Rose spotted 1300 Waleed Avenue in the scorching Khartoum heat as soon as she crossed the major road.
“Salam aleikum,” she exchanged pleasantries with the chai seller under the tree.
She admired the ornate design of the iron gates, the rosebush splayed across the length of the fence, and the gargantuan size of the home itself. She cringed at the decadence. While she made do with her worn, razor-thin mattress in a room she shared with two other women, she could only imagine living in one of the sprawling bedrooms on Waleed Avenue.
Now standing in front of 1300, she pressed the bell and waited. No patter of the guard’s running feet. She unraveled the end of her hijab and wiped sweat off her upper lip with the thin fabric. She tried the bell again and peeked through the partition. No sound. She turned around and walked to the tree.
“Sabah al khair,” she greeted the chai vendor, “Do you happen to know if there’s anybody at home?”
“Mafeesh, I just got here,” she answered regretfully.
“Shukran,” Rose said, thanking her.
Had Bullet relayed wrong information? Afterall, it did strike her odd that an agent would want to work on a Friday, a day people rested from a long arduous week. She pressed the bell once and sustained the ring with a rhythmic pattern.
The gate suddenly flung open, a man whom she guessed was Egyptian Coptic peeked his bald head.
“Fi shinu?” he demanded what she wanted, making no attempt to display his annoyance with the incessant bell ring. Rose quickly looked down, avoiding his gaze.
“I’m here to see Khaleed.”
“Khaleed is not here.”
“But he told me to be here at 7 o’clock and I’ve been here waiting and waiting.”
“Dagiga,” he said, shutting the door. Patience, being a national virtue, Rose did not as much as steal a glance at her watch when he still hadn’t appeared after a minute.
She caught the chai seller’s eye and flashed a forced smile. The vendor sensing her neurosis, quickly shifted her gaze to her karkade, a sweet crimson tea made from hibiscus petals.
The gate flung open again.
“Yela,” he said, motioning her with a nod.
They walked past the landscaped front yard, into the palatial home. The marble floors and ceiling-high windows gave a very polished, elegant look and the gold-rimmed chandeliers dangling from the ceiling screamed opulence. The scent of rosewater filled the air. She took a deep breath, searing the fragrance into her memory. She’d use it when she returned to her slum that reeked of alcohol, piss, and poverty–in no particular order. She did a quick addition. It would take fifteen minutes to fluff the gazillion throw pillows in one of the living rooms. That one, she was certain was the women’s living room. Another thirty to sweep the male and female living room areas, and another fifteen to dust all the furniture and mirrors on the wall, if there were no interruptions. In Sudan, and most if not all Muslim homes, it was customary for men and women to socialize separately.
“This way,” the man bellowed, leading her upstairs.
She pinched herself. Today could be the day God answered her prayers and saved her from penury. She knew two acquaintances who had scored big. A wealthy Sudanese family in Garden City employed one, the other by a diplomat family from Malaysia.
They stepped into the foyer at the top of the stairs. Her head jerked in surprise as she observed the state of the space. Such dissonance.
Where she stood, it looked like someone had accidentally left the windows open during a severe haboob, a dust storm that left every surface buried in layers of dirt. The owners obviously never brought guest up here.
“We’re going here,” the man said, bearing left and turning the knob on the first door on the right. He opened the door just enough to peek his head into the room, blocking Rose’s sight.
“I think this is the last one,” he yelled to someone in the room.
There were others? Bullet had lied to her, or at least omitted some truth. He should have informed her she’d be competing with others for the job.
She prayed her competitors weren’t those Ethiopians. They bargained their wages really low and made for cheap workhorses. Maybe, it was time to use Bullet’s name.
“I beg your pardon, are you Khaleed?” She asked the Coptic.
Annoyed by her question, he turned around slightly, “No, Khaleed is not here. But his assistant will help you inside.”
She mustered a pained smile, “Shukran,” and stepped into a room filled with eight Ethiopian workhouses.
Drawing a long breath to suppress her disappointment, she smiled sheepishly at no one in particular and claimed the only empty seat in the room. It wasn’t a spacious room, but the air was pregnant with job expectations. The women sat on a single row of wobbly plastic chairs that faced the desk on the other side of the room. One man, overweight with puckered red lips sat on the recliner chair behind the wide brown desk. Another, tall and bald stood next to him poring over a thin stack of paper. In the center of the room was a large jute bag filled to the brim with thick, coarse single threads of jute tied atop to prevent the content from spilling. Its placement bothered Rose. If it weren’t situated exactly halfway between the two parties, she would have chucked it up to belonging to one of the women.
The tall man finally looked up at the women in quick succession. When his eyes rested on Rose, he glanced back at the papers on the desk. He did a recount.
“Where’s your document?”
“I…I…what document?” She asked rising to her feet and opening up her palms to reveal the lack of documents. The man chuckled incredulously, “You’re asking me?”
He turned to the man in the chair, “Do you see why I don’t bother with Southerners?”
“Bullet asked me to be here at 7 o’clock to meet Khaleed. I wasn’t told to bring anything. What kind of document are you looking for?”
The tall man walked away from the desk and approached her in rather large strides, considering the size of the room. She looked into his eyes and saw they had flared red either from tiredness or complete disdain of her ineptitude. She flinched, and positioned her hands ready to hit him back if he dared to touch her.
“Your medical documents,” he yelled in her face. Her height must have surprised him because he took a step back when he realized he was too close for comfort.
“Then you should have asked me that nicely.” She hated when men felt like they could yell at women for no good reason.
“Look,” softening her tone, “I don’t have it here today but I can bring it tomorrow, I promise.” One of the Ethiopians smirked.
The man vehemently shook his head, “Tell me, what do I say to all these women? Do I send them home and ask them to come back tomorrow?”
“Shufti,” she demanded his attention, “I am a hard worker. I can work harder than all eight of them combined.”
“Lift that sack,” he said, pointing to the peculiar item.
The Ethiopians shifted uneasily in their chair, exchanging knowing looks.
“Has everybody here lifted the bag? Or you’re just trying to make fun of the desperate Southerner?” Rose asked.
“She hasn’t,” he pointed to the woman who sat next to Rose, “but you show me now.”
Confidently, she walked to the center of the room, picked up the bag by its tied neck to assess its weight. It was quite heavy. Had they filled the bag with bricks? She squatted first, just like her father had taught her to lift those heavy bags of fruit, then she lowered one knee to the ground, and gently maneuvered the bag onto her thigh. Slowly, she lifted herself and the bag off the floor, keeping her back straight to maintain her center of gravity. Then just when the lazy knee was almost straight she swiftly lifted the sack with both hands and flung it overhead where it skillfully landed on her head with a soft thud. Immediately, she lowered her head and let the sack fall to the ground.
She had proved her prowess but the sharp pain in her lower belly and the dizziness that overwhelmed her signaled she may have paid a high price for it. Bullet’s child snuggled in her womb and she may have put it in danger. Anyway, this moment was not the time to panic about unborn children, she needed to secure the job.
“So, do I get the job?” she asked, looking at both men.
They conferred with each other, whispering, making hand gestures that were neither approving nor disappointing.