Beth kneels on the edge of the bed, re-counting her American money and finding again only five hundred-dollar bills where there had been seven. She leans over, nearly toppling off the sloping mattress, to ferret underneath the mahogany night stand, but comes up only with handfuls of dense brown dust.
Last week, she’s sure, they added two hundred to the travel stash, but maybe Terren borrowed it for his trip to Cairo. Her reflex is to call him and ask, but, here in Alexandria, that would entail walking several blocks and hailing a taxi to escort her to a hotel, where, if the long-distance lines happened to be working, she’d have to wait indefinitely for a connection. Besides, knowing the futility of trying to use Egyptian phones, Terren didn’t even leave a number.
Although she knows the money isn’t there, Beth checks the top drawer of her antique rosewood vanity, where she keeps several hundred Egyptian pounds — they won’t fit in her wallet. She leafs through the cash, first neatly, then more impatiently, until she is sending tattered bills flying out of the drawer: Egyptian bills, not American. Beige, pink, and pale green, they flutter to the ground, piling at her feet like dirty petals.
“Why you don’t come?” Mrs. Hannam, the cook, fills the doorway, rotund and demanding. Only her face and forearms show; the rest of her is buried under her layers of clothing: a long gray skirt, two tired aprons, a high-necked pullover, a beige sweater, a checked smock, and a cardigan; a brown scarf hides most of her hair. She holds up a purple garment and shakes it at Beth, the yards of cotton billowing like a flag. “Look! My niece finish-ed.” She adds an irritating extra syllable.
Embarrassed, Beth bends to collect handfuls of money and stuffs the cash into her pockets, sweeping up more than Mrs. Hannam will make that day, and five times what the niece, Hyalia, gets for sewing. Then she reaches for her new purple skirt, which is as big as Mrs. Hannam’s tentlike dress. Beth thinks it should be two skirts. “Gamil,” she says.
“Gamila,” corrects the cook. “Gamil for a man, gamila for a girl. Beautiful! Al-hum-dil-Allah! Now, you make it on.” She thrusts the enormous skirt at Beth and waits, hands on hips, looking her up and down.
“Oh, I think it’ll fit.” Beth holds the skirt over her jeans. It drapes modestly to her ankles, exactly like the last one Hyalia made her, despite Beth’s request that it end midcalf.
Mrs. Hannam’s eyes grow round. “You not like it? Give it here!” She circles Beth’s size-twelve waist with both hands, complaining that Beth does not eat enough, and begins unbuttoning her jeans.
Beth backs away and bumps against the bed, yanking the skirt over her head and down to her hips. As she bunches up the cloth to remove her pants, the niece comes crowing in.
Hyalia claps and skips around Beth, kissing her cheeks, patting her hips, bending to check the hem and smooth the fabric over her thighs. Hyalia’s exclamations are something other than the high Arabic Beth has been struggling to learn. The girl is about fifteen and slender, very pretty, with her tight, sequined headdress and clean, smooth hands. Her skin is smoke blond, like the haze over the city.
Mrs. Hannam has told Beth that she wants Hyalia to work so that she will not meet so many boys. Already, when Hyalia visits the market, the men greet her by name, wrap up more fish than she pays for, and twist their heads, trying to see into her eyes.
The skirt billows outward from its elastic waistband and hangs in a loose barrel shape. Beth feels like an eggplant. By American standards, she is already chubby, and the dress makes her appear even fuller. Hyalia picks up Beth’s jeans with thumb and forefinger and, arm extended, drops them into the wastebasket. Everyone laughs.
Too embarrassed to retrieve the money from the discarded jeans in front of the two women, Beth leads Hyalia to the front hall and the tip jar, an ashtray where she and Terren keep the coins and small bills they must be ready to dole out every time they open the door. Hyalia lifts and rearranges three layers of clothing to tuck the notes into her bra.
After her niece has been paid and has left amid a flurry of goodbyes — enough to last until aunt and niece see each other that evening — Mrs. Hannam announces, “We must make the bill.” Beth follows her across the slippery, newly shined parquet to the kitchen. There Beth settles herself and her skirt at the table.
Mrs. Hannam stands with her back to Beth, cooking. On the stove, black pots of rice, lentils, and cauliflower steam, and at the counter Mrs. Hannam assembles her specialty: square pizza topped with tuna. “Mr. Terren love this,” she declares, raining a handful of salt over the fish, then dousing it with oil. “You will love it.”
“Yes, we love it. Everything you make is so good.” And it is good, compared to what Beth could concoct with local ingredients. It is good, for Egypt.
“Now we make the bill.” Mrs. Hannam lifts a lid and stirs the rice. “I tell you, and you write. For the salat, I buy tomatoes.” She gestures to a crude bag made of folded-up newspaper, from which dull red globes spill onto the counter. “Half pound.”
“Fifty piasters,” says Beth, writing.
“Oranges you love: one pound.”
“Oh, you got oranges?”
“I thought I bought those. Did you put yours somewhere else?”
Mrs. Hannam’s eyebrows arch. “I don’t know. Maybe I forget.” She shrugs elaborately. “Sometimes I buy oranges — I forget. Lettuces: one pound.”
“And onions. I make the lettuces with the onions: one pound.” Mrs. Hannam turns, licking tomato sauce off her hand, and peers at the tattered little pad. “You write one pound?”
“Right there.” Beth points, pretending Mrs. Hannam can read.
“Good. And what? Oh — huile. Huile d’olive.”
“Olive oil. How much was that?”
“Six pound. A big can. Very expensive, but next week I —”
“That’s fine.” Beth wonders what happened to all the oil they had.
“I bring you very, very good chicken: four pound.”
Less than two bucks, Beth thinks. Maybe one eighty, the way the dollar is rising.
“And milk: thirty piaster.”
“Good. Did you boil it yet?”
Mrs. Hannam heaves the refrigerator open and squats, searching. “I use it in pizza. Milk finish-ed.”
When Beth has added up the list, it comes to nineteen and a half pounds, slightly higher than last week, which was slightly higher than the week before. She hands Mrs. Hannam a twenty.
“I will get my purse.” Mrs. Hannam makes for the spare room where she keeps her walking shoes and umbrella.
“No, no,” Beth says. “The change is for you.” And she endures Mrs. Hannam’s thanks for the quarter.
The eggplant skirt and a loose, long-sleeved black blouse, not tucked in, hide Beth’s shape well enough for her journey to the bank. A scarf covers all her hair — a medium brown that Arabs call blond — and she uses bobby pins to make sure no seductive wisps will escape and shame her. The missing two hundred dollars is for her and Terren’s fare to Greece, or home, or wherever they go next.
Beth goes downstairs and out the crooked, rusty gate. The minute she ventures beyond the high white walls of home, her Egypt meter starts ticking. Strange shouts echo from balconies as men crowd the railings to watch the white woman walking alone. Damn Terren, she thinks; his weekend away makes her life even more difficult. The men jeer and wave and cluck, trying to get her to look at them. A dozen grown boys hop about on a five-foot-wide balcony — unconscionably, she hopes it will collapse. It’s tempting to glance at them, but she must keep her face lowered. If she looks up, it gets worse. On other balconies, the boys’ sisters, wives, mothers, and aunts call to each other and beat carpets, making whirlwinds of dust that filter down into her eyes.
Between heaps of rubbish is the street: a two-meter-wide swath of bumpy dust and broken slabs of concrete. Tiny trucks, French Citroëns, fat Mercedes, and terrible black-and-orange taxis thunder through the narrow opening, swerving randomly to avoid collisions. Drivers honk furiously when about to make a turn, or when they see another car, or a light, or a person. Horns blow incessantly. Beth covers her ears and cringes. She’s seen puddles of blood on the street before. Ahead of her, cats scatter like cockroaches; the piles of household waste in this, Alexandria’s best neighborhood, are their only source of food.
A few weeks ago, a greasy, open-bed truck clattered through the stony street, and thin, blackened little boys piled most of the garbage onto its back. They scraped up the trash with pieces of cardboard or filthy straw baskets, occasionally pocketing or eating something. But now the trash is knee-high again, or higher, and Beth has to weave around the molding piles, seeing and smelling what’s in them: Wilted, gray shreds of lettuce and slimy, empty peapods. Ashes and orange rinds. Wrinkled cigarette packs and sturdy, gleaming Coke cans. Scraps of dirty plastic sticking out and paper blowing around. Human shit and shit-soiled tissues. Chicken and fish bones, picked clean but still odiferous enough to attract the cats — at night, Beth hears them cracking open the bones.
At first, she and Terren tried to befriend the cats despite the mange, dirt, and rumors of rabies. The cats, toms mostly, often had running sores on their eyes, or torn, infected ears; some were missing limbs. Terren and she tossed the cats chicken or beef scraps, until the ubiquitous onlookers yelled with anger; someone even threw stones. Then they realized: this was the equivalent of courting New York cockroaches with chocolate.
The volume of the horns increases as Beth nears Horreya Street, and she covers her ears, keeping her head down. A litter of orange kittens lies scattered around an empty crate, dead. She looks elsewhere.
People stop walking and gather in groups to stare at Beth as she waits to cross the street. Holding a handkerchief over her nose to filter the fumes, she watches for a break in traffic. After several minutes, a gap appears — Beth dashes to the first white line. Four schoolgirls dragging empty, battered satchels cluster next to her, peeping at her from under heavy bangs. One stretches a hand to touch Beth’s clothes, and Beth smiles at her, but the girl says something quickly and the others convulse in giggles. When they dart through the traffic, Beth follows, keeping their little bodies between herself and death.
Across the street, the magazine seller beckons happily, waving copies of Time and Newsweek. They are a week late and probably censored — the unacceptable pages ripped out — but there have been riots in Tienanmen Square, and Beth wants the news. She doesn’t have exact change, and the man cheats her.
“El-ba-ay,” she says crossly — one of the first Arabic words she learned: “the remainder of my change.” Perhaps because she is alone, he leers pityingly and shucks out two wrinkled bills worth three cents each.
So that the taxi driver will leave her alone, Beth tells him she is from Yugoslavia. “Yugoslav good!” he says, and stares at her in the rearview mirror, driving by instinct, but he doesn’t bother her after that, and when they arrive he doesn’t demand excessive payment.
At the bank Beth shifts from one foot to the other until Sayeed, the teller, notices her over his customers’ turbans. He smiles, and the men clustered at his counter turn to stare. One young man in trousers shuffles backward, gesturing her to take his place, but the older men in robes close ranks impenetrably.
“Sayeed,” she calls clearly, enjoying the stir this creates, “are you well?”
He leaves his post and comes around the counter, ignoring the murmured complaints. “I am very well, and yourself?” They both laugh at the schoolbook dialogue. His English, learned at the British Cultural Center, is a treat. “We are extremely busy today.”
“I’d like to check on how much money I have,” Beth says, feeling envious eyes. “My records may be wrong.” There are no bank statements — just Sayeed’s initials in her passbook.
Sayeed brings her behind the counter and taps the stiff keyboard of a huge, steel-sided computer. “Just a moment, please.” It whirs, and he squints at the screen. Then he steps away and writes on an envelope with a much-sharpened pencil: “POUndS egYpTian — 710.00.”
Their initial deposit. So they put no more money in the bank last month. So they did keep it at home. So Mrs. Hannam was stealing, unless Terren took it with him — except that his expenses on this trip were being paid. Terren will be furious and may want to do more than fire the cook. But she is as valuable as a mother to them, as necessary as a friend. Beth hopes she has made a miscalculation. “This is in pounds,” she says. “In dollars, it’s a little under three hundred, right?”
“Dollars? I don’t know.” Sayeed frowns at his figure. “We do not sell dollars. American Express only will give you dollars.”
“I know that. But, when I need them, I can withdraw the ones I put in, right?”
Sayeed clucks his teeth. “We give you Egyptian.”
“Wait a minute ! No one told us it worked that way. We need to have dollars for Europe.” Three hundred dollars in Egyptian pounds is a garbage bag of soft currency: she can see herself tossing the worthless bills off the balcony like confetti.
Sayeed turns off the computer, which fades with an exhausted sigh.
The bank manager’s office, to which Sayeed has led Beth, is full of plastic and dust. A round man in a too-small Western suit creased across the stomach sits behind a polished table, drinking a glass of tea. “No problem,” he says, proud of his colloquialism. “You want money? We will make it today: three, four hours.”
“In dollars?” Beth pushes. “Or at least drachmas or something?”
“Dollars?” His expression changes. “Madam, this is Egyptian bank. We —”
“That’s a contradiction in terms,” Beth snaps, immediately regretting it. Then she realizes he won’t understand anyway. She twists the scrap of paper Sayeed gave her into a tight skewer. “My husband and I gave you his American-money paycheck three months ago. We were just keeping it here until we leave. When we leave, we need hard currency. You know they won’t take Egyptian money anywhere.”
“Yes: in Syria,” the man says.
“You work in the consulate,” he murmurs. “Mr. Terren works in the American Cultural Center. Maybe there a person can help you.”
“But that’s illegal!” Beth protests. More to the point, the black market is full of secret police happy to take your pounds and give you nothing.
He raises both hands despairingly, as high as he can without ripping the jacket. “I . . . I will try.”
His eyebrows lift. “You want it today?”
“Well, no, we don’t need it today, but in a month or two —”
“Ah, a month.” He swirls his tea happily, stirring up the layers of sugar that have settled. “Next month, Ramadan. Very beautiful!”
“I want my dollars.”
“Yes, yes. Ensha-Allah”: God willing.
And Beth knows then it is quite hopeless.
“W ’ullah!” The amplified shout crackles and hisses, startling Beth, as it does five times each day. She grips the bannister, descending the bank’s broken cement steps, her brain making nonsense words of the raucous, distorted prayer: “W’ullah, what-the-he-ell? Wagfuck!” Pressing her ears shut, she weaves around the gray-robed, upended butts that everywhere praise Allah. She walks unharassed by a mosque where dozens of males prostrate themselves in ragged, east-facing waves, first raising their arms high, then bending to touch their foreheads on the nylon prayer rugs: “Allah is God. There is no God but God. Allah be praised.”
When she gets out of the taxi near the bombed-out synagogue at the bottom of her street, a tired, turbaned man is pulling a horse cart up the hill. Riding above its wooden wheels is a big tin can. She buys a plastic bag of milk from the man. He has no teeth, and his eyes are small brown lines under wrinkled lids. She waves the change back at him, feeling a kind of virtue.
When she’s halfway up the hill, her hand begins to feel wet. The bag he selected for her has a leak, and, as she walks, milk sloshes out. A runty kitten, too young to fear people, is crawling after her, crying. It crouches over a stain of thin gray milk that is fading into the dust and laps at it. Drops spill onto the kitten’s head, and it looks up. It is an unspectacular brown-gray, all bones beneath its thin, filthy fur. “You poor thing,” Beth croons, glad that cats always understand English. “Where’s your mother?” Squatting, she tears open the bag of milk, and the kitten wades into it, drinking furiously, flooded halfway up its tiny legs.
“Ha!” the cart man yells incomprehensibly, and the men on the balconies lean over to stare. Beth’s Egypt meter expires. She seizes the kitten and walks rapidly toward home, the men laughing behind her. This, she knows, is like marching through Beverly Hills cradling a sewer rat.
When Beth gets home, she finds Mrs. Hannam has made “meat with string.” Beth ladles out a thumb-shaped cylinder of flesh with coarse black thread knotted around it. She has never asked from what animal this strong, salty meat comes. It might be horse. The meat steams and drips bloodlike broth. The kitten slides along Beth’s ankles and, agitated by the savory smell, stretches up her legs, clawing almost to her knee. With the tip of a knife, Beth picks at the cocoon of thread until an end appears, then begins unraveling the string. The kitten mews frantically and starts to climb her slippery, swaying skirt. She blows on the meat to cool it and watches, amazed, as the cat clambers up her. When it reaches her hip, the waistband pulls away, and, crying, the cat slides back down, its pinlike claws leaving pink, burning scratches.
Beth embraces the kitten, raising it with both hands to nuzzle and kiss its head. “It’s all right, darling. I’ll take care of you. Yes, you’re going to be all right.” Then she sets it on the counter, mucky feet and all, and begins to feed it toothpick-sized shreds of warm meat. It is choking down the food like a dog when Mrs. Hannam strides into the kitchen.
Feeling guilty, Beth says, “Do you think it’s OK to feed him? I gave him some meat. He’s not very old. Should I just give him milk?”
Mrs. Hannam speaks scornfully to the cat in Arabic, then stares at Beth with arms akimbo. “American women all the same. You make a cat like a baby.”
Following Mrs. Hannam’s disgusted gaze, Beth regards the cat, crouched over its food, purring and growling. There is nothing attractive about the animal: even its eyes are dull gray. Almost any other kitten would brush up prettier, but this is the one she can save.
Mrs. Hannam begins sprinkling flour on the counter to knead baklava dough. “You love the cat,” she says. “You will take it with you to America?”
“Oh, no.” Customs officials and bribes already loom in Beth’s nightmares. “You can’t take animals.”
Mrs. Hannam drops the ball of dough onto the counter, mashes it flat, then folds it up again. Flour flies and settles. “How is Mr. Terren?” she asks suddenly.
“He’s in Cairo for a few days, at a meeting.”
“He will come back?”
“Yes, Thursday.” Beth watches Mrs. Hannam pound the dough and lift it, over and over. She is hypnotized.
“Good. He will come back. Hum-dil-Allah. My husband will not come back. He leave-ed me alone.”
Beth has visited their house, where Mrs. Hannam goes home to watch Falcon Crest in a small, hot room with her Italian mother-in-law, her husband’s siblings, and their spouses, friends, and children. He may have left her, but not alone.
“You know who he went with? At the Cecil Hotel, the woman who make-es the telephones.” Mrs. Hannam slams the dough into a new shape. “Her name is Sanneah. She make-es her hair red, and she is fat!”
Mrs. Hannam’s arms are baggy and brown on top, smooth like fish bellies on the bottom. But Beth has seen the phone operator, and knows that she is built like a small sofa.
“Well, he’ll come back, won’t he?” Beth gropes. “She’s not as nice as you.”
“He wants to have childrens. I can’t bring childrens, so he went with her.” Her eyes redden.
Beth lays her fingertips on Mrs. Hannam’s shoulder for a second, thinking of the consulate doctors, sperm counts, Western fertility miracles. Then Mrs. Hannam swivels and embraces Beth with her sweat, flour, and sticky tears. Beth grits her teeth, but does not back away. Egyptians can’t use consulate doctors.
Over Mrs. Hannam’s moist, warm shoulder, Beth sees that the kitten is still eating voraciously. She disentangles herself and lifts it away from the food, afraid its stomach might explode. Thinking that it should get to know the neighborhood cats and not become too dependent, she sets it, wriggling, on the back balcony.
“What I should do? What you think I should do?” Mrs. Hannam dabs the tears from her eyes, then wipes her fingers on the front of her dress. She murmurs something in Arabic.
Beth considers offering to let her live here; they have three unused bedrooms. But Terren and she need their privacy. If Mrs. Hannam were an American woman like herself, she would say, “Move out. You don’t need him.”
“I’m sorry,” Beth says. “I hope you feel better.”
That night, Beth lies on Terren’s side of the bed, cuddling his pajamas. When they left California eight months ago, they said: No Peace Corps, no grape picking, no sleeping on trains. Twenty-eight was too old for hostels, hitchhiking, bread and cheese and cheese and bread. Sore backs and strange diseases no longer qualified as adventure.
The first few weeks, they gloried in the lacy, unreadable Arabic signs, the clopping horses and black carriages, the cheap food and cheap hotels. Followed everywhere, courted and cajoled, they felt like movie stars.
When the funds ran out, Terren landed a plum job taking inventory at the library of the American Cultural Center, while she managed only a part-time position as a consulate clerk, which was to say typist.
At one point he sniffed out the window, saying, “Is that the ocean?” And she laughed at him and said, “That’s not the ocean. That’s the sewer.”
And once she stopped on the street to fill a beggar woman’s hand with bills and accidentally gave away their dinner money. And Terren told her they weren’t the World Bank.
Now, three months later, the adventure has ended in her washing out the other secretaries’ tea glasses, in the monotonous danger of crossing the street, and in the daily difficulties of buying bread and soap, of finding shoes that fit.
Tonight she dreams that Terren and she have taken the ferry to Greece and are teaching English to polite, beautiful children. One of the children has a cough, and she leans over to put a handkerchief to his mouth, until she sees that he is spitting up blood. With each cough he is dying, and the coughing grows louder, the hacking amplified over a scratchy microphone. . . . “W’ullah, what-the-he-ell? Wagfuck!”
During Beth’s morning shower, the water turns icy: the butane cylinder is empty. Wet, with shampoo still in her hair, she dresses and goes downstairs to find Mohammed, their sometimes helpful door- and errand-man. Outside, she calls his name. Often she has found him simply sitting, a rolled stump of a cigarette between his dark teeth, his hands flat on his gowned knees. But not this time. From above, some boys echo her, mocking her pronunciation, but she knows they’ll report that she’s looking for him.
She goes home the back way, hoping to find Mohammed in the yard raking garbage or burning plants. Behind her house, five or six anonymous children appear, spit in her direction, then flee. At the top of the back stairs, the kitten lies dead, not two feet from where she left it.
Beth gasps and has a horrible vision of the cat’s insides bursting. Or maybe it was rabies. The cat has scratched her, so maybe by the time Terren returns she’ll be red-eyed and foaming. That’ll teach him to go away.
Across the alley, a blue-veiled woman emerges onto her balcony, tying up a plastic sack of garbage with firm, tight knots. She carefully lifts it over the edge and drops it straight down. The bag breaks against a car windshield, spilling garbage down the hood.
When Beth steps through the back door, Mrs. Hannam jumps. She is ironing a shirt on a few bare inches of the kitchen table, between some soaking underwear, a full ashtray, and several containers of food.
“My cat died.”
Mrs. Hannam shrugs, dribbles a cup of water onto the shirt collar, then applies the iron; steam hisses up. “Oh, I forget to tell you — Mohammed wanted five pound.”
Beth’s jaw hurts. She unclenches her teeth and massages her temples and cheeks as she looks around for her purse. She finds it hanging from the doorknob, open.
“I take-ed five pound,” Mrs. Hannam explains, “for Mohammed.”
“For the book. Mr. Terren loves it.” She holds up a copy of Time.
“I’ve got that one,” Beth says, frowning. And it did not cost five pounds. “Mrs. Hannam, I have to talk to you.” To show that the conversation will be serious, Beth sits down at the table, her chair scraping across the gritty floor. “Did you take some money? Some other money? A few days ago?”
Mrs. Hannam irons harder, her face horizontal. “No,” she mutters.
Beth lets the silence hang. “Because I’m missing some.” She watches the cook’s face for signs of guilt, feeling like a judge. “No one has been here when I’ve been out except you.”
There is a smell of scorched cotton. Mrs. Hannam rips the iron off the shirt, but it leaves a brown crust. She swears in Arabic and apologizes in Italian, then remembers English. “I’m sorry! My niece — we will beat her. Hyalia is a bad girl. We will hit her. She will make it back to you.”
Beth expels an angry breath and feels her shoulders loosen. “Well, OK.” She sets her purse down. “OK. We won’t tell anyone, but she has to give it all back.”
“Yes, yes.” Mrs. Hannam’s hands fumble as she directs a stream of water over the scorched shirt. Her sweating face is bright and pale. “She will make it all; I’m sorry. . . .”
“In dollars,” Beth adds.
“What?” Mrs. Hannam lets the shirt fall into the sink and stares at Beth. “She cannot make dollars, but she will bring three pound. She take-ed two pound fifty.” She points a wet hand toward the front hall.
Beth is confused, then realizes Mrs. Hannam is waving toward the tip jar. The niece has stolen something from there. Two pounds, fifty piasters: about a dollar, hardly enough to buy food for a cat.
The words that come to her sound like the reprimand of a parent, a boss, or an owner: “Have her apologize to me, but it’s all right. She can keep the money.”
“Al-hum-dil-Allah! You are good!” Mrs. Hannam raises her arms, first in a prayer, then to hug Beth.
Beth closes her eyes against the embrace and tries to block out the servant’s humble thanks. Terren must have taken the two hundred for his trip, that’s all. She wishes she could give Mrs. Hannam twenty dollars to go away, or a thousand dollars to mend her life, but she can’t.
Through the window over Mrs. Hannam’s shoulder, Beth sees the foundation and shell of a house, surrounded by dust and rubble. She has never been able to tell if the house is being built, very slowly, or if it is being torn down.