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    Kate Wheeler


    If you don't pay them off, if you don't have money, they won't do a thing for you. Won't move. The police down here! Didn’t we ever tell you about Isabel? How she stole all the stuff from our shop?

    This is such a crazy story, it could have only happened in this country.

    It happened back in the early days, like, twenty years ago. You could say it was the first straw for us. Back then our factory was over in the Tenth of May, by the Republic Steps, over near the old synagogue. That neighborhood was all discotheques and whisky bars back then, before they built the high rises.

    We didn't have much. We were poor, just starting out. We had a phone in there, a few tables, an enlarger, chemicals, some tubs and buckets and that was it. Five employees. Isabel was our manager. She got mad at us, I guess. She turned out to be a psycho.

    It was exactly fifteen years ago. Zoë just turned fifteen, and you know, she was born on the Día Nacional? Their Fourth of July, so to speak. She'd just been born, in the wee hours of that morning, and Sally was still in the hospital. In the afternoon I left them both resting there, and I went over to the shop for something. You know, nobody was around, it’s this major public holiday. When she was little, Zoë used to believe that all the parades, the tanks and fighter jets and street cleaning crews, were part of her birthday party. Have you seen how the street cleaners parade with their leaf blowers? I love it! Anyway, this was the afternoon of National Day and so the streets were deserted. Everybody’s inside drinking. I opened the door of our shop and saw everything was gone, I mean everything. The place was cleaned out. It was empty -- not a table or a chair was left, nothing. They even took the brooms.

    I called Sally and she said, "I have to leave this hospital right now, I can't stay here." So she took a taxi home. Now she's got the two babies, Zo and Will. Will was a year and four months. Our kids are close together, yeah, boom, boom. I got home and there were the three of them lying in bed, Sally with the two of them on top of her. She was feeding both of them, like this, one on each side.

    I'd already been over to the police. I said, "We've been robbed," and they took me in to see the station chief. The door closes and there I am, in there alone with the guy and he says, "Give me six hundred. Give me six hundred dollars." I took out my wallet, I handed over the money. One, two, three hundred dollar bills, just like this. Then he says, "Okay, we're starting our investigation." Then he looks down and shuffles the papers on his desk, you know, like a newscaster when he’s finished talking.

    I knew I was dismissed, so that’s when I went home to Sally. And God, I mean, the two of us -- obviously nothing is going to come out of this so-called police investigation -- we're ready to leave the country, leave and get out of here with our kids. This was back during the dictatorship of Sánchez Mesa. We had no savings. What money we had, we'd put into all our stuff. About ten thousand dollars’ worth. Most of it was used. Even now our processors are all second hand, these old East German things. They're great, the best. They're not making them any more. I'm still always looking for them in the paper. Last year I found one up in Maratica, but the guy was asking three times what it was worth. I wasn't going to pay his crazy price, and he'd rather let it rust, rather than negotiate. I'm sure it's still up there. Maybe I’ll give him a call this week, come to think of it, but, see, that will just convince him I still want the thing so he should hold out a little longer. That's how they think, that's the way they think down here.

    Anyway, ten thousand dollars. Now -- to us -- it isn't -- well it's not nothing, ten grand, it's never nothing, but it was a lot more to us then. We could never have replaced all of that stuff. So Sally's lying there with the two babies, and we're talking plane tickets, giving up and leaving, flying home, giving up on this country and everything. We didn't know what else to do.

    Then it came, this note, this little slip of paper under our door. ‘Isabel es la autora.'

    "Isabel is the author." We opened the door and of course, there was nobody there.

    Obviously it was from one of our employees who knew about it. She knew Isabel had done it, and she was mad at Isabel, so she ratted on her. At the time, though, we didn't know who, or what, or why, or whether we should believe this. It could so easily have been a lie, you know? Pretty soon we get this phone call and it's her, the lady, and she's saying, "I'll tell you everything, but please, no police. Nobody can know. Meet me in the Plaza San Carlos, I'll have a red scarf on my head, but nobody can find out, no police, please, cause Isabel knows me. And if she finds out, her family's going to have me killed, or something."

    I mean I couldn't exactly just go down to the Plaza by myself to be a sitting duck, right? "Meet me in the San Carlos with a red scarf on my head." It could have been a setup, could have been anything. This was under Sanchez Mesa, they'd been machine-gunning people on the Avenue, shooting out of airplanes, and we'd just been robbed and everything. The atmosphere, you can imagine. "Meet me in the San Carlos, with a red scarf on my head." Yeah, right. So I go back down to the police station, and explain it all and say why I need them. Of course they have no other leads or anything. They say sure, fine, of course, Sir, we'll go along and accompany you. They get this whole squad together, in boots and green uniforms and their black flak vests.

    I said,"Um, don't you think you're going to need to be in disguise?" and they all said, "Oh, right, yeah, sure, of course. We're going to wear jipijapas, you know, those hats like the farmers wear, down on the coast."

    Jipijapas, oh, great.

    So I'm meeting the lady, and she's got her red scarf on, and everything, and we're going into this cafeteria on Plaza San Carlos, and I'm thinking, "This is surreal." I'm thinking, "Only here, only in this country!" In a way, it’s why we’ve stayed. But then the minute we sit down, the police, I mean the police all rush in and grab her. Their guns are out, there's ten of them, pistols all drawn, and suddenly there's a gun right on the woman's head. The poor lady, she can't believe what’s happening. I'm trying to get the police to put their guns away, "No, please, what are you doing? Wait a second." She's getting hysterical, crying, so I'm trying to calm her down at the same time, saying no, please, I didn't tell them to do this, don't worry, nothing's going to happen to you, you haven't done anything. Meanwhile they're all shouting, "No, no, we have to take her in, we’ve got to take her over to the station."

    I said, "Listen. Let's all just go over to my house."

    So we all go over to my house, and Sally's lying there, you know, with Zo and Will. The lady, as it turns out, she grew up with Isabel, they'd known each other all their lives since they were little kids. She says Isabel has turned on her, gone off and gotten all weird. She tells us, "It was Isabel and she's got all your stuff hidden over in her mother's house at such and such address." So the police and I left the lady there with Sally, and she’s still totally upset. So now Sally has to take care of her too.

    At the mother's house, sure enough Isabel is there, but she says she won't come out.

    This was bad, because of the tremendous laws they have here to protect the home, you know, and it takes forever to get a warrant. Five years, I mean, the way the courts work? But then we say -- the mother thing is so powerful here -- we say that if you don't come out we're going to arrest your mother -- arrest her! -- and we're going to charge her with harboring stolen property. Because, you see, the mother is the owner of the house. So right away, Isabel comes out, with part of our stuff, but she tells us, the rest of it is in some other place.

    Several other places, it turns out. The police and Isabel and I start driving all around town. She's got it stashed all over the capital district, in eight hiding places. We drive around, it takes all day. There was even some stuff at the PLO headquarters. Yeah, there is, at least there used to be, a PLO headquarters over in Yaloca. I don't know if it's still there.

    We got it all back, or nearly all, as I remember. Then it was news and I had to have my picture taken shaking hands, with the police chief in front of the recovered loot. "This is so hokey," I'm thinking, "here, after paying them off and doing all the work myself, here I am shaking hands like it was this successful operation." But, I'm also thinking, "What the hell."

    The next day we looked for it in all the papers, but there was just this one little column in the evening tabloid. No photo or anything. It's an interview with Isabel. She's saying she did it all for the workers, and that we're evil American oligarchs living off their sweat and blood and tears and oppressing them and that's why she took our stuff, as a revolutionary gesture.

    That's it, that's all there was in any of the papers.

    I mean our workers were even more worried about this whole thing than we were. Besides the fact they felt really bad for us, it was their livelihood.

    In the end it came to nothing. Isabel must have paid the police from her side, too. That's how it works here. Everybody has to pay, and whoever pays more, wins. Justice, it's like an auction. One of a lawyer's main jobs is to communicate his client's offers to the judge.

    Years later, I happened to see Isabel on the street. She was wearing my old jacket. She must have stolen it right off the nail in the wall! I’d been wondering where it went to. It was out of style, but still.

    She didn’t seem to recognize me, and of course I didn’t go up to her and say hello. "Oh, hi, remember me? You must, since that’s my jacket."

    Later on, I met this other person who told me she'd been roommates with Isabel. "Oh, Isabel! I was roommates with her, she stole some of my stuff. She stole from me." Isabel had a problem. A few years later I saw that person again, and she told me, "Hey, guess what? Isabel's house fell in! She got what she deserved."

    What goes around comes around. There's justice. She wasn't killed or anything.

    * * *

    It’s not true that this is a peaceful little forgotten country where you can hide away. Oh, we kind of used to think so, thirty years ago when we first came down here and we were running around the backwoods with our cameras, preserving the indigenous folkways for posterity. Back then we had our little grants and our little Peace Corps stipends; we were babes in the woods. But we learned. We had to. Because things go on here daily, things you wouldn't believe. On the streets, in the government, in people's private lives. This thing I’m going to tell you next -- well, it’s hard not to get cynical.

    Anyone who's been married six years, anyone who isn't a newlywed -- still in the newlywed phase -- they've slept around. They've had affairs. There's a custom here on Thursdays, the men go out and play ‘cuerno.’ Cuerno is this tossing game -- it means ‘horn,’ yeah? -- but what it really means is that Thursday is the day the men all go out and meet their mistresses. It’s not just the idle upper classes, either, the way you might imagine. We had this one guy working for us who was lovers with two of our women employees at the same time, and all of them married to other people. One day his two girlfriends got into a fight, a fistfight. They were right there in the lab, slugging each other. A whole day’s film got ruined.

    Lot of domestic abuse, too. A lot. Guys get drunk, go home and beat their wives, just like anywhere. Except here it's taken for granted; it's almost considered normal. And the police, the police here, if I had to be locked in a cell with a robber or a member of the police, I'd choose the robber.

    Listen to what happened to Ana. Maria, our maid's, daughter?

    This happened about a year ago.

    Ana. She's Maria's daughter. Fifteen and a half, sixteen? Sally and I, we've known her ever since she was this high. Sweet, innocent girl. She's sheltered, a religious Catholic, too innocent, really.

    Every month she goes downtown to the bank on the Avenida Sucre to deposit her family's mortgage. She's walking down Avenida Sucre, right in broad daylight, the middle of downtown. You know how it is at lunch hour, it's so crowded. We try to avoid it because of the pickpockets. They spit on you and grab your bag while you’re distracted. That’s gross, but this was much worse. Right there on that sidewalk in front of hundreds of people, two guys jump out, grab her, and start dragging Ana off. She's screaming, crying for help, but there's this other lady there who jumps out and yells, "It's a marital dispute, it's between husband and wife, nobody get involved!" She’s the accomplice, right? So nobody does anything! They all go, "Oh, okay, it’s a domestic problem," and they let these two guys drag Ana off and shove her in a taxi.

    We don't know if it was kind of a random thing, or if they'd been watching her and knew she'd be there on that day of the month with the money and all.

    They took her somewhere, they raped her, they robbed her, they kept her for a week. After a week they finally threw her out of a car one night, in Ayuni. Naked, in the middle of the night. Naked, she was naked, naked in the cold, all night, out on the far edge of Ayuni. It’s that horrible riverbed you have to cross on the way to the airport? Garbage, criminals, rats, it’s amazing that she even survived.

    The next morning this lady found her who was out walking her pet dogs. It was early in the morning and Ana was lying out there on the ground in just her underpanties. She couldn't talk. She knows she was raped, but she can't remember anything about what happened. This lady took her in, put a skirt on her, she sort of nursed her back. A few days later the lady comes down and says to Maria, "I have your daughter."

    Meanwhile, Maria, her mother, the minute Ana didn't come home that afternoon, Maria went straight to the police station. Something was wrong and she knew it. Ana is so innocent, really, she's this good, quiet, religious, sheltered, innocent girl. So when Maria goes in to the police and reports her daughter missing, this is what they said to her. "Oh, Señora, fifteen? She’s probably run off with a guy." They laughed, and they didn't do anything.

    She said the office was full of mothers there. The mother of a nine-year-old girl, for example, who'd disappeared. Same thing. These are poor people and the police don't do anything for poor people. It’s no mystery why they don’t kidnap rich kids down here yet, as long as they can pick off small fry with impunity.

    Maria didn’t tell us anything till after Ana came back. Too private I guess. Now, Ana, she's so traumatized she can't even look at pictures. We offered to try to help her, send her to a psychologist. We know a good one, but they're too ashamed. They don't want an investigation, either, they don't want it in the papers. I don't blame them. All we can do is offer. Say, "Listen, it's here if you want it, it's available."

    * * *

    So now we’ve been living here since ‘72, running a business since the very early eighties. Don’t laugh, we really wanted to dedicate our lives to this place. We wanted to raise our kids here; we believed it was a better environment for them than the United States. Softer on the one hand and more real on the other. And as long as we treated our workers fairly, it seemed only fair that our business should be allowed to thrive. It did, too. Our little shop became the first 24-hour color photo lab on the continent, did you know that? Now we’ve got fifteen storefronts and the custom work we do at our main lab is a match for anything you can get in the U.S. or Europe at one-tenth the price.

    So we’re twenty, going on twenty-five years in business here, and I’m not exaggerating, there hasn’t been a day without something stirring up, or boiling over, some shadow hanging over us of legal craziness, police involvement, customs problem, or lawsuit. And every time we turn around we’re doling out the cash. The police are like a jukebox, won’t move unless you pay them. The judges are the same. Their salaries aren’t much, so they view their jobs as a money-making opportunity. This country is so riddled with corruption, it’s ridiculous. It runs all through, from top to bottom, although at the top it really does seem worse. Like -- when they jailed the police chief a couple of years ago, he owned nine houses all around the country and a tenth one in Miami? They started looking into his finances when he put a bid in on the former U.S. Embassy residence in Yaloca. The Embassy residence, when his official salary is a thousand dollars a month? He’d been embezzling from the police pension fund, and stealing heavy equipment. He took nine Swiss-donated ambulances and repainted them, sold them as delivery vans. You ought to go to Hell for a thing like that. They threw him in prison but he hasn’t been forced to return any of his loot. Too much punishment might inspire him to rat on his friends. They’re all the same — it’s a nest, and a network. If you were the judge issuing that guy’s sentence, wouldn’t you rather get a nice fat payoff than expose yourself to a prosecution of your own?

    You’re a tourist, you’re a traveler, and as long as you’re floating downstream, spending your money that you brought in from elsewhere, it’s so easy, it’s so smooth. You read about this stuff in the paper and to you, at most, it’s a depressing moment that you have over coffee in the morning. But just try to make something happen in this place, and then you’ll see. You’ll see what this country’s up against, what everybody who lives here’s up against.

    We’ve tried not to get bitter, keep a sense of humor. If not, you can start to feel you’re living in a cesspool. Last Christmas for example, Sally got stopped at the airport as a fugitive. It turned out to be some old detainment order that hadn’t been canceled, back from a couple of years ago when this woman former employee accused us of not contributing to her pension. She’d quit, and she’d asked for her severance packet instead, which is one of your legal options in this country. A lot of people take severance, figuring their pensions will have been embezzled or worthless by the time they retire. So, they take their cash and run, set up a little store or buy a taxicab. It makes a lot of sense, right? So this lady got her packet, but then six months later she’s back, suing us for not contributing to her pension. I mean we had all the records, so it finally cleared but it was expensive and humiliating, and it almost ruined our holidays. Sally’s parents are getting old, and she lost a chance to see them. We made the best of it, went down to this resort lodge we know in the rain forest, and we basically hung out by the pool for a week. And it was not bad.

    Or when we bought our new house and suddenly there were all these relatives showing up who said they still owned it. This is such a common occurrence. Mommy and Daddy left the house to all their children, then the one in charge of selling it ran off with all the money. He went to the province of Barrancos: everybody knows that’s where folks with ill-gotten wealth go to hide, and it’s very strange how nobody can ever be traced or found after they’ve moved there. There’s a saying about the miraculous mists of Barrancos; guess what they’re composed of. So after the bad brother absconds suddenly all these new people appear with new documents, new names, that prove our title is invalid. They’re going to sue unless, of course... That one pretty much doubled the price of our home, that and our plumbing disaster.

    Another time we can tell you all the stories, about the Kodak rep who was the President’s nephew, and about our manager who forged our signatures on checks, and about the lab workers we’ve trained who go to work for the competition, about loan sharks preying on our workers, who can’t see past the free money to the 100 per cent interest rate.

    Basically the system here is an invention of the Devil. You can have your neighbor thrown in jail based on a mere accusation. Tell the police he stole from you, and it’s up to him to get himself out. Guilty until proven innocent. Everything goes before a judge, so you can imagine the opportunities for corruption. Our friend Phil is down here right now trying to advise the government how to reform things. God knows what they were thinking back when they set up these laws, that they were ruling over a nation of Indians.

    Like I said, we’ve tried to take it all in stride and it’s even amusing at times. We’ve found a pretty good lawyer, we know the relevant officials, we know the way things work down here. But lately I’m exhausted; I feel like it’s caught up with us. This new thing kind of caps off all the others. The moments of disillusionment, I mean.

    * * *

    Have you been reading about "Black Friday" in the papers, this so-called rampage by the kids from the American school? Would you believe our son is one of the accused?

    Well, Zoë just turned 15, and you may remember we had a little dinner for her at the house. So Zoë’s a quinceañera, as they say down here, and we’re proud of her. It’s an important birthday, a rite of passage. We have our debutantes, but down here, if you’re a girl, when you turn 15 you have a giant party. Although lately, there’s been a fad of flying to Disney World -- a dozen girls will go, all together, with some of their parents along for chaperones. It’s actually cheaper than a real big party, but most girls still want a party.

    I mean Zo was born here, and the whole family thinks it’s pretty cool that her birthday happens on National Day. It’s a joke, but we actually like it. And we’d never begrudge Zo. She grew up here, we wanted that for her, so if she wants the party a local girl would have? Fine! No problem. We said, sure, go for it, honey, of course that’s what you can have. Zo feels totally local and we can honor that identity, although, you know, we might like her to acknowledge us and our roots at some point. But hey, she’s 15, and she wants her party to be huge and she wants it at this nightclub, New York 2000, this disco where all the spoiled rich upper crust local brats go. I mean...Zo has a lot of friends. And it’s just great, up to a point, if she feels like she’s from here, but the local kids she chooses to identify with, her friends, Sally and I, we really think they’re slugs. Upper class, frivolous, don’t give a damn about the poor, those ones, you know the ones I mean. These wouldn’t have been the friends we would have chosen for her. There are nicer kids at her school, according to us, but that’s the way it goes.

    Meanwhile her brother, Will, he’s kind of the opposite, loves the United States even though he’s never lived there. He can’t wait to go off to college.

    We started making the arrangements with the club, New York 2000, and figuring out Zo’s budget, who she’s going to invite, and all. She wants about 80 kids. No parents. We fight about that of course. Usually for a quinceañera they invite all the generations, this is part of what we love about this place, these multigenerational bashes. Granny dancing with a 13-year-old boy, little kids all playing tag underfoot, all dressed up. But that’s not how they do it now, Zo says, it isn’t how she wants it. Sally and I, we understand that things are changing, even down here. We’re easy; as I said to Sally, hey what’s the harm, let her go with it. They’re going to drink, but they already do that at slumber parties, and there are going to be adults at the nightclub, bouncers, and the bartenders -- we could give them a little extra or even hire someone to keep an eye on things. Most of the kids will go home in taxis anyway. Only a few have cars because the driving age is 21. You’d never know it from looking at the drivers in this city, but that’s another story. It’s not like the US. None of the kids we know have cars.

    So about a month before the party we start noticing that Zoë’s upgrading her appearance. Her wardrobe. Never seems to wear the same jeans twice. Goes out and gets her hair dyed black at a salon. This was a place Sally knows, a salon where part of the glamor is having to pay as much or more than in the States. They charge in dollars, like 90 bucks. Zo’s getting massages, plus all the nice new clothes -- she’s spending money like an adult. We know what her allowance is, after all, we’re the source of it! So Sally asks her where it’s all coming from, and Zo says, "Oh, the outfit? I borrowed it from my friend Camila." And we believed her, because that’s how the kids do it these days, they’re sharing all their clothes. We’ve talked about that phenomenon with other parents, our friends. A way to do things, right? Fun, sharing your clothes. And the beauty salon, Zo claims she paid it out of her allowance; the massages were a gift from her friend’s mother, and so on. She explained everything to our satisfaction, and we didn’t think any more about it.

    Until the day I saw her rifling through Sally’s purse. I was walking past the living room and happened to glance in. There was something furtive in the way she was bent over, and then I saw her get out Sally’s ATM card and stuff it in her jacket. Boom, the whole picture comes together in my head. Why Sally and I have been saying to each other, ‘Honey, why is there no cash in our account? I thought I’d made a deposit!’ You can take out hundred-dollar bills, or else cash in pesos. She’d been doing $100 a pop, once or twice a week, for months.

    I confront her and she storms at me -- the best defense is an attack, that’s always been Zoe’s strategy -- maybe she’ll grow up to be a lawyer. Why am I spying on her, don’t I trust her, we forgot her allowance, Sally authorized all this, etcetera. Bit by bit, it all comes out, how she’s ripping us off, she’s even ripped off her brother. Will was pissed off at her for a while, until she paid him back. But with us, she’s not really that repentant. She gave us attitude, what did we care about that money, look how long it took us to notice it was gone.

    This was around Carnival, in February. Sally and I decided that Zo had to feel some painful consequences. We had no illusions that our message would sink in, but still, as parents, we felt we had to do something. So we canceled her disco party. Told her she couldn’t have it, that the cost of the party was roughly equal to what she stole and so she could consider this as her repayment. If she wants to go up and see her aunts and grandparents in San Francisco for her birthday she can do that instead. Zo refused, of course. She took to hiding in her room watching TV, and overeating and talking on the phone. She would barely talk to us, and when she did there was no real communication going on. It was really hard for us, especially on the weekends. She quit all her sports, never wanted to go anywhere, she just lay in her bedroom all day with the curtains drawn, eating and getting fatter and paler and being on the phone. If we happened to go in she’d shut up and put her hand over the receiver. Nobody can get through on our house line on evenings and weekends, even now, so Sally and I have to do all of our calls on Sally’s cell.

    This went on for quite a while, and it’s still happening, more or less. The home atmosphere’s not great. And then one night, Maria, you remember, Ana’s mom, our maid, Maria, comes knocking on our bedroom door one evening after dinner. We open up and there’s Maria, standing there crying, she’s so upset, she’s wringing her hands. She tells us that one of the other servants heard from a friend who works in another house that Zo has gone to this brujo, this shaman. A witch doctor, basically. And she’s doing curses and black magic on us. The gardener is threatening to quit. Our whole staff is freaked out. We told Maria we are not going to worry about it, and they shouldn’t either, we had the house heavily blessed before we moved in and anyway we’re Zo’s parents and we aren’t scared of her, she’s a child and we’re a lot more powerful. But Maria says no, this is the worst thing of all, for a child to curse its parents. She and the other servants wanted to hire their own brujo to do a ‘work’ to change Zo’s heart from black to white. Sally and I just had to agree, we didn’t have to be involved unless we wanted to make a donation to upgrade the sacrifice from a chicken to a pig, and/or help out with all the liquor that they were going to have to consume and give to the brujo. You stay up all night at these things. Everybody’s supposed to chain-smoke, too.

    So we gave them a couple hundred bucks. You understand, this wasn’t extortion on Maria’s part, it’s just how things work down here. How people see their world. In the brujo reality, you always know why things are happening to you. Someone’s doing it to you and you can make them stop. Sally and I, we have our guy who comes and blesses the shop once a year, and it’s this really cool thing, important for us and the workers. We all stay up all night and smoke cigarettes and drink cane liquor, and it helps everything go well until the following year. So we were incredibly touched by Maria’s efforts on our behalf. On Zo’s behalf, really. She adores our kids, always has.

    I guess our donation wasn’t big enough, though, or it came too late, or else our servants’ shaman wasn’t as powerful as Zo’s, or he didn’t get enough money or something. Zoë’s pretty well connected, she must have gotten her brujo from some kid whose parents were Cabinet ministers, some friend who’d wanted to go to her party.

    Next thing, we’re getting a call from the school principal. Our son’s down at the police station with a couple of other kids. They’re all being charged with vandalism and disturbing the peace and destruction of property and driving to endanger and drugs. Everything short of murder.

    We got dressed, Sally and I, in our houndstooth jackets, these Jaeger things we’ve worn so many times before, to all our court appearances and visits to the police station downtown. And it was really depressing.

    We got to our suburban station, and they won’t let us see Will. No, no, he isn’t even here, they say. You have to talk to the chief first, that’s why you are here. Well lo and behold, the guy comes out, and he’s the same guy I gave six hundred dollars to, way back when all our stuff was robbed out of the factory. He’s Capitán now, he must have been promoted to this wealthy neighborhood, where there’s less work and better, you know, opportunities. So he was looking pretty sleek. I know he remembers me but he pretends like he doesn’t. It was a strange déjà vu for me. There we were, two men, and I’m noting the passage of time.

    What had happened was that the day before was skip day at the American school. It’s this thing they do in the middle of spring semester, the seniors all go out and do silly things. It’s their farewell party, celebrating their liberation from high school. They usually do a few mild pranks, set off firecrackers or wrap somebody’s garden tree with toilet paper. Nothing too serious, although they can get noisy, and they travel in a pack, so the complaints come in year after year.

    Will is just a junior, but he gets along with everyone, he’s always had a lot of friends who are older. His pals who were seniors, they were going to be leaving soon, most of them, to go off to school in the States. A lot of the local kids who come to the American school, they’re doing it for that very reason, so that they can go get college degrees in the U.S. They go off to state schools or even Harvard before coming back to be politicians or take over their parents’ businesses. These kids are all due for departure, and Will was invited, that’s how he got involved in this thing.

    This year’s skip day activity was sort of a treasure hunt. I don’t know who designed it. I’d like to strangle him. One of the first requirements was to demolish a structure, so the kids chose this traffic cops’ guardhouse on the boulevard and blasted it with miners’ dynamite. One kid, Fernando Corrales, his family owns copper mines all over the country. So they got some dynamite from Fernando. Next, they had to harvest a prostitute’s pubic hair. I mean it was all rather naughty, but on the other hand, that guard house has been standing empty for two years, ever since they put in the traffic light, so you could argue that it should have been removed anyway because it was a visual obstruction. And I happen to know they paid the prostitute pretty well for her hair, so she underwent a lot less work and danger for her money. But then there was this one other thing. The kids totalled a car, a Nissan SUV, they crashed it into a taxi that was parked on the boulevard at 2 A.M. This had to do with drinking a pint of Johnnie Walker, and then drag-racing down the boulevard. Two cars, one on each side of the median strip. Apparently they got going up to 100 miles an hour before one kid lost control.

    The lucky thing is, nobody got hurt or killed. The taxi driver could have; he was sleeping in his car. No kid got hurt either. It’s a miracle, really. They wrecked a great big Nissan boxcar.

    I mean there are always some of the American kids who don’t want to accept that they’re in another country, where they are guests, and have fewer options than at home. They’re immature, so they resent the limitations, and they act worse instead of better. Or they may feel nobody’s watching them, except a bunch of locals who to them don’t count. That type of attitude usually comes down from the parents. People who come out here for a year or two. Never learn the language, shop at the Embassy PX, use nothing but American products the entire time. By the time they leave, they’ve never even been here.

    Then there are a few other kids, unfortunately Zo kind of falls within this category, kids who identify with that spoiled rich local brat type I mentioned earlier. And it’s not like there’s nobody in between, as I said before. Sally and I are always trying to get Zo hooked up with some of the intellectuals or the artists, or even just the achievers, at the school, but she’s not interested. As for the two rotten types of kids, they hardly ever socialize, the rednecks and the decadent overprivileged, but when they do it’s a bad mix. Seems like that’s what happened on Black Friday. Some of the kids weren’t from our school at all, they were from LaSalle, this hoity-toity academy right down the road.

    We never expected Will to be involved in anything like this. He’s not the type.

    So sure enough when Sally and I get led into the police chief’s office, one of the other sets of parents turns out to be DEA, from the Drug Enforcement Agency. The father is this ex-Marine, and his perky wife has blond sprayed hair and white sneakers. I know them; they’re from Georgia, and I always see Bob at the health club doing scary masochistic things with weights.

    DEA, I hate to say this but the DEA is pretty much our least favorite social category among our compatriots down here.

    The third set of parents, besides us, are the Morrises. They’re one of just two sets of African-American parents with kids in school. Earl Morris works for Coca-Cola and they’re both such sweet, intelligent people. Chandra gives dance lessons, jazz and African and ballet. You ought to see her, she’s like a goddess. And their son, Kurt, he’s one of the most popular kids in the school. Everyone knew he was into a little pot, and he’s got dreadlocks, but his grades are decent and he’s a center forward on the soccer team. Because of Kurt we can keep up with some of the local schools and we’re sweeping the league of the overseas American schools, which is pretty good considering some of those huge schools they’ve got over in Brazil.

    I mean hey, we all smoked pot in our day, and maybe for a few of us it may still be our day, you know? And on Kurt the dreads are just style. So anyway, God, it had to be the worst for the Morrises. Local people are such racists. They call Africans ‘little blackies.’ You’ll hear somebody say, ‘Those little blackies were so Afro they didn’t have ears or any noses.’ There are a few thousand descendants of African slaves in the country, but they’re concentrated in a couple of the lowland towns. A lot of the hill folks have never even seen a black person, so they’re kind of a myth to them. And this country was built on racism, with the whites on top and the brown people on the bottom and they’ve never really rectified the situation. So in the case of the browner, lower-class, indigenous people, which is who most of the police are, you can hardly blame them for extending the category they’re included in, putting someone lower than themselves. I mean, yeah, you can also sort of blame them. I’d hate to see what could happen to a kid like Kurt in a prison here. But it’s a matter of education and the education isn’t there.

    My old pal the Capitán is being all gruff and unyielding. He stomps in, gets behind his desk, and addresses all of us. "I am sorry, but the newspapers have got hold of this and the scandal has gone to the highest level. It is a serious matter and furthermore, due to the publicity, I am afraid there’s very little I will be able to do to ameliorate the penalties your children must suffer." He refuses to meet my eye, he’s truly avoiding my gaze. I want to see you alone in here, I’m thinking.

    Right away, Chandra Morris offers to deport her son, have Kurt shipped back to the United States. Smart move. The Capitán nods, says he is not without compassion, he’ll consider this as one alternative. I nudge Earl Morris in the ribs but Morris shrugs me off. He’s got his own strategy going, he’s too worried to acknowledge me.

    In Will’s case, we couldn’t afford to consider deportation. At least, we didn’t think so. He’s a junior, and I mean who’s he going to live with, our parents? In their high rise in Fort Lauderdale? I said in my most respectful tones that, ‘Sir, Capitán, I am sure, there’s got to be a way that we can work this problem out to the satisfaction of everyone. We parents, we admit the serious nature of these incidents but these are young people, adolescents, hardly more than children, and we don’t want their education to suffer. We don’t want them to suffer unduly. Of course we need to be more responsible for our children and make our children more responsible for themselves, but we are also hoping there is a way to demonstrate repentance that will permit us to get the children back into school, back into our homes.’

    The guy looks at me coldly, and he says, "Do not go on, Señor, or you will begin causing problems for your son and perhaps for yourself as well. Señor, you are from a powerful country and you may believe because of this that you can intervene in our system, but I am here to prove that you cannot."

    When he brought up geopolitics, I knew for sure that we were screwed, and Will was screwed. All along, the guy sure hadn’t been returning any of the mellow, hey-old-pal-we-can-work-this-out, kind of vibes I’d been oozing in his direction. So now this scary, evil feeling hit me like a wall. I had the odd thought that this could be Zo’s curse, and there was nothing I could do to counteract it, because she was way more powerful than I was. Inside my head I heard her talking, haranguing and blaming Sally and me for all the ways we’ve characterized the locals all these years, as dishonest, incompetent. Was this some guilty craziness my brain cooked up? Some father-daughter psychic flash? I’m telling you, I felt utterly convinced it was a curse. There on the bench I started questioning this whole life we’ve built down here, and our reasoning about how it was going to be so much better for our kids. I started making wild plans to fold up our business and get out of there, plans we couldn’t afford to enact. We may live like royalty, but given the exchange rate, think about it, how could we go home? A liquidation would barely yield us plane fare! We’d have no friends, no one who understood our lives. We’ve been down here since we left college! Who would we be? What would we do, start a photo kiosk in a mall? We wouldn’t have the capital!

    They drove us over to the calabozo to visit the kids. Boy, were they glad to see us. Will was already prison-pale, or maybe just in shock, hung over, and terrified.

    The next day I visited the station again and the Capitán lets me into his office and closes the door. Once we were alone, he recognized me all right. He’d been waiting for me, and since I’d already gotten the message about how this incident was going to be harder for him to correct than usual, I had my wallet all fat and prepared.

    I hated that guy. Man, I could almost have spat on him as I looked at him and paid and paid and paid him off. And he felt the same towards me, I could see. I mean I could smell it. It was a terrible feeling. Not a feeling I enjoyed. I couldn’t have lived here for so long if I’d felt that degree of bitter animosity. Oh, Sally and I talk on about these people, but mostly we love them or at worst we just think of them as charming and completely unreliable. Now I felt like saying, "I’m so glad I’m not from your cesspool country. You with your life expectancy of fifty and your lack of any decent exports and your black-market economy." But he would have expected that; it’s what he’d expected all along and was punishing me for being able to say. I didn’t, of course.

    The Capitán let all three kids out on bail, so at least Will could finish the spring semester.

    Unfortunately, it didn’t end there. What he’d said was true. Once the papers got hold of this story they went right to town. "Black Friday," they started calling it. They blew it totally out of proportion, mostly with these lurid, editorializing adjectives the press here loves to use. ‘Vicious,’ ‘shameless,’ ‘reckless,’ ‘spoiled.’ Every day a headline said "Black Friday" the print run would sell out. It’s worn off a bit by now, but the locals are just eating up this case of the rich, bad American kids. The officials want to make an example, saying they can’t allow this delinquency to spread into their own population. Like I said, there were quite a few locals involved, not just the ones from our own school but some of the aristocrats from LaSalle Academy, and I hate to say this but I believe they were responsible for the nastier aspects of this rampage. Half the kids standing around the scene of the car crash were LaSalle, Will swears, and the police sent them on home to their parents. They’d have to walk in and beg to be arrested, and even then. So far none of them has tried it.

    Will admits he helped blow up the guard shack but he wasn’t part of any of the rest of it. Drinking and driving freaks him out, and so does smoking. He’s basically a very clean-cut kid. He and his friend went for a pizza and then just happened to walk out onto the boulevard right after the crash. He could have gone state’s evidence, too, but Will won’t rat on anybody.

    Zo, Zo claims she only went to that brujo for love stuff. And you know, despite everything else, I’d like to believe her. Maybe I’m superstitious but if it wasn’t Zo, I could easily be convinced that someone else sent the curse upon us. Envy is a huge problem in this culture. Envy and revenge. That’s how it is down here, the way things work and function. It’s bread and butter to a whole class of magicians. So much bad stuff happens, you have so much less than what you want, and you want to do something about it. Look at Maria, for God’s sake, what Maria’s had to deal with. If she hired a brujo, I wouldn’t be surprised. But it’s hard when it’s your own kid. Zo’s still being all cold, like she’s disowned us or she’s leaving us to stew in our own juices. Adolescence -- boiling hormones, it’s confusing for everybody. Sally and I, we’re just praying she likes us again by the time she’s thirty.

    Kurt, the black kid? He’s long gone, no more than a rumor in the papers that a black kid was involved and got whisked out of the country. Which of course sounds like some rapper or delinquent was the mastermind. Also like there’s a conspiracy to hide him, which definitely makes things harder for the kids who are left behind, but, hey, we’re glad Kurt’s parents were able to save him. Somebody told me it cost Coca-Cola a hundred thousand dollars to get him out. It’s just a rumor, although it’s easy to believe.

    The DEA kid, Rudy, he’s really in trouble. The Embassy can’t intervene to help him because they found traces of cocaine in the totaled car. It was his father’s Nissan. The same car he always drove down into the jungle to try to stamp out drug labs, but his dad won’t say the powder was some evidence left over from his travels. Rudy’s parents are fundamentalists, they almost seem to want their kid to go to jail. Who can blame the kid for acting out? I’ve gotten to know Rudy a little, I’ve come to admire him in a funny way. God knows, in my mind, I’d like his father better if the coke was his. Do him good to indulge in a little sinning now and then

    We’ve managed to keep our name, Will’s name, out of the papers, but what with everyone crying for blood, it looks like we’re going to have to slip him out of the country soon. Senior year at a boarding school in the US. In the meantime this has gone beyond being just another of our stories. I used to love this country. But, by the time all this is over, I wonder what, if anything, we’ll have left. Sharon and I, we’ll probably be here forever, but I hope we won’t end up wishing we were in Miami, just like everybody else in this God-forgotten place.

Kate Wheeler has written a novel, When Mountains Walked (Houghton Mifflin 2000) and a book of stories, Not Where I Started From (Houghton Mifflin 1993). She has been given an NEA, a Guggenheim and a Whiting Award among others, and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.


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