It started with roses. They were pink, two dozen of them with short, uneven stems, wrapped up in bright red crepe paper that curled at the edges and tied in a pink bow. The tea boy brought them. As he climbed the stairs with the roses, all the eyes of the office from the cubby holes, the corridors and meeting rooms followed the flowers up the stairs, through the halls and to Hisham’s large office with the wide picture window that looked onto a tall mango tree and a backed-up intersection of honking taxis below.
More flowers arrived a few days later and a few days after that. Sometimes they were pink, sometimes red or yellow. Sometimes they were carnations crammed together in a big, uncomfortable bouquet. Sometimes they were daisies. They were always wrapped in crepe paper that curled at the edges, always tied in a bow of one color or another.
Finally one day she arrived with the flowers, roses of pink, yellow and red in her pressed skirt that fell to her ankles, her suit jacket that hugged her around her thick middle, her matching higab and wide moon face, slanted almost Asian eyes. She seemed ageless, as young as 20 or as old as 45.
“I want to start a mushroom project at your farm,” she said, leaning towards Hisham, her flowers lying bright and fragrant on her lap–as if that really was all she wanted.
He laughed, throwing back his head in an unselfconscious guffaw. Then he looked at her, his smile disappearing. “You grow your mushrooms, Amany,” he said, checking international string bean prices on the Internet. “I’ll buy them.”
“But I have nowhere to grow my mushrooms, Bash Mohandis Hisham, no land, no nothing.” She stared at the floor, looked back at him. “I know all about your farm in the desert, its reputation–all the land.” She paused. “My mushrooms will bring good profits.”
He still shook his head, no.
So this continued. The flowers kept arriving, sometimes with her, sometimes without.
“Take these,” he’d say, after she’d left, throwing the roses, the carnations or daisies on his secretary’s desk–this Amany was too pushy, the flowers every time, downright strange.
It was a cloudless, white-blue sky, the sun, high, as Hisham surveyed his sprawling fields of artichokes, strawberries, tomatoes and cabbage spread across the desert floor, like lush, leafy carpeting, with long, black pipes snaking along each row, dripping water from wells dozens of feet below ground onto the plants’ spindly roots.
“She knows mushrooms, Bash Mohandis,” said Abu Bakr, the head engineer, a squat, bald man with a crusted bruise on his forehead from daily prayer. “And mushrooms are fetching a high price these days.”
“I don’t know,” Hisham said, shaking his head and reaching down to cut a pointy, purple-tipped artichoke from one of the low, expansive plants, their enormous leaves. The artichokes were doing well this year.
“I know her cousin, a friend from agriculture school. She’s hard working, very ambitious.”
“And 30 and not married.” Hisham walked towards a patch of strawberries. Strawberry production could be better.
“And not married.” Abu Bakr followed him. “She could live at the farm, keep a close eye on the mushrooms.”
“And she’s pushy and strange and always bringing bouquets of flowers!” Hisham picked a couple brown-tipped leaves from a strawberry and popped it into his mouth.
Abu Bakr looked beyond the rich green fields towards a thin swath of khaki desert in the distance. “I think the mother has died, the father, one brother, are off somewhere.”
Hisham adjusted his broad-rimmed safari hat and headed for the green beans, Abu Bakr beside him. “Abu Bakr, you just want to help her family who has no idea what to do with their 30-year-old spinster.”
Abu Bakr looked straight at Hisham. “No, I think her mushroom project is a good investment, Bash Mohandis.”
Hisham snapped off a green bean, took a bite, chewing, stared at the ground and then at Abu Bakr. “Ok, we’ll give her a try, but you better be right about her.”
Amany arrived at the farm in a broken-down white Peugeot station wagon crammed with people and one chain-smoking driver with nicotine-stained teeth. He dropped her and her belongings, several woven plastic bags with zippers up top stuffed to bursting, onto the dusty, dirt ground before driving away in his car jammed with passengers, their kids, sacks and boxes. She slowly crossed the highway, dragging her bags behind her, still dressed in her suit that puckered around her middle.
She moved into a tiny, two-room house with concrete floors and walls and a tiny, sandy, lifeless yard, tucked in the corner of Hisham’s sprawling rows of vegetables and fruits, lettuce, tomatoes and strawberries. She decorated her home, laying simple plastic weave rugs on the floor, covering a small aluminum table with a plastic table cloth, a pine bed with a bold white and pink cotton bedspread. She hung a lace polyester curtain across the doorway to the outside and a laundry line from her house to a straggly kaswarina pine tree.
She asked for compost and mixed it with the dry, desert soil in her small yard. She planted tomato, green beans, parsley and coriander, arugula, cucumbers and romaine lettuce.
She asked for Clorox, some sponges, a worker or two and cleaned and disinfected the small, white concrete building next door, scrubbing the walls and floor for two whole days. She had Mohandis Ibrahim, the electrician, install gas heaters, aluminum saucers with several bars inside with tiny holes emitting small flames. And Mohandis Sobhi, the plumber, install pipes for water.
She asked for straw, large clear plastic bags–garbage bags would do. She asked for more workers. She showed them how to put the straw in the clear plastic bags and then a handful of black seeds, tiny, like crows’ eyes. Then she tied the bags closed with thick plastic rope and hung them from the ceiling, filled the room with these plastic bags, hanging in several straight lines.
And then she waited for her mushrooms to grow.
Sometimes Hisham visited, rushing through the door, beads of sweat below his safari hat, his wrinkled shirt blowing across his broad shoulders, hanging loose around his taut torso, his dusty jeans and dustier hiking boots. Abu Bakr, the head engineer, followed close behind, as Amany led, her head high, her back straight, walking slowly along the lines of hanging bags of straw and seeds.
“When will production start?” Hisham asked, glancing past Amany to the door.
“Very soon, bash mohandis,” Amany said, blushing. She avoided his eyes. “See, they’re already growing.” She pointed to wispy, ephemeral threads of white just starting to form, like webs, just beginning to cover the thick strands of yellow, shiny straw.
“Good,” he said.
She bit her lip, looked down. It took a while for the smile to disappear from her face. She’d never forgotten seeing Hisham on that television talk show, all his knowledge and business sense, his love of the land–a lot of land.
“Bash mohandis,” she said, as he opened the door to leave.
He turned reluctantly around.
“I need a refrigerator,” she said, red rushing again to her cheeks, “and a few chairs for my house. Anything will do, just something to sit on.” She needed to furnish her apartment, to feel at home.
Hisham nodded at Abu Bakr. It wasn’t really in the budget, but she had been working hard. “Can you get her a refrigerator, some chairs?”
Abu Bakr nodded yes.
The thin, wispy threads in the plastic bags started to grow longer, greater in number, thicker until they started to transform from mere threads, fairy-like, into ivory-colored caps, soft as skin, flat and thick and broad, smooth on the top and ribbed underneath. Amany cut small slits in the plastic bags so the oyster mushrooms could grow.
Soon there were a multitude of the soft, white caps, popping out of the hanging plastic bags, covering the bags in bunches, growing greater in number; the strands of straw almost completely white now, casting an eerie, foggy mist through the gray room with the concrete walls, like a dissipating cloud. It was silent, other-wordly and magical.
She went everyday to tend the mushrooms, carefully, lovingly, using a small knife to cut more tiny slits in the bags, her hands touching, caressing the soft white caps. She checked each bag, making sure there was just enough humidity in the room, just enough heat and light, that all the elements were exactly right. She showed the workers how to carefully cut the ripened mushrooms one by one with just a bit of stem and how to lay them gently in the small, clear plastic containers.
Hisham brought people to see Amany’s mushrooms. First, his wife, Sophie, a tall, thin redhead from New Jersey, and their two young girls, Amber and Leila, as blue-eyed as their mother, with wispy blonde hair. Amany, dressed in a neat, black track suit and matching higab, met them at the door of the mushroom house. She’d been waiting nearly an hour.
She handed them surgical masks. “Sometimes in here, hard to . . .” Amany said in choppy English, breathing in hard and pointing to her chest.
“To breathe?” Sophie asked, holding Hisham’s hand and staring wide-eyed past Amany at the bags of mushrooms.
Amany nodded. “Yes,” she said, looking sideways, surprised how light-haired–and skinny–Hisham’s wife was, the two little girls too.
“Why do you suppose that is?” Sophie asked, turning to Hisham, who didn’t answer. “Hisham?” She poked his shoulder, still staring at the dozens of mushrooms popping out of the bag.
He just shrugged, picking a couple caps off the ground.
Sophie, the two girls walked mesmerized through the misty, humid room, as Amany showed them her mushrooms, sweeping her hand tenderly under the soft white caps, like a mother might sweep her hand under the soft chin of a newborn. She walked slowly, flowing through the lines of hanging mushroom bags, her voice, sweet and meditative, intoxicating. The air, thick and damp and cloudy.
“Look at all the mushrooms,” Sophie whispered.
“Yeah,” Amber and Leila said in unison.
Amany patted the girls’ heads, smiled. They just clung shyly to their mother’s legs.
“There’s so many.” Sophie shivered. She looked at Amany. “Have you started selling them?”
“Tabaan, of course, we sell the mushrooms,” Amany said, stiffening, using the English “mushrooms,” rather than the Arabic aish al-ghorab, the bread of crows.
Hisham held the thick metal door for Sophie and the girls to leave. “Great job, Amany.” He glanced back at her, as the door started to close.
“Shokran, bash mohandis,” she said, her round face lighting up. “Oh, bash mohandis!” She caught the door, searching in her pocket. “Istannou, wait!” She held up her mobile phone, taking a photograph of Sophie, then the two skinny girls–what was their mother feeding them? “Allah.” She checked out each picture. Then she took two photos of Hisham–his clear, tanned skin, slightly wrinkled from the sun.
One day after touring the mushroom house the family invited Amany for tea. She arrived early, dressed in a perfectly pressed blouse buttoned to the top, a long black skirt that rustled when she walked. She carried a white, plastic plate with small mounds of stuffed filo dough.
“Mushroom sambousek,” she said, walking past Sophie, glancing around and then laying the plate on the living room table.
“Hisham is out checking the greenhouses,” Sophie smiled, “as usual.”
Amany’s face dropped. Then suddenly brightened. “Take.” She proudly pointed to the sambousek.
“Oh . . . thank you.” Sophie obediently took one and motioned Amany to sit down.
Just then a cat meowed, again and again, started scratching on the screen. Sophie got up. “Go away, Chipsy!” She pushed the cat away from the door with her leg. “Shoo! That damn cat,” she whispered to herself, “give an inch and she wants a mile.”
“Naam?” Amany said.
“Oh, nothing,” Sophie said, turning back to Amany. “It’s just the cat. She’s such a pain.” The cat jumped on the window sill. “She’s a stray. We started feeding her, just bits of leftovers, a little milk and now she thinks she owns the place, as if we owe her something.”
“Sorry,” Amany shook her head, “but my English.”
“It’s alright, Amany.” Sophie smiled. “It’s nothing.”
The cat let out a long, plaintive wail from the screen door.
Finally Hisham burst through the door. “Ya, Amany,” he said in Arabic, “you came!”
Amany’s full cheeks flushed red, as a wide smile spread across her face. “Tabaan, of course, bash mohandis.”
Amber and Leila ran in from outside and plopped themselves on the fern-colored sofa next to their mother.
“Masa el kheir, ya binat,” Amany said, taking the smaller one’s tiny hand in hers. “Good afternoon, girls.” What Hisham’s skinny children needed were sweets, baqlawa, roz bil laban, ice cream. Hisham too. Lots of sweets.
Leila smiled at Amany before clambering onto her father’s lap.
“So, Amany, your mushrooms are really selling,” Hisham kissed Leila on the cheek, “Fifteen guineas a kilo at our shop, better than expected.”
“I know, bash mohandis,” Amany said, her voice suddenly softer, sweeter. She lifted her plate of mushroom sambousek towards him.
“What’s this?” He put one whole in his mouth.
“My mushroom sambousek, bash mohandis. I hope you like it.”
“Mmm.” He nodded approvingly.
She took a sip of tea, peered coyly over her cup. “Yesterday I went to the Richland villa compound next door.”
“Really?” Hisham tickled Amber, standing next to him. Amber giggled and pulled away.
“Yes, bash mohandis. I want to buy a villa there.” Amany had plans for herself. Lots of plans.
“You do?” he said, pulling Amber onto his lap beside Leila. “Those villas are expensive, Amany.”
“I know, bash mohandis,” Amany said, sitting up straight, “but I’m about to inherit a million Egyptian pounds . . . from my uncle.”
“Really?” Hisham turned to face her. “That’s great.” Abu Bakr never mentioned a wealthy uncle.
“Yes, it is, bash mohandis,” Amany quickly stared at the ground. She looked back at Hisham. “Bash mohandis, I need a ride to Cairo once a week . . . to see my uncle.”
“Yalla,” Hisham said, waving his hand, “a ride to Cairo once a week to see your uncle. Would you like it in a limo or would a normal car do?” He winked, smiling. Most of his employees wouldn’t dare ask this, but she was a woman alone–and doing a great job.
She giggled. “Oh bash mohandis,” she said, blushing.
“What’s her story? The mushroom lady?” Sophie asked, heating lentil soup for dinner after Amany left. She looked sideways at Hisham.
“I don’t know,” Hisham lifted the pot lid, dipped a spoon in and tasted, “her family’s from Minya in the south. She went to agriculture college there, majored in fungiculture, never married.”
“But, where’s her family now? No one ever visits her–it’s sad.”
“No idea.” Hisham shrugged.
Sophie continued to stir. “It’s weird how she flirts with you.”
“Yeah,” Hisham said, chuckling. “I don’t know what she’s thinking.” He paused. “Whatever, her mushrooms are really producing–200 kilos just last week–and selling very well. Soon they’ll even make a profit for the farm.”
“That’s good.” Sophie shrugged, pouring the soup into a big bowl. She looked over at Hisham, who was sitting at the table with Amber and Leila. “But, I’d be careful, Hisham . . . with that Amany.”
Hisham frowned. “What do you mean?” He hated Sophie interfering.
She placed the soup on the table, sighed. “I’d just be careful.”
One afternoon around two o’clock, Amany walked from her home down the sandy, dirt road, past the rows of strawberries, low-lying and thick, past the artichokes with their pointed, expanding leaves, their spiky middle, past the round, plastic-covered greenhouses for red, yellow and green pepper vines, clinging to string and hanging down like Christmas ornaments. It took her a while, especially in her long, narrow skirt that rustled when she walked, but finally she reached Hisham’s home, squat and sprawling and painted a sandy ochre with ficus and palm trees out back. She was carrying a mushroom bisque with roz bil laban for desert. She carried it carefully, the soup and roz bil laban in plastic bowls with daffodil patterns. She didn’t want the food to spill. It was a long walk.
Hisham was outside, working in the garden, as always. During the week, he stayed at the farm alone with his agriculture and civil engineers, the workers, mainly small farmers from the Delta, with Sophie and the girls joining him on weekends. Early afternoon he’d garden in the yard before making himself a quick lunch and then returning to work.
“Good afternoon, bash mohandis,” Amany yelled in a sing-songy voice from the side of the house. Her face, flushed.
He looked up from pruning a hibiscus bush. “Amany,” he said, “what are you doing here?” This was a long walk for her–at least two kilometers.
She held her package out to him. “I brought you mushroom soup and roz bil laban.”
“Oh,” Hisham wiped his soiled hands on his jeans, “um . . . thank you.” He snipped a couple hibiscus branches.
“I’ll put them inside.”
“Ok . . . uh . . . thank you.”
Amany carried the food carefully to the house, a broad smile on her face.
Amany brought lunch for Hisham the next day and the next. Mushroom quiche, mushroom sambousek and mushroom hummus. Working in the garden, Hisham seemed surprised each time when she appeared, as if out of nowhere. She put the food inside on the counter and he thanked her quickly–just too busy to refuse. He gave the food to the gardener before returning to work.
Every Monday Amany called to see if Hisham was going to Cairo Tuesday. He always was and she always went along.
“How was the mushroom soup I sent you?” she asked from the passenger seat.
“Great,” Hisham said, his eyes on the road ahead. “This highway is so damned bumpy!”
“I can also make it with tomatoes and zucchini . . . would you like that?”
“Sure, Amany.” He dialed his mobile phone, he should just tell her no. “Why not?”
She stared out the window. “I need a television, bash mohandis,” she said, “to watch the news, the cooking shows at night.”
“Talk to the supply manager about that, ok, Amany?” Hisham tsked, closing his mobile phone.
“Ok.” She gazed dreamily out the window. Smiled at Hisham and asked to be dropped at Lebanon Square.
“I can take you farther, Amany,” Hisham said, “to your uncle’s house or wherever.” If there was an uncle. Abu Bakr hadn’t even heard of him.
“It’s alright, this is fine.” Amany got out in her navy suit and matching higab.
Hisham could see clusters of topply half-finished brick buildings in the distance, narrow dirt alleys lined with garbage, as Amany carried her plastic weave bag with the zipper on top across the busy square. A round, dark figure disappearing amongst all the people and cars, the car exhaust and dust.
Hisham, his wife and children started to visit the mushroom house every Saturday, watching with fascination the mushrooms grow from white threads of straw to firm, budding mushroom caps. They brought friends, foreigners and Egyptians in jeans and cotton t-shirts. And Amany led them around, flowing past the mushrooms, her head high, her back straight, gently touching one after another of the hundreds of soft, ivory-colored caps. The friends oohed and ahhed.
“Just look at all these mushrooms!” said a young woman with a bob cut and black, narrow-rimmed glasses.
“Amany has really done a great job.” Hisham said, touching Amany lightly on the shoulder and translating.
She smiled broadly, gazing at Hisham.
At the exit she handed everyone a plastic container of oyster mushrooms–slipping lollipops to Amber and Leila, who quickly stuck them in their mouths. Then, Amany had everyone bunch together. She held up her mobile phone and took a photo. She took two photos of Hisham, who smiled vaguely–he found this strange, embarrassing.
Soon afterward Amany started coming every Saturday for lunch. She didn’t wait for an invitation, but just arrived at one o’clock in her navy suit and higab, a plate of mushroom sambousek in hand.
“Amany! Amany!” Amber and Leila ran at Amany, hugging her around her floor-length skirt.
“Ahlan, ahlan,” Amany said, beaming and leaning down to kiss the girls. “Eezayoukou?” She loved feeling like family.
“Hey, Amany,” Sophie said, walking out of the kitchen, her hands full of chicken marinade, kissing Amany on both cheeks.
Amany washed the romaine lettuce for salad, cut the tomatoes and cucumbers, while Sophie stir-fried vegetables. Hisham barbecued shish tawouk outside, thick pieces of chicken breast that had been marinating in a tomato, olive oil and yogurt sauce overnight.
“Can someone get me a plate for the chicken?” Hisham called.
Amany was first to the plate and handed it to Hisham, her head tilted demurely to one side. She stayed outside, helping to place the skewers of chicken on a plate, chatting to him in her high-pitched voice.
Sophie set the table, watching Amany with Hisham, chuckling to herself. She called the girls in from outside and they all sat at the long pine table filled with food, chicken breast, rice, vegetables, Amany’s sambousek, the mixed salad.
“Bash mohandis,” Amany said, piling chicken on her plate. “When do you think you’ll be going down to Cairo this week?”
“Same as always,” Hisham said, cutting a chunk of tomato, “on Tuesday.”
The cat wailed from outside. “Shoo, Chipsy!” Sophie got up and hit the screen door. The cat jumped back, meowed even louder and rubbed its side against a nearby chair. “That damn cat,” she whispered under her breath.
“I really need a couch for my house, bash mohandis,” Amany said, “my inheritance from my uncle should be arriving soon, but until it does . . . ”
“You have expensive tastes, Amany,” Hisham said–not the uncle again. He smiled. “The mushrooms are doing so well how can I refuse?”
Amany smiled back, delicately placing a forkful of chicken and hummus into her mouth.
There was silence as everyone ate, the juicy chicken, rice and Amany’s mushroom sambousek.
Soon everyone’s plate was empty. The food done, Hisham rubbed his stomach and stretched. “That was great.” He looked at Sophie. “Mind if I excuse myself to plant the flamboyants out back? I’ve still got them stuffed in the car trunk.”
“Hisham, you always have a lot to do.” Sophie sighed, rising to her feet. “I’ll clean the kitchen.”
“Do you need some help?” Amany asked, looking past Sophie at Hisham.
Hisham glanced at his wife, who was already stacking plates in the kitchen sink. “Sure, I could use a hand.”
Sophie looked up. “Won’t you spoil your skirt, Amany?”
“This?” Amany said, pointing to her skirt. “Oh no.” She rushed out the door behind Hisham.
Hisham and Amany spent the rest of the afternoon planting the flamboyants, Amany digging the holes, Hisham placing the green plant with small, soft leaves, a few sky-blue petals, Amany filling the holes with dirt and Hisham watering.
As they worked, their Arabic chatter filled the yard, Amany’s high-pitched laughter, peppered now and then with Hisham’s deep baritone. They didn’t come inside until well after the sun had set.
“Have you seen my keys, Sophie?” Hisham asked, feeling his pockets. “I need to take Amany home.”
Amany stood behind him, her full cheeks, a warm, wind-swept crimson. Her pressed navy skirt, wrinkled and soiled at the knees; her blouse, disheveled. Wisps of hair escaped from her higab and fell around her face.
“On the refrigerator,” Sophie said, looking up from her game of Go Fish with Amber and Leila. Sophie shook her head, catching Hisham’s eye, as Amany headed towards the door.
That next Tuesday Hisham picked Amany up from her house as usual to drive to Cairo. It was a sunny morning, clear and cool; the sky, a refreshing porcelain blue. Amany was dressed in a new navy suit, a silky scarlet blouse with a high, ruffled collar and a colorful higab of vibrant red, purple and blue roses.
She smiled broadly at Hisham as she got in the passenger seat. The laugh wrinkles around his green-blue eyes. He was probably a bit older than her–just enough.
“You need to have the shipment of artichokes ready by today,” Hisham said into his mobile phone without acknowledging her. “By 5:00 pm. Don’t be late.” He dialed another number. “Mohandis Mahmoud, who’s fixing the irrigation pipes at site six? It’s spurting water all over the place. . . . Immediately, ok?”
Hisham put the phone in his pocket, glanced quickly at Amany. “You look nice today, Amany.” He spun the steering wheel and turned the car around.
“Thank you, bash mohandis.” Amany adjusted her ruffly collar, the front of her blouse.
They drove out of the farm and onto the highway. As Hisham talked on the phone, Amany sighed contentedly, staring out the car window at the quickly passing highway, the imposing gates leading to villa compounds, rows and rows of large, single family homes; the huge billboards with grinning blonde couples gazing over an expansive green lawn, a hulking colonial home with ionic columns behind them.
“Yes . . . yes . . . ,” Hisham said into the phone, “just as long as the greenhouses are ready by the end of this week.” He closed the phone.
They drove in silence, Hisham staring at the road; Amany, out the window.
“Bash mohandis?” Amany smiled demurely, peeking at Hisham.
“I’m planning a trip to Turkey.” She inched her body towards Hisham. She’d actually never travelled outside Egypt.
“Really? That’s nice.”
“Yes, after I get my uncle’s inheritance. I’m going to go to Istanbul, Ankara.”
“Great, Amany,” Hisham said, still staring at the road. “You’ve taken no time off since you’ve come, so feel free. You’ll go for about a week?”
“Yes,” Amany looked sideways at Hisham, inched closer, “a week.”
There was silence.
Then slowly Amany reached her hands up to the top button of her blouse. She unbuttoned it, the first button, then the next and the next until the edge of her lacy bra showed. Then she reached her hand over to Hisham and lightly curled her fingers around his hand.
Hisham flinched, looked at her, frowning. “Amany?” he said.
She gripped his hand tighter and leaned forward, exposing a generous cleavage. “Come with me,” Amany whispered, leaning her full body towards Hisham’s. “Come with me to Turkey.”
“What?” Hisham shifted away from her, trying to keep his eye on the road. “Are you crazy?”
“No,” Amany gripped Hisham’s hand even tighter, “I’m not crazy, bash mohandis.” Then leaning even closer. “Come with me.”
“Amany,” Hisham said, freeing his hand from hers and chuckling nervously. “You are crazy. You know that? You’re really, really crazy.”
Amany’s slanted eyes narrowed, her brow grew dark, heavy and deeply furrowed. “I’m not crazy, bash mohandis!” she said, her voice suddenly deeper, different, tears welling in her eyes. “Not crazy at all!” She fell back against the car seat, quickly buttoning her blouse.
Hisham looked at her, wide-eyed, shifted in his seat, then stared back at the road ahead.
Frowning and dabbing at her eyes, Amany looked out the car window, at an overturned truck surrounded by tomatoes strewn along the highway with two men scrambling desperately to put them back in their wooden crates. The straggly olive trees in the median. Policemen in droopy uniforms and unbuckled black boots, trying to hitch a ride. The roar of passing cars. The smell of car exhaust. The yellow-gray haze of Cairo in the distance.
The next Tuesday when Hisham picked Amany at noon to go to Cairo, the head engineer, Abu Bakr, was sitting in the passenger seat. Amany’s round face dropped when she saw him and she slowly moved her hand from the front to the back door, climbed slowly in. She hated Abu Bakr just then–and Bash Mohandis Hisham. During the 45-minute ride, the men talked the whole way, about the new irrigation system they were installing, a deep well that was blocked.
The next Saturday, the early morning sun just peeking through the curtains, the phone rang in Hisham and Sophie’s house.
“When are you coming to visit?” Amany’s high, mellifluous voice asked.
Hisham propped himself on his elbow, coughed. “What?”
“I just wanted to know when you’re coming to visit the mushroom house today,” Amany said cheerfully. They always came on Saturday.
“Amany!” Hisham yelled into the phone, his voice shaking, “don’t ever call this early on a Saturday morning . . . ever!”
“Sorry, bash mohandis.” Amany quickly hung up.
Hisham slammed the phone down.
“Who was that?” Sophie asked, still half asleep.
“The mushroom lady,” Hisham growled, lying back down.
“Calling at this hour?”
“She’s crazy,” Hisham said. “She’s just really crazy.”
Hisham, Sophie and the girls didn’t go to the mushroom house that morning. Amany appeared at their home at one for lunch and they were not there. She saw them later from the road, watched from behind a row of palm trees–a safe distance. The girls, running at Hisham, who threw them laughing over his shoulder or between his legs, throwing them down on the grass and tickling them until they squirmed away. Amany couldn’t help but smile, a lump hard as granite in her throat.
Amany called Hisham Monday to see if he was going to Cairo Tuesday, as usual. He was not going to Cairo, as usual, he said, but she could always take a minibus down.
The next day Abu Bakr came to check the mushroom project, instead of Hisham. Amany mumbled a greeting, walked Abu Bakr quickly through her rows and rows of hanging plastic bags, not bothering to point out the few soft caps of oyster mushrooms, popping from the bags. The mushrooms, grayer, harder and cracked, some lying on the ground, like abandoned tops.
One day Hisham was checking the shop, wood shelves stacked with tomatoes, artichokes, strawberries and oranges. He picked up a plastic container of oyster mushrooms, studied it carefully. Then he threw it down and quickly dialed the phone.
“Amany,” he burst out, “what’s happening to the mushrooms? They look terrible!”
“What do you mean, bash mohandis?” Amany asked calmly.
“We can’t put these mushrooms in the shop looking like this!” Hisham said, his face red with rage. “And, and there’s so little, just a few containers.”
“Bash mohandis, I don’t have enough workers to help me . . . and the few workers I have aren’t any good.” Amany paused, adding defiantly, “this is what happens when you ignore my mushroom project, bash mohandis.”
“Amany,” Hisham said, his voice shaking, “this is unacceptable! Absolutely unacceptable!”
“Bash mohandis, it’s not my fault. You haven’t come to see my mushrooms in so long! So, so long!”
Hisham bit his lip. “Amany, look,” he finally said, trying to keep his voice low, contained, “this isn’t working out, ok? It started out great, your mushroom project, but now your mushrooms aren’t selling, you’re not making any profits and, well . . . I can’t continue, Amany. I just can’t continue like this.” He took a long breath. “I’m sorry, Amany, but I think you should leave the farm.”
Amany gasped for breath. “But . . . bash mohandis . . . how could you?” Her voice, higher, shriller. “How could you!?”
Then a dial tone.
But Amany didn’t leave. The weather turned hot, sizzling, combustible by midday. Amany, dressed in dark, mis-matched clothes, tended her garden of tomatoes, cilantro and arugula, wilting in the heat, hung her laundry, her long, dark skirts, her blouses and matching higabs, her black track suit. She sent her lunches on plastic plates with peeling daffodil patterns of mushroom quiche, sambousek, hummus and bisque with a worker, who appeared shy and disheveled at the door.
She called on Saturday to see if Hisham, Sophie and the girls would visit the mushroom house, her voice unusually drawn out, lethargic, and on Monday to see if Hisham was going down to Cairo the next day. Workers saw her walking, slow and hunched, from her small home to the mushroom building. Shuffling, her blouse untucked; her skirt, frayed at the hem.
When the family arrived at the farm on weekends, Amany stood alone on the dusty road, just behind the row of palm trees, watching as Sophie unloaded the trunk, their heavy coolers of chicken breast and meat, their bags of vegetables, fruits and bread. Her brow, furrowed. Her eyes, dark, dry now as the surrounding desert. She stood there a long time, a shadowed silhouette against a slowly, descending sun.
“She’s creepy, Hisham,” Sophie said one night, as they were getting dressed for bed. “I caught her the other day watching us from the road, just standing there behind the trees, in her dark suit and higab, just standing perfectly still.” Sophie stopped, looked at Hisham, “and for a long time.”
Hisham was silent.
“Hisham,” Sophie leaned towards him, “can’t you get her to leave. Somehow? Please?”
“How?!” Hisham whipped around.
“How do you propose I get rid of her? Huh?” His voice rose. “I’ve told her she’s no longer needed!” He was yelling, his flushed face an inch from Sophie’s. “How the hell am I supposed to get her to leave?”
Sophie stepped back towards the door, shaking her head. “I told you to be careful,” she whispered.
“What?” Hisham barked.
“She’s crazy,” Hisham said, angrily throwing the bed covers open, “that mushroom lady. She’s really, really crazy.”
Sophie walked out of the room. “You’re crazy, Hisham,” she said, slamming the door.
It wasn’t long after this that the garden outside Amany’s house, the tomato plants, the cilantro and green beans, shriveled, drying up and curling into themselves until they were barely visible in the dry, sandy earth. The laundry line hung empty. The black crows with gray heads and black bodies picked through the garbage, the baladi bread, empty cans of fuul and hummus.
“Where did she go?” Amber asked one cool, winter evening as they sat in front of the fireplace, “the mushroom lady?”
“No idea, sweetie,” Sophie said, placing cards for a Memory game in straight lines on the coffee table.
“Just be glad she’s gone.” Hisham turned the page of his newspaper. “Finally.”
“Where do you suppose she went, Hisham?” Sophie asked. “Back to her family? Wherever they are? No one ever did visit her here, not even that uncle of hers.”
“Don’t know.” Hisham flipped another page of his newspaper.
It was around this time that a strange, sour smell started to waft from the mushroom house. The smell was especially strong at a certain point on the road, when the sweltering August wind blew from the West. One of the guards, an older Nubian with dark skin and gray hair, noticed it.
“It smells like death,” Gamal, the Nubian, said, shaking his head.
Later that afternoon Hisham and Abu Bakr stood outside the mushroom house, wearing handkerchiefs over their noses. A sultry West wind was blowing and the stench was sour, putrid–untenable and unignorable. They looked warily at each other then towards the door of the white, squat mushroom building.
The two men walked with trepidation to the door. Slowly opened it. The smell, like a living spirit, a vile ghost, assaulted them, sour and decaying and horrid. They gasped, their brows furrowed. Slowly they entered the room with its rows and rows of plastic bags hanging, the straw, a dismal grayish-green, the multitudes of once soft, ivory-colored mushrooms, cracked and molding, clinging to the plastic or lying scattered on the ground, the air, heavy and cutting and perfectly still. The two men walked along the first row of deserted, smoldering mushrooms, peeking warily between the bags, into the corners of the room, at the ceiling, the floor. The white, cloudy mist gone, but the air still damp and suffocating. Holding their handkerchiefs to their noses, their eyes tearing now, they walked slowly down the next row of mushroom bags, checking the corners of the room, the ceiling, the floor. Then the next row of bags. And the next. When they came to the end, they looked at each other and shrugged.
“Nothing,” Hisham said. “There was nothing here, just a lot of moldy mushrooms.” He had no idea mushrooms could smell so bad.
Abu Bakr nodded. “Ilhumdulillah.”
“She’s crazy,” Hisham chuckled, “but not that crazy, I guess.”
“Meskina, poor thing,” Abu Bakr shook his head.
“Come on, let’s get out of here.” Hisham pushed the heavy metal door and the two men walked into the bright desert sun.
The weeks passed, workers cleaned out the mushroom house. Gamal, the gray-haired Nubian guard, moved into Amany’s tiny, two-room home with its narrow refrigerator, its aluminum table, three cane chairs, a small television. The warm weather turned cooler with leaves from the bombax, the erythrina and mulberry trees turning a soft, sandy yellow and then falling to the ground. Sophie, the girls continued to come to the farm weekends, their car loaded with food, chicken and bread. Hisham continued to travel to Cairo Tuesdays.
One day Hisham was sitting in his large office with the wide picture window, the tall mango tree outside, staring at his computer. He sipped Turkish coffee, searching that week’s forecast to make sure cooler weather was on the way. He needed cooler weather for his olive trees, his mangos and oranges to blossom. He could hear the incessant honking of taxis in the street below. The high-pitched chatter of secretaries outside his office. A door closed. Footsteps outside. They stopped. A hesitant knock on the door. First once. Then again.
“Come in,” Hisham said, still staring at the computer.
It was the tea boy. His pants hung loose, his shirt, untucked. He was holding a bouquet of roses. They were pink, two dozen with short, uneven stems, wrapped in bright red crepe paper that curled at the edges and tied in a pink bow.