Playa Dust in the Bedouin

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A sister needs her brother's help at Burning Man.
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(All characters are over 18.)

My phone's sharp ringtone cut through the muted sounds of my van's stereo - and instantly reminded me that I had left the damn thing laying on the driver's seat before I had crawled my ass here under the van. With a grunt, a wiggle, and a shoulder roll that had I learned crawling under barbed wire, I managed to get to the phone by the third ring. I saw who it was even as I one finger pushed the button to answer.

My sister, Olivia. Oh, joy ... .

"Yellow," I mumbled in my normal greeting.

Her dulcet tones rang out on the speaker phone "Hey, big brother. How's it going?"

Picking up a blue rag, I tried absently to wipe grease from my hands. "Oh, it's going just fine. What do you need?"

She gave an almighty sigh, "John! Why do you always think I need something?"

I chuckled. "Because you called, Olivia. You only call when you need something from me, you know that. So what's up? Car broke down or something?"

My sister gave it a moment. "No. The car is fine." Then she paused as if trying to make a decision.

"Just ask, already," I sighed, hearing the intake of breath that normally preludes a long request.

"I need to borrow a tent! For a week, um, like next week." She paused. "Oh, no, I'm sorry. It's the week after next."

Well, that's a new one at least.

"A tent for week after next, huh? Olivia, unless I'm wrong you've not been camping since Dad took you last and I think you were twelve at the time. And you hated it."

I could almost picture her exasperated expression. "That was a long time ago, and this is going to be different. I'm going with a bunch of friends out to Nevada for the Burning Man Festival."

Given what I know about my younger sister and her friends, I instantly had a few horrified thoughts about all of them out camping together ... certainly anywhere where there was fire involved. Let alone in the desert.

"Um... ." I hesitated for a moment pondering if I could or would be held as an accessory to insanity if I let her borrow one of my tents. And just how many people I could be sued by?

"So can I use it?"

I mentally shrugged. "Which one you want? I've got several, after all."

"Well, nothing too complex to put up. We're all pretty much novices about this ... well, except for Victoria. She's been to the festival a couple of times before."

With a silent sigh of regret for ever answering my phone, I got to my feet and asked it more slowly. "How big of a tent do you want?"

"Oh. Um, I don't know. Big enough for me and my luggage, I guess."

I picked up the phone and walked over to the side of the garage where I store my camping equipment. "Well, that narrows it down a good bit. Okay, I have a nine-by-twelve Coleman tent that would give you plenty of room. It's pretty simple to put up."

"That would be great! I'll swing by and pick it up this weekend." She was almost giggling with happiness. "Thank you so much." Olivia made a kissing sound and hung up.

" ... or I got a few other choices that are smaller."

With a deep sense of resignation, I dug out the nine-by-twelve and placed it by the door so I could set it up and let it air out. With a mental reminder to take the phone with me this time, I crawled back under my van.

** ** ** ** ** ** ** **

Two days later I was in the middle of doing a bit of my hobby crafting - sandblasted wooden walking sticks - when I felt my phone vibrate on my hip. I gave it a quick look, then shut off the sanding cabinet and pulled off my headphones. Taking my phone off my hip, I sat it on the worktable and hit the button to answer and for speaker phone.

"Yeah, sis, What's up? I've got your tent aired out for you."

"Thanks, but I've got a new problem."

Picking up my soda, I took a slow sip before answering. "So what is it now?"

"My friend Victoria tripped over her cat, and broke her leg!"

Okay, don't laugh. It won't be taken well. "Sorry to hear that."

"You don't understand! She was to be our camp organizer at Burning Man. She's been there before, and has done a ton of outdoorsy type stuff." Olivia took a deep breath, which I almost dreaded hearing. "Without her, we're all going to be pretty much lost. None of us have ever even slept in a tent, except me, and that was years ago."

"Okay ... so what do you need?"

"I need you! You've done tons of this kind of stuff! Between camping with Dad and your time in the military, you've all but lived in a tent your whole life!"

"Olivia, I can't exactly just go spend a week with you and your friends in the desert."

I could hear the exasperated huff. "Well, why not? You are self-employed so you can take off whenever you want to. Unlike all of us, we've had to schedule this with our bosses for months. We are all terminally screwed! And we were all pledged to help work on an art project, so the artist will be short-handed if we don't show up. But none of us know what to do, so we will be there just winging it day by day. And I know that will be a disaster. Surely you can take the time to give me a little bit of help? I mean it's not like I ask you for all that much."

"Olivia, Olivia ... hush." I took a long deep breath. "Just what all does this entail and when is the trip going to be?"

"Oh, thank you thank you, thank you!"

I cut her off in mid joygasm. "I've not said yes, yet! And if you can't calmly tell me what the whole deal is I'm not going to."

My sister took a deep breath and revved up to full caffeine mode.

"Okay, well Victoria went there two years ago and made friends with an artist named Kimberly. Last year she went back and helped Kimberly with her next project. So this time she was asked to come back. Kind of like a guest of the art project. She managed to get us a couple of tickets and we all grabbed up the rest on our own. So now Kimberly won't have Victoria there to help her, and we don't even know where to get started with setting up a camp. Kimberly said she would try to help us, but we know that she will be really busy with what she is doing, so we're trying to find a way to not be a burden to her."

I absently scratched wood dust out of my beard. "By laying the whole burden on me? Okay ... um, how and where would I have to go to get one of these tickets? And how much are they?"

"Oh, you can't, they're all sold out! But I can get you Victoria's ticket." She eagerly leaped at my simple question. "So does that mean you will go? Please! Pretty, please!"

I rubbed the building tension between my eyebrows as she begged. "Yeah ..." I finally said, mostly to shut her up. "How many people will I be playing camp chaperon for?"

"Um, there is eight of us ... well, eight including you." She paused for a moment. "And me, too, I mean."

I gave a resigned sigh to my future mental state before this was over. "Okay, I take it everyone has been trying to scrounge up tents? I mean since none of you have ever been camping, right?"

"Yeah, pretty much. A couple of them, Jim and Tim said they would be buying them a new one just for the trip."

"Well, give all of them a call and tell them to hold up. I'll simply bring my big tent and we can all camp under it. It's made for desert camping, and I know it can take whatever this festival can throw at it. Is there someplace where I can get some information about this ... whatever it is ... without pulling so many teeth?"

Olivia paused, startled. "Um, yeah they have a website. And there are a lot of videos on YouTube about it too. I've been watching a few; it looks like it's going to be so much fun."

"Well, okay tell the other six people to try and give me some kind of idea as to what all they will be bringing so I can plan around that. And please, please, please, you do the same for me."

She gave a sniffle. "Oh, thank you, brother. You have no idea how much this means to me. I would simply be lost without you."

I chuckled. "You're welcome and ... that's what she said."

Olivia gave an exasperated laugh and hung up.

Brushing wood dust off my pants, I looked outside at the small green and tan tent I had set up to air out for her to use. I gave a mental sigh for the wasted effort. Walking over to the side of the garage where I keep my camping gear, I shoved a few things aside till I could get a hand on the huge "jellyroll" of dark goat-wool canvas.

I was already mentally running down the large list of things I was going to need to round up.

"The van and the trailer," I muttered to myself, then grunted as I squat-lifted the hundred and ninety pounds of tightly rolled goat-wool canvas tent into my arms. The smell of it hit me and brought back instant memories.

Some were good. Some were bad. Some were flat horrifying.

Shrugging past that, I made my way out to my van.

** ** ** ** ** **

Given that the first time I was going to be meeting the majority of these people - who I was going to be camping/living with for a week - only after we got there, wasn't ideal.

But then Jim and Tim showed up at my house with my sister.

Maybe my meeting these people before we get there wasn't that great of an idea either.

Now I think I need to make sure we understand that, having been in the military during the "Don't ask, don't tell period" I've been around my fair share of gay men ... but they all tended to be a bit discrete about it.

There is nothing under the sun discrete about Tim.

But then I guess, when going to a place called Burning Man, bringing along a "flamer" is probably not even that unusual.

"Oh, good lord, hun! This place is absolutely gorgeous." Tim followed my sister from the gravel driveway up to the front porch where I was sitting. "I feel like I'm on the set of Grizzly Adams. Oh, and speaking of bears ... you must be John. How do you do? Your lovely sister has been telling us all about you." He offered me his hand. "I'm Tim, but most people call me Timbo. Either is fine for me as long as you call. Oh, and this is Jim." He turned to point at the slightly older-looking man walking up behind him. "Jim, hun, come say hello to this gorgeous man. I saw him first, though, so hands to yourself."

Jim walked up, offering me his hand. He looked to be about my age, mid to late thirties, but his goatee mustache and beard had already gone a bone white color and his hair was sun-bleached a pale blond. He had an incredibly solid muscle tone and a dark tan. My first thought was a surfer.

"Nice to meet you. Can I get you both some tea or soda?" I offered. Olivia had already vanished inside after a quick hug. She reappeared almost instantly with a bottle of soda from my fridge.

Tim answered for them both. "Oh, we're good. We stopped down the road at that Waffle House and positively stuffed ourselves. I've drank enough coffee to have me floating." He tilted his head gave me a looking over, then went right to business. "So, Olivia here told us not to go buy a tent. She said we were all going to be sleeping in the big one you have. Not that I mind things being cozy, but is it a large enough tent for all of us? There are what? Eight of us?" He looked at my sister. "Well, seven adults and one half-grown child."

My twenty-five-year-old sister reached over and tried to punch his arm.

"Yeah, it's more than big enough. It's a fifty by fifty Bedouin." I began to explain. "Once it's up we'll hang interior curtain walls, and those will section off the front and back and give us private sleeping areas, but still leaves a big common room for sitting and eating."

Jim had perked up. "A Bedouin? Like a desert tribes of Egypt ... Bedouin tent?"

I nodded, taking a sip of my tea. "Same style. Mine was made by the Kochi nomads of Afghanistan. I was gifted it," I said, anticipating the next question.

Jim shook his head in awe. "It's traditionally made? That is one hell of a gift."

Giving a small shrug, I tried to change the subject. "So, I've got the tent. I'm bringing a large ground cloth and a half dozen rugs to floor it out. I've got a couple of folding tables and a camping kitchen setup I can bring for cooking. We're going to need chairs for everybody." I picked up my folded notebook and looked at my list. "I've got lanterns, both battery and propane for light. And I'm bringing in a fifty-five-gallon plastic barrel of drinking water. But that will still leave us about thirty-five gallons short of the water eight people will need for the week, and I don't have the room to bring that."

Jim gave a nod. "We can grab that. I can grab some food-grade five-gallon buckets from work. I'm a chef, by trade, so I can handle planning the meals and cooking for the week unless anyone else wants to jump in and fix something."

Tim reached over and patted my hand. "He makes the absolutely best banana bread pancakes. With a walnut brandy syrup! Extraordinary! I just know I will put on ten pounds on this one trip!"

My sister and Jim both laughed so I felt I should as well, not that I could really get the humor. I looked back at my list. "Okay, next. From what I saw on the YouTube videos, bringing a bike along to get around on is almost a requirement." I looked up at the three of them. "Does everybody have one?"

Jim and my sister nodded, but Tim shook his head.

"I've got me one of those One Wheel boards." He shifted in his chair like he was antsy. "I'm going to be zooming around the playa all week like Aladdin on his magic carpet. Besides, after a few nights of partying, riding on a bicycle seat just will not work for me."

After a second my sister all but screamed. "TIM! Oversharing information."

He gave her a confused look. "What? My back hurts when I spend the night dancing." He started to ask me a question then stopped and cut her a look back. "Oh! You filthy-minded little hussy. That is not at all what I meant!"

** ** ** ** ** ** **

As the days rolled past faster and faster I found myself dropping back into the old patterns I had learned in my years in the military. Most days I would wake before dawn, and the old "shit, shower, and shave" became a thing again. I would be out at one of my sheds finishing a project or fiddling with camping gear till my sister woke up.

Olivia had surprised me when Tim and Jim got ready to leave and she took a bag and a couple of Rubbermaid totes from the back of their truck. Pink plastic of course. Apparently, since it was only going to be a few more days till we had to head out to Black Rock Desert, there was no real reason for her to travel all the way back home and then all the way back out here. She had decided that she would simply stay here and ride in with me.

Mind you, if she had just asked me... .

Luckily for me, she and I are so opposite when it comes to almost everything that we do, we don't clash personality-wise. Mostly we simply avoid each other, completely unintentionally, since we are doing different things. I'm outside my shop working, she is on her computer.

When I read about the lack of Wi-Fi signals out on the playa I began to have some concerns for her mental health. I'm not sure she has gone a day without talking to at least someone online since she was twelve years old.

Then I began to read just what the alkali dust at Burning Man can do to electronics and began to have a few second thoughts concerning some of my own electronic gear I had been planning to take. This was very quickly becoming a situation that even my time in the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan was not going to have me fully prepared for. And, given the fact that ... among our little group ... I was going to be the most experienced that wasn't settling too well on my shoulders.

Sitting at my desk, laptop open before me, my elbows on the table, hands crossed before my mouth, breathing the smell of my knuckles, I began to study Burning Man like it was a military campaign I was going to have to wage war with.

Radical self-reliance?

"Whatcha reading?"

Walking up behind me on her bare feet, Olivia placed her chin on my shoulder and looked past my cheek at the screen.

"Oh, yeah, the Ten Principles. I love the one on gifting, that just sounds so cool." She wrapped an arm around my chest. "I think I'm going to take along some coated wire and make those 'elephant hair' bracelets we made back in Mr. Parish's art class. You remember the ones. I know I saw you wear yours for years, even after you graduated."

Chuckling, I turned my head to look at her, breathing in the lingering scent of her strawberry shampoo. "I remember. I still have it around here somewhere."

"Have you read about the costumes?" My sister leaned over me even more and began to type out a Google search. I soon had images of people in both beautiful and silly costumes covering my screen. "I want to do something like that, I think."

She pointed at a woman in a thong bikini bottom, high heel boots that came to mid-thigh, and an elaborately decorative vest. All in a brilliant silvery pink.

I gave my sister a look trying to imagine her in such. "Do you have anything even close to that?"

She shook her head. "I've got a couple of cool-looking things I've packed. I've seen where people set up shops with free clothes. I'm hoping to maybe find something there. Also, Gloria is bringing a ton of clothes and I'm sure I can wear her size. And I know she won't mind."

"Have you asked her about doing this?"

Olivia shook her head. "No, but like I said I'm sure she won't mind."

Spinning my chair around, I looked up at her. Her long brown hair was in its familiar braid. The overly done eye shadow and contouring makeup. Compared to the outfit she was wanting to wear, she was a bit conservative in shorts and a button-up shirt.

Frowning, I gave it a look. One of my button-up shirts at that.

"Go call Gloria, and ask her if she will mind." I got to my feet, towering over her a bit given the five-inch differences in our heights. "Now."

"But, I'm sure_"


She gave me a look, then shrugged and dug her pink phone out of her back pocket. "Okay, sure, But I'm sure she won't mind."

Nodding, I walked past her. "Hungry?"

Phone now glued to the right side of her face, she gave me an emphatic nod as her friend picked up. "Hey, Gloria, real quick question to make my brother happy. Do you mind if I ..."

Heading into the kitchen, I mentally sorted through the contents of my pantry, refrigerator, and fridge and decided that it was a pepper steak kind of night. I grabbed a bag of yellow rice and set it to cooking in the rice cooker then dug out several semi-wrinkly bell peppers. Stepping out onto the porch, I fired up the gas grill.

The steaks were started by the time she joined me.

"She said she wouldn't mind, but that she was glad I asked." Olivia was all but bouncy when she appeared. "Gloria is going to pack a few things just for me, that she said I would love. Steak?"

"Pepper steak and rice." I turned the four New York strip steaks; they sizzled on the hot grill nicely. "Figured that wouldn't make for too bad of an early dinner."

"Sounds good to me. Um ... can I have a beer? With my dinner." When I gave her an odd look she shrugged. "I know you keep your fridge normally stocked with that dark stuff, but I saw a couple of regular beers in there as well."

"Yeah, a friend left them. You're welcome to one or as many as you like, but ..." I pointed at a glass she had left behind last night on the table. "I thought you were strictly wine?"

My sister moved over to the table and had a seat. She teased the top of the empty glass with her finger. "Generally I am, but I really didn't much care for that wine. Sorry. I'm more of a Merlot or a Pinot noir type wine snob." She dinged the crystal glass with her nail. "And this stuff could strip paint it was so strong. And way too sweet."

"It's Port." Laughing, I turned the steaks a bit to put crosshatch grill marks on them. Not that it would matter since I was going to slice them up and toss them with peppers, but why not. "It's meant to be strong and sweet."