by Tim Parrish
(an excerpt from the novel The Jumper, Winner of the 2012 George Garret Prize for Fiction)
J.T. barely noticed it among the stack. He tossed the mail onto his kitchen table, then sat and skimmed the rental ads for the tenth time. He had two-hundred fourteen dollars and no car. Even the smallest garage apartment in this neighborhood started at one-fifty a month and that didn’t include deposit or utilities. Plus, he’d been in this spot for two years and it was beyond sweet for the price. His only hope to pay off Mr. Charley and stay here not too far from the college was a blackjack game tonight, actually a pretty good hope since blackjack was his game. After all, he was up almost two hundred for the year—if you didn’t count losing his car and it was a shitty old car anyway—just badly down the past month. His luck was due for another change upward. Still, he didn’t like going in without confidence or at least a good feeling and the only real feeling he had was a slither and coil like a boa constrictor wrapping around his windpipe.
J.T. shoved the newspaper aside and glared at the stack of envelopes. Surely more bad news. He shuffled, BILL PAST DUE, shuffled, BILL PAST DUE, shuffled, SALE, shuffled, Ray Bourgeouis, Attorney at Law. He wrinkled his nose. Shit, not a lawsuit too. He glanced at the cabinets he knew were empty. Oh, well, he had nothing to lose. He slipped his finger under the flap and ripped, removed the letter and unfolded it.
“Dear Mr. James Thomas Strawhorn,
We are seeking James Thomas Strawhorn born August 25th, 1959, as a possible plaintiff in a class-action suit against the state of Louisiana. If you are he, or if you know his whereabouts, please contact our office at the above number. This matter is of utmost urgency.”
J.T. let the letter slip from his grasp and scratched his chin. James Thomas Strawhorn, August 25th, 1959. He reread the letter, numbness building in his fingers. So long ago that he sometimes barely remembered he had a son. No, that wasn’t exactly true. Sometimes he remembered, mostly in unexpected flashes—a young dark-skinned woman with that certain manic charge about her; a baby that scared the shit out of him—late at night when the money was low and no luck in sight. Years ago he’d even thought of searching for him, but that thought only led to impossible questions: How to start? What to ask? And why track him at all? What would J.T. say if he found him? That his father had been scraping by all these years after he’d split from baby Jimmy and his mother, that there was still nothing he could give, not even clear details of what had actually happened. He doubted if he even knew the real details, was reminded by a sharp poke inside his gut that he most likely did, but doubted it would do any good to plumb for them. His ears burned worse.
He picked up the letter. “Plaintiff against the state of Louisiana.” That had a lucrative ring to it. How much could a good lawyer shake out of a state, especially a state as flimsy and corrupt as this one? More importantly, how much would an abandoned son be willing to share? Who knew. All he knew was he had to come up with serious cash or get the hell out of here before Charley sent that blind gorilla out to collect. That was something J.T. definitely wasn’t up for. Spending a little time contacting this lawyer didn’t seem like a bad bet.
J.T. lifted his phone and smiled. Still in service. He dialed the number on the letter, thinking how everybody in life received one big break. Granted for some people, suckers and losers, that big break might just be being born, or dying, but for anybody with savvy and initiative that break offered something major, something large, something to line your cage.
“Good morning, law office of Ray Bourgeouis, Janet speaking.”
“Good morning, Janet. This is James Thomas Strawhorn. I just received a letter in the mail about a class-action suit, and I’m calling in to see what the deal is.”
“Yes, Mr. Strawhorn. Are you the person named in the letter?”
“Yes, ma’am, I’m James Thomas Strawhorn.”
“And were you born on the date given in the letter?”
“Not exactly. The person you’re talking about is my son.”
“I see. Are you in contact with him, or do you know where he is?”
“I don’t. To tell the truth, I haven’t seen him since he was a baby and his mother lit out with him. That’s why I was calling, to see if y’all knew where he was.”
“Mr. Strawhorn, would you hold please?”
J.T. tugged at his lower lip as the On Hold music tinkled through the receiver. He was sure he’d screwed up since he was pretty sure there was some law that kept parents who’d left their kids from getting their grown addresses, like the state had the right to that business. He should’ve just gone to the office, looked somebody in the eye and worked it that way.
“Mr. Strawhorn,” came a man’s voice.
“Yes, sir. James Thomas Strawhorn.”
“I’m Ray Bourgeouis. I’m handling the class-action suit which I believe your son could be a litigant in. You say you don’t know where he is?”
“No, sir, I don’t. But I’d like to. I ain’t, uh, haven’t seen him since he was just a baby and his mother ran off with him. She had, how do you call it, mental problems, and it wasn’t till today when I got y’all’s letter that I’d had any word on him. I thought maybe my son was dead or something.”
J.T. strained during the pause, believing he could hear a pencil tapping on a desk top.
“Well, Mr. Strawhorn, I hope the letter didn’t give you a shock. I wish you the best in sorting all this out, but we’re disallowed by law from giving you information on your son, even if we had it to give. We were actually hoping that you might be your son. We’re mailing out to any similar names we can find through the phone book or parish records.”
J.T. cleared his throat at the thought of being so easily trackable. “So you’re saying you don’t even really know if my son’s alive?”
“I can’t divulge that information. We’re just trying all opportunities to find people who might benefit from this suit and since your name is the same as your son’s, you received this letter. I’m terribly sorry.”
“Hold on, hold on, it’s all right. I just want to ask you if you could tell him about me if you do find him? Could you do just that?”
“To tell the truth, right now I don’t know if we will find him. Most of the plaintiffs in this case have already come forward, and the case is actually very far along, so the people in this latest mailing are the ones we’ve had a great deal of trouble locating.”
“Does that mean you won’t tell him?”
“That’s just not part of our function. We would be in very tricky territory there.”
A thin coat of heat scurried over J.T. He shifted the receiver to his other ear. “You’d be. I got a son I ain’t seen since his mother snuck off with him and you’re in tricky territory. Let me tell—”
“I’m terribly sorry, Mr. Strawhorn. I’m sending you back to Janet now.”
The click was a pencil stab to J.T.’s ear drum. Typical. Some hot shot double-talker sluffing him off. He should’ve gone down there. Still could . . . “Mr. Strawhorn?”
“Is there anything else we can do for you?”
J.T. worked his fingertips on the stationary’s letterhead, as if some secret message might be revealed. “I guess not, Janet. You’ve been mighty kind. You can imagine this all comes as pretty much of a shock, finding out like this that James Junior might still be alive and not knowing how to find him.”
“I’m very sorry.”
“It ain’t your fault, yours nor Mr. . . . uh, Mr. Bourgeouis’. I just wish there was some way to let him know I’m still around if you do contact him.”
“We can’t really—”
“I know. The law. I understand. I wouldn’t want y’all breaking the law, especially since y’all’re just trying to help my son, I understand that.” Silence. “Janet, thanks so much. Good luck and thank you for listening.”
J.T. hung up, a hollowness in his sternum he didn’t expect. He breathed deeply and blew out hard, shook his arms. No time for slowing down. He glanced at his watch. 2:27. Charley used to be flexible, but that had changed some. If you paid him within a week, the interest rate was only fifteen percent. The second week it bumped up to thirty-five percent. The third, a hundred percent and the threats began. Or so J.T. had been told. He’d never gotten in this much of a jam before. Tomorrow was the start of the third week and he’d heard stories that Charley’s new man meant bad business.
He opened the phone book to the yellow pages—“Rentals”—and skimmed until he found “Vacancy Smashers.” He didn’t like the sound of that, but he had to be out of this place by tomorrow night. Still, he thought he’d detected a note of pain and sympathy in Janet’s voice and that was at least a crack in the wall. He picked up the phone, paused, peeked at his watch again, and dialed for a taxi.
Luckily, across the street from the law office was a bus stop bench beneath an oak tree’s canopy and J.T. took up his spot there. The office was an old renovated house downtown, its porch adorned with ornate railing, shutters painted peach in contrast to the forest green of the house itself, and a large crape myrtle in pink bloom in the small yard. A house like J.T. would never have. Most likely. Unless. He picked at his cuticles, hoping that the lawyer would leave first, hoping that he could pick Janet out and talk to her before she reached her car. From her voice, he guessed her to be in her forties or so, a mother herself if he was lucky, but no matter what age and experience he felt good about his odds.
J.T. spread his arms on the back of the bench and stretched his legs. A gust of wind kicked up and the sun disappeared as thunderstorm clouds scudded over. Rain would be a definite inconvenience, but being a little drenched might also help him in the pity department. Nonetheless, he would rather stay dry. This was his best of two suits and he didn’t want to worry about it being ruined during the next couple of days when things would be moving fast. He’d found a cheap crummy apartment pretty quickly over the phone while waiting for the taxi, and now all he had to do was pay the kid with the pick-up two houses down twenty bucks to cart his bed and clothes to the new place, which he knew was a ghetto, but still probably the safest place for him. It was a risk to let even the kid know where he was going, but he didn’t see any other way to take some of his few belongings with him.
J.T. breathed in deeply, the heaviness of magnolia blossoms nicely sweet for a moment, then nearly sickening. There had been a brief time when he’d had a place with a magnolia in front, down on 12th Street he seemed to remember, although now he couldn’t be exactly sure of when or where. So many jobs, so many moves, so much history thrown like puzzle pieces and no time or inclination to fit them together. It was a chore to clearly remember Morita, much less their son, remember her thick black hair, her intense dark eyes, her glowing mocha skin . . . He veered sharply away, shaking his head. No need to go to that unpleasantness. Enough was enough for one day. Nonetheless, the memory of her brushed through him again with harsh wings, and he stared straight ahead at a fire hydrant, its strange contours blurring yellow.
A gust shook the tree. A burst of rain opened at an angle, and J.T. hopped up and hid on the side of the tree trunk away from the wind. The haze he’d briefly encountered cleared some. He shook his arms, stomped his feet and pressed the center of his forehead as if restoring circulation. He wondered for a moment what his son would look like, then shook that off. It was more important what he would tell a grown son should he meet him, the sketchy story he feared was lurking in him or a story that made everyone feel better? Not that it mattered yet. The whole thing was a long shot. Jimmy and Morita had been a brief, bizarre invasion, and it was better to leave it like that for now. For all he knew his son was dead or at least unreachable. The main concern was to find out what he could.
The thunderstorm sped through, the last plump drops falling when J.T. saw a Mercedes heading out of the lawyer’s driveway. A twinge of panic shot through him as he realized his miscalcuation. Janet was probably parked in back, would go to her car there rather than leave through the front, and that would make things trickier, make it more threatening if J.T. showed up in the rear of the house. The Mercedes was most likely the lawyer’s car, which meant Janet might be inside alone, wrapping up the day, getting ready to leave through the back, or already in the parking lot. J.T. brushed the rain from the shoulders of his sports coat and hustled across the street and up the steps. On the door a sign read “Come In,” but he still knocked lightly before turning the knob and entering, a sigh of relief leaving him at finding the office still open. The receptionist’s desk had no one behind it. Its top was neatly ordered. A radio whispered music. J.T. considered stepping over to the desk, quickly checking what he might, but he decided to stay where he was and call out, “Hello, anybody here?”
A woman in a green dress strode into the room, smoothing her skirt. “You surprised me,” she said. “I thought I’d locked that door. I was just getting ready to leave.” She moved behind her desk but did not sit. She looked to be in her early fifties, a good-looking woman whose waist had thickened and whose face had lined.
“Are you Janet? I’m sorry to bother you. We talked on the phone earlier. I’m J.T. Strawhorn.”
She looked puzzled. “You’re Mr. Strawhorn?” She seemed to think a moment, then her mouth tightened. “I don’t quite see how that can be your son,” she said.
“That’s his birth date. My boy’s.”
She gave a look as though she smelled something bad, glanced down at her desk and shuffled a couple of papers. “Mr. Strawhorn, like I said on the phone—”
“Yes, ma’am, I know, and I’m not gonna push this, but I just want to ask you one question. Do you have children?”
Janet touched her auburn hair above her brow, then put her fingers to her chin. “Yes, I do, but I still don’t see how he could be yours.”
“I don’t know why you to say that. He is and I only have the one and I’ve never seen him since he was a baby.”
“I’m terribly sorry—”
“My wife just wasn’t right, Janet. I tried hard to take care of them, but she had spells when she wouldn’t trust nobody, she was sick, and one day I came home from work and her and my son were gone, just gone. I waited and waited for her to come home, I tried to get the police to help me, I asked all around and kept asking for years, even kept going to the police and they wouldn’t help me and nobody at the state would help me and now after all these years . . . ” Janet didn’t speak or move and neither did J.T. He could see his words working their way through her, her face contracting then softening. He held his arms out in a plea. “Janet, I know your boss has to serve the law and do what he does, I know that. And I know you have to protect your job, but this is my only chance to find my son who I ain’t seen in twenty-some years. I swear, if you help me, you won’t ever hear of me again unless my son one day tells you the happy story about finally getting together with his dad. I’m begging you.”
She breathed in for what seemed an hour. Parts of her face twitched in calculations J.T. could only guess at. “After we talked I double checked,” she said. “Your son’s been incredibly hard to locate, but we do have another possible address for him from years back, in Texas. We sent a letter off to that address too, but we never received an answer.”
“Did y’all call there?”
Janet’s shoulders rose. “We have hundreds of plaintiffs. We can’t call them all.”
“I could call.” Janet exhaled heavily and turned to a filing cabinet behind her. She removed a file, set it on her desk top and motioned him over. She turned the file toward J.T., placed a pen and paper in front of him. He didn’t move. He stared at the words on the page, his name, his son’s birthday, his son’s address. He picked up the pen, but she covered his hand with hers. “I’ve worked here fifteen years,” she said. “I can’t lose this job.” J.T. nodded, then scribbled down the address in Texas, a stranger’s name, Sparks’ Ranch, a route number and a zip code.
“Who’s this?” he asked.
“I can’t tell you that, and you have to promise not to tell him how you got this address. Do you promise?”
“I promise.” J.T. finished writing and looked up. “You don’t have a phone number, do you?”
Janet lifted the folder from in front of him, slightly squinted and turned to replace the file in the cabinet. “That’s all we have.” She examined the paper as if she suddenly wanted to snatch it from him. He folded it and placed it in his pocket, wondering if the tone of his voice had shifted to tell her something, thinking of how he’d never been good at poker.
“I don’t know why I’m helping you,” she said. “What did you expect, doing what you did?”
J.T.’s mind careened to an image of him handing the baby to a stranger at a hospital, something Janet couldn’t possibly know, then he recognized the tone of voice, thought of Morita’s dark skin and Jimmy’s birth certificate. “You don’t know what I did, and you don’t know why.”
“Hold on right here,” J.T. said, and the cab driver pulled up short. In front of his apartment sat a gold Lincoln Continental, a car he recognized from Charley’s. “Cruise on down the street and drop me around the corner.” The cab bucked into motion with J.T. slumped in the back seat, peering out the side window. As they passed the house to the rear of which he lived, J.T. looked down the driveway and saw a large man with his face against the window of J.T.’s place. “Shit,” J.T. muttered. He hadn’t expected Charley’s new man to show up early, even though it figured that the harder-assed Charley might send this messenger to spook him, figured that something would be working to derail the streak that getting his son’s address had started. J.T. peeled off a five for the cabbie, then crept to the corner and peeked from behind a tree. He had seen this gorilla around for a month but had only met him once, a seemingly good-natured ex-LSU defensive tackle who could barely see and had paws the size of skillets. J.T. knew for a fact, though, that this new boy wasn’t good-natured when it came to business and that’s exactly why Charley had hired him. That pissed J.T. off.
J.T. scurried through two yards and ducked behind an azalea bush at the exact moment the huge man appeared, strolling toward his car. J.T. crouched and peered through the leaves. The man paused, lifted his chin as if to sniff the breeze, then gazed in the direction of J.T.’s hiding spot. J.T. swallowed and stayed still. As big as the man was it still seemed unlikely J.T. could outrun him, but then he thought how unlikely it was the goon would grab him on the street. And fuck Charley. J.T. had never owed this much or been this late before or avoided letting Charley know the deal, but still, why was that asshole hounding him like J.T. wasn’t going to pay? He waited for the goon to move to his car door, then J.T. scooted from behind the bush and onto the sidewalk, where he sauntered toward him, whistling and jauntily swinging his arms. The man paused and craned toward J.T., and J.T. fought the dryness of his mouth to keep on blowing a tune. “Howdy,” J.T. said as he moved along the opposite side of the car.
“J.T. Strawhorn?” the man asked.
“You’re J.T. Strawhorn, ain’t you?”
“No, uh uh. Name’s Don. Don Bourgeouis.”
“Don Bourgeouis,” the man said, looking sideways through his thick glasses. “Well, Don, you wouldn’t happen to know the fella that lives back there in that little apartment?”
“What’s his name?”
“You figure it out.” The size of the man was even greater than J.T. recalled. Standing here on the street in the wide world made him larger rather than smaller, a dumpster set on end. J.T. thought maybe he had made a mistake leaving his hiding place, but he couldn’t help giving a jab to Charley’s boy that Charley would surely eventually understand was a jab at him. “Don’t know the person who lives there,” J.T. said. “I live a couple blocks over.”
The gorilla leaned on the top of the Lincoln. His eyes looked like gelatinous disks. “I was told he’s a red-headed fella like you. Told he was about your height and might be a smart-aleck. And I recall seeing you at the bar. You still don’t know him?”
“No, sir. I’m just out for a walk.”
The gorilla smiled. “Well it’s a pretty nice afternoon for a walk. Especially for those that can walk.”
“I’m lucky my legs are in fine shape.”
“Uh huh.” The gorilla stood straight and tugged his shirt collar. “Do me a favor. If you do happen to run into this fella, you tell him I’ll be coming back real soon to settle with him. And tell him that the special rate for a smart aleck is a little extra thrown in for free.”
“I don’t suppose I’ll meet him, but I’m sure he’d like to hear about all that friendly attention.”
The gorilla bonged the roof of his car once like a kettle drum, then ducked inside, cranked it and crawled off. J.T. watched until the Lincoln was out of sight, trying to work spit into his mouth and to decide if he should wait a while before entering his apartment. He didn’t have time to wait, though, so he headed up the driveway, wondering whether he’d miscalculated by antagonizing Charley’s man yet still glad that he had. Charley always held the high cards. This time J.T. was going to show him.
It took J.T. a while with an operator before he could find the area code and number for the man whose name Janet had given him. He was relieved that the phone was still connected but had begun to worry on the seventh ring that the line might be cut before the call went through. Then the phone picked up, and eventually a deep slow country voice answered.
“Yeah, hello,” J.T. said, suddenly unsure of how to proceed. “This is J.T. Strawhorn, James Thomas Strawhorn Junior’s father. Somebody told me that I could reach him at this number.”
“Say your name is Strawhorn?”
“Yes, sir. Are you Mr. Sparks?”
“Yeah, I’m Sparks. What’d you say your business was?” Sparks was the slowest talker J.T. had ever heard. Between each word J.T. supposed he could count to one-thousand one, and he found himself slowing down to match the pace.
“It’s a long story, Mr. Sparks. Let’s just say that my son was taken from me when he was a baby, and I’ve found out that he might be at this number working or something.”
“How’d you come on my number?”
“A lawyer gave it to me. He’s trying to find my son because he stands to make some money from a law suit.” The silence stretched out. He pictured Sparks as John-Wayne like, not exactly John Wayne, but John Wayne-sized and with Winchester rifles racked on the walls near a mounted head of a longhorn steer.
“Jimmy Strawhorn growed up on my land. I brought him in as a foster child over twenty year ago. You say you his father?”
J.T.’s throat tightened. A quiver traveled through his entire body. He’d found him. “I know this is cockeyed, Mr. Sparks. See, I’ve been trying to find out where he went for years and today I got this paper in the mail thinking I was him and it put me onto your number. You say you call him Jimmy?”
“He lives there?” J.T. waited for an answer. He knew he should have planned this better, but even if he didn’t get an answer, he knew he could find this place somewhere out in Texas, thought maybe he should just go there, find his son and tell him . . . tell him what? He swallowed.
“Mister,” said Sparks, “I don’t know how a man sposed to been dead long as you come to call me on the phone. I ain’t sure you ain’t some government man trying to find something you ain’t got a right to neither. I got a letter that I throwed out.” There was another long pause, so long J.T. wondered if the man had left the phone, except that he could still hear breathing. “What color hair you got, Mr. Strawhorn?”
“Red hair. And blue eyes. I don’t know if that’s what my son would have now, but that’s what he had as a baby. The hair I mean. His mother had dark hair and dark eyes.”
“Uh huh. Look, I’m gone tell you what. I don’t know what to make of all this business, so I’m gone just give you Jimmy’s phone number and you can take it up with him.”
“I’d appreciate that, sir. I’d really like to get his address, too, if I could though. I might like to write him before I talk to him, make sure he wants to talk to me.”
“Writing might could be a problem.” Sparks gave a long exhale. “Reckon I could do that anyhow though. Hold your horses a minute.” Sparks left the phone for what seemed like five minutes. J.T. peeked through the curtains to make sure Charley’s man hadn’t sneaked back down the drive. He began to drum his fingers. He didn’t have many belongings, but he doubted he could risk packing them all. He would take the essentials and return later if the opportunity came. If not, it wouldn’t be the first time he’d shed and run, a thought that made him belch.
“Mr. Strawhorn,” came Sparks’ voice, startling J.T. “I wanta tell you something, and I want you to listen. I best not find out you tricked me into giving you these here numbers and you ain’t who you say you are. I don’t take kindly to folks playing crooked with me. You hear?”
“Yes, sir, I hear. I guarantee I am who I say I am.”
Tim Parrish is the author of Fear and What Follows: The Violent Education of a Christian Racist, a Memoir (University Press of Mississippi); The Jumper, a novel, winner of Texas Review Press’s 2012 George Garrett Fiction Prize; and Red Stick Men (University Press of Mississippi), a story collection set in his hometown of Baton Rouge. He teaches in the MFA Program at Southern Connecticut State University.