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How do you like it?

by Oleg Volk


"A man can be in America for a lifetime," thought Addie "and still get the same two questions." He never lost his accent and the two questions came up regularly. This time they came during a lunch break from that new fellow at work. In the the thirty six years since his arrival, Addie has learned that Americans were not looking for detailed answers.

"How did I come to America?" he said lightly. "I ran away from East Germany."

Addie sipped his tea, quiet for a moment. The new co-worker, Kent, bit into his sandwich and chewed the stale bologna with loud, savage chomps. The other question would come after the mastication. Addie watched the reddish swirl of his tea with unfocused eyes.

Run away was what he did, back in the year the Wall went up. One day he punctured a tire while pedaling home. Instead of riding through the park, he cut through directly towards home, pushing his bicycle along. In the gathering dusk, he walked by the wire-shrouded circumference of West Berlin, hoping to get home before the curfew.

Rain started as he neared a checkpoint. Several Westerners were going home after a day of sightseeing, some with bright nylon umbrellas, a couple with magazines over their heads. Two guards were glancing at each proffered passport in turn, then waving the tourists through the open wire gate. Two more guards, these in Russian uniforms, were smoking behind the rickety guardhouse.

When Addie got even with the checkpoint, the last of the tourists had turned a corner and disappeared behind the pockmarked firewall on the Western side. The rain turned into hail then and the Russians got under the tin roof of the guardhouse. The other two stayed put, looking miserable. Addie, already drenched and freezing, waived at them with a crooked smile of shared discomfort. He must have looked like a late sight-seer, for the man closest to him extended a hand expecting a passport.

"Why not?" thought Audie. He stopped, setting the bike close to the soldier who stretched both hands out to balance it. The man behind was running fingers over his rain-splattered eyeglasses, a resentful, tired face turned towards the warm glow of the guardhouse light bulb. The house on the other side was only a hundred meters away. A little past that, and he'd be safe behind cover.

Addie bolted. He covered the first twenty when the guard behind him dropped the bike into the mud. Both he and the man with eyeglasses screamed something, the latter still trying to get the earpieces into place.

That year the world record was eleven seconds. It would take Addie sixteen to run the same hundred meters. He never heard the screen door tear off the guard house as the Russians spilled out into the night rain and hail. They screamed, too, pointing with their hands until the one in the officer's cap remembered his holster and clawed at the flap.

He never saw the two AKMs get disentangled from the grey rain ponchos. They come up to the shoulders when he made it halfway and wet, hurried hands knocked the selectors down hard. He was sixty meters distant when flashes lit up the slanted muzzle brakes and reflected a thousandfold in the puddles and falling raindrops. A glancing bullet broke Addie's rib and he gasped hard, kept running. The rest of the burst chipped brick off the already pockmarked firewall ahead.

Another ten meters and the bullets aimed low zapped past him, ricocheting off the soaked clay ground. Ten more meters, ignoring the lungs on fire, not seeing the East Germans trying to switch magazines or the Russians trying to see through the downpour, eyes squinty over pistol sights. They hit him again at the goal. A spray of blood preceded him there as his arms dropped and he toppled, sprawling on the muddy ground. Addie rolled behind the wall, grunting in pain as the broken arm took his weight. In shock and bleeding out fast, he never saw the people crouching around him, safe beyond the first wall of West Berlin.

Kent finished chewing, swirled soda around in his mouth and swallowed it. Addie lifted his gaze from the teacup and waited for the second question.

"So, how do you like it in America?"

As he had done so many time before, Addie crossed his arms. Through the fresh-ironed shirt, his right hand felt the deep, rough scar on the left shoulder. He got hit four times that night back in '61. He smiled.

"How do I like it in America? It's worth the price."

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