The Good Son
By Michael Gruber
Hardcover, 400 pages
Henry Holt and Co.
List price: $26
The phone rang at a little before one in the morning and I knew it was my mother. I didn't even have to look at the number there on the little cell-phone screen, I just said, "Mom."
Next to me, my not-really-girlfriend, Gloria, heaved over and jammed a pillow on her head and said nasty stuff about people calling in the middle of the night. I ignored this and added, "Anything wrong?"
My mother said, "No, of course not. Why do you always ask that when I call you?"
"Because that's what people do when they get a call at one A.M. You forgot about the time zones again."
"I didn't forget. I thought soldiers always rose at dawn."
"When they're on duty," I said, "which I'm not. I'm at Gloria's place. What's up?"
"I'm at Heathrow on a plane for Zurich. I'll be gone for a couple of weeks. Could you tell your father?"
"Why don't you tell him yourself ? I think they still have phone ser vice in the District of Columbia."
"Please, Theo. If I call him we'll get into a big argument, and I don't need that just now."
"Because you're going to Zurich for a few weeks? Why should he object to that?"
"Because I'm not going to Zurich. I'm just changing planes there. I'm going to Lahore."
That stopped me; sweat popped on my arms where they stuck out of the quilt. I said, "Lahore? Mom, you can't go to Lahore. There's a fatwa out on you. You can't go to the Muslim world anymore."
"Oh, don't be silly! In any case, I'll be traveling on my Pakistani passport; no one will bother S.B. Laghari, the Pakistani begum, the professor's wife, in a proper head scarf. Besides, I'm not going to Iran. It was a Shi'a fatwa anyway. No one is going to pay any attention to it in Pakistan."
"You know, that's right," I said. "Only thirty million Shi'a in Pakistan and the ayatollahs are right next door and Sunnis and Shi'as have been killing each other in Punjab for the last twenty years and there's a heavily armed Shi'a militant group based in Lahore.... Are you fucking out of your mind?"
"Please don't speak to me like that, Theo," she said, after a pause. "It's unseemly. I'm your mother."
I felt my face flush. She was right. The army messes with your manners. I said, "Look, could you just, like, think about this like a rational person? Why don't I get on a plane, we'll sit down, we'll talk—"
"Darling, there's nothing to talk about. I'm going. I'll be back before you know it."
"No, this is insane!" I shouted into the tiny perforations. "How can you do stuff like this to me? You've always done it and you're still doing it. For God's sake, I'm wounded! I'm your wounded son. You're supposed to be here, taking care of me, not going to Lahore."
This was disgraceful, I knew, pathetic, but it was one of my buttons. Unfortunately, my mother has guilt handles the size of a little girl's earrings. She said, "Well, if you'll recall, I did come to your side when you got back. But it was made perfectly clear that I was in the way."
Not true, although what she meant was that she was not up to much in the nurturing department. My father is the main nurturer in our family, and she knows it and it makes her feel bad.
"I have to go," my mother said. "They're closing up the plane. I'll call you from Lahore. Remember to call Farid."
I was still trying to talk her out of it when she said a firm good-bye and I was listening to the ether.
I cursed in a couple of languages, and this brought Gloria into full wakefulness. She sat up, rubbed her eyes, and smoothed her long hair away from her face. She said, "That's the one problem with the cell phone, in my opinion. You bring some bozo home with you and he can talk to other women when he's actually lying in bed with you. Which one was that?"
"It was my mother, Gloria."
"That might be even worse. Why does she call you in the middle of the night?"
"She was calling from London. My mother is a famous world traveler who doesn't get the whole time-zone thing."
"And this is why you started screaming?"
I told her why.
"So what? She's a grown-up. Why shouldn't she go to Lahore? Where is Lahore anyway?"
"It's in the Punjab. In Pakistan."
"That's where you're from."
She'd propped herself up on one elbow and she had that look, her pumping-for-information look, on her smooth, tan, flat face, with that hair hanging loose and thick on either side. Maybe you have to grow up in a Muslim country to understand the erotic appeal of long black hair. It still knocked me out to see American women just walk through the streets with their hair hanging down for anybody to see, a little fossil of my upbringing. Especially this kind of hair, Asian hair, thick, glossy, blue-black, although Gloria is a Latina and not from where I'm from.
I said to the look, "It's a long story."
Excerpted from The Good Son by Michael Gruber. Copyright 2010 by Michael Gruber. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Co.