduction caught Lane by surprise. Why was she turning to him? What did he have to say? Hopefully his few words would not set her presentation back too far.
“I guess it begins with the obvious,” he began hesitantly, searching for the words to explain. “Like she said, there are lots of guys, and women too, who need help. This economy has been a killer for too many of us. I know the Mission House tries its best. So do the other shelters. But there’s only so much they can do. They’re nearly as broke as the rest of us. And they don’t have the space or the dollars to do more.
“But a few weeks back I stumbled on to something that I’d never noticed before. And it got me thinking. If you go out the back door of the Mission House, where the guys go to smoke, you’ll see that right across the alley is a big old warehouse.
"In the old days, when we were kids squirreling around downtown, that building was a tire warehouse....chock full of tires. But then the tire place closed. No one goes shopping for anything in that part of town any more....at least nothing legal. So the warehouse is sitting empty.”
“And?” Robert asked, ready to join the conversation. “What are you going to do with an empty warehouse?”
“I’ll tell you what I thought we ought to do with it.” Lane continued. “If you look inside that place you’ll see that it could be turned into a dormitory. Later, when Maureen and I got in there and paced it off, we figured there’d be room for at least a dozen two-man cubicles, probably more.... with space left over for a day room of some sort.
“Once that seed got planted in Maureen’s head she wouldn’t let it get away. She had me run it by my old buddy, Erin Brock, at City Hall. Erin seemed pretty sure that as long as everything was up to code....with the right fire alarms, sprinkler systems, egress, and staffing....the City would probably approve something like that. They’d like to see more guys off the streets.”
“And they did.” Maureen jumped back in at that point. “They’ve agreed to it in writing, as long as we can meet their specs and have enough funding to be sure it won’t be left half completed.”
“Whoa. Let me get this straight.” Robert pushed himself to the edge of his seat, ready to insist on his questions. “I’ve heard you say how tight your budget is at the Mission House. You keep saying there’s never enough dollars to do what you’re already doing.
"Now you’re talking about an ambitious, and probably expensive, expansion....another one of Lane’s dreams. How do you expect to swing that?”
Maureen’s smug grin was wider than ever when she stood, looking for a break in their conversation. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I can only sit still like this for so long. I need to move around a bit and use the bathroom. Could we take a break before we go on to Robert’s question?”
Minutes later Sally was in the kitchen assembling a spur-of-the-moment snack tray of saltines and cheese. For his part, Lane had retreated to the back bedroom, away from the others’ wondering stares and unspoken questions.
Meanwhile Robert and Marla sat on the couch, replaying Maureen’s story, trying to imagine answers that might have been hidden in her words....and coming up short.
When Maureen returned to the front room snacks and small talk prevailed until finally Sally’s anxious curiosity got the best of her. “Come out here, Lane,” she yelled down the hall. “We’re ready to start again.”
“Now then,” Maureen began when everyone was seated. “Robert was asking how we could possibly afford this dream of ours. Right, Robert?”
“Yeah,” Robert nodded. “If you’re talking about turning a whole warehouse into something useful, that sounds pretty spendy. In any case, I don’t understand why you’re taking the time to tell us about it. That sounds like something for you and Lane to sort out.”
“First things first,” Maureen replied. “”Because my initial reaction was the same as yours. I’d seen the building by then. Lane and I had talked about what might be done with it. But you’re right. The Mission House doesn’t have that kind of money. We struggle every year to raise what we need just to keep the doors open.”
“But in fact, I was underestimating that brother of yours. He kept going on about what we could do across the alley. And I kept thinking how much it would cost. Finally, I just kind of checked out. I refused to let myself get excited about something that couldn’t possibly happen.
At that point, with a wry grin, Maureen paused to jab a finger in Lane’s direction. “But not the Dreamer. He wouldn’t give up. He just kept on dreaming, even when I couldn’t keep up with him.”
“So why are you here?” Marla asked, finally asking the question on everyone’s mind. “If your idea can’t work, why are you going on and on about it?”
“That’s simple, Marla," Maureen answered. "I’m here because I learned something else you probably knew already. Your friend Lane, the dreamer, is also a very good and incredibly tenacious salesman.
"First, he was able to convince Erin Brock that the city ought to support his idea. Then, wonder of wonders, he decided to deal with what I was sure would be a financial impossibility.”
That had Sally half laughing, enjoying the humor she heard in Maureen’s declaration. “Are you telling me that Lane is the answer to your money problems? You’ve got to be kidding. Don’t you know that he’s been broke forever? How do you suppose he got in that hole in the first place?”
“I know,” Maureen agreed.”But he found a way. He started that on his own, before he left for Medford. I didn’t actually get involved in that part until he left. And by then the heavy lifting had already been done.”
Turning to Lane, she suggested, “Why don’t you explain how you got our hopeless financial situation off the ground....how you turned hopeless into hopeful.”