Friday, October 17, 2014

Compound Problems

Late afternoon at Al Haraam Village, a residential compound in the Basateen district of Jeddah. Long shadows stretched across the stagnant pool, the failing mini market, and the dead palms. A ruined Daihatsu pickup circumnavigated the parking lot coughing up toxic plumes from the mosquito fogger. A dense chemical residue alit on everything, everyone. I darted inside when I heard the truck sputtering around, the fog dispenser growling in anger and eagerness. Few others were bothered. Thai flight attendants in sharp-creased airline uniforms stood motionless in the acrid mist as they waited for the airline bus, their matching rollaways in neat alignment and covered in poison. When the fog lifted, I went back outside.

The Lebanese family played in the pool, mother and daughter fully-clothed, headscarves plastered to their heads. They swam every day in that fetid pond, their immune systems must have been at scientifically significant levels.

It was day-one of Ramadan and no one ate or drank until sunset. The Saudi soldiers at the front gate were surly, stuck on the day shift, but Iftaar would be upon them soon, and stomachs would be filled.

Joon met me on the sidewalk, his Captain America tee-shirt covered in filth. A cigarette hung from his lips and glowed with each inhale.

“Lena not back from last night,” he said. “Did not show for work today.”

By day Joon fixed air conditioners, by night he pimped out the Filipina cleaning girls for three hundred Riyal an hour.

“So call her mother,” I said, waving away his smoke, the heat, the fucking flies.

“She with you last night, Jim.”

The implication pissed me off. First, no shit she was with me last night; second, my reputation at Al Haraam was spotless. I always paid up front, tipped well, and I treated the girls better than most. I was double thumbs up, I was “Jimmy super fun nice guy” to these fuckers.

“Who are you Joon, Joe Friday? Columbo? She left after an hour.”

Joon squinted and spat. I hated that he didn’t get my pop culture references.

“She not go back to apartment after she see you. Her roommate say she not return.”

“Maybe she went back to the Philippines, I don’t know.” I didn’t need Joon’s bewildered expression to confirm what a ridiculous notion that was. For most third country nationals, or “TCNs,” leaving Saudi on a whim was nearly impossible. Their sponsors held their passports hostage and lied about the backlog for exit visas.

I realized that Joon held something in his hand. He had it along his right leg and I couldn’t make out what it was. The way his thumb and forefinger were positioned told me he was trying to conceal it. This thing with Lena must have been personal.

“Look Joon, Lena didn’t stay late last night, quick massage and then out. I’ll tell you what, I’ll check with the other guys in my building. She probably picked up something extra after and then overslept. We’ll find her.”

Joon nodded, I think placated for the moment, and slipped the object into his front pocket. I was pretty sure it was a box cutter. I felt an odd tension crawl down from my neck, my head full and hot.

“Jimmy, you call me,” he said. “You see her, call me.”

I nodded, smiled, turned and made my way to the mini market. The blast of air-conditioning helped ease some of the tightness in my shoulders and spine. The market was on its deathbed, its shelves sparsely stocked with old ramen packets and cans of tuna.

I placed a roll of duct tape, a five liter bottle of water, and large package of Tampax on the counter. Ramil, the clerk, glanced up at me with a raised eyebrow. I stared back, a fifty in my outstretched hand.

Lena had been stealing from me for weeks. At first I noticed a few Riyal missing, then frozen steaks, and two days ago my passport.

Stolen passports were a thriving trade here. With a few modifications, my passport would be some TCN’s ticket home, perhaps already was.

I walked back to my apartment. The moon had risen — a sharp crescent, horns impaling the blackness of the Saudi sky. It was going to be a long night. But I wanted to be prepared in case it stretched out into days.