The big Egyptian appeared suddenly. Arm extended like a sentry, palm held up – halt! – the man blocked Harold on the sidewalk, glaring as though the mere sight of the American made him angry. Harold was hurrying to catch his bus, which he knew would be crowded with Asian workers, some carrying tools and buckets. The prospect of the grimy bus – he kept a handtowel in his briefcase to wipe off the seat before sitting – reminded Harold he’d promised Annie he’d have a car by the time she joined him. Except once over there, he’d found traffic so wild, the idea of driving in it a terrifying prospect, he’d never seriously considered buying a car.
So Harold was considering how he’d get Annie around town – city buses, like the one he took to campus, had small segregated women’s compartments at the rear, out of the question for Annie – and realizing he’d be doing a lot of wrangling with Bedouin cabdrivers, when the Egyptian stepped in front of him with the blocking hand. Had Harold committed some offense against local etiquette, some other crazy thing? At seven in the morning the next prayer call was hours away, it couldn’t be that.
“Sorry,” Harold mumbled, making to go around. But the man moved with him, hand out, blocking. Harold stopped and took a look at the guy: classic Egyptian features, full but well-trimmed beard, tall and husky enough that, with a suit and an earpiece, eyes scanning the crowd, he might’ve been a bodyguard protecting a visiting Egyptian leader. But President Mubarak was nowhere in sight, the big frowning man wore a green smock over loose pantaloons, and Harold, a retired teacher from Scheuertown, Pennsylvania, was an unlikely assassin.
The big Egyptian and the smaller American clutching his worn briefcase were in front of a row of shops on palm-tree lined Khazzan Street. The Arabian capital city’s morning traffic – expensive German sedans, beat-up Bedouin pickups, minibuses stuffed with workers – raced by a few feet away.
The big man launched a torrent of Arabic, ending with a question, definitely a question. The fingers of the outstretched hand implored: answer me! Harold, in spite of long evenings with his Arabic textbook before Annie’s arrival, could make nothing of this harangue. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” he said, trying to smile nicely. It only sparked another tirade. A customer leaving the pharmacy nearby regarded the two warily and went around. The blocking hand inched closer. Reflexively, Harold stepped back – and collided with another passerby, a local dressed in the modern style (loafers instead of sandals, neatly-pressed robe, headcloth arranged up off the ears); he patted Harold’s shoulder, apologized in English (“So sorry!”), already moving past.
Harold seized the man’s arm. “Please,” he gestured at the Egyptian, “ask what he wants.”
The local and the Egyptian, taken aback, stiffened, then exchanged greetings – Salaam Aleikum! – shaking hands as though Harold had just introduced them. The local asked a question, and the big man, suddenly abashed, answered meekly, an employee answering his boss. The local listened, nodding sympathetically, shooting Harold a reassuring glance: don’t worry, we’ll straighten this out.
Looking past the pair, Harold spotted his bus at the intersection. When the light changed, it would halt at the corner, then lurch onward – without Harold. He’d have to take a taxi, all because of this big lunk and some ridiculous misunderstanding.
The Egyptian, growing impassioned again, seemed to be begging for understanding – wouldn’t you be outraged? A pair of tall Sudanese with tribal scars on their cheeks stopped to listen, giving Harold fierce looks before moving on. The blocking hand had moved away, emphasizing points made to the local. At the intersection, the light changed. The inspiration came suddenly. Harold raised his arm, pointing into traffic. “Khatar!” he cried – danger! – the word popping into his mind from his phrasebook. The other two, startled, looked that way, and Harold sprinted past for all he was worth.
From the doorway of the bus, Harold glanced back, half expecting to see the Egyptian in pursuit, but the man stood at the same spot, arms hanging, looking more dejected than angry. The local, nearing the corner, flicked his headcloth and shrugged: don’t blame me!
A moment later, from his seat halfway back in the bus, Harold looked out and saw the Egyptian approaching. The big man raised his hands, imploring. Safe inside, Harold did something, like his sprint to the corner, inconceivable in his previous life in Scheuertown. Face pressed to the window, he gave a wide grin and, fingers wiggling, a mocking little wave. As the bus lurched away, the dwindling Egyptian raised his fists, shaking them furiously, not at Harold alone, it seemed, but at the sky, at everything.
The bus lumbered through the old city, passing Soudah park, a verdant rectangle amidst the drab, sand-colored buildings. Harold’d taken Annie to the park just the day before, and that memory added to his jubilant mood as the bus turned onto a wide boulevard lined with gleaming modern buildings, fountains, and palm trees. But the image of the Egyptian – the angry face, the blocking hand – lingered. Probably some beef about US foreign policy, something from TV or the papers. The wisdom Harold had acquired in his months there was that you navigated around such people, like steering a boat around snags in a river, which, in fact, he’d done pretty well just now. At least Annie hadn’t been there – the last thing he needed was some loony Egyptian frightening her away!
Putting his hand in his jacket pocket, Harold was briefly puzzled to feel a folded square of silky cloth inside. Then it came back: the black abaya he’d bought for Annie in case she got hassled at the airport… the image of another unhappy face replaced the Egyptian’s: Annie, in the exit from customs, scanning the arrival hall for Harold, beside her a soldier with a machine-pistol ensuring she didn’t run off on her own. Harold had waited for several hours in the crowd of locals in robes and foreign workers in orange coveralls, policemen all around, everyone jumpily eying each other.
“Find husband, bring him,” an old hand at the office had imitated a customs inspector telling an arriving wife, her passport held until she returned with her man. Or the husband’s name was read over the loudspeakers, which was why Harold, besides keeping an eye on the exit, had been straining to hear the address system’s every squawk, mostly so distorted he couldn’t tell what language it was.
But there was Annie. Spotting him, his wife of twenty-some years made a brusque gesture: get over here, buster! Hurrying over, he sidestepped her attempt at a serious hug (it just wasn’t done in public here) and followed the soldier in, dreading a bureaucratic snarl, the wrong signature or stamp. But after a glance at Harold’s residence permit the official waved them through.
Moments later they were in a taxi speeding into the desert night. He made no comment on how Annie was dressed, a short-sleeved blouse and bluejeans, to his new eyes a tad too formfitting. In his pocket, folded into a compact square, was the black abaya, the garment most Western women wore draped around their shoulders in public to appease the mutawaa, the religious police. A matter Harold had never quite managed to bring up with Annie. Luckily – no fanatic had challenged Annie’s immodesty – he hadn’t needed to take the abaya out.
They rode in silence into the sprawling capital, well-lit highways branching off in every direction like necklaces of light. Annie seemed hurt at Harold’s standoffishness, but as they entered the city she peered out the window with interest. Harold was realizing something that, focused on the abaya and other worries, he’d seen but not really grasped: the pleasantly chubby wife he’d left in Scheuertown was noticeably slimmer, had a toned-up look that could only come from constant workouts. Annie’d talked about it for years but never managed to stick to it. She’d also cut her hair short, shorter than ever in all their years of marriage.
Harold’s months in Arabia were among the most momentous in his life. He’d imagined Annie continuing her humdrum existence in their old house in Scheuertown, but it seemed those months had been equally momentous for her. She was still angry when he left, he knew that, for the first time he now imagined her anger, far from diminishing in his absence, actually intensifying as she worked out each day, pedaling furiously on the stationary bike, focusing on Harold like a boxer visualizing his opponent when he punches the bag….
In the lobby of Harold’s apartment building, they happened upon Larry and Marcia, an American expat couple in their mid-thirties, waiting for the elevator. After the silent taxi ride, Harold was grateful for the encounter. Marcia was the only other American woman in the building and although she was fifteen years younger than Annie, he had high hopes the two’d be friendly, especially since Marcia seemed so well adjusted to Arabian life. Indeed, tall and slim, one hand on a two-wheeled grocery cart, she stood smiling at Annie, unaffected by the long-sleeved, high-collared abaya she was wearing, covered in black but for a few inches of jeans peeking out below. After introductions the couples chatted about Annie’s flight and the travails of arrival.
“We better take our groceries upstairs,” Larry said finally. “But we’ll have you over soon.”
“We were just at the supermarket where you’ll probably do your shopping,” Marcia said.
“Really,” said Annie, and Harold knew instantly that the new, slimmed-down Annie wasn’t inclined to what the old Annie called biting my tongue. “In that getup I thought maybe you were returning from a Halloween party.”
“I see you won’t be coming over after all,” said Marcia, eyes flashing.
“Now, Marsh,” Larry chided, but when the elevator came, they got in while Harold and Annie waited – too much luggage for everyone to fit, Harold said.
Upstairs, Annie unpacked, hanging clothing in the large closet beside Harold’s few things. He hung his jacket, the abaya still folded in the pocket. Watching her move about, put things in the dresser, inspect the bathroom, he was suddenly overcome with fatigue, as though a narcotic had kicked in, more tired from his anticipation of her arrival than she by the long flight.
“I…I’m going to have to sleep,” he said, as Annie, nightgown in hand, headed for the bathroom for a quick shower. His short-haired slimmed-down wife stopped as though derailed – that’s the welcome I get after hours of planes and airports? – then sighed and said, “Okay, Harold.”
That morning in class, in the back of his mind Harold looked forward to having, for once, a tale to tell the guys during office hours – not, as he’d expected, about an incident at the airport with Annie, but about the loony Egyptian. He imagined himself imitating the big man, holding his arm out – halt! – taking Frankenstein steps. The guys’d be in stitches – a couple times his students clearly wondered what Teacher Harold was grinning about. But when office hours came that afternoon, the colleagues at their desks around the teachers’ room, drinking coffee, sharing the latest rumors, Harold visualized himself sprinting down the street and it no longer seemed funny. In fact, it seemed pathetic: scared little newcomer Harold, running away. He kept quiet about the Egyptian.
A couple colleagues took off early, leaving the others to cover if Dr Amoudi, the Vice-Dean, popped in to make sure the foreign teachers weren’t slacking off again. Harold had always done his obligatory daily office hours – why rush home to an empty apartment? Until recently afternoons had been too hot for his walks in the city anyway. He’d imagined leaving early once Annie arrived. But that morning, groggy with jetlag, she asked when he’d be back, and he’d said: “We’re in the office ‘til four.”
Tony Hewett, a thin, white-haired Brit, had the desk across from Harold. Hewitt, always in vested banker’s suits, was the department’s oldest hand; even other veterans asked his world-weary advice on navigating the bureaucracy. Nearby, at a desk wedged against the photocopier, Dan from Iowa, in his first job fresh out of grad school, sat typing at one of the office’s two computers.
Hewitt was holding forth about a colleague who’d been fired after one of his diplomas turned out to be a forgery. “Not a soul would’ve known but for a fit he threw in the Snake Pit” – Hewitt’s code for the personnel office – “about his housing allowance. That roused the sleeping vipers: hang on, let’s give this noisy bugger’s file another look.” Hewitt peered at Harold as though he was the one getting another look. “He was on a flight out within the week. Decent enough chap, really, only trying to leave the past behind.”
Hewitt, a chainsmoker, lit a cigarette and regarded Harold skeptically. “Very American idea, isn’t it? New start, frontier, Wild West sort of thing.” He leaned forward, his piercing blue eyes implying this had direct application to Harold. “Here in the Wild East, the past is always with us, like the poor according to the Pope. We’ve all got a past, a scandal, a defect perhaps, otherwise we’d not be here. I always ask about a colleague: Why’s he here? What’s he hiding?”
Young Dan looked over, grinning at another of Hewitt’s droll monologues. Harold felt as though a rubber-tipped arrow was quivering in the middle of his forehead – bullseye! Hewitt took a long pull on his Dunhill and smiled, suddenly sinister looking.
Harold had the impossible conviction: Hewitt knows. He saw himself back at Scheuertown High, in the hallway, wrestling with that smirking student, Blarty, the weasel-like girlfriend reaching to pull Harold’s hair, around them a circle of students, rapt, as though watching some special performance. Even now, Harold didn’t remember the moment he’d snapped – one minute he was trying to retrieve the gradebook that had disappeared from his desk, certain it was inside Blarty’s bookbag, then he was coming to with a jolt, atop Blarty’s chest. Nor did he have any memory of flinging the girlfriend into the lockers. Roger, the former principal, Harold’s boss for fifteen years, wouldn’t have forced him into retirement. Roger stood up for his teachers. Unfortunately, in the two years after Roger’s departure Harold had never cultivated his replacement, had never hidden the fact that he didn’t take the new principal – barely thirty-five, a kid really, spouting silly educational slogans – all that seriously….
Hewitt couldn’t know, no-one here could. It hadn’t appeared on Harold’s application, or in his recommendations, which showed him as a perfectly ordinary early retiree, bored with sitting around the house in Scheuertown, taking a job abroad. Hewitt couldn’t possibly know.
“I can’t imagine what I’d be hiding, Tony,” Harold finally managed. “I wouldn’t know about anyone else-”
“Oh quite,” said Hewitt, with a devilish smirk, “I was speaking generally.” He looked at Harold with an expression of shock. “My dear man, you can’t have thought I was referring to anyone personally?”
“Of course not,” Harold said.
“What on earth could young Dan here possibly have to hide?”
“Nothing,” said Harold under Hewitt’s ironic gaze. “Nothing at all.”
The girlfriend told the new principal her boyfriend had stood up for her after Harold tried to extort sex for a passing grade – the sliver of truth being that both Blarty and the little witch (she’d actually pulled out a clump of Harold’s hair) were on the verge of failing Harold’s American History class and needed to do something. The idea that Harold’d want anything to do with that repulsive creature was beyond laughable, not that it prevented the excuse for a principal from taking it perfectly seriously (“I must be evenhanded here, Harold, you do see that?” he asked in their last meeting). Annie’d always said she believed him, had reassured him repeatedly. Yet he found her studying him as though examining an object fallen from space. Suddenly together in the big old house all the time, they led separate lives. Annie in the family room watching TV (or, at least, sitting with the TV on), Harold in the study reading ancient history, his new passion.
Both daughters came home for Easter and held whispered conferences with Annie around the house. Harold wasn’t invited and when he passed conversation ceased. Young Angela peered at him much as her mother had: who is this man? The older daughter, Cindy, a grungy geek in college, now a sharp dresser and hard-headed high-tech salesperson, explained the facts of life.
“Did you know mom’s thinking of applying for jobs around town? Menial stuff or as a greeter? Her friends advise her to kick you out and sell the house. The bills keep coming, your savings are disappearing. I can help with Angela’s tuition, but you’ve still got a few years on the mortgage and the school district isn’t paying your health insurance anymore.” She gestured at the thick volume open in Harold’s lap. “You can’t sit around reading Gibbon for the rest of your life, daddy.”
A couple days later – in the last issue of his subscription to an education journal – he saw the ad: teachers, attractive tax-free salary, Arabian Peninsula….
Over there, restless in his apartment, the long evenings and weekends – even Gibbon unappealing – Harold wandered the streets. Not the gleaming new districts but the old town, its marketplaces crowded with human types and costumes from around the region, its narrow streets drawing him in spite of occasional hostile looks. Walking those streets became his routine. Strolling there, passing palm trees peeking over crumbling walls, crooked lanes of mud houses with crenellated rooftops, he often felt on the verge of understanding something, nothing he could state precisely (much less in words that’d make sense to Annie).
There were still long hours in the apartment when he missed her. Things didn’t seem real until he imagined telling her. But in their weekly phone calls, his biggest fear was her suddenly announcing: I’m not coming after all, see you in Scheuertown during summer vacation, and he never quite got around to mentioning things that would only upset her anyway. What if, when she came, she hated the place? He couldn’t make her feel what he did in the old city, but he could try to make sure nothing went wrong once she arrived.
That first weekend in his apartment, it became clear Annie’d come with a prosecutorial agenda, above all the question: why hadn’t he fought for his job instead of meekly taking early retirement? At the time, stunned by the entire turn of events, she’d accepted Harold’s arguments that it wasn’t such a bad deal, better to avoid lawyers and lawsuits. Apparently, brooding during his absence, during all those hours working out, she couldn’t get past that question: why didn’t you fight them? Harold had no new answer. Okay, she’d finally say, what’s done is done, but later she’d bring it up again. Sure, the checks he’d been sending home had ended their financial problems, but at what cost? He was here in this awful place, if she stayed it meant giving up everything else in her life: daughters, house, friends. If only he’d fought for his job….
He’d never told Annie how relieved he’d been to be forced out. In the last few years at Scheuertown High, students had paid about as much attention to him as to some nut holding forth in the city park in summer, like picnickers oblivious to someone mumbling as he stumbled past. His students slept, talked on their cellphones, texted, listened to headphones, while he went on about Valley Forge or Gettysburg. He’d developed the habit of fixing his eyes on the clock high on the rear wall, talking to that clock, sometimes so focused on it he came to with a start when the period buzzer sounded (no doubt why he hadn’t actually seen Blarty snatch the gradebook).
Three days after the incident, officially on paid leave, in a conference room with the boy principal and the lawyers (one from the teachers’ union plus a local Republican worthy on the school board), Harold was astonished to feel an immense joy welling up, as though he were a prisoner unexpectedly paroled, when he understood they were forcing him to retire. But even as he struggled to hide the elation surging to burst out, he knew Annie wouldn’t understand.
Now, facing the new Annie, he simply stated, lowkey, his case for Arabia: colleagues of mine’ve been here for years, have a tolerable life; we can, too. A slow life, with time to get to know each other again. It’s too late for my old job, but I can get through two or three years here, save a lot of money. Then my pension will start, the house’ll be paid off. Even after listening to him lay this out, once he paused, Annie’d start up again: if only you’d….
A day and a half of that, cooped up, felt long. A stroll to get out, to stretch their legs, show Annie the neighborhood, seemed natural. Harold worried about unpleasant incidents: any stray fanatic, deciding to enforce public morality, could walk up and announce: ‘Your wife must cover.’ He still hadn’t brought up the abaya, folded in his pocket. Sunlight streamed through the windows as the noon prayer call echoed from nearby mosques. Annie listened wide-eyed to the sound, huge, raw. Harold reflected: it was the day of worship, shops were closed all afternoon, the one time in the week hardly anyone was around. “How about a walk?”
“I was wondering what a girl had to do to get asked out around here!” Annie put on a light trenchcoat that, falling to mid-calf, approximated modest dress. Harold could have hugged her. Outside, they were nearly alone walking along usually bustling Khazzan Street. Harold pointed out the shops – the grocery, the Lebanese bakery, the butcher’s, the barber’s – all dark with their grilles pulled down. It was pleasantly warm for a walk, but there wasn’t much else to see. He didn’t want to take her through the old city just yet.
Then he remembered Soudah park a couple blocks further. On weekends the main section was packed with male Asian workers sitting on the grass, huddled together, laughing. The park’s northern end, behind high hedges inside wrought-iron fences, was a ‘family area,’ open only to women and children and their male relatives. Unaccompanied men were rebuffed at the gates. Harold had once earned a guard’s warning when he tried to peer inside.
“I could never go in by myself,” he told Annie as they walked up to the entrance. “You’re my chaperone.” She gave a puzzled smile, not appreciating his excitement.
A tall Sudanese guard stood at the gate. Inside, a gravel pathway snaked past a dozen benches, creating nooks where visitors faced the hedges, away from the path. In the center was a playground: swings, a slide, and painted, bobbing animals with seats. A kebab stand was next to a booth selling soft drinks and cotton candy.
Women and girls outnumbered the boys who played at the playground while the girls sat with their mothers. Half a dozen bored adult men sat scattered on benches, their wives in groups talking animatedly. Most women wore black, a few full veils; only Annie had her hair uncovered. Younger girls, some holding smiley-face balloons from the candy stand, wore frilly dresses and ribbons in their hair.
At the kebab stand Harold ordered Annie her first local food. As they stood eating falafels, a girl of ten or so, buying cotton candy, stared at Annie. “Hello, lady!” she said in schoolbook English, then ran off, giggling. Moments later, she was back, holding her hand out to Annie. “Please, lady, speak with mother my!” She led Annie over to two women and another girl on a bench. Harold clearly wasn’t invited and he looked about for a bench. Annie and her friends were joined by another woman entirely in black except for her face, a pale oval; she sat on a blanket facing them. Their conversation took off.
“Please, sir, to be seated!” A man in a faded pinstriped suit, sporting a well-trimmed little moustache, beckoned Harold to his bench. Another abandoned husband, he was a retired Egyptian judge, now working in a local commercial court. Most cases, he explained, were foreign investors or workers suing locals for breach of contract. “Cases are simple in Egypt,” he said, “here they’re even simpler: the foreigner’s always wrong! But never fear,” he said, clapping Harold on the shoulder, “I guarantee any foreigner the right to lose a case in my court!”
Harold listened to the judge’s stories of locals fleecing foreign partners. Fifteen minutes later, he looked around, trying to pick out Annie’s trenchcoat, but every woman in sight was shrouded in black or dark blue. “Where’s my wife?” he cried, on his feet.
The judge, evidently accustomed to recognizing covered wives, eventually pointed at a group of women. “There, I think.” Heart thumping, Harold made out Annie, enshrouded in a black abaya, beingfitted with a headscarf by the cotton-candy girl. A moment later his piously covered wife spotted him standing there staring and waved both hands enthusiastically: look at me! Isn’t this fun? He waved back in a daze.
Annie’s girl linked arms with another girl and started dancing the steps of some Middle Eastern dance. The other women clapped their hands in rhythm, and Annie joined in. Vaguely saying goodbye to the judge, Harold walked toward the women as though floating on the park’s well-watered grass, giddy as he watched Annie clap with the others. After his endless fretting, here was his wife wearing an abaya, her new haircut beneath a headscarf, having the time of her life; in his pocket he felt the abaya he’d never dared show her. It seemed so funny Harold was overcome with laughter. Gasping, he sank to his knees.
A boy approached, concerned: was mister all right? His laughter a breathless heaving, Harold wheezed “My wife!” and pointed at the clapping women, where Annie swayed with the others. The sight set off a new laughing fit. One woman ululated, the otherworldly sound adding to the unreality.
Suddenly, from around the park, angry husbands arrived. Arguments flared. The women talked back, with a tone of ‘are you serious?’ but before long wives and daughters were being hustled away. The men kept looking Harold’s way, and he had the bizarre impression their anger somehow focused on him.
He stood, his laughter fading to hiccups. Annie, beside him now, slapped his back. She no longer wore the abaya, but still had the scarf over her hair. “Was I that funny?”
“It wasn’t you,” he said hoarsely. “It’s hard to explain.” They headed out, nearly the last ones. The others had left as though fleeing a crime scene.
“That was really fun, Har,” she said, taking his arm. “What a great idea to come here!”
“I’m glad you enjoyed it.” They walked back along Khazzan Street. “Did they give you the headscarf?”
Annie reached up, surprised to find the scarf still there. “Why, I forgot all about it in the rush at the end…” She brightened. “But I have their address, they said it’s not far. I can return it when I visit.” She gave Harold a little smile. “They’re going to teach me bellydancing.”
“That should be fun.” As they came up to his building, Harold experienced a worry-free glow along with the odd sensation of having a chastely covered woman on his arm. In his pocket, he felt the silkiness of the folded abaya. For the moment he left it there.
In the afternoon bus home, Harold watched Soudah park go by and smiled at the memory. At his stop, squinting in the afternoon sun, he got out near the very spot where the big loony had stood shaking his fists. The sidewalk was busy with people trying to finish shopping before stores closed for late afternoon prayer. He’d promised Annie he’d pick up some groceries and headed into the little grocery store. Twenty minutes later, holding his briefcase and a bag of groceries, he walked past the pharmacy and the bakery. The prayer call sounded, fierce, mournful, as Harold passed the butcher’s doorway, where a man in a green smock was reaching up to roll down the storefront grille. A voice boomed, and Harold was grabbed and spun around. The big Egyptian, angry as ever, stood wagging his hand in Harold’s face. Whee? the man demanded, towering over him. Whee?
Harold felt anger rising – even he could take only so much – when he noticed the man’s smock, spotless that morning, now splotched with brown – no, reddish brown. He was covered with blood! And, in his left hand, a long knife, bigger than any household knife, not brandished, just dangling there.
At some level Harold understood the big man was a butcher. He worked in the butcher shop, which explained the bloodstains and his appearance there: he’d seen Harold passing and hurried out, knife in hand, as innocent as Harold leaving a classroom holding a piece of chalk. He wasn’t waving the knife, wasn’t threatening Harold with it. Yet Harold’s chest constricted, his heart pounded, the entire scene – the shops, the angry face, the wagging hand – flashed and bounced as though in a strobe light.
Harold turned and fled. Something grabbed his jacket but he threw his weight forward and, with a tearing sound, pulled free. He raced down the sidewalk, people moving aside, faces looming eerily, past his usual crossing place, down the long block until, abruptly, the sidewalk ended. He found himself facing plywood thrown up around a construction site. Traffic zoomed by right there, leaving no place to walk.
Harold looked back. The Egyptian stood in front of the butcher shop, hands hanging, nearly alone on the street. Then he turned and disappeared, inside the butcher’s apparently. Harold slumped against the plywood, catching his breath. Cars sped by. A pair of Yemenis in colored skirts jogged across, laughing at close calls. The hell with this! Harold decided, and ran through a gap in traffic. Horns blared, but he made it, and felt a surge of exhilaration. At the door of his building, he remembered the groceries, and quickly looked himself over: he was clutching his briefcase but the bag of groceries was nowhere in sight.
After getting off the bus, he told Annie, he’d come within inches of being run over by a speeding car. He’d fallen, tearing his jacket, so rattling him he’d forgotten to buy groceries. She readily believed him: “You’re so pale, Harold, I knew something was wrong the minute you came in. The last time you looked like that was, well, you know, the day of the incident…”
“Dammit anyway,” he said, stamping his foot. “They drive like maniacs here!”
Annie understood that he didn’t feel like going out again. They’d go shopping tomorrow. Harold removed his jacket – his favorite – and Annie inspected the damage. It was torn from beneath the sleeve all the way down to the pocket. Then Harold noticed that the sole of his right shoe hung flapping, separated from the upper. “Damn that big oaf!”
“The driver, I mean.”
“What’s this, Harold?” Annie was unfolding the abaya from his jacket pocket.
“I…I bought that for you… in case you wanted one.”
“You want me to wear this?”
“Only if you want to.” Seeing her face harden, he said: “Look, I almost got run over just now, can we talk about it later?”
“Okay, Harold,” she said evenly. “We’ll talk about it later.”
The next morning he walked to a bus stop blocks away from the butcher shop, and that afternoon got off at the same distant stop. At the apartment, Annie was waiting to go shopping. He led her a ways down Khazzan Street before crossing over and doubling back. She wanted some things at the pharmacy first. Afterwards, standing with her peering into the bakery window, he nearly jumped every time someone came out of the butcher shop further along.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “What did you say?” Annie was staring at him.
“Can we go to the butcher shop?”
“Uh, actually, that place has always looked unsanitary to me.”
“Didn’t you say they had good sliced turkey there?”
“Did I say that? It’s just… They have all these, you know, actual animals, with fur and eyes and tongues, hanging in there…like some zoo of the dead. It’s unsettling.”
She eyed him uncertainly. “I really wanted to get some sandwich meats. I don’t eat at the faculty cafeteria every day. I can’t exist on pastry and yogurt, Harold.”
“Tell you what,” he blurted, “you go in there, buy all the meat you want! I’ll get started in the grocery store on the corner. When you’re done, come find me!”
“But you said I shouldn’t go around alone, to avoid getting hassled by the religious police-”
“Not in the butcher shop. Don’t worry about the religious police in the butcher shop.” He patted her shoulder. “It’ll be fine.” He hurried off as she stared after him.
Inside the grocery store, he pushed one of their small shopping carts along an aisle.
“Please, mister,” said someone with an Arabic accent, behind him. Harold whirled clumsily, sending cereal boxes tumbling. It was Saleh, a little Yemeni, the shop manager. He and Harold had become friendly, exchanging greetings and pleasantries. He regarded Harold with concern.
“Everything okay, mister?”
“Just fine, Saleh.” He picked up cereal boxes, replacing them. “Sorry.”
“No problem, mister.”
Saleh held out a grocery bag to Harold.
Peering in the bag, Harold saw his groceries from the day before.
“I left these in here?”
“No, butcher bring. He find and bring for you.”
“The butcher?” Harold asked dumbly.
“Yes, Egypt butcher. Big,” said Saleh, raising a hand high, “two of me. He bring for you.”
“Well…how nice of him.… Thank you, Saleh.”
“Welcome, mister,” said Saleh, backing away with a little bow.
Harold stared at the bag, then put it in his cart.
A moment later Annie arrived. “What’s in there?” she asked, pointing at the bag.
“Ah…I …I already paid for some things. Now I’m shopping some more.”
“Are you all right, Harold?” She gave him her inspecting look.
“I’m just fine. It’s hard to explain. Let’s just shop, okay?” He heard sharpness in his voice and tried to smile.
“Okay, Harold.” Further along the aisle, she said: “You were right about the butcher shop.”
“Oh? It was unsanitary-”
“No, it was unsettling. One of the butchers, a big man with a beard, holding this big knife, ogled me the whole time I was there, like the mere sight of a Western woman made him angry. It was unsettling.”
“That does sound …unpleasant.”
“I almost gave him a piece of my mind, but it seemed best to avoid trouble. It’s more than unpleasant to be ogled like that. I can’t imagine getting used to it.”
“Well, there are some unpleasant characters here…we’ll avoid that shop.”
When they’d paid, Saleh held the door open as they left with their bags.
“Bye, mister! You can thank big butcher!” Saleh said, pointing down the street.
“Sure,” said Harold quickly, “no problem! Bye!”
“What did he say about the butcher, Harold?”
“Nothing, don’t worry about it.”
“He said ‘big butcher,’ that-”
“Annie”, he said, putting one bag down and grasping her wrist, harder than he intended, “you must understand, people say crazy things here, things that don’t mean anything! You just have to ignore it, okay?”
“This is the place you want me to stay?”
“Well, no…I mean, yes, I want you to stay, but…. Can we talk about this later, instead of on the corner with our groceries?” He picked up the bag and started walking.
“Harold, where are you going?”
“Back to the apartment.”
“Your building’s over there. Why are you going the other way?”
“I…I like to walk this way. It’s further, but…”
“You want to go for a walk carrying all these groceries?” She gave him a look, then took his elbow. “Come on, Harold,” she said, leading him toward the butcher shop.
“Ah…oh,” he mumbled, reluctantly going. Just then, the Egyptian came out.
“That’s him!” said Annie. “The one who ogled me!”
The big man strode toward them, hand held up: halt! Harold dropped one bag, grabbed Annie’s arm, backing away. Then he saw, in the man’s other hand, not the knife but a cleaver. He threw his remaining bag at the advancing Egyptian and dragged Annie with him. Her bag of groceries fell, spilling onto the sidewalk. “Run!” he cried, pulling Annie into the street, holding up a hand as he dragged her through traffic. Horns of speeding cars blared past them.
“Harollld!” Annie cried, but let him pull her along until they reached his building. There, she yanked her arm free. “Have you lost your mind?”
He pointed behind her. Down the block, now on their side of the street, the Egyptian was coming.
“But what does he want?” she asked, raising both hands to her face.
“Who knows? He’s a crazy Egyptian!”
Thirty feet away, the man strode toward them, face set with determination.
Harold pushed through the doors. “Quick, get upstairs, inside the apartment! I’ll lead him away.” Starting across the foyer, Harold saw the office of the manager, a local who wheeled and dealed in everything from cars to real estate. Various uniformed men, police or military, relatives and pals, often hung out there, lounging around with their shoes off, drinking tea.
The Egyptian loomed outside. Harold ran for the office. The manager and two other men, one in a khaki uniform with a gold star on each shoulder, looked up in surprise at Harold’s sudden entrance, growing more astonished as he rambled: “Egyptian! Coming! Help!”
Then the Egyptian was in the doorway. “Help!” cried Harold, dodging around the manager’s desk. At the sight of the locals the big man was suddenly abashed. Everyone stood, exchanged politenesses: Salaam Aleikum! Aleikum Salaam!
The policeman did the questioning. The larger Egyptian seemed unable to look him in the eye. The officer turned to Harold. “What he did to you exactly?”
“Harassed me on the street! Yesterday! Today! With a knife! Look-” Harold started to point at the cleaver, but the big man’s hands hung at his sides, empty.
“He say you laugh at his wife in Soudah park.”
“Yes. In park, you point at his wife and laugh. He want to know why.”
“Whee?” the Egyptian asked, glaring at Harold. “Whee?”
“He ask why you laugh at her,” the policeman said, “why his wife is funny.”
“But…I wasn’t laughing at her. I was laughing at…my own wife.”
The locals looked at each other as though this was the craziest thing yet, but it was translated. Suddenly the big man’s body was shaking, his face in his hands. The policeman put an arm around him, patting his shoulder. Speaking softly, he led the Egyptian out. The manager gave Harold an indulgent look and shrugged.
Harold shuffled out, lightheaded. Beside the door, Annie was leaning against the wall, listening. He started to speak, but seeing her face, he stopped, knowing nothing would keep her from leaving. Then he saw himself, returning from seeing her off at the airport, wandering the old city’s narrow streets in search of an inkling, of some glimpse of illumination.