Whither Zenobia?

By on Aug 26, 2012 in Fiction

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Woman in headscarf and sunglasses in Syrian market


Roberta never stopped making demands on Khalid, treating him more like houseboy than guide and driver. Constance was sure he tolerated it only because Roberta was overpaying him. However, he never seemed to tire of driving and found them decent hotels, pricey places where they mostly encountered European businessmen. They met no other Americans. Not surprising, of course. A bit anxiety-producing, though.

At Deir Ez-Zur, in the desert near the Iraqi border, they were astonished to discover a modern hotel filled with muscular, sunburned American males.

“They work in the oil fields,” Khalid explained. “On six-month contracts. They earn much money, then return home.”

None of the super-macho oil workers were visible that afternoon at the bazaar sprawling outside the local souk, where bespangled Bedouin women from surrounding camps sold vegetables, goat cheese, and blood-oozing meat. Chirping loudly, they competed for customers. Dark eyes like hungry birds. Brown hands waving and gesturing. Kerchiefed heads twitching and bobbing.

“They’re so beautiful.” Roberta nodded toward the women. “Tiny, but strong.”

“They do all the work,” Constance told her. “Of course they’re strong.”

Roberta stared at the meticulously drawn henna tattoos on the women’s brown faces and hands: elaborate designs that evoked the harsh landscape and savage rays of the sun. Patterns that seemed to explode on their weathered skin.

“How would I look with one of those?” she asked, admiring her own skin. “On my hands — or face?”

“Like you were going native.”

“Would that be so bad?”

When they returned to the hotel bar to cool off with before-dinner drinks, they were surrounded by oversized, leather-skinned oil workers. Sunburned muscles, shirts with sleeves rolled up to sturdy biceps, bronzed heads shaved or closely cropped, tendons throbbing in thick necks. Solemnly, Roberta looked them over.

“Brunette or blonde,” announced a stocky fellow with red stubble smeared over his scalp and chin, freckles on his tanned, sweaty face. “Can’t make up my mind.”

“The li’l lady with the black hair is mine,” stated a lanky guy behind him.

Eyes narrowed, Roberta smiled up at them: “To be honest, boys, I doubt if either of you measures up to my standards.”

Nevertheless, they threw down cash for drinks, laughing each time Roberta insulted them. Constance had seen all this before. Roberta played with men, joked with everyone, but as far as Constance could see, connected with no one. She suspected that Roberta cared more about her fantasies than about other people. She’d learned to play with dolls, then with people. Never had to be serious, like some of us, Constance thought.

Constance found that she, too, enjoyed the unexpected attention but wasn’t inclined to wander off with any of these guffawing, hungry men. She had a rule, a good rule, she believed: when she was too lightheaded to trust what she was doing, she did nothing.

After dinner, they returned to the bar, but before long Constance discovered that Roberta had slipped away. She wasn’t sure which of the oil men also had vanished, but now she found herself encircled by four or five of them. It was hard to keep track, because they kept fetching drinks and migrating from chair to chair. Light from behind a perforated grill cast shadowy leaves and flowers across cocktail tables and bodies. Pushing aside several glasses on the table in front of her, Constance lurched upright and wished the boys goodnight.

“Hey, missy,” one of the men shouted. His sweat-blotted shirt fell open to the waist, and a metal object like a large bolt swung over his hairy chest. “You can’t leave us!”

“Watch me,” she told him, weaving among the various human and chair legs.

Constance didn’t see Roberta until noon the next day.

“I thought you were interested in ancient Syria.”

“Ancient is fine,” Roberta smiled, “but alive’s better.”

Constance hoped she’d get Roberta back to San Francisco in one piece. Not that the girl was stupid, but she was careless — about things, appointments, promises, herself.

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Bruce Douglas Reeves' novella, Delphine, won the Clay Reynolds Novella Competition and will be published by Texas Review Press November 1, 2012. He's also published three novels (The Night Action, New American Library and Signet Books; Man on Fire, Pyramid Books; and Street Smarts, Beaufort Books and Ace Books.) Recently, he's completed a new novel, Cavanagh's Promise. He's published short fiction in nearly three dozen magazines and literary journals, including: The High Plains Literary Review, Runner's World Annual, Hawaii Review, The Long Story, Eclipse, The Drill Press, The Main Street Rag, Clapboard House, South Carolina Review, The Blue Lake Review, Danse Macabre, and The New Renaissance. Three of his previously published short stories, “Obsession,” “Ferrocarriles Nacionales de Mexico,” and “The Lady’s Not for Keeping,” now are available again at ANTHOLOGY BUILDER.