Gretchen McCullough was raised in Harlingen, Texas. After graduating from Brown University in 1984, she taught in Egypt, Turkey and Japan. She earned her M.F.A. from the University of Alabama and was awarded a Fulbright to Syria from 1997-1999.
Stories and essays have appeared in: The Texas Review, The Alaska Quarterly Review, The Barcelona Review, Archipelago, National Public Radio, Storysouth, Storyglossia and Guernica. Translations with the Egyptian poet, Mohamed Metwalli have been published in: El-Mustaqbel, Nizwa, Brooklyln Rail, Banipal and Jacket.
Her bilingual book of short stories, Three Stories from Cairo, was published by Afaq Publishers in Cairo in July 2011; Mohamed Metwalli and the author translated the stories into Arabic.
Currently, she is Senior Instructor in the Department of Rhetoric and Composition at the American University in Cairo.
Please visit Gretchen McCullough’s website: www.gretchenmccullough.com
The door slammed. Dr. Sheri ran in the kitchen, shouting, “It’s the end. It’s the end.”
I didn’t like the wild look in her eyes. Her clothes were soaked to her skin—it rained only occasionally in Cairo in November.
I put my foot carefully down on the chair and got down. I set the pole with the bushy pink top against the counter. “Is it raining?”
Dr. Sheri didn’t answer, but started sobbing. She sat down right in the middle of the kitchen floor.
“No. No, I said, helping her to her feet. “Not here.” I led her into the living room to the couch. I ran to the bathroom to get a towel to dry her off.
As I was drying her hair, I said, “Now, dear, tell me what happened.
She covered her face with her hands. “They hate us.”
“Who hates you?”
“The Egyptians,” she said.
“Don’t be silly. Of course, they don’t. Nobody hates you, Sheri,” I said. “This is about the government. Not you.”
“No, no. Zeinab, this time, it’s different,” Sheri said. “They’re out for blood.”
I waved my hand. “Not at all. Foolish talk. We’re not a violent people. You know that.”
“I was running for my life. They chased me down a street for God’s sake. I ran smack into a water cannon. Look, I’m telling you. They pretended to aim the cannon on the youth. And then they turned it on me. They were laughing their heads off.”
“Listen, these things blow over. You’ve lived here how long? You know, people are always demonstrating in this country. If it’s not one thing, it’s another.” I kept drying her hair. “We need to get you out of these wet clothes. You’ll catch a cold.”
“No,” Sheri said, shaking her head back and forth, like a rag doll. “This is it. Mark my words, Zeinab. The day of judgment.”
“Nonsense. The war’s in Iraq. Faraway. Believe me, dear, it’ll blow over. People’ll go back to worrying about how to feed their children.”
Dr. Sheri knew all about my problems. My husband, who spent our money on cards. My neurotic daughter. The son who squandered money on hash. She had been a very sympathetic listener and helped me a lot. Sudden loans when I was in a pinch. Advances on my salary. The unexpected chicken or a kilo of meat.
“Are you an expert on Iraq?” Sheri said.
I laughed. “Of course not. As you know, I left school at twelve.”
“They were about to rip off my clothes,” Sheri said, pulling a wet strand of gray hair away from her eyes. “Hoodlums. Thugs. Monsters. I could have been raped.”
“Come on, now. You’re upset. I’ll make us some tea.” I went back to the kitchen and lit the gas burner. For a moment, staring at the flame I wondered if it was a good idea to leave Sheri alone at all. She was disturbed.
“They screamed, ‘Bawk. Bawk, Skinny chicken. Bawk, Bawk, Skinny chicken,’” she called out.
“Is that all they said? Come on. They could have said something worse. Why didn’t you tell them to get lost?” I shouted.
I opened the refrigerator. A single cup of yogurt sat alone in the first shelf. A jar of mustard. No wonder she was a stick—she wasn’t eating, either. At least, she had milk, but it was skim. No taste. I’d do without. She liked her tea milky. Five sugars for me without milk. I put the mugs on a small tray and brought them into the living room. I wonder if I had a pack of biscuits in my purse. She wouldn’t buy them for herself, but would eat them if I offered them to her. That might make her feel better. I rummaged in my purse. Ah, yes. I had a few cookies left—creamy chocolate icing in the middle.
“Why didn’t you shame them?” I said, handing her a mug of tea. “Your Arabic is good enough. You know what to say when people behave badly.” I offered her a cookie.
“I don’t know,” she said, nibbling at the cookie. Her left eye started to twitch. She was crying.
“You would have done that before when you first came. You told me yourself how you cursed a guard who said something improper to you. You’re not getting enough to eat. I’m worried about you.”
She was silent for a moment. Suddenly, she said. “I want Dudie.” She stuck out her lip. “Dudie! Dudie!” she shouted.
“He’s on the curtain ledge in your bedroom,” I said. “Where he always sleeps.”
Of course, her cats were everything to her. I didn’t mind feeding them, but we had agreed that I wouldn’t have to clean out the boxes. Dudie was the white cat with the pink eyes who hid high up on the curtain ledge. Shushu, the other one, a fat, black cat, usually hissed at me, like a snake. I had seen nicer cats in my day, but Sheri adored them. She treated them like her children.
She got up and dragged herself into the bedroom. I followed her. “You’d better get those clothes off. Otherwise, you’ll catch a cold.”
I helped her lift her blouse over her head. She stripped off her clothes and handed them to me. She was much too thin—her bra just hung on her. No breasts now. Starving herself. But, why? Maybe I should bring over some okra stew with a bit of meat for her.
The monster, Dudie appeared. “Dudie,” Sheri shouted, clapping her hands. Dudie jumped into her lap. “Come to mommy.”
When I first started working for her, she had told me a lot of intimate things about herself. When she came back from America, she had bought me bars of chocolate from the duty-free shop. Nibbling on the delicious chocolate, we had lounged on her bed and flipped through her photo album. She had showed me photographs of herself: a much fatter and lovelier-looking woman than she was now. Her wedding dress had hundreds of beaded pearls! Her husband, Mazen had bushy eyebrows and a strange shaped head, but he smiled at her with such adoration. Anyway, handsome men often thought too highly of themselves. “He looks very nice,” I said.
“You know,” she said giggling. “We fell in love in Arabic poetry class. We recited poetry to each other.”
“How romantic!” I said.
She asked, “Have you been in love?”
I laughed. “No. Anyway, you know, love is a luxury for us.”
“No one at all?” Sheri said. She was so eager to know about me in those early days.
“There was my cousin,” I said. “We liked each other. But he’s dead. He’s been gone a long time. Fifteen years.”
“Well, he was killed in a mini bus accident.”
“I’m so sorry,” she said, touching my hand. Despite the fact that she was odd, she had been very kind to me.
Suddenly, Shushu, who had been under the bed, emerged and hissed at me. Foul creature. I ducked into the bathroom and put her wet clothes into the laundry basket. Could it wait? If I put the wet clothes in the washing machine, I would have to wait until the cycle finished before I could leave. No, that’s alright. I’d do the laundry next time.
“Come to mommy,” Sheri said, speaking baby talk. Shushu approached the bed, warily as if she were hunting. “That’s a good girl.”
Shushu leapt up on the bed and nuzzled her neck. I could never understand these relationships with animals.
“Give me your mug. I’ll finish up in the kitchen,” I said.
“Thanks for being so good, Zeinab. It was a distressing day,” Sheri said.
“No, it’s fine,” I said. “You’ll feel better tomorrow.”
I had had other colorful employers. Karalombos was a huge Greek man who taught movie stars how to dance. I spent hours vacuuming his flat because he dropped Kentucky Fried chicken crumbs everywhere. Bathilda, a Swedish belly dancer, often asked me to help her dress before she performed.
The day after the huge demonstration in Tahrir Square, everything went back to normal in Cairo. The U.S. invaded Iraq as we expected. They were powerful and did as they liked. I was already tired of the inconvenience of blocked streets and security trucks. I hoped that Dr. Sheri would be fine. The experience had not been pleasant for her, but she had not been harmed physically.
When I turned the key in the door, she was waiting for me. “I’m having a terrible day,” she said. She was tapping her foot. “Everything has gone wrong.”
“Good morning. The roads were blocked. The president was passing through the city. You know, how they block the roads when he moves.”
“Sure. No one can move for hours. My students at the university always use this excuse.”
“Are you alright? Are you feeling better?” I asked.
“I’m not going to the university today,” she said.
“Why not? What’s that smell?”
“The washing machine caught on fire,” she said.
“Oh, dear,” I said. “Why don’t you hang the clothes outside? They’ll get the fresh air.” I started picking up the clothes. Wet clothes were draped over the couch and the dining and living room chairs.
“No. They’ll get dusty,” she said. “When they’re dry, they’ll be dirty again. We must wash them again.” She was chewing on her fingernails; they had been chewed raw.
“Ya Doctoor Sheri, don’t pick at your nails like that. Have you called the university? Maybe they could have an electrician come and look at it,” I said. I started taking out the pins in my veil.
Her eyes narrowed. “I don’t trust anyone.”
“They do their work well. Just phone them,” I said. “Or it might be that you just need a new washing machine. Haven’t you had this one for seven years?”
“Everything is shit in this country. Nothing lasts,” she said. Suddenly, she wandered away from me and gazed out the window. “Nothing lasts,” she murmured.
Plenty of thieves around, but they weren’t clustered in the university housing office. She was in a state like this before. Two years ago she had mentioned for days that the vegetable seller had overcharged her for onions. I wandered into the bathroom. She followed me.
“Don’t touch the machine,” she snapped. “I don’t need a flood. I’ve just had a fire!”
“I’ve switched the water off,” I said.
I turned the knob. It made an odd whirring sound, but refused to spin. “Maybe the bawab probably knows someone who can repair it. I’ll go downstairs and ask him.”
“Don’t you dare! That bawab is a busybody. He gives me the creeps. He reports everybody to the Secret Police.”
I chuckled. “Oh, you know he’s going to report a broken washing machine? Not very interesting intelligence.”
“I’m sure he reports my every move,” Sheri said. “They think I’m a CIA operative.”
I retreated into the small bathroom and took my cleaning clothes off the hooks from the door—an old T-shirt and a pair of warm-up pants. Today she announced that she would clean with me, as she sometimes did. “Oh, it’s alright. Listen, don’t you don’t you have any work to do for the university? Papers to grade?”
“I can’t,” she said. “I feel like doing something mindless today.”
Sheri never called the housing office to come and look at her washing machine. She spent her time gazing out the window. I found granola bar wrappers and apple cores under her bed. In the end, I started washing out her clothes, the linen and the towels in her bathtub. Other things started to break. Her screens needed to be repaired—I cut my fingers on the torn mesh. We suffered from a plague of flies and mosquitoes. The plumbing went awry. In both bathrooms, water backed up. The toilets refused to flush. Sometimes water with brown sludge flooded onto the floor and I had to clean it up. All of the handles on her windows broke. When it was windy, the windows flapped back and forth. All of the light bulbs went out, one by one and weren’t replaced. I lit small, tube candles so I could see.
Her only expeditions were to the pet shop downstairs. She loved to see what was new in cats’ toys. She bought ear wipes, hair brushes and dental treats for Dudie and Shushu.
I began to dread going to Dr. Sheri’s. She was becoming completely unglued. But I had to go to work: I needed the money. To my surprise, she stopped ranting about thieves and her washing machine altogether. In the meantime, Baghdad fell. Sheri didn’t even mention it. I had to take my daughter to a psychiatrist. My son continued to stay out until dawn and sleep all day. My mother needed a kidney transplant. I was calling every relative we had to see if we could scrape up the money.
When I opened the door, Dr. Sheri was holding a cat cage. “Zeinab, forget about cleaning,” she said. “We’ve got to get Shushu to the vet.”
“Ya Doctoor Sheri, why? What’s wrong with her?”
“She’s not eating. I’m worried about her.”
We lured Shushu into the kitchen with some cat herbs. Shushu followed her nose and went straight into the cage. But when I tried to close the door of the cat cage, the peg wouldn’t go into the hole. Shushu dug her claws into my hand. “Awwww!” I pulled back. For a minute, her claws just hung on my hand. In a flash, she let go and squeezed past the door.
Blood oozed from my hand. My hand was on fire. I ran to the bathroom. Held my hand under the tap.
When I returned, Sheri was cooing, “Now, Shushu be a good girl and come down from there.” Shushu had leapt up onto one of the counters.
At last, Sheri coaxed her to come down with the cat herbs. Grabbing her by the scruff of her neck with one hand, she held her by the bottom with the other. “In you go, Bad Shushu. Bad Pussy,” Sheri said, giving her a spank on the bottom. Then, she shoved her into the cage.
I picked up the carrier. Actually, Sheri was too weak to carry the cage herself, which she would have done a few years ago.
When we arrived at the vet, a confident Egyptian woman spoke to us in English and showed us into the waiting room. I was thinking about how else we might raise the money for the kidney for my mother—I had a cousin in Kuwait who was making a good salary as an accountant. Shushu yowled in her cage. This clinic for animals was very shiny—we had never been to this one before. The walls had been freshly painted. On every wall were photographs of animals in slick black frames. Fashion magazines in English were stacked on the coffee table.
Look at that girl with the transparent white top. No sleeves. I could never wear that. I used to have a figure like that years ago. The lady with the tangerine nail polish. Nice sandals, too. I love the way the beads wind through her toes. Hey, look at that tiny dog peeking out from a golden purse—he looks like a rat! That plump girl over there is showing her belly. She’s smiling at me. She has a diamond in her tooth. Is that her dog? That huge, skinny dog with black spots. He’s licking his privates. Oh, that must be the doctor walking through the waiting room—white coat. That Egyptian boy is wearing a warm-up suit with the colors of the Egyptian flag. He’s wearing braces. My gums bleed. I should go to the dentist. I’ve got no money for that. Is that fluffy ball of cotton, his cat? Those people must be Americans.
A door opened and shut, in the blink of an eye. That must be the doctor’s office.
The lady with the tangerine fingernails spoke to the attractive confident Egyptian woman who was ushering people in and out of the doctor’s office.
“Please tell Dr. Girgis I’m here. He knows me. Madame Georgette,” she said. She studied her fingernails.
Sheri shrieked, “I heard what you said. I speak Arabic. I’m an expert. A professor of Arabic. Don’t you people wait in line? You only came five minutes ago. The rest of us have been waiting here for over an hour. There’s a system here. If you think that because of your connections, you’ve going to jump in front of all of us, you’re mistaken. Over my dead body.”
The tiny dog in the golden purse yapped. I’m sure he’s a rat.
The Egyptian lady with gold purse stood up. “I can’t sit here all day. I have things to do.”
“What? Oh, Like getting your fingernails done?” Sheri said.
The boy with the braces giggled.
“What a rude woman you are,” the Egyptian lady said. Her dog was barking itself into a frenzy. “It’s clear you were brought up very badly.”
“Go blow it out your ass. Shut up that rat. Push everyone out of the way to get what you want. You’re the rude bitch.”
Help! I wanted to crawl under my chair. This was very embarrassing.
The Egyptian lady slapped her magazine down on the coffee table and stormed out of the room.
The confident Egyptian receptionist ran after her. “Ya Madame,” she called. “Ya Madame.”
As soon as the door popped open, the Egyptian doctor in the clean white coat ushered in the girl with the diamond tooth into the examining room. We heard her dog barking.
Shushu had the worst diagnosis possible. She had breast cancer and had to be operated on, immediately. After the operation, she tore out all her stitches. She didn’t hiss at me anymore. I had never liked Shushu, but started to feel sorry for her. Her eyes were glassy and she was lethargic. She even turned up her nose at chicken breasts. The entire time, Dudie lounged up on the curtain ledge. The only time he came down from the ledge was to eat Shushu’s food.
My daughter, Soad had calmed down and was out having fun with her friends. But I was really worried about my son, Mahmoud. He was hanging out with a bad crowd. Reeked of hashish. Were they stealing, too?
One day, I thought Sheri might be getting better. Fully clothed, she was sitting cross-legged on her bed. She was flicking through her photo album again—it reminded me of the earlier days when we gossiped together and ate duty-free chocolate. “Do you miss him?” I asked.
“Sometimes,” she said. She was wistful. “He always made me laugh. These days, I don’t laugh.”
“Oh, come on, now,” I said. “A lot of things in Cairo’ll make you laugh. It’s a crazy city.”
“It’s too late. I’m the one who left,” she said. “He’s long gone. Married by now.”
She told me the rest of the story about Mazen. “We weren’t married long,” she said. “He got a job in Saudi Arabia, but I didn’t want to go.”
“But why not? The salary would have been good. You would have had a comfortable life,” I said.
“No. No. I didn’t want to go,” Sheri said. “Women in black abayas. I didn’t want to live like that. It’s a terrible place.”
“Oh,” I said. Maybe there were other reasons for the divorce. Maybe she couldn’t get pregnant.
I was dusting. I noticed the necklace which lay in a tangled heap on the bedside table.
I picked up the necklace. The charm was a small gold rose. “Did Mazen give you this? I have always wondered. It’s very feminine.”
“No. No. My grandmother gave it to me before she died. A graduation present for finishing the university. My grandfather gave it to her when they got engaged. It’s an antique.”
“I’ll put it in your jewelry box. That way it’ll be in a safe place for you.”
“Yes, that’s a good idea. I had it out. I rarely wear it.” Sheri said.
One day when I came into the flat, Sheri was sitting in one of the heavy armchairs in the living room. She was crying. I had hoped she was getting better. Her hair was disheveled. She had that same wild look in her eyes that I had recognized the day of the demonstration.
“Ya Sheri, what’s wrong? What’s that smell?”
She began weeping. “It’s dead,” she said. A pile of used tissues had been thrown on the floor. “Dear Shushu, was always there for me.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Really? You’re sorry. I bet you are. Don’t lie to me. How dare you! You must have known,” Sheri said.
“What? Know what? What are you talking about?”
Sheri’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t you lie to me. You cleaned the room. Why didn’t you tell me?” She sobbed.
“My dear, she was alive when I left.”
“LIAR,” Sheri said.
“Look, I know you’re upset, Sheri. You know I’m not a liar,” I said. “Where is Shushu now?”
“Under the bed,” Sheri said, blowing her nose into a Kleenex. “I couldn’t deal with it.”
“Since my last visit? Why didn’t you call the bawab? Why didn’t you call me?”
“Death frightens me. I used to weep in butcher shops.”
After I had taken off my street clothes, I put on the old tee-shirt and stretch pants that I wore for cleaning.
“I’ll deal with this,” I said, carrying the broom into the bedroom. Sheri was behind me. “What are you doing with that broom? You aren’t going to sweep Shushu into the trash?”
“My dear,” I said. “I know how much you love cats.” She needed help. She needed to see a doctor.
Sheri sobbed. “Shushu was special.”
I knelt down on my knees and peered under the bed. Shushu was right in the center underneath the bed. The smell was horrendous. I wanted to gag. I couldn’t throw up now. I would have to mop up the vomit!
“Maybe we should get the bawab to help us?” I said, poking the soft corpse with a broom.
“You’ll hurt her,” Sheri said.
This was ridiculous. I wanted to escape from this task and dump it on someone else!
“The bawab will throw my beloved Shushu in the garbage,” Sheri said. “You know, he’s a scoundrel and he reports on us to the Secret Police.”
“I’ll need two towels. A small one and a big one. Come on, don’t just stand there.”
Sheri disappeared. I kept poking Shushus with my broom; she was on top one of the winter carpets. Why didn’t I think of that before? Pull the entire carpet out from under the bed. I tugged at the heavy carpet.
“Here,” Sheri said, handing me the two towels.
“Look, help me. Just pull on the carpet,” I said.
With the two of us, the carpet slid out from underneath the bed. And there was Shushu. The wound from her breast operation had never healed, where she had torn out the stitches. Tiny black things were crawling all over her. “My God,” Sheri said, “Shushu is being eaten.”
“She’s dead,” I said. “Haven’t you ever seen a dead creature?”
Shushu stared back at me. Her eyes were now a fluorescent black, covered with blue flies. You could see her teeth. It almost looked as if she were smiling, but I knew better—that was the smile of death.
“Give me the towel,” I said. God, I needed gloves. But we didn’t have any. I lay the big towel next to her on the carpet. With the broom I edged her corpse onto the big towel. Using the small towel, I rolled her corpse onto the bigger towel—the movement was enough to rupture her decomposing body. Her entrails spilled out. I suppressed my nausea again. The smell was ungodly.
“Wait! You can’t just throw her away,” Sheri said.
“No, I’m not. We aren’t going to throw her away,” I said. Quickly before the maggots escaped from the corpse, I folded the white towel, around Shushu. I knotted each end, the way we did with a shroud.
Of course, we buried people the day after they died. But Shushu wasn’t a person. Three days with any creature was a disaster, even in the autumn.
“What should we do with her?”
“We should bury her. At the club,” Sheri said.
“They have a pet cemetery there,” Sheri said.
“Will it make you feel better?” I asked.
“Yes,” Sheri said. “Yes, it will.” She seemed more in control.
I carefully put the white shroud into a cloth shopping bag. We hailed a taxi outside of Sheri’s building and asked for the club. The taxi driver made a face. “Ya hagga, what’s that rotten smell?” I put my palms up, as if I were praying. Mercy, please. When he glanced at Sheri, he understood. Sheri started to weep again, so I said, “The entrance of the Gezira Club, please.”
We wandered around the vast grounds of the club—we circled around the horse stables, track, tea garden and the tennis courts. But still, we couldn’t find the pet cemetery. I suggested we ask the guards.
But Sheri didn’t want to talk to anyone.
“They hate foreigners here,” Sheri said. “I feel alien here. Everyone stares at me.”
I wondered if people might also stare at Sheri in America. She looked strange.
“They don’t hate foreigners,” I said. How could I tell her that I felt like an alien here, too?
After what seemed like hours trying to find the pet cemetery, Sheri gave up and decided to dig on the edge of the golf course.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” I said.
But Sheri wasn’t listening to me. She pulled the spoon out of her purse furtively, as if it were candy. And then, she knelt down on the grass, tucking her long legs underneath her so she could dig. As she was hacking at the earth, she grunted like a deranged child.
Suddenly, two security guards were making their way toward us.
“Sheri,” I said. “Look out!”
But she didn’t look up and continued hacking at the hard earth.
The older guard with a streak of gray in his hair, stood in front of me. “What are you doing here? What’s going on here?”
I explained to them that we couldn’t find the pet cemetery. Sheri’s cat had just died and she was still very upset. “That’s too bad,” he said.
The other guard with the mustache said, “No problem. We’ll take you and the lady to the cemetery.”
“Sheri,” I said, touching her arm. “They’ll take us to the pet cemetery.”
But Sheri was digging even more furiously. She wasn’t listening. Her stringy salt and pepper hair had fallen into her face. She badly needed medical help—I was very sorry for her. She was all alone and far away from her family.
“Madame,” the older guard said, very politely. “You are spoiling the grass. It’s against the rules of the club.”
Sheri brushed a few strands of her hair out of her face and narrowed her eyes. Then, she cursed them both in the most foul Arabic I had ever heard. I was embarrassed—this was terrible. “I’m very sorry,” I said to the guards. How insulting!
Jumping to her feet, she dropped the spoon and strolled toward the exit. “Sheri. Sheri. Sheri, dear,” I called, running after her. But when I reached the entrance, she had disappeared.
I returned to the guards. They were staring at the bulky towel, which contained Shushu’s corpse.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “She is…”
The older man said, “We’ll help you. What do you want to do?”
“Bury Shushu,” I said. “Bury the cat.”
The dignified old man insisted on carrying the bundle for me. The cemetery was behind the track. No wonder we had never been able to find it. Weeds had grown up here. A few graves had actual stones, engraved with the names of animals. The ground was hard. The younger guard knelt on his haunches and dug with one of his keys—it took some time to dig a hole. He explained, “We have wild dogs here.” At last, the hole was deep enough. The older guard lay the cat’s corpse in the grave and covered it with dirt. I found a piece of loose cardboard and scribbled on it, “Shushu. The cat of Doctoor Sheri.”
I thanked the kind men and left the club. On my way home, I called Sheri, but she didn’t answer. I resolved to call her the next day, but did not. My mother was dangerously ill.
Miraculously, a kidney had appeared. The doctor assured me that everything was legitimate. I pushed the doubts away. My cousin had given us a huge loan. We needed more money. I had no other choice, but ask Sheri. She had lent me money in the past. It had been two days since I had buried Shushu. I needed to check on Sheri.
This time, when I dialed her mobile number, I got the message, “The number you have dialed is no longer in service.” I tried the landline. No answer. I dialed again. Had something happened to Sheri? I phoned later in the day. I let it ring twenty times. Imagining the worst, I rushed over to Sheri’s apartment. Or maybe they had taken her away. But who were they? Did anyone but me, know how bad the situation was? She seemed to have no contact with anyone but those two cats. Well, now just one cat, Dudie.
Anwar, the bawab waved to me on my way into the building. He was sitting on a small stool in front. His son, Nasser, was washing a black Mercedes with a faded pink rag.
“What happened? Did something happen to Doctoor Sheri?”
Anwar shrugged. “Gone.” Anwar was not a big talker—we had only exchanged greetings in the last seven years I had worked for Dr. Sheri. I couldn’t believe he was an informer for the Secret Police.
“What? Where has she gone?”
Anwar made a gesture with his hand, like a plane going into the sky. “America.”
“She’s not well.” At least, she had not harmed herself.
“You’re telling me,” he said. “She destroyed the flat.”
“Oh,” I said. What had she done? “I did my best. But she refused to let any repairmen into the flat.”
“I’m not blaming you,” Anwar said. “We have to clean up the flat for the next tenant. The landlord wants you to clean it. We’ll pay you extra.”
“Now?” I asked. I wasn’t prepared to work. I couldn’t leave my mother for that long.
“The new tenant is coming in two days.”
“When did she leave?”
“Yesterday,” Anwar said. “Her brother took her back.”
“Her brother?” She had never told me she had a brother. She had given me all the details of her marriage with Mazen, but had not mentioned a brother. I remembered a conversation about a sister, who had three kids in some place that I had never heard of—only corn fields there.
“He didn’t look like her brother,” Anwar said. “But what do I know? They looked funny together.”
I was baffled. “What did she do with her cat?”
“They took it away in a cage,” Anwar said.
“She didn’t leave anything for me? No leaving money?” I said. My voice cracked. How was I going to get the extra money for my mother’s operation?
“No,” Anwar said. “Sorry.” One of his boys was watching television at a screeching point in the small room where they slept in the front of the building. The television host said: “Who wants to be a millionaire?” Anwar shouted, “My son, Turn it down!”
My eyes filled with tears. “She wasn’t a bad person,” I said. “Just disturbed.” I had tried very hard to please her. To help her. The episode with Shushu was terrible.
“I’m sorry,” Anwar said. “Can I make you some tea?”
“No,” I said. “I can make some upstairs.”
“May your burden be lightened,” Anwar said. “One of my boys can help you.”
“No,” I said. “I can work faster if I’m alone.”
The flat smelled different—as if the bawab had tried to cover the smell of the dead cat with fake jasmine spray. Sheri was asthmatic and had hated those sprays. I made myself some tea and sat in the living room chair, instead of the stool in the kitchen. I put my feet up on the coffee table. Nice to have this spacious flat to myself. I flung open the doors to her wardrobe—she had left countless sleeveless flowery and polka-dotted dresses. Lovely. But I could never wear those dresses anywhere but inside the house. Masses of shoes. I picked up a pair—dark blue with tiny, glittery stars. They were three sizes too big for me, but I slipped them on, anyway. They were so big, that I clomped when I walked. I was hungry. But I knew what to expect from Sheri’s refrigerator. I opened it, anyway. One shriveled carrot. What was a book doing in the vegetable bin? Strange. I flipped through the pages. Arabic poetry. The Arabic was indecipherable.
Something tucked in the book dropped on the tile floor. Something shiny. I picked it up—it was tangled. Ah, the rose-shaped charm! Tiny diamonds decorated the gold rose. How had it gotten here? She had gone off and left her grandmother’s graduation present—she would be sad when she realized she had left it behind. Would the bawab or the landlord have her address? But even if I wrapped up the necklace and tried to send it to her, I could not afford the postage. That wasn’t a good idea, either. If I relinquished the necklace to Anwar, he would hock it. He had to provide for six boys. Suppose Anwar gave the necklace to the landlord, who was so stingy he refused to change the pipes in the building. Once the brown sludge had even burst through a pipe, gushing onto the kitchen floor. I had seen all the gold chandeliers and gold frames of the Virgin in the landlord’s flat. Neither the bawab nor the landlord would send Sheri her necklace. No one had ever given me such a beautiful necklace. Even my wedding ring had been silver. Why, not me? No! The necklace didn’t belong to me—that was not the way I had been raised.
I knew that the cat’s box must be full of clumps of shit, yet I avoided facing it. Ugly! Did they want me to pack all of Sheri’s clothes or put them in garbage bags? I still had to put on my cleaning clothes before I scoured the place. Instead, I stood in the middle of the kitchen and untangled each tiny knot on the delicate chain. Wearing Sheri’s starred shoes, I clomped toward the large glass window in the living room so I could see the necklace better. Who would ever know? Like finding lost coins on the street. And, the gold would help me pay towards the operation. I wouldn’t have to beg quite so much from my relatives. I had to stop thinking this way: it would take me hours to clean up this mess. I had to get to work.
But it was hard to ignore the diamonds which glistened in the waning sunlight.
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