foundation (2)“That foundation there,” my father said, pointing as he drove, “was once a little bungalow that belonged to a woman named Betsy Williams.” He slowed so I could see the foundation, the cracked rocks hidden among the wild onion and witchweed. A sycamore grew where the living room had been. We were driving through rolling fields broken by stands of white oak and red pine. The big sun hung overhead.

“I was hunting one day and a sudden storm came up.” He drove on for a while, then pointed again, this time to a dirt road grown over with grass. “I had parked down that road, and the storm caught me out in the middle of the field. By the time I got back to the truck I was soaked to the skin.”

We went on another mile or more, to the top of a ridge where the land spread out below. “This was December, and cold. The wind was hard out of the north, and sleet fell with the rain. When I backed out, I got the truck stuck in the mud.”

He paused, laughing to himself. Out the window the summer fields switched slowly past. “I walked to that house and asked to use the phone, and while I waited for someone to come pull the truck out, Ms. Williams put on coffee. She made me stand by the wood stove to warm myself.”

The day before, I had driven back to Arkansas from North Carolina, and now we were meandering through the countryside, my father telling stories of places he’d been and things he’d done when he was younger, before I was born. I only see him every few years now, when I can make the long drive back here, where the stories of landscape are also of language. The rhythms of place are caught up in the blue hills ringed around, the wind through small stands of pine, the houses that exist only in memory. My father’s pauses are full of reflection, a careful choosing of words before continuing, as if language should be as spare and sparse as the broken foundations that line these gravel roads. I waited, knowing the pause was for emphasis, or perhaps he was trying to find the right words, or perhaps he was only remembering standing by that good fire while the wind blew at the windows and the cold rolled up against the house and the wood settled in the stove.

“She didn’t know me from Adam,” he said. “Had no idea who I was, just a young man with a gun and muddy boots, but she let me in, and I stood there drinking coffee against the cold.”

We drove on, past old barns and rural churches, men working in their yards raising a slow hand as we passed. There were more foundations where houses had been long ago, little cemeteries of stone out behind them, the weeds high around the markers.

“She hugged me when I left,” my father said, smiling again, shaking his head slightly in memory. “I kept in touch with her until she passed away. That house has been gone now for many years.” He paused once more, this time to reflect on that winter day he stood warming himself against what was to come when he went back out into the cold. His story is of a time gone, when a man could walk onto the front porch of an old lady’s house and be invited inside to safety from a sudden storm, and hearing it I think of what has gone, wondering where in the world we can find such stories any more.

My father looked at me.

“Have I told you that story before?”

He had, the last time I visited, and the time before that, when we drove together through this same countryside looking at the landscape we have known all our lives, but what I said was, “It’s a good story.” I paused, thinking of my father, cold rain on the roof of the little house, his hands warmed by the coffee cup and his body by the woodstove and his heart by the woman’s kindness. Of how we can find sustenance from stories, the pauses and poetry of them. Of how they can warm and welcome us, remind us with their rhythms of what has gone.

Paul Crenshaw’s stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Best American EssaysBest American Nonrequired Reading, anthologies by W.W. Norton and Houghton Mifflin, Ecotone, Glimmer Train, Brevity, and North American Review, among others. He teaches writing and literature at Elon University.

Photo by Marcia Krause Bilyk