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?

Outside, a little crowd of shepherds and sheep, neither group looking any too clean, had gathered around the automobiles, and when Nadia had made our identities and curious mission clear, the shepherds invited us to dine with them, on one of the sheep. I would have settled for some cabbage soup and blini back at the Tbilisi hotel, but the Nevinses looked stricken, as though this chance at authentic ethnicity and bridge-building would never come again, and I suppose it wouldn't have. Their duty was to see that I did my duty, and my duty was clear: consort with the shepherds, scoring points for the free world. I looked toward Nadia, and with one of her unsmiling nods she approved, though this hadn't been on her schedule. Or—who knows?—maybe it had been. By now I saw her as an ally in my mission to subvert the proletariat, no doubt deluding myself.

We climbed for what seemed like a mile and sat down around a kind of campfire, where an ominous big kettle was mulling over some bony chunks of a recently living creature. The shepherds loved April's long ironed hair and the way her round freckled knees peeped out of her skirt as we squatted on our circle of rock perches. After the goatskin of red wine (as stated before, I'm no connoisseur of alcoholic beverages, but this stuff was so rough that flies kept dying in it, and a full swig removed the paint from the roof of your mouth) had been passed a few times, she began to relish their attention, to glow and giggle and switch her long limbs around and come up with her phrases of language-school Russian. Those shepherds—agricultural workers and livestock supervisors was probably how they thought of themselves—had a number of unsolved dental problems, as we saw when their whiskers cracked open in a laugh, but a lot of love hovered around that simmering pot, a lot of desire for international peace. Even Bud took off his jacket and unbuttoned his top shirt button, and Nadia began to lounge back in the scree and translate me loosely, with what I heard as her own original material. The lamb when it came, in tin bowls, could have been mulled somewhat longer, and was mixed with what looked like crabgrass, roots and all, and some little green capers that each had a firecracker inside, but as it turned out, only the Nevinses got sick. Next day they had to stay in their hotel room with the shades lowered while the Communists and I motored out to entertain at a Peoples' War veterans home with a view of Mount Elbrus. The way we all cackled in the car at the expense of the Nevinses and their tender capitalist stomachs was the cruelest thing I saw come to pass in my month in the Soviet Union.

Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan: you wondered why God ever made so much wasteland in the world, with a gold dome or a blue lake now and then as a sop to the thirsty soul. But here's where the next revolution was coming from, it turned out—out from under those Islamic turbans. When my banjo flashed mother-of-pearl their way, they made the split-finger sign to ward off the evil eye. They knew a devil's gadget when they saw it.

Whenever I showed up back in Moscow, I was solemnly handed packets of letters in Imogene's cramped black hand, pages and pages and pages of them. I couldn't believe the paper she wasted, and the abuse of taxpayer money involved in using the diplomatic pouch. She had heard me take an eight-bar vocal break on my Decca cut of "Somebody Loves You, Darlin'," on a station out of Charlottesville, and had decided that it was a code to announce that I was leaving my wife for her. "I am altogether open and YOURS, my dearest DEAREST Eddie," she wrote, if I can remember one sentence in all that trash. "I will wait for as LONG as it takes, though KINGDOM COME in the meantime," if I can recall another. Then on and on, with every detail of what she did each day, with some about her internal workings that I would rather not be told, though I was happy she had her period, and all about her unhappiness (that I wasn't there with her) and hopefulness (that I soon would be), and her theory that I was in the air talking to her all the time, broadcasting from every frequency on the dial, including the shortwave that brought in stations from the Caribbean and Western Europe. If she caught Osborne and Martin doing "My Lonely Heart" or "You'll Never Be the Same," she knew that I was their personal friend and had asked them to send her a private message—never mind that they had recorded it in the early fifties. I couldn't do more than skim a page here and there; the handwriting would get smaller and scrunchier and then blossom out into some declaration of love printed in capitals and triple underlined. Just the envelopes, the bulky white tumble of them, were embarrassing me in front of Bud Nevins and the whole embassy staff, embattled here in the heartland of godless communism. How could I be a cultural ambassador shouldering this ridiculous load of puling, mewing, conceited infatuation?

Imogene was planning where we would live, how she would dress for her seat of honor at my concerts, what she would do for me in the bedroom and the kitchen to keep my love at its present sky-high pitch. Thinking we were in for a lifetime together, she filled me in on her family--her mother, whom she had maligned but who wasn't all bad, and her father, who was scarcely in her life enough to mention, and her brothers and sisters, who sounded like the worst pack of losers and freeloaders on the Delmarva Peninsula. My fear was that her outpourings would not escape the vigilance of the KGB, x-raying the diplomatic pouch. I would lose face with Nadia, that steely exemplar of doing without. The innocent-eyed gymnasium students would sense my contamination. The homely austerity of Soviet life, with that undercurrent of fear left over from Stalin, made the amorous delusions of this childish American woman repulsive to me. As my month approached its end and the capitalist world was putting out feelers to reclaim me, Imogene's crazy stuff got mixed in with businesslike communications from my agent and colorless but friendly letters from my wife with notes and dutiful drawings from my children enclosed. This heightened my disgust and helpless indignation. I would have sent a cable—CUT IT OUT, or YOU AIN'T NO BLUE-EYED SWEETHEART OF MINE—but by some canniness of her warped mind she never gave a return address, and when I tried to think of her apartment, all I got was that black-and-white feeling: the way she fed me her breasts one at a time, the very big radio, and the empty street with the Capitol at the end like a white-chocolate candy. I had simply to endure it, this sore humiliation.

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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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