Twenty Dollars Fake American, A Foreign Drama

Ephraim Scott Sommers

(USA)


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We’re in the back office of a Peruvian lockup, two miles from the border of Ecuador, and I’m pleading with the sergeant in his pressed mint shirt and his full officer’s uniform to set my friend free. The sergeant and I are bickering in Spanish, a gunmetal desk between us, a statue of the Virgin Mary on the shelf behind him. My friend Dustin slumps quietly in a waiting chair off to the side of the room, staring down at the black and white checkerboard floor, his Atlanta Braves hat like an offering bucket in the bowl of his hands.

I’m sunburnt. I’m in board shorts and flip flops, my hair ratty and done up in a ponytail from seven weeks of travelling through South America. My Spanish is moderate, but through my frustration, I can’t get the past tense of my verbs quite right, so I understand that in this moment I am both speaking and dressing the part of “the naïve white tourist.”

The sergeant allows me to struggle, nodding attentively, as his role in this foreign production also demands. He’s turning a silver wedding ring on his finger. “Ok, Señor,” he says, standing up. “Ok.” He opens his palms toward me, as if about to give me two high fives, and this could mean: stop. It could mean: he sympathises with me and has made the decision to let us go. It could mean: he’s just trying to calm me down, but more likely than any of those — I’m betting he’s just tired of hearing some dumb gringo make excuses in broken Spanish.

For the length of this tiny lull in our conversation, his hands in the air between us, his face seeming to soften, I’m left guessing. He motions for me to sit. I do.

“Un momento,” he says, before tightening his green belt with the gold buckle, straightening his tie, and snagging his officer’s hat from a wooden hat tree. This is his costume. He nods his head at Dustin once more before muscling open the metal door and disappearing.

Silence pours into the room, the bare white walls, the filing cabinets, everything in right angles, straight-edged, blocky. This is our setting. This is our stage.

These are the central characters.

Dustin lets a long breath go. “Fuck,” he says, scratching at the sticker on the bill of his ball cap.

“Dude, what the fuck happened?” I ask.

*****

I’ve been to American jail before, and so has Dustin: he, for trafficking three pounds of weed across county lines and me, for three drunk and publics, mostly for falling asleep on the sidewalk while waiting for a cab or for some ex-girlfriend (who was never coming) to give me a ride home. There was also the time, of course, where my friends kicked the shit out of my downstairs neighbours, and I was dumb enough to scream and shout and argue with the officers, even though I wasn’t involved in the fight. I spent the night in county lockup with a room full of convicted snorers for my trouble.

Dustin and I grew up in the same town together: Atascadero, California where kids will kick the shit out of each other for just about anything, and where viable options for a viable future are limited if you don’t want to build houses, so it’s no surprise the both of us ended up with short and scattered stints in jail after we graduated secondary school in 2000. As we got a little further into our twenties, though, and learned how to better evade the police when breaking the law, we began setting out on longer and longer summer road trips, further and further away from home.

The first, in 2007, was a two-week trek through Zion National Park, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Yellowstone, Idaho, and eventually up to Montana where we backpacked ten miles into Glacier National Park and camped for several days: fishing for trout, hiking, drinking Yukon Jack, relaxing, swimming, writing poems. I distinctly remember on that trip being in awe of how fucking massively huge America was, how new. Bald eagles. Osprey. Moose. Buffalo.

Glaciers. Geysers. Crags. Cliffs. Mountains. So many of those states West of the Mississippi take days to drive across. I imagined traversing all of them on a horse, or in a wagon train. In Montana, signs dotted the highway, warning us, “Next Rest Stop: 180 Miles.” Space — that’s what we had always wanted growing up in a small town, and America had plenty.

*****

“Excusame,” the sergeant says, opening the door and jolting the fear back into the room. He hustles over to his desk, removes some paperwork from the drawer and ducks back out just as fast.

“Should we just try to leave?” I whisper. “I think the door is unlocked.” Dustin rubs his eyes with the thumb and finger of his left hand.

“Just stop, Ephraim,” he says.

*****

After Montana, our hunger for new territory only increased, and the next summer, in 2008, Dustin rode shotgun with my rock band and sold our t-shirts and CDs as we embarked on a twelve-week, nationwide tour in a 15-passenger van, five of us. We started in Lake Havasu for Spring Break. Then Albuquerque. We hit every single southern state, all the college towns, fell in love with saying “Y’all” and slugging down cold Lone Star 22-Ouncers on the sweaty back patios and rooftops of countless southern jukes. In San Angelo, Dustin got a Staph infection in his nose but survived, barely. Then Oxford, New Orleans, and Tuscaloosa where we nearly fist-fought the opening band at a shitty dive bar. Then we dunked our heads in the great Atlantic Ocean (an ocean none of us had ever before seen), and someone got stung by a jellyfish. From there, we stormed up the east coast and into New York City, the belly of empire, chiefing cigarettes in Central Park. One of us (I won’t say who) proudly returned to our hotel the morning after a show to proclaim, “Well…for the first time ever, Gentlemen…last night…I ate ass!”

Our only job was to explore America’s vast dopeness during the day and to play music late into the night for strangers…and then to party with them. More and more and gimme fucking more was our only mantra. I know now we were not alone in this dream, that our English and French and German and Spanish ancestors had steamrolled across this continent toward California hundreds of years before us with the same animal prayer on their tongues, all of them slaves to the church of want, each of them having been gifted the means and the privilege to explore and conquer without consequence.

Once, on July 5th, in Connecticut, I almost got arrested (on the sidewalk in front of the venue we’d just played) for launching Roman candles into the quiet suburban midnight, the bursts literally still going off in my hand as the police officer in his car with the swirling lights screamed at me through the open window of his cruiser.

“It’s my birthday,” I said to him. Another burst. “I’m sorry.” I wasn’t. Another burst.

 “When I come back, you better be gone, you dumbshit,” he said, skidding off while shaking his head. Another burst goodbye. And still another burst before we, too, burned tires out of there and back toward the western frontier. I had gotten away with it again just like my ancestors before me.

*****

Dustin and I are still waiting on the sergeant. I’m snooping with my eyes at the sergeant’s desk and finding nothing interesting other than an American twenty-dollar bill. Dustin claws at a bug bite on his bare arm.

*****

Having made it to and surviving the East Coast without getting thrown in jail, the band and Dustin, all of us, Ferris-wheeled back across the northern states: the Midwest, the great planes with their long flat highways which seemed to drive the mind deeper and deeper in side of itself, and the Nebraska corn fields, by then browning and crinkly. We swung back through Montana again, visiting Missoula, the place Dustin and I had been only one summer before, rocking a show at a mostly empty bar with a multi-level stage called the Top Hat. We went for a stoned hike in Hyalite Park the next morning.

We made it back to California, and I had the disease. The bottoms of my feet itched. A door had been opened. A possibility: I could be happy in places other than my hometown. I didn’t need to stand still when something bigger (and always possibly better) was out there. All of my idols at the time — Hunter S. Thompson, Kerouac, Hemingway, Ginsberg, and various rock and rollers I am ashamed to now name — weren’t they all about staying on the move? Not one place but every place. Weren’t Dustin and I just looking for some newness to fall in love with? It didn’t matter what we were searching for. I had fallen in love with the never-ending search itself, with movement, with unexpectedness. Searching was our new God, any place but here, our heaven. 

I didn’t know then, though, that we were just like all those other American kids in the sixties who thought a recurring theme from some literary movement was actually a guidebook for how to live a countercultural kind of life, a life that all of us somehow believed would bring with it something like sustained happiness. We were just like our parents who had wanted out of Atascadero before us, but we couldn’t see it with our limited view. Thirty-some-odd years after the great rock and roll and literary overdoses and suicides of the seventies and just three weeks after our band’s national tour, I moved to San Diego that fall and started graduate school. Dustin lived ten hours north of me and was finishing up his masters at Sonoma State.

My phone rang a little while later in early 2009. “Let’s go to Ecuador and Peru for two months this summer and work on organic farms,” Dustin told me. “Me and you.”

“I gotta get a passport, but I’m down,” I said.

“Save a thousand dollars,” he said.

“Ok,” I said.

*****

The door to the office slowly opens. The sergeant noses in first, and behind him is a short fat man in a full officer’s uniform, gold buttons on his belly shining and ready to pop right off him, his black hair slicked back on his hatless head. Dustin and I straighten our shoulders because we know who it is.

This is El Jefe. This is the final boss.

He and the sergeant stand in the middle of the room rattling back and forth in a Spanish too fast for me to understand. They seem to be in an argument of some kind, the sergeant speaking softly, nodding at me, then gesturing toward Dustin, but after every single sentence the sergeant mutters, El Jefe responds with a fierce and final, “No!”

“Por favor?” the sergeant asks.

“No!”

“Pero…,” the sergeant takes a different route, placing a hand on El Jefe’s shoulder and then removing it. I hear words like “accidente” y “mis amigos” y “podemos liberarlos?” which means, “May we release them?”

“No!”

“Por favor?” the sergeant asks.

“No!” El Jefe stomps his black dress shoe into the tile. “No! No!” And now El Jefe is pantomiming putting his hands behind his back and bending toward the door as if being handcuffed and led away. When he reaches the silver knob, he turns back to the sergeant, breaks his fake handcuffs, stands up, points a fat finger at Dustin, and says, “él va ira la cárcel esta noche,” which means, “He is going to jail tonight.”

El Jefe claps his hands together as if shaking off imaginary dust, as if wiping off the American stink of us, and exits the room, leaving the sergeant standing here in his officer’s hat with a hand on his hip. I get the sense, at this point, that this is a play these two have put on many many times before, El Jefe as the villain, the sergeant as our saviour, but Dustin and I still don’t know what our part is. We’re marionettes, just balls of nervous strings and wire. We can only be told what to do.

*****

Dustin and I had planned on a lot of things before we flew to Ecuador, and crossing the border into Peru was one of them. First, though, for a few weeks at least, we wanted to work on a few different organic farms in the Amazon rainforest through a company called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF). From their website: “WWOOF is a worldwide movement linking volunteers with organic farmers and growers to promote cultural and educational experiences based on trust and non-monetary exchange, thereby helping to build a sustainable, global community.” Basically, in foreign countries, through this organization, we could go and work on organic farms in exchange for free room and board. Every farm, of course, was different. At some farms, we had to pay a small amount ($30-40 a week) to handle food costs, which was nothing. Other travellers from other parts of the world would be volunteering on the farms as well, so it was also a good opportunity to meet people and save some dough.

At our first farm, we worked 8AM to noon, planting trees which contained ingredients for organic medicine. We shovelled narrow trenches through thick clay. We erected fences out of wobbly tree branches. We swept decks with bundles of straw. We scrubbed pots and pans. We gathered and stacked firewood. On the third day, Dustin got really really sick: puking, a burning forehead and reddening cheeks, diarrhoea. He could barely walk. We thought he might have Yellow Fever. We were a several-hour bus ride from any city or doctor. I had the real fear he might die and that we would become one of those cautionary tales rich people told their children in order to scare them into staying in an expensive and soulless resort hotel instead of the rainforest.

One of the ladies who lived on the farm made Dustin a special brew of herbs and fruit. I actually prayed that night, tucked away in my sleeping bag and my mosquito net, while the spiders sung their guttural growl in the darkness, and while cockroaches as big as notebooks kept falling through the ceiling and slapping onto the wooden planks of my tiny farm shanty. I could hear Dustin moaning along with the spiders in the room next to me. I could hear his wooden bunk groaning as he readjusted his shoulders. I worried the whole night. On the fifth day, surprisingly, God seemed to have answered me. When Dustin started feeling a tiny bit better and because I was afraid getting some jungle disease might happen to me, we did what any Americans would do—we got the fuck out of there and stayed in a hotel for the night.

At the second farm, we worked eight-hour days, and it became clear that a lot of WWOOFers were really just rich white kids trying to find themselves and that they’d never worked a day of hard labour in their lives. Not everybody was like that. I met one girl named Brenna who could’ve been a coal miner. She and I, on one particular day, had to till a plot of soil to get ready for planting corn. The plot was probably three yards across by forty yards long. We started at one end while some hippie rich dude and some hippie rich girl he was crushing on started at the other with the understanding that both twosomes would meet in the middle. Brenna and I shovelled and turned dirt for four hours straight, laughing a bit, sharing stories of past work experiences, but never standing up to rest.

When Dustin rang the big rusty bell by the water well for lunch, Brenna and I finally turned around to see that we’d made it thirty yards while the rich hippie idiots hadn’t even made it two. Their shovels lay in the dirt while they swatted at butterflies and went on and on about some emo band called Animal Collective. They never washed dishes. They never once cooked a meal. They said words like “truth” and “soul” and “chill” and “deep” a lot. “Have you ever read The Alchemist?” they asked, while steeping their tea or fucking up the first few bars to a Dave Mathews song on an out-of-tune guitar. “You should totally check The Four Agreements,” they said. “It changed my life,” they said. “Travelling is just what I’m supposed to be doing right now. You just don’t know until you’ve done it, you know?”

They kept talking. “My parents just don’t get it, like real freedom, you know. I just wanna be free to…like…roam.”

If these people sound like clichés, it’s because they are. It’s because thousands of them, right now, are stomping across developing countries with the backpacks their parents have bought them. They look like those huge blue and red carnival balloons but with legs and expensive hiking boots peeking out the bottom.

Dustin and I were two of them, but, to be fair, we had bought our own packs, and we did know the value of a hard day’s work. The money we were spending for this trip was our own. 

I hated that I saw myself in those kinds of people.

I’d read the same books too. I’d whispered the same desires to myself with a head full of acid and weed. Our lives just kept imitating our parents’ art, and we all (their kids) just kept imitating each other.

I’m sure everyone’s experience with WWOOF has been different, but mine seemed like some safe American fantasy, a rich kid’s utopia, a place you could go only so you could tell everyone else you’d been. Maybe all of us, including me if I ever made it out of the middle class, were just looking for a story they could later tell their colleagues over expensive wine. Listen to how hard I had it. Listen how I, too, have suffered. What’s more American than flying to a developing country in order to suffer safely?

Maybe all of us when we leave our parents just want to be different, and we are all the same in that, of course. I can live with that, but to believe so deeply that I was one of a kind and then to discover that I was exactly the same as those two rich, yuppy, fake-hippy fuckheads who couldn’t even turn topsoil, that was a monumentally difficult bucket of dirty river water to swallow.

I felt cheated. I felt that my life hadn’t been my own, that my choices had already been made. I hated my view of the world had been so small. I hated my fucking small-town mind. Someone had already been here before, had these feelings, had written bad love poems in this same leather-bound journal, had wandered through these thoughts, and then had left too. Was leaving early, also, a kind of cliché? An expected development in the plot of this drama?  Or worse, a literary trope?

I wanted something more authentic — that’s how goddamned naïve I was — even though authenticity was impossible. When Dustin got sick again, we used it as an excuse to leave. After ten or so days on two farms, after sickness, after a few shovels full of brutal truth, we decided we weren’t going to do any farm work in South America anymore. We went back to our primary plan: keep moving. We were so unoriginal.

*****

The sergeant sinks into a seat at his desk and begins writing, his hat upside down and open on a stack of papers beside him. Then, a new character is introduced to the theatre; a third man enters in civilian clothes and aviator sunglasses. He leans against the wall with his arms folded across the front of his red flannel shirt. Dustin and I eye him up and down. The sergeant won’t cut out the “good cop” routine. He’s tried and tried, he tells me in Spanish. There’s nothing more he can do, he says. I’m on your side, he keeps repeating, and it takes him about ten minutes to finally arrive at the con at the bottom of it all: if I want my friend to be released from lockup today, I’ll have to get on the back of this new character’s motorcycle, drive to my bank, withdraw two hundred dollars, bring it back here and set it on the sergeant’s desk.

*****

Dustin and I had heard a lot of stories about the border between Ecuador and Peru. A different friend of mine had been robbed in Peru once, and he’d had to punch a dog and a man in the face to get away. We’d heard about kidnappings and drug mules and some scheme where one man would spray mustard on your shoe while the other picked your pocket. People tell these stories because they want you to pay attention. Parents tell their children these stories because they want them to understand that the world is full of people who want to come to your country and take your shit, so you better protect it. America has always been that kind of people. 

Dustin and I, when I am the most honest, were those people coming to sample Peru for its ceviche and its new experiences and its surf. I know how it sounds, but everywhere we travel, and by “we” I mean all of us (you included), we travel in order to take something back with us. And everywhere you will ever go, America has already been there before you to fuck it up. And you have to know all of this when travelling, but let’s tell the truth: even though you know all of this about yourself and America, you will keep right on travelling, won’t you? Yes. You will. And why? Because you can.

So we did.

Preparing for the crossing was difficult, but luckily, after a few impromptu interviews through various passenger-side windows, we found a taxi driver we trusted in a red Honda hatchback. He picked us up on the sidewalk in front of a hostel in Ecuador a few miles from the Peruvian border. We stuffed our money into our underwear. He drove us to the dividing line early in the morning, parked, puffed a cigarette against his rusted right fender and watched us from a distance as we crossed a stone bridge over dirty water.

Through the noise of engines and the shouts of vendors, through stuffed animals and tables of onions and carrots and cucumbers, through the smoke from barrel fires, and over the smell of sizzling meats and sausages, through the high whine of motorcycles and the hanging trinkets and balloons, a man with a scar on his face held up a golden key and gestured for us to follow him. We looked back at our original cab driver who held up his thumb and his cigarette, nodded in agreement, and drove away.

Scarface. That’s what I’m going to call this man with the golden key and the scar down his face. We climbed into his silver Subaru. He introduced us to his son who sat at the steering wheel. I sat in the front passenger seat, and Scarface sat in the back beside Dustin. I asked the son if he’d ever read any Cesar Vallejo, one of my favourite poets, a Peruvian. Of course, he hadn’t. That was like assuming every single American knew who Miles Davis was.

We told them to take us to Montanita, a beach town a short drive from the border, and it wasn’t until we had gone about halfway that Scarface and his son revealed to us that it would be sixty dollars each, far far over the price we had agreed on before we got in the car. There was a lot of arguing then. Dustin turned his Atlanta Braves hat backwards on his head. I told them to let us out even though it was a desolate road with no buildings around for miles. They agreed but said we would have to pay them forty dollars total. Dustin handed Scarface two twenties.

“Es roto,” Scarface kept repeating (meaning: it’s broken or ripped). He handed one twenty back to Dustin. Dustin gave him another twenty and stuffed the “broken” twenty back in his pocket. They did this several times. Dustin didn’t take one of those twenty-dollar bills out of his wallet for the entire sixteen-some-odd days we were in Peru — partying, dancing, longboarding delicious waves, sucking down freshly squeezed juices every morning — until the day he handed it to a customs office official, who handed it to the sergeant, who arrested Dustin at the customs office two miles from the border of Ecuador for trying to use counterfeit American money.

*****

We were in this customs office because Scarface had switched Dustin’s real twenties with a fake one he’d had prepared, the old bait and switch, the old sleight of hand. Our cab driver was a con-man magician. How could we have expected that? We had wanted to save eighty dollars. That was the first con, the long con that we had never seen coming as that fake twenty rode all around Peru with us in the pocket of Dustin’s cutoff jeans like a pipe bomb.

Now the sergeant was playing out the final act. Earlier, when I was pleading with the sergeant, I was describing Scarface and his son, describing the silver Subaru, describing the big yellow sticker of the sun on the back window. I thought I even remembered both of their names, but none of that mattered because the sergeant wasn’t interested in catching a phantom cab driver named Scarface with counterfeit money. He was interested in getting real American money from our real American bank accounts.

Now, I’m riding on the back of a motorcycle back toward the border, hugging this red-flannelled stranger. I’m looking to see if we’re being followed. Every person in every automobile is a suspect. Every movie I’ve ever seen about people getting robbed or kidnapped in a foreign country is montaging through my head. I’m scanning for a black van full of masked hostiles. I’m looking for rocket launchers. I’m looking for a man with dynamite strapped to his chest and even wondering if I am going to end up being that man…

Also, consider this—my friend is essentially being held hostage in a foreign prison to ensure that I don’t leave him without ponying up the cash. There are no exit strategies. I, like Dustin, am trapped, but in a much different way. The sergeant and El Jefe are the directors, and all we can do is continue letting them push us around their city like chess pieces.

When we get to the big marble bank, there is a bullet-proof vested guard with a machine gun standing by the entrance. I consider telling him everything, but then I realise that El Jefe probably signs this guy’s paychecks, and he probably takes orders directly from the sergeant. I realise also while walking up the steps to the kiosk that I’m probably one out of ten tourists who’ve come to this same ATM to pay the same two hundred dollars to the same sergeant. But I’m an American, one like any other, so maybe I deserve it. Maybe two hundred dollars is a cheap price to pay for a foreign story, but I won’t think about that until later.

I look over my shoulder. A car dashes past and disappears down an alley. The motorcycle man waits by his wheezing bike thirty feet away. I remove my card from the money belt beneath my shirt and slide my card into the ATM.

*****

How does my friend feel in that room, just he and the sergeant, all alone?

Let’s give Dustin a monologue: “I make Ephraim translate for me before he leaves: ‘I’m nervous. I’m scared.’ It seems a ridiculous thing to admit, like something a person moments away from being executed might mumble to themselves. There is something cruel about being trapped. I’ve been arrested and locked up since then. But being trapped and unable to communicate is a particularly terrifying brand of fear.”

See how he creates for himself the plight of the prisoner: “My mind goes to dark places. I remember the very worst stories about people being locked up abroad. I reflect on prison shanks. I imagine the worst in people and what they are capable of.”

About El Jefe: “He looks just like, in my mind, Saddam Hussein. A real military general type vibe. He has made it perfectly clear. He puts both of his wrists behind his back and then turns around, displaying to me his invisible handcuffs. ‘Yes. Gringo. Rich American Fuck. You are going to Peruvian jail.’”

*****

I’ve got the two hundred dollars for the sergeant, and the motorcycle man motors me back to the customs office. When I climb off on the curb, he tells me the ride costs twenty dollars. I groan out loud and pay him with the extra money I had hidden in my underwear.

I say “fuck you” under my breath to the motorcycle man as he speeds off, but I respect him. I long-leg it through the crowded customs building, trying to find my way back to the office. I’m tasting a kind of freedom now for the first time, so I play out what calling the US embassy to report this would look like, how long Dustin would be in lockup, the difficulty of communicating, of even being able to get in touch with someone who could help, of even finding a phone and having any idea how to use it. I realise that choice is impossible because I have no choices but the only American choice: when you’re an American in trouble, pay someone the money to make it go away.

I enter the office and slide the two hundred dollars onto the metal desk between me and the sergeant. He covers the bills with his upside-down officer’s hat. He won’t touch them, not yet, not while we’re in the room. He bows like a monk and thanks me. Dustin stands and stretches. The sergeant stands and shakes Dustin’s hand. Dustin presents his Atlanta Braves hat to the sergeant, then, as some kind of gift, and I’m wondering what was shared between the two of them while I had been on that wobbly ride to the bank for ransom money. What humanness could have been understood between two people from two different countries who couldn’t speak each other’s languages while one, it has become obvious, is just trying to jack money from the other? How many American baseball caps does the sergeant have hanging in his home office?

Dustin and I walk out into the Peruvian afternoon. We will cross the border on a bus. We will lick our bruised egos and talk a fuck-ton of shit about El Jefe and Scarface and his shitty son and the strange sergeant with the silver wedding ring who seemed to have found a way to fuck us over politely. A few days later, we will make our way back to Quito, the capital of Ecuador, and then fly home.

*****

We had flown so far south after what we had wanted, and it hadn’t made us happy. We became unsure of what it was we had wanted in the first place, who we were, what the real “we” was.

We felt beaten and defeated. We felt we’d been robbed.

We remembered that we had been searching for something holy when we flew to South America, but what we found when we got there was that the old roles were always waiting to be filled with the new faces. The old roles had always been too ready to go to war. What we found in Ecuador and Peru was other people who seemed to be the same type of people we had been when we left our small town, angry, but it was different because we and a million others who’d come before us were the people who’d cheated them.

We were the old roles, we, who wherever we go, can never not be Americans. We felt saddled with a strange kind of responsibility for all America had ever done.

*****

So here we are, nearing the end. As stagehands so often must, Dustin and I are watching from the dark wings of this rickety playhouse, now, decked out in our dark uniforms as the sergeant in his mint shirt and El Jefe in his golden buttons saunter hand-in-hand to centre stage and take a slow bow like matadors who have just bested an American animal. They look like award-winning directors. They look like Hollywood action stars. The wooden stage fills with glitter and roses thrown down by the crowd. The sergeant sends Dustin’s Atlanta Braves hat somewhere deep into the stands. The applause swells and holds its volume. Tonight, the voice of the audience shows no signs of subsiding…but it always does. This, of course, is a metaphor.

Dustin and I had thought the story was ours. Everywhere we went, we thought we would be the leads.

But we are learning. We have begun embracing our place in this old production, though it is unfamiliar. When Jefe nods our way, we crank down the curtain and send our push brooms across the hardwood. We fill the mop bucket with hot water and a capful of bleach. We re-build the setting back to the sergeant’s office from the first act: the chairs, the desk, the Virgin Mary on the shelf.

We power down the house lights. We are the last one’s out of the building. We wonder what our two hundred dollars will pay for? Will it go toward a Peruvian office Christmas party with jumbo shrimp and white wine spritzers? Will it buy a first baseman’s glove for the sergeant’s son or a few blank canvases for Jefe’s artistic sister? It is so hard for me to be ok with being taken advantage of that I have to imagine the money as a donation to some noble and charitable cause. Otherwise, I’ll just stay angry and want to get even, but a beatdown crew from A-Town can only travel so far. 

And how could I not be angry at what I’ve discovered? I have told you a story about my life in which I am just like a million other people who have come before me. In this telling, I have happened upon the lesson the world keeps on repeating but that I have always found it so fucking difficult to learn: I am unimportant. 

Let me say it again to emphasize how difficult a lesson that is for me: I am unimportant. 

I am not special. Dustin and I are only stagehands in this familiar stage production, in this metaphor. Tomorrow night, in the land of this drama, our Peruvian stars will return. Another audience will amble in with their tickets and peanuts, equipped with that strange privilege which has been bestowed upon all audiences since the beginning of time: the power of choosing which character to care for and which to forget. 

The curtain will open again on the first scene. Sitting across from the sergeant, again, will be two new suckers who think they are the centre of the universe. These two new Americans will be just about to get their shit taken. It will be as if Dustin and I had never been.

Ephraim Scott Sommers

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

A singer, songwriter, poet, and essayist, Ephraim Scott Sommers is the author of two books: The Night We Set the Dead Kid on Fire & Someone You Love Is Still Alive. He currently lives in Rock Hill, SC, and teaches English as an Associate Professor at Winthrop University.

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