After two years of severe drought the city put mandatory water restrictions on every house, apartment building, and business. Many people thought that was the right thing to do. For my father, he thought restricting water was a gross oversight of the government, and he worried how he’d keep the tank full on the top of the building. He saw it as another step in an increasing stranglehold on our liberties by the government and its major Western influencers. They kept piling more refugees over the borders, and packing them into an already jammed city.
At that time we had tenants in five apartments, and one that remained empty. Our family lived on the top floor in two apartments—our living room and kitchen, and the bedrooms. Ideally, we’d have a full building, but my father kicked out the refugees who lived in the two apartments on the lower floor because they couldn’t pay rent. My mother fought like hell against him, screaming and slamming cupboards after he refused to budge. She even broke her finajeen when the ceramic tray fell off the shelf and they all crashed on the tiles with the sound of a dozen movie gunshots. She wanted the poor tenants to stay, to reduce their rent to almost nothing. “Look what they’ve gone through,” she said, wailing like it was her own family who’d been bombed out of their country. “You’re going to turn your neck like the rest of the world and leave these poor people to suffer on the streets?”
“They’ve got the UN,” my father argued. “They’ve got money, but they want everything cheap because they’ve gone through some hardship.” He waved a hand in the air to ward off a fruit fly. “I’m tired of capitulating.”
“Is this my husband?” my mother shouted toward the ceiling. “Is this my husband who wouldn’t even give a drink of water to a thirsty fruit fly?”
My father pounced to his feet at that. My two sisters, Abeer and Basira, pressed back against the wall and pretended to study a fashion magazine they’d been flipping through. My father walked to the island countertop in the open kitchen and slammed his palms against its top. “Not in this political climate. Let the fruit fly get its own water. We’re being restricted.” He turned to go, but then stopped. His face was red. “I did my best. I offered to drive them to the hospital because they don’t have a car or a penny to their name, or so you say,” he said, and gestured rudely toward our mother.
“This story proves nothing,” my mother said. The ceiling fan clicked off and the blades slowed. It clicked on again, to its highest speed. “Are you kids listening to this? I want to have witnesses on the Day of Judgment.”
“I drive Abdullah and his wife to the hospital.” He lifted his hands and looked at me and my sisters. “I’m driving them, and she’s moaning and round as a rhinoceros,” he said, and grabbed the steering wheel in the air to show how he would have done it that late night when it happened. “And Abdullah, he says, ‘No, take us to Faisal Medical Center.’” My father’s eyes got wide. “‘Faisal Medical Center?’ I ask, thinking they’ve made a mistake. “‘Of course,’ he says, ‘where else will we get the best treatment?’”
“What does this prove?” my mother said. The ceiling fan clicked off. From the next apartment over, where our bedrooms were, something bumped against the wall.
“They’ve got luxurious preferences. Means they’ve got money. So, they take advantage of us?” He shook his head. “No way.” He went back to the couch and sat down. On the TV two actors were singing a song about love being like the seasons, first the spring, and then the winter.
“Your father is without a heart,” our mother told us. “He’s cold and cruel. Who will help him when he’s sick?”
“They’ve got gold,” he said, and focused on the TV.
“Gold won’t help you in your grave,” she said.
“Listen, listen,” he said. We all got quiet. My father sat with his mouth slightly open. I knew he was holding his breath. From in the other apartment a door banged shut, then squeaked as it opened, and slammed shut again. Abeer glanced up, and Basira held her arms.
“We need a sheikh,” my mother said.
“I don’t need a sheikh to help me run my home,” he said.
I knew for a fact that if he’d thought of calling a sheikh first, he’d have done it a long time ago, because the noises were becoming unsettling, but it was my mother’s mistake to mention it first. Instead, we’d have to live with it. With them. Only two days before did the door slamming in the other apartment start. It had been evening. The door banged so hard I felt the floor shake. We all hurried over and found my parents’ bedroom door closed. It was locked from the inside. My father swore a mighty oath to God and called upon the angels, and he tried the door. Still locked. So, he kicked it open. It took him a few tries, and he was red and breathless for ten minutes after. I was afraid to look in, but there was nothing there. My father said at least they wouldn’t be able to lock the door again. I wondered what they would do next.
“I’m tired of feeling invaded,” my mother said. “Get a sheikh. Let’s put an end to this.”
“We must do more salat,” he said. More prayer—his answer to everything. My father pointed a fat finger at me. I was drawing a new design for a robot on my laptop. I was hoping to be accepted into an engineering school in the US, and advanced robotics was the ticket, I thought. I shaded in the stretchy rubber machine muscles, which, if I’d calculated correctly, could lift fifty times that of a grown man. They would conduct electricity and respond to impulses from the robot’s brain, along through its central nervous system. When I glanced up, my father still pointed at me. “And we must refrain from haram,” he said.
“Leave him be,” my mother said before I could defend myself. “My boy is pure. It’s you I worry about.”
“Well, somebody’s attracting them,” he said.
Just before the water restriction, we rented out one apartment to an American. My parents found an agreement with each other in letting him rent. He had converted to Islam and was studying in our country. He hadn’t always been religious. After James, they couldn’t decide on anybody for the remaining apartment. My mother refused to make money from other tenants when there were refugees pouring over the border needing dignified places to live. “It’s the end times,” my father said, “when the wife overrules the household.” He thumbed through the rent checks each month to make sure they were in full, and that my mother hadn’t made a secret deal with anybody. The only refugee couple who got a discount was Abdullah and Sarah, the couple my father had driven to the hospital. She fought for them against my father’s greed as viciously as the Egyptian mongoose fights a cobra. When my father would come to the envelope with Abdullah’s payment, he’d always shake his head and mutter, “It’s their last month.” I don’t think they knew how close they were to getting dumped onto the street. My mother was best friends with Sarah, though, and that counted for just enough to keep them renting at two-thirds price.
Sometimes I wondered if James could hear my parents shouting downstairs. I usually collected the rent every month, and that’s how I got to talking to him. He invited me in to play video games one afternoon, and I stayed until after midnight. James’ phone started ringing. “Did I lose my only son?” I heard my father ask through the headset.
“He’s here,” James said.
“Better not have girls down there,” my father said in his spare English.
James’ face flushed. “I swear to God, we don’t have any.” He looked at me, worried. “Not at all. Do you want to come down and check?”
My father laughed. “I’m joking on you.”
“No, really,” James said. “Really, sir, you can come check. We’ve got no girls here. We’re gaming. I would never break house rules, sir.” His right hand motioned rapidly as he spoke.
“He’s joking on you,” I said.
“I’m teasing on you,” my father said over the phone. “Relax.”
We’d been talking about James’ life while gaming. He’d been through a lot. He’d spent time in the military and was kicked out for having shaky hands and an insecure mind. I asked him what he did after that, and he said, “Worked for the state of California and spent time with my girlfriend.” I thought of enticing images of steamy car windows in a dark parking lot next to the ocean with palm trees dancing in the breeze. I pictured his girlfriend with a bounteous physique. Full structured and healthy.
“What’s it like?” I asked him.
“Working in California?” he asked. His video game character was a commando slicing a blazing sword through rows of obnoxious monsters. He’d lost his firepower. My character had died and I waited until he could win me another life.
“Having a girlfriend,” I said. I checked his face quickly after I said it.
James smiled, but then he stopped. “Warm,” he said. “Warm and like nothing else in this world. But absolute misery if she’s not the right one.”
“That’s why it is haram,” I said.
“It can still be miserable married,” he said. “Take my parents, for example.”
“Or mine,” I said.
James’ commando fell to his knees. The sword dropped to the grass and the swarms of monsters blocked our view as they ate him. We started a new game and I set down the controller to massage the tendons in my hand. It was quickly becoming my favorite game—we prowled through the jungle with fancy guns to explode creatures from a mothership the size of Texas, USA. If you can imagine, that’s a lot of creatures coming out of that ship. We also had grenades and explosives to sling into the trees. “Having intimate relations with a girlfriend isn’t permissible because the intention is all wrong,” James said. “And I understand that now.”
“I wish I could do it,” I told him. “I wish it all the time. That’s all I’d do if I could.”
“I used to feel that way, but it’s more trouble than it’s worth at the end of the day.”
“And too bad a guy isn’t allowed to satisfy his own needs,” I said by way of making conversation.
He looked at me. “What do you mean?”
“I mean it’s too bad a guy can’t do it to himself while he waits to get a wife. That would make the waiting easier.”
“Are you joking?” James said.
“No.” I thought I’d stepped over the line. The game started. I glanced over at him, gazing at the screen. The flashing green light slid across his eyes. He didn’t look at me. He stared at the mothership hovering way out in the distance. Our characters stood on a hill. I knew we’d be attacked any moment, but James was tussling with something in his mind, which was unusual for him while gaming. That was the only sure thing I’d ever seen him do. Everything else he questioned himself and triple-checked if it was correct.
“You knew that, though,” I said.
“Of course.” He wiped his face with his palm and then picked up the controller. We were halfway through the first jungle scenario. “I mean, tell me if you’re joking,” he said. “You’d tell me, wouldn’t you?”
“Of course, I wouldn’t joke about that.”
The monsters from another planet had set up a base in Jerusalem and we went into that city with so much firepower we should have completed that level in little time, but James wasn’t on target. The round was pretty much shot. I was feeling anxious to leave.
“Does anything unusual happen in your apartment?” I asked.
“Like?” James was biting the inside of his cheek. When I looked at him, his lips were pulled way over to the side.
“Lights turning on or off at night. The TV starting on its own. Doors slamming.”
James’ thumbs clacked away at the buttons. “No, why?” he asked. His character was nearly out of life force. We were caught in an old masjid that had been taken over as headquarters for the off-world creatures. I always thought of the Qur’anic verse when I thought about aliens: Praise be to God, Lord of the Worlds. Only God knew what was out there in that big expansive universe, and in all the parallel dimensions.
“There goes my father’s theory, then,” I said.
The government restricted the water truck to once a month. The water truck would come around, and my father would help the driver pump it into the tank at the top of the building. He tried to get a few extra gallons out of the water guy, but was refused, so my father stood there fuming next to the deafening truck pump while holding two empty twenty-liter containers at his side. Water used to be delivered twice a month. In the face of such a large cut in supply, at least on the bright side we weren’t at full capacity with the tenants.
My father liked James, especially since he paid full rent and nobody (my mother) expected him to pay less. “What Arabic words do you know today?” he’d ask James if he saw him outside or in the hallway.
James usually stuttered as he thought about what he’d learned. I told him not to worry about it, that my father was only being friendly. But he tried anyway until his face turned red and my father eventually hit his shoulder and said, “You’re a good man. We’ll get you married soon.”
When my mother ran into James, she always told him that he should read more Qur’an and learn Arabic. “Recite a line for me,” she’d demand. He strained to recall the lines I’d taught him. My mother loved to hear a foreigner recite Qur’an. Her face shined with delight, and her lips parted so far past her teeth you’d think you were looking at a half moon glowing in the dim hallway.
“Bis milla hir rachman nir raheem,” James finally said. In the name of God, the most merciful, the most compassionate.
“Outstanding,” my mother said. “What’s next?”
James tired out after that. He shook his head and looked at me for help.
“That’s good for now, mama,” I said.
“That’s it?” she said. “You’ve been here one month and that’s it? God help us if the neighbors find out we’re not teaching you Arabic.”
As jocular as my father was with James, he was an ice man with Abdullah and Sarah. He wouldn’t even glance up at them if he met them in the hallway. “We’re under restriction now,” he told my mother one evening after news of the water limit. She’d asked him what he was doing with the pen and paper. “I’m writing to let Abdullah know he’s to not use the water from nine to five during the day.” My mother tried to tear up the paper, but my father slapped her hands away.
James’s apartment had bare walls. He’d purchased a poster with Arabic script on it since I’d been there last and slapped it above his couch. I went down to see if he wanted to play games, but he was on the phone when I arrived. I knew he was talking to his sister. His sister was cute, with one freckle beneath her eyelid. She wasn’t a Muslim like him, but she seemed to support him on it. She didn’t seem so unsure of herself. Once he let me speak to her on the phone. I had stirring dreams for the next two nights. Dreams of moving to America to study engineering and marrying her. She lived in Chicago and worked for an accounting agency. She hated her job, but she said there was a great big lake nearby her apartment, and that alone was worth it. I thought often of being in the same situation, with a stressful job, but living next to that lake with her, tangled up with her in the bed and watching the water out the window, and that being worth having a difficult job.
“It says, ‘God is one’,” James said into the phone. He squinted at the Arabic script. “And, ‘He never sleeps or slumbers. He’s in control of the whole world, and it doesn’t exhaust Him.’”
I could hear his sister’s accent on the phone, but not what she said.
“That’s not it,” James said. “There’s more. Just wait. It says, ‘He knows what is in front and behind His humans. We can’t know anything about Him except what He allows.’”
That poster was the only eye-catching item in the apartment. The verse on it is said to protect people from the Satan and the demonic forces and dangers of the world. I’d meant to hang up the same poster in my bedroom so maybe the fan would stop starting on its own, and the doors would quit banging. My father wouldn’t find it for at least a few days. He’d banned all Qur’anic script on the walls because the secret police were cracking down on that, he said. I’d never heard of such things, but he swore by God it was true. “If they know you’ve got Holy Script on the walls, they can use it against you these days. You’ll lose everything you have,” he shouted. He started that a few years ago, and my mother had mostly given up on convincing him otherwise. “The script should be in here,” he told us, and he jammed two fingers into the left side of his chest. He fulfilled some of his daily prayers, but I knew he skipped the morning and evening ones. My mother did hers most of the time, but that wasn’t always the case.
When I was very little, and the Americans were preparing to invade Saddam, our lives changed more than you probably know. You probably never thought of us hunkering down on this rocky piece of land wondering what would happen. We’re of the allies, after all. Yet, we watched the rockets fly overhead, knowing they were smashing somebody’s neighborhood five hundred miles away, and worried somebody would smash ours. My father had taped the windows. Each window with a large black X across it in case they were blown inward. Nobody knew how precise the missiles were, or if they’d fall on top of us. Our parents became religious overnight. We walked to the masjid every Friday. My father spent mornings and evenings there with the old men discussing the latest news, and praying. He even set up a prayer room in the back of his antiques store downtown. My mother had me memorizing scripts from the Holy Book. My sisters weren’t even born yet. I was determined to become a jet fighter pilot because I was thrilled every time they thundered over our city. Our walls were covered with holy scripts then. After the invasion wrapped up, the activity died down, and my father’s prayer room in the back of his shop became cluttered with boxes. I helped tear the tape off the windows and I remember bunching it up into a big ball and playing soccer in the living room. My father got too busy to go to the prayer on Friday, and they stopped waking me up for morning salat. I don’t know when the holy scripts came off the walls, but I think it was sometime after the attacks on New York.
James finished up on the phone with his sister. He didn’t offer for me to speak to her. If she’d asked about me, he didn’t mention it. He only greeted me and then excused himself to the bathroom. It was time for the prayer, and he was going to do the routine washing of the hands, face, arms, and feet. It should’ve only taken but a minute. The faucets squeaked as he turned them. The water ran freely. I knew my friend was running the faucet so that I couldn’t hear the tinkle of his water in the toilet. He was weird like that. Obsessive over the smallest details. Obsession and compulsion is a trick from the Satan, my mother always said. To make people doubt themselves endlessly about what is and isn’t. Sometimes it bothered me that my mother was no longer religious like before. She still had strong faith, but not like before. The prayers felt more like exercise breaks than closeness with God. During Ramadan, we cheated by eating lightly throughout the day, and then my mother served a big dish in the evening. Goat and rice with gravy. Or rolled grape leaves fresh from the trees, packed with lamb, rice, tomatoes, and spices. Our favorite dishes, to reward us for nothing, because we hadn’t fasted like we were supposed to. I hoped that James’ faith would rekindle that conviction in my family. The way he focused his entire being into the words and actions of the prayer. I vowed to use his obsessive conviction like a flame, to light a torch to guide me back into the cave of darkness to see where our family had gotten lost. It was no wonder that we were being haunted.
My father thought inanimate objects moved on their own because there were jinn in the house. But what had attracted the jinn? He couldn’t say for sure, but he had his theories. The jinn thrive off strong human emotions, especially negative ones. I didn’t worry about the ceiling fan as much as I worried about the rage that clicked on in my mother and father. They targeted each other mercilessly. If there was a jinn, it was them it manipulated. Not all jinn are bad, either. They were on the earth before humans, and they’re made of smokeless fire. Some scholars think it’s what we call plasma today. They exist in their own dimension, but can see through to ours. We can’t see them, which is one of the challenges and tests for the human.
Cranking up the ceiling fan is a very jinn-ish thing to do, after all. Tricking and pranking. I believed there was a jinn influence, but more along the lines of having a bad one squatting in the corner whispering to my father about my mother until he exploded at her. It’s not so hard to believe. It’s like Wi-Fi for the consciousness. A jinn can whisper to the human from a long way off, and the human will think those creeping thoughts are his, and after a while they’ll build into a pounding internal dialogue—usually one that creates enmity or suspicion between people.
My father suspected something drew the jinn to our apartment. He suspected me, but I swore up and down it wasn’t me. He accused me of self-indulging in my bedroom after school. He said it right in front of my sisters, but thankfully they didn’t know what that meant. “That’s what did it,” he said. “All that experimentation kids do now days,” he said. “The ‘you know what’ flourish on that energy.” He refused to say jinn. He didn’t want to call more of them over.
James finished up in the bathroom nearly ten minutes after he went in. I heard the splashes in the sink and water plopping onto the floor. He came out refreshed, with his hair wet and his arms slick, ready for prayer.
“Did you wash for the entire Muslim nation, brother?” I asked.
His smile drooped. “What?”
“It seemed like you were washing for all the Muslims in this generation and every prior generation, alive and dead,” I said.
He didn’t get it. Worry crossed over his face. He glanced down at the splatters on his shirt.
“Just joking. I just noticed you take a lot of time to wash.”
“When I splash the water on my face, I don’t make the intention at the right time,” James said. “So I start over. Sorry about that.”
“It’s OK brother, I was just teasing on you.”
“And then I forgot to get the water over my elbows, so I started over,” he said.
“It’s OK,” I assured him.
“But then I think I forgot to put some in my hair, so I started over.”
“Sometimes you just have to say it’s good enough,” I told him. He did his prayer and I went back upstairs because I knew dinner would be ready.
The next evening my father returned from the roof in his knee-tall rubber boots and asked, “Do I look like a therapist?” He wore a heavy flannel overcoat. We were all in the living room. My sisters sat on two beanbags in the corner watching a movie on their computer, both of them sharing a pair of earbuds. Normally, they’d have been in their bedroom in the other apartment, but they wouldn’t stay over there unless we were there. Not with the doors moving on their own. Abeer also claimed she heard a voice whispering words from a different language in her ear one night. My father told her it had to be a dream, but Basira said she’d heard it too but was too scared to open her eyes.
My father was shaking his head. “Do I look like a spiritual advisor?” He snapped his phone shut and threw it on the couch. He bent over to peel off his boots. He threw them down, flopping like fresh fish. “But can you believe it? I’m getting phone calls now from our American friend wanting to know if it’s OK to jerk off or not.”
My mother made a sour face. Outside the car horns were honking. People were on their way home from work.
“‘Sorry if this is a delicate topic, sir,’” he said, imitating James’ voice, “‘but it’s a matter of importance.’ He then asks me if it’s OK. I told him, ‘Not in my apartment it’s not.’ But then he says, ‘Well, I’m asking for a friend.’ A friend! ‘Is it OK in the religion?’ he asks. ‘My friend wants to know if it’s forbidden in the religion’. I told him in the strictest terms it is forbidden in my apartment.”
“Why are you telling us this?” my mother asked. Her voice was strained.
“Don’t tell him I said anything.” He looked at me. “Got it? I swore to him I wouldn’t say anything,” he said. “But God Almighty where does he get off calling me about something like that? Asking for a friend.”
My father had been on the roof clunking around the water tank checking for leaks. Sometimes I thought he stomped extra hard to irritate us, or make us feel bad for not having enough water. “Call me insane if that tank is not losing water fast,” he said. “Not even two weeks into the month and we’re below half.”
“Call Omar and ask when the truck can come by,” my mother said.
My father slapped the back of his neck and rubbed upward over his bald skull. “They’re not accommodating anything extra.” He’d been paranoid about the water all week and his worst fear seemed to be coming true. We’d never burned through water that fast before. He’d started watching my sisters and me when we brushed our teeth, and he started timing our showers. I could hardly get my hair wet before my father’s knuckles were knocking against the door. Even my mother was being harassed. “Your father never took such an interest in me before,” she said, after she’d found him sitting on the toilet watching the clock while she showered.
“Anyway, I invited him to dinner,” my father said. “We’ll have meghlooba and I will talk to him about finding a wife. Or at least he can pass the information along to his friend.”
“What about Abeer?” I asked. “She’s almost ready to get married.”
My mother’s face became rigid. My father turned to face me. “I wouldn’t let that boy marry my daughters, my sister, or any female friends I have. I swear to God he’s a good kid, but he’s not all here,” he said, and tapped the top of his head. “Too jumpy and sensitive.”
“Does he want to get married?” my mother asked me.
“I think so. If the right lady came along.”
“There’s never the right one,” my father said. “It’s only right until one day you wake up and something’s gone wrong.”
My mother turned her back on us and brought out the big sack of rice. She opened the freezer and stuck herself halfway inside to get the meat.
“I’m teasing on you, my delicate flower,” my father said. He turned to me. “See, the way your mother is? She deflowers my joke.” He stopped, his head turned sideways, and his eyes drifting past me, toward the window. “Listen,” he said. I waited for a door to slam, or a thump against the wall, but there was nothing. After a moment he put his arm down and went to the couch.
“You can’t hear a thing,” my mother said. Most times she knew what my father was driving at before we did.
“Abdullah’s using a load of water. What does he do, wash camels for a living? You’d think paying half the rent would mean using half the water. It’s always running. I constantly hear it running.”
“How can you know when they’re using water?” she asked. “It’s none of your business even if you could know.”
He switched on the TV. “I do know. The way the pipe shakes, it’s Abdullah’s. I know how each water pipe sounds for each apartment. It’s all based on pressure. What do you think? I built this place with my own hands.”
Everybody was quiet after that. We watched images of a burning building with smoke flowing out of its middle sections, pouring from the windows and into the dark sky. He sat forward suddenly, as if stricken with a good idea, and said, “Abdullah gets two hours of water a day from now on. At their rate of usage, that’s plenty. I’ll be merciful enough to grant it before dinner time. From five to seven.” He stood and waved his hand at the TV, at the building and the wicked flames. “That’s enough in this tough time. When you only pay partial rent.”
My mother, already preparing dinner, cursed him. “May you find a snake in your grave,” she said.
He’d already pulled on his boots and was clumping up the side stairwell to the water tank. I listened to him scuffling across the roof. Then, the metal stairs clanged with each footfall until he returned.
“It’s not even seven,” my mother shouted. She so vigorously chopped an onion I worried she’d lose a finger. “It’s not even time for your illogical deadline.” The ceiling fan clicked on and kicked up to high speed. She didn’t seem to notice or mind, except she used the back of her hand to brush away the strands of hair off her forehead.
He raised a finger to correct her. “They had a full day of water. It was supposed to be on their honor, but I don’t see any respect for the water,” he said. “So it’s off. I have to enforce the rule. Let Abdullah feel of those who’ve been restricted, and let him wait for his water until tomorrow. At five,” he said, and looked at me. “Unless he wants to pay in full rent.”
“How do you know it’s them,” my mother asked.
“Who else could it be? I have a hunch. They’re always doing laundry, washing their kids’ diapers.”
My mother became silent. Her wooden spoon clanked against the side of the pot. I could tell my sisters had paused their movie to listen. I knew he had no way to tell who was using the water, because the tank had a pipe for every apartment, and there was no way to tell who was using how much. While I watched TV with my father, there was a knock at the door. I got up to answer it, looking forward to seeing James. Instead, a short woman with dark marks below her eyes peered out at me from under her hijab like a mouse peeking out of a hole. Her sleeves were rolled up to the middle of her forearms, and they looked soaked.
“Pardon me,” she said, “but I wanted to alert Mr. Abboud to a water problem. It seems there has been a stop to the flow.”
My father muted the TV. My mother’s ring clinked against ceramic as she washed a bowl. “It’ll be back on in just a minute,” my mother said. “Don’t you worry, habibti.”
“May God bless you,” the lady said from behind the doorframe. She peeked around and touched her hand to her heart. “I was just finishing up washing clothes for the kids.”
I watched her walk slowly down the hall, as if she were avoiding stepping on ants.
My mother glared at the side of my father’s head with her two eyes like heat lamps. He didn’t move from his spot on the couch. Half an hour went by and James came up. I offered him lemon and mint water. When James stuck out his hand to shake my father’s hand, my father broke out into a fit of coughing and used his shaking hand to catch his lungs. James pulled back his hand and commented about how good the food smelled. My mother beamed a smile at him as he sat on the couch. There was a knock on the door again, and I answered. It was Abdullah. His hair was dusty, like a fine sand had drifted down over him.
“Peace be upon you,” Abdullah said.
The bathroom door shut behind me. I jumped, thinking the door closed by itself, until I realized James’ spot on the couch was empty. I heard him cough behind the door, and then the water started to run.
“Very sorry, sir,” Abdullah said, “but my wife inquired about the water some time ago. You see, it’s still not running.” He smiled a sad smile, like he was burdening me with something heavy. “My wife, she is washing the clothes, and I’d like to take a shower before bed.”
My father approached Abdullah. “Haven’t you heard about the water rule?” he asked.
Abdullah nodded. His dry brown eyes stared past me and into my father’s.
“We’re under serious restriction of water,” my father said. “And your apartment has used its allotment for today.” He smoothed out a wrinkle in his shirt. “We’ll be tightening up the water usage around here. Your apartment will have running water between five to seven in the evening. Starting tomorrow.”
Abdullah stepped inside.
“Peace be upon you,” my mother said.
“And upon you as well,” Abdullah said. “No more water until tomorrow morning?” he asked my father.
“Five in the evening,” my father clarified. “No more water until then.”
Abdullah glanced at the couch, and then at me. I suspected he heard the faucet running full blast in the bathroom. I could hear James splashing water like a duck. He was preparing for the evening prayer.
“I thought after five it was OK to use the water,” Abdullah said.
“Those were the rules,” my father said, “but your apartment used water during restricted times. The new rule is from five to seven.”
It sounded like James was blowing bubbles in the bathroom. He gurgled and made spitting sounds. I heard him sloshing water onto his face. My father glanced at the bathroom door for a second.
“Mr. Abboud, I do beg of you. I could use a quick shower before work tomorrow. I work with the city, and we’re pouring cement. You can see my pants are dirty.”
“There are rules,” my father said, distantly, because he was watching the bathroom door. “Rules that have been implemented for the long term health of our water supply. It’s save water now, or have no water later.” He glanced at the bathroom door again and then hurried across the living room to the side stairwell. He pulled on his boots and clunked up the stairs and stomped across the roof. Abdullah’s eyes traced the footsteps as they thudded overhead. None of us spoke. The water streamed mercilessly from behind the closed door. The footsteps returned, and my father appeared. He strode across the room without removing his boots, and almost as nimbly as Basira when she practices her dance moves across the floor, he sidled up to the bathroom and put his ear to the door.
My mother stood motionless at the kitchen table. The pots were on the stove behind her. Steam rose from one of them.
In the bathroom the gushing water slowed gradually until it dropped to a trickle. James cleared his throat. A knob squeaked twice, and then again twice more. I couldn’t hear any more water flowing.
My father took a step back and set a heavy gaze on the door. When the door swung open, James stepped right into my father. He nearly fell backward, startled, but my father grabbed a fistful of his shirt and yanked him out of the bathroom. He slapped the back of James’ head.
“Don’t you know the water is restricted? Don’t you know the water is precious? What the hell do you think you’re doing running all the water into the ground?” my father shouted.
My mother and Abdullah were pulling at my father’s arms. I watched, almost jumping in, but never quite as I didn’t know where to apply my strength, or who to help.
James, in tears, apologized as my father hollered in Arabic. “You finished all the water you ungrateful clown and we’ve got two weeks to go,” he shouted. He continued his tirade until he lost his breath and sat on the couch.
After everybody cooled down, James sat at the opposite end of the couch. James’ shirt was stretched out of proportion and loose around his skinny neck. My father’s chest was heaving. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but you’re going to have to buy us enough water until the truck comes.”
Abdullah said goodnight from the doorway. “You’ll have to buy your own water from the market,” my father called to him, “we’re fresh out now.” James nearly broke down again, apologizing, and slapping his leg in frustration. I knew the water wasn’t empty, but I also knew my father would let James think he’d finished off the entire tank so that the kid would find a way to bring us more, or hire somebody to transport more from the springs outside of the city.
For some reason the jinn cooled down after that, as if my family had hit a crescendo in craziness, and there was nothing left to see. The ceiling fan stopped clicking on by itself, and nobody’s door swung itself shut. My mother swore Abdullah made a prayer for us, while my father was convinced his own salat was clearing the air. I figured they’d be back, though, to gradually work us up into another frenzy. My parents, however, remained relentless toward each other. Not a year later, James went back to the States, and I was accepted into a small university engineering program in Utah. We lost contact for the most part, although once he did send me an email to wish me a happy Eid. I never heard my father and mother complain of any more unseen conflicts in their home, but then again, whenever we talked on the phone, they complained about each other, carrying on when the other wasn’t home, talking constantly about how the one disturbed the other’s peace to no end.
Author Bio: Adam Luebke is an English instructor at SDSU Brookings and Ashford University, and holds an MFA in Writing from Otis College of Art & Design in Los Angeles. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Flyway, Valley Voices, The Bangalore Review, and The Write Place at the Write Time.