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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The jail




Pete Singer was led out into a long room subdivided into small cubicles, each with a plastic chair, a metal wall phone and a Plexiglas window. Lena and his mother were already sitting on the other side of one of the windows. Pete slumped into his chair (all right, he got a little push from the guard) and stared out through the Plexiglas and fingerprints at the concerned and tired faces of the women in his life. He was in no hurry to pick up the phone.


We'll give Pete the time to get up the courage to face the web of lies he has created in the two months he has spent in Moscow, and, while he is at it, we will consider the question of how Pete Singer, the underqualified, overrated and underpaid editor of a Russian English-language magazine, has ended up behind bars. In summary, virtually overnight Pete had become Moscow's best-known journalist. He wrote what could only be read as inane sophomoric editorials, which, miraculously, predicted government policy better than all the Kremlinologists ever trained in the United States taken together. He wasn't sure how he did it, but he was beginning to suspect his powers of perception.


Then an enterprising Pravda reporter writing under the unlikely name of Pyotr Pevtsov called up Pete's mother, who, it turned out, had thought all along that her son was on a long bicycle trip somewhere in Florida, which is, in all truth, where he probably belonged. Then Pete went a little off the deep end and accidentally printed the translation of Pyotr's expos? in Progress, the magazine he edited. Then his mother, who got his phone number from good old Pyotr, called to say she was coming to Moscow "to have a talk" with him, which, he thought, was a little extreme. But he went to pick her up at the airport. He was early. Her plane was late. He wandered around and stared at the magazines on the newsstand. He saw his own bespectacled face topped with his own silly Yankees cap staring at him from the cover of some thick glossy magazine. The headline was in two languages: "I Ran Away From Mama to Become a Spy."


After he saw the headline, Pete did the second utterly inexplicable, virtually insane thing in a week: He reached over the salesman's head and pushed those magazines off the rack, in the process destroying a third of the display. The police, who were standing a couple of meters away checking someone's documents, sauntered over, twisted Pete's arms behind his back and led him away to their little office in the airport, where they put him in a little cage with one other guy. By the time an interpreter came in, Pete had calmed down and offered to pay a fine, apologize to the salesman, repair the damage. But the policeman speaking to him was doing this strange-looking thing with his eyes, where he kept looking at Pete and then down at his photo on the cover of that magazine, then at Pete, then down. Finally, he said, "Eto ochen' seryozno," which even Pete understood meant some serious stuff. He was handcuffed to a policeman, led out to a jeep and transported to jail.


It was a couple of days in smelly solitary before a lawyer came in to explain to Pete that he was facing charges of espionage, based in part on his editorials and in part on the compass watch found on him when he was arrested. To make matters worse, he was here on a visa from a newspaper that had folded, had taken an apartment on the outskirts of town and hadn't registered. It would be a tough case, the lawyer had told him, and it might take a while.


Pete picked up the telephone. "Hi, Mom."


"Petie, how are they treating you?"


"Fine, Mom, I have my own room and everything." He itched all over.


"I'm sure this will all be over soon," his mother clucked.


"Yes, Mom." Pete felt like he was getting wiser. He didn't think it would all be over soon.


"And, sweetie, I just love Lena. We get along so well. You'll be out shortly, I'm sure, and then we'll talk about the wedding."


Lena gave him a big fake American smile from behind the Plexiglas. Pete closed his eyes. His lids itched too. He started imagining what Lena would say to him when he got out -- about lying to his mother, saying that she was his girlfriend, that they were engaged, for God's sake. Then he imagined getting married to Lena. He hadn't felt like his life was his own in weeks. But whoever this life really belonged to, it was certainly interesting and full of adventure, and, perhaps, it would have its rewards.