Friday, July 11, 2008

Float Trip

Helen rolled carefully to the edge of the king waterbed – California Sail King, the hotel called it. She felt as if she were disembarking from a raft after a Nile float trip. Thank God this was their last night in Luxor. She glanced at her husband. He was lying on his stomach, with his arm thrown to the side where she’d just been. He’d started to sputter -- putt, putt, putt. Pretty soon he’d be grating air across the tremulous tissues of his throat and making a sound like the chainsaw he used to cut logs for their fireplace back home. She rose from the wobbling bed and went to the bathroom. She stood and looked at her naked body in the wall-to-wall mirror.

“This is a mistake,” she said. Her comment applied to both looking at her 40-year old naked body, and to the “second honeymoon” Harold had insisted they take. At this point in her marriage, Helen almost wished there’d been no reason for the first honeymoon. She showered quickly, toweled off, combed the water out of her hair without drying it with the blower, and tiptoed into the bedroom. She threw on the same wide-leg gaucho pants and long-sleeved linen blouse she’d been out in with Harold earlier in the day, grabbed her shoulder bag, and snuck out the door, concentrating on closing it very gently behind her.

Outside the air was still full of heat, humidity, and dust, the sky was just beginning to turn a darker shade of blue, and clouds across the Nile standing over the Valley of the Kings had a pink hue. Helen walked south along the side of the road. Twice taxies pulled alongside her, but she waved them away. An old man rode by on a small donkey. The man was tall and very thin and his feet practically dragged in the dusty road. He and the donkey had the same look of resignation on their dark faces.

People she passed stared at her with what seemed undisguised contempt. A woman in a chador made a hissing sound as she passed. It was then she realized that she’d forgotten her headscarf. She came to a field on her left. Mud huts were scattered about. Grasses swayed in the slight breeze that came off the river.

Suddenly a hoard of little ragamuffins hollering “Baksheesh! Baksheesh!” surrounded Helen. She tried to ignore the children, but they were persistent and aggressive. She was reminded of her husband’s words, “Never show them where you keep your money.” She pulled her bag tight across the right side of her body. She hurried along, making a point of avoiding eye contact with the begging children. She was sweating.

She came into a block with stores and homes lining each side of the street. The children were now blocking her way. A small, dirty boy with fierce black eyes pulled at the strap on her shoulder bag. Someone yelled at the boys, and Helen saw a man, only a little taller than some of the older boys, charge out of a shop and begin swiping at the boys with a crude broom made of reeds or hay. They scattered, laughing and shouting. The man approached Helen.

“You are fine, missus?” he asked, his head cocked to one side and his watery brown eyes searching her face.

Helen put her hand to her chest and took a deep breath. “Thank you,” was all she was able to muster.

“Please, you will come in my shop. Rest?

Helen could feel her heart beating. Perspiration tickled down the middle of her back. She shook her head, “No, that’s alright.”

During their morning walk, she and her husband had been assailed by countless shopkeepers, vendors, street merchants, calèche drivers extolling the virtues of their “bootifull” carriages, felucca cruise boat brokers, and the ubiquitous beggars from the very young to those who seemed to have dug their way out of the Valley of the Dead. She was loath to follow this man into his dark shop and be badgered into buying a cheap soapstone scarab made by “skillet artist sands.”

The man looked closely at Helen, “I will sell you nothing. You have tea. Soon it will be cooler. Then you will go. Yes?”

Helen glanced into the shop. Like most shops she’d seen on her morning walk with Harold, it was packed with goods of every description. But it did look cooler, certainly better than standing out here in the heat and dust.

“Come,” the man gestured towards the entry and bowed slightly, the setting sun highlighting the white in his thick thatch of hair.

Helen allowed herself to be ushered into the shop.

The man led her past the shelves facing the front of the store to a small, carpeted space in the middle of the store. A hammered brass tray decorated in the center with modeled plant ornaments stood on a cone-shaped base similarly decorated. Large pillows lay around the tray.

“Please,” the man gestured for her to be seated. Then turned to a samovar and began pouring tea.

Helen was glad to be sitting down. She hadn’t realized how shaky she’d been. And the shop was a lot cooler than outside. She glanced around and noticed that this secluded space was surrounded by Egyptian artifacts that looked considerably nicer than the cheap copies she’d seen in most stores.

The man brought tea in glasses set in filigreed silver holders. He pulled his galabea up and sat opposite Helen. He reached over and offered her rough cubes of raw, brown sugar from a bowl set in a holder shaped like a crocodile. She said, “No thank you.” The man smiled, took a cube of sugar and put it between his teeth. He slurped the tea through the sugar cube. Helen closed her eyes and savored the strong, aromatic tea. She thought of the river, and the reeds, and the date palms.

“This is very good, thank you,” she said to the man. He smiled and bowed his head.

They sat sipping their tea; the only sound the man’s slurping, which he did unabashedly. Helen gestured towards the sugar, “May I?”

The man offered her the sugar and Helen put a cube between her teeth and slurped her tea. “Hmm,” she murmured.

“Ah, you are a woman willing to try new things,” said the man.

“I wonder about that,” said Helen.

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