The Last House in Town

The Last House in Town

The storm door to our front porch was stuck, again. Northern exposure. The wet snow had frozen solid during the night, after the front had passed. The thermometer read twelve below.

No school, the radio announced. So naturally Hank had me out there, helping him dig out the driveway. Not that it helped, much. A gusty, thirty mile an hour wind drove the drier snow on top the frozen crust across the landscape, drifting the driveway closed again in less than two hours.

But running non-stop, the plows kept most of the streets open—sort of. So the Sentinel still managed to get the papers printed and delivered to the carriers. It was the honking of the delivery truck that brought me out on our uninsulated front porch. Well, they warned me, last August.

 

Mr. Landrum looked me up and down from behind his desk, skeptically. Well, I was small for my age. Bright sun streamed through the window of his office. Finally he frowned. “Mark, the weather’s nice, now.  But the snows’ll be here, in a few months. Sometimes it snows for days. And when it stops, you’ll wish it hadn’t, because that’s when it turns cold. Twenty, thirty below, sometimes.”

“I know,” I said. “I can do it.”

Mr. Landrum’s secretary smiled. “Small but mighty.”

“A paper route’s a big responsibility. You can’t just quit,” Mr. Landrum warned. “You’ll have to find someone to replace you before I’ll let you go. Just like Steve found you. And usually, the time you want to quit is exactly when nobody else wants your job.” He looked at me over the top of his glasses. “You understand?”

I remember hesitating, then, looking into his gray eyes over the top of his glasses. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see his assistant, still smiling. The silence elongated as I dredged my eleven year old mind for something grown up to say. “I want the job, Mr. Landrum,” was what I finally said. At that point, I wasn’t sure I did, but I had to start taking responsibility for more than just the chores around the house, Hank told me.

“Okay…” Mr. Landrum turned to his assistant. “Colleen, would you see to the route assignment? And make sure you confirm his contact information.”

“Yes sir.” Coleen waved me out of Landrum’s office. “Come on, Mark. Let’s get you started.”

No congratulations or good luck. Coleen just handed me the worn canvas bag, with “Cook City Sentinel” on the side, in fading block letters. It was dingy with newsprint ink. Responsibility. Anticlimax and the hot August sun beat down on me when I stepped out onto Main Street with my bag and collection book.

 

My eyes refocused on the drifting snow, through the window. Wind’s dropping, I thought, hopefully. Even so, after the two hours it was going to take to finish my route, my feet and fingers would be numb and I would have a headache from the cold.

Hank was in hallway watching me, when I turned around. “Papers here?”

“Yes sir.”

He took a deep drag on his cigarette and exhaled. “The sooner you get started the better, then. It’ll be dark by the time you get home as it is.”

“Yes sir.”

He nodded and headed back to the kitchen. I made a show of striding purposefully past him and sat on the first step leading down to the sheltered back porch to pull on my boots. As I shrugged into my parka, Mom looked up from her knitting. “Take King with you,” she admonished.

I turned my back and made a face.

“Just do it,” she said.

“It’s too cold, Mom,” I argued. “And there’s a crust under the snow, but it’s too thin to support his weight. It’ll tear up his pads.”

The clicking of the knitting needles stopped. “Take him with you.”

Seen too many episodes of Lassie, I thought. I tried and failed to imagine my hyperactive Border Collie coming home for help. Dinner, maybe. Help? I stifled a sigh. “Yes Ma’am.”

I found him asleep over the register in the hall, warm air from the heater rippling his black and white coat. King was smart enough to know this was a day for sleeping. Still, he came when called.

 

It was better and worse than I expected. January’s low-angle sun offered a deceptive hint of warmth through a thin veil of dingy clouds drag-racing overhead. And the wind had subsided a little. For now, it was merely frigid. But looking down eighth street, I could make out line of dirty-bottomed clouds through the naked Elm trees. Another front closing in. Even if I finished the route before it got here, the wind driving it would be picking up, soon. And the temperature would drop quickly, after the sun went down.

I trudged house to house, through the crusty snow, the bottom of the paper bag occasionally dragging along the top of the deeper snow drifts. Some walks had been shoveled recently, but most had drifted over.

I worked my way down Eighth, then over a block to “C” Street, before heading further west along Ninth, toward the edge of town. King followed, stepping gingerly, post-holing my footprints when I hadn’t pushed enough snow aside. The closer we got to the edge of town, the deeper the snow got.

Halfway through my route, night had settled in—and the front I hoped might hold off howled in with demonic malice. My eyes leaked periodic tears from the wind, freezing at the corners almost immediately. I couldn’t feel my toes and pulling out just one newspaper at a time through my gloves was almost impossible.

Situated on a board-flat plateau, the central part of Cook City was dotted with trees for shade and windbreaks. Even devoid of leaves, they helped. But part of my route served the outskirts of town, which stood open to barren fields and empty pastures. It resembled tundra more than farm country. The blinding snow got a running start and swirled through the last line of homes, staggering me periodically when the wind veered.

The snow plows hadn’t been through this part of town in several hours. Deeper darkness hinted at where the plows had piled the snow, but wind dropped the swirling skeins of snow in the deserted roadway. I could hear the wind shrieking through the snow fences in the darkness and feel the sting of the snow. The road would drift completely closed in another hour, I guessed, as I leaned into the wind. I could feel King huddling behind me, using me as a windbreak.

The last house in town was a ramshackle place belonging to Jürgen Sturn—my last delivery before turning south on the homeward leg of my route. Mr. Sturn’s name fit his personality. Tall, slender, with a prominent hooked nose and glittering points of steel for eyes. His weathered face, iron gray hair and severe expression made him seem impossibly old, while his gnarled hands reminded me of Great Horned Owl talons. When I collected each week, he paid in silence, signaling the transaction with a curt nod.

As I approached, a single light shown around the edges of the drapes of the front room. My hand was on the screen door the storm door opened to reveal Mr. Sturn.

“You are late,” he rasped.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Sturn, I—”

An ironic twist of his lips revealed yellow teeth. “Never mind,” he said. He looked me up and down, then stood aside and waved me in. I hesitated and looked back at King. “Both of you. Come on. It’s cold!”

I stepped in and called King, who came in and stood between Mr. Sturn and myself. He smiled. “I will not hurt either of you.” He nodded at the mat. “Come, jung man. Take your boots off and warm your feet. Parka and gloves, too. Quickly!”

I wavered. A frown crossed his face and I complied. Mr. Sturn disappeared while I was loosening my boots, returning with a towel. Without a word he knelt in front of King, talking softly to him. He picked up his left forepaw and began brushing ice from between his pads. “He should not be out in this.” His rasp called attention to his accent.

I nodded. “That’s what I told my parents.”

Mr. Sturn stopped brushing King’s paw to look up at me. “Neither should you.” His eyebrows went up and a smile spread across his leathery face. He nodded and turned back to cleaning the ice from King’s paws. I watched, impressed and grateful for his gentle care.

When he was finished with the hind paws, Mr. Sturn reached up to scratch King between the ears, earning eyes squeezed closed in ecstasy and a lolled tongue. When he rose, King followed him into the kitchen. “I will be back soon,” Mr. Sturn said.

In Mr. Sturn’s absence, I looked around. I had expected the inside to match apparent neglect outside. It didn’t. Simplicity, order and care were obvious, but no place more than his fireplace. Above the mantle hung an old sword, battered but gleaming as though polished only yesterday. The hilt of the sword curved slightly and had a lion’s head grip with two red stones, glittering in the subdued light. Below the sword hung a scabbard, scratched and dented, but also polished. Below both hung a presentation case with a cross hanging from a faded black and white ribbon. Next to it was a tarnished silver badge. I could just make out crossed swords on it. Across from the fireplace was an end table with a lamp on it next to a worn chair with a dimple in the seat. Mr. Sturn’s favorite, I guessed.

Mr. Sturn’s return interrupted my visual exploration. He carried two steaming, aromatic cups. King padded behind him with his Border Collie smile.

“Here,” he said. “Drink. It will warm you.”

I hesitated only a second before trying it. “Tastes like Wassail,” I said.

He smiled and his eyes grew distant, before refocusing. “It is like.” He took my parka, gloves and boots and hung them close to the fireplace, before glancing at the clock. “You must call home,” he noted. “You are behind schedule and your family…they will perhaps worry?” He nodded toward a phone stand near the door.

I called Mom, explained that one of my customers had offered to let me get warm in their home. Mr. Sturn sat is his chair, humming a tune I’d never heard while he petted King who had parked next to him.

“So,” he said, when I hung up the phone. “What grade?”

“Sixth grade sir,” I said.

He pursed his lips and squinted at me. “How old?”

“Eleven,” I replied.

“Gut.” He nodded and rubbed King under the chin.

I took another sip of cider and looked back at the sword above the mantle. Mr. Sturn followed my eyes and smiled. “From the war,” he said. “Long ago. Drink,” he prompted, nodding at my cup.

I finished my cider, while Mr. Sturn stroked King in silence. “I should go,” I said.

He nodded and I retrieved my parka, gloves and boots. They were warm when I put them on.

“Fertig?” he asked.

“Sir?”

“Ah, ja. Sorry. Are you ready?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Gut,” he said. “Be careful.” He opened the door and I stepped back into the howling snow, King following without being called. As I left, he smiled once more—and maybe it was just how the light hit his face, but his eyes seemed to shine with kindness and bottomless sadness.

I don’t remember much about the rest of my route. I must have finished it, because I was out of papers when I headed home and I never heard from the business office that I’d missed somebody.

But I couldn’t get Mr. Sturn out of my mind. I had been afraid of him, from the first week I’d collected for the paper. His silent, craggy appearance told me everything I needed to know about him. I was grateful for the break from the weather, though I was still numb by the time I got home.

“Where did you call from?” Mom asked, when I sat down to my late dinner.

“Mr. Sturn’s house,” I said. “He told me I should.”

Mom looked at me strangely.

“Old man Sturn?” Hank asked.

I nodded. “Is something wrong?”

Hank shook his head, muttering.

“No, dear. We’re just surprised,” Mom answered for him. “Mr. Sturn usually keeps to himself.”

Hank snorted. “That’s for sure.”

“Well, he was nice to King,” I said. “And to me.”

I took a bite of pork chop, a swallow of milk and looked up. Mom was looking at King, who had headed straight for the register in the hall and flopped over it. “Maybe you should not presume on his hospitality again,” she said, finally.

“All right, Mom.”

Several years later, I was working on a history paper about WWII and through a fairly obvious association of ideas, thought of Mr. Sturn. After some research, I thought I could identify the sword hanging above his mantle as the sword of an infantry officer. Not from WWII, but from WWI. I guessed the medals were the Cross of Honor for service in combat—and that the tarnished silver badge was probably the wound badge. With morbid adolescent curiosity, I wondered where.

Mr. Sturn and I never spoke again, after that night. I collected for another two years each week, receiving payment to the accompaniment of a silent nod. Many nights the home would be dark when I delivered his evening paper, but he never showed himself again.

I did think I saw the curtains move, once—on one of the days I was teaching my route to the new guy who would take over.

From time to time thereafter, I would see someone who reminded me of Mr. Sturn and I would always wonder why he voluntarily shut himself from the rest of the world. Was it his accent, or his occasional lapses into German? And why had he come here? Why choose the United States and especially, why Cook City?

As much as these mysteries tugged at my thoughts, I wondered even more at the stories I had missed. If only he had opened up to me, I used to think, I would have been his friend.

But as I have gotten older, I wonder what might have happened if I’d asked him something, anything—asked just one right question to get him started. What gifts might we have shared, he clothed in the ravages of his age and wisdom and I in my wide-eyed youthful optimism?

I am no longer young and honestly, I don’t miss the tortured, self-conscious angst of that time. But I do regret missed opportunities—and the undiscovered secrets locked up in Jürgen Sturn’s soul is one of them.

He is, I’m sure, long gone—lost to us all and to his own land for which he fought and bled in his own brave youth. My own experiences have led me to wonder if Jürgen the man had left most of his soul somewhere in Meuse-Argon or in the Ardennes. Had home come to remind him too much of his losses?

I have come to believe there is a special place for these selfless warriors—the ones who endure bravely in silence and mostly passing into obscurity—but whose valor is no less than the ones who accede to the halls of power. I think Jürgen is there—in that one place he is certain to be understood—and loved.

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