By Ben Mimmack
Frank shivered ostentatiously and pulled the flask from the inside pocket of his overcoat. The coat was old but still in good shape, except the inside pocket which was frayed where the flask snagged on it. Frank had pulled a flask from that pocket more times than he’d eaten käsespätzle.
He took a long slug and offered the flask to me in that diffident way people do when they really don’t want you to accept. I waved him off and continued looking out of the windscreen.
It had been dusk when we parked, but night had fallen and the rain had started. With the windscreen wipers off, the view of the street was just a series of shaded dark shapes, but in the distance the checkpoint was brightly lit by halogen searchlights. Most of the city was asleep, but, over in the East, I could see the sentries stamping their boots to keep warm. I couldn’t see anyone on this side. The Americans were too sensible to be outside on a night like this. I knew they were inside the little wooden hut, but I’d only see them if anyone tried to cross.
Frank shifted in his seat again.
“It’s getting colder”
The platitude gave him the excuse to pull out the flask again. This time bringing two small red threads from the pocket with it. He looked at the flask, deciding how to deal with the situation before blowing them off and down into the seat well.
It was getting colder, but that wasn’t why he had the flask. Frank hated these jobs. The ones where no one knew what would happen until the last minute. Whether your man would drive to freedom, or whether you were going to see him dragged off at gunpoint by the Stasi.
Frank had told me he was too old for this and I was inclined to agree. We both were. We’d been doing it since we were kids, a time which had long since taken on the sepia toned comfort of fond reminiscence.
Frank and I had grown up in Prenzlauer Berg. What they now called Östdeutsch. Our fathers had worked together on the U-Bahn and our apartments were next to each other. I couldn’t remember a time when we hadn’t been friends. Our lives had been joined in that brief time between consciousness and remembrance.
My mother had left us not long after the war and taken my father’s capacity for happiness. For most of my childhood, his routine hadn’t varied. Days at work and evenings at the Bar Schwandbach, sipping at a schnapps and railing at the Bohemian interlopers who were invading the neighborhood.
Frank’s parents had filled in the cracks. They were the ones who made sure I had clothes and shoes that fitted, that I had a present on my birthday, that my diet consisted of more than sausage and kartoffelknödel. And when they started building the wall and Frank’s family had left for the West, I’d gone with them.
My father hadn’t said much when I told him I was going. He was just finishing breakfast and considering his first bolt of the day. He didn’t seem surprised, or say anything. He packed his lunch very methodically as usual and put on his coat. Just before he walked to the door, he turned and gave me our first hug in several years before telling me to be safe. I hadn’t seen him in more than 20 years but I could still summon up the smell of his hair when he gave me that hug.
Frank reached into his overcoat again, the side pocket this time, and pulled out his lighter. I knew he wanted to smoke because I was desperate for one myself. It wasn’t possible on a job like this and we both knew it, but that didn’t make the deprivation any easier.
The lighter was an ancient Zippo. Frank had acquired it in those days when Berliners were too busy picking up the shattered remnants of their lives to bother too much what a couple of semi-feral boys were up to during the day. He claimed he’d stolen it from a G.I., but I didn’t believe him. Frank was always saying things like that to make himself seem more daring than he was. Much more likely he’d asked to look at it and a soldier had taken pity on him and told him to keep it.
Frank had always had that quality. He always wanted to be a heroic figure, but a sort of hopelessness hung around him that made people feel sorry for him. Maybe that’s why I’d come West with him and his family.
“When’s he coming over again?”
Frank knew the plan, but talking about it helped his nerves, so I played along and went through it again.
“He was going to try for 6. But if it looked dicey, he was going to wait until dark and make a run for it then. I suppose it looked dicey.”
Frank peered through the thick streaks of water running down the windscreen. He was looking into the East, but there was nothing to see. They didn’t have the resources of the decadent West, so there weren’t many streetlamps or public lights. You could sense, rather than see, the looming post-war apartment blocks just over the wall.
Frank pulled a sleeve over his hand and wiped the condensation from the inside of the windscreen. The glass cleared, but the view didn’t improve. I took pity on him and turned the ignition halfway to engage the battery before pushing the right stalk upwards with my hand.
The wipers hissed as they cleared the glass before settling back at the bottom of the windscreen. For a few seconds, we had a view of both checkpoints and the darkened road leading into the East before the rain drops obscured the view again.
Frank turned and smiled at me. It was the sort of smile you see on the face of someone revisiting a funny moment during a eulogy.
“I hate these jobs.”
“You’re lucky you missed the other one.”
Frank had done a pickup last year, but the target had been blown. I’d been at home huddled up in bed with chicken soup and aspirin, but he’d described it to me afterwards.
How the tiny Trabant had puttered up to the checkpoint with the late summer sun glinting off the windscreen. How the driver had been asked to step out while his papers were examined. The driver was one of Frank’s and he never should have been an agent. Frank said you could feel his nervousness on the American side as they examined the car. After 10 minutes, the scrutiny had been too much and the man had snapped and tried to run to Checkpoint Charlie. He’d made it about 10 meters before one of the sentries managed to un-sling his rifle and put a bullet in his spine.
He’d still been alive when Frank drove off, but he wasn’t alive now. Hohenschönhausen prison had taken care of that.
Frank was close to all his agents. It was why he was so good. Agents need to feel wanted and Frank was an expert at making people feel like he needed them. When he lost one it chewed him up and he’d lost a few over the past few years. More than he should have. That’s why we needed this pick up. Frank had a lead on a mole.
Frank pulled out his flask again and shook it. I heard a faint splash. It sounded like he was down to the dregs. He paused, deciding whether to take the last mouthful, or save it, before pushing the flask back into his pocket.
Instead, he pulled out the Zippo and started clicking the lid open and closed with his thumb.
Ordinarily, I would have let him get on with it but tonight was different and his fidgeting was starting to annoy me.
“Can’t you sit still?”
Frank looked at me in surprise. I was usually the calm one and my reaction worried him.
“No, I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me tonight”
Frank looked at me and smiled in relief that he wasn’t the only one who was nervous. He turned and peered through the windscreen again. He appeared to be about to say something when he stopped and crinkled up his eyes.
I pushed the stalk again and the rain was swept from the windscreen. Past the two checkpoints, we could just make out the headlights of a car driving towards the checkpoint in the East.
“Here we go.” I said.
The sentry was stood in the middle of the road with his palm raised as the other car slowed to a stop. I started the engine and turned the lights on.
Frank turned and looked at me. This was not procedure. I turned to face him. The beam of our headlights reflected off the buildings and into the car. In this secondary light, the shadows under his eyes made him look older than normal and I self-consciously rubbed my own face in reaction.
“I want to go through and wait for him.” I said.
Frank didn’t reply. He just turned and looked ahead. He knew something wasn’t right now and he was trying to work it out. In any other circumstances, he’d have been out of the car and off down the street. The only thing keeping him in his seat was the weight of our relationship.
I engaged the gear and pulled forward. In the rain, the engine was barely audible, but the headlights tracking over the white hut pulled the G.I. to the doorway. The rain kept him inside and I handed my papers to him in the doorway across half a meter of drizzle.
The soldier was old for a private and looked like he’d stopped caring about the border before the missile crisis. He glanced at my papers and waved me through. No one cared about people leaving through Checkpoint Charlie, your problems started on the way back.
I pulled past the hut. The guards at the other checkpoint were still dealing with the car so I pretended to stall to buy myself some time. The car jerked forward and the engine coughed into silence. Even through the rain, I could hear the G.I. laughing at me.
Frank had the Zippo in his hand again.
“Don’t worry” I said. “I just need a little more time.”
Frank sat back and peered forward. He put the lighter back in his pocket.
“What is this?”
“This is the end, Frank.”
The guard in the East returned the driver’s papers and waved the car through. At the same moment, I re-started the engine and started to pull forward. Driving towards the East.
“The end? I thought…”
The other car came towards us and passed us without slowing. Frank turned towards me suddenly. The lights grew brighter as we approached the checkpoint and I looked across to see fear widening Frank’s eyes.
I pulled the gun from my coat pocket. When I looked down to check the safety, I saw a red thread from the lining had snagged on the barrel. I blew on the barrel so that it joined its companions on the floor. Then I disengaged the safety and pointed the gun at Frank.
“I’m sorry, Frank”
I pulled up to the checkpoint and took my hand off the steering wheel to wind down the window. I passed my papers to the guard who shone his torch into the car. When he saw the gun, he stood and stepped aside. Someone else shone a torch into my face and then Frank’s. After a moment, the torch was snapped off and the guard passed my papers back. At his signal, the barrier was raised and I released the clutch and let the car move forward.
Frank was pressed back against his seat. His hands were balled into fists on his knees. The light was gone now, so I couldn’t see, but I knew his knuckles would be white.
Max moved his hand towards his jacket pocket. He did it slowly to give me time to react, but I didn’t worry. I knew what was in that pocket. Max pulled out the Zippo and a crumpled packet of Luckys. He lit the cigarette and blew the smoke straight ahead so that the cloud broke like a wave against the inside of the windscreen before scattering in the updraft from the heater.
Max continued staring straight ahead. Somehow the rain seemed heavier in the East and, despite the heater, the windscreen was misting over again. This time, Max made no effort to clear it and I knew whatever he was looking at wasn’t in front of him. Everything important was behind him now.
Max finished his cigarette and ground it into the ashtray without taking his eyes off the windscreen.
“They have my father, Frank.”
I half shrugged when I said it, but Max still wasn’t looking at me. I braked to a stop, turned off the car and waited until the passenger door was pulled open. Max didn’t say a word as he laboriously climbed out of the seat. I desperately wanted him to tell me he understood. I knew I didn’t deserve such kindness.
I reversed across the road, turning to start back the way I’d come. In the headlights, Frank stood between two soldiers, a sergeant to one side covering them with his weapon.
Frank’s eyes were fixed on mine even though I knew he couldn’t see me in the glare of the lights. I couldn’t look away from his stare. It was the look of a man who knew there would be no happy ending.
I knew that look very well, it had been staring at me from the mirror for as long as I could remember.
(Bio: Ben lives in Dallas with his wife and two small boys. In addition to short stories, he writes screenplays and unfinished novels. His flash fiction can be found at http://fiftywordstories.com/ and https://www.fridayflashfiction.com/ )