OIL IN WATER
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.”
“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. . .