Castor arrived at Pass Controle in the vanguard of the Dulles flight. For a moment, he refused to accept it as his destination. The other passengers also halted. In the broad, low-ceilinged, gray and yellow space, bathed in baleful fluorescence, humanity without European Union passports ebbed, all ages, shapes and shades from beige to sable, toting Touristers, twine- or tape-bound bundles and restive toddlers, fed steadily from two arrival annexes, and it pressed toward one 20-year-old boy in an ash-green uniform who languidly turned the pages of a family’s seven passports.
As Castor stepped forward, the fellow who’d stopped beside him said “Fuck it,” and strode into the throng, slowly and insistently pressed forward. He’d made it about halfway when Castor joined the thickening fringe of the crowd, felt himself absorbed into it, another strand of protein compounds in the pool. You did not join this mass, you surrendered to it. To be polite was to get in the way, really. Castor had begun to make his peace with this when the cock-sure guy had reached an impassable point — a man flung an arm at him, with a burst of invective in a language crackling with consonants. Fuck-it jumped back and threw up his arms innocently. Others around him shouted, filled the space he’d cleared.
He’d sat behind Castor, and had spent the evening disclosing to a young woman beside him the banal highlights — favorite sunsets, best cruise comedian, and so on — of adventures intermittently peopled by his family. Though he’d fingered up the volume of his Walkman, Castor was nonetheless captive. He had not been able to decide if the man was lamely playing for the woman or if he was just one of those types who could not shut up about themselves. His comeuppance gratified something deep in Castor.
Castor shuffled and writhed with contractions of the mass, and during one of the frequent halts he took a look behind. He was already halfway into it. Then he saw Mary. She did not see him right away. She had been one of those who, entering the hall, could not pitch herself into it. But it had spread and swamped her. Another flight’s discharge started pouring in from a hall to the right.
She must have been on the Dulles flight — no doubt in business class, no surprise he’d not noticed her. She’d probably boarded from the Lufthansa lounge. He turned to shuffle forward and when he looked again, she looked at him. He could see she’d noticed someone she couldn’t place, but as soon as she did she needed a friendly face. She made a show of moving toward him, and of her frustration. Castor let the crowd move around him as it carried her toward him.
“Well, I can’t say I was looking forward to it, but I’ve never been happier to see you,” she announced when they were still about three feet apart, forestalling anything like intimacy. “What is going on here, anyway? Where’s that vaunted German efficiency?”
They hugged perfunctorily, much as they had the last time he’d unexpectedly greeted her, five years back in Marshall Field’s lobby. “This is as bad a pass-controle scene as I’ve encountered, but surely with all your globetrotting you’ve endured worse,” he told her.
“Oh dear. You really do have romantic view of my work, don’t you? I don’t travel abroad that much, and when I do it’s generally to other, uh, advanced nations. Such as Germany. There really is no other line?”
It genuinely distressed her. Her dismay intensified as they pressed toward the lone immigration agent. Antically anxious, she looked a bit like the sacrificial Fay Wray. Although with auburn hair — was she highlighting? — in the Veronica Lake sweep. Take that, Turning Forty. Ten minutes or so and a second and a little later a third agent arrived to loosen the clot into rough queues. Meanwhile Castor managed to learn Mary had the same connection to Berlin and that she had some business with the paper’s bureau. She was staying off Kurfurstendamm in a three-star the paper had used for years, another endured indignity. When they were next in line, she turned and asked what he was doing in Berlin.
“It’s kind of a junket. A fellowship grant. Learn about Germany, talk about Germany, connect with German academics. Ride buses a lot.”
“Well look at you,” she said, leaning back, working her surprise. “So, are you writing a book?”
Their turn. “Well, I don’t know. Yet. Maybe.” It was not the moment to explain that he was with a group of journalists, not academics. The topic did not come up on the flight to Berlin, or later, when they met in the hotel lobby before going to dinner.
“I don’t want to let all the air out, but I don’t think this is that Grand Hotel. That was the old Adlon, wasn’t it? A few blocks west. Although Friedrichstrasse — I hear it’s a coming address in this town. Did you see the Galeries Lafayette down the street? Jean Nouvel.”
“I haven’t left the building yet, honestly. I tried to nap. Got a suit pressed.”
“Well then let’s get you out in this town. You’ll love Berlin.”
“Been before. Twice.”
But he didn’t get to explain about those two trips, eastern contacts, forum presentations. Or getting tenure. As they considered a dessert wine at a dim, oak-paneled Turkish restaurant Mary just had to revisit, bleary Castor began to gather Mary was seducing him. They had talked of nothing but her since leaving Friedrichstrasse but he’d learned nothing that made that move reasonable. So he thought he’d better ask about Carl.
“Well I knew this would come up…” she said in her surprised-to-be-surprised way. “We’re, uh, separated. I moved out. Moving on. Got to move on.” Castor thought a moment she might string together a half-dozen constructions of “to move.” Mary conjugated when she couldn’t bring herself to talk about the obvious. She looked great, all wavy-haired, glossy-lipped and whipsmart in a crisp, sable pantsuit, and he had to tell her.
Mary laughed in an uncustomarily hearty manner. “For forty? Oh yes, the chiseled look, that solid face of authority.” But she blushed, gratified. And so another bottle of wine, and the story of Carl’s increasing crankiness, foul habits and infirmities of age, and his drinking. Castor mentioned Karen, more by way of notice than warning, when it became apparent they would return to the Grand.
“Well, bully for you. All I said was I wanted to see your room.”
And when they got to the approximately Biedermeier chamber, she said, “Look, we’re adults. We’ve done this before. Maybe we’ll do it again. I never said I wanted to shut you out of my life completely.”
Castor wanted to note just how effectively she had done so for fifteen years but he had to recall that, technically, he had sounded the last note, driving back to Lawrence.
Fifteen years in the glacial memory of muscle and flesh. Travel-weary, tipsy, distracted, his mind fumbled among the basil-heavy Sunday pizza; the lake lashing rocks; the rumble of the el past his Rogers Park apartment. As Mary snored (that prim purr again), Castor recounted to himself, as if telling a story, the details of a party late in their junior year at the Foster Street house.
He’d been doing this lately, picking shards from the ashes and examining each carefully, and he wondered if it was Forty or if it was something in his cohort, the tail end, the beginning of the end, really, of the boomer generation. Too late for the decade trod by titan siblings, but alien elder, already, to the first waves of their progeny, the skateboarders, gamers and hackers. So memory is a big deal. A year or so back, at a fundraiser reception, Castor chatted with Carole Springer, the sculpture professor, who might be a year or two younger. She had hinted at something akin in her work. She pulled I-beams into loose noodles — one slumped on the lawn outside his office. Kitchen sounds or smells from her youth somehow in each curl.
Castor awoke to a note: “Frühstucke!” Hair pinned and looking just a little sallow, Mary tucked lustily into a poached egg, the crumbs and scraps of rolls and jams scattered before her and onto a folded Financial Times, the mezzanine view of the fronded neo-Wilhelmian atrium and staircase behind. He had not paid much attention yesterday.
“Please, have a seat,” Mary said in an offhand, human-resources way.
Castor placed his cereal bowl and yogurt drum, sat. Mary took a long draft of coffee then pushed back her round, tortoise-shell frames, leaned forward. Castor had never seen her wear prescription lenses.
“So what do you think about last night?”
Castor closed his eyes. “Can I fax you a statement?”
Her smile was professional. “I mean it. Let’s get it on the table.”
“I know. I know. Well, it was quite. Nice. And it brought back some memories.”
“But,” she coached.
“But I. Uhh… would some time to think be out-of-order?”
It didn’t seem that far-fetched that it might work, older and wiser and all that. It turned out the irritants he had seized upon during the divorce, had clutched the years since, were aspects of her demeanor he’d once found charming, and did so now in a way that almost afforded him condescension. Even this moment, fraught with her intent, glazed face. But. That didn’t seem to be the way this conversation was headed.
“I could say, ‘If you have to think…’ but I guess first the question should be, what about this woman you’re — what?”
Castor turned back the impulse to reduce Karen. It didn’t matter that they were not married, that Karen was in no hurry. Or that neither questioned the other and that by her decree they did not talk about the status of whatever it was between them. Time was needed. Dating, he’d say if anyone asked, quip about getting pinned at the prom. He didn’t feel like telling Mary that. “She’s divorced. From a jerk. Has a kid, daughter, Kiara, eleven-twelve. We knew each other when I was in grad school, worked together at a bookstore, kinda. Had a, a crush on her then but she had already attached herself. To. When I moved back to Lawrence, she was getting a divorce.”
“Wait. You moved back to Lawrence for her?”
“No.” It hadn’t hurt that she still lived there. But no.
“And the daughter?”
“We get along well. She’s a little uh, bitter now and then, but I think she’s happy to have. Me around. If I might say.”
“A father-figure, you mean?
Castor shrugged, chewed.
“Sounds to me you’ve got a situation on your hands. You’ll be married in a year, two outside, I’ll bet on it.” Mary slipped the glasses off, folded them onto the neck of her blouse, remarkably unruffled over, what? Thirty hours? Yes, a little carved, the angular face a little boxy. But she could still do sweet. “Well I guess I had my chance.”
Castor did not have long to consider the implications. He returned to the room, pulled himself and his briefcase together, managed to get some marks at the American Express office two blocks down on his way to the U-Bahn. He noticed the layered, glazed-drum Galeries Lafayette. Friedrichstrasse had indeed snapped to life; Castor wondered if the English bookstore near Checkpoint Charlie was still there, or if it too had been overtaken by the crane. The state bird, locals joked.
He had to connect with the S-Bahn at Zoo station. It took him nearly an hour to reach the foundation’s office in a bland, clerestoried shed in a park in west Berlin. But it was not 11, and he was the first to arrive. A woman he’d noticed walking behind him was second. Sara Brill he took to be half-a-dozen years younger, maybe Karen’s age. She was turned out in a 50s-style A-line dress, something a well-paid assistant to the boss might have worn then, except it was a pale loamy brown, like her side-parted, shoulder-length, utterly straight hair. She wrote for People, about trends and celebrities, and she made it clear the rush of dish and tut-tut had crested.
“I applied for this on lark, I have to be honest. A friend of mine at Time got it last year. I think ultimately I would like to write about foreign affairs, or to be a correspondent somewhere.” She scanned the wainscoted waiting room, watched the boardroom door beyond the gate. “Truthfully,” she confided, “I don’t think it will be Germany.”
Professor Helmer strode into the room from the boardroom just as a clutch of five fellows arrived from outside. Within ten minutes, the other four arrived separately. It was an odd assortment: a CNN producer from Miami; a small-market weekend anchor, an A&E editor from Omaha, all women in their mid-twenties. A tall, sandy-blond man of maybe 30 revived Corman Slade in the Castor catacombs: He was the picture of what earnest, eager, healthy, wealthy Corman would have been at 30, maybe even the trim moustache. Slade’s innocent narcissism had acquired a promotional panache during his twenties, if Frank Hatcher offered a clue.
Helmer made his way around the room, introducing himself to each fellow before stepping to the front of the room and speaking abruptly. “Hello. Greetings to you all. Welcome to our little foundation in the park here.” As he spoke, two younger men, in their middle thirties, slipped into the room and stood on either side of the boardroom entrance.
Gert was the taller and trimmer of the two, blade-jawed and buzzcut in a black leather jacket. Helmer’s assistant, he also would handle a good bit of the translating, as the rumpled, tweed-coated Horst, educated in the former East, could not speak idiomatic Western English. Horst would translate official statements of welcome, or relay questions and answers in board-table discussions, but Gert seemed to take all the informal assignments, querying a shopkeeper or explaining customs of the Turkish enclave as the bus toiled through Kreuzberg. Or talking about Berlin nightlife. This he did at the urging of Sonja, the CNN producer, as they bussed to the first evening’s destination, the restaurant of a small three-star in a rehabbing eastern district.
Helmer emceed neatly, prying open pockets of conversation to keep one general forum aloft. When plates cleared, he had each speak. Castor had dreaded this inevitable moment since the fellowship letter had arrived. He was certain to be the eldest, and probably weakest by credential, of the lot — tenured at a mid-pack state university, with an unstellar publishing record. And middle-aged. Signal accomplishments unspooled around the table… major-league journalism like Sara; youngest-ever in the job like Sonja; Harvard, Columbia, Princeton. Of course Castor was last but he’d had enough of a splendid, nearly dry Moselle that he took on a humble air and won a few laughs.
After, urged by Sonja and Gert, the group hoofed over to Oranienburgerstrasse. As they strode through a leafy wind in the median plaisance of Unter den Linden, the group spread and Castor found himself walking with Sara Brill, who wanted to know, “Why did you say that, about ‘articles no one ever reads? In journals,’ what was it, ‘in journals only libraries buy?’”
“Yes, and academic libraries only.”
“Oh, could you be a little more modest?”
“I am modest. If I must say so myself.”
“Well, no one else will if you won’t.”
“That’s right. Just a modest man of modest means and accomplishments.”
“I see,” she said skeptically.
“Well, I am. I mean look at some of these people. Look at you.”
“Oh, indeed, look at me. I’m all over Keanu Reeves’ spiritual yearnings and Sandra Bullock’s tight jeans. Yeah I know, people read People. But what of it? Why is that any more impressive than what I am sure are your intrepid ideas, trapped in those unopened books?”
“It is not inconsiderable that more people want to read about movie stars than want to read about theories of prosody.”
“Well, you’ve got a long way to go if you want to convince me I’m providing a public service.”
“No, that’s my job. That’s what I’m paid for, I guess, to fill young wheatbrains with arcana about feminine rhymes and alexandrines.”
“I was an English major, so I know — or least I think I do — what those are. You’re subtly inflating yourself now. Where’s that modest guy I knew two minutes ago?”
Sara turned and Gert strode up to them. “This is Oranienburgerstrasse. Go to the right here.”
They walked up the boulevard several blocks, passed by trams, scooters, the occasional Trabant pointed out by Hatcher, then into the district, past carcasses of cars and brick facades in disrepair and rehab. Gert led them through an open-air sculpture gallery in the shell of a building that looked as if it had been a ruin since the war. Concatenations of cast scrap and wrought iron, some adorned with photos or trinkets or clothing, occupied clearings in the debris, while a post-punk, pierced and tattooed rabble stepped around purposeful tangles of concrete and rebar. Castor found himself thinking about Mary, who probably would have thought it fascinating in a reporterly way. A sidebar in a “Changing Face of Berlin” package, “Rubble Chic.” And she’d allow that she prefers her galleries reliably roofed.
“You have to see this.” Just behind him, Sara took his elbow. They stepped past a group of fellows listening to Frank dilate on global markets with a sculptor at work — it seemed an amiable-enough discussion — and over a breach in the wall to a darker, minimally candlelit space in which a performance, apparently, was under way. A tall, bald young man clad entirely in white discoursed earnestly with a sculpture that disclosed no hint of anthropomorphism. It was indeed anti-anthropomorphic as far as Castor could tell, unless it described a being at the molecular level. A group of a dozen or so lingered around other abrupt sculptures, smoking. From a boombox in the corner eminated, thinly, electronic music tinseled with eastern polyrhythms. Castor had just enough German to be perplexed as White-Clad Man rambled, then intently listened to the silent assemblage of rebar and wrought iron. Castor distinguished Amerikanische twice. He noticed, on the other side of the dim space, Gert apparently translating by whisper to Sonja.
“You don’t speak German, do you?” said Sara. “Maybe it’s best.”
Afterward, the group filled a long table in the dining hall of a small tavern and listened to Frank scatter a few names in recounting his apprenticeship with a documentary filmmaker. In this respect he differed from Castor’s Slade-at-thirty — Corman was quiet. Frank carried his theme out to the street, effectively trapping three of the fellows while they waited for Gert to settle the bill. Sara tapped a finger on Castor’s shoulder then pointed it down the street. He caught up with her.
“Always on these things,” she said, “there’s a Frank.”
“A bit the blowhard, isn’t he?”
“Yeah. Between him and the bitter Germans, it’s going to be a trying time.”
“I can understand Frank. But do you really find the Germans bitter? Already?”
“No, I suppose it’s me who’s bitter. Although I got the certain sense that little, uh, performance piece back there was not exactly a celebration of German-American entente.”
“Uh, yeah. Well, who knows what that was about? Scheduled, or impromptu, for our benefit? But why are you bitter?”
“Well, when a country tried to exterminate your people, it tends to chap the ass a little.”
“Ah. Yes.” Castor saw himself skating perilously here. “You don’t sound like. The ideal candidate. For this.”
She laughed. “I guess I thought I’d give them a chance to prove me wrong.”
At Oranienburgerstrasse, they considered an approaching tram.
“We are the two grandparents on this junket, after all,” she said.
“You?” Castor was jealous of the age distinction. “Why, I’m old enough to be your. Uncle. How old are you anyway?”
“An august thirty-four. You?”
“I’ve got seven on you. Hitting forty makes all the difference, you know, in elder status.”
“Well… but I’ve got that on most of the others in this group. Except maybe Frank. He was born forty.”
Castor’s shallow bay window overlooked Behrenstrasse, midblock, but he could see Friedrichstrasse and the corner, and of course pictured the barren street in other times, staff cars and tanks, forage-capped Russians take cover; an underground partisan, from any of several decades, scuttles home after a meeting. The hotel window as history’s scrim. And these scenarios suited the LED reading on the bedside clock, 3:30. He’d slept little and fitfully with Mary the previous night. The alertness travel always provoked in him stirred a roil of elation, confusion and anxiety. Exhausted, Castor had tried to rest for an hour or two, but the cruel amber glow of the LED suffused the room, and eventually he got hungry, so he raided the minibar for candy and a mineralwasser. He considered knocking back a couple of scotches, but decided he’d be more of a mess at 8 a.m., when the bus was to leave, sleep or not. So he stood, then sat, by the window.
He’d got through forty all right, free of the misgivings associated with it, the melancholy he’d watched Carey endure, or indulge. But forty-one was a mélange of misgivings he had not foreseen. Failure to land the McAuliffe grant brought him up short. Had he coasted since getting tenure, riding his German connections for conferences, a few desultory papers, had he shortchanged his concentration? He’d heard at MLA that Howard Becker, editor of Perspectives in the Eighteenth Century, scorned Castor’s moonlighting. Castor scrapped an article he’d sketched on Sterne and Swift. Meanwhile, the travel-writing gig with the newspaper had blossomed. The pay wasn’t great but it bettered Becker’s nothing, and his editor Haylee was pitching trips to him. It was “creative work” by faculty-manual standards, but no one bothered him about it.
It was tempting to switch trains at this karmic depot, just clamber across the tracks and hop a boxcar headed Elsewhere. He’d have been more capricious about surrendering tenure without Karen to mind. That train might be on its way Somewhere, its baggage car full of step-child. This idea intrigued him, even attracted him sometimes, the rare occasions he hit it off with Kiara, but it was not his choice. He’d made his peace with childlessness and something in him was reluctant to breach it.
Then Mary careens into Berlin on the How’s That Express. It was there and would always be there, the having loved her, and he couldn’t be certain that loving wasn’t simply love. He put himself in Mary’s lakefront condo, gazing out that window upon the glistering lake in May.
That was not enough to carry him to morning, however, and he’d worked his way through nearly 50 Deutschemarks of minibar candy, nuts and water by the time his weary eyes gathered in the garnet 5:30. He decided to take a bath in the capacious tub, into which he drew enough just-hot water, frothed with the hotel’s courtesy-bottle bathwash, to reach his armpits, his legs limp in the coffin-like trough. It was one of the things he’d come to like about Europe, that it took seriously the bath, designed its apparatus sensibly and generously. Castor slid forward until the water inscribed a shoreline around his chin that surged and ebbed on his earlobes until still. He felt surface steam pull sweatbeads onto his cheeks and forehead, thought he could sleep like this.
He was tempted to try the continental breakfast. À la Mary, he supposed. But he’d never been much for meat and cheese in the morning, and those leather-skinned rolls. More by way of honoring his aging than of fearing illness, he’d set himself a regimen of twiggy cereal and fruit, or meusli and yogurt in Europe. Indulging, he ladled a mound of scrambled eggs onto his plate, garnished it with Nürnberger brats. He’d nearly finished a sweet roll — do they call them “Danish” here? Do the Danes? — when Sara set a coffee cup and a plate of cold cuts on the table and sat facing him. Castor saw that the scene reprised the previous morning, Sara playing Mary with the almost fin-de-siécle backdrop.
“I think it’s all new,” said Sara.
“No doubt,” said Castor, despite some. Maybe restored? “A lot of ‘new’ going on around this town.”
“You’re familiar with the old?” she asked, buttering a roll.
“Oh hardly. I came here about a year after the Wall. In fact within days of the uh. Soviet Union. Collapsing. The Russian flag was flying on the embassy. But Lenin’s bust was still in the courtyard.”
“Well, icons die hard here, I gather.”
It was to be the leitmotif of the day’s tour, from the brickwork IG Farben plant, where teenage apprentices absorbed their vocations in the windowed workspaces of Zyklon-B’s formulators; to the arid blonde-wood warrens of the Stasi, blandly preserved for tours, down to the typewriters and chunky telephones; to the Topografie des Terrors, the excavated ruins of the Prinz Eugen Hotel, where the Gestapo toiled in evil. Here, Frank strode up to Sara, who was reading a multilingual placard, just as Castor was sidling that way, more or less waiting for her to finish.
“Well, it certainly is stark,” Frank announced as he took up station. Sara shifted back and away a bit. Frank beamed at Castor, expanding his audience. “I mean I understand the rawness of archeological ruin and all. But you’d think they’d want to build something over this, or around it, a pavilion or whatever.”
“Hm,” said Sara, who turned and crossed her eyes as she walked past Castor. Frank, too, turned, and trapped Castor with the narrative of his projects for the PBS station in Louisville, and the potential national visibility. They soon caught up with Sonja and Kaylyn, who anchored a weekend newscast in the nation’s 135th market somewhere in Washington state. They were recruiting a spa party.
Castor had not brought swimming trunks. When the bus returned to Friedrichstrasse, he hit the American Express office again, then walked over to the Nouvel confection. He had fifteen minutes. Arriving at the top of the escalator to the first level, he encountered Sara.
“Oh may I please have just a moment to myself,” she mock-whined.
“They told me to keep an eye on you. Find anything?”
“Just looking, thank you.”
She walked with him to a display of riduziert swimtrunks. The first one he picked had the words HOT BUTT stitched across the rump.
“Oh come on you have to,” said Sara.
He almost did, settled instead for a plain black, baggy suit.
People ebbed toward the doors, some rushing for last purchases. As they wove between displays to the door, Sara turned once to check that he was still with her, smiled self-consciously at the gesture as she waited for him. Appropriately, Prussian-blue dusk grazed the western facades of Friedrichstrasse as they walked back to the hotel. Castor asked if she had dinner plans.
“Oh I have to dine with Time’s new Bonn bureau chief. He’s in town to scout the eventual move here, and for some reason entertaining some newspaper reporters, but it’s the only time he can talk with me while I’m here.”
Castor knew Mary had to be in this group but he was too tired to get into it. So he ate at the bar of the hotel restaurant, ordering what he thought would be a piece of ham but which turned out to be a ruminant’s knuckle in a huge, spittoon-shaped crock. Several drinkers to his right glanced and laughed. He managed to peel some soft sinews from the joint and spear some potato chunks, but lost heart.
Later, he found Sonja, Kaylyn and Marci Wingate, the other travel writer, afoam in the lower-level spa. In a raised, tiled hottub, the trio tee-hee’d amid souflée clouds of the bubblebath with which he’d launched the morning. He fitted himself into the empty quadrant, tapped away a configuration of bubbles that reminded him of the slightly-lighter-than-air pillows at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Hmm, a hottub in the Factory.
“I don’t think you need to use that stuff in here,” he said, but Marci laughed and emptied another minibottle into the cauldron. Just then it returned to him — Marci Wingate, he’d read something of hers in the Star; she had some kind of syndication deal, and apropos of her trademark participatory zest, Castor imagined reading Marci’s account of this “transplendent moment,” as she’d described bungee-jumping the New River Gorge Bridge.
But the water was agreeably, metaxolone-agreeably, turmoiled and hot. Castor settled in, turned a little to avoid the women, a jet drilling his lower back, and he watched the scene before him as a scene — a little too absurdly archetypal, frankly, too “Gidget Cuts Loose,” but appealingly if not winningly played. Boy, what they can do with that 3-D these days. Then Sonja settled back in her niche. “They’re going to think we’re crazy,” she said. Castor looked around, anticipated an entrance by Hans or Sophie, who’d stiffen, grumble sotte-voce, exit. But alas, the Americans were alone.
Thanks to the dimness and the drift of hot-tub bubbles, the pool seemed to rill into Stygian mist on the vaporous set of a sharp-edged epic from the Twenties. He stood and tensed his abdominal muscles, strode purposefully to the pool and slipped into it, recovered muscle memory of Moore Pool laps, his Mom with the other moms watching from beyond the fence, their chatter and calls cycling with each fling of the right arm as he bit bromine-misted air; he nearly made it to the far end before the forty-one-year-old who only ever talks about the campus pool fitted out the eight-year-old’s bones with a sagging belly and stringy muscles. He turned over and kicked once, coasted to the edge.
On the elevator to the room Castor consoled himself that he’d certainly sleep tonight, but of course that precluded it. The awareness of the need to sleep, both the knowledge that the body required it and the body’s urgent weariness, always aggravated travel insomnia, usually cost him an extra night. He knew he would collapse eventually but as he reached to switch off the bedside lamp he conceded it would not be tonight.
He might have drifted off a while, hoped he had, figured if it were in question, he must have. He found Sara again in the seat before the staircase view, its central element, and for some reason this morning it touched him, a minor viscount arriving for petit déjeuner, cheered to find his consort under a Tiepolo vault.
“So did the ladies endorse the ‘hot butt?’”
As Castor gathered himself for a riposte, exhaustion surged through a breach in the sandbags. He set his roll and the crescent he’d ripped from it on his plate, shrank into the seat. All he could manage was, “I didn’t buy those,” and then managed not to add, you knew that. Then Frank strode up to the table with a platter of waffles and a leather planner he snapped open. After cursory jetlag inquiries, he launched, simultaneously, an assault upon the syruppy mound of molded, fried batter and, àpropos the morning’s scheduled tour of a jobs center, the German vocational model.
More than normally bitter, Castor got into a verbal tug with Frank as they sat around an ashwood conference table picketed with water bottles. Frank insisted that the Germans didn’t know what they were doing by consigning their kids so rigidly, so early in his view, to trades. Merely out of politeness to the government official and his assistant, both pointy-faced men with severe noses, Castor allowed that these people might have an idea what they’re doing, before Gert, sitting across from the officials, took up their defense, trying levelheadedly to explain how and why the system works. And it was like this through the day, lunching with city officials in a high-ceilinged, heraldry-festooned room; touring the hightech Berlin Senat chamber. Even on the tourbus, Frank sparred with Professor Helmer over the likelihood that someday, somebody would find Das Topografie des Terrors real estate too valuable to maintain for this purpose, put up a highrise with a museum-store at the corner. Castor reclined across his pair of seats — instinctively the group had spread through the cozy roadbus, each to a pair of seats — and Sara, slumped opposite, pantomimed choking, pounding, eyeball-piercing, waxing by stages more inventively gruesome, on through drawing-and-quartering and garrotting until Castor had to laugh and Marci peered over her seat, eager to throw herself into experience.
That night they dined at Helmer’s favorite Dim Sum restaurant, which was near the hotel. The fiery feast re-invigorated Castor, then they cabbed to the Berlin Philharmonie, a honey-colored, timidly cubist heap, glinting golden in the haze of a deepening fall evening. As they tramped toward it, Castor found himself hoping to sit next to Sara, who took to soothing an obviously perturbed but polite Helmer. Gert had spent much of the afternoon on his “handy,” a small mobile phone, apparently calling in chits for the Geselleschaft. He strode ahead to Will Call, and met the group with front-row seats. Kaylyn averred that they were lucky to get such good seats, winning a few nods. “Actually —” Gert started, then turned. “No. We must go in.” And they were among the last seated.
The program was Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, which Castor had never heard. And it turned out the seats were splendid. Castor figured he lacked the discernment to appreciate Row K’s acoustics over Row A’s, anyway was gripped by the abrasion of bow and string, draughts of breath, the anger, glee, grief rippling through the matrix of faces. A calf shifts to tuck into a forceful passage, eyelids lift to catch a cue. The conductor, Gunter Wand, led a regional radio orchestra, Castor had managed to learn from the program bio. He was short, with that mere infolding of the shoulders that refuses to concede “stooped.” His tails curled as he leaned in or rocked left or right. Rafting Bruckner’s roiling tides, he rose and sank in a black pair of those athletic-looking support shoes Castor’s dad had taken to wearing. The bootie for the body silting into its ankles.
Either the first movement had developed into the second without pause, or Castor had lost count. A brass-heavy finale seemed to be gathering but he couldn’t be sure, the piece had unfurled several long passages of dense, urgent crescendo. Castor knew just enough about music to understand how much he needed to know, but apparently he wasn’t alone, even in the Berlin Philharmonie. The wave tumbled abruptly down three strained chords and no one moved. Coughs, onstage and in the house. Finally Gunter Wand lifted his baton and tapped it enthusiastically on his music stand to applaud his players, and the place erupted. Castor glanced at Sara, three to his left; she stared ahead in astonishment, slowly lifted her hands.
After, they had to cab into the city, and Castor dropped into a midsize Mercedes just after Sara, with Gert in front and Kaylyn on the left. Gert dispatched the driver in German. “We were thinking. There is a small Bistro, not far from here. So?” He seemed indifferent, maybe a touch hopeful Sara and Castor would decline. “Or you merely can take the taxi…”
“No, that sounds great.” Sara glanced at Castor but didn’t wait for a response. “I could use a bite anyway.” Castor had already decided to keep going until collapse. They stopped along Wilhelmstrasse, once the bahn of the Nazi state, as then a midrise, flush-facade, stone office district, lined with parked cars but no traffic, thinly lit as in a spy-movie. A stone walkup, pleasant tiled space, small cafe tables. Step through and up again and he is seated with Sara in something of a niche between levels, a pre-mezzanine. Once, what? A hat check? Closet? Telephone? He was about to surmise blithely but noticed Sara watching Gert and Kaylyn move up and into the next room, to be seated in a far corner booth.
“I wonder if he told them to seat us away? He didn’t seem too keen on us joining them.”
This had not escaped Castor, but he’d had no seating expectations. It seemed odd, to be sure. “Certainly not in the communal spirit,” Castor alleged, feeling himself speaking as if drunk.
“Well I suppose this is the night.”
“Oh no. What?”
“The night. On these junkets. Too much highly concentrated camaraderie. So finally you either want to be alone…”
Castor smiled attentively for a long moment, but she was not going to say anything else, in fact seemed to have drifted in melancholy. So Castor filled: “Or to fraternize with the enemy…”
Sara leaned back and smiled pleasantly. She had an orbic face, almost childlike, yet sharply structured, with the pearlescent flesh of a Van Dyke countess. At the same time severe and impersonal, features of marked unremarkability. Still, the shy-of-gummy smile shoved its volumes around persuasively. The waitress who’d seated them returned, about three of her five feet sheathed in a textile-art configuration of loose scraps. Her hair, styled in two wispy flips a side, was the color of a key lime.
“Pernod,” Sara said as one accustomed to doing so.
Castor saw a tray of cappuccinos go by and suddenly wanted one. “Not bright, I know,” he said, wondering if it seemed to a person who says “Pernod” a small-timer’s choice, go to Europe and what do you order? But over two hours, he would say “Bushmills” a few times, once after finishing a wafery sacher torte and hearing Sara describe how the dress she was wearing, a black, 1963 Yves St. Laurent, at once sleek and modest, had come to her; by way of a crazy, beloved auntie who honestly had known Lee Radziwill and claimed it had been hers. Oh, here, take this it doesn’t flatter me.
“That’s a nice suit you have there, by the way.”
Castor checked the lining. “Ungaro?”
Sara nodded, appreciatively or politely.
“Outlet-mall Sax. Good deal. Off the rack kinda guy, sorry.”
She laughed. “Oh don’t worry. My wardrobe is not a Gore Vidal novel or anything. Mostly, have you noticed? I go for plain. Solids, simple forms, tasteful, acceptable, under radar.”
“Isn’t that, uh, counterindicated? In your circle? Or circles?”
“No actually, I find that the more restrained I dress, the more at ease the peacocks of the world are with me. For some, it’s ‘hey, I’m way more down than this chick. Kewl, dude!’ and for others it’s like, I don’t know. I confirm some myth they have about themselves, being simple or earthy at heart, or secretly intellectual, or something. We can spar a bit over Nietzsche, but you have to watch because Wittgenstein will glaze eyes. That sort of thing.”
It was the sort of thing the dress was, Castor was sure. A one-off chat with some Hollywood lad who prattled about nihilism until she strayed, gamely enough, into linguistic arcana and realized her mistake too late. Or so Castor imagined as they cabbed to the hotel, another buff little Benz with the black leather that welcomed their sated silence. Sara settled her head into the joint of the window frame, regarding the masonry as the stony glare played over her face.
As he lay awake he watched that face lean away its bangs. She’d stopped tucking her hair behind her ear after the second Pernod. Under radar. Indeed.
Castor awoke in the dark and resigned himself to having slept only an hour or two, he hoped a few, but as he turned the clockradio to check its ruby numerals, it unleashed two chatty Deutsche-jocks, who segued to a hyper-voiced Nachrichten reader before Castor could locate the off switch. He was a little bleary, but heartened, and soon set up another bath. It was his day. Filling out the application, he’d mentioned in passing two former military bases a few miles apart, the U.S. Butler Barracks and a Red Army base, and was surprised to find them on the itinerary. From this he had pitched a feature article about the two camps, what might become of the highly charged real estate, and he’d already done the spade work on Germany’s conversion of other occupier sites. Haylee had thought it was great idea for the Perspectives page, whose editor agreed.
He confided this to Sara on the way to Butler. They sat together, watching the Berlin managerie of waste and renewal and elevated drainage roll by. “Some of these facilities are right in the center of town, and can be large swaths of real estate for small towns to absorb suddenly. Some of them go back to Prussian barracks from Frederick the Great’s time.”
She seemed interested but asked abruptly, “So why do you want to be a journalist? Most journalists I know want to become academics.”
“I don’t know that I want to be a journalist, although I suppose it depends upon your definition. I mean, I already write, or I should say have written, for journals. Samuel Johnson wrote for journals. And journals widely read, enthusiastically read. What does that make him?”
“Yes, well, Johnson wasn’t plumping, oh I don’t know, David Garrick’s latest wig, or speculating on Pitt’s approval numbers.”
Castor lowered his forehead. “Yes. We live in degraded times.”
Sara grinned captiously. “Good luck. That leap from the tower to the moat is a long one, and you don’t know how deep the shit is there.”
“I don’t know that I’m changing careers, maybe adding one. I don’t know. Lot of questions there.”
“You make them sound like a vaudeville act.”
“Oh and wait. Damn. I have to stop drinking Pernod; it routes information to the wrong brain centers, I swear. The ex-wife. You’re ex-married.”
“That was half my life ago, really. But still.”
“I can’t believe I might have actually met her. Of course everyone was introduced but I don’t remember. Maybe there was a forty-esque Mary, but it was a large group for a dinner.”
“And why were you there, again?”
“I guess I was pursuing my own career-change.”
Castor assumed she meant the correspondent’s work she’d mentioned the first evening, but Helmer stood and started addressing the group, unwinding a tale about an article he wrote in the 1980s for Stern about this base; what a bustling little Midwest city, corn-fed beef and video games. Some Germans saw it as the first bastion facing the villainous east, while some thought it the farthest outpost of a corrupt empire.
“There’s no in-between in this town, is there?” Sara said casually but aloud.
“In a sense it’s all about in-between,” said Gert, flicking off his handy and working his way to the front of the bus. “It is merely a frontier. It has been always. That’s why it has been… fighting about so much. Whether you consider Berlin merely the last fortress of the West or you say it is the portal for the World, into the West, well, that is merely where you stand, you see, on these issues. Ah, but here we are.”
Once again, a greeting official, this time at the gate to the complex, in an unusually airy, exurban expanse of Brandenburg. A short man with a moustacheless goatee boarded and said, “Hello,” nodded humbly left and right and then rehearsed the itinerary in German with Gert as the bus rolled through the gate, which he closed by remote, jabbing a device toward the window.
Castor tried hard to picture tanks and trucks and Jeeps and troops in boots, but a post-apocalyptic air clung to the place, in one of those buildings saved, humans destroyed movies, starring Charlton Heston. They rode and trod the many acres, past rec centers and tank depots, with Horst dutifully translating the remarks of the official, who dutifully narrated in German so Horst could translate. The gist of his story was, what can you do with tank hangars, especially with so much money and attention headed east these days, but we’re trying.
In the east, at the former Soviet base, things were worse. Shoddiness shedding paint, slowly crumbling, Brandenburg prairie recolonizing. Here, a Treuhand official, a tall and slender man with a moustache but no goatee, and the wary, weary air of one who works fruitlessly, led them through a number of buildings, but warned some areas were off-limits due to environmental degradation. In a barracks, the Americans were amused by the squat toilets and after, as the Treuhand man seemed not to care, they started collecting souvenirs, wall signs and maps, scraps of paper. Carl Williams, a deputy foreign editor at the Wall Street Journal and the junket’s sole African American, found a fragment of a billboard, promoting in bland Soviet Realist style the fraternal kinship between a cosmonaut and a soldier. They took it out to the parade ground and propped it in front of themselves for group snapshots, taken by the affectless official on a half-dozen point-and-shoots. Castor felt a little odd about it, as if they were looting an archeological dig. Some Berlin or Bundes bureaucrat might reasonably consider it a form of cultural patrimony.
“And it just looks bad,” Sara near-whispered as they sat together again on the bus. “But that didn’t stop me.” She pulled from her bag a folded paper, an image-free notice in Cyrillic.
“I can get that framed cheaply for you.”
“Yeah, like, what am I ever going to do with this? I mean, is it going to be displayed somewhere after my death, in the Sara Brill Memorial Museum, complete with text panel and Audioguide, ‘Bulletin-board posting from Soviet Base, 1996?’” No. Five years from now, moving somewhere, I’m going to look at it and go, ‘huh?’ and toss it. So why did I have to have it?”
“Overrun the enemy’s fort, leave with loot.”
“Or Americans, even smart, occasionally thoughtful Americans, are just jackasses.” Sara sunk into her chair by the window, folded her arms over her bag, stared at the instruction tag on the seatback pull-down tray.
Gert, who had been at the rear of the bus with his handy, stepped up just then to lean familiarly on Castor’s seatback. “You should not worry. Even I took something. It was merely the forbidden world for me, too.”
“Still, it reflects poorly on us, now that I think of it,” said Castor, who had found on the floor of a closet an old color glossy of a battalion on the parade ground. “That Treuhand fellow seemed unconcerned, but he was probably thinking, ‘eh, fucking Americans.’” Castor avoided saying this with a German accent. “Am I right, Gert?”
“No, he was merely thinking, ‘fucking Germans for bringing them here.’ You know, he had to leave the office.”
“He doesn’t get many calls to do so, I’m sure,” said Castor.
“Oh yeah, it is merely, um, things, tours like this. But perhaps he has hope one of your publishers will want to start a new East Brandenburg Die Zeit. You know it is a newspaper.”
“Yes,” Sara said.
Gert leaned in a little more. “You might be interested. Tonight to the Hall of Nations comes ah, ah, it is like a festival, of World music, yes? So. Some are going.”
Some was nearly half the group; Kaylyn, Marci, Sonja and Frank, who Castor thought might be angling for Sara. It was becoming obvious Sara and Castor preferred each other’s company. The six, and Gert, dined with the group in the revolving restaurant of the telecom tower, and Castor found himself at a table with Carl, Marci and Helmer, who played hale host and told stories about his newspaper days. But it seemed effortful and programmatic, and when he simply stopped talking, no one had anything. Castor asked, “Were you disappointed with us today?”
Helmer smiled primly. “In what regard?” He had been educated in Britain and spoke almost sterling Oxonian, the Saxon burr betrayed now and then like blurs in a photograph.
Carl laughed. “Oh you mean the depraved way we set upon that Soviet base?”
“I am sure you were not the first,” said Helmer. “But yes, I have to say, I wish it had not happened. That is fine, however. This will possibly be the last of these tours.”
Castor had to laugh. “Scraping the barrel, eh? You’ve finally assembled the most juvenile band of American journalists you could find. You know it’s time to quit.”
Helmer’s smile briefly widened. “No, it is more, how shall I say, a re-evaluation of priorities. We would like to put journalists to work more in foreign settings, I should think.” And as he unwound a long thesis about the prospective fellowship model, Castor imagined him an actor in a Wartime caper, a German spy in London, or a Stalag plant, found out and pressed for times of the Piccadilly bus and footie trivia. Jones never played for Chelsea, and you’d know that if you was from Kings Road… But he was a man in his fifties whose rumpled elan had developed some rough edges; his face seemed more wan and slack than the one in the institute brochure. Still, he wrote regularly for several German and English papers. Castor displaced the discovered spy, put Helmer’s face in a video splitscreen, telling the studio anchor about, oh, the proposal to build a Holocaust memorial in Berlin.
As Helmer talked, Berlin spun sluggishly and Castor wanted to be with Sara. He’d not thought much in the last few days of either Karen or Mary, and with something like panic he recalled Mary was still in Berlin. And was waiting to hear from him? And shouldn’t he call Karen sometime? As usual, she’d had no expectations and as usual he wasn’t inclined to inquire. Analyzing their relationship was an intrusive distraction to a single mother of a handful tween, he’d learned. Karen had that native-Kansan got a problem you work it out ethic and it pissed off Castor no end. And suddenly he’d encumbered himself with a second impenetrable relationship, plucking it out of the past, to boot. Then here was this appealing woman who bandied philosophy, to a point, with movie stars. Still weary, Castor turned restive, resented each slow sweep of the Cathedral. Behind him, he heard the others in the group laugh rowdily while his endured Helmer, more C-SPAN than CNN.
They filled two taxis to the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, arriving from an angle that did not display the building well, as if by the entrance bay of an alien mothership. But Castor had toured the building four years earlier and knew that a roof resonant of flight curled between Hugh Stubbins’s intersecting parabolae, a union of abstract geometry and connotative form.
Inside, a thrum of musics resonated — white noise gone several shades of bluegreen. They got programs and the group split almost immediately. While Kaylyn and Sonja went with Gert up the steps to the main hall, Frank chatted up Sara and Marci waited for someone to direct her to the excitement. From the discussion in the cab, Castor had the sense she really didn’t know what the festival was about, and maybe thought it was indigenous folk music. Castor stepped up beside Frank. “Well I say we just explore.”
Frank looked a little rattled. “Uh, yeah. I certainly don’t have the slightest idea who any of these acts are.” The four of them took the steps and while Marci asked Frank something, Sara took Castor’s elbow and said urgently, “Wait, please.”
This caused others to eddy around them as Marci and Frank ascended ahead. “Let’s get a beer.” They slipped through the rising, back to a concession where Castor bought two Jevers. Sara sipped twice, watching.
“Thanks,” she said. “I didn’t come here to.”
Castor wasn’t sure if she meant here, the Haus or here, Germany; or, for that matter what she imagined herself rescued from — a blowhard? Annoyance in general? He scanned the program again and noticed a band slated to play soon.
“Orientation” turned out a brisk synthesis of Western pop and Turkish folk, with something of Roxy Music’s mannered romanticism. He and Sara stood at the rear of about fifteen listeners, several actively dancing. Castor shifted limply next to Sara, who swayed her shoulders, hands in her coat pockets. Nodding, lip-biting, two brainy wallflowers at the fall social. Castor made a point of buying the band’s CD, along with a festival compilation CD.
They exited into a chill evening and wound through the Tiergarten for a better view of the sail-like parabolae.
“I wonder if this has some atonement writ in it,” Sara said.
“Not originally. It was built as a kongresshalle. It became the haus der kulturen, I don’t know, twenty years later, I’m sure then with some propaganda inference in the Fifties, throwing up an engineering marvel hard by the border.
“Match that, bastards!”
“It’s had its problems. Part of the roof had collapsed I think in 1980 and it had to be re-engineered with better materials than they’d used in the 1950s. But yeah, the Germans are big on atoning. Some have started questioning the need, or the degree…”
“Yeah, Kohl kinda got that started with Reagan and the Bitberg thing. Oh, you gotta watch ‘em every minute.”
“Well, of course, most of the Germans I know tend to err on the side of multi-kulti, and I think many have sincerely adapted to that world. Are there still Germans who would relaunch the Holocaust if they could, well, yeah, probably. But I don’t think it’s in the character of the people, any more than most others. But then, I’m part German.”
“I won’t hold it against you. Oh, I know the arguments and I know history is a series of one-offs, confluences of forces and all that, and yes, I’m certain most Germans are decent. If anything, being browbeat to do good trumps the alternative.”
“There you go.”
The clear September evening rehearsed December. Castor hunched into his Baracuta jacket, tried not to outstride Sara. And so they talked ardently, like panelists on a talk show, in swift bites; first about careers, then about loves. She, too, was tracked by a zombie, a fellow working for an NGO in Kabul, whom she’d met the one time People had sent her abroad for something fluff-free, a story about a woman mutilated by her family for leaving her husband. With the NGO guy she had a week’s fling, wanted more. Sara looked into fellowships, volunteer work. In six months, he flew back to the States to take a desk job with his group, and before long had taken up with a woman in that office. Then six months ago Sara met him again at a fund-raiser and seemed to revive the affair. But now he was headed back to Kabul. So.
This tale threaded through lamplight orbits until they emerged from the park just north and west of the Brandenburg Gate. Castor was about to ask for a preview of coming attractions, but he could see she was taking it in, mentally notching another world landmark, the Gate agleam across the platz as cars streamed in and out of the Tiergarten, tracing amber around the semi-circle. He remembered coming upon it the first time, not long after it had become possible to pass through. He had done so mindful that countless thousands had before, returning traders, triumphant troops, the famed and futile; and that, months earlier, an exuberantly graffitoed wall had mocked the monument’s brio.
“Huh,” said Sara.
They crossed and walked through the gate and took the south sidewalk of Unter den Linden. Few others were out. Although the wind was sharper along the boulevard, they slowed. As they passed the Russian Embassy, then storefronts recovered from Warsaw Pact showcases, Castor felt a little as he had seeing the Gate that time, conscious of echoing footsteps, fragile loves striding through star-crossed times.
In the elevator they exchanged flat smiles.
It wasn’t Boulevard St. Michel in brumy pre-dawn, or the Embankment at dusk, Castor thought later, as he slid toward sleep. No, but that was fine.
Castor had to get out of the bathtub to get the phone and only when he returned to the bathroom did he notice it had a phone. Gert told him, no doubt by handy, that they’d had some problems with the bus and the morning’s schedule was canceled; they’d leave by another bus at 13:30 for the Wannsee Haus. Castor had just decided the water was still analgesically warm when the phone sounded again. He wanted to reach for it but decided to get out and sit on the edge of the bidet.
“I’m not getting you up,” said Mary.
“Bathing, actually. How are you? When do you leave?”
“This afternoon. But someone told me about a street bazaar not far from you, and I thought it sounded… So?”
Castor wondered which word she’d ceased seeking. That was new. Mary always had the word, or found it. Anthropological, maybe? “Really?”
“Yes. I still have a couple gifts to get for my nieces. Anyway, why don’t you play hooky and join me?”
In an hour, with a croissant in his jacket pocket, he met her in an idling taxi, yet another beige Mercedes 300.
“It’s not far,” he said. “Let’s walk.”
“It’s my cab. Get in.”
As he wheeled away from the entrance, the driver, a sallow-skinned, sharp-faced fellow, asserted with a beamy, dentured smile, “Maybe rain. Cloud.” He gestured with his wheel-free hand like a pageant contestant waving.
“I guess he must be trying to learn English as well as German,” said Mary, seated back but watching the road carefully.
“Why don’t you ask him? Say, where are you from?”
The driver stopped at the Unter den Linden light, looked back. “Mich?”
“Oh, uh, Beograd. Bell Great, you say.”
“Not a good time to be from there,” Mary told Castor.
“Why did you come here?” Castor asked as the cab surged ahead through a patch of sunlight, mid-intersection.
“Hier? Oh. Money. Uh, arbeit, work. And. Oh, I…” The wave again.
“No, what else?” Castor prodded.
“I do not want, uh, like, people who are… who are, you say. Oh, politics. Bad. Bad.”
“Goodbye Tito, hello cordite,” Mary said, aside-like. The cab passed into cloud shadow again.
“So you don’t like Milosevic? Are you Serb?”
“Ja, yes, Serb. But. Many friend. Sarajevo. I go much. Is bad. Bad.”
He twisted his hand once more.
They pulled up to a corner of what appeared to be an impromptu platz, the site of a razed building, patterned with shaded stalls and tables and rimmed with caravans. Castor paid the driver as Mary got out and said, “Good Lord.” She meant the regular, roughly per-second WHOMP! of a pile driver, whose derrick-like structure rose beyond the carcass of a building on the catty-cornered block. Mary’s face drew into a wince that was nearly a sneer; her head seemed to lag her body.
Despite the annoying metronome, and a low ceiling the tone and texture of inked Arches paper, the bazaar was busy. It was mostly clothing, CDs, consumer electronics, some tools. Castor wondered if Mary had had in mind a suburban-mall antiques fair, where she might buy her nieces porcelain-head dolls.
He found a pair of black 501s marked DM25, and a frisson in their being Eastern knockoffs. A Turkish man in a leather cap and jacket simply took his two DM10 notes when Castor tried to horsetrade.
“So much for authentic experience,” said Castor.
“No doubt the incessant pounding has taken its toll on him, too.”
“Yeah. At least we get to leave.”
“And speaking of which.”
“What. You’ve had enough authentic experience for one morning?”
“I think Agatha and Sylvie can make do with some airport trinkets.”
“In about four hours, actually. Just have to cab back to the hotel.”
“Here. This might do.”
An old man in a pale-gray, military greatcoat displayed a jumble of East-bloc souvenirs, so prevalent the first two times Castor had visited Berlin — purported chunks of Wall, old Soviet and DDR insignia and medals, hats and caps, and cups and messkits, Cold War detritus. Among these he had tiered boxes of tiny Trabants. Castor had paid nearly six marks for one in 1992. The man wanted DM 3.50 for one of these; Castor gestured “two for” his DM 5 note.
“Here, give them these.”
“Well, their parents are hyper-politically correct,” Mary said as they walked away, “but I don’t think these little princesses are going to think much of tiny toy cars.”
“Then tell them all about Aunt Mary’s exciting adventures in Berlin, and of the troubled Trabant, the two-stroke terror.” Castor stuffed the two boxes into a side pocket of Mary’s leather bag.
Something like an entente thinned the mist, tempered the chill, damped the pile driver. Castor and Mary wormed through the rest of the bazaar, past nouveau-punk teens with dyed hair and ironically American T-shirts and head-swathed Turkish women toting squalling infants, and they chatted nanchalantly about business and common acquaintances while Castor munched his croissant. Mary told a story about Carl’s drunken shenanigans that Castor found heartening, thought at least he’d never been so wasted… until he remembered The Night, when he’d left to pass out in his dorm room. God, that odor.
He’d guessed they’d have lunch or coffee, talk a bit, but as they reached the corner where they’d arrived, a taxi swung to the curb and discharged a younger couple, and Mary sprang for it. She stopped to buss Castor’s cheek.
“I’m sorry, I’d hoped we talk, but, well, I really should,” she said, slipping into the seat. “Do you want a ride to your hotel? Oh, you were going to walk anyway, right? I’m sorry, I’ll call. I will.”
Castor walked back through the brown streets north of Unter den Linden, and barely had time to change. He’d bought the pants partly because he’d packed stupidly, lots of summer-weight, including the chamois jacket that availed little against the stiffening wind. He changed into the faux 501s, then worried they were insufficiently grave for the itinerary.
The bus rolled through the charcoal day, past grim construction zones, harried by cycles and scooters. First they stopped at the Potsdamer Platz Infobox, a multimedia center in a raised tetrahedron that to Castor looked like a giant shipping container, partly collapsed. Like the drainage works it was elevated but the view offered little beyond cranes, plywood fencing and excavation. And pipes. It was impossible to reconcile the pictures of the clockwork crossroads of the 1920s, the medieval met with the modern, what could have been.
Along the KuDamm they spotted a Benetton billboard of two horses mating.
“Holy crap,” Frank said loudly, prompting a few laughs. Sara leaned over the aisle to muse. “It’s odd how bland it is. I mean, I think the expectation is shock, ‘transgression’ or whatever, but it’s like they can’t keep up with the desensitization. They’re starting to slide a cycle behind, almost.”
“ ‘They’ as in?”
She stood and swung over to the seat beside Castor. “I guess I mean the whole sort of creative cohort, the marketing mavens, the engineers of all of the semiological machinery. See —” she poked him in the arm, “I know words like that, too.”
“Oh, you’re more likely to use them than me. I’m an Eighteenth-century fart. Moral philosophy, sentiment, all that. But I understand. Manipulations multiply, ever-more-startling, ever-more-cunning, but bored monarchs all, we swat them away.”
She laughed. “Well, I don’t know about that. I mean, obviously a lot of the machinations work. People throng to the players lately arrived in Elsinore, to life-support your lame metaphor. Only this show assaults us from all sides, and it goes on, and on. I suppose what I mean is I see a unstated compact taking shape, whereby we agree to pretend it’s still five years ago and act as if their stunts really affect us.”
“You really mean that.”
“Yeah. Oh, it’s not by agreement, we don’t even know, they don’t even know, I hope. But look. At some level, don’t we all, all of us above 90 IQ, at least, know that it’s all bullshit, meant to manipulate us. I mean, we’re not, mostly not, the passive herds we’re supposed to be.”
“Ah. Now we’re ranching. Well, maybe it’s not about herding any more; or to put it another way, maybe they’re smaller herds, more… more focused. Maybe that’s the level at which the, uh, your agreement happens, and everything else is. Well, cow dung. But of course all the stock arrive at the same place eventually.”
He turned to smile, and saw Sara begin to, and collide with history. “Well, that was stupid,” Castor said.
“Not really, just unfortunate. But I suppose all herd metaphors fail here.”
City resolved into pastoral West Mecklenburg and soon they coursed the contours of the sail-spiked Wannsee. Somehow the low ceiling had dispersed into picturesque puffs, accenting a 19th-century, hand-colored sailing print. But a chill pinched them as they filed into the rotunda hall of the Wannsee Haus.
A short woman in a curtly prim, blue suit, with a modest white bow tied over the neckline, greeted them, and once again Horst essayed the introductions. The group trundled up the stairway to the side of the hall and Frank fit himself behind the chestnut-haired director, to quiz her on visitors and school groups. Sara, behind them, turned to Castor. “Based on your experience so far, having been met a couple dozen times by officials in vestibules and lobbies and led to conference tables studded with bottles of mineralwasser; you imagine she’ll mention anything about, oh, I don’t know, visitors, or school tours?”
They gathered outside the office door as the director told Frank, sweetly but firmly, “We will be discussing all of these, these matters. Inside.”
And so she did, outlining the house’s history, from aristocratic lakeside retreat, to mass-murder conference center, to educational monument. It seemed so unlikely, this amiable if slightly severe folly, so unlike any of the Nazi, or for that matter Stasi, buildings they’d toured; Speer’s heavy-lidded Luftwaffe headquarters on Wilhelmstrasse, for instance, to serve yet another state ministry when Bonn shifted to Berlin. They couldn’t afford a new building for every ministry, the owley man at the luncheon had said almost apologetically. Castor pondered that a moment, considered the plans they’d seen for new buildings, such as the astringently late-modern Chancellery, or Norman Foster’s transparent Reichstag dome; tried to picture a tower-clogged Potsdamerplatz, ten years on. From his corner of the table, he could see a sailboat crawl across the viewshed, wondered who’d had this view, a bedroom maybe? Eichmann? Heydrich?
Sara pierced the torporous proceedings. “What do you imagine will happen here when the government moves to Berlin?”
The director, about Castor’s age, shifted in her chair, cocked her head. “Perhaps more people come, because more people to Berlin come. Come to Berlin.”
Helmer broke in. “Yes, I do not believe the Holocaust will be lost at all in the new Berlin,” he said, in his brusque, Anglicized burr. “If anything, the new capital will have as its focus the memory of the past, to mark Germany as a center of tolerance and ecumenical thought. I hope I am not being too bold to assume this.”
“Oh, I have a hard time believing that, professor,” said Frank, leaning back at the head of the table, waving his hand like a chairman weary of presentations. “All things pass, obviously. This town looks like it’s ready to explode. New business, new trade, new government. I’ve got to imagine people here are ready to put the past to rest, and who can blame them? It’s been half a century. I mean, places like this will still be around, and people, students will come, and sure, they should. But I’ll bet in ten years your numbers are half what they are today.”
Sara, seated beside Castor, gripped his wrist on the armrest. Her mandibular muscles torqued under reddening skin.
Gert leaned forward, palms on the table. “This is merely. You do not know about what you say. If you knew anything about this country, you would know. The past, the war, the Holocaust. It is drilled into children from the first days. We will not forget. We will not allow anyone to forget.”
Frank shifted back, raised his palms, but Helmer intervened. “Perhaps this is a perfect time to take the tour. Yes?”
The director, whose face had taken an ivory pallor, stammered apologies about another appointment; stood, nodded and busied herself with papers as the group filed out.
Castor skipped the exhibit of mounted panels and took a turn around a capacious chamber with a view of the estate’s garden. A handful of other visitors surveyed the room; a crystal drinks service on a Biedermeyer sideboard, a long, set dining table… Castor understood this was the room in which the Nazi factotums tooled the logistics. His throat tightened and he decided to take the tour.
Sara, at the far end of the hall, studied a panel, with Frank looking over her shoulder, nodding appreciatively, making a show of learning his lesson. Castor started at the other end. He was absorbed in a reproduction of a snapshot showing several Jews in Warsaw dancing on a curb for Wehrmacht officers, when Sara spoke behind him.
“Please keep him away from me. Please.”
Castor turned quickly, saw Frank shambling toward them, hands in the pockets of his chestnut tweed jacket. Castor stepped forward abruptly. “You know, actually, I uh. Uh, actually thought you had a point. There.” He took hold of Frank’s sleeve, blathered a bit about how he might have put it differently but nonetheless understood; he’d done a bit of research, after all, about memory in literature, it was something of a minor academic interest; and yes, everything fades… All of which was true, but of course this room told a different story, one no lofty panegyric, no tragic cycle could have honored. Or foretold. And he took a stab at this point, not sure where he was going with it, but he kept Frank at bay.
By the time they left, Frank had collected the ears of Sonja and Marci, and they clustered toward the rear of the bus. But Gert sat next to Kaylyn in Castor’s customary seat across from Sara, who gazed sulkily out the window, and Castor was reluctant to take the seat beside her. Instead, he slumped onto the bench in front of her. In uncluttered circumstances, Sara’s plea and his chivalric maneuvers might have lofted him, but his funk sounded turbid depths. The dream cheerleader with the complicating daughter; the tantalizing, testy ex. How tempting to chuck them both for this bright, accomplished woman whose most endearing trait was that her self-assurance did not blunt his desire to care for her. It thrilled him to contemplate it.
As they passed along the dusky KuDamm, its lights wriggling alive, he could not forbear turning to look at her.
“Are you all right?”
Her smile was weak but grateful. Castor quailed. He wanted to slip around the seat and hold her. Instead they both looked away.