Jimmy tries to navigate his urge to jump from high places, his fear of falling in love, and a complex family history full of deceit and racial ambiguity. At the same time, two other eccentric main characters, named Sandra and J. T., deal with dangerous pasts and presents of their own as Jimmy’s arrival alters their lives.
Winner of the 2012 George Garrett Prize for Fiction
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By Tim Parrish
Texas Review PressCopyright © 2013 Tim Parrish
All rights reserved.
Jimmy held the piece of paper as though it were both a gem and a bomb. Telegram. He knew he knew what that meant. He'd seen it in movies and on TV, heard people talk about it, but it was the brain scramble now, what his mind knew scurrying away from sense like a jackrabbit. This was what sometimes happened when things counted, when he needed the right word at work to prove he understood the bit of info that would say, "I'm smart, I'm like you, I get it." He flapped the telegram against his palm, shifted on the couch and glanced at his watch. His roommate would be home any minute, but until then.... Sound it out. Tell-uh-gram. Tell-uh-phone. Yeah, talk to the phone. Tell-uh-gram. Talk to a gram? Tell-uh-vision. Talk to what you see? That could work, but he knew it didn't. What else? He rummaged. Tell-uh-port. What did that mean? To send space people to another place. Yeah, he knew that, and he knew that lots of folks probably didn't know. So tell wasn't tell like to tell. It meant, what?, things going, things sent. Sounds, pictures, space people, a letter. A letter sent. So why not just let it be a letter and not a telegram?
He slapped the paper on his thigh, considered shredding it then kicked his boot backward into the couch face. The telegram was nonsense, except for his own name, which was both in the middle and the top, with what he could tell were slight differences. He stared and the letters shimmied, shifted, rose and floated from the paper, then blurred. Jimmy shook his head and shoved back into the couch.
On TV the President was speaking: "Star Wars ... lasers ... evil threat ... missiles." Jimmy studied the president's face, vacant somehow, eyes glancing to words on a podium and back up where he said into the camera the words that made him president. Jimmy knew he was as smart as this man, knew he was smarter than half the people who came in the store with lists that they read from, or worse tried to hand to him, lists that carried a power Jimmy did not have. His mind worked better, his memory remembered better, then a paper with marks knocked away his clarity and confidence, making him less than a child. Anxiety ran through him like hunger shakes, his face heated. What was it he held? When the woman brought it, he'd felt poised on that familiar precipice of lashing out at someone guilty only of accidentally exposing him, or at himself. He could've asked her what it was, but she would have said again, "A telegram," beginning one of the absurd dances he was cursed to dance.
—Who sent it?
—It's right there on front.
—I mean what for?
—What for? For you.
Relax, relax. Then the step he rarely took.
—Could you read it to me?
And the look.
He popped up from the couch and snapped off the TV. The sound of Floyd's truck rattled through the thin door of the apartment, and Jimmy shifted his tightening shoulders, adjusted his expression not to show agitation and sat once more. The truck door slammed, then Floyd's aimless whistling and jingling keys filtered closer until he stepped in, his jeans dusty, his boilermaker's cap turned backwards, the Houston sun blazing behind him. "Howdy," he said.
"Hey," Jimmy said, and held up the paper. "Got me a telegram."
Floyd shut the door and took the telegram from Jimmy. He turned it to every angle as if there were a facet he might miss. "Huh. Don't think I ever seen one."
"You never got one?"
"Don't think nobody I know ever got one. Heard they used to send them when somebody was killed in a war." Floyd turned the brim of his hat forward and eased into his recliner. "Says here it's to James T. Strawhorn from J.T. Strawhorn. Didn't send it to yourself, did you?" He laughed and poked his tongue around in his mouth.
"You mind just reading it, Floyd?"
Floyd's eyebrows peaked at Jimmy's tone, and he tore open the envelope. Floyd was one of the few people Jimmy had ever asked to read to him, and it irritated Jimmy that Floyd almost never read even though he could, struck him as sad that even Jimmy knew Floyd wasn't a good reader by the way he stammered and halted. Floyd unfolded the telegram and cleared his throat.
"Here goes: 'Dear James, I am your father.'" Floyd swallowed so heavily that Jimmy saw his Adam's apple bob. He flexed the paper. "'You might be shocked. Have lots of mistakes to make up. Poor health, hard times. Want to meet you before it's too late. Have no phone. Please come to Baton Rouge. Here are directions to Baton Rouge ...' There's directions here on I-10 and such, then it ends, 'Sincerely, J.T. Strawhorn.'"
Floyd stared at the letter a while more, then lowered it to his lap. "I thought you was a orphan."
The couch quavered beneath Jimmy. An image of Pepper, good eye agleam with booze, raked through him, and he shifted in his seat. "That's what I was told."
"Then who you think this fella is?"
"Got no idea." Tremors passed through Jimmy. His head went light. "Says he's my father?"
"That's what he says. Can't figure how he'd get your address. When kids get adopted, I thought they's supposed to seal up their identity."
"I ain't adopted, just orphaned."
"Neither of them fellas Sparks nor Pepper adopted you?"
"Huh. Maybe you oughta call Sparks."
"Don't know what he'd have to say. Ain't spoke to him in three years."
Jimmy hoisted himself, wavered and took the telegram from Floyd. The paper buzzed against his fingertips as if a current coursed through it. Since he'd come to Houston six years ago, he knew his childhood was different, but now it struck him it might be even more different than he thought. What if this really was his father? He stared at the paper again, the word father as unintelligible as all the other words there. He locked his knees.
"What you gone do?" Floyd asked.
"Don't know." Jimmy turned and walked to his room. He shut the door and stood in the center of the small space, examined the telegram once more. Father. He'd barely considered the notion, never put the name to anyone, especially not Sparks, who'd mostly been thirty miles away on the main spread while Jimmy grew up. Pepper would've been more likely, but he'd died when Jimmy was thirteen, leaving Jimmy to run the smaller spread. His blood pitched. Pepper. Jimmy saw him as if he were written on the paper—that last night trailing whiskey and fright as he rode away on his horse. He lowered the telegram. A sizzle crossed his scalp, then he was atop a mesa, before him open sky, an expanse of land, and the urge toward them. He dropped to his seat on the bed and buttressed himself with his arms.
As if a curtain had been opened, Jimmy saw his room: a double bed, a chest-of-drawers dotted with movie-ticket stubs, his hardware-store smock stenciled with the only words he knew. He'd hopped here from west Texas with barely a thought, carrying Pepper's memory and paranoia like rocks in his car trunk. He took the job at Home Depot that Mr. Sparks had fixed up for him, the only job he'd ever had off the ranch, and there he still worked, a floor man, "The Human Inventory" his coworkers called him because he knew the store frontwards and backwards, the highest an illiterate could go. Away from work he'd stopped dating, the dread of being found out and rejected a lode stone. Twenty-four and afraid to take a chance. As mired here as he'd become in west Texas, as scared as Pepper in his last years.
Jimmy hoisted himself, staggered, caught his balance and returned to where Floyd reclined in his lounger. "You think I could get to Baton Rouge?" he asked, noticed the paper trembling and lowered it.
"You feeling okay?"
"Said you reckon I could get there?"
"Sure," Floyd said, his eyebrows dipped. "You gone check it out?"
"Just gone go." The room angled. Jimmy widened his stance.
"For good?" Jimmy nodded. "Whoa, buddy. You don't know if this fella's on the up and up."
"I don't know he ain't neither. Says he's sick, and there ain't no reason to lie. Even if he ain't who he says, least I'll be outta here."
Floyd tugged the brim of his hat. "Didn't know you was so down on here."
Jimmy wiped at the corners of his mouth and yearned for a smoke. "It ain't here. I'm just stuck. All I do is work and sit in this little hole."
"You just need to get out. I told you I knew some women."
Jimmy thought of their faces, the few women he'd dated, at the moments they realized he couldn't decipher something at a restaurant or movie theatre, thought of both the pity and revulsion, and the former was worse than the latter. Sometimes at the store he would find one flirting with him and like her, but he knew if she was smart, it wouldn't take long for her to see what he couldn't do, knew any woman who would want a man who couldn't go any farther than he could was probably a woman he didn't want. The floor rippled. He reached his hand to the wall.
Floyd stood. "You oughta take a load off. Let this mess settle."
Jimmy stared at the couch as if it were a coffin. He wiped his mouth. "What if he really is my daddy and sick, Floyd? What if I have a momma too?"
"Just check it out. You ain't got to leave every-thing."
He saw Pepper railing at the mesa, saw him sprawled on the plain, felt his own feet heavy in this spot and dragging him down. "If I don't go, I might never go nowhere." Jimmy's shoulder locked, but he rolled it against the tension. "I got some savings. I ain't gone leave you in the lurch."
"I figured that," Floyd said, but Jimmy barely noticed. The wall behind Floyd had gone diaphanous.CHAPTER 2
Jimmy sailed over the swamp, marveling at the stilted road. He'd never seen a highway raised above an endless lake shot through with mossy cypress and abandoned platforms on telephone pole legs, but then he figured he was just beginning to see things. He took a long drag and let the smoke waft from his mouth, already on his second cigarette, his daily quota. He didn't care. Life was opening like a giant door, every cloud a promise, every interstate exit an invitation, and Jimmy was celebrating in his own small way. Twice already he had rolled his shoulders and stretched his neck against the taut cords of his muscles, then veered off the highway to some unknown truck stop in some foreign town for coffee and a doughnut or a candy bar and Coke, for a stroll through the aisles of crap he couldn't imagine anybody needing yet was himself tempted to buy, the wad of his savings urging him to pick up a belt buckle or a beer coozie or a cap he'd never wear. He was trying hard to embrace that as soon as you crossed a state line or set foot in a town you'd never been to, you were somebody new.
He took a last long inhale, let the smoke percolate in his lungs, then blew a thin stream as he stubbed the butt in his ashtray. For the umpteenth time he pictured meeting J.T. Strawhorn, his father, his father, an older man neatly dressed, frail and in need, opening the door to his modest house. Jimmy would extend his hand and say, "Pleasure to meet you, sir," and the man would invite him into a cool brightly-lit living room. Jimmy had considered calling him Father, scrolled through Daddy and Poppa, just to try them on, and had settled on Mr. Strawhorn. After all, he had no experience with this sort of event. Hell, he barely had experience with anything father-and-son-like of the sort he'd seen onscreen or heard people talk about. Yesterday, as he stored his belongings, packed and settled with Floyd, Jimmy had thought of calling Sparks to see if he knew about any of this, but that seemed like stepping backwards. Years before, Sparks had staked him five-hundred dollars and gotten him the job, but he'd never seen fit to have Jimmy schooled, never seemed much interested in him and Pepper over at the small spread, never seemed much interested after Pepper died. But then why should he have been. For a while, Jimmy had been satisfied in his life with Pepper, that is until Pepper began to slide. Once Pepper was gone, Jimmy had argued with Sparks to be left alone to run the small place, even though it was a struggle. Maybe Sparks was just being respectful.
Jimmy thumped another cigarette from his pack and lit up. In the distance a boat cut a trail through gray water. Sun glinted off the calm surface. Low in the sky where Jimmy was heading, a jet left a vapor trail. This trip wouldn't be like that trip into Houston so many years ago, the skyline rising from the plain like a threat, the interstate spreading into more lanes than a sane person could account for, the unreadable road signs crowding above him as he entered the city and tried to recall the number of the exit Mr. Sparks had told him to take. No, none of that now. Today was a fresh start.
The top of Jimmy's scalp almost levitated when he began to climb the high arching span of the Mississippi River Bridge. The brown river dropped away beneath him, the car rose at a sharp pitch, and Jimmy's head rose even higher. He locked his vision on the road. His father waited on the other side, and he wondered what he would really find. His breath shallowed. Why hadn't he listened to Floyd, thought it through before jumping in his car and heading out? An old voice called him toward the bridge's edge. He eased to the inside lane, his palms gummy with perspiration, and fixed his eyesight on the white lines dashing past. His awareness partly broke from him, spilled outward and then down, anxiety intertwining with euphoria to tempt him toward the bridge's railing and the unfettered space beyond. He sped up, rocketing toward clear sky beyond girders, then the bridge peaked and Jimmy crested, the trees and rooftops of Baton Rouge expanding before him. His lungs let loose something between a laugh and a grunt, and his self began to unscatter as he glided downward.
The first exit number appeared, and he was thankful he'd studied a map with Floyd, matching numbers to the names on J.T.'s directions and penning them in the margin, thankful too that this interstate didn't seem as crazy as Houston's. "Baton Rouge," Jimmy sounded to himself. He'd heard people mention it, remembered it from songs, knew it was the capital of Louisiana, but that was about it. He hoped that was enough for now. The expressway banked left, carved through the center of downtown, headed toward a thicket of silver smokestacks, then curved right past an old gray mildew-streaked stadium. When the road straightened again, chemical plants and refineries lined the horizon to the left, while trees and houses appeared to the right below. Already the numbers told him he was nearing his exit, and by the time he saw number three up ahead, his palms throbbed. He ramped off the interstate, chanting the directions Floyd had read from the telegram. But the telegram only told the names of the streets and the direction to turn, not how many streets or how many lights or how far between turns, which meant that Jimmy had to do the closest thing to reading that he could: hold the directions up and try to match them with the names on street signs. He slowed at the end of the ramp and wondered if he hadn't made a huge mistake, hadn't left something safe for something stupid, felt a shadow brush him, and kept going, past deserted businesses and tiny houses. He noticed nothing but black people around him, noticed boarded-up windows and grass-sprouting parking lots, hoped he hadn't already missed his turn.
Excerpted from The Jumper by Tim Parrish. Copyright © 2013 Tim Parrish. Excerpted by permission of Texas Review Press.
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