by Edward Ahern
When Irmgard failed to show at the border crossing five days later, the usual passive monitoring was intensified. Harald panicked immediately. Walter had practice keeping the fear churn hidden, but after another day he let Harald see that he, too, was worried.
“Walter, I have to go east and check on her.”
“Harald, you can’t, not until your next scheduled trip. You can’t change your pattern, especially now.”
Harald held back for a week before making a scheduled business trip over the border. Irmgard had left no trace of a return to Dresden. Harald’s questions to neighbors and acquaintances were answered with suspicion and ignorance. Walter added more names and topics to the passive monitoring of press, radio, television and police and military transmissions. Nothing.
Neither Harald nor Walter were approached with recruitment offers or threats. No surveillance was noted. Nothing. Walter, with no traces or clues, kept asking himself the same questions in an endless loop.
Were 327 and I so inconsequential that they had her switch to a better target? Did she just move in with another man? Was she disposed of? Or maybe, just maybe, she’d turned around in Hungary, come back out and dumped both of us as bad bets.
Seven months later the monitoring department reported a brief death notice for an Irmgard Thoden. The name matched, but the biographical details were skewed. Walter told Harald only about his suspicions that Irmgard had made a u-turn with the bogus documents, and not about the obituary. Better for Harald to think that she’s alive and missing than maybe dead.
Walter considered himself immune to emotional entanglements but felt surprising guilt about Irmgard. He missed her cheerfully blunt acceptance of what life presented to her, and her equally blunt enjoyment in sex.
After the Wall came down, Walter had made vigorous inquiries. As anal as the East German intelligence service was about record-keeping there was no mention of Irmgard’s being interrogated or punished. There was, of course, no record of her being an operative; that file would have been among those purged. The Stasi had noted her as missing from her work and apartment but came up with no leads. Equally interestingly, there was no record of Irmgard Thoden’s burial or cremation. Just a death notice.
Walter still had no answers to feed Harald’s hungry memories. We’re both brooding about a woman who would have very quickly told us to go to hell.
He patted Harald’s arm. For no discernible reason he heard the music of a patriotic German march from the first World War: Alte Kamaraden — ‘Old Comrades’.
“Harald, I know you still care for her. I’ve been searching. There’s no record of her, good or bad. She just disappeared. We’ll keep investigating, but at this point I can’t offer much hope. I’ll get back in touch if anything comes up.”
They had spent three hours at the bar, far too long, and the processed beer and aquavit was pressing to exit. They took turns in the toilet, first Walter, then Harald. Like most German toilets it had a flat dry platform on which excretion rested before being flushed away. Walter sometimes joked that is was a final health check on the digestive process. This night he wondered if it could also be used for divination, to poke a stick into one’s own feces and foretell the way forward.
They paused just outside the bar. The rain also had paused.
“Walter, Spiel ist aus — The game is over. The need for all the rules is over too. Let me show you what I do sometimes after our meetings. It’s not far.”
“Why not? As you say, the game’s been played.”
For the first time in their long association, Harald lead the way, shifting from one downhill street to another until the last narrow side street opened up onto the bright neon lights of the Reeperbahn, the sex center for Hamburg. They walked past tawdry souvenir stores and fast food restaurants and strip bars until they reached the entrance to the Eros Centrum.
There was no door, just an alleyway-sized opening. Harald entered without hesitation and Walter followed. The large open space inside was unheated but covered. It was faintly lit and populated with about twenty roving women and another male twosome evaluating the prospects. Walter thought of a leper colony.
Harald waved away a pair of approaching women with a shoo-fly motion, and turned to Walter. “I come here sometimes. I never buy sex from these women, but I look at all of them. I think maybe Irmgard is here. She loved sex, loved being with men. She had no real profession or aptitude. Maybe she’s here. But she’s never here, and I go back home. Pathetic, isn’t it?”
The women were circling closer, sensing fresh meat. As they emerged from the dusk Walter saw that they had all left forty behind and wore plastered makeup and forced smiles.
“Harald, Irmgard would still be better-looking and younger. She would have sex for enjoyment, not just for money. She wouldn’t have to work this desperately to find another man.”
“Ja, maybe so. But all these years with no contact, no knowledge of her. I never changed my address or telephone number, just in case she found me.”
“She’s better off than this, Harald. Irmgard is doing fine. Let’s get out of here before these women whore us to death.”
The two men pushed their way past women whose smiles sharply inverted as they passed, and stepped back out, blinking, into the glare of the Reeperbahn”s street and neon lighting. The almost freezing rain had resumed.
“I’ll miss our times together, Harald. I almost wish the Cold War resumed.”
Harald’s lip corners twitched upward. “I suppose there won’t be a twenty-fifth reunion?”
“No, we end here. Leb’ wohl.”
They shook hands as they had after every meeting and separated. Walter stopped and turned. “My name is John, Harald. John.” He turned away. The wind and rain blustered down the street, pushing one man away, and slowing the steps of the other.
Copyright © 2012 by Edward Ahern