The houses are vinyl-sided and closer together now, as we roll into Haverill. Some of the old shoe factories have been converted into lofts; others have dusty, smashed out windows, jagged glass and boarded doors. The Merrimack River is an icy vein through town.

"The snow makes everything look cleaner. I want you to picture trash, syringes, and rusty switchblades beneath the snow," he jokes.

An old woman with a walker and a younger man walk down the middle of 7th Ave, made narrow by the snow. He's carrying plastic grocery bags. They're moving slow. Dubus is telling me about running into an old classmate at the gym, a recovering alcoholic and heroin addict. "We were chatting, and he says to me, 'Did you know there are almost fifty of us dead? Fifty dead from our high-school class?' " Most, he tells me, from drugs and alcohol, accidents, violent crime, suicides.

A man stands on a corner by a snowbank outside the door to a bar. He's swollen-faced and bundled. He's wearing sweatpants, and his face has gone a few days without a razor. He does not look well.

"That guy's probably my age." I look at Dubus. At 51, he's silverscreen handsome: wavy dark hair with a few grey threads, a strong jaw, lean body (he works out four or five times a week). His eyes are warm and he exudes health and vitality. The word "sanguine" comes to mind. He looks better than most men his age, and certainly better than the man by the snowbank outside the bar.

We drive on and I get a tour of a tired mill town, a catalogue of ne'er-do-wells and down-on-their-luckers.

Here's the house with the drug dealers. Back there is where Dubus and his pals got the shit kicked out of them. There was a gunfight in that neighborhood not too long ago. That one guy was pimping teenage girls. That spa was a front for bookies and druggies. There's the car lot of repossessed cars, the porn shop, the bridge Dubus ran across to get away.

"Here's a bar. You go in there, you feel like you want to be armed."

A music store. "This is where my brother's sexually abusive teacher would buy him guitar strings."

Another bar. "I went to a bachelor party there in my early 20s. Three strippers blowing guys in the middle of the floor. It was awful. Awful."

And Sambo's. "That's where Sambo's restaurant used to be, where that big fight was, the one where I almost killed that kid, the one where I just kept kicking him and kicking him, and if it weren't for my girlfriend —"

A good pal of Dubus's, someone he grew up with who's close to the story, talked with me about that fight. "I saw him later that night," he says over the phone. "I shook my head and gave him that smile: you keep this up, somebody sometime is going to get the better of you."

Dubus talks of what motivated the fighting, what perpetuated it. "What I did not want to be," he says, "was a coward or a weakling. The worst thing you can be called when you're of a certain age as a male is a pussy or a faggot."

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