A Friend of the Family: Chapter One
I couldn't have told even Joe, and wouldn't have tried, but I remember feeling a chill at that moment, looking over the papers, the pictures of the different Soviet conspirators lined up like mug shots on the various front pages. I wiped my hands on my knees, stepped off the back deck, gazed up at the seagulls, still circling. There had never not been the Soviet Union in my life. There had never not been this particular enemy. I remember feeling bizarrely afraid. I walked out to the back fence of the weed-pocked yard in Delaware and looked out at the backs of all the other houses, still sleeping. I thought about everything I couldn't keep safe, or even keep the same.
"So what do you think of this, Pete?" my wife asked me when she had finally absorbed the papers. I poured us some coffee from the thermos on the table. She was looking at me with a flatteringly grave expression, as though I were holding the world's only crystal ball.
"If it's true," I said, "if it's happening the way they say, then I think it's very dangerous."
"The cold war was stasis, Elaine. Us versus them, good versus bad. Instability, especially in that part of the world, is dangerous. This makes me concerned. Not panicked, but concerned."
She nodded, turned back to the paper. "I see your point."
"Again, not panicked."
"No," she said. "Of course not."
Usually I liked responsibility: my wife generally trusted my judgment on matters of international consequence the same way she trusted me with the paying of bills, the hiring of plumbers. I think it's because I always spoke with authority and because I always had a clear sense of what was right and what was wrong. Elaine used to appreciate that about me. Until my recent troubles, I'd always had a pretty good idea of what good would come of things, and what bad, and I knew how to prepare.
"Well," Elaine said. "Well, I guess I won't worry too much either, then." And then she squeezed my hand.
A few minutes later, Iris emerged from the kitchen, her two younger children filing behind her like ducklings, the baby, Pauline, in her arms. "It looks crappy out today," she said. "Maybe we should rent some movies?"
"Movies!" seconded Adam, her younger son. There was a rental place right near the boardwalk, stocked with lots of fare for children and a surprisingly comprehensive adult section behind a black curtain, which Elaine and I had checked out the previous summer, feeling giddy and brave.
"Pete says instability in Russia is dangerous." Elaine folded her newspaper. "I guess we could go get a movie."
"Well, of course that's what Pete says." Iris grinned as Neal, her older boy, gave me a shrewd look. "Pete likes things the way they've always been."
"Not really," I said. "I'm just not sure that a haphazard breakup of the Soviet Union is necessarily in our strategic interests."
Iris laughed her heavy, infuriating laugh, and her kids started pulling through the mess of papers on the picnic table to find the comics. She let Pauline out of her arms, and the little girl skittered back into the house. "Strategic interests, Pete?"
"What's the matter with that?"
"This is good news," she said.
"We don't know what kind of news it is," I said.