Jimmylee showed up two weeks before Tasha Clingham’s baby shower. Nana and I were sitting in the church basement after the fellowship dinner on a sweltering July night when he walked in with his new parents, Dr. and Mrs. Rose. Nana had pushed away her paper plate to make room for the tiny quilt she was embroidering for Kimberley Marie, the baby that would soon be born. She gazed calmly at her sewing while the rest of the room and I craned our necks to see Jimmylee.
The Catapulting of Jimmylee
by Christie Church
I had never seen an adopted person before. Around my hometown, we tended to have more children than we knew how to handle without bringing any new ones into the fold. “It must be nice,” Nana whispered in my ear, “to be so bored and rich that you buy more children once the first crop is grown.” She looked as though she might be sorry to have said it, because I was not the best audience, but I laughed anyway. “How much did I cost you, Nana?” I asked her. “A million? A trillion?” She winked conspiratorially, “Just my golden years and the last of the late spring peas.” I exaggeratedly rolled my eyes and shoved another spoonful into my mouth, warmed and satisfied by the effects of my supposed anarchy.
Jimmylee had curly blond hair and a chubby belly that hung over ill-fitting slacks. He smiled as though he could burst into laughter at any moment. It made me want to know what was so funny. Dr. and Mrs. Rose walked beside him in black pants and starched white shirts. Nana and I secretly called them The Twins, because they looked more alike than did many brothers and sisters. They stood well over six feet and had dark black hair that they brushed straight back. Mrs. Rose looked nervous, but she usually looked that way. Dr. Rose chewed an unlit pipe and smiled broadly at the church ladies that crowded around them. I saw him pat Jimmylee’s shoulder and the boy flinched, as if his father’s hand were hot as coals.
Nana leaned forward to address the table. “Do you suppose I ought to make him a quilt?” She made quilts for every new child, usually while they were incubating, but not always. Once she made a special quilt for Tasha’s young stepsister, to stop the jealous child from chewing on Tasha’s. “It’s not her fault that she did not know me when she was born,” Nana had explained, sewing the girl’s name into a pink square with dark pink thread.
Mrs. Clingham whispered across the table, “Genevieve, did you say you’re making that boy one of your quilts?” Nana nodded. Mrs. Clingham looked approving. “I think that would be nice. I read somewhere that you have to make them feel like they’re just like everyone else, or else they don’t bond right.” I listened to their chatter, but my eyes stayed locked on Jimmylee. He held his hands in his pockets and took in his surroundings with wide, alert eyes. His face looked nothing like Dr. Rose’s, which bore the same fixed, polite expression that I often saw when he studied my tonsils with a flat wooden stick. When males looked like that, they were saying that they heard you, but they still thought you had no idea what you were talking about.
“He lived in an orphanage,” Mrs. Clingham was saying. “He’s got a father somewhere, but they deemed him unfit. I heard,” she paused and looked at me. “J.J., close your ears,” Nana said. I stared straight ahead, my spoon hanging haphazardly out one side of my mouth. “I heard that they found the boy washing clothes in the bathtub, the father passed out drunk on the living room floor.” Nana’s needles clicked as she worked. “No worse than what some of ours have come from, I suppose.” Mrs. Clingham nodded fiercely, “That’s exactly what I mean. If she’s looking for some kind of medal, she won’t get it from me.”
Everyone I knew except for my father and his new family lived on a small stretch of earth named Airland, after the private airstrip that the president used on days when he needed to escape to his secret bunker. The bunker, like Airland, was tucked away in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and no one but us would ever know if the president went there. Sometimes the planes would fly overhead, and Nana would say, “There’s His Highness. I suppose the country is falling apart,” and she would go right on with whatever she was doing. Once she did this when my father came to pick me up, and he said, “It’s a sad commentary on modern American life when the president himself can fly over your head and you keep tending your garden.” Nana kept plucking rotten tomatoes off the vine. “What does it say when a stranger raises your child for you so that you and your wife can be more comfortable?” We play a game sometimes, Nana and I. Spades trump all. So does raising me.
“Please don’t speak this way with J.J. present,” my father said. “J.J. is a smart child,” Nana said. “She knows why she’s here, living with an old woman. She’s here because her father won’t stand up to the girl he married, because he chose another girl over his own child.”
“J.J. is here because lots of people love her,” my father said, looking straight at me. “And she can be hard to share.” Nana snorted, her eyes steely on my father’s face. “I take care of my own kind,” she said, her hands stained with tomato juice, “even when it’s not timely, or not ideal. That’s the best thing you can do, Henry. It’s the only thing to do.”
Jimmylee sat in the third row on Sunday morning. He carried a new Bible and wore a new Oxford shirt that wrinkled where the tails tucked at his waist. I studied him during the service. He was nothing like the Twins, had none of their stately grace or polished looks. He was more like me, really.
I imagined growing up with him in this church, in the streets of Airland. We would slip silly notes during sermons and Sunday school, and when August came we would teach the younger children to paste macaroni onto construction paper during Bible School. Down by the lake, I would push him into the water, and he would splash me until I stripped down to my undershirt and panties and jumped in beside him. He would give me my first kiss, soft and wet, on the swingset behind Mrs. Clingham’s yard, under a clear summer sky full of stars, and the Blue Ridge Mountains dimly drawn behind us. He would be wild and untamed, but I would tame him, and he would love me, only me, and he would go to great lengths to make me want to stay with him, even though it would not be necessary.
In my head, I practiced meeting him for the first time. “I’m Julie,” I thought. “Hello, the name’s Julie.” In my mind, my voice was low and unaccented.
Jimmylee’s jaw set as he quietly sketched into his hymnal. His blond hair fell across his forehead. He was so beautiful.
“Hi, I’m Julie and my mother is dead. I heard yours was, too.”
I made punch for Tasha’s baby shower, a brick of lime sherbet floating in ginger ale and lime jello. Nana wrapped up the quilt. We all were waiting to see if Mrs. Rose would show up. Dr. Rose worked most Saturdays, and none of the ladies knew where they might leave Jimmylee. “A teenage boy in my house, alone?” Nana said. “Would never happen.”
“We all know where unattended teenage boys got me,” Mrs. Clingham said, nodding in Tasha’s direction.
“Is Jason coming?” asked Nana. The look on Mrs. Clingham’s face said that he would be a fool to face her, in this room or any. We took our places in the church basement, and filled our paper plates with chicken salad and buttery rolls. Tasha sat near the front, surrounded by presents wrapped in bright pink paper.
“We should say a blessing,” Mrs. Clingham said. “And give thanks for Kimberley Marie, who is already loved by so many, even though we have not met her yet.” We all bowed our heads, but before I closed my eyes, I saw Jimmylee leaning against the kitchen wall with his hands in his pockets. He winked at me, like a man in a black and white movie to a dame. I bowed my head so far that it touched my chest.
Mrs. Rose ducked into a seat while the ladies prayed, and no one admitted that they saw her come in, lest they give away their impiety.
The last time my father came to see me, we ate dinner at an Italian restaurant beside his hotel. It was a dark place, with candles on the tables, and I thought that it was the kind of place that people would go to tell each other important news. I told him about Jimmylee, and how everyone is supposed to think that he was lucky to be saved, but that the Roses saved him, so his luck remained to be seen.
He laughed and said that I sounded like Nana, that I seemed to like the Roses just fine when I got to ride their ponies and jump on their trampoline. “You’re just saying that because she wants you to,” he said. "I am not," I said. "I swear."
He had news for me too: we were going to live in Charleston, together. He had to go back ahead of me, but Nana would drive me up before school started. I could live with him and his other family. I could have my own room, painted any way I liked, and I could have a dog, if I wanted one. “But everything is fine how it is,” I said. “I don’t need my own room. I have the yard cats.” He looked at me in that way that Jimmylee had looked at the church ladies, that way that said he heard me, but had no interest in what I had to say. “We are family,” he said. “And family should always be together.”
I thought of being outnumbered in that house in Charleston, the house I knew only from Christmastime, decorated with lights and fake snow, and I thought, who sounds like Nana now?
The news traveled fast: Jimmylee had a new pony, in a stable outside of Nightford, with brand-new gear and lessons with a professional rider. Jimmylee would have a private tutor, a language coach, and summer immersion programs out of state, and he would go to college like the Roses’ older children did. Jimmylee was the wealthiest child in all of Airland, and surely the luckiest. The church ladies lowered their voices and rolled their eyes when they spoke of him. Did this boy understand how much these things cost? He would be a mess. He must be a mess, someday, coming from Lord-knows-where and wanted by no one, to being wanted by the Twins. “It’s enough to make you hate the child, just a little,” said Nana, “if you thought he could help it.”
We were cleaning out the storm drains when the planes raced across the sky. It was the sixth time that year. I crouched on the rooftop, gingerly scooping leaves and grime with my gloved hand. “I hear His Majesty installed a golf course inside the mountain,” I said, repeating a story I did not fully believe. Nana braced herself against the side of the house. “Wouldn’t it figure? He flies around eight months out of twelve. But he’ll drop a single bomb, write one little check, and he’ll be Man of the Year.” I kept scooping. Nana continued, her bare hands patting the earth trapped inside the pipes. “Meanwhile, the rest of us are down here, just carrying on. Taking care of our own and minding our business. There are no awards for us. Nobody to tell us we’re doing right.”
She craned her neck to watch the president disappear. “I suppose that’s why I stay down here and he flies up there. The sky is for other people, J.J., that’s how you tell the difference. They’re the ones in the sky.”
“I don’t want to go to Charleston,” I said. “I wish you wouldn’t make me.”
She playfully flung a pile of dirt toward me. I yelped and skidded across the tar-black surface. “Don’t fall,” she said. “And don’t contradict me.”
“Really,” I said. “Everything is fine how it is. Don’t make me go.” She reached for my arms and held me steady as I turned to step down onto the ladder. Her hands were plump and vein-covered, and her fingers wrapped tight around my arms.
“You can’t help how you were born,” she said. “He’s your father, and he can do better for you than I can.”
If she thought she might miss me, she did not mention it, and neither did I.
Nana and I delivered the quilt on a rainy Tuesday afternoon, after the lightning and the deepening puddles surrounding the yard had held me captive to the living room for so long that I had resorted to screaming into the couch pillows just to do something different. The quilt was Nana’s finest; stuffed with down and embroidered with silky blue thread. Delicate squares of aqua and robin’s egg blue joined into intricate patterns across a milky white base that puckered and peaked where invisible stitches held tight. In the left corner, royal blue thread announced the presumed birthdate of one James Lee Rose. Two small patches in the shape of a baby’s feet covered the place where Nana would have put the birthplace.
We had folded the quilt together, silently, until it met in crisp corners. Now I held it in my lap, in a plastic grocery bag. Nana parked the car and left the washers on. “We’ll only be a minute,” she said, adjusting the hood on her windjacket. “They probably want to sit by a fire, as a family, on a night like this.” I flung my legs over the side of the truck and tried to avoid the mud below.
Mrs. Rose met us at the door and took our coats, barely wet from the short walk from the car to her front step. She had made a tray of cookies and tea, which sat on the short table by the fireplace. I helped myself to a dainty butter cookie and Nana shot me a warning glance. I had not been offered.
“Jimmylee is in the yard,” Mrs. Rose said in her characteristically soft voice. She always sounded as though she were just waking up. “If you don’t mind a little water, you can join him.” Nana raised her eyebrows. The rain came down in sheets.
I stood in the vestibule and wiggled into my coat. Nana and Mrs. Rose sat in front of fire, the little grocery bag between them. I tugged on my hat and leaned forward, hoping to catch a glimpse of Mrs. Rose’s face when she saw the quilt.
Something in their hushed voices told me that I should not be standing there. But I pressed my cheek against the wall, and stood as far back as I could without being noticed.
“How beautiful. Just lovely,” Mrs. Rose was saying. “But, Genevieve, his name is Jimmylee. Not James.” Nana did not speak right away and I worried that she would at all. My breathing sounded too loud in my ears, so I tried to hold it. Finally, Nana said, “I suppose I didn’t think folks like you would have a child with a name like that.” She audibly drank her tea. “It’s not...how you do things.”
“You thought I would change his name,” Mrs. Rose said, as though she was understanding for the first time. “Genevieve, I appreciate your work and this, this gesture, I do. Jimmylee is my son. He is my family. I would not change the name he had from birth. He has already had so much change in his life, Michael and I feel that he needs stability and familiarity.” I strained to hear her soft voice. “Surely you understand, after losing your daughter, what that stability must have meant to Julie Junior.”
It sounded strange to hear Mrs. Rose talking about my mother. Even Nana and I did not speak of her. For some reason, tears gathered in the corners of my eyes.
If my Nana said another word, I did not stick around to hear it. I had no interest in that quilt anymore, or in what either woman thought about it. I crept quietly across the kitchen floor and out the back door into the yard.
He was barely perceptible in the dark. Jimmylee was bouncing on the Roses’ giant trampoline. His blond curls stood up towards the sky, defying every rule that science ever suggested about wind, rain, and gravity. He bounced on his feet, on the wet rubber surface, and when he slipped, he bounced on his butt. But he kept bouncing, in a steady rhythm.
“Hey, idiot,” I called from beneath the dripping willow tree. “It’s raining.” He bounced all the same, with barely a glance toward me. “You’re going to fall,” I said. “You're going to slip off and break your head open.”
For the first time, I felt the chasm between us, the starkness of our difference. I felt sorry for the boy, the boy from the orphanage with the good-for-nothing father, the boy with Mrs. Rose for a mother, who would not even tell him to stop trampolining in the rain.
“If you bounce high enough in the rain,” he said, his voice cracking with each step down, “You can go inside a cloud.” I watched him for a moment. I don’t know if I fully believed him, but something in his persistence, in his tireless bounce, made me want to try. I jumped onto the trampoline beside him and bounced in opposite time. The force seemed to affect only him; my feet stayed close to the shiny black surface but his took longer and longer to reach the ground. When the lightning cracked somewhere miles away and the rain drenched my hair and clothes like the creekwater from a Sunday daydream, I sent him flying; up above the treetops, higher than any other kid ever flew from the Roses’ backyard. When Nana called my name, I scooted off and ran to her, with one last look behind my shoulder at Jimmylee. Through the rain-streaked window of the pickup, all I saw was a trail of smoke across the Airland summer sky.