no one can know

OIL IN WATER

Pam Lazos

Chapter Thirty

Avery pulled Ruth’s van into Cooper’s gas station. Kori sat in the passenger seat; Gil and Max were in the back reading comic books. Kori slunk down in her seat, pulled her hat low over her brow and bit her nails.

“You guys wait here, okay?” Avery said.

“All right, already. Just hurry up,” Kori snipped.

Avery blew out of the car as if he’d been sand-blasted, rolling down to the pavement and out of sight before Kori had a chance to change her mind. Max’s ears pricked up, but Gil made no move to indicate he was even listening.

 ➣➣➣

Avery crossed the parking lot as if he owned the place, a walk he’d been practicing for weeks in anticipation of this meeting. He could see Mr. Cooper’s bald head through the window, bent in concentration over a stack of papers. When he got to the door, though, Avery wavered, and rather than boldly stepping into his future, he knocked lightly, the little bell over the door tinkling as he entered. Mr. Cooper didn’t look up, but continued reviewing the stack of papers before him, initialing them one at a time as he placed them into the “completed” pile.

“Lazy bastards,” Mr. Cooper said, not quite under his breath.

“Excuse me,” Avery said, half-turning to leave. Not the welcome he expected.

Mr. Cooper’s head, gleaming like a cue ball in the florescent light, popped up to greet him. “Oh for Chrissakes. Avery Tirabi. I thought you were one of my employees in here for another cup of coffee.” He stood and offered his hand, recently washed, but still bearing the grimy remnants of what looked to be a mid-morning oil change. Avery gave him a firm shake and Mr. Cooper’s round belly, stretched over the limit’s of his size forty-two pants, jiggled in greeting.

“Sit down. Have a cup of coffee.” Mr. Cooper motioned toward the “Mr. Coffee,” formerly white plastic, now oil-stained from years of dirty, grease-stained hands. A few stacks of Styrofoam cups and a shaker of sugar sat next to the pot. Avery looked at the whole ensemble and grimaced.

“Oh, no thanks, Mr. Cooper. Don’t drink the stuff,” he lied. When he did drink coffee, Avery needed tons of sugar and milk, the latter of which was no where in sight. Instead there was a liquid plastic known as “non-dairy creamer”on the table. Avery never understand the American penchant for creating fake substitutes when the real thing was so readily available.

“So what’s up? Did you come to sell me some more of that lovely gas and oil?”

Avery brightened. Mr. Cooper was interested before he’d even opened his mouth. “Actually, I did. I’ve got a few fifty-five gallon drums outside.”

Mr. Cooper raised an eyebrow. “How’d you get them in the car? They’re monsters.”

Avery shrugged his shoulders. “I rigged a ramp.” Avery waved a hand in dismissal as if the feat were no big deal. “Car was dragging a bit on the way over though. Hell on the suspension.” Avery felt like an adult, using the word “hell” without coming off like someone who regularly used vulgarity. Mr. Cooper tried to suppress a smile, but Avery caught it. Right where I want him . “So, Mr. Cooper, you said before you’d take all the gas and oil I could deliver. Are you still thinking that way?”

“Absolutely. Finest product I’ve come across in all my thirty years of running a service station. Your father made a fine product.” A shadow crept across Mr. Cooper’s face. “Tragedy,” he said, shaking his head. “Terrible tragedy.”

Mr. Cooper shot Avery a half-smile, half-grimace, walked over and clapped him on the back. “What are we waiting for, my boy. Let’s go unload. Same price as before, I presume?”

“Actually, Mr. Cooper, I need to raise the price about 10%,” Avery said. “Overhead.”

Mr. Cooper assessed Avery for a few moments. “Anything I can do to help old Marty. Cold as he may be personally, his legacy lives on.” He squeezed Avery’s shoulder. “Your father’d be proud of you boy. Well. Why am I saying, boy? You’re not a boy. You’re a man. And a heck of a fine one, too, I might add.” Mr. Cooper opened the door and held it for Avery who was still seated.

“Mr. Cooper. There’s one more thing.”

Mr. Cooper closed the door and stood, hand on the doorknob.

“No one can know where you got this stuff.”

Mr. Cooper raised himself to his full height of five feet, nine inches and sidled up close to Avery, whispering. “What’s happened? Something else?”

Avery shook his head. “No. It’s just my sister’s still freaked out about the porch. She thinks it’s all tied together. So if anybody comes around….”

“I’ll just tell them that I’ve started buying from a competitor who wishes to remain anonymous.”

“You think that’ll do it?”

Mr. Cooper rubbed the stubble of his unshaven face, deep in thought. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll handle them. Haven’t been in business for thirty years without some savvy of my own, eh?”

“Thanks, Mr. Cooper.” Avery stood and they shook hands.

“Okay, let’s walk. We’ll talk turkey on the way.”

Avery stepped into the garage, abuzz with the whir of motors and power tools, and thought of Robbie’s penchant for mechanics. He should be home running a place like this. Maybe if I sold enough oil….

They walked out into the parking lot where the noise level dropped substantially. Mr. Cooper’s step was quick and light for a man with so much girth, and Avery had to walk fast to keep up with him.

“So how much more of this you got, and more importantly, can you make some more?” Avery was about to answer, but Mr. Cooper continued. “Frankly, I’d be happy to tell all these oil guys to go to hell. They’ve been gouging me for years. Government’s no help. Let’s ‘em get away with murdering, thieving and stealing from the American public. They say they’re a unified front to help with the foreign competition, but I call it price-fixing.” He poked Avery in the ribs. “You know what I predict? I predict it’ll come back to bite ‘em in the ass someday. I just hope I’m around to see it.” He chuckled, then laughed full out, exposing a mouthful of metal. Now standing at the back of Ruth’s minivan, Mr. Cooper lifted the hatch without waiting for a signal from Avery.

Mad Max greeted him exactly like Cerberus would have had someone tried to breach the gates of hell, green eyes ablaze and barking for all he was worth. His singular head moved so fast that he very well could have had three. Mr. Cooper jumped back a quarter mile.

“Gil! Get him under control!” Avery shouted.

Gil’s eyes peered out, an iridescent green gleaming between the barrels. He grabbed Max by the collar and pulled him down to the sit. “It’s okay, boy,” he said sweetly, rubbing Max’s ears. Max settled his head onto Gil’s lap, calmer, but still growling. The sound rolled around in his massive jowls before ricocheting off the front seat and out to Mr. Cooper who stood immobile and at a safe distance away.

“It’s all right. Gil’s got him.”

“I hate dogs,” Mr. Cooper said. “Scared to death of ‘em.”

Max barked once as if to say you should be , but Gil tugged at his collar and he relaxed again.

Mr. Cooper signaled for one of his employees to bring the hand cart. Gil gave Max an ear rub so thorough that he could do little more than roll over when Mr. Cooper’s guys unloaded the van.

 to be continued. . .

jump here to read what came before. . .

copyright 2012

letting go at last

OIL IN WATER

Pam Lazos

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Kori rummaged through her purse, searching for spare change. Frustrated, she dumped the contents onto the bed. She picked two crumpled dollar bills and a few coins from the debris, turned to her night stand drawer and found four more coins inside.

She ran down to the basement and threw open the swinging doors to the little room where the washer and dryer sat. Perched above the machinery were two rows of six-foot long shelves which, in another incarnation, served as bleacher seats for the local high school football stadium. Marty had rescued them from the trash heap when the township had built a bigger stadium, whitewashed them and bolted them to the wall. Instead of pubescent derrieres, they now housed laundry detergents, dryer sheets and stain removing products, used sparingly since Ruth’s death.

Stepping over the mound of dirty clothes, Kori pulled a small box from the shelf, about the size of two decks of cards, and rifled through its contents. Three dozen coins, several buttons, a Sharpie magic marker, and a single ear plug – Kori had tossed the mate, mangled and melted beyond recognition — had survived the dryer, hapless travelers in an unplanned foray through the cotton cycle. She dumped the contents of the box into her hand and weeded out everything but the coins. She counted the money: $5.76. That plus the money she got from ravaging the rest of the house and she had about $13. Enough to buy a gallon of milk, some bread, peanut butter and jelly for Gil, a pack of hot dogs and buns, a head of lettuce, a few other miscellaneous items.

But what about tomorrow? They were out of fresh fruits and vegetables, the only thing left was canned goods: tuna, beans, corn and the like. She could live on the cans for a couple days, maybe even three or four, but after awhile the pallor of her skin indicated her body’s disapproval. She clenched her teeth and threw the money to the floor, scattering change to the four directions. Filled with regret, she slumped down after it, falling in a dejected heap on the floor. She sobbed for several minutes, the crescendo a high-pitched wail, and then, silence. She rolled over and lay on the floor, her breathing shallow, her eyes dazed and unseeing.

After several minutes she walked to her work area, flipped on the computer. Beyond the screen, the French doors of the walkout basement beckoned her eyes to the east, that place of peace and spiritual renewal, of new beginnings. Kori breathed in the pastoral setting, allowing the spiritual rejuvenation it afforded to settle in her bones. She took a deep breath and pulled up some client billing information.

The bill was sent two days ago. Her hand hovered above the keyboard a moment and then she began. She added a few hours to the labor, a few dollars to supplies, tweaking it here and there, enough to increase it by almost $200. Then she composed a letter of explanation.

Dear Sir or Madame,

It has come to our attention that the bill you received on 11/14 was in error. Enclosed please find a more accurate accounting of work performed on your behalf. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.

Also, the billing cycle has been shortened. Please remit payment to the undersigned within the twenty (20) days of the date of this letter. Please be advised that failure to pay in a timely fashion will result in incurring late charges which will begin to accrue immediately at the close of the grace period. Prompt payment is therefore, requested.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Very truly yours,

“Whatcha’ doing?”

Kori jumped so high she banged her thighs on the bottom of the computer table and sent the mouse flying. She turned to glare at the interloper.

“Geez, Gil. Don’t sneak up on a person like that.”

“I didn’t sneak. I walked right down the stairs. It’s not my fault if you didn’t hear me.” Gil peered over Kori’s shoulder to read what was on the computer screen. Embarrassed, Kori closed the screen before Gil had the chance to figure out what she was up to. In an attempt to change the subject, Kori focused on Gil’s attire: pants that were two inches up from the ground and shirt sleeves that didn’t come anywhere near his wrists.

“Gil, what the heck are you wearing?”

“Clothes.”

“Very funny. I meant, why are you wearing clothes that are too small for you?”

“Because I can’t find anything else.” Kori glanced over toward the alcove that housed the washer and dryer. Even from here she could see several mounds of clothes behind the swinging doors threatening to overtake the little room. Kori sighed.

“You mean you only have a week’s worth of clothes?”

“Of clothes that fit.” Gil looked out the window transfixed.

“Kori. If you keep working on the computer, can we buy that farm?” Gil asked, looking out at the broad expanse of now slumbering fields.

“The farm?” Kori shook her head and laughed. “Well, if you want to buy the farm I suggest you get busy and invent something big because that farm’s gonna cost a lot more than I’ve got in the bank.

“I’m hungry,” Gil said. “And there’s no bread. Also almost no peanut butter.”

“All right,” she said, shutting the computer. “Help me pick up the money that’s all over the floor. Then we’ll go to the grocery store.”

 ➣➣➣

Kori stood at the kitchen table unpacking the groceries: white bread, generic peanut butter and laundry detergent and a three-pack of soap, a gallon of milk. Avery walked in the door, bundled against the wind, backpack flung over his shoulder. He dropped his pack on the table, shed his hat and coat and flopped down in a chair. His cheeks looked red and chapped.

“How was school?” Kori asked.

“Fine.” He sighed without looking and absent-mindedly poked at the loaf of bread. “I need $75 to go on the field trip to D.C. To the Holocaust Museum.” Kori removed the bread from his grasp before he did further damage. “If I don’t go, I’ll have to spend the day hanging out with the kids in detention. Not that I’d be in detention, per se. It’s just that there wouldn’t be any other place to put me.” He did look at her now and Kori saw him so close to tears that her own heart threatened an emphatic split in two.

“Okay.”

“Okay, what?”

She sat down beside Avery and took a deep breath. “Go ahead and sell it.”

Avery’s eyes grew wide.

“I can’t stand this hand-to-mouth living anymore. And I can’t for the life of me figure out what else to do.”

Avery smiled, and Kori noted his eyes had taken on a translucent quality facilitated, she figured, by the wateriness in her own.

“It’ll be okay, Kori,” Avery said. “I promise.”

 to be continued. . .

to read what came before leap here

copyright 2012

bon mots and sparkling prose

Journal THAT

a guide to writing

Cynthia Gregory

 Dialogue is some of the most difficult stuff to write. Well, difficult if you want to do it really well and for it to sound both natural and powerful. It may seem like a paradox, but when dialogue sounds natural, it’s usually anything but. Good dialogue is a mix of craft, study, and a whole lot of understanding that some of the most important stuff is what you leave out. In other words, the back story; but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Have you ever walked away from an argument then hours later came up with the perfect rejoinder? Good dialogue is like that. Good dialogue contains all the spiffy, swift, snarky words you’d say the first time around if you had the chance to work it all out first. Good luck with that.

Developing a skill for dialogue is something that requires patience. . .and practice. How do you practice? Listen. Read. Write. Ernest Hemingway wrote some of the best dialogue in the history of the planet. His characters spoke with grit, pathos, and with bone crunching honesty, and yours should, too. Read his stories and novels with an eye toward dialogue and see what you find.

Papa was also brilliant at character, plot, and conflict. For the purposes of this conversation, I urge you to carefully study how his characters speak to one another. My particular favorite Hemingway story is “Hills Like White Elephants” which as a piece consists almost entirely of dialogue so brilliant I want to cry when I read it. The other wonderful story by E. Hemingway is “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” Ee-yikes, that man could write dialogue.

Part of his strength in dialogue comes from the fact that he didn’t feel the need to connect every dot in the storyline; he assumed that the reader was reasonably intelligent, and could piece it together.

You don’t need to worry about connecting everything. Your amazingly powerful subconscious does it for you. To test the theory for yourself, rent a movie like Sliding Doors or The Golden Compass and watch it. If you’ve never see these movies before, enjoy the story the first time through, let it wash over you as pure entertainment. Then, watch them a second time, listening for dialogue. Notice how the characters speak the way real people do, but better. On the third time through, you should know the story well enough by now to take a step back, and look at how the scenes are woven together.  Perhaps you notice that your own brain provided some of the connective tissue between scenes,  that significant pieces of information were not actually there, that your own subconscious provided those bridges between scene, dialogue, and plot. It’s interesting how the brain works to make sense of what it sees and hears, providing those little leaps of logic between one frame and the next.

You can do this as a writer, too. Begin to notice how people speak to one another. Very often, they do not follow threads of conversation in a smooth and linear way. One person speaks, and maybe the other listens, maybe they just say what’s on their mind, like the following example:

Devon walked into the clubhouse and gravitated toward Elise. “How are you,” he asked. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere.”

Elise swept a fringe of bangs  from her eyes.  “It’s so hot today.”

“Did you see the Connollys won the golf tournaments? Figures.”

“I’d give anything for a lemonade.”

This may sound like an ersatz example, but I challenge you to prove me wrong. This will involve eavesdropping, so prepare to have some fun. Now, the first thing you do is take your journal down to the local café, burger joint, or java hut. Find yourself a table, place an order, then open your journal.  Try to be subtle about it so your neighbors don’t realize you’re recording their conversation, but you’re going to do just that. Write down what they say. You don’t have to be looking at them, in fact it’s probably better if you don’t. Listen to the way they speak. Listen to the cadence, the word choices, idioms, the patterns of speech.

At the risk of sounding like a linguistics geek (yeah, yeah, whatev), I adore the way regional and cultural influences affect the way we speak to one another. When you realize  that only 10 percent of our total communication is the words we use, and then you look at how the words we use influence meaning and nuance, you can see how important dialogue is.  Forget about trying to write accents, that’s just annoying. But focus on the types of words that are used.

Words are worlds. Anyone with a teenager knows what it is to learn a new language, weekly, just to communicate with the people with whom you share groceries and a living space. Talk to anyone older than sixty, and you’ll be introduced to wonderful idioms that you may never have heard before. My personal favorite from a recent conversation is, “he couldn’t tell his butt from a hot rock.” I still chuckle when I think of that one.

Word choices contain emotional and cultural weight. Think about it. When you use the word “grenade” do you think, ‘oh, good’? Probably not. But if you use the word ‘bride’ it probably generates feelings of love and romance.  Words carry weight.

Some idioms reflect a time in history, such as “Give me a ring.” This used to mean “Give me a call,” but since telephones now come equipped with ring tones and all kinds of sound effects, the term “ring” is just a piece of jewelry.

As a word geek, I am constantly amazed when nouns are used as verbs, as in “Jeff texted me last night We’re breaking up.” Once, ‘text’ was a noun meaning a compilation of words.  Now, ‘to text’ means to send a clever message via any number of electronic devices.  Our language is a living organism, changing all the time, as evidenced by how we speak to one another.

The best dialogue has the primary purpose of moving the plot or story, forward. Period. It isn’t used to describe what someone is wearing, it isn’t to provide a blow-by-blow description of last night’s fight. It’s a way to show your reader where they’re going next, but in, you know, shorthand.

So, pay attention. Listen. Eavesdrop. Hey – it’s for the sake of your journal! All I ask is that you be discrete.

mind the child

OIL IN WATER

Pam Lazos

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Kori sat at the kitchen table going over accounts receivable for the umpteenth time. She wrote numbers on a yellow legal pad, arrayed neatly in columns, punched them into a calculator and wrote them down below previous groups of numbers; the paper was covered with at least a dozen such reckonings, all with lines through them. Upon transferring the final tally, she scribbled over the column and dropped her head to the table.

“Aaaaaaah!” She banged her head on the table several times.

Avery walked in, took one look at Kori and walked out. A couple minutes later he peered around the corner. Kori’s head was still on the table, but she’d stopped banging it.

“Just shoot me now,” she said without raising her head.

“You talking to me?”

“You see anybody else here?”

Avery looked behind him and then back at his sister. “No.”

“Then I’m talking to you, but it doesn’t matter,” Kori said. “I could be talking to the Queen of England. It wouldn’t matter,” she said, sitting up.

Avery sat down and assessed the mass of paperwork spread before her. “Are you going to tell me what the problem is or just go on in high drama?”

Kori raised her head and slammed her fist on the table again. “The problem? The problem is we don’t have enough money. That’s the problem.”

“I thought you just got a check from Robbie?”

“I did,” Kori nodded, “and I used it to buy groceries, and clothes for Gil since all his pants were like three inches too short, and pay the insurance, and the electric bill so they don’t shut us off, and the overdue cable bill…”

“We should be dropping cable. It’s an expense we don’t need,” Avery said.

“Oh yeah? You gonna listen to him whine all day about how there’s nothing to watch. Some expenses are necessary — for sanity’s sake.” Avery dismissed the argument with a wave of his hand.

“And just today I got a $3,700 tax bill and you know what I have left in the checking account? Two hundred and thirteen dollars. Enough to buy groceries for the next two weeks which is two weeks short of when Robbie’s next paycheck will be here.”

“What about the insurance money?”

“They’re still investigating cause of death,” Kori shook her head.  “Bastards.”

“Well, what about your clients? Don’t they pay you?”

“Just sent the bills out.”

“For work you did in the summer? Kori, you really have to stay on top of this!”

“Don’t you think I know that, Avery?” Kori’s voice trailed off. Avery followed her gaze out the small portal window flanking the kitchen. “Even if everyone pays right away, it’s not enough to cover the tax bill.” Kori dropped her head to the table again. “I can’t do this.”

Avery studied a handful of papers. He pulled the checkbook from Kori’s slack fingers and perused its contents.

“I can make this work.”

“I’m scared,” she said, and squeezed his forearm so hard, he almost winced.

Avery saw all the pain and sorrow of the last months in his sister’s face and felt his stomach lurch. He rubbed her back. “I’ll take care of it. It’ll be alright. I promise.” He took a deep breath before proceeding. “I’ll limit it to a few gas stations. And I won’t supply them more than a week at a time so their standing orders won’t be off by too much. Last thing we need is an oil company rep nosing around.” He looked at Kori who, Avery noted, was not protesting. “I’ll keep selling until I unload it all. Then we’ll be officially out of the oil business.”

Kori shook her head, a vehement toss that petered out as she covered her eyes with her hand. When she looked up, Avery noted the absolute despair in her eyes.

“What about Gil? He works out in the barn still. Sometimes for days at a time.”

“It’s armed,” Avery said. “Anything happens, the cops show up.”

“Avery, I could never in a million years forgive myself.” She squeezed his hand. “I know you’re trying to do what’s best for us. And I couldn’t do this, any of this,” Kori’s hand arced out, taking in the expanse of the house, “without you. It’s just…. It’s too risky.”

“But, Kori…”

“Something good’s gonna happen for us, A. I know it will. It’s got to.”

As if on cue, Aunt Stella rapped at the back door, a squat, red-cloaked figure, peering in, hands clasping her cloak together at the throat, eyebrows raised in greeting. Avery got up to open the door, and Aunt Stella, looking like Red Riding Hood plus, blew in, followed by a cold November gale. She set her basket on the table and began the meticulous process of removing layers of clothing: a woolen hat hidden under the cloak hood, woolen scarf and mittens, and a fine woven cloak, all red.

Kori gave Aunt Stella a peck on the cheek and pulled out a chair for her. Aunt Stella was sweating lightly above the brow – a result of so many clothes for what amounted to a two-hundred yard dash – but she rubbed her hands as if to warm them as she accepted the proffered seat.

“Oh dear. My goodness, it’s cold out. No need to go to the freezer section to get a turkey this year. They’ll be frozen in the bush,” Aunt Stella said. “It’s uncannily cold for November.”

“It’s global warming, Aunt Stella,” Avery said. “It’ll result in the ultimate demise of the human race, all because of man’s over-reliance on fossil fuels, which, in my opinion, is driven by greed, intractability and borderline contempt for issues concerning the environment, as opposed to a lack of alternative fuel options.”

Kori rolled her eyes, but Avery resumed his diatribe.

“Let’s see, twenty or thirty more years of wrenching million-year old fossil fuels from the earth’s core so I can drive my brand new Hummer, or another few centuries of life on this planet as we know it, rolling brooks filled with trout, mountains that rise up into infinity, not the kind that have their tops blown off so they can get to the coal seams beneath, but the majestic kind who’s crowns are still intact. Hhmm. I’ll take the oil for twenty, Bob.”

“See what you did?” Kori looked at Aunt Stella, clearly perturbed.

“All I said was, ‘it’s cold out.’”

Kori filled the coffee pot with water, a sibilant pfpfp, escaping clenched lips.

A confused Aunt Stella looked to Avery for clarification, but he waived a dismissive arm at his sister, punctuating her rudeness. He mouthed the words don’t worry about it and Aunt Stella waved her own arm at Kori’s back, ending the matter.

Aunt Stella pulled off the layers of cloth covering the basket and the most glorious of smells escaped, ensuring Gil’s materialization at Aunt Stella’s side, Max close on his heels, drooling, Gil about to be.

“There’s blueberry-walnut with brown sugar topping and apple-currant with pecans,” she said proudly, letting her own olfactory system get a whiff of the divine vapors rising straight up to heaven to where God could have a sniff. “My daughter sent me the recipe. She’s taking a cooking class.”

Gil pulled up a seat next to Aunt Stella and without waiting to be asked, popped a chunk in his mouth and gave a bite-sized piece to Max, careful to first remove the almonds. Curiosity piqued – generally Max’s palate wasn’t quite so discriminating – Aunt Stella couldn’t refrain from asking.

“Gilly, why are you taking the nuts out? Are you afraid the dog will choke?” Gil shook his head, his chipmunk cheeks bulging with blueberry muffin. Kori set a glass of milk before him and he gulped some down.

“No,” he said, breathless. “It’s because he loves them so much. I save them until the end.”

“And how do you know this, Gilly?”

“He told me. He’s not stupid. He knows what he likes.” Gil blinked his large eyes once at Aunt Stella before shoving his face into the basket. He took a long, slow draw, gathering every available scent, and after a few seconds he emerged, a muffin between his teeth. Aunt Stella’s eyebrows rose up and she pinched her lips together to suppress her smile.

“Gil,” Kori snapped, yanking the basket out of his reach.

Aunt Stella covered her mouth to stanch the ensuing giggle. “Oh my, I almost forgot.” She waddled over to her cloak, rummaged through the pockets and pulled out a letter. “The postman left it at my house by mistake.” She handed it to Kori.

“Robbie!” Kori ripped open the letter without a moment’s hesitation. “It’s been almost two weeks,” she said. “Why doesn’t he just use the internet?” She started reading to herself, but Avery grabbed it.

“Wow, it’s a big one,” he said.

“Read!” Kori demanded.

Avery glared at her before beginning.

Dear Kori, Avery, Gil, Aunt Stella, and of course, Max,

“He loves you, too,” Gil said, opening his hand to Max. Max swallowed the almonds in two bites. Gil grabbed him by the snout and kissed him.

Avery cleared his throat and began to read.

Hey guys. Sorry I haven’t written, but so much has happened. I guess in order to do it justice, I have to start from the beginning, so bear with me while I recount it, plus all that I’ve left out over the last few months. Maybe then you’ll understand the decision I’m about to make. ”

“Uh-oh,” Kori said. “Here it comes.”

Life in hell continues. It’s so hot (average 120 degrees Farenheit) that you have to wear gloves to hold a weapon or even a screwdriver. You always have to wear a mask on your face because the sand is so brutal and you have to eat hovering over your food because the flies are so bad in the daytime. It’s the same at night with mosquitos. We went today to Karbala today, a holy site of the Shiites and former wetland (before Sadaam drained it), to test the water. We left behind a portable water tester so the people could use it. Water is really their most precious commodity here, much more important than oil. And they have so little of it.

But it’s not all bad news. I met a girl. Truly the most amazing woman.

“See. Told ya.”

“Sshhh,” Gil put a finger to his lips and gave Kori the hairy eyeball. Avery continued:

Her name is Amara Mir Ahmad. She lives in Baghdad. Her paternal grandfather comes from a group of people known as the Ma’adan. Maybe I should tell you a little about them, especially her father and grandfather, so you’ll understand what these people are going through and how it effects me.

The Ma’adan, also called the Marsh Arabs, live on the water in the middle of the desert. Some people say their home is what the bible refers to as the legendary Garden of Eden. Nobody knows for sure if it’s Eden, but they do know that it used to be the largest wetland ecosystem in the world, measuring 20,000 kilometers which is about 7,500 square miles. But that was before Saddam Hussein dried it all up.

Kori, you remember studying about Mesopotamia and the Cradle of Civilization in art history? It’s the area where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers meet. On today’s map, it’s between Baghdad in the north and Basra in the south. The Sumerians lived there. They were the first people to build dams and irrigate crops. The Marsh Arabs can trace their roots back to those people and have been living the same way for the last five thousand years. They harvest reeds, grow date palms, rice, millet, fish, and raise water buffalo. They build their houses on artificial islands by fencing off some of the marsh and building it up so it stays clear of the tide of the marsh waters. Then they layer mud, woven mats and these giant reeds that grow everywhere in the marshes. Their houses sit on top of all this stuff and they add layers every year to compensate for settling and to make sure their floor stays dry.

Can you imagine? Living on water like that. To go to your next door neighbor’s you need to paddle over in your mashuf, a small canoe. Some of the villagers have larger boats, but everyone has at least a mashuf . People travel everywhere like this. There’s no sidewalks. You can’t drive. They make the boats from qasab, these humongous reeds that grow in the marshes and which they also use to build houses. Everything revolves around the water, the fishing, the water buffalo, the rice and millet, even getting goods to market. When the water started drying up, fishermen, reed makers and the other tradesmen were wading through hip-deep mud carrying their goods to market on their backs. It was terrible.

“Wow, that’s really sad,” Gil said.

“Enough of the history lesson,”  Kori said. “Get to the point.”

“Could you keep your mouth shut and listen, please,” Avery said. Kori grunted, but said nothing further.

Amara’s grandfather, Ajrim Mir Ahmad, left his home long before any of Saddam’s draining campaign, but the rest of Amara’s family, stayed behind.

“How many more pages are there to that letter?” Kori asked. “Cause I can come back when he gets to the decision part.” Avery shot her a nasty look. She rolled her eyes and bit at a hangnail.

When Amara’s grandfather first came to Khan Bani Saad, a market town northeast of Baghdad, his family didn’t want him to go. They’d lived in the marshes for centuries. They were a tight-knit community. People didn’t leave. But he felt the need to go so he moved his wife and their young family to Baghdad and became a fish merchant, selling the wares harvested from the marshes by his own people. He became wealthy by Marsh Arab standards, enough so that he could afford to send his four sons to the University of Baghdad. His family grew up educated which is not a luxury that was afforded the Marsh Arabs until the last thirty years. The sons took wives and got jobs in the city.

Amara’s father, the youngest son, became a civil engineer working for the state. He was well-respected until he refused to work on the dam building projects that Saddam started in 1991 – the ones that would eventually drain his ancestral home. He was arrested under the pretense of supporting members of the Shiite uprising. Saddam’s soldiers came in the middle of the night and took him away. Amara was eight at the time. She hid in the shadows clutching her younger brother and holding his mouth shut to keep him from crying as the soldiers questioned, then beat her father and mother.

The next week, Saddam’s soldiers came and took Amara’s grandfather away. The charge was suspicious behavior and crimes against the state. Amara never saw either one of them again. Her mother supported the family with a state-sanctioned job. She taught English lessons to members of Saddam’s army. Amara believes that had her mother not been some use to Saddam, they would be living with other Iraqis in a refugee camp in Iran.

I tell you all this, not to make you feel sorry for her, but so you will                            understand where she comes from. She’s a brilliant woman. She speaks three                  languages, her native language, English, and believe it or not, Italian, and                              has learned everything her mother has been able to pass on to her. She’s made up her mind to do this thing and I’ve decided to do it with her. It seems more like my calling then enlisting in the army ever did. Mom was right. It’s not about democracy. It’s about what it’s always about – money. So in the true spirit of democracy, I’m voting with my feet.”

“Oh my God, that is sooo like him. Always playing the Goddamn hero. So what, he walks her down the aisle and saves her from a life of oppression?”

“Kori! Mind the child,” Aunt Stella said, cupping her hands over Gil’s ears.  “Anyway, who’s talking about marriage?”

“Robbie is. Don’t you get it. He’s going to marry her. All this cloak and dagger talk about making a decision.”

“Well, I have no idea how you gathered that from his letter. I’m actually not sure what he’s made a decision about,” Aunt Stella said. “Read on, Avery.”

Avery scanned the rest of the letter before continuing.

There’s so much more I want to tell you about Amara, about my life here, about the people. But I want to get this to post and the guy’s leaving right now with the mail. Let me just say that the people here, they really want a democracy, but they’ve been duped. That’s not going to be enough for you to understand, but maybe enough to buy me some grace until I’m home to explain in full. Take care of yourselves as I am not there to take care of you. I know you’ll be fine. Kori, if things get to be too much, lean on Avery. He can handle it. Give Aunt Stella a kiss and Gil an especially big hug for me. Love, Robbie.

“I’m confused.” Aunt Stella said. “Do you think he’s really going to marry her?”

“Of course, he’s going to marry her,” Kori said. “That moron. He has no business getting married yet. He’s freaking twenty-two, for God sakes.”

Everyone turned to look at Kori whose face was shot red with anger. She stood, tipped her chair over in the process, and strode to the sink. She washed her hands with a fury and threw water on her face before covering it with her hand. Her tears landed with several swift plops , cascading and pooling in bunches on the porcelain, indistinguishable from all the other drops of water falling from her dripping face. No one spoke while Kori stood there, fighting back her fear for the brother she knew was no longer ten thousand miles, but light years away.

to be continued. . .

click here to read what came before. . .

copyright 2012