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Vol. 13, No. 4, 2014
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Robert J. Lewis
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a few notes



John Pahle teaches high school English near Ann Arbor, Michigan. His nonfiction has appeared in Eclectica, BloodLotus, Prick of the Spindle, the Montreal Review, and the now-defunct CRAM magazine.

If ever I say to the passing moment
“Linger a while! Thou art so fair!”
Then you may cast me into fetters,
I will gladly perish then and there!
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust

Something was happening in the east. Borders were being opened, huge numbers of people were slipping westward. Rumours abounded; orders rescinded. Finally, one November evening—cool and breezy in Maryland—the radio announcer confirmed that the Berlin Wall was unguarded.

“Ya hear that?” the dishwasher said. “Berlin Wall’s coming down.” He had taken a break from the hot, soapy tubs over which he toiled with one leg. Even with the window open above the washing machine, his corner of the kitchen was still a swamp. Sitting on an upturned bucket, he drank ice water from a glass pitcher, plastic prosthesis tilted against the wall. His stump was bare.

“Really?” I asked. He had to have been joking. This was, of course, a man who delighted in practical jokes. Once, drunk on beer and painkillers, he played “Great Balls of Fire” on a two-centuries-old harpsichord in the restaurant lobby.

He nodded toward his transistor; “Heard it on the radio.”

The rest of my shift at the King’s Contrivance Restaurant passed in a blur. The Berlin Wall—gone. I listened to the updates in between clearing tables and helping in the kitchen. Germans were ecstatic, checkpoints were flooded with cars and families. There were no fireworks yet—no one, it seemed, wanted to disrupt the moment with anything percussive (or explosive)—but according to the announcer, someone had rigged a stereo on a car and was playing “Ode to Joy” loud. I joined the dishwasher at the end of my shift and we shared a beer pilfered from the bar. A veteran of Korea, he too understood on a visceral level, buzzing through our blood, the import of the news crackling through the brown Bakelite radio perched on a shelf above.

I grew up in West Germany. Even now, nearly 30 years removed, I still feel like a participant in the Cold War, one of Smiley’s people, a resident of West Germany, as opposed to East Germany—from where the tanks would inevitably roll, through the Fulda Gap, when (not if) the balloon went up. To be sure, it was exciting, yes, but I still have dreams of SS-20s, Pershing missiles, C-130s the size of flying gymnasiums, Vopos, and A-10 tank killers turning on their afterburners, shaking and shattering windows as they flew up in formation to warn the Soviets to stay on their side of the fence. At night my brother and I would listen to the clandestine stations on an old shortwave (zwei . . . sieben . . . sieben . . . null . . . acht . . . endless lists of numbers all read in a flat female voice that betrayed neither inflection nor purpose). Instructions to spies, of course—‘that’ much we (thought we) knew. But where were those spies, anyway? In West Germany, they could be anywhere.

Like many others who grew up at this time, both in the east and west, in the United States and Europe, I still dream, of course, and very often, of warning klaxons and mushroom clouds.

Explaining the situation to my students, even the curious ones, is difficult: they were born, grew up, and come of age since the end of the Cold War. To them it’s not only not ancient history, it’s barely history at all.

“You’ve been drinking again,” Lisbeth stated, kissing me hello. The bedroom window was open, and the wind carried sharp hints of burning leaves and the sweetness of spoiled apples too long on the tree. She was sitting on the bed, newspaper in front of her, and I was pleased to see she was only wearing a long T-shirt. Lisbeth glanced up quickly and studied me through brown plastic-rimmed glasses. “And you’re late,” she added, but she wasn’t accusing, wasn’t angry; she was only pointing out the obvious.

“I know,” I answered as I lay down on the bed next to her.

“God,” she said, “were you cleaning out the grease trap?” She pushed me away. “At least take off your shirt.” I did. Probably to kill the smell of the restaurant and kitchen and dumpsters, Lisbeth lit a cigarette.

I asked her, “Did you watch the news tonight?”

“No. Why?”

“The Berlin Wall was opened up today. The guards just put down their guns and walked away. They’re letting everyone cross who wants to.”

She paused, thinking about it as she pulled on the cigarette. “That’s important.”

I turned on my radio and found a news station. Just local news from Baltimore, so I switched it off. Lisbeth took off her brown glasses, capped her pen, and folded the two into the newspaper. She was nearly finished with the crossword. “It’s getting cooler in here. Could you close the window?”

I did.

An hour later, we were making love. I had met Lisbeth the previous summer, a friend of a friend. We were still at the part of our relationship where physical love, the intimacy of touch and transgression of penetration were all that were needed to confirm that yes, 'this' was love, 'this' is what we meant, we two, when we whispered, or wrote, I love you. Those few months of novelty, of exploration, made me feel adult. I had had other lovers, of course—AIDS was hardly the killer then that it is now—but the ease with which Lisbeth had acquiesced—indeed initiated—sex made our connection real, permanent, not stolen away one night at a time.

But that night, I was several thousand miles away, lost in my past and the history of a country I once considered my own. It was early morning in Berlin, but I was there. Yes, I was topped by a trembling, beautiful young woman, and of course I noticed the curve of her breasts illuminated by the silver autumn moonlight, but the images of crowds kept forcing into my head. "What must it be like?" I wondered. Such freedom. Such change. Families reunited. Rifles put away, mines disarmed. Der Mauer, the Germans called it, was supposed to be impregnable—lasting until at least the inevitable withering away of the state, and it crumbled after 28 years. Like a concrete block dropped from a bridge, the ripples from the splash would radiate outward. Where would this end? I knew: outward, eastward, westward. This time, the Domino Effect would work. War itself might even be obsolete.

The Cold War was over. We lived. I would grow up, grow old. Anyone alive from 1945 until that night knows of what I write. We took a collective breath. The nuclear sword would stay hilted, the tanks and soldiers of the communists and capitalists would never march, and at that moment, everything was right and good.

Lisbeth was now under me, my nose buried in her hair. I felt her back, her buttocks. I smelled her. And I knew this would last forever. She. I. We moved together like a machine, but suddenly I thought of Faust. I pressed deeper into Lisbeth and whispered, “Linger awhile, thou art so fair.” Whether I addressed her or the moment didn’t matter. She laughed into the pillow and sharply arched her back.

Needless to say, nothing lingered. Nothing stayed. I’m married now, as is Lisbeth. Our love lasted until the next spring and we moved on. Instead of owning her own restaurant she now owns her own bookstore. I teach. These are far different plans than we had in 1989—and not at all unsatisfactory.

To know this then, though, I would have been shocked, dismayed. A teacher? Life without Lisbeth? Despite all the events to come, a young man believes his life is permanent and changeless. Despite everything I had to look forward to—a real job, a better car, growing up and out and moving away—there was a certain solidity to my life. Nothing could change. History, as Fukuyama pointed out shortly after the wall no longer existed, was at an end.

(It’s a paradox, really. A youth believes in endurance and stability even though his future is pregnant with trials and new roads and troubles. Consider the poor teenager who kills herself over a man or gay teenager who believes that his miserable life is set in stone and will never improve).

And I scoff at that now—with, of course, the full benefit of experience and hindsight. I will lay in bed with my wife, talking about our son, our savings, wars overseas, but I cannot look for the same knowledge of completion. Try as I might, I can’t feel that self-assured sense of accomplishment. I know I can never have it. Life grinds, everything is mutable. Now I’m middle aged. Half a life after that breezy autumn night when I first knew for sure I was going to grow old, I’ve found my life to be fluid, unpredictable. Wishes are useless, and nothing stays the same. A dream gives way to dawn, which changes again to a dream in an instant. I know this from over four decades of living. Through experience, we learn how to improvise, to invent.

At the end of my street the sidewalk ends and, impressed in the last slab in neat letters (now eroded), is the name of the company that laid the concrete. Below that is clearly stamped 1962. The sidewalk is a year younger than the Berlin Wall, but unlike Der Mauer, it’s still there, being used. Though pitted and dark grey, it still does what the builders intended. I walk over that 1962 nearly every day and wonder what special tool the cement layers used to stamp the year of their work? Why did they even mark such a quotidian event as finishing a sidewalk? (One understands the christening of a ship or the laying of a cornerstone, but a sidewalk in a small town?). While it’s still here, five decades after it was laid, large chunks of it are not. A half century from now, that hundred-yard stretch of concrete will be completely gone. Stamping the wet concrete goo of a sidewalk in the same way a painter writers her name on the bottom of a portrait seems vain.

That’s a vanity I share with everyone else. I make the world in my image through my experiences. At 22, at 46, and—with luck—at 100, I am (and will be) made of my experiences. As I age, I control more and am controlled less; I become a boss, a teacher, a parent. I lose my egocentricity and, in its loss, see the vagaries and threats that hound me and that I hope to dodge or to win. This gives me the hindsight to laugh at the naïveté I felt that night making love in the moonlight: The end of war? Along with several other countries, including the united Germany, the United States invaded Kuwait less than a year and a half after the wall started being chipped and sledgehammered to pieces. Spending the rest of my life with Lisbeth? She and I parted amicably the following spring, she to New Jersey and I to an office job.

So smugly I sit back and say, yes, well, 'now' I have it, 'now' I understand what this game is all about. There are no rules and no way to win. Survive each day and hope for the best tomorrow. And this is the conceit with which I currently judge my life.

But isn’t that, too, a facile conceit barely as tolerable as the one I had in 1989?

As with most arguments, the resolution can be found in the middle. The knowledge of permanence I held in 1989, comically unsophisticated though it was, is something all young women and men share. Knowing that permanence isn’t, is an article of faith (however jaded) of most adults. Then why do we do what we do? If nothing is going to last, if everything we create will eventually be torn down, forgotten, eroded—and we know this to be a fact—then why do we do it? Because we have no choice. We are driven to create, to make something, to hold something in our hand, some fetishistic totem that will last beyond our lives or to remind those yet unborn that we were here. A call across a valley. We’ll build walls, stamp dates (or our initials) in wet cement, or teach a child to read because not to do so goes against our nature. It would be a tacit admission of nothingness, of pointlessness. It is our chance to say, “This is mine. I made this.” Whether a source of comfort or a tiny slice of perdition, it keeps us going. Our hands work best when they’re making something, doing something. To what end, however, is immaterial. Whether a Berlin Wall or a suburban sidewalk does not matter. The deed speaks for itself.

also by John Pahle
Tehran’s usa-Red Brick Wall


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