Familiar pines alerted Dan to the fact that Ford and he were approaching Forrester County. Gaunt, stunted branches swayed atop shaggy trunks, ragged against a pale sky. Silent, he fought apprehension, as across the front seat Ford waited and watched.
Photo: poyo-hinton photo
Whenever Dan returned to this country, he carried with him the conviction that the land would swallow him. Through the early part of the ride, from the Raleigh-Durham airport to the wastelands surrounding Smithfield, Princeton, and Goldsboro, his dread manifested itself as a tautness across his chest. He watched the procession of devastated landscape, ruined farms, and collapsing shanties, wrecks of unpainted carpentry from which, nevertheless, smoke rose through chimneys into a cloudless sky. Pastel mobile homes perched on cinderblock feet in bleak squares of grass. Red-cheeked plastic Santas waved gaily from the bland roofs of ranch-style bungalows. Wrecked automobiles clustered as if in herds, overgrown with ropes of kudzu vine. The images, the courses of the roads, struck him as familiar but oddly changed. Scoured in white light.
For a while he would forget Ford, then glimpse him. The landscape absorbed Dan, and he studied the line of ragged trees, the swoop and rise of the high-tension wire, the slant of an untended road sign; and suddenly, turning his head, he would find Ford driving the car.
Highway 70 gave way to the less-traveled Highway 58 beyond Kinston. The roads forked at a clapboard service station over which soared a sign bearing a blue neon bird, wings flapping at the same electronic interval as when Dan first remembered seeing it, years ago, Dan small and quiet, peering over the backseat of his father's car.
Soon the car crossed into Forrester County, and he read the first road signs for Somersville and Potter's Lake. Along these roads stretched a chain of houses in which Dan had lived during his childhood. The thought of the houses, and of Ford seeing the houses, filled him with quiet apprehension. The first appeared beyond Potter's Lake, a white, tiled cottage nestled on a low rise, impossibly tiny, porch fallen to ruins. Dan had intended to point out the house to Ford but at the last moment his arm collapsed to his side and no words emerged from anywhere. The house seemed so small and shabby, even he could hardly believe he had once lived there.
The next was worse, a heap of boards sitting neglected in high grass behind a broad fig bush. Empty windows. Barns tumbling to wreckage behind. The yard had dwindled to a small tangle of weeds surrounded by old farm equipment. I lived here once. He turned to Ford and imagined the words. Impossible.
Silence soon began to choke him, and he stared fixedly at the road. Ford must have felt the change, because he asked, "Did you live around here?"
Roads, houses, even trees, alive in his memory, passed by him in a dull stream.
"I have something to show you," Dan said, as the car crossed the bridge over the Eleanor River.
Wooden frame buildings formed something called the Harvey Crossroads. Ford eyed Dan cautiously. "Where?"
"Turn right on this road. Not far."
The woods had been larger when he was a boy. But farther down the road little had changed; the same barns stood in the same fields he remembered, the same farmhouses hanging back half-hidden in the shade of sweetgum trees. Beneath another bridge, the Eleanor River twisted back on herself, clotted water overhung with shadows; downriver from the bridge was the railroad trestle, and beyond opened the broad field of his memory, once littered with cornstalks but planted now with clover. In the center of the bleak field stood the house, sentinel in its plowed ground, guarded by huge old trees. When his family had lived there, the children named the place the Circle House. The yard consumed the house in weeds and grass, and the structure itself sagged, empty.
Ford studied the tiny house in perfect silence. He slowed the car and parked on the shoulder.
Dan stepped into December wind. The smell of the air entranced him, he studied the horizon in amazement. The line of pines encircled the flat plate of earth, ragged and gaunt. Hardly different at all. Beyond the broad ditch and yard, knee-deep in weed, stretched the flatness of the field. Beyond those trees ran the river, drifting within her shadowed banks, flowing silkily, darkly through the pilings of the bridge.
Ford appeared at his side and studied him. "Here?"
Dan nodded. He studied the weathered clapboard of the front, the sagging tin roof, the concrete porch with cracked steps, ivy covering one wall. The front door hung inward on its hinges. Paint flaked from gray wood. Whitewashed boards covered some of the windows. The house stared blindly forward.
Do you recognize me? Did you think I would ever come back? His body rebelled when he reached the front porch steps. He took a deep breath, watching his feet , which refused to move until he reminded himself that the house was empty and a foot lifted. Found the next step. Ford hung at his elbow, as if afraid he might fall.
He climbed to the concrete porch. Stepping with squared shoulders to the open door, he peered inside.
No image of the past remained, not the least flicker. The empty front room echoed with the sound of his breath. Dry leaves clacked on the floor when the wind slid through the crack in the door; Dan pushed the door open as the wind gusted, and room shook with a rattling like bones.
Jim Grimsley, an Edgecombe County native, is the winner of numerous awards and grants. His published works include novels, short fiction, plays, poems, and essays. Dukes Rare Book, Manuscript and Special Collections Library is the repository for Grimsleys papers.
This excerpt from Comfort & Joy, published by Algonquin Books, has been used with the permission of the publisher and the author. In celebration of the publication of Comfort & Joy, there will be a reading and reception at 7:00 p.m. on October 27 at Perkins Library in the Rare Book Room.