Kristen Lowman



        Margaret and Kennar kicked back a lot with the other thirteen couples after their day’s work was done: his, out on the massive Ghawar oil field; hers, folding laundry and wringing diapers and sometimes weeping in the linen closet, her head resting on the towels or staring at the jigsaw puzzle on the card table that was never finished, just considered, and smoking, she was always smoking. The sky smoked too, from the giant flares, the hell flames of burning crude, as if the earth breathed fire. After the salat played over an outdoor speaker for the workers who knelt in prayer toward Mecca (the direction debatable when the rolling Nafud shifted during the night, the sly desert) and after I fed my sister Lucille her bottle, and after me and my big brother Badge were told to get in that room and stay there and Badge yelled, Yeah! Affirmative! and pulled his cardboard duct-taped wall tight around his bed, Margaret and Kennar—and their friends too—dressed up and called it quits because somebody had to draw the line on the Saudi day, whose sun had no clock. Dresses and perfume, linen shirts and Vitalis replaced peddle-pushers and sweat-stained khakis, and the couples gathered to ha-ha-ha and cha-cha-cha and drink sadiki, the moonshine, the red-eye, the screech owl—that me and Badge took to drinking from Dixie cups as we chased, laughing crazy, the communal gazelle and sometimes we barked like a dog and drank more—hooch, the blue flame, the holy water. There were as many names for booze from Kennar’s homemade still as there were for the simooms, the poison winds that drove Margaret to tear out of the house one night, screaming, running barefoot into a shamaal, drawing its pink sheet of sharp sand across the sky. Kennar chased after her, calling, but who could hear in that howl? In the morning, Kennar, breathing coffee, told us she had been blinded and had tripped over a geode, gashed her leg good. Me and Badge left the one-room schoolhouse at lunch, telling the teacher we had something to do and wouldn’t be back and she said she didn’t care and took another sip from the thermos she carried around like a handbag. Me and Badge found that geode at the foot of a dune, bloody, like a fallen planet. There was nothing we could do except hit it and kick it a little, wonder if its crystals were purple or white and you’d have to drop the thing from the sky, goddamn break it open to see what was inside. From the blue above a helicopter arrived like a winged chariot bringing us a doctor, and he stitched Margaret together, wrapping her calf in white cloths, white like the ihram, the dead’s dressings. Dr. Basrawi, who shook our hands and we didn’t know why, kicked back with everyone that night, and Margaret’s eyes shone and her face flushed. I, crouching in the hallway in the dark, my nightie pulled over my knees, peered between the door slats, drawn to C’est Si Bon and the emerald eye of the Grundig hi-fi. I saw the doctor gaze sleepily at Margaret as he lit her cigarette and I watched his fingers, sneaky like a spider, trail down her arm. Kennar took their picture. The flashbulb, a marbled glaucoma eye in its tin socket, popped and smoked, startling Margaret. Dr. Basrawi, Mahmoud, the grown-ups now called him, returned every week, flying in on the helicopter that delivered sacks of flour, cans of soup and sausage, and limp vegetables from Dammam, and in his pockets, hard candies for us kids. He checked on Margaret who wore red lipstick in the afternoon but Kennar no longer whistled when he came home.

     One day the doctor, arriving from the sky, undressed her wound and unlaced her stitches, and that night, crouched in my usual spot in the dark, I watched Margaret dance with her doctor Mahmoud, joining the other thirteen couples. I watched Kennar pour sadiki, which means “my friend” in Arabic, and watched him sit clutching his friend and bring his friend to his lips and again to his lips and again, and I stood up, adjusted my nightie, opened the hallway door and made my way to him, whispering, “Dad, I can’t sleep.”