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 everything.”
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.
TIM PARRISH is the author of The Jumper, a novel; Fear and What Follows: The Violent Education of a Christian Racist, a Memoir (University Press of Mississippi); and Red Stick Men, a story collection (University Press of Mississippi). He grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and teaches in the MFA and undergrad creative-writing programs at Southern Connecticut State University.
Excerpted from The Jumper, by Tim Parrish, copyright © 2013 by Tim Parrish. With permission of the publisher, Texas Review Press.