I work as the assistant to a small grocer in Shubra. I never learned to write and I don’t remember holding a pen. I remember plenty in my head and I know how to add and subtract in my head. I can hold things and tell you their exact weight. We could have gotten rid of the scale. We sell dates. Figs. Seeds. Spices. Tea. Sugar. Rice. I know all their fluctuating prices. Women wander in and out. That’s why I’m telling this story because I’m not going to write it down. So you ask me for stories while we sit here at the coffee house. Night late. So late that Cairo has quieted down. Just the rumble of shisha. The muezzin will not be up for another two hours. I don’t even know how many times a day I’m supposed to be praying but it seems unnatural for me to be praying so much and at certain hours. To just stop and get on my knees and pray and rub that circle of dirt on my forehead so everyone knows I prayed.
I stopped praying because I decided it wasn’t actually praying. That praying was eating. Was going to bathroom for a long time. Was sleeping. Was breathing. Smoking. I think your charcoal is dying. Let me ask for you. Willa’! He is busy staring out at El Burg. Everyone does. It looks like a nail pricked into the city. There across the Nile. Look he sees us. He is coming over. Please, my friend, needs more charcoal. Do not use the big pieces they always fall off. Just a few small pieces. There. Just right. Take a puff. Better?
Mine is fine. Don’t worry about it. I call him over often and never let it go out. I don’t like to ruin my evening smoke. It is the most important. Some like a morning or midday smoke. Let them have those smokes. I will take my night smoke. Do you have a boss? You don’t? What do you do to have no boss? I think you are making fun of me—I can tell you have a high school education. My boss he is not so bad. He likes to shout. Get angry over anything but he is charming with the customers. Which is easy because they are all women. He does not get mad at me much—I do my job perfect. Much better than perfect. I told you I could be a scale. He doesn’t tell me but I don’t think he would want me to leave. I’m not allowed to talk to customers. Ahmed does all the talking. I do all the doing. Lots of doing and watching. We get kids sometimes who try to take a thing or two. Ahmed beats the kids he catches and tells their parents. But he says a certain kind of kid steals. Thieves are sons of thieves and have sons who steal or daughters who marry thieves. Impossible not to. It’s sand from the beach; it sticks to you.
I’m not sleepy but I need more coffee. Wave him down for me. Double please. Very sweet. I should have asked for a tea. It doesn’t matter. There aren’t many stories from the shop. It’s just the same every day. Come early just after dawn prayer. Sweep. Spray the street out front with water. Get cigarettes for Ahmed. Make him dark tea three sugars. Go to every shelf and make everything is straight. Old stuff in the front new in the back. People come and talk to Ahmed. Tell him about their children. Their sick mothers. Their overeating uncles that are always over and tell him what they came for. I am like a mouse. No an ant. I move here. Move over there. They tell Ahmed I need a half kilo dates, Ahmed doesn’t move. I move I get the bag and put the dates in the bag. I know how he feels about every customer. Some he likes more and they get better dates. I weigh the dates because the only time Ahmed ever shouted at me was for not using the scale. He told me don’t use your sense to weigh figs. I tie the bag. They give the money to Ahmed. I don’t touch money except when I am paid. He makes the change out of his pocket. He decides the total and the prices. He squints at his small calculator. And sometimes it is different in just five minutes. The store closes for two hours. Ahmed goes home and eats lunch and prays. I stay in the store and clean. At the end of the night I clean again. I also count the boxes and bags and tell him what we have. There isn’t that much excitement. Nothing for a movie.
Yes of course there must be excitement for a story to be told. Why tell the story. Enlightenment? I don’t know what that means but I don’t want to hear a story without excitement but full of enlightenment. That must be the opposite of excitement. Maybe you like it but I know enough. Do you have kids? That’s why. You’re not married either.
I am. My wife when I first met her made a different food for every meal. That’s how she says she got fat. She would make too much and eat the leftovers so she wouldn’t waste food and she could make a new dish. I love leftovers. I love cold food that has been resting for a day or two from the heat of an oven. I think when food waits, it has more flavor. She would spend the last two hours before I came home doing her hair, picking a dress, and putting on makeup. The red of her lips dripping with the skin of dewy cherries was the first sight I caught when I returned home. That red stirred me. I don’t know why it excited me so much. As if only her lips needed to be there, while the rest of her waited in the kitchen for me. Cutting the ends off green beans and slicing tomatoes like an executioner. My wife was perfect then. A perfect wife. Whatever I asked for. Fatira on Saturday mornings. Sneaking little snacks into my pocket during Ramadan because she knew I wasn’t fasting. She made a castle out of Eid.
Eid is in two days. I think it is the one day in the entire year that I still love my wife like it was the beginning. You have never had her lamb or her béchamel sauce. You would agree. She doesn’t know this. How much I adored her at first. I tried to be stolid but I did allow her to go out only having to wear a headscarf. Women are terrible creatures. If you appreciate them, they will hurt you. It is only when they are begging that they are at their best. Now that she is fat, I should make her cover up completely in full hijab. She made these eggs in puff pastry on Saturday mornings. She cut up parsley, dill, cilantro, scallions, and thyme. She crushed pepper. Threw in a whole chili pepper with the feta. And when I bit in the hot puff pastry so hot I thought it would melt my mouth, I thought it was a wave of love crashing on my tongue every time I chewed. Sometimes she put mushrooms. She was assaulting though as a human being and the true ghoul began to appear when I came home to find the seductive red of her lips had been replaced with a yellow brown burnt stain opening and closing with teeth for insults.
She still did all the same things. Cooked. Cleaned. All dutifully done. She stopped speaking to me. When you are married, the pleasantries introduce a day; cushion the time between meals—conversation adds sound to dinner. Her silence is loud. Every time I spoke to her, it would begin a fight. I stopped talking as well. But my silence is silent. When she swept the floors and she edged near where I was reading the paper, I could feel her anger breathing on me as she cleaned around me. It’s not so bad. Only in the beginning.
Of course! I have thought about talking to her. Possibly asking to leave work early and surprising her and asking her what’s for dinner. And listen to her as she explains how she made everything. The stirring and rolling. Sprinkling and pouring. I thought of commenting about how beautiful and clean the apartment is. Or anything else I can think of talking about with my wife. Maybe ask her about her mother or sister. Suggest we visit her mother in Damanhour. Although it would never happen.
You may think I hesitate because I am concerned she may be unkind to me. It would be too easy if that were it. If I knew she would just fight with me, then I would have done it long ago. There is no pain in rejection that you can count on. What I worry about—what if she answers—what if she tells me she is making stuffed bread. Then she tells me how she combined flour to make dough. What if she told me her mother was ill and we should plan to go to Damanhour next weekend. I have not heard her true voice. How would I continue? What would I say before sleep that night when we are laying next to each other? What do I say the next day? I would be required to actually “live with her.” The silence makes it tolerable. It moves things along. And in the end, we will have passed many many days together. Maybe I should wait closer to the end. You laugh. It was a joke. It’s like the joke about the man who wanted to take his wife to Paris for their first wedding anniversary and his friends protested and said if you take her to Paris, she will expect more each year. What will you do on your fifth wedding anniversary? There is wisdom to this joke.
My whole family has become quieter though. And I think its only when I am there they are quiet. As if I choke them when I open the door. Not so much my wife. She pretends I am not there. My oldest son, I think he hates me. I catch him staring at me. Fire in the outer ring of the green of his eyes. He got those eyes from his mother. You would think I would hear whispers about what happens when I am not there. Four days ago, I actually did speak to my wife. I gave her two pounds and a few piasters. I told her I was in the mood for rice pudding. I like it sweet and creamy. Go out and buy rice and sugar and make it for me tonight when I return. I like rice pudding. Hot from the pan. The truth was that I had smelled it that morning. Someone else was having it and I craved it. This made her silence grow louder.
I went to work. Ahmed has hired—not an assistant—but someone he can send out. I am very busy at the store and I must be there at all times. This new errand boy is young—14 but very rude. He stares openly at women and curses. I do not know why Ahmed hired him. Maybe he is doing a favor for someone. His name is Mohammed. He drinks four cups of tea in the first hour he is there. He doesn’t ask anyone else if they want any tea. He does very little. He knocks over a shelf of dried sugar cane. He cleans up only after I have insisted. But he doesn’t really clean. You know the type. Doesn’t like to work. Drinks a lot of tea. I want to know why he is here but I don’t want to speak to him and I do not have the courage to question Ahmed.
It gnaws on me all day like a rat on a flip-flop. I comfort myself by thinking of rice pudding. Creamy. White like angel’s wings. Every piece of rice like a tiny angel’s wing. Oh how I would burn my mouth tonight because I can’t wait for it to cool down. Mohammed drinks two more cups of tea. He stands too close to the female customers while he feigns sweeping. He tries to speak to one woman who is with her mother but I yank him away. He knocks over the rice bin. I make him clean it.
The afternoon arrives; a woman fully covered arrives. I can see through her face cover that she is wearing red on her lips. I smell her perfume when she enters. It overpowers the spices like a serpent. Mohammed stares at her. She stays at the entrance until Ahmed walks to her and greets her.
“You can come in. Free to look,” Ahmed says to her.
She looks up. She is entirely covered in black even her eyes and fingernails. Ahmed pulls on the end of his mustache. He comments on the weather. “It’s very hot and dry,” he says. She seems to agree because she nods. Ahmed tells her: “I wonder how hot it must be beneath that black sheet you are wearing. He suggests she take it off. I cannot hear her response but I know that she is amused because she has not left. He asks her if she would like to have a cup of tea with him. But she shakes her head. She points at the sugar and rice and holds up one finger. Ahmed calls out: kilo of rice and a kilo of sugar.
I began to fill a bag with sugar. “Have Mohammed do that,” he says staring at the woman.
“Go out to the front and get the special rice and sugar that just came in.” Ahmed tells Mohammed. I don’t know of any rice and sugar outside. Everything is here. What made me very upset was that Mohammed winked at Ahmed.
Mohammed goes out the front door and comes back ten minutes later. Ahmed makes a cup of tea for the woman. He brings out a chair and insists. He asks her jokingly: why would you leave the house naked? She shakes her swiftly. They both drink tea. He asks her where she lives because he has not seen her before at his store. She shakes her head and motions around the corner with her gloved hand.
When Mohammed returns, he comes in with a brown bag and goes straight into the back. I try to follow him. Ahmed tells me to straighten the shelves. I have already straightened them. He tells me to straighten them again. They don’t look straight enough. In fact, he says I have done a terrible job. I am straightening the already straightened shelves.
He pours the lady another cup of tea. I would like to see what Mohammed has in that bag. Ahmed says something to the lady in a low voice. She pulls out the pin in the cloth that covers her mouth. “Start sweeping,” Ahmed calls to me. I look away and watch out the tiny far away corner of my eye. I hear him ask her to come again. She refuses and begins to stand. He insists but she must go. Will you come again tomorrow? It only stops when Mohammed comes from the back with the package of the special rice and sugar wrapped in white parchment paper.
She reaches a black-gloved hand into her black leather purse.
He holds up his hand as if he were the most generous and wealthy man on earth and that paying him for goods was an insult.
She takes the package and leaves. He calls out that he will see her again tomorrow. Mohammed stands next to Ahmed. They both laugh. I dream of rice pudding. Ahmed keeps me later. Two hours later. I think this is not fair. You do not have a boss so if you work late it is your own fault.
My children had already eaten. The food was cold. I like cold food. She had never served me anything cold. In fact she didn’t serve me the dinner that night. Dinner was left on the table from when they ate. They didn’t even remove their dirty plates. I sat down and began to eat cold chicken and potatoes. It was very good. I told her she should make cold food more often.
After I was finished, I began to look around for the rice pudding. It was not on the kitchen counter. It was not on the table. I was looking for a spoon or bowl or pan that may have shown evidence of rice pudding. Nothing. Not a grain.
They were all sitting around the radio listening to Abdel Wahab. It was a love song. I don’t like love songs. I think it is because I don’t believe you should sing about love and happiness. I have never felt this great magic Wahab always sings of— all this sighing and clutching. I have never felt a flower bloom in my heart or the rush of dizziness in my head. I come home because it is my own home. You are right. Of course. I have wanted to feel those feelings. They sound like wonderful feelings. Supernatural. Have you felt this way? I knew it. You are the sort. Twice? Once seems much. How does it feel like it? Tell me about her? What did she look like? Tell me about both times? Was it the same woman? Were you married? Oh, wait, I forgot. You told me you aren’t married. Please, I would really like to hear about love. Stop, you’re making fun of me again. Stop kidding. The rice pudding can wait. Please tell me. I don’t think I have ever met anyone that can tell me a story about love. Ok, ok, ok. If I finish telling you about the rice pudding, do you promise to tell me both stories? Really, you will. I will be very upset if you don’t. Both. Ok. I trust you even though we just met tonight.
What was the last thing I said? You have a good ear. They are all sitting around listening to Wahab. My wife is staring into the window that faces the wide full Shubra Street. She is swaying and humming. I’m about to ask about the rice pudding when I see a white paper wrapped package. I open it up and its all sand and rocks. I rummaged through it with my fingers wondering if there is something in it.
“Fatma,” I shout. I have to say her name two more times. I see the lights coming from the street through our window like candles on a birthday cake. I walk over and shake her roughly by the shoulder. My children are watching me. She jerks as if I woke her from sleep. What, she says, what. I pull her up and tow her into the kitchen. She is heavy like tying a mule to rope and pulling. This, what is this. I point at rocks and sand wrapped in white parchment paper. What is this? Where is the rice pudding? Didn’t I ask you to get rice pudding? Did you know how I have waited for it all day? Where is it? What is this? This doesn’t look like rice at all. Where is the money I gave you? I gave you over two pounds. If you cannot answer any of these questions right away Allah have mercy—I’m going to send everyone in this apartment to the hospital tonight. She is scared. Definitely wide awake now. She is not thinking of love songs.
“I’m so sorry,” she says. “Something terrible happened to me today. I was going to make you the best rice pudding in all of Egypt. I left the house thinking of what I could do to make it so special. A little more sugar. Rose water maybe. Creamier. My mind was a plate of hot rice pudding as I walked to the souq. I held my hand tightly around the coins you gave me as I walked at midday. This man on a mule plunged into my path, spilled the plate of rice pudding I had been making for you in my head, almost ran me over. I had to jump out of the way to save myself. He didn’t even apologize. He kept going at his speed. I was so embarrassed.”
I thought what a horrible thing to do to someone even to my wife!
”I tried to get up as quickly as possible so no one would see the shame I felt at having fallen. The coins were no longer in my hand. I had dropped them when I fell. There were people approaching on the road. I could not let anyone see me searching through the dirt in the road like a beggar. I gathered up all the sand and rocks in that spot. I wrapped it in paper. I carried it home as if I had market goods. I was going to sift through them to find the coins so I could go back out to the store but I couldn’t find the sieve.”
I tell her the sieve is in the closet behind the door. I lay out the parchment paper with the rocks and sand. I start moving my fingers looking for coins. She brings the sieve. I start sifting. The dust is getting into my eyes and face and into my beard. I can taste the sand. Why is it I feel like sand should taste like salt and I am shocked when it tastes like sand? I tell her I can’t find it. She is sitting down again looking out the window, I see a deep red spot on the window she is looking out. She is swaying to Wahab again. She says dreamily: keep sifting—you will find it.