Let Us Plough, Let Us Build – Mark Connelly

Let us plough, let us build,
Learn and create like never before . . .
East German national anthem

“On top of everything else, she broke her glasses,” the nurse told him with a bored sigh. “The new ones won’t be ready for two weeks.”

“Give me her prescription. I can get them in one day at the clinic in Pankow. Any style.”

The nurse was unimpressed and said nothing. Paul followed her down the high-ceilinged, tiled corridor. Her flowing white coat brushed the dusty aspidistras lining the dim hall in squat iron pots.

He hated this place. The cracked plaster, lavatory odors, and sullen personnel depressed him. He hated coming here, hated his grandmother being placed here. In his position he was accustomed to being catered to, comforted by the automatic smiles of doormen, secretaries, and receptionists. He lived in a world of private clubs, reserved parking, invitations, and special passes granted only to Party members. At work, interns and applicants beamed with hope when he simply granted them a nod of recognition in an elevator.

On every visit he tried to convince his grandmother to move to the Brandenburg retirement center near Zossen. A family of Party members would have no problem getting her admitted. He brought a brochure on every visit. But the glossy pictures of carpeted lounges, heated pools, and therapy rooms did not interest the old woman. “I don’t swim anymore,” she would remind him. “Besides, this place is closer to Aunt Eva and Holde. That center is so far, and there is no bus.” Paul prodded her, offering to send a car whenever Aunt Eva wanted to visit. But even his mother, the old woman’s favorite daughter, couldn’t get her to budge. She liked this place, she claimed. The old rooms with high windows, thick moldings, heavy furniture, and antique lighting fixtures reminded her of her childhood. At times she thought she was still in school; the nurses in their white uniforms reminded her of nuns.

She did, however, gladly accept his gift of a color television. It was playing when he tapped at the door.

“Mutti?” he asked softly. He never entered the room without knocking. The eighty-six-year-old woman was absent minded and often forgot to put on a robe. Her withered flesh was unpleasant to look at. She had always been old and white-haired. But in the last few years she had shrunken into an unrecognizable stooped, bird-like creature with long yellowed nails and strange gestures.

“Mutti?” he asked again, tapping louder.

“Who? Who is it?” she asked in a thin voice. Paul detected a sense of fear. Perhaps even after forty years the old people feared the knock on the door.

“It’s Paul, Mutti.”

“Come in, come in. We’re having tea.”

He opened the door to the sparse room. She was sitting up in bed, her thin shoulders covered with a yellow shawl. The room had been painted since his last visit. But the clean white walls seemed only to highlight by contrast the discolored, dented floor tiles, the rusty radiators, the dusty ceiling lights, the chipped bureau. The veneer on the night table, he noticed, had split and begun to curl.

“Monika went down the hall. She wants saccharin for me. The doctor says I can’t take sugar, but the nurses still give me sugar with the tea. Pour yourself some.”

Paul looked at the stained plastic mugs and shook his head. He was annoyed. Why didn’t she want to move? The retirement center in Brandenburg was bright, clean, and cheerful. The staff was competent and attentive, glad to work where so much good food was available. Generals, industry managers, and cabinet ministers sent their mothers and grandmothers there. Ulbricht’s family had several relatives living in the neat cottages surrounding the pond. Puppet shows and concerts were put on for the old folks’ benefit. Children came on May Day to give paper flowers to the old fighters.

“We want you to move, Mutti. It’s only an hour away. Mother and I can visit you more often then. It’s hard for us to get away. And the food is good there. Fresh fish, beef, fruit, salads. They have English tea and jam.”

“Oh, I only have soup now. They have good soup here. Like before the war. And Aunt Eva brings fruit. Even Monika brings fruit. But Heidi’s girl always bring chocolate. The doctors say I can’t eat chocolate, but she always brings chocolate. I give it to the nurses. Everyone brings us candy we can’t eat. We tell them, but they keep bringing candy. They think we are children.”

She drifted off, looking out the window, licking her lower lip in a rapid, senile gesture. Paul looked away. He sat in a clean chair and leaned over to turn down the television.

He rubbed the back of his neck and wished he had aspirin. It had been a stressful week. There was a mountain of work at the office and at home. No doubt his answering machine would assault him with messages when he got home – calls from the faculty assembly, the Party Congress Secretary’s office, his publisher.

His mother came in. She wore a tailored blue suit with matching pumps.

“Paul! So glad you came. We missed you last time.”

“I’ve been busy.” He stood, kissing her on the cheek.

“Yes, I know. So have I. Our computer system has a mind of its own. I don’t know how the airport functions at all. We had to cancel three flights yesterday.”

She turned and addressed her mother. “Mutti,” she said in a loud, clear voice, the voice Paul remembered from childhood. “Mutti, I have your saccharin.”

“You see, they have some,” the old woman said in triumph as if scoring a point of constitutional law at a Party Congress. “They say they don’t, and they do.”

“I went to Dr. Gruner’s office. She is very nice, Mutti. When there is a problem, you should call her.”

“I was telling her that she should move,” Paul said quietly.

“Mutti is old. She does not want to move. I asked her again just before you came. At her age, she just wants to sit and watch television.”

She drew closer to her son. “Besides, maybe these days it wouldn’t be good to press for favors. Special treatment. Anything privileged. It looks bad now.”

“Why?” he demanded. “She’s on pension. We work for the Party. How long have you and Dad been members? We work harder than other people. It’s no crime to treat your family with respect. We’re not asking for a ski lodge. We deserve the best. After all the work we do for the people, why should we feel guilty? What have we stolen? Do we have Swiss accounts?” He spoke firmly, “I’m getting her glasses at the Pankow clinic. Why should she have to wait like some scrub woman?”

His irritation mounted. In the last year, for the first time in his life, he experienced flashes of rage and frustration. His career had stalled. Editors who once pleaded for articles now held onto his pieces for months before printed abbreviated versions. Only the party journals still seemed receptive.

“We’ve been watching the news. There’s talk of more elections. Even with Honecker gone, they’re still not satisfied. Even the state commentator said the word ‘reunification.’” She spoke the word softly like a prosecutor forced to repeat an obscenity in court. “What will happen to us then? You think we will keep our houses, our jobs?”

“I don’t know,” Paul said, “I don’t know.” He shifted, looking out the window.

“Look,” his mother said, indicating the television screen, “Gorbachev on every broadcast. All these changes. For years we beg the Russians to change, now everything falls apart. You should see what’s in the Soviet papers. Editorials denouncing the Party. The Aeroflot crews bring them in. Soon, we’ll have the same thing here.”

Paul looked at the familiar face on the screen. He had no desire to turn up the volume. Just five years ago, he applauded the ascendancy of the new Soviet leader, a reformer. Now he felt only bitterness. “They call him Czar Nicki in my office. All those troops, and he lets the republics run riot. Brezhnev would never let that happen.” He sounded conservative, reactionary, and old, and he hated himself for his own words. He had always been young, creative, and positive. But he felt like a man on a sinking ship, a terminal patient. Everything was slipping, slipping away from him.

“Those Russians always want to tell us what to do,” the old woman said. “First, Stalin and now these others. Even here are people who were put in prison. Two sons the woman in the next room lost in Russia. I had to hide in a cellar for three weeks when they came. Even little girls and old ladies. It was so terrible.”

Paul winced. It was always uncomfortable when old people talked about the war. His grandmother always wanted to talk about her family, dead nephews and cousins who were better off forgotten. She had a terrible habit of comparing his Party work with her brother’s before the war. He had been a Gauleiter. A family shame. It was tiresome for Paul to remind her that he belonged to a different party. “We’re Socialists now, not
National Socialists,” he had been reminding her for ten years.

“How is Trudi?” his mother asked, “We’d like you to drop by next Sunday for dinner.”

“I don’t know. She doesn’t return calls. There’s someone else.”

“That’s not true. She’s young. Playing hard to get. You spend too much time at work, and she feels neglected. Buy her something. Take her out. She’s pretty and likes to be seen. She’s not very bright. There are other girls, you know. Pretty but with minds.”

“I know. I know.” Paul used to resent his mother’s lectures about girls. Now he welcomed them. They made him feel young. And lately he had begun to feel so old. At thirty-six, he was no longer youthful. A generation older now than his students, long-haired youths with tattoos and earrings who regarded him as middle-aged, an authority figure to smirk at.
It was not fair. It seemed only a few years ago he was an undergraduate himself,
marching in the student demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, against imperialism, against South Africa. He started writing articles for the youth papers. He attended conferences, took advanced courses in Marxism, learned Russian. He was still a PhD candidate when he published his first book and appeared on television. He received a teaching position on the literature faculty, chaired the political committee, and reviewed movies for a weekly radio broadcast. Later came guest lectures, trips to Poland and Hungary, invitations to Congress dinners.

He was the youngest Party member in attendance at the Dresden Conference. He had been noticed. He was promoted. He moved to a new apartment and acquired a car. He belonged to the best clubs, relaxed at the elite spas, and vacationed on the Black Sea.

At twenty-seven he was sent to Moscow as a Party delegate. Brezhnev himself paid a visit to their conference. Paul stood with the other delegates as the Soviet leader, dark-browed and massive, slowly and heavily moved down the reception line. He glanced at the Germans with glassy eyes, waved, then embraced the Berlin Party boss. The Soviets took pictures, showering everyone with souvenirs. Paul came home from Moscow bristling with pins, ribbons, and medals.

The nurse entered without knocking.

“Phone message for Frau Rach,” she announced.

“Frau Doctor,” Paul corrected her.

“You can take it at the front desk,” she stated, adding “Frau Doctor” after a surly pause.

Bitch! The lack of discipline among staff people, even at the university and the Party offices, was appalling.

His mother followed the nurse out the door.

Paul glanced at the television. Some black Americans were being featured. Why was that allowed? This Michael Jackson business had to stop. He had argued in the Party youth journal that during slavery Americans made Africans perform in minstrel shows, forcing them to sing and dance. Now they had to dance or play football to be rewarded. Why support this oppression? It was as bad as South Africa.

His mother returned, sighing, “One headache after another. One of the controllers was detained by the police. He threatened a job action.”

“A strike? Shutting down the airport?”

She waved a soft, manicured hand. “It’s nothing. The man was drinking. I had him fired two weeks ago. He made up some story to get past the guards. Someone forgot to take his security badge. I’m letting Baumann take care of it. I won’t soil my hands with his case anymore.” She made a gesture of washing her hands, her gold rings and bracelets tinkling. “These people don’t appreciate what you do for them. I got him in the Hartz Clinic, and he’s not even a Party member. After six weeks he goes out to see the dentist and gets plastered. Now it’s my fault he can’t feed his family?”

Paul glanced at his watch. “I have to go. I want to finish an article.”

“Go ahead,” she smiled, “I’ll stay awhile with Mutti.”

He rose, kissed her mother, and patted her shoulder, “Try to get her to move to the center. I could get her a cottage. Her own house with everything. Whirlpool bath and decent service.”

“I’ll try. Remember, dinner on Sunday.”

“Goodbye, I will see you Sunday. Tell Mutti goodbye.” He gestured toward the old woman who had fallen asleep clutching her tea mug.

 

Driving his Saab along the tree-lined road leading to the highway, Paul snapped a cassette into the stereo. It was a tape of a radio interview he had given six years ago. The voice was firm, direct, certain. His answers were crisp and pointed. But instead of cheering him up, the confidence of his old self depressed him. He popped out the cassette and slipped in Fidelio.

It was dark when he reached Berlin. A line of military vehicles had parked on both sides of the highway, creating a road block. But the glum soldiers were not stopping anyone. They listlessly waved the cars on. Something was up, Paul sensed. Perhaps an accident or a maneuver.

Normally, his spacious office was a comfort. The bank of computer monitors, the row of telephones, the imported copier, the recessed lighting, and smooth walnut desk assured him of his importance. But seated at his computer he could not think. He tapped the keys, watching the green letters dance across the shimmering screen. Line after line poured out. Racism. Imperialism. El Salvador. The Contras. Napalm and invasions. The boycott of Cuba. American society with its celebrity whores and gangsters.

He stopped. He was running out of steam. What did it matter? No one wanted to read this anymore. Everyone was mesmerized by West German television commercials. He got up, stretched, and paced about the room. The walls were decorated with plaques, degrees, certificates, awards, and autographed pictures. But they failed to reassure him. Reunification. What would happen then? His thoughts darkened. Would there be investigations, expense account audits, trials?

Too irritated to work, he decided to get a drink. He’d go to the university club. It was a favorite spot with younger Party members. There were always attractive girls at the bar. Generals’ daughters. Slim blondes in white fur coats and mini skirts.

 

The streets near the club were jammed. Traffic halted and crept. Busses rolled past full of boisterous students shouting and gesturing like football fans.

Irritated, he pulled into an alley, searching for a shortcut. Turning onto the brightly lit avenue, he was engulfed by vehicles. Cars, honking motorbikes, vans, trucks, and bicycles. The street was full of people.

Paul lowered the window, Fidelio playing. “What’s going on?” he asked a red-jacketed waiter standing outside a café.

“They opened the Wall. Thousands of people standing on it. Smashing it with hammers. Running to the West. It’s a stampede.” He waved a flutter of checks. “Half my customers left without paying. What a circus!”

Paul switched on the radio, spinning the dial, hoping to get a news report. He picked up the phone and called the security office, but no one was answering.

Traffic surged toward the Wall. Paul could not make a left turn. Cars honked behind him. Paul bit his lip and banged the steering wheel, but he was powerless to get off the avenue. Every cross street and alley was blocked by the crowd.

Searchlights played on the Wall. People scrambled past the guards who paced nervously, downcast, their hands in their pockets. Men and women jumped over parked cars, smashing trashcans blocking their path. Against all justice, all goodness, all humanity, they were heading West, beguiled by cheap candy and Japanese gadgets. Already, a thin, wavering line of drunks was heading back. They waved champagne bottles and lugged plastic bags full of loot. Some of them had carried away bits of the Wall. They tossed crumbling bits of mortar to each other. Passing Paul, a trio of girls sprayed champagne at his car, sprinkling the hood with bits of brick and mortar.

Paul was enraged. Where were the security men? Where were the People’s Police? The border guards? They had machine guns. He leaned on his horn and cursed. Why weren’t they shooting? Why weren’t they shooting?

***

Mark Connelly’s fiction has appeared in Indiana Review, Milwaukee Magazine, Cream City Review, The Ledge, The Great American Literary Magazine, Home Planet News, Smoky Blue Arts and Literary Magazine, and Digital Papercut. He received an Editor’s Choice Award in Carve Magazine’s Raymond Carver Short Story Contest in 2014; in 2015 he received Third Place in Red Savina Review’s Albert Camus Prize for Short Fiction. In 2005 Texas Review Press published his novella Fifteen Minutes, which received the Clay Reynolds Prize.