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John Updike

web | The Sun Is but a Morning Star

KHRUSHCHEV was in power, or we thought he was, that month I spent as cultural ambassador and banjo-picking bridge between the superpowers, helping to stave off nuclear holocaust. It was September into October of 1964. We had a cultural-exchange program with the Soviets at the time. Our State Department's theory was that almost any American paraded before the oppressed Soviet masses would be, just in his easy manner of walking and talking, such an advertisement for the free way of life that cells of subversion would pop up in his wake like dandelions on an April lawn. So my mission wasn't as innocent as it seemed. Still, I was game to undertake it.

My home lies on the far side of the Blue Ridge in western Virginia, which isn't the same as West Virginia, though it's getting close. Washington, D.C., to me spells "big city," and when the official franked letters began to come through, it never occurred to me to resist something as big and beautiful as the pre-Vietnam U.S. government. Russia is just one more struggling country now, run by economists with sweaty palms, but then it was the dark side of the moon. The Aeroflot plane from Paris smelled of boiled potatoes, as I recall, and the stewardesses were as hefty as packed suitcases. When we landed, at midnight, we might have been descending over the ocean, there were so few lights under us.

The airport was illuminated dimly, as if by those bedside lamps that hotels give you, not to read by. One of the young soldiers was pawing through a well-worn Playboy that some discomfited fur trader had tried to smuggle in, and my first impression of how life worked under communism was the glare of that poor centerfold's sweet bare skin under those brownish airport lights. The magazine was confiscated, but I don't want to believe that the traveling salesman was sent to the gulag. He had a touch of Asia in his cheekbones - it wasn't as if we had corrupted a pure-blooded Russian. The State Department boys swooped me out the customs door into a chauffeured limo that smelled not of boiled potatoes, exactly, but very deeply of tobacco, another natural product. My granddaddy's barn used to smell like that, even after the cured leaf had been baled and sold. I knew I was going to like it here.

On the airport road into Moscow in those days there was this giant billboard of Lenin, leaning forward with a wicked goateed grin and pointing to something up above with a single finger, like John the Baptist pointing to a Jesus we couldn't see yet. "I love that," my chief State Department escort said from the jump seat. "To three hundred million people 'Up yours.'" He was Bud Nevins, cultural attache. I saw a lot of Bud, Bud and his lovely wife, April, in the weeks to come.

Washington had been an adventure already. I had been briefed on a couple of afternoons by a combination of our experts and some refugees from the Soviet Union. One portly old charmer, who had been upper-middle management in the KGB, filled a whole afternoon around a long leather-topped table by telling me what restaurants to go to and what food to order smoked sturgeon, piroshki, mushroom pie. His mouth was watering, though from the look of him he hadn't exactly starved under capitalism. Still, no food like home cooking; I could sympathize with that.

Those Washington people loved to party. Each briefing would be followed by a reception, and at one of the receptions a little black-haired coffee fetcher from that afternoon's briefing came up to me as if this time her breasts were being offered on a tray. They were sizable, pert breasts, in a peach-colored cotton chemise that had just outgrown being a T-shirt.

"Sir, you are my god," she told me. That's always nice to hear, and she shouldn't have spoiled it by adding "Except of course for Earl Scruggs. And that nice tall Allen Shelton, who used to fill in on banjo with the Virginia Boys - oh, he was cute! Now, have you heard those new sides the McReynoldses have cut down in Jacksonville, with this boy named Bobby Thompson? He is the future! He has this whole new style - you can hear the melody! 'Hard Hearted.' 'Dixie Hoedown.' Oh, my!"

"Young lady, you know I'm not exactly bluegrass," I told her politely. "Earl, well, he's beginning to miss notes, but you can't get away from him; he's a giant, and Don Reno likewise. Nevertheless, my idol intellectually is Pete Seeger, if you must know; he's the one, him and the Weavers, brought back the five-string after the war, after the dance bands all but turned the banjo into a ukelele."

"So folksy and pokey and phony, if you're asking me," she said, with a hurried overemphasis that I was beginning to get used to, while her warm black eyes darted back and forth on my face like stirred-up horseflies. "And a traitor to his country besides."

"Well," I admitted, "you won't find him on Grand Ole Opry real soon, but the college kids eat him up, and for his sheer sincere picking none of that show-biz flash that sometimes bothers me about Earl. Young lady, you should calm yourself and sit down and listen sometime to those albums Pete cut with Woody and the Almanacs before the war."

"I did," she said eagerly. "I did, I did. 'Talking Union.' 'Sod Buster Ballads.' Wonderful true-blue lefty stuff. The West Coast Communists must have loved it. Mr. Chester, did you ever in your life listen to a program called Jamboree, out of Wheeling?"

"Did I? I got my first air time on it, on good old WWVA. Me and Jim Buchanan on fiddle, before he got big. 'Are You Lost in Sin?' and 'Don't Say Good-bye If You Love Me,' with a little 'Somebody Loves You, Darlin'" for a rideout. Did I catch your name, may I ask?"

"You'll laugh. It's a silly name."

"I bet now it isn't. You got to love the name the good Lord gave you."

"It wasn't the good Lord, it was my hateful mother." Momentarily holding a deep breath that rounded out her cheeks like a trumpet player's, she said, "Imogene." Then she exhaled in a blubbery rush and said, "Imogene Frye. Isn't it silly?"

"No," I said. That was my first lie to her. She seemed a little off-center right from the first, but Imogene could talk banjo, and here, in this city of block-long buildings and charcoal suits, that was as welcome to me as borscht and salted cucumber would have been to that homeless KGB colonel, locked out forever as a traitor from the land he loved.

"I loved," this Imogene was saying, "the licks you took on `Heavy Traffic Ahead.' And the repeat an octave higher on `Walking in Jerusalem Just Like John.'"

"It wasn't an octave, it was a fifth," I told her, settling in and lifting two bourbons from a silver tray that a kindly Negro was carrying around. I saw that this was going to be a conversation. Banjos were getting to be hot then, what with that Beverly Hillbillies theme, and I didn't want to engage with any shallow groupie. "Do you ever tune in WDBJ, out of Roanoke?" I asked her. "And tell me exactly why you think this Bobby Thompson is the future."

She saw my hurt, with those hot bright eyes that looked to be all pupil, and hastened to reassure me in her hurried, twitchy way of talking that I was the present, the past, and the future as far as she was concerned. Neither of us, I think, had the habit of drinking, but the trays kept coming around, brought by black men in white gloves, and by the time the reception broke up, the whole scene might have been a picture printed on silk, waving gently in and out. The Iron Curtain experts had drifted away to their homes in Bethesda and Silver Spring, and it seemed the most natural thing in the free world that little Imogene, to whom I must have looked a little wavy myself, would be inviting me back to her apartment somewhere off in one of those neighborhoods where they say it's not safe for a white man to show his face late at night.

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.

I had worked up a little talk. I would begin with the banjo as an African instrument, called banza in the French colonies of West Africa and banjer in the American South, where in some backwaters you could still hear it called that. Slaves played it, and then there were the traveling minstrel shows, in which white performers like Dan Emmett and Joel Walker Sweeney used the traditional black "stroke" or "frailing" or "claw-hammer" style of striking down across the strings with thumb and the back of the index-finger nail (I would demonstrate). Then (still demonstrating) I would tell of the rise of the "finger-picking" or "guitar" style, adding the middle finger and pulling up on the strings with metal picks on those three fingers, and end with bluegrass and traditional folk as revived by my hero, Seeger. When I had said all that, in about half an hour, with samples of what we think minstrel banjo sounded like, and some rags from the 1890s, the way Vess L. Ossman and Fred Van Eps left them on Edison cylinders, and a little Leadbelly at the end, they would ask me why Americans oppressed their black people.

I got better at answering that one, as I strummed and picked and rolled through those echoing classrooms. I stopped saying that slavery had been universal not long ago, that the Russians had had their serfs, that several hundred thousand white men from the North had died so that slaves could be free, that a hundred years later civil-rights laws had been passed and lynching had become a rarity. I could tell, as I stood there listening to myself being translated, that I was losing them. What I was saying was too much like what they heard from their own teachers, too much historical inevitability. I simply said yes, it was a problem, a disgraceful problem, but that I honestly believed America was working at it, and music was one of the foremost ways it was working at it. Listening to myself talk, I would sometimes think that the State Department knew what it was doing, bringing a natural patriotic optimist like me over here. Ever since JFK had been shot, my breed had been harder to find. They must have had a pretty fat file on me somewhere: the thought made me uneasy.

I felt best when I played, played as if for a country-fair crowd back home, and those young Russian faces would light up as if I were telling jokes. They had all heard jazz, and even some twist and early rock on tapes that were smuggled through, but rarely anything so jaunty and tinny and jolly, so irrepressible, as banjo music going full steam, when your fingers do the thinking and you listen in amazement yourself. Sometimes they would pair me with a balalaika player, and one little Azerbaijani - I think he had some Gypsy blood tried my instrument, and I his. We made an act of it for a few days, touring the Caucasus, where old men with beards would gather outside the auditorium windows as if sipping moonshine. When they had me advertised ahead for a formal concert, the crowds were so big that the Soviet controller cut down on the schedule.

The translator who traveled with me kept changing, but usually it was Nadia, a lean, thin-lipped lady over forty who had learned her English during the war, in the military. She had lost two brothers and a fiance to Hitler, and was wed to the Red system with bonds of iron and grief. She looked like a skinny, tall, stunned soldier boy herself, just out of uniform no lipstick, a long, white, waxy nose, and a feathery short haircut with gray coming in, not in strands but in patches. Blank-faced, she would listen to my spiel, give a nod when she'd heard all she could hold, and spout out a stream of this language that was, with all its mushy, twisty sounds, pure music to me. The more she and I traveled together, the better she knew what I was going to say, and the longer she could let me go before translating, and the more I could hear individual words go by, and little transparent phrases through which I seemed to see into her as if into a furnace through a mica window. We traveled on trains in the same compartment, so I could look down from the top bunk and see her hands remove her shoes and her mustard-colored stockings, and then her bare feet and hands flitter out of sight. I would listen, but never heard her breathing relax; she confessed to me toward the end of my stay that she could never sleep on trains. The motion and clicking stirred her up.

An inhibiting factor was Bud Nevins's being in the compartment with us there were two bunks on two sides or, if not Bud, another escort from our embassy, and often a fourth, an underling of Bud's or a second escort from the Soviet side, who spoke Armenian or Kazakh or whatever the language was going to be when we disembarked. Sometimes I had more escorts than would fit into one compartment; I think I often got the best night's sleep, with everybody watching everybody else. Nadia was as loyal a Communist as they made, but seemed to need watching anyway. As I got to know her body language, I could tell when we were being crowded, politically speaking.

After a while I tended to bond with the Communists. When we arrived at one of our hinterland destinations, Nadia and her associates would bundle me into a Zil, and then we would share irritation at being tailed by an embassy watchdog in his imported Chevrolet. When we all went south, Bud came along with that willowy, redheaded wife of his. April had, along with her worried look, a plump, pretty mouth a little too full of teeth. For all their three children, they hadn't been married ten years. Out of wifely love and loyalty she wanted to join in what fun the Soviet Union in its sinister vastness offered.

Somewhere in backwoods Georgia we visited a monastery, a showpiece of religious tolerance. The skeleton crew of monks glided around with us in their grim stone rooms. The place had a depressing, stuffy, holy smell old candle wax and chrism and furniture polish that I hadn't sniffed for thirty years, and then in the storage closet of a Baptist basement Sunday school. Among the monks with beards down to their bellies was a young one, and I wondered how he had enlisted himself in this ghostly brotherhood. Demented, or a government employee, I decided. He had silky long hair, like a princess captive in a tower, and the sliding onyx eyeballs of a spy. He was one kind of human animal, and I was another, and when we looked at each other, we each repressed a shudder.

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.

THEY had saved Leningrad for me to the last, since it was where the Communists, still remembering the siege, were the toughest, and I might run into the most hostility from an audience. But as soon as my Gibson began talking, the picked strings all rolling like the synchronized wheels, big and little, of the Wabash Cannonball, the smiles of mutual understanding would start breaking out. I am not a brave man, but I have faith in my instrument and in people's decent instincts. St. Petersburg, as we call it again, is one beautiful city, a Venice where you least expect it, all those big curved buildings in Italian colors. The students in their gloomy old ballrooms were worried about Goldwater getting elected, and I told them that the American people would never elect a warmonger. I was always introduced as a "progressive" American folk artist, but I had to tell them that there wasn't much progressive about me my folks had been lifelong Democrats, because of a war fought a hundred years ago, and I wasn't going to be the one to change parties.

Then, just as I was about to get back onto Aeroflot, Khrushchev was pushed out of power, and all the Soviets around me tightened up, wary of what was going to happen next. This whole huge empire was run out of some back rooms by a few beetle-browed men. Nadia my voice, my guide, my protector, closer to me for this month than a wife, because I couldn't have done without her complimented me by confiding, somewhere out on the Nevsky Prospekt, or in some hallway where no bugs were likely to be placed, "Eddie, it was not civilized. It was not done how a civilized country should do things. We should have said `Thank you very much for ending the terror.' And then `You are excused too much adventurism, okay, failures in agricultural production, and et cetera. Okay, so long, but bolshoi thanks.'"

At moments, toward the end of a long public day in, say, Tashkent, her English would deteriorate, out of sheer weariness from drawing on two sets of brain cells, and her eyelids and the tip of her long white nose would get pink. We would say goodnight in the hotel lobby, with its musty-attic smell and lamps whose bases were brass bears, and she would give me in her handshake not the palm and the meat of the thumb but four cool fingers, aligned like a sergeant's stripes. That was the way we began to say good-bye in the airport, until we leaped the gulf between our two great countries and I kissed her on one cheek and then the other and hugged her, in proper Slavic style. Her eyes teared up, but it may have been just the start of a cold.

Bud told me in the airport, so casually that I should have smelled trouble, "We took you off the APO number two days ago, so your mail won't show up here after you leave. It will be forwarded to your home."

"Sounds reasonable," I said, not thinking.

Coming back, on the last leg, out of Paris, I had an experience such as I've never had again in all my miles of flying. We came down on the big arc over Gander and Nova Scotia and from five miles up I could see New York, hundreds of miles away, a little blur of light in the cold plastic oval of the plane window which grew and grew, like a fish I was pulling in. My cheek got cold against the plastic as I pressed to keep the light in view, a spot on the invisible surface of the earth like a nebula, like a dust mouse, only glowing, the fuzzy center of our heavenly liberty. Just it and me, there in the night sky, communing. It was a vision.

After I cleared customs at Kennedy, I phoned home, though it was after ten o'clock. I was so happy to be in the land of the free. My wife answered with something in her voice besides welcome, like a fearful salamander under a big warm rock. "Some letters for you came today and yesterday," she said. "All from one person, it looks like."

How bright this airport was, I thought, compared with the one in Moscow. Every corner and rampway was lit as harshly as a mug shot. The place was packed with advertisements and snack bars, sizzling with electricity. "Did you open them?" I asked, my heart suddenly plunked by a heavy hand.

"Just one," she said. "That was enough, Eddie. Oh, my."

"It wasn't anything," I began, which wasn't a hundred percent true. For though I was very unhappy with Imogene for making what looked to be an ongoing mess, you can't blame a person for thinking you're a god. You have to feel a spark of fondness, remembering the way she held up one breast and then the other, each nipple looking in that black-and-white room like the hole of a gun barrel pointed straight at your mouth. You can go to the dark side of the moon and back and see nothing more wonderful and strange than the way men and women get together.




© John Updike
© E-publisher LiterNet, 28.08.2010
The Sun Is but a Morning Star. Anthology of American Literature. Edited by Albena Bakratcheva. Varna: LiterNet, 2008-2010