Rumpus Exclusive: An Excerpt from Moscow at Midnight



Max glanced around the bright hall. The six orderly queues. The new booths, shiny and cheap. Like witness stands. He groaned. He could be anywhere: Frankfurt, Bangkok. Not at home, he thought. Dulles, with its grimy carpeting, stale smell of fast food shops and broken people movers, was unmistakable.

Max toyed with the navy blue passport. An old trick. He flashed the golden eagle imprint so his neighbors could see it, if they wanted to—it was the best way to satisfy, and thus dispel, their curiosity. He shifted the weight of the leather briefcase in his left hand. Nonchalant. His suit was a passport of its own. Max had had it made in Berlin, in a dark little shop off Ku’Damm with a bent German tailor and old-fashioned fixtures. Halfway through the fitting, the little brass bell over the door announced a new arrival, and from the dressing room, Max caught a glimpse of the man. Heavyset. Max pegged him as American, the way he carried himself. Shoulders forward, head down, ready at any moment for the salesman’s duck-and-weave. Belly out: a man unashamed of his appetites. The stranger picked up three suits, sheathed in plastic, and walked out into the summer rain before the tailor called Max back out for his fitting. Something about the fat man struck Max as familiar, but he hadn’t been able to place it.

When it was his turn, Max presented his passport to the girl behind the counter. She was young and, under the stark lines of her blue cap, very pretty. A lock of dark hair had escaped the blue cap, and fell to her temple. Her navy uniform was belted, military.

An etched nametag, brown and beige, was clipped to her breast. She didn’t so much as glance at Max.

“Passport,” she said, curtly.

“Yelena Victorovna!” said Max. When she showed no sign of response, he leaned in, and whispered, “Why are you always breaking my heart?”

“Reason for travel?” she said, eyes fixed on the passport in her hands.

“Business,” sighed Max.

“Last date of entry into the Russian Federation?”

“It’s been thirteen months, Lenochka. If I could have come sooner, I would have.”

“Proposed length of stay?”

“If you were mine, I’d never leave.” The girl coughed, a frown appearing on her brow. Max added, quickly, “But it looks like three weeks. Depending on how business goes.”

The girl flipped through the pages of the passport, stopping at the business visa glued to a page in the middle. She nodded once and grasped the stamp on her desk. It came down heavily, a click and a thud, one-two. Only then did Yelena Victorovna Krasnobaeva, Moscow’s prettiest immigration official, glance up at him. Her eyes were like a cat’s, large and arresting, light brown. She handed Max back his passport and said with an enchanting smile, “We’ve missed you, Mr. Rushmore.”

And that was done. Max was in. He noticed he was sweating. Get it together, Maxyboy, he told himself. You’re back in the game, so you better play. Squaring his shoulders, Max breached the gauntlet of men in undertakers’ suits clutching handwritten signs and gained the lobby. Pyramids of luggage, checkers and leopard stripes, taped shut and tied together, teetered precari- ously in the lobby. A row of cash machines, lined up like casino slots.

Through the glass doors, past the sulky men in gray leather jackets and the skinny drivers lurking by their shiny Korean cars and marshrutka buses, Max saw that it was still summer. The sky overhead was gray, but the air was warm and heavy, with a mild, sulfurous smell. Just a note of diesel, pleasingly organic. Max hailed a beat-up Lada and told the driver to take him to the city.

They drove fast. An unexpected feeling of freedom came over Max, washing through his body. As if he could feel it too, the driver—a hulk of a man—started talking. He was from Georgia. Out in the countryside. Had come to Moscow because there was no work. “Here there’s not always work,” he said. “But there, there’s none.” He reached his big hand between Max’s knees. Max jumped. “Don’t worry young man,” said the Georgian as he pulled open the glove compartment. “Ha ha, what did you think?”

He extracted a photograph of a woman with dark hair pulled back in a red handkerchief. Her face was deeply lined; she didn’t smile. On her lap was a little boy. The Georgian held the glossy paper in his thick, brutal fingers for a long moment, studying it, his other hand on the steering wheel. They rushed past a freight truck that lay beside the road, wheels in the air still spinning. The Georgian didn’t slow.

“My family,” he said, handing the photo to Max. Wife, son. “Lovely,” said Max. “Beautiful.”
The fields on either side of the highway were green and lush.

Ragged at the edges, weedy, but full of life. Here and there a grove of birches reared up, their spindly white trunks like God’s chalk marks. Max started to relax. He could feel it in his throat where, just half an hour before, a lump had spontaneously appeared, blocking his intake of air no matter how many times he tried to swallow it away. Now his breath came easily. He had stopped sweating. The muscles at the back of his neck relaxed.

He handed the driver back the photo, which the man stuck up under the visor, and then Max sat back and watched the fields until they ended. A billboard standing in the middle of one of the last empty spaces read, ‘Coming Soon Elite Mansions’. Max shrugged. Past that came the first outskirts: blocks of housing, concrete high rises, abandoned-looking supermarkets. Sputnik Palace, a defunct movie theater. The city began. Concrete block after concrete block. Max’s heart lifted, a little. He was in. He was back. He was ok.

“Europe?” said the Georgian. “America?”

Max nodded. “American.”

“You like Russia?”

“Sure,” said Max. Without knowing why, he tightened his grip on the leather case.

“I can tell,” said the Georgian, with a smile that showed his missing teeth. Then he frowned. “Maybe it’s nice for a rich guy like you. The girls must go crazy-crazy for such a handsome one! But for us… it’s not such a good place. Dangerous.” He laughed. “But if you get too rich it’s dangerous for you, too. Real dangerous.”

Max nodded. “I’m not that rich,” he said.

The driver glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. Sizing him up. Rich beyond the Georgian’s dreams, yes. Rich enough to get in trouble, no. At a stoplight the Georgian nodded at three women standing on the corner.

“The girls are at work,” he said with a chuckle—of approval or camaraderie, Max couldn’t tell. Max grunted: not interested.

The light changed and the Georgian sped on. They crossed the river, and the Lada’s cracked windshield framed a sudden, glittering borealis of church domes. Beyond, the red stars of the Kremlin came into view. The sky had cleared, and the golden domes caught the light, gleaming against the pale blue sky. Early evening—Max’s heart leapt, in spite of himself, again.

As if he had just made a decision, Max said, “Drop me at Red Square.”

The Georgian shrugged. It was all the same to him.


Rumpus original art by Mark Armstrong.


Excerpted from Moscow at Midnight by Sally McGrane. Published by Contraband, May 1, 2018. Copyright © 2018 by Sally McGrane. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Sally McGrane was born in Berkeley, CA, and lives in Berlin. She writes about culture, business, science, art and technology in Russia, Ukraine, and Western Europe for the New York Times and the New Yorker. Moscow at Midnight is her first novel. More from this author →