He was stationed in West Berlin in 1982, and he was twenty-two, and black. These were the facts he adhered to, living there, fulfilling the will of The President, his employer. Who was several times twenty-two, stone white, and strangely in ascendance out of the distant past–where, once, long ago, he had dressed as a cowboy before a movie camera. Now the cowboy was the very life of the rodeo. Elton, foreign and fresh in a land where time itself had collapsed in millions of gaping eye sockets, rotting the mind alive as it thought of them–looking up at the sky, he had to wonder, did the snow fall the same here too?
When in training at Fort Campbell, an officer had taken a liking to him. Elton hardly knew why–the officer was known for his excoriations of anything resembling a private. Privates were bad. Privates were there to issue orders to; and if they didn’t obey, suffered.
That officer had a way of appearing wherever Elton was, and especially in the few moments when he was alone. One day while Elton was walking the long road from town back to the base, the man had driven up behind him in a jeep, told him, “Hop on.” Never a fan of walking, he took the offer.
Once the jeep hit a speed no one in their right mind would jump from, the man began hitting on him. The worst, most ambiguous flirtations: presumptuous use of the first person plural (“we know better, don’t we”, “we have a different way of looking at the situation”), an unnerving movement of the hands up and down the curves of the steering wheel, in a style similar to caressing.
The jeep reached the base and cut towards the maintenance barn…once it slowed enough its shadow could catch up with it, Elton jumped off.
Wasn’t the last vehicle he leapt out of.
As happy as he was to be away from his father and sisters, he was ecstatic to put that man behind him. What had he assumed about Elton, talking that way, enclosing him in the same pronoun used to address himself. We what? We nothing. This private keeps private.
For months after that the officer would look directly at him, as if forcing thoughts into Elton’s head; that those thoughts were a complete mystery and Elton’s skull was thicker than death, didn’t matter. It was the looking, the one-on-one force of it, pulling (or was it pushing?) Elton to meet the eyes he could already feel staring at him, that kept him uncomfortable with everyone around him. The chance that the other guys would notice, and, if so, give him up willingly, like a sacrificial ham, to get that officer out of their lives and quarters–it was as real as his own skin enclosing him everyday, waiting for cancer.
When Elton received his notice of assignment, happy day.
Weeks later he stood in streets amused by outbursts and utterances in a foreign tongue, and called that amusement “Berlin”.
A city in halves.
Cut in two, like the brain in his own head and the heads of everyone around him; and joined by a corpus callosum better known as The Wall.
There were many famous walls, but this, among all others, was the most important one.
Hadrian’s, for example; what Romans did to England before it became Britain. To keep the barbarians at bay and freezing to the north.
The Wailing one, as well. More petitions than one can count, written on pieces of paper folded, creased, inserted into cracks left by the effects of age and weather.
The Great one, in China–that he would have to see one day. And why had that been built? Walls were many but the reasons for their construction were few. Barbarians, he supposed; of any manner of shape, color, tongue, or viciousness.
Every one of them were built for specific reasons, and failed for those reasons and for others; countless others their engineers and financiers couldn’t have predicted.
This one, too.
On his side, he was part of the binary created by it: the left brain, the west. According to pop neurology, center of rationality and numerical aptitude. Chaos to the east, from where, every morning, the sun rose, and every evening, darkness bled. Out of the horizon line of jagged buildings silhouetted against a dull glow of sky: dense, inert, magnetized darkness. Speckled with tiny agents of disease called light.
He practiced his German in real time, with real Germans. He stood guard at checkpoints. When snow fell, it did so in a manner similar to its American counterpart–patterning currents in the air it descended through. Reaching the ground, to the best of his knowledge, it became German.
A unified snow in one half of Berlin.
After Christmas the sky had opened, the gray breaking up into a range of teeming white; but a month and a half before that, nothing could have predicted the clouds would bear anything but opacity…no sun, no distinct shadows. But after the first week of November, he was allowed his first leave. Some of the other men stationed there told him–no problem to cross over. East Germany is open beyond any of a dozen checkpoints. He walked right through. In his fatigues. Showed his I.D. to the border guards, then followed the way of the road. Since he’s American, his friends had said, and since he was black, no one would touch him. Imagine that, he thought. Black is untouchable, but for all the right reasons. The locals tending garden in the yards of a small village watched him go with amazement. A lone soldier bearing the color of nightfall…at best the ghost of an American.
He hitch-hiked. A man driving a truck told him, “Hop on.” A familiar phrase but in a tongue he had no problem accepting an offer from. He reached a small town, name unknown. Unknown now because he can’t remember. At a McDonald’s he sits and chews through two cheeseburgers. Cheeseburgers the same as ever. An elderly man with wigged eyes sits two tables away, cursing a string of phantoms sitting across from him. A group of young people walk in. Dressed in wild disguises. More people push in, of varied age and size–also disguised, and drunk, and cavorting loudly.
What’s this, he asks one of them.
Costumes! they answer. Every question he asks they answer in unison.
It’s Fasching, they explain. We dress and go insane. We put it to the streets and party.
Sure enough, he steps outside and dozens of dozens of them are hustling about, dressed like child lunatics, all smiling. Noisemakers and a drunk parade down the main street and groups of revelers singing their throats inside-out. Elton isn’t Eastern but he knows of the east, and in the dense multi-destructive histories of Europe he has read of things like this, more medieval than a flourish of local folk tradition. Goliards. Rogue priests. Satirists of papal authority. Wandering the countrysides of the southern fiefdoms in mock processionals, inverting the whole cruel fashion of flagellants–instead of self-lacerations and naked whippings, nonstop bingeing on wine and sex and parodies of hypocritical mass and homilies. The great example of that revolt, a non-existent rebel bishop: Golias. A man so jolly he outgripped god, outwitted all attempts to hunt him down and fry him.
Every German in sight that night, then, some freak child of Golias.
After standing aside, smiling; after much pulling of his shirt sleeves and pleading, joining them…the people were idiots for a day, and though he didn’t follow the full import of their nonsense, he met them with noises and stomping.
You have, they tell him, the best of costumes!
Not his face, they clarified, his uniform!
He saluted. They went wild.
After his third beer he stopped at every group of people to ask if any were driving later to Berlin. Not long a few said, yes, shortly!
The couple that drove him back were disguised as a bloody clown and a harlot. Halloween a month late and drained of evil, he thought; before they reached the border, he asked to walk. He wanted to come back the way he’d left. Symmetry seemed in keeping with local custom…through Customs he went.
The guards were different guards, but roughly the same men. They didn’t seem surprised by anything about him. Every fourth person around him, most in cars, some on motorcycles, few in trucks, were in physical outbursts of color and alias.
On the other side the celebrations were still arriving.
Somewhere on his way to the barracks, someone affixed a wig to his scalp. Electric baby blue…a militarized old dame. He took off the wig once he passed the gates, but ashamed to care, before stepping into the rec room pulled it back on.
The men standing at the ping pong table were astonished. From their astonishment radiated not a small amount of good-humored horror.
Now that’s just how I thought the motherfucker should’ve always looked, Carter blurted. The others topped off their heads laughing.
Damn right, he told them. I bring you the scalp of the Stasi. Cut fresh off the skull of old East Germany.
Elton talked tough under suspicion of softness. Mostly he just wanted a reason to keep smiling.
Even they couldn’t put him down. He was up, way up. He was descending just like his brethren from the sky–a month and a half later after Christmas, snowing.
The people sang then too, songs in praise of some Dead Man, whose birth supposedly cut time in half. Everyone lived in the right half, the A.D., the after. In the disorderly swig of equals and opposites–in the unending hours extending out of his posthumous invention, when he crowned a virgin’s womb and ate breath.
Only a fool would sing for it. But here they were, in numbers impossible to count, because they opened their mouths behind closed doors, in warm apartment blocks and houses. Really he suspected, they’re just singing for themselves. And what of it?
Singing and kissing not in the streets, where it’s cold, but in the comfortable whereabouts where they lay their heads. In a McDonald’s anywhere you can find some old man scowling. The reasons why are hardly a mystery, so why would Elton feel then, they’re better and more awful than himself?
One flake, then in concert the whole pattern. An intelligence taking shape, and then landing.
No more man than himself.
Kyle Coma-Thompson‘s collection of short stories, THE LUCKY BODY, was recently published by Dock Street Press; the title story was selected by Ben Marcus for inclusion in the forthcoming VINTAGE BOOK OF NEW AMERICAN SHORT STORIES in April 2015. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Electric Literature, the Boston Review, TriQuaterly, New American Writing, Bat City Review, and elsewhere.