This is a long-overdue installment of my Northern Minnesota Project.
The winter of Paul’s twelfth year, less than a month after President Kennedy’s fateful trip to Dallas, his father did not come home to the cabin on Lake Ayers. It took some time for the boy to realize something was wrong, because his father often worked late at the drugstore and then went by Freddie’s for a tumble with one of the girls. (Lars had stopped taking Paul on the ice a few years earlier, when the child’s school had sent home a paper the boy had written entitled “What I Want for Christmas.” It described how one-armed Irene had lost her limb fighting the bear that ate her child and how Paul wished more men would choose to take her to their trucks so she could buy an artificial replacement for the missing appendage.)
Lars had, in fact, not gone to Freddie’s that evening. He had no plans, other than to cook dinner and read by the fire, which is why he stopped to buy a newspaper at the stand on Norman Avenue.
As he approached the stand, he passed old Mrs. Augsburger, the druggist’s wife and exchanged a smile with her. It was the briefest of shared moments, one that he had already forgotten when he leaned down to grab a copy of the Thief River Gazette-Republican. He folded the paper under his arm and reached into his coat pocket to get the dime required for purchase, and then he heard her scream.
A scrawny teenager tugged on Mrs. Augsburger’s purse. The thin black leather strap hung diagonally across her back, taut as she tried to hold her ground, pulled haltingly forward by the thief’s attempt to flee. Lars took his first step toward them just as the strap broke, spilling the elderly woman onto her backside and causing the delinquent to twirl and then take off in a sprint.
Lars gave chase, the paper tucked in his armpit. He had never been an athlete, and his speed and endurance were further compromised by age. He followed the mugger for a block and a half, slowly losing ground all the while and finally slipping on a patch of ice and landing hard on his right knee. The paper he’d been carrying fell onto the damp sidewalk.
He crouched there for a moment, sucking in great gulps of bitter air through his clenched teeth. The pain in his knee was incredible, like it was sitting on a stove burner. He rolled over onto his back, clutching his leg, which he stretched gently in an effort to prepare himself for walking again.
Mrs. Augsburger was with him then, offering her hand, as if she, in her mid-80s, could steady herself enough to counterbalance him as he hoisted himself upward. He took it out of politeness, but did not pull on it as he rose. He scooped the newspaper up, brushing sidewalk from the wet front page. Together, Lars and Mrs. Augsburger limped back toward the newspaper stand, where a policeman now waited.
“I heard you scream, ma’am,” he said, nodding at Mrs. Augsburger. “You didn’t have to chase him down yourself.”
Lars shrugged. “I just thought–”
The policemen turned to Lars, “I know what you thought. You thought you’d get away with it.”
The officer was an older man with eyebrows thick as cocoons sitting above his Coke-bottle glasses. His lips were chapped from the cold, and his tongue flicked out occasionally to moisten them.
“That newspaper,” the cop pointed. “Did you pay for it?”
“Not yet.” Lars laughed nervously. What the hell was going on?
“I saw you take it. You took it and bolted, and you made this good woman run after you.”
“But, Officer,” Mrs. Augsburger tried to intervene. The cop waved her off.
“You’ve more than done your duty, ma’am.”
Lars shook his head firmly. “I didn’t steal it, pal. I picked it up to buy it and–”
“And then you didn’t,” the cop answered. He gripped the handle of his billy club reflexively. He did not like to be contradicted.
“Because I was being–” Mrs. Augsburger moved in between the men.
“Ma’am, I am ordering you to step back. This is no longer your concern!”
“Can I just pay for it now?,” Lars asked. “I have the dime.”
Mrs. Augsburger didn’t budge. “You listen to me, you ignoramus” she commanded. “This man is not a criminal! In fact–”
“I told you to move,” the policeman snarled, shoving her aside with his left arm. Mrs. Augsburger stumbled backwards, barely able to stay on her feet. He laid a brisk slap on her cheek for good measure. “Get the hell out of here, or I’ll arrest you, too.”
Lars loved Mrs. Augsburger, who had stepped into the void Rosie left behind. She taught the boy to read, baked him cookies, and patched the ripped knees on his pants. Lars’ views on pacifism had not changed since the war he had refused to join, but he maintained a strong sense of justice nonetheless. When the policeman turned back to face him, Lars punched him hard in the mouth.
He could not remember ever hitting anyone, and he had not expected it to hurt so much. The blow had broken one of the officer’s teeth. A small white tooth-chunk rose out of the knuckle of his ring finger. Lars shook his hand, and the shard flew off. He cursed sharply and closed his eyes from the pain. Before he could open them, the policeman removed his service revolver and fired two shots into Lars’ chest.
The official police report that followed did not mention Mrs. Augsburger at all. It began with Officer Erik Bernson approaching suspected thief Lars Keillor and jumped straight to catastrophe. Lars’ death was described officially as instantaneous, though Mrs. Augsburger told anyone who would listen that Lars had bled out slowly with his head in her lap as the Thief River Falls PD smoked cigarettes nearby. The ambulance took more than forty minutes to arrive. They had been told the subject was already dead. As a result of the report’s findings, Officer Bernson was given a medal for bravery.
In the cabin on the lake, Paul sat alone by the fire, feeding it logs until his eyes grew heavy and sleep overtook his fear. No one thought to come for him until well after midnight.