Issue #7, Spring 1996



The argument goes on in lazy circles under the ancient fan that hangs from the ceiling like a great slow propeller, crawling through the hot dry air above the desk of the border official, taking us nowhere. As I argue, the tan-uniformed official pokes through my trunk of books, turning over the works of Shaw, Shakespeare, Aristophanes, a copy of Don Quixote, and many volumes more, as if seeking hidden treasure.


Taking a deep breath I begin again, in Spanish that is rapidly decaying in the heat. "Yes, Señor, I am willing to pay for the tourist card I need, and a little something for your trouble, but as you see, I have only traveler's checks, and if you will not cash them, I cannot buy the tourist card. Nor can I use the tourist card from the nation I have left, since they have already collected it on their side of the border. Nor can I use a passport because I do not have a passport. My travel agent (may his soul rotate forever on the baggage belts at O'Hare) assured me that as a U.S. citizen, all I needed to visit your two nations was a birth certificate and a tourist card." "And you have the certificate," says the border official, smiling up from the trunk with very white teeth, "so all you need is a tourist card!" And I tell him I am very willing to buy one, very willing. "So give me the money," he says. "But I told you," I explain, "I have only the traveler's checks." "But Señor," he says pointedly, the smile growing even sharper, "I have already explained, we cannot possibly cash your traveler's checks unless you have a passport or a tourist card for identification!"


I have a vision of being here forever, sharing this room with the fly that lands again and again on the portrait of El Presidente on the wall as if it were something to eat. This, I think, as the argument re-enters the cycle, is how Don Quixote must have felt as the vane of the windmill lifted him high into the Spanish sky only to plunge him back toward the fields below. "Señor!" The official tells me, in real or pretended exasperation, "Without a tourist card, you are not going anywhere." Then he stops to think. This is not a happy solution for him. The customs station is a two-room shack at the edge of a hot dusty road. If the gringo playwright cannot move he will stay here and continue to whine, as his gringo sweat drips onto the office floor. It is time to turn the screws. "I will help you, Señor," he says, "since you are unable to help yourself. You have confessed that you are a writer of obras dramaticas (plays), and such persons require a special visa to enter our beautiful country. The taxi driver will take you back into the country from which you have come to a village some kilometers from here where my cousin, Antonio, will supply you with the visa you need. The taxi will cost you fifty dollars American each way. The visa will cost you seventy-five dollars. I will have the boy move your bags across to this side of the road to go back the way you have come. Have a nice day."



"But Señor," I protest, "when I go back across the border I will need a new tourist card, because the old card was collected when I crossed in this direction. And if they are like you -- they will require cash -- and I will require a card to cash the traveler's checks! So if you will issue me a tourist card, our problem will be solved." The official stares at me for a long irritated moment. "But you have no cash to buy a tourist card!" he snaps. "So let the taxi drive me to a bank on your side of the border and back," I suggest, "maybe they will cash the checks." He is dubious, but greedy and willing. So is the driver of the decayed Nash Rambler masquerading as a taxi. "I will pay you after I go to the bank," I tell him, "and then you will bring me back." He grudgingly complies. Dusty roads follow, wilted palms, and the ruin of a banana plantation: fruits of older revolutions.


The bank is not far. Arriving there, I ask to speak to the bank president. I tell the clerk I am the son of the President of Wisconsin. When I am thus introduced, the president of the bank listens earnestly to my tale. "Being a president, yourself," I tell him, "I respectfully ask your advice, since my father is not here to offer it. How can I get these checks cashed and satisfy this official?" "Señor," says the bank president, "your Spanish is terrible, but your father did not raise a stupid son. You were wise not to go back across the border. But I cannot cash your checks without a tourist card. I suggest you seek further conversation with the man at the border." I ask for his business card, and with hesitation, he gives it to me.


Outside, I see that the clerk has been conversing with the taxi driver. "Where is my money?" he asks. His dark Indian face is impervious to charm.

"Drive me back to the border, and I will get a tourist card and pay you."

"Suppose you don't get a tourist card?"

"Then you will be the owner of these beautiful sunglasses."


I squint in the hot sun all the way back. As we pull in, I see that the official of my nightmares has gone on an errand, and a younger officer is sitting at the desk. There is no time to lose. I stomp in and fling the bank president's card on the desk. "The president of the bank has told me that my papers are in order," I declare. "He says that you can accept traveler's checks. He says that the tourist card costs no more than the price that is printed on it. Issue the tourist card immediately, or my father, the President of Wisconsin, will know the reason why!" The young official responds with alacrity, and without attention to sequence. In a moment the check is cashed and the tourist card is in my hand. I step outside and whistle for the ragged boy who moved the luggage. "Move my baggage back to the other side of the road," I tell him, "where the next bus stops on its way to the interior."


Just up the road, separated from the customs station, is a tienda, a shack that serves cold beer at tables under a thatched roof in front. In my hand I hold a wad of brightly colored money that looks like it has been peeled off the tops of cigar boxes. I send the kid to ransom my sunglasses from the taxi driver and order three bottles of cold beer that I place in a row on the table in front of me -- ammunition for the last battle to be fought with the customs station that faces me, a hundred yards of hot dust away. I straighten my shoulders, cross my legs, and tilt my straw hat at an arrogant angle. "Come and get me, you sonuvabitch!" I think.


It unfolds at this dusty distance like a play in miniature. When the official returns, he sees that the bags have been moved back across the road, and he questions the boy who points to where I sit drinking beer in the shade of the tienda. I feel his stony gaze fix on me. And then, a moment later, through the window of the station I see him talking angrily to the young official, waving his arms, discussing presidents real and imaginary. Then the door slams, and I see him striding purposefully toward me in the hot dust, closing the distance between us, now forty-five yards, now forty. I drain the first beer and casually lift a second. Thirty-five yards, thirty, still closer he comes-and then slowly, as he sees my image through the dust, relaxed, sure of my art -- the edge of my new tourist card showing from my shirt pocket -- he slows. At twenty yards he almost stops, as if his rage has melted in the heat, and other questions are rising to wrestle with it. Suppose the gringo is not lying -- suppose the bank president -- what if -- maybe, but -- what if -- and then, as he comes to a halt, he puts a hand to his chin, and begins twisting slowly on his heel, like a man suspended from a noose of his own making, the thoughts turning in his head-maybe the gringo is -- but what if -- what if -- and then, as if he had waltzed all those yards through the stifling inferno only to enjoy the afternoon air, he turns back and walks crisply away from the drama that has defeated him.


"Que gran teatro!" says the boy as he holds my tip up to the light. On the face of the bill, a man wearing a gorgeous sash is crossing a ballroom.




Rod Clark, Editor