An age ago, in 1977, late and driving fast on a shortcut in a bad car in sleety rain to a graduate course, my used Ford Maverick, my first car, coughed, coughed again, and the dashboard lit up — somewhere in the engine steel was rubbing against steel. I pulled onto the shoulder, stopped, popped the hood and got out, and stared at smoke rising from the center of all that greased-up stuff. I turned off the lights, locked the door and began walking. The darkness dropped down. The sleet continued. I could see dim, scattered lights a few hundred yards away but far off the road. They looked as if I would have to cross open country to get to them. I did not know the ground, and I did not relish the idea of stumbling through swamp land and thickets and up muddy inclines, all of this while blind. I kept to the road and came upon an old Victorian farmhouse — a rickety porch, a dim light on over a barn door, one light flickering inside.I walked up onto the porch, making noise. A dog began barking inside – big jawed barks, big toothy barks, deep fangy barks. A wavering voice called out asking me what I wanted. Long ago my father had told me to stand away from a door in this kind of situation. Let the person inside get a good look at you. I straightened up to my best altar-boy height and saintly calm and slipped on my I’m-not-a-maniac face. Can’t you see? I’m just a young angel … yeah. The porch light came on. An old man and an enormous dog answered the door. The dog drew my attention – he was some mix of Rottweiler and werewolf and this old man did not seem like the person to restrain him, but instead of lunging, he settled immediately when his owner said, “Ok _, stop.” I don’t remember the dog’s name. I do remember that his head came to the man’s waist.I introduced myself, made sure to mention that I was a teacher, told him my story and asked if I could use the phone. He did not hesitate. He opened the door and invited me in; whatever his name, Hatchet or Bang-Bang or Assassin had retreated into the living room off to the side. I smelled the aroma of cooking meat.I followed him into the kitchen and called the number of the only auto repair place where I had a contact, a garage in a local village most often staffed by two boys from one of my classes.Waiting, I turned toward the kitchen, a clean, worn space in need of fresh paint and more light. My host sat at a small table with metal legs. His hair was combed back over a high forehead. Clean shaven, he looked at me steadily through glasses too big for his face. He wore work pants and heavy shoes. I would have pegged him to be in his seventies.
One of the boys answered; they would bring a truck. They knew the road and the house. It would be at least an hour or more. After I hung up the phone, I told him the news and began turning toward the front door. He invited me to stay for dinner.
I stopped. I’m sure I looked surprised. When I said, “Yes, thank-you, that is very kind,” he smiled, rose, walked to the stove, pointed to a cabinet and asked me to set the table. He started talking, and he did not stop until I left. He asked me questions about my parents, about my home country, about the high school where I taught. He had been a machine repairman at coal pits near Shamokin and then a farmer; he taught himself to be a cobbler and made some dollars on the side stitching on soles and patching boots. His wife had died a few years before. He missed her. He never mentioned children. I think his name was Paul. I liked him, a gentle man, accomplished with his hands, captain of a beast of an animal, and someone who had shared his meal with me, a young man who had just walked off the road.We ate beef stew and stale cookies for dessert. He washed the dishes and I dried. I thanked him for his kindness, but he downplayed it, embarrassed by my appreciation.When the boys arrived, psyched to be rescuing their teacher, all full of jokes and curiosity, I remember saying something to him about coming for another visit soon, but I never returned – I was 25 and rushing full tilt into everything. I never saw him again. He would almost certainly now be dead.
I drive past that home several times a month. In ’77 the exterior was a wreck, but a new owner has renovated it. Red paint borders the windows. A new barn has risen where the old one had stood.
I had stumbled into a holding pattern of a kind, a few hours where two strangers eased each other’s night worries and loneliness. If I close my eyes, I can see him smiling as he handed me a plate to dry. I wish I could be certain of his name.