The Last House in Town
Here in the United States, we are the unconscious beneficiaries of geography. Insulated by two vast oceans and nestled between benign neighbors to the north and south, the United States has been successfully invaded only once—by the conquering European settlers who now insist the whole thing is theirs.
Our indigenous brothers and sisters have a different take on both the period, and the notion of “possession.” But in common with most conquerors, we’re not overly gifted with a high degree of self-awareness—or more generally, given our taste for war, an appreciation of what war means for most of our fellow man.
The storm door to our front porch was stuck, again. Northern exposure. The wet snow that had fallen during the night had frozen as the temperature fell. A second storm followed, dropping another twenty inches of snow over the frozen crust left by the first storm. The thermometer in the window now read twelve below.
No school, the radio had announced. So Hank had me out there with him, helping dig out the driveway. Not that it helped, much. A gusty, thirty mile-an-hour wind drove the drier snow on top of 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. As a result, the Sentinel managed to get the papers printed and delivered to its carriers. It was the honking of the delivery truck that brought me out on our uninsulated front porch. Well, they’d warned me, last August.
Mr. Landrum eyed me skeptically from behind his desk. I was small for my age. Bright sun streamed through the window of his office. He shifted in his chair, frowning. “Mark, the weather’s nice, now. But the snows’ll be here, in a few months. Sometimes it snows for days. And when it finally 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 assistant, smiled. “Small but mighty.”
“A paper route’s a big responsibility,” Mr. Landrum warned. “You can’t just quit. 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, as Mr. Landrum’s piercing gray eyes rooted me to the worn oak floor. 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. “And I won’t let you down.”
At that point, I wasn’t absolutely sure either that I wanted the job or that I wouldn’t let him down. But Hank said I had to start taking responsibility for more than just the chores around the house. I stood my ground.
“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.”
Colleen offered no congratulations or good luck. She simply confirmed my contact information, then handed me the worn canvas bag. The dingy newsprint ink on the outside of the bag obscured the logo stenciled on the side. Cook City Sentinel it proclaimed, smelling like the newspapers it carried—and responsibility. Anticlimax and a hot August sun beat down on me when I stepped out onto Main Street with my newspaper 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 the hallway watching me, when I turned around. “Papers here?”
He took a deep drag on his cigarette and exhaled. “Then sooner you get started, the better. It’ll be dark before you get home as it is.”
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.”
I turned my back to her and made a face.
“You heard me,” she said.
“It’s too cold, Mom. And the crust under the top snow is too thin to support his weight. It’ll tear up his pads.” The clicking of knitting needles stopped and I turned to face her. “Take him with you.” Her eyes ended the discussion.
Too many episodes of Lassie, I thought. I struggled to imagine my rollicking, hyperactive Border Collie dashing home for help, if anything happened. Dinner, sure. Help? I stifled a sigh. “Yes Ma’am.”
I found him asleep on top of 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. The low-angle January sun offered a deceptive hint of warmth through the thin veil of clouds, drag-racing overhead. And the wind had subsided—a little. For now, it was merely frigid. But looking west down Eighth Street, I could make out a thick line of dirty-bottomed clouds on the horizon 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 like a stone, once the sun went down.
I trudged house-to-house through the crusty snow, the bottom of my paper bag occasionally dragging along the tops of the deeper snow drifts. Some walks had been shoveled recently, but most had already drifted over, if they’d been shoveled at all.
I worked my way down Eighth and cut over one block on “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 became.
Halfway through my route, night settled in—and the front I hoped might hold off announced its arrival with howling, demonic malice. My eyes leaked tears from the wind, freezing at the corners almost immediately. I couldn’t feel my toes, and pulling out a single newspaper with 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 the middle leg of my route served the outskirts of town, bordered on the northwest by barren fields and empty pastures. In January, it resembled tundra more than farm country. The blinding snow got a running start and swirled through the last line of homes, staggering me each time the wind veered.
The snow plows hadn’t been through this part of town in several hours. Shrieking through the snow fences, the wind-driven snow stung the corners of my eyes—eyes I had thought until now were already too numb to feel anything. The road was drifting closed quickly and in another hour, it would be impassible. 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. When I collected each week, he paid in silence and took the receipt tab I handed him in gnarled hands that reminded me of Great Horned Owl talons. He signaled the end of each transaction with a curt nod.
As I approached that winter evening, a light shone around the edges of the drapes covering the window of the front room. I was reaching for the screen door to toss paper inside, when 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 is cold!”
I stepped in and called King, who followed, shook the snow from his coat and stood between Mr. Sturn and myself. Sturn 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. When he returned, he had a towel. Without a word, he knelt in front of King, speaking 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 noticeable German 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 as if to himself before returning to the task of cleaning the ice from King’s paws. I watched, impressed and grateful for his gentle care.
After he was finished with King’s hind paws, Mr. Sturn scratched him 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 the apparent neglect outside. It didn’t. Order and meticulous care was evident, but nowhere more than his fireplace.
Above the mantle hung an old sword, gleaming as though polished only yesterday. The hilt of the sword curved slightly and had a lion’s head grip with two red stones for eyes, glittering in the subdued light. Below the unsheathed sword hung a battered old scabbard, scratched and dented, but also polished.
Beneath both hung a presentation case with a cross hanging from a faded black and gold ribbon. Next to it was a tarnished silver badge. I could just make out crossed swords on it.
Across from the fireplace rested a well-worn chair and an end table with a reading lamp. The lamp was on, haloing an open book face down on the arm of the chair.
Mr. Sturn’s return interrupted my visual exploration. He carried two steaming, aromatic cups. King padded behind him, a trusting Border Collie smile on his face.
“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 to explain that one of my customers had offered to let me get warm in his home. Now at ease in his chair, Mr. Sturn sat humming a tune I’d never heard. King parked next to him, while the severe old gentleman scratched him absently behind the ears.
“So,” he said when I hung up the phone. “What grade?”
“Sixth grade, sir.”
He pursed his lips and squinted at me. “How old?”
“Twelve this November,” 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 var,” 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, rose and retrieved my parka, gloves and boots. They were warm when I put them on.
“Fertig?” he asked.
“Ah, ja. Sorry. Are you ready?”
“Gut,” he said. “Be careful.” He opened the door and I stepped back into the howling blizzard, King following without being called. As I left, Mr. Sturn smiled once more—and maybe it was just how the light hit his face, but his eyes seemed to shine with kindness, mixed with something else it would be many years before I understood.
I don’t remember much about the rest of my route. But I must have finished it, because I was out of papers when I got home, and no one called to tell me I had missed their house.
But the whole way back, 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, as 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, looking around from his chair in the adjacent living room.
I nodded. “Is something wrong?”
Hank shook his head, muttering as he turned back to his newspaper.
“No dear, of course not. We’re just…surprised,” Mom answered for him. “Mr. Sturn usually keeps to himself.”
Hank snorted. “That’s for sure!” His nose remained steadfastly buried in the paper.
“Well, he was nice to King,” I volunteered. “And to me.”
I took a bite of pork chop, a swallow of milk and looked up. Mom was gazing fondly at King, who had returned to the register in the hall and flopped over it, just visible from the dining room.
“It might be better if you didn’t presume on his hospitality again,” she said.
“All right, Mom.”
Mr. Sturn and I never spoke again, after that night. I collected weekly for another two years, receiving payment punctuated by a silent nod. Many nights the home would be dark when I delivered his evening paper, and he never showed himself again.
I thought I saw the curtains move, once—on one of the days I was teaching my route to Nicky who took over for me. It would be years before I gave Mr. Sturn another thought—during my research for a high school term paper on WWII.
Through an obvious association of ideas, I thought of Mr. Sturn. Our library was far from comprehensive, but after a little research, I was able to identify the sword that had hung above his mantle as the sword of an infantry officer. But it was from WWI, not WWII. After scrutinizing the full-color plates of German military decorations, I realized the medal was the Cross of Military Merit for bravery in combat, while the tarnished silver badge I identified as the wound badge. With morbid adolescent curiosity, I wondered where.
From time to time thereafter, I would see someone who reminded me of Mr. Sturn, reigniting my speculation as to why he had voluntarily shut himself off 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 Cook City, of all places, literally at the ass end of nowhere?
But as much as these mysteries clung to my memories, I wondered even more about the stories I had missed. If only he had opened up to me, I thought, I would have been his friend.
As I have gotten older, I have begun wondering what might have happened if I’d asked him something—anything. What if I had asked just one right question to get him talking? What gifts might we have shared, he clothed in the ravages of his age and I in my wide-eyed curiosity?
I am no longer young and don’t miss those wild swings between naivete and self-conscious angst. But I do regret the missed opportunities, and among the greatest those are the undiscovered secrets locked up in the soul of Jürgen Sturn.
He is, I’m sure, long gone, by now—lost to us all and to the Fatherland, for whom he fought and bled in his own brave youth.
My own experiences with military service have led me to wonder if Jürgen left a piece of his soul and perhaps all hope, beside the Somme or in the Meuse-Argon. Had his homecoming reminded him too acutely of his losses, leading him to seek peace or maybe the solace of anonymity, in a land where no one knew him before?
It may be wishful thinking, but I have come to believe there is a special place on the other side for these selfless warriors—the ones who endure bravely in silence, mostly passing into obscurity—but whose valor is no less than the ones whose names we read in history books. I think Jürgen must be there—in that one place he is certain to be understood—and at last properly honored, as he was not in life.
Through the Windshield, Drive-by Encounters with Life is a collection of short stories by the author. Some have already been published, while others appear in print for the first time in this anthology. Collectively, they serve to introduce new readers to Dirk’s work while giving readers already familiar with his work some new material. Through the Windshield will be released toward the end of 2018.