Authors: Thomas Mallon
FOR JOSEPH GRAMLEY
October 15, 1991
U.S. Embassy, Tallinn, Estonia
“Very snazzy, Mr. Fuller.”
“Very retro,” replied the deputy chief of mission. “Not my tie,” he added, giving both ends of the black bow a last adjustment. “Your ‘snazzy.’” He turned around to face Ms. Boyle. “It’s a long time since I’ve heard that one.”
“I suppose I could say you look ‘baaad.’”
Ms. Boyle, Hawkins Fuller imagined, was just on the sunny side of forty, old enough to know “snazzy” and young enough to know “baaad,” though for that matter, even he, at sixty-six, knew that “baaad” meant “good.”
She lingered a moment, the way women still did in the presence of Hawkins Fuller, imagining when the full head of silvery hair had been black, the way the eyebrows still were, in Gregory Peck–style contrast. But Mr. Fuller was better-looking than Gregory Peck.
He, too, lingered for a moment, prolonging the familiar comfort of admiration. “These,” he finally said, pointing to the stack of badly printed telexes near the edge of his desk: “
bad. Not ‘baaad.’ Just lousy.”
“I know,” sighed Ms. Boyle, who doubted that the embassy, still being flung together, would be getting even internal e-mail anytime soon. “But that guy’s been working miracles with the phones. They’re twenty times better than last week. The ambassador talked to Brussels and Washington twice today. Clear as a bell both times. And here,” she said, darting back out to her desk and returning with some regular mail from the pouch. “A primitive but reliable means of communication.” She could see that the envelopes were personal, so she set them down unopened and left with a friendly marching order: “Don’t dawdle. Lucy will be downstairs in five minutes.”
He wondered how many years ago Ms. Boyle would still have been saying “Mrs. Fuller” instead of “Lucy.”
“All right,” he replied. “And if I do dawdle”—he always did; the shambling and the daydreaming made his good looks even more appealing—“just buzz me, Miss Blue.”
Ms. Boyle looked puzzled.
“Ah,” said Fuller. “That one you
too young for.”
She left, smiling as she closed the door, leaving Fuller to pick up the two bright-orange envelopes atop the pile of mail she’d just placed on his desk: Halloween cards, a little early, from the grandchildren in Potomac. Farther down the stack, a letter from Lucy’s Realtor in D.C., about that house in Chevy Chase she was determined to buy.
They’d be home for good in another year, and he’d finally take up the half-time job being held for him at the Carnegie Endowment. Odd to find himself here, in the meantime, helping out with the New World Order. He was supposed to have wound up his career last spring, after the six years in Bulgaria. It had never been that
of a career, and he’d never much minded that, but as he looked out on the darkening Gulf of Finland, he seemed compelled to make a fast review of it, as if it were one of the checking-for-Alzheimer’s exercises that Lucy wanted to add to their breakfast regimen of bran muffins and Centrum Silver tablets.
All right: the six years in Bulgaria; the four before that in D.C.; the four years prior to those at the U.S. mission to the UN. Which put you back in the mid- and late seventies—some luck for
to be the era when they finally got posted to New York! And yet, for all the fiscal calamity and crime (that awful broad-daylight hour when Lucy came home with a bruised cheek and no purse), he’d ridden the handbasket through some interesting stops on its way to hell. At fifty, he’d been too old, really, for the underground pleasures that were suddenly so unpoliced. But his looks had granted him an extension, allowed him occasional, plausible entry to the throbbing middle-of-the-night world west of West Street. It
been some luck, a portion of his lifetime’s worth, to have made it home from those forays without so much as a hangover, let alone the time-released fate that would now be necessitating one of those humiliating obits with their mention of a “long illness” or “pneumonia” that even Lucy, behind her newspaper and bran muffin, could manage to decode.
But I digress, he thought, resuming the fast, reassuring rewind. He reached the six years in Austria (Nixon mostly); then the four in Sweden, where the draft dodgers had more social status than the embassy people, who ran down LBJ as much as they decently could while shaking their heads and nibbling the host’s gravlax. And before that? The fourteen years, 1952 to ’66, right in Foggy Bottom in the State Department’s Bureau of Congressional Relations, where he would have been happy to stay forever, until Lucy decided that he should use his small accumulations of clout and connectedness to effect a shift, at the age of forty, from the civil to the foreign service. It was time for them to see the world, she had decreed.
And that was it, a life span so well recollected, he decided, there was no need to do the date ranges for the early sojourns in Oslo and Paraguay, let alone Harvard and the navy and St. Paul’s. Nope, no Alzheimer’s for Mrs. Fuller’s little boy. Tomorrow morning he’d tell Lucy to skip the muffins and to scramble some eggs in an aluminum skillet.
He wondered: When they got home, would there be bus service from Maryland down to the Carnegie on Massachusetts Avenue? During his last period at State—’81 to ’85, Reagan I, thank you very much—he had never gotten the hang of the new Metro, whose underground rumblings had, in any case, never been permitted to disturb Georgetown. He was wishing that Lucy would just let them go back
and forget about this pile in Chevy Chase, when he noticed the small white envelope addressed in a feminine hand with the neatness of his wife’s generation.
One of her Wellesley pals? Maybe, though he couldn’t recall any Russell in Scottsdale, Arizona. Only after another few seconds did he see that the letter was for himself and not his wife. So he slit it open—and soon heard himself saying
Tim Laughlin died September 1 in a Catholic hospital in Providence, Rhode Island. He was 59 and had been sick for some time. I heard from him often—almost never saw him, but counted him a good friend.
I don’t know whether you pray (I myself don’t), but if you do, I know that, even now, he would appreciate your prayers.
Whatever the case, I thought you should know.
Mary (Johnson) Russell
It had been more than thirty years since he’d talked to either one of them, and it was easier, now, to think of her first.
She had never called him Hawkins. She’d thought it a preposterous first name and told him so, said “the last shall be first” and that he would be “Fuller” with her, under any and all circumstances. He’d replied that she didn’t know the half, that “Hawkins” was really his middle name, “Zechariah” being the first. And they’d laughed, she with the sharp glint in her eye that sometimes made him call her
not because the glint was passionate but because it declared, so plainly, that you, Z. Hawkins Fuller, shall not pass. It wasn’t the castle of sex from which Mary Johnson had barred him during their long non-affair; that had never really been at issue. It was any sort of confidence she had barred him from. It was her trust.
He put her letter back in its envelope, and the envelope into a drawer, a different drawer from the one into which he’d put the grandchildren’s cards and the Realtor’s letter.
Poor, sad, merry little Tim, he thought, looking at the clock. AIDS, of course.
He stood up and walked into the outer office.
“You beat my summons by ten seconds,” said Ms. Boyle. “She’s downstairs.”
And so she was. Almost as slim as she’d been at Wellesley; her hair, now a silvery gold, in the same thick little pageboy she’d always worn; her outfit the one she’d explained to him at breakfast. A robin’s-egg-blue jacket over a white blouse above a black skirt: add it up and you had the Estonians’ new, which was to say old, tricolor flag. No one would expect the number-two man’s wife to go to this sort of trouble, and no one would fail to notice how much prettier she was than the number-one man’s wife.
“So,” said Lucy, smiling brightly as she brushed down a couple of unruly stalks in her husband’s eyebrow, “Ms. Boyle tells me the mails are coming through.”
“Yes,” said her husband. “Neither rain, nor sleet, nor geopolitical convulsion…”
Lucy continued to smile, brushing Hawkins’ lapels and enjoying the way two or three of the Estonian wives here in the reception hall were noticing her spousal attentions. Perhaps they were deciding she and Hawkins looked like that older couple in the Ralph Lauren ads. Hadn’t a Polo shop opened up in Tallinn? Almost everything else already seemed to have arrived.
“Your Realtor wants us to go a little higher,” said Fuller.
Realtor, dearest.” She performed one last primp, pulling down Hawkins’ right cuff. He, too, knew that she was showing off their extended youth and vigor, as if freedom were a good brand of moisturizer they had wisely chosen long ago.
This is what you’ve been missing for fifty years,
she seemed to be saying to the Estonians, less from patriotism than personal pride.
Fifty years? thought Fuller. More like all but twenty of the last five hundred. Who
rolled over this place? First the Swedes; later the Germans; only after that the Russians.
Having at last let go of her husband, Lucy now clasped both hands of the foreign minister’s wife, exclaiming over her like a sorority sister who’d finally made it back for a reunion. Fuller took a glass of champagne from one of the waiters and moved away from the center of the room.
Though guests were still arriving, the American ambassador had already begun his toast to the embassy’s reopening, and all at once Fuller thought he could recall a party he’d gone to maybe thirty-five years ago, at the Estonians’ “embassy” in Washington, a sad little outpost shared by one of the other two captive Baltic nations. A handful of unlucky young fellows from State had been sent into a room full of smoked fish and stained suits to keep company with the exiles, to smile at them as if they were a girl with polio that everyone pretended would one day, somehow, get up out of that chair and walk again. Was it possible he’d brought Mary Johnson that night? Then taken her home in a cab and kissed her, on the cheek, before ten p.m.?
The ambassador was speaking of the long, unbroken “legal continuity” of U.S.-Estonian relations, as if the crippled girl had in some manner gone on dancing all along. But now they could all welcome her “peaceful return to the family of nations that are free in
” Applause, while Fuller mused upon how this return had very nearly not been peaceful at all. The Lithuanians, the first to flex their muscles after the wall came down, had driven Gorby into a real Stalinist snit, and Tallinn was lucky to have escaped the nasty thrashing, however futile, he’d dished out to Vilnius.
Now the ambassador tried a bit of wordplay, sparsely appreciated, about the speed with which Estonia had gone from being a “captive” nation to a “most-favored” one. He went on to recount the astonishing events of the past two months: the failed coup in Moscow; the U.S.S.R.’s panicked recognition of the Baltic nations’ independence; the UN’s offer of seats to the three of them. The ambassador continued on, even as a murmur of bored chatter began to rise on the periphery of his audience. Fuller felt a tug at his elbow, from a young man eager to introduce him to a “formerly persecuted intellectual” who was now helping to draft the constitution. And once the ambassador officially subsided, this same avid introducer told Fuller it was “a great imperative” that he should meet the grizzled old man now being pulled toward him.
“Yes, of course,” said Fuller, smiling and shaking the old man’s hand. He understood that here was one of the “forest brotherhood” who after the war had refused to come in from the cold and accept the Soviets’ dominion, preferring instead to remain hidden in the woods. Not guerrillas, exactly; more, Fuller thought, like those Japanese soldiers who would turn up on a Pacific island, decades after the war, still hanging on to the fresh shirt they were convinced they’d wear on the day the emperor took the Americans’ surrender. Of course, these forest brothers had
the war was over, and still they’d stayed out there eating bark and twigs—a mystery to Fuller, who was pleased when the old man, looking hungry even now, relaxed his grip.
The guest list sent over by the Estonians had been overwhelmingly indigenous, whereas State, good sports as always, had made sure to add a dozen or so of the old occupying Russians, like the one Fuller was being introduced to now, a florid, white-haired man who’d spent the last thirty years running a phosphate mine—and five hundred people’s lives—in the northeastern part of the country. Fuller heard “phosphate” and made a joke about the fizz in his second glass of champagne; the Russian smiled uncomprehendingly, until a young man from the Foreign Ministry who’d just joined them translated the English remark—into Russian. Fuller realized that after three decades here, this amiable backpedaler, who had raised his glass higher than anyone else to the ambassador’s toast, knew fewer words of Estonian than Lucy had made it her business to acquire on the plane to Tallinn.
“Mr. Deputy Chief,” said the young Foreign Ministry man, “my pleasure it is to present Mr. Lennart Meri.”
Fuller had been briefed on this polymath: a writer, a film director, and now the foreign minister himself. Meri was, Fuller now assured him, handsome enough to be in front of the camera as well as behind.
“And look who is talking!” replied the minister. In another minute the two of them were arranging to have lunch—“anything but you Americans with your
!”—at the Stikliai Hotel.
A man who’d been with the more conservative wing of the Popular Front interrupted them. An advocate, until recently, of “autonomy” rather than full-blown independence, he was in as much of a rush as the Russian phosphate boss to ingratiate himself with the new reality. Fuller, displaying the same wide, whitened smile he did for everyone else, welcomed the gentleman into the circle that was forming around him.