Window Man

A winter gale swept a cutting chill off Lake Michigan down Howard Street. Around the corner by the el station, a line had formed waiting patiently, huddled together against the boarded-up businesses. Through the fogged window of the Good News Community Kitchen, I watched as scores of faceless men, women, and children assembled. Wiping a tiny circle of moisture from the window with my kitchen apron, a man’s image came into focus. Why had I been so afraid?

Of all my boyhood fears, it was Window Man that terrified me the most. Other kids were haunted by thoughts of creatures lurking under their beds or ghosts in the closets, but the object of my fear was real, and he was standing outside my bedroom window.

While Mom was only five feet tall, she alone taught me to face my secret fear and to witness dignity in others.

Behind Kroehler’s, the “world’s largest furniture factory” was the modest ranch home in which we lived. In those days, we kids played baseball in the overflow parking lot, and conducted military operations in and around the huge trucks. Forts made from old pallets and boxes, and boxcars that lined the rail yard were our playground. Routinely we’d catch hell from the watchmen, but we didn’t care. A neighborhood throng of pre-teens could easily outrun fat old geezers wielding flashlights and lunch pails. With shift changes came crews of workers filing past our machine gun nests, the ball diamond, and my bedroom window. In winter, we’d loft snowballs from our hideouts at cars as they left the lot, but the workers were usually too tired or preoccupied to do more than swear at us. They were hurrying home to their families or more likely, the local taverns.

My buddies and I were more interested in playing army and baseball than doing our homework. At St. Joseph Elementary School, the nuns-in-charge ran a tight ship, and some of us had more difficulty shaping-up than the goody goody girls who wore doilies on their heads at mass. Our attention was surely at a deficit, but when the school started nuclear attack drills, we got religion. It was the era of the cold war, and we were told that the commies could kill us with a big bomb, just like the ones we dropped on Japan. I never understood why the commies were so mad at us or how hiding under our desks was supposed to protect our sixth grade class from disaster. Other kids were worried sick about it, but strangely I felt safer tucked under a school desk than I did in my own bed.

It was a wintry night. Mom and little brother Billy were out Christmas shopping and Dad was working late. Snow had blanketed the earth, and I had gone to my room to wrap presents: a scarf for Mom, Billy – a magic set, and Dad – a fishing lure. Reaching for the scissors on my dresser, I felt tingly all over. I glanced over my shoulder and out into the yard.

There he stood, his face, drawn and whiskered only inches from the window. His clothing, shabby and worn. A mere skeleton of a man, his long, ghoul-like fingers pressed against the glass cupping his face. But it was his eyes – deep, blue, and sad – that transfixed me.

I began to shake all over, a warmth streamed down my leg. The scissors dropped from my hand, and he turned and disappeared from my view. I jerked open my bedroom door so hard that the doorknob blasted a hole in the wall, then more terror tightened around me. I was home alone! I ran to lock and bolt the doors, and then turned on every light in the house.

An eternity passed, then a car rolled into our driveway. Mom had to ring the doorbell several times, before I would even go to the door. She shouted my name. “Charlie, why is this door locked young man?” Clutching my baseball bat, I fumbled to unlock the front door.

“A man was here, Mom!” I started to cry as she and Billy entered.

“What man?” They could see my panic, and Mom noticed the wet spot on my pajamas.

“The man looking in my window!” I began to cough.

“Okay, let’s have a look,” Mom said taking a deep breath, her eyes scanning the room.

Mom led the way down the hall, flicking off the lights as we approached my bedroom. Together we looked out my window. There, in the light of a full moon, were fresh footprints in the snow; tracks that led to my window and then disappeared behind a furniture truck. As Mom pulled clean PJs from my dresser, she tried her best to convince me that no one could get in our house. That night in bed I said the most fervent prayer of my entire life. My body gripped in fear, I laid awake until the first light of dawn waiting for his return.

In the coming nights, I slept with my Louisville slugger and I’d hide under the covers peeking at the window. Any moving shadow on my wall or sound, like the trains that coupled in the freight yard would jolt me into high alert. Would I have the courage to yell for help? Would I have enough time to open the blade on my boy scout knife hid under my pillow before he got me or Billy? Not only did I dread bedtime, I was even afraid to enter my bedroom during daytime; I fully expected to see his face staring in the window. Some days, I’d climb the magnolia tree outside my room, and watch for the return of Window Man among the workers at shift changes. When there was no sign of him, I felt an odd mixture of both relief and dread. As the months passed, gradually I began to forget about Window Man…

Mom was washing breakfast dishes when the back doorbell rang. I was expecting a friend to come over to shoot some hoops in the driveway. When I turned the door handle, there stood Window Man.

“M-M-M-Mom!,” I gasped, cowering from the door.

Window Man had a filthy pillowcase slung over his shoulder. His whiskers were long, scraggly and the color of gun metal. One sleeve of his tattered suit jacket was ripped open as if he had been attacked by a wild animal.

“May I help you?” Mom said stepping in front of me.

“I haven’t eaten in days, ma’am,” I heard him say with a deep, gravelly voice.

“Have a seat at the picnic table and I’ll fix you something,” Mom calmly replied.

“But first, you probably want to wash up.” What was Mom thinking?

Mom ran a basin of warm water in the sink, and threw a clean towel over her shoulder.

“Go get some soap from the bathroom, Charlie,” she said. When I returned, she snatched the bar from my hand, and headed for the back door. Window Man had removed a worn cap, and was grooming his greasy hair with a nearly toothless comb.

Mom hummed to herself as she scrambled eggs and tossed bread in the toaster.

She warmed the coffee leftover from Dad’s breakfast. When breakfast was placed on a tray, she turned to me. “Take it to him, Charlie.”

“No Mom, please. No, I don’t want to,” I pleaded.

“Yes you will, and right now!” She put her small hand on my back and pushed. “And you will sit with him until he’s finished,” Mom added.

I slid the tray on the table in front of Window Man. “Let’s say grace,” I heard Mom say softly behind me. I do not remember what words Mom used, but I will never forget his face: his eyes tightly closed and his quivering jaw. I watched as he ate in silence; a warmth deep inside me was lifting a heavy burden. He seemed to savor each morsel of food, as if it were the last meal he would ever eat. My fear had melted into pity, and finally shame. I turned away so that Window Man could not see my tears.

When he was nearly finished, Mom returned and whispered something to him that I could not hear. She reached into her apron, pulled out three dollars, and placed the bills on the checkered oil cloth. “Thank you, ma’am,” he said without looking up. He folded the bills, then tucked them in his boot. “May God bless you and your boy.”

I watched as Window Man shuffled down the dirt path toward the freight yard. Not knowing what to do, I yelled out to him something that later would give me horrible guilt. “I saw you in my window, mister!” Whether he heard me or not, he just kept walking.

It was the last time I ever saw Window Man.

At Mom’s funeral service, I told the story of how Mom fed a hungry hobo. To her, it was a simple act of kindness, but to me it was so much more; more than facing fear, it was a life lesson. I had heard the nuns and Father Mac talk about loving your neighbor many times, but it was the first time I understood. Window Man was a secret that Mom and I kept between us all these years. She was 93 when she passed.

I have often thought about Window Man, and what he may have felt standing outside my window that night watching a young boy wrap Christmas gifts. Perhaps he was looking for his lost childhood, a longing for family, or a connection to humanity. Cold, hunger, loneliness, despair: why are so many people in the world dealt an unfair hand?

My daydream was broken by a loud tapping on the window pane coming from outside the community kitchen. A man wearing a Chicago Bears stocking cap rubbed his tummy, then flashed me a toothless grin. Above the din of the cheerful chatter of the volunteers and the clanging of pots and pans, Bing Crosby crooned an old favorite tune on a CD player. Behind me were row-after-row of church tables, decorated gaily for the holidays, and the aroma of turkey and dressing filled the entire room.

Fumbling for my keys, I unlocked the door.

“Come on in. Supper’s ready,” I said.

Chuck Gress divides his time between Northbrook, IL and Egg Harbor. When he’s not teaching, look for Chuck hitting the back roads of Door County on his old Trek or sunset sailing on Green Bay. He loves to spin yarns around the campfire and play harmonica for his new grandkids.