A Stranger at Dusk
By Robert G. Cowser
Looking out the window of our front room at dusk that chilly day in the spring of my twelfth year, I saw a tall man weaving toward our front door. I was intrigued not only by his peculiar gait but also by the fact I did not recognize the man. Strangers were rare in the rural northeast Texas community where I grew up. As soon as I spotted the stranger walking unsteadily toward our front porch, I hurried to the next room to tell my father. Mamma and I followed Daddy to the front door. We stood on the small porch while Daddy went to meet the man.
“Good evenin’. Where are you headed?” Daddy asked him.
The man replied, but his speech was so slurred that Mamma and I could not hear what he said.
Daddy led the man to the porch and helped him sit down on the stoop. He was a pathetic sight, for he had little control of his body. Then Daddy motioned for Mamma and me to go back inside. He followed us into the front room. “He said he was tryin’ to git to Bill Smith’s place. I guess he’s Bill’s son. He couldn’t have walked fer in his condition. He must’ve rode with somebody.”
I didn’t know that Bill Smith had a son. As far as I knew, he and his wife Elsie were childless. Elsie sometimes stood up to testify at the revival meetings in the summer. Bill never came to church, but he drove Elsie in his Model A Ford.
I was surprised when Daddy said I could accompany him when he drove Bill’s son to the Smith farm. Just over the hill north of our house we came upon a pickup truck teetering on the brink of the ravine beside the road. We could see the khaki-clad legs of a man protruding from the seat of the truck. Daddy stopped the car.
The man nodded his head. Then Daddy walked over to the truck. He came back to report that the man in the truck was in a stupor. He said that he decided not to disturb him, since any pressure at all applied to the truck might send it over into the ditch.
I wondered about the man’s reactions when he came awake later that evening. There would be a slight chill in the air. He would hear the owl and the American toads.
When we reached the Smith farm, our passenger climbed out of the car without aid. He stood in the yard, looking about him at the house and the woods that surrounded it. The windows in the car were down. Maybe the wind blowing across the man’s face had a sobering effect.
I stayed inside the car. I knew what I was supposed to do in a situation like this. For a few moments the only sound was the sound of a whippoorwill from the dense woods surrounding the Smiths’ house. Though it was getting quite dark, no lamps were burning behind the front windows.
Daddy called out, “Anybody at home?”
After a few moments, Bill Smith came to the front door. He must have recognized his son, but he spoke first to my father. “Is that you, Lee?” he asked.
And then Bill Smith turned to our passenger. “Billy, where’ve you been? Where’s your truck?”
Without waiting for answers, Mr. Smith turned to my father. “I’m much obliged to you for bringin’ Billy home.
He hasn’t been here for awhile,” he said. “Is that your boy in the car? Y’all come set on the porch.”
Daddy declined the invitation, though I knew that had the situation been different, he would have talked to our neighbor about whether the soil was warm enough to plant corn and whether the ground was too wet to be plowed.
Daddy told Bill Smith where the pickup truck was located and about the other man inside it. As we drove away, I looked through the back window of the car. In spite of the growing darkness, I could still see the two men standing in the yard. I will always wonder what Bill Smith was saying to his son, if anything.
Robert G. Cowser teaches composition and literature part-time at The University of Tennessee at Martin. He recently completed a year teaching in the college program at a state prison. His poetry has appeared recently in the English Journal and in Extramuros. Muscadine Lines recently published one of Cowser's personal essays and a short story.
Photo by Kristin L. Ware