Fiction May 1998

Licks of Love in the Heart of the Cold War

If a man can't walk around in his own country without fear, what business does he have selling freedom to the Russians?

Black and white, that's most of what I remember. Her hair was black and soft, and her skin was white and soft, and her voice had slowed and gotten girlish with the effects of liquor and being romanced. I was on the floor, peeling down her pantyhose while she rested a hand on the top of my head for balance. Then we were sitting on the bed while she cupped her hands under those sizable breasts, pointing them at me like guns. "I want them to be even bigger," she told me so softly that I strained to hear, "for you." Her breasts being appreciated made her smile in the slanted light from the street like a round-faced cartoon character, a cat-and-canary smile. When I carried the courtesies down below, this seemed to startle her, so she stiffened a bit before relaxing her legs. I was striving to keep my focus amid the swaying caused by government-issue alcohol, the jostling of my conscience, my wondering what time it was, and the glinting strangeness of this environment, with its sadness of the single girl. Black and white—her little room sucked dry of color, like something on early TV; her bureau with its brushes and silver-framed photos of the family that had hatched her; an armchair with a cellophane-wrapped drugstore rental book still balanced on one arm, where she had left it before heading off this morning into her working day; her AM-FM-shortwave portable radio, big enough to pick up stations from Antarctica; her narrow bed with its brass headboard that was no good to lean on when we had done our best and needed to reminisce and establish limits.

"Lordy," I said. This was something of a lie, since when the main event came up, I had lost a certain energy to the good times behind us, beginning hours ago at the party. I had felt lost in her.

She touched my shoulder and said my full name tentatively, as if I wouldn't like it: "Eddie Chester." She was right; it sounded proprietary, and something in me bristled. "You really are a god."

"You should catch me sober sometime."

"When?" Her voice pounced, quick and eager, as it had been at first. The pieces of white beside her swollen pupils glinted like sparkles on TV; her propped-up pillow eclipsed half of her round face and half a head of black hair, mussed out to a wild size.

Mine had been just a manner of speaking. "Not ever, it may be, Imogene," I told her. "I have a week of gigs out west, and then I'm off on this trip, helping to keep your planet safe for democracy."

"But I'll see you when you come back," she insisted. "You must come back to Washington, to be debriefed. Eddie, Eddie, Eddie," she said, as if knowing it galled me. "I can't ever let you go."

I longed for a taxi out of there. "I got a wife, you know. And three little ones."

"Do you love your wife?"

"Well, honey, I wouldn't say I don't, though after fifteen years a little of the bloom rubs off."

"Do you do to her everything you did to me?"

This seemed downright forward. "I forget," I said, and pushed out of the bed into the bathroom, where the switch brought color back into everything, all those pinks and blues and yellows on her medicine-cabinet shelves; it seemed that she needed a lot of pills to keep herself functional.

"Eddie, don't go," she pleaded. "Stay the night. It's not safe out there. It's so bad the taxis won't come even if you call."

"Young lady, I got a hired car coming to the Willard Hotel at seven-thirty tomorrow morning to carry me back to western Virginia, and I'm going to be there. I may not be the future of banjo picking, but I take a real professional pride in never having missed a date." Putting on my underwear, I remembered how the taxi had gone around past the railroad station and then the Capitol, all lit up, and I figured we hadn't gone so far past it that I couldn't steer myself by its tip, or by the spotlights on the Washington Monument.

"Eddie, you can't go; I won't let you," Imogene asserted, out of bed except for one sweet, fat white leg caught in the sheet. Her breasts didn't look quite so cocky without her holding them up for me. That's the trouble with a full figure; it ties you to a bra.

I crooned a few lines of "Don't Say Good-bye If You Love Me" until my memory ran out, though I could see Jim Buchanan's face right across from me, squeezed into its fiddle, at the WWVA microphone. And then I told Imogene, as if still quoting a song, "Little darlin', you ain't keeping me here, though I must say it was absolute bliss." This was my third lie, but a white one, and with some truth in it. "Now, you go save your undying affection for an unattached man."

"You'll be killed!" she shrieked, and clawed at me for a while, but I shushed and sweet-talked her back into her bed, fighting a rising headache all the while, and let myself out into the stairwell. The street, one of those numbered ones, was as still as a stage set, but stepping out firmly in my cowboy boots, I headed what I figured was west—you get a sense of direction growing up in the morning shadow of the Blue Ridge—and, sure enough, I soon caught a peek of the Capitol dome in the distance, white as an egg in an eggcup. A couple of tattered colored gentlemen stumbled toward me from a boarded-up doorway, but I gave them each a dollar and a hearty God bless and strode on. If a man can't walk around in his own country without fear, what business does he have selling freedom to the Russians?

Bud Nevins got me and my banjos—a fine old Gibson mother-of-pearl-trimmed Mastertone and an S.S. Stewart backup whose thumb string always sounded a little punky—into Moscow and put us all to bed in a spare room of the big apartment that he and his wife and three children occupied in the cement warehouse where the Russians stashed free-world diplomatic staff. April Nevins was a long-haired strawberry blonde beginning to acquire the tight, worried expression that the wives of ministers and government officials get, from being saddled with their husbands' careers. You get the pecking-order blues. The bygone summer hadn't done much to refresh her freckles, and a long white winter lay ahead. This was late September, shirtless apple-picking time back home. The puff on the bed they put me in smelled old-fashionedly of flake soap, the way my mother's laundry used to when I helped her carry the wet wash basket out back to the clothesline.

As he put me to bed, Nevins said that something had already come for me in the diplomatic pouch. An envelope lay on my pillow, addressed to me care of the embassy APO number in a scrunched-up hand in black ballpoint. Inside was a long letter from Imogene, recounting her sorrowful feelings after I left and guessing that I was still alive because my death in her neighborhood hadn't been in the papers and she had caught on the radio a plug for an appearance of mine in St. Louis. She recalled some sexual details I had half forgotten and wasn't sure needed to be put down on paper, and promised undying love. I just skimmed the second page. Her words weren't easy to read; the individual letters looked like they wanted to double back on themselves, and I was dog-tired from those thousands of miles I had traveled to reach the dark side of the moon.

Now, I've seen a lot of friendly crowds in the course of my professional life, but I must say I've never seen as many lovable, well-disposed people as I did that month in Russia. They were—at least the ones that weren't in any gulag—full of beans, up all night and bouncy the next morning. The young ones didn't have that shadowy look that American children were taking on, as if dragged out from watching television; these young Russians seemed to be looking directly at life. I hated to think it, but they were unspoiled. Grins poured from the students I played for, in one drafty old classroom after another—they just took the dancers and musicians out and moved the desks in. There were dusty moldings and plaster garlands high along the peeling plaster walls, and velvet czarist drapes rotting around a view of some damp little park where old women in babushkas, so gnarled and hunched our own society would have had them on the junk heap, swept the dirt paths with brooms that were just twigs tied to sticks. Everything was still used here.

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John Updike is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Rabbit Is Rich (1981) and Rabbit at Rest (1990), and sixteen other novels. His most recent book is Toward the End of Time (1997).

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