A Friend of the Family: Chapter One
Across the river, the sun angles down behind Riverside Church, making the building glow.
"You know that kid in the boat?" the last remaining fisherman says to me after the cigarette boat makes another slow turn around the pilings.
The fisherman shrugs. "He looks like he knows you."
I give him a quizzical look.
"The way he's circling," the man says, rubbing his chin with a fishy old hand.
"Nobody knows me," I say, grand and melodramatic. This, by the way, isn't exactly true, but it is how I would prefer things.
The cigarette boat circles again, slowly, and then once more.
Nineteen ninety-one, August, the summer of the Russian coup and the end of the Soviet Union, Joe Stern left the beach house early and came back with a bag of boardwalk cinnamon rolls and six newspapers: the Times, the Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, both the Rehoboth and Wilmington dailies. Wake up the kids, he said to me. It was maybe eight in the morning; back then, all five of the kids and also my wife used to sleep till at least half past nine. Iris tended to get up at six to jog.
"It's their vacation," I said. "They'll wake up on their own."
"History, Pete," my old chum, college lab partner, best friend, said, spreading the different front pages across the picnic table on the deck. "The coup failed. It's the collapse of the Soviet Union. The cold war is over."
Above me, I remember, seagulls circled and cawed, putting me in mind of vultures, although really they were just after dropped bits of cinnamon roll. "If the cold war is over," I said, "which I happen to doubt, then it will still be over when the kids wake up."
"You doubt it?"
"All the news that's fit to print, my friend," Joe said, smacking the front page of the Times.
I picked up the Sun and read a few sentences under the screeching headline, but nothing to convince me that it was time to salute a new world order. "It'll take more than this to end the cold war. We're in Delaware. History doesn't happen while we're vacationing in Delaware."
"Who cares where we are?" Joe said. He laughed, rubbed his hand over his bald spot, his gesture when he was nervous, happy, or amused. "What does that have to do with the news?"
A change in the way things have always been, and I'm reading the Baltimore paper? "I just think, I think it'll be louder when the cold war is over. We'll all hear it."
"You can't hear it?"
I grew up crouching under desks at PS 145 and knew that if the Soviet Union was really going to collapse, it would be a slow-motion, lumbering thing, the felling of a grand oak, bringing down everything in its path. It wouldn't be a failed coup launched by a bunch of grumpy, bald dodderers while I sat on a deck in Delaware. I put down the Sun, picked up the Philadelphia Inquirer—the same information, the same tone. "They just want to sell papers," I said. "There was a coup. It didn't work. This isn't the end of the cold war."
"Not everything is propaganda, Pete."
"Look," I said, "you can dismiss me if you'd like, but you've got to admit that something as enormous and…and indestructible…and evil—"
"Evil?" Joe chuckled. "You sound like Reagan. The Baltic States already split months ago. The Soviet Union is done." Joe rubbed again at his bald spot, said laconically, "We're number one."
"I don't believe it."
"Pete," Joe said, "get with the program."