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But more dangerous than any crooked cop or car thief is Tijuana traffic. Driving in Mexico was a welcome thrill in my wilder days, but I have become a defensive driver in my afternoon years. A drive through Tijuana sounds to me almost as deadly as the I-5 and 101 route from Irvine to Thousand Oaks.

I tried to blend into the flow of traffic, but after horns and shouts reduced me to a wimp, I drove in fits and starts the way my mother used to at the age of 80. I infuriated scores of motorists by rounding a traffic circle a dozen or so times before I determined which way to branch off. Downtown was a maze of one-way streets and construction detours. My brain whirled from the tornado of delivery trucks and cabs whizzing past. At last I found a parking lot off Avenida Revolución, near the Jai Alai Palace.

After a fruitless search of the magazine rack in a Sanborn's department store, I hiked past the police station to Constitución, a busy mercantile street a couple of blocks outside the tourist zone. At a magazine stand on the corner of Constitución and Calle Ocho, Sergio Nieto, a small man with a gray beard, was preparing to close for siesta. In my best high school Spanish, I asked him about fotonovelas. He had many, he said, and started to show me vaqueros, sentimentales, historietas. Not a true fotonovela among them.

"No fotonovelas con fotos actuales?" I groaned.

He used to have them, he said. They used to come out every week, but they don't make those anymore -- not for a year at least, he explained.

I bought a few fauxtonovelas to show my appreciation and then plodded east until I spotted another magazine stand. There a young vendor named Atanacio Ramírez told me he also hadn't seen any fotonovelas con fotos in several years. But Atanacio pointed the way to the treasure.

At Lucero Librería, a used book and magazine store, the proprietor, Oscar Ruiz, showed me a pile of true fotonovelas, all of them frayed, fragile, and at least a dozen years old.

Tonight, I told myself, armed with cerveza, a dicionário, and the phone numbers of friends who are real Spanish speakers, I would read them.

I can read Spanish menus with ease, but for any other kind of literature I need a dictionary and ample time to concentrate. So while I waited in the quarter-mile-long Port of Entry line, I browsed a few of the articles I had picked up at SDSU. I learned that some social-activist critics claim that fotonovelas foster gender ambiguity and other social ills. One critic lamented the simplistic plots of commercial fotonovelas that target the widest, least discriminating audience and criticized the way they stereotyped social classes and blamed moral defects on bad genes.

At the border gate I felt sure the guard who stood there gazing at me would conclude that my face must belong to a terrorist -- I hadn't yet recovered from the harrowing drive, and I was hungry. He asked what I was bringing from Mexico. "A bunch of magazines," I explained, cringing as I wondered if the fotonovelas I'd bought at Lucero Librería might get me jailed as a pornography smuggler. To my surprise, he simply waved me through.

A few minutes later I was soothing my frayed nerves at a Popeyes chicken just off the 805 when inspiration struck. Ever since another writer and I walked into a Tucson Popeyes for lunch and discovered that the only other patrons were the novelists Larry McMurtry and Leslie Silko, I've considered it a literary hangout. And Tucson, I remembered, was the location of a distributor of fotonovelas an Internet site recommended. A distributor, I thought, would carry contemporary fotonovelas.

Risking indigestion for the sake of art, I gobbled the rest of my chicken and dirty rice. Then, risking death for the sake of art, I sped home along Highway 94 at rush hour, arriving just in time to call Latin American Periodicals before they closed.

A fellow with a congenial voice answered.

"Does your outfit handle fotonovelas?" I asked. "And I mean real ones, with the photographs in them."

"We sure do."

"Could I come there and look at some of them and interview somebody?"

"You can," he said. "We're closed over the weekend, though."

Sure, I could've waited and driven over at dawn on Monday and returned Monday evening, but I have more to do in Tucson than play detective. I've got a daughter, a son-in-law, and a baby grandson there. Plus they live just blocks from two excellent golf courses, and because I helped them buy their home, I possess a Tucson resident discount card.

Besides, the Muse could be leading me to that certain fotonovela whose melodramatic plot would inspire my first bestselling novel.

I would have loved to take my wife Pam and our daughter Zoë along, but traveling with a two-year-old is a chore, and I was too intent on my pursuit of the fotonovela to put up with such distractions. And anyway, Pam had to work on Monday. "Darn it, Pam, I guess I have to go to Tucson, to interview a guy."

She's a clever one and probably could sense I wasn't feeling as put out as I let on. Before she could probe any further, I described my frustrating day on the trail of the elusive contemporary fotonovela. "But," I announced with grim assurance, "this distributor, who just happens to be in Tucson, holds all the answers."

"Can't he enlighten you over the phone?" she asked. My hopes for a sunny round or two of golf began to dim.

"Well, I need to see these fotonovelas in person," I said. "The only ones I found are ancient. And -- "

"Have fun," she said. "Zoë and I will be fine."

While she was occupied changing a diaper, I snuck my golf clubs from the garage to my car. But I made sure she saw me carrying the laptop computer. "In case some fotonovela inspires me," I said.

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