Spring/Summer 2002, Volume 19.3
Steven Boyd Saum
Steven Boyd Saum earned his stripes with the U.S. Peace Corps in Ukraine, where he also hosted a radio show and later directed the Fulbright program. His fiction, essays and reviews have previously appeared in The Kenyon Review, Christian Science Monitor and American Book Review. Saum studied at Emory University and Johns Hopkins University and currently serves as editor for The Commonwealth Club of California. He has also recently completed a novel about Nikita Khrushchev.
Cap askew, my nephew, Mike, daydreams in right field, chews on the edge of his mitt. He's a slight boy, though he is one of the older ones in this, the lowest tier in little league. Somehow the yellow t-shirt with "Pirates" on it is too small on him, despite his size. He takes off his cap, straight black hair shining in the Great Plains summer sun, he gazing off somewhere beyond the foul line, toward the Coke stand. It is hot and there are no clouds. Dust in our nostrils at the beginning of July.
I come back from the refreshment stand to my sister in the bleachers carrying a couple of corn dogs with mustard.
"Maybe I shouldn't make him do this any more," Rose says. It's obvious to the parents on both teams that the boy in right field does not want to be there. Which is why he's in right field, though only for the required minimum two innings.
"It's good for him," I say. Though I'm not so sure it is. "And even if he hates it, he can't quit in mid-season. You want him to finish what he starts, right?"
Rose smiles condescendingly and takes a corn dog. She's the one who stayed, I'm the one who left the Platte, went east to the big city, seeking my fame and fortune—achieved, as it turned out, to a lesser rather than greater extent, teaching high school in the shadow of the Hog Butcher to the World. So did her husband the lawyer—left, that is, with his white BMW for Chicagoland, but that's another story. Mike is adopted. His real name is close to Mike in Vietnamese, too. Rose dips the corn dog into the pool of yellow mustard on her paper tray.
"Besides," I say. "Dad would have wanted him to."
She gives me a wounded look, but she knows I'm right. Our father couldn't play baseball or much of anything else because he had polio as a boy. And of course Nebraska didn't have a professional team of its own. The logical thing would have been to root for Kansas City but somehow the Royals never captured his imagination. Nor mine. We were Cubs fans, and here I've stayed loyal. Rooting for them to win the pennant is like rooting for World Peace. It might never happen, but it's still the right thing to do. Baseball gave me my first hero, Billy Williams. Me, white bread boy from near Edgar, NE and as far as I was concerned the greatest man in the world was a black man. When we would go to visit my uncle in Illinois, the three of us would go to see the Cubbies. We were at Wrigley Field the afternoon Rick Monday saved the American flag. Get you through the hardest times, baseball will. It's a waiting game, like the Cold War. And notice the fact that every time you turn around these days there's another Cuban pitcher defecting to the U.S. To me this proves that baseball is still a viable force in our culture. I've seen documentaries on public television showing that soon baseball will be young white men playing at a game with baroque rules and old white men watching. That's why we need the Cubans, and that's why we need Mike. "Diversity works," I tell my students in social studies class, "Believe it!" And baseball has seen our nation through some of its hardest times.
Case in point: A baseball game is where the American Secretary of State went when the East German leader Ulbricht went ahead with Khrushchev's plan to build a wall in Berlin. The American Ambassador to Germany was at a game, too. I try to bring it to life for my students, go into my GIs-at-Checkpoint-Charlie skit. A lazy August day. Hey, what's the neighbor up to? Looks like puttin' up a new fence. Tank barriers, too. Hmmm. Back in Washington they understood: grass is always greener on the other side of the platz. The State Department had already written that the GDR had to keep its volk from flying the coop somehow: And then the fun begins. I go into my Khrushchev routine, start flapping my hands around, pound my fists on the desk. In East Berlin we know there are spies from the West. Why make it so easy for them to avoid detection? They float back and forth between the zones of the city. Is it wise to give the cats free access to the cream, the goats free roam of the cabbage? If the GDR is really going to be a sovereign country, they better have proper immigration and border security. Up went the fence. Dilemma at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.: What to do? It wasn't as if the Russkies were moving on West Berlin. Finally JFK sent a parade of troops up the autobahn, the GIs even poked their green helmets around the wall. Tanks, jeeps, trucks, personnel carriers, bulldozers. Took a gander at the Soviet tanks parked in the alleys, looked at them from the wrong end of the barrel. But couldn't blink. Stalemate. Now what? This waiting game could go on for a long, long time.
Khrushchev was there incognito to take a look-see for himself how the project was progressing. He knew the Americans wanted to leave but didn't want to look bad, right? So a plan: Soviet tanks creeped back around the corner, gave the other guys a few minutes to run away. Twenty, Khrush said, twenty minutes and the Americans will be gone. And sure enough. It was a great victory for socialism: the economy improved, Western Berliners could no longer raid the East Berlin stores for cheaper prices and devalue the East German mark with the influx of their currency. And the dastardly spies from the West suddenly found their work more difficult.
"Do you understand," I ask my students, "what it means to be the enemy?"
A woman with Neiman Marcus baseball cap turns to me and says that oriental boy looks a little distracted. "I don't know if you've noticed, but some people don't understand this isn't knothole any more," she says. "It sure hurts the other boys if everyone doesn't give one hundred per cent."
My moment of delay between thought and expression: I got a hundred percent for you, lady. Right here.
"That's my son," Rose says. My big-hearted, full-lipped, full-hipped, pale-skinned sister.
And then my snappy comeback is too late, Rose's indignity moot. The kid at the plate cracks a line drive over the second baseman's head. Mike doesn't move. One bounce and then—thud—smack against his forehead. The ball ricochets right. Parents screaming, first baseman howling with his hands at his side. Center fielder pell-melling it after the ball as it rolls toward the fence. Mike staggers a bit. Drops his glove. Touches his hand to the forehead. Starts to whimper.
The woman in the NM cap doesn't say anything to us. Arches her brows meaningfully and whispers something to her companion.
I stand by the kitchen counter, slice a dozen lemons in half and, one by one, press them onto the white knob of the electric juicer. I scan the local paper as I juice the lemons, try not to get the pages too wet. Group of Russian cattle farmers visiting Iowa on a U.S. Government-sponsored program. Already visited Nebraska. Amazed, one of them says, at what they've seen. Here cows are fed corn. Not in Russia. If Khrushchev were in this kitchen reading this he would cry. He had collective farms planting corn in every blasted republic of the Soyuz, the length and breadth of the Warsaw Pact. He knew it made good silage. August '58 he stood there in the village of Schwaneberg in East Germany and poked at corn ears as fat as sausages, said, This means milk, butter, cheese, meat. It wasn't through arms that socialism would achieve victory, it was through superiority in agriculture and industry and a better way of life for the worker. It was through tractors and corn and steel. These were things my father understood, too.
The motor on the juicer whines, the juice runs down through the slats and into the pitcher below, pulp and seeds pile up on the sides. The pulp clogs the slats and I pinch fingerfulls out and throw them into the coffee can for the compost heap. I mix water, sugar, ice, pour into tall glasses and drop a couple raspberries into each. Rose will appreciate the flourish. Or at least say that she does.
The juicer, I tell my students, was Richard Nixon's favorite machine. They stare back at me blankly, the ones that are awake. Nixon? During Iran-Contra they were in diapers. They weren't even born when Elvis died. When I halve the lemons and impale the fruit on that ridged dome and the motor whines, I hear Vice President Nixon, loud and brash, saying, Look at what this can do. Fifty-two years ago this July, the two of them standing in the model American kitchen in Moskva, furnished by GE, we bring good things to life, a corporate movie set brought to show up the Soviets. He pushed a button on the counter and a dishwasher scooted out, he pushed another button and it rolled back into place. Click! and out came a floor polisher, shimmied and hummed and whirred its way around the kitchen, another button and the little robot chug-chugged back into its hiding place. K was fascinated by the machines, even the juicer. What he wanted right then was to take it apart and see how it worked. And yet, he didn't quite understand it in a philosophical way. I play both men for this performance.
"Why do you need it?"
Nixon laughed. "Convenience," he said. "Better living through technology—gives the devoted housewife more time to spend with her family."
K pulled out his pocket knife, sliced a wedge of lemon. "There," he said. "Squeeze this and—one, two, three—I have my lemon for my tea."
Now it was Nixon's turn to look puzzled. "Y-y-you don't understand, Mr. Khrushchev," he said. "This isn't for slicing lemons for tea."
"Don't Americans like to have lemon in their tea?"
"Of course," Nixon said. "Some do. They have that choice."
"Do they take milk like the British? You were their colonies, you know. You know about colonies?"
"The point is here, Mr. Khrushchev—the point is that with this"—he stroked the machine—"you can make lemonade. You can't just drop a slice of lemon in, like you can in a cup of tea. You need more juice."
Khrushchev stared at him blankly. It seemed a bit greedy, to drink all that juice at once when lemons are so expensive. Like putting so many cars on the roads until the highways are clogged with traffic and trees are dying from the pollution, when people wear gas masks to walk in the park. Instead a government could take responsibility for planning: you could take money spent on lemons and autos and build a metro, lay the tracks for trams, string the wires for trolleybuses.
"But that's not all," Nixon said. "Orange juice, grapefruit juice. Tangerines! Whatever citrus you desire. You have one of these, you walk out to your orange trees in the back yard like we have in California, you pluck some fruit fresh off the tree, you bring it inside and you slice it in half and squeeze it and bingo! fresh orange juice for breakfast. I'm telling you, Mr. Khrushchev, this is the way of the future. You got to get on board before the train leaves the station."
"Future?" K said. "You mean, despite your commercial for California citrus, that right now every American housewife isn't walking out every morning to her own personal orange tree and cutting it in half and using her electric juice-maker? Every home across America doesn't look like this kitchen? For example, the typical Negro does not live this way?"
"Well, no, not exactly."
"Not yet. But they will, someday soon. This kitchen is here to demonstrate the superiority of American technology."
"With these crazy contraptions?"
"You call them crazy contraptions. This is technology, Mr. Khrushchev. This is power." Slammed his fist into his open palm. "These'll keep a woman happy."
"I see," K said. "Now you're telling me that you know how to keep a woman happy and we don't."
"Now hold on, just a minute, I didn't say that."
Sniggers from the back row.
"Yes you did."
"No I—well, well what if I did?"
"We'll take you on any day," K said. "If the Americans want to go at it, the Soviets are ready. And let me remind you of something." Pause. Eyed the journalists crammed into the hallway leading to the kitchen. Glanced at the sky meaningfully. "Sputnik. Don't you remember? You thought it was a joke." K tapped the blender. "Which is funnier, Mr. Nixon? Does this machine go into space?"
Usually I get a complaint or two from a parent because of that bit about keeping a woman happy. History isn't G-rated, I confess, offer to lend them a copy of the tape if they want to listen to the exchange themselves.
My father used to front porch philosophize with a tall glass of lemonade in his hand, sat on the swinging chair and said that the way things were going, by the time I had a son, we would have personal jet packs and telephones with TV screens, so long as the Rooshans and the screwballs running the show in Washington didn't blow each other and the rest of us to kingdom come. He was aware of the tenuous hold we had on the earth. B-52s from SAC bigger than a barn roaring across the landscape of the Nebraska sky, ready for the day when the dead will rise in mushroom clouds, their atoms split and rearranged, ashes no longer ashes, dust no longer dust, all taken apart and fused into something new, molecules glowing and transformed. Legacy of the prairies tamed, landscape dotted with silos of alfalfa and MX missles. But he remembered when Khrushchev came to Iowa, remembered him wearing the white paper hat and posing for the photographers with a hot dog at a meat-packing plant in Dubuque. His father was three years dead by then, thanks to K. The Premier went out to visit that Garst fellow's farm and strode between the rows of corn, shook his head, said that the stalks were planted too close, not enough light would get down there. You don't have to tell me, Farmer Garst said. But that's the way the machine plants 'em, and we can't afford to plant by hand. He knew his business, that Khrushchev, my father said. Politics aside, you have to respect a man for that.
Drawing: A flying Saucer with four jets shooting flames out the bottom, a rocket resting on struts in the near background, craggy peaks in the distance, lunar city on the horizon, above them a full earth and a dark sky spread with stars.
How much would you spend to vacation on the Moon?
Out of today's space research come unexpected by-products—
perhaps even space travel for the average citizen…
When only explorers dared cross darkest Africa, few foresaw it as a future vacationland. Outer Space now stands in a similar position.
What will Lunar vacations cost? When rocket development is written off and we have nuclear power, a traveler may go for about the present price of a tiger hunt or African safari!
At Douglas Aircraft, builder of the big DC-8 jets, practical steps to bring this about began 14 years ago when Douglas engineers designed and engineered a feasible space platform. Today, with more than 20,000 rockets under its belt—including the Nike series and Thor, reliable Space Age workhorse—Douglas is deep in a series of space age studies: the moon as a military base…compact space huts…how will man react to the space environment…what useable natural resources to expect…and, always, more efficient rockets for military, scientific, and peaceful needs.
The Douglas concept of a complete support system has resulted in space research ranging from nuclear rockets to nutrition for space travelers.
Even the sleepers awake when I show that ad. Oh, the naivete. "When I was a kid," I inform them, "I thought by now we would have cars that fly."
MISSILE AND SPACE SYSTEMS • MILITARY AIRCRAFT • DC-8 JETLINTERS • TRANSPORT AIRCRAFT AIRCOMB™ • GROUND SUPPORT EQUIPMENT
I bring the lemonade to Rose and her son sitting on the porch. The boy is still wearing his little league uniform. Tears dried by now. Clean streaks down his dirty little face. A hell of a welt, too. You can almost make out the impressions of the stitching. But so far as Rose can tell, no concussion. The ricochet off his forehead cost the Pirates the game. One runner scored from first base. We haven't told Mike. But it was obvious enough from the long faces on the yellow-shirted boys in the parking lot when we climbed into the cab of the pickup, Rose spun the tires on the gravel and drove us home.
Mike's little body smells of sweat. First time I've noticed that. Not that I'm around that much, except in the summer time. The boy is growing up, one stutter-step at a time. Every year he makes it through without coming unglued I think that perhaps there might be a Great I Am upstairs after all and S/He might be kind. Mike's only half Vietnamese, for what it matters. Father was a veteran in Denver in a wheelchair until he put a .45 to his temple.
"Well," I say, and I hold up my glass. "What shall we toast to?"
Rose gives me a look which says that she is grateful for the lemonade and the raspberries but she knows what's coming, and please don't spoil this with a history lesson, something about Khrushchev trying to trick Nixon into toasting to the elimination of military bases on foreign lands.
Why the Cold War fixation? It's where the school year runs out in my classes on U.S. history, as close to the present as we get before the inmates and the guards are cut loose for 84 days. In truth, I'm about to say, Happy Jan Hus Day, and Rose will look at me like I'm nuts, Mike will frown, and I'll say he was a fifteenth-century religious reformer in what's now the Czech Republic and burned at the stake for his troubles, 587 years ago today. But Rose won't want any talk of papal indulgences or letters of passage from Emperor Zykmund not being honored, no mention, please, on the front porch tonight of men being roasted for failing to recant.
"To summer," I say, and we click our glasses.
Mike chews on his lip and sips his lemonade, looks glumly at his dusty cleats and taps a toe against a heel. Rose asks him if he wants to practice piano. He shakes his head. Normally she wouldn't let it go at that. She would say, Maybe I shouldn't have put it in the form of a question. But the boy has a fat lump on his head and says they all hate him. No they don't, Rose insists. But, knowing boys, I'd say they do.
The purple lilacs in front of the house smell resplendent. Plot development in the afternoon sky: clouds beginning to roll in, ozone in the air, rumors of a thunderstorm, buzzing of insects. The land needs the rain, we want the heat to break. Still, I'd rather the storm held off until dark, rather sit out here and barbecue steaks, savor the sharpness of the lighter fluid in my nostrils when I ignite the coals, the roasting flesh sizzling on the grill. The three-bean salad has been marinating since morning. I ask Mike if he'd like to make some ice cream. He shakes his head but I'm not convinced. I haul out the ice cream maker anyway. It's a beast to carry. But Rose likes things big and old-fashioned. She wears the same size dresses as Marilyn Monroe: fourteen. Hair not quite the same color. More a dirty blonde which on occasion she's dyed red. I keep meaning to tell her that the Russian tabloids have started carrying an exposé series on her love trysts with Khrushchev, including 36 hours in a motel in California.
My father never went to the Soviet Union. His father did. Only for six weeks, but that was long enough to put some meat on the bones of his FBI file. He came back and wrote a book that they published in Moskva: In a Collective Farm Village. It's been out of print since before WWII. Hard to find these days. Down in the Ukraine, Grandpops wrote, halfway between Kiev and Odessa, I had the chance to spend a month on a collective farm called Lenin's Way. He made it sound so idyllic. The pupils are eager, the teachers alert. I like to quote that passage to my students. My favorite section is about Maria Demchenko the Beet Queen, from Brigade Number Eight in a collective farm in the Kherson region. She gathered chicken manure throughout the village, worked barefoot in the fields and lived at home with her parents and two other children. In 1934 she made more and bigger sugar beets grow on a hectare of land than any other person in the country. For that she was invited to Moskva to meet Stalin, met with workers in the factories, spoke on the radio, promised to exceed the achievements the next year. She came home and quickly filled a suitcase with fan mail—more than any Hollywood star, Grandpops wrote. One soldier wrote asking for her photograph and she wrote back that she couldn't send a photograph to everyone who asked. He wrote again, said she was right, she shouldn't send one to everyone—just send one to him.
He wanted to believe, Grandpops. In 1929 collectivization began, following Stalin's slogan: On the basis of mass collectivization, liquidate the kulaks as a class. He liquidated himself after Khrushchev's secret speech. Shotgun in his mouth, ala Hemingway. I give him credit for owning up to his complicity. He could have just declared he was a Trotskyite and kept on keeping on, but that wouldn't have brought back the millions who died in the famine. Neither did his suicide, but it seemed to me more fitting and proper. Someday I'll tell Mike.
At the front of the classroom I plant myself in a chair, let the dull expression of a TV-gazer settle over my face, stare out at my charge. The first April when he was a private pensioner, retired for health reasons and no longer First Secretary, Khrushchev's family gave him a brand-spanking-new console color TV to replace the black-and-white Nasser had sent home with him from Egypt. He scolded the family for the expense. But he would sit for hours gazing at the multicolored lines of the test pattern, the brilliance of the hues.
"Color is coming into our lives," he would say in the morning, "in ways we used to only dream of. Don't you see?"
He likened the color of the television to the multi-colored map of the world that hung on the wall behind it. With a pen he would write with delight the names of the new independent countries coming into existence in Africa. Colonialism was dying, just as he had proclaimed at the UN. He even took to painting the countries in new shades and inking in the names, cutting out of multicolored paper the new flags, gluing them onto the border where all the flags of the world were lined up row upon row. He would sit there looking at his television and the map in the nights when he couldn't sleep. Then he had a heart attack, and then he died. Nixon lasted another twenty years. It was a stroke which got him. Same with my father.
I come into the living room to turn over the Peggy Lee record I'd put on. Something for Rose on the front porch, alongside the silent ice cream maker. Mike is inside, still in his uniform, sitting on the floor too close to the television, he perched on top of his mitt for a pad, his legs splayed out on either side so they remind me of chicken wings. He's watching the picture with the sound turned down. It's a console a far sight older than he is, three times as heavy. The tired old beast still works in color, but faded and blurry. Right now, though, no hues at all for Mike, just darks and lights: it's a black and white movie. This is where the adult is supposed to say to the child that it's such a waste to be inside watching television. But no. Tomorrow we'll go back to scolding him. Besides, there's a scene I recognize, so I stop and watch, too, stand there next to the record player with the LP cradled in my fingertips and Mike turns around, looks at me, says nothing, turns back to the television. It's near the end of the film. A posse of men with rifles and shotguns stand in front of a farmhouse, they are burning corpses.
"This is the film where the dead rise and walk and eat the living," I say.
Mike nods without turning around. "I've seen it before."
I don't stay for the end. I watched the film as a child, sleeping over at Corky Shimerda's place. It scared the bejeezus out of both of us. We were in a farmhouse just like that one. Who would there be around to help us if the zombies came to eat us? Now it is the ending, the one I don't watch this time around, which scares me: lone survivor looks out the window of the farmhouse where he and others had taken refuge during the night and fought off the zombies. Outside sheriff and deputized townfolk. Somehow then I imagined that the same thing would happen to me one day. Crawl from the wreckage of a nightmare and they take me for what I'm not. Bang. The survivor goes down, a single bullet through the head. A small consolation that there were many worse ways to die.
In the kitchen Nixon showed Khrushchev the juicer and the rest of the gadgets cluttering the room. K sliced his wedge of lemon, gave Nixon a friendly punch in the stomach. "Don't you have a machine that picks up food and puts it in your moth and pushes it down? Why do you keep showing me things that serve no purpose? Gadgets." He waved his hand in the air. "We have a saying: If you have bedbugs you have to catch one and pour boiling water into the ear."
Nixon puzzled on that one a minute. "We have another saying: A sure way to kill a fly is to make it drink whisky. But we have a better use for whisky."
"I've never seen a fly drink whisky. But I've seen a bear drink cognac. And a rat drink vodka: old women in our village used to give it vodka-soaked crusts of bread. If he'd come out and there wasn't any waiting for him one day at lunch, he'd run back and forth, stand on his hind legs and beg. After he'd eat he'd lie by the entrance to his nest, singing and squeaking softly, paws up in the air."
"You're pulling my leg, Mr. Khrushchev."
"You mean hanging noodles on your ears. But I'm not. I even once saw a cat lap up some vodka before it took a bite of cucumber."
"True story, Mr. Nixon. True story."
Mike is still in uniform for dinner. He eats half of his steak, which I take as a good sign. Leaves a good-sized pool of steak sauce and I know Rose wants to scold him, tell him he has to finish what he takes: In this house, in case you've forgotten, young man, we don't waste food like that. But Rose, bless her, bites her tongue. We eat raspberries and cream and I show photos from my trip through the Rockies a week ago. Wildflowers resplendent on a hillside, yellows and blues and the brilliant green grass. Craggy peaks. The orange VW bus parked beside a snow bank. In July. Rose says she'd like to roll around in that snow bank right now. Mike has already finished his berries and asks if there are some more. He says he can't wait until winter. He asks if this year they can go to the mountains and he can learn how to ski like everybody else.
"Everybody else doesn't know how to ski," Rose says. "Like me. I don't."
Mike gets up heavily, feeling the injustice of the world on his shoulders once more, and fetches another bowl of raspberries for himself. Rose sighs, slaps her hands against her thighs. "But it's never too late to learn," she announces to the front yard. Then to me: "Right?"
"Some day it will be too late," I say. "But not yet."
Mike comes back, slouches once more into his chair. Rose tells him that we just agreed to spend Christmas in the mountains, and what does he think of that?
He says he wishes it was Christmas right now.
I tell them I'll be right back.
Without fail, I've overindulged myself, run out of time for the curriculum: ten minutes to go and I haven't even brought Mr. Khrushchev to America, the U-2s still flying too high for SAMs to reach them, taking snapshots of dams and missile installations. We're not even going to try for the Missiles of October, we'll take a stroll where we looked into the abyss for the first time. So quickly: fast forward through August '59, land K on the tarmac in September, present Eisenhower with a model of the rocket which the day before became the first to land on the moon—Yes, that's right, the Soviet Union was there first, boys and girls—borrow Ike's 707 and jet from the East Coast to the West, attend a luncheon at 20th Century Fox, temper tantrum because the secret service won't let him visit Disneyland, instead they take him to a couple new shopping malls; attend a banquet that night where the Mayor of Los Angeles treats him more like a circus bear than the leader of the Great Soviet State. Bury us indeed, Mayor Poulson said. The people of the Soviet Union can't afford palm trees and sunshine and electric juicers. You have to wait ten years to get a car. Twenty for an apartment. And a phone? Forget it. They don't even live in houses. Imagine if you had to wait ten years to get a car in America. It'd be out of style five years before you even drove it. That's communism for you.
What I try to explain: that we are here but for the grace of God, fortune's wheel, cosmic dice, whatever you want to call it. We could be conducting these classes in coal mines, while the fallout from the exchange still poisons the atmosphere above, I telling a cave full of bored students of the fabled time of life on the surface, Had only the angels dipped their wings and showed us mercy.
Khrushchev stood, pointed an accusing finger at the Mayor. "If you don't want me here, Mr. Mayor of Los Angeles, I'm ready to go home. And if you really want to see who's better, which country is more powerful, we are ready. The Soviet Union is not a caged bear. This is a bear with claws. And it knows how to use them. If you want a continuation of the arms race, so be it. You think the Cold War is profitable for you, then go ahead. Let us compete. We are ready. Already our rockets come off the assembly line like sausages. But I believe it is much better to live in peace than to live with loaded pistols. Three times this century we have had foreign troops on our land. Three times. And three times we have sent them home with their tails between their legs. The American troops, too. I am ready to go home any time if I am not wanted. But not with my tail between my legs. That will happen when shrimp learn to whistle. Even your bloated American shrimp, the ones you eat when you're strutting around in your Cadillac that your backers gave you as a present because they promised to if you ran for mayor. Why don't we talk about that? And I'll tell you something else. If there is a war, all Americans will feel it and will whimper like kicked dogs. One missile, boom!"—he waved his arms, tried to help the dinner guests imagine a flattened city—"and there wouldn't ever be any movies in Hollywoodland ever again. No palm trees. No lemons for your juicing contraptions." He picked up a plate of cream puffs. "You see, we are not soft, like these pastries. Lenin said that when a man thrusts with a bayonet and strikes mush, he keeps pushing." He poked a puff with a dessert fork. Then banged the tines head-on against the plate. "When he strikes steel, he stops. You will notice that you have hit steel."
Across the table, the American ambassador's wife was in tears. Bayonets, steel, hiding in mines, Khrushchev looking like he was ready to lob the whole plate of cream puffs at the Mayor. "There's going to be a war," she wailed. "And it's all the mayor's fault."
Khrushchev sat down. "You may be right," he said. "There may be a war and it will be his fault. The thought creeps up on me that you brought Khrushchev here to enable you to rub him in your sauce, to make him shake at the knees. Do you see him shaking now?"
The bell rings.
"Enjoy your summer!" I holler over the noise of chairs scraping on the floor. "Do things to remember."
I holler to Mike and Rose from beside the porch. "I brought you something from the mountains!" Lob the first snowball, it explodes on the floorboards at their feet.
"Hurry up!" I call. "They're melting."
Mike's already scrambling down the steps and toward me with my dish of once-snowballs, now ice, fresh from the freezer. Rose is right behind him. He takes the first one and throws it, misses, she goes after it in the grass and throws back. Hits me on the leg. I lob one skyward toward Rose and she opens her hand, waits for it to complete its arc. Her attention diverted, Mike pelts her a hard one right on the belly. Three more, and then two, throwing and missing, retrieving the diminishing iceballs from the grass, they vanishing in our fingertips. Tiny bits of ice now, no bigger than golf balls. A pellet splatters against the back of my neck; I turn around to salvage the remnants, but there's nothing left.