Mr. Köhler sat at the end of an empty bench on a thin blue cushion. He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose with wrinkled hands and stared out a huge window. Planes, he thought, are incredibly loud. He’d known this before of course; the Luftwaffe had been awfully noisy as well.
He’d never been inside one before however, and now his hands were shaking from more than just old age. An attendant called out the numbers that were boarding for West Berlin. Mr. Köhler’s cane cracked against tiled floors as he made his slow way to the gate. His ticket was entered into the system with little resistance other than a woman’s fake smile ushering him to hurry. He’d learned to ignore hurry. The plane would fill with people before it took off and then it would empty after landing. The plane didn’t care much for hurry and so neither did he.
When Mr. Köhler took his seat he closed his eyes and imagined the chair next to him wasn’t empty. Instead, Alfred sat there, with his warm presence and hearty laugh, his words filling up the spaces between the grumbling engine and the shuffling passengers. And then Mr. Köhler fell asleep.
The evening air smelled like home. He hadn’t smelled home in over fifty years. His suitcase trundled along behind him, thumping down the stairs, and if Mr. Köhler hadn’t been holding tight to his cane he just about might have taken a fall. He called out to a taxi in his smooth German, a language that Alfred constantly used so Mr. Köhler wouldn’t lose his.
“Wohin gehst du?” the cab driver asked for an address.
Mr. Köhler couldn’t remember it off the top of his head but he’d written it down somewhere safe just in case. A thin slip of paper folded one too many times read “Inge Beisheim Platz 58”.
The driver asked about his flight and Mr. Köhler said he’d slept through most the entire trip but before they landed he got to see the entire city from the sky. “When I was a boy I thought Berlin was huge. But now, even from so far away, it is gigantic. Have you ever seen Berlin from the sky? You really ought to see Berlin from the sky,” The driver said that hopefully he will someday and he took five marks as his passenger got out of the car.
What Mr. Köhler failed to mention was the thick grey scar splitting his–if he could even call it his–city in two.
When Berlin truly was his city, nobody called Mr. Köhler “Mr Köhler”, instead they called him Max. This was a time when the newspapers spoke of a great depression that Max didn’t understand even though it was the only answer his mother gave him everytime he asked why he couldn’t have any more supper.
Max, with time, grew to understand. He did just as well without the money. His friend, Alfred, taught him how to pick pockets and his friend, Lucille, taught him how to pick locks. They learned, together, which pockets were deepest and which locks were worthwhile. But their favourite thing to do was sneak into the film theatre, just two blocks away from Alfred’s house.
The cinema was a grand old thing, with flashing lights and huge pictures. Next to the ticket stand there were movie posters announcing films. And next to the popcorn stand there were other posters, with bright red images and stark black text that preached to workers with national pride and asked for votes. As time passed, films changed from the likes of “The Testament of Dr. Mabus” to “The Triumph of Will”. And the red propaganda posters turned into flags.
The boys and Lucille still liked to go to see the movies. But when Lucille and her family disappeared, Max and Alfred thought it just didn’t seem right to go without her.
Max and Alfred spent more time at home in Alfred’s living room, listening to radio static where their favourite stations used to be. Or in Max’s bedroom acting out scenes from their favourite films.
Alfred sat at Max’s desk. “I implore you to let me stay. I beg of you.”
Max shook a finger at him, anger furrowing his brow. “The wife says if you don’t go, she is. So it’s got to be you. Come on.” He reached for a suitcase only he and Alfred could see, “I’ll help you to get this stuff packed up.”
“Leave that alone and get out of here!” Alfred said, jumping to his feet.
“Look here, is this my house or yours?”
Alfred pretended to whack Max in the face. They wrestled and fell to the floor. All feigned anger left them as they laughed and rolled on top of each other. They smiled. The world was different when they were together.
Max couldn’t tell if the beating in his chest was just from his own heart. But he thought that it couldn’t possibly be; it was much too loud and much too powerful. Max pressed his hand to Alfred’s chest. He could feel the deepness in it, and see it in his eyes. They kissed and Max swore he’d never discover anything like it again.
Max’s mother walked into the room and screamed.
The scar is even more threatening up close. He couldn’t see over top of it and to each of his sides it stretched until it disappeared behind buildings or curved out of sight.
Mr. Köhler’s feet padded up to the wall. There was so much spray paint he couldn’t make out individual words or pictures. But he thought the mess of colour and spirit was still much more beautiful than the concrete that lay beneath. He pressed his palms to the wall and traced blue circles and green lines and black letters but all he could feel were cracks and bumps and cold cement. When he got a little closer he thought he could hear something. His ear was against the wall when he heard a woman screaming. It sounded familiar and he closed his eyes.
He saw his mother and he saw rage. “Out of my house, Alfred,” she yelled and her cheeks burned.
“It’s not what it looks like, Frau. Köhler, please.”
“You cannot stay here, get out of my house!” She raised her fist to her son’s friend and left a red outline of her hand across his face and then turned to Max, “What have you done? How have you done this?”
Through tears that blurred his sight he thought he could see his mother’s anger falter, but Max left her house before he could make sure.
Max found Alfred at the foot of his steps. “We must go now, we cannot stay here.”
A week later Max stood outside Alfred’s house in the middle of the night. “Do you have everything ready?” he asked. Alfred nodded and handed him a folder. He flipped through it; a Visa for Denmark; a passport naming him Sven Mårtensson, 18 year old university student from Sweden.
The sounds didn’t stop coming. He could feel them in his chest, loud and powerful.
The last time he ever heard Lucille laugh.
A westbound train thundering across Europe.
Alfred humming a song from The Threepenny Opera.
The wrinkling of hospital bed sheets.
A new home.
A beep that seemed as if it would never stop ringing.
Max lifted himself from the wall and shook his head and turned around. The cinema was there and, despite a few burnt bulbs and ratty posters, it looked much the same as it did five decades ago. He walked past the empty ticket booth and through doors that needed an oil. He walked down the aisle and rubbed his thumb over a golden number smudged with dirt. Seat seventeen, row B.
He imagined Alfred was sitting to his left and Lucille to his right. The curtains on the stage were drawn and lights flickered across the screen. Music started in his ears and he recognized the tune immediately. He recognized the actors and the script and the set and when the credits rolled he recognized the title, “The Invisible Man”.