Guda and His Son

Fiction
David Biddle


It was nearing 7:00 and already the morning was feeling strange to Guda Ghazali.

“What is this box here?” Guda’s son Carter called from the front where he had been inserting cash into the register.

Guda glanced up from his work in the back room, searching quickly for an expression on his son’s face. Shifting his gaze, he checked the package that had been delivered by UPS just before closing at eleven the night before.

“I do not know,” Guda said in English as he returned to his task of sorting cigarette cartons.

“It’s from the company.”

“I’m waiting for the letter.”

“The letter? It’s addressed to Station 982. That’s us, Abbu. We should open it.”

“I will wait for the letter.”

“What letter?”

“They don’t send anything without a letter. I need to know what to do.”

“We can open the box and see what’s inside and still wait for the letter.”

Guda stepped into the opening with a carton of Springfields in one hand and a carton of Camel Lights in the other. Already his son was so different from him. He would never have badgered his own father, and certainly would never have thought to open a large box such as this without the proper authority.

“Abbu, you are the owner here,” said Carter. “There is no one else in charge. They do not run you. You have the right.”

“I also have the right not to do anything. I will wait.”

Guda hadn’t ignored traditions and worried about appearances just for his business’s sake, or even for safety. He had changed for his son. Carter was named after the President of the United States from when his parents had arrived in the country, four months before Ronald Reagan took office. Guda and his wife could not vote. The name they gave their son two years later was the best they could do.

Several cars pulled up to gas pumps and Guda readied himself at the cash register. It was just after seven-thirty and the rush would be starting soon. A few clouds lingered in the morning sky. He turned to the small portable television on the cigarette shelf behind the registers and flicked it on. The customers liked to watch while they waited in line. He was glad he had Carter to keep him company, that they shared the time. He knew only a few weeks remained before his son stopped working full-time in order to concentrate on his studies. Carter was taking night classes at Rutgers in Camden and planned to become a regional manager in the company. “Forget the margins, Abbu. I am going to get a paycheck. No profits for me. Just bonuses and vacations.”

As people entered the tiny store, Guda watched impassively as his son slit open the tape on the UPS box and folded back the flaps. There was nothing he could do or say directly. They would be overrun until around ten. Several hours of taking in money. They were the best-placed gas station within five miles—just off two highways, on the edge of the three roads that led people from the neighborhoods to the highways. They had eight pumps that would be in constant use.

Carter was peering into the box and shaking his head.

“There are people,” Guda said in Urdu. “You are making for only one line, my son. Get up here.”

Carter looked at his father, shook his head, then looked back into the box. “It’s uniforms, Abbu.”

“Come help me,” Guda said quietly, still using Urdu. “These people want to give us money.”

“It is shirts and ties, Father. Shirts and ties.”

*

“The letter was in with the clothes, Abbu.” Surprisingly, the rush had stopped. It was a little before nine. Guda stepped away from his register.

“They send it separate.”

“Not this time. Look at it. I’m not wearing that stuff.”

Guda passed his son to look in the box. He saw shirts and ties wrapped in plastic. The shirts were a melted chocolate ice cream brown with white stripes shadowed by thinner red strips. The ties were adorned with tiny, yellow smiling faces, American flags, and the colorful little pennant that the company used.

“I’m not wearing those,” Carter said again.

“We wait for the letter.”

“The letter is in the box I tell you,” Carter replied curtly. “At the bottom. But I don’t care. They think we’re monkeys. It is disgusting—brown and red and white, flags and these yellow smile faces.”

“The shirts have our names on them.”

“I’m not wearing them.”

“We’ll wait for the letter.”

Carter made a face of exasperation.

Just then there was a noticeable change in the rhythm of TV chatter. Guda glanced first out the window of his store to see that the sky was beginning to glow like a lit, pure dome of blue porcelain. The clouds had completely run away. But there was a noticeable pulse of something new coming out of the television. For just a moment Guda wondered if everything on the earth had stopped except the the pulsing television. On the screen a jet had smashed into a giant building. There was smoke like oil pot smoke everywhere. Something began turning over in Guda’s mind—over and over, like forgotten clothes in a Laundromat dryer.

By its twin he knew the building. It was the World Trade Center in New York City. He had seen smoke flowing out of it before, but much closer to the ground. A car bombing, he remembered. Some terrorists claiming to be religious. “Please turn it up,” he said.

Carter stepped forward while Guda glanced again outside. Nothing was moving. Cars had disappeared. No one was at the pumps. The sky was as pure and beautiful as he had ever seen. But something was still turning over in his mind.

“There is no confirmation on how this has happened…” the voice was saying.

Guda could smell the hot plastic of the TV cooking in its own electricity. His body was talking to him. He felt the swirl now of the thing turning over in his belly. He didn’t know if it was his clothes or someone else’s.

Carter’s face was squeezed into anger and confusion. “What was he thinking? What could a pilot possibly be thinking? This is insane.”

Guda watched his son say these words and the turning stopped. He knew. He understood. It could not be an accident. Something else. Something as untouchable as the cloudless sky and the glass light of the morning.

“The shirts,” Guda said quietly.

“What? Abbu, this is terrible.”

“The shirts. We must put this clothing on.”

His son looked toward him from the television. “You must be joking.”

But Carter saw the look in his father’s eyes. It was the same look Guda gave when his son did not want to go in the back room and pray toward Mecca or visit his cousins in Havertown for the end of Ramadan.

“Put on the shirt and the tie,” Guda said quietly to his son. “And for God’s sake, my son, tuck yourself in. It will be a long day.”

He watched his son standing over the box. He watched him stoop to pick out the clothing, and saw how the plastic wrapping on the shirts and ties shimmered in the bright sunlight.

“I want you to go to college, my son,” Guda said carefully as he accepted his shirt and tie from Carter. “But…”

On the television the smoke was rising higher and the one good building seemed like it was in a bad mirror of itself. Guda felt his son’s anger growing in himself as well.

From how far back does this come?

“But what, Abbu?”

His son was standing over the box, his young eyes moving from the television screen to his father’s face, glancing quickly as well every few beats out the window at the morning.

“But I do not want you to be a regional manager,” Guda continued. “I want you to wait. I just want you to go to school and learn and think and wait. Let your life come to you. Do not have goals. Wait. I want you to be something you have never thought of before.”

Carter held his father’s gaze with this. On the TV the announcer said, “New York’s police and fire departments are at the scene. But we have no word yet.”

“You go in back to change first,” Guda told him, waving at the storage room. “I will wait for customers. I will read the letter you say is in here and wait for customers. Then we trade. Go quickly. It will be a long day.”

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David Biddle has worked as a farm laborer, soup kitchen manager, solar energy technician, civil servant, and educator. He is a contributing editor to In Business magazine and part-time executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Commercial Recycling Council. He lives, happily, with his wife and three sons in Philadelphia and may be reached at: formalityoccurrence.blogspot.com.

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