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One bright day, shortly after Seaman First Class Jubal Pickett returned home to Natchez, Mississippi, from the war, he and his son, Gideon, going on three, went for a walk. Gideon wrapped his chubby little hand around Jubal’s trigger finger and lurched along beside his father with happy determination. It was during this period of time that Jubal had his dream. In his dream, he and Gideon were walking together across a meadow somewhere in Yugoslavia when artillery shells began exploding all around them. Jubal didn’t know what they were doing in Yugoslavia, since his tour of duty with the navy ended early with a sucking chest wound at Pearl Harbor, but that was his dream and there they were. In the instant, without thought, without hesitation, Jubal threw himself on top of his son to protect him as the shells screamed around them. In actuality, Jubal’s dream was so real he leaped out of bed and cracked his head against the bedside table on his way to the floor. In real life, he would die for his child, and Jubal knew this like he drew breath. The thought came to him that the Old Testament Abraham was one sick son of a bitch. He, Jubal Pickett, loved his son so much that he’d never dare harm him. “Wouldn’t give you a nickel for him, wouldn’t take a million,” Jubal would say with a fond wink in Gideon’s direction. As far as Jubal was concerned, a man who’d kill his own son wasn’t but scum. Anybody’d do that to his own kid ought to be spread-eagled on top a hill of fire ants with corn syrup poured over his skin and his eyelids held open with cactus needles. The day Jubal realized this was the day he stopped believing in the benevolence of any God who would ask such a thing.
Gideon Pickett, sixteen years of age, sat beside his father in the cab of their red, nearly new 1952 Ford Flathead V-8 three-quarter-ton pickup as they left Natchez, Mississippi, behind them towing a used Airstream trailer and heading for the uranium fields of Utah and a future more promising than the past. About the time Jubal’s truck had rolled off the assembly line, uranium in the United States had gotten to be more valuable than gold. The bombs that had obliterated two entire cities and forever altered the universe transfixed the nation with the spectacle and promise of atomic power. The press took to calling that radioactive hoard buried somewhere in the vast and treacherous canyon country of southern Utah the Hidden Splendor. Fortune hunters from all over the nation converged on the tiny town of Edom, heretofore unheard of and home to no one but a handful of desert rats. The smart money stocked up on picks and shovels, but men like Jubal Pickett caught the fever like sails catch a gale-force wind. They believed so fervently that hard work and perseverance would pay off in great wealth that they mortgaged their farms and homes and headed into the feverish heat of the desert wilderness to find it. In Jubal’s case he sold a forty-acre farm on the river that had been in his family since before the Civil War. His ex-wife, Gideon’s mother, referred to the transaction as “forty acres and a fool,” but Jubal was committed to a course of action designed to carry him into a future fat with material excess. He would not be stopped by provincial concerns. Gideon would have what he needed: new clothes, travel to exotic places, two-inch steaks fresh from Kansas City. His son would never have to worry about a roof over his head; Jubal would put a palace there. Sure, the man had his dreams, but he prided himself on his practical side as well. He haggled a pretty fair deal on the forty acres with the tenant who’d been farming it for years, anyhow. The man hadn’t quite met Jubal’s price, but he’d come close enough. Jubal told him throw in the truck and they’d close, which is how Jubal and Gideon came to own the nearly new red Ford pickup. Jubal thought that was some pretty slick stuff. It didn’t hurt that Gideon’s favorite color was red.
Jubal came from a long line of horse traders, boatmen, roustabouts, roughnecks, and thieves sometime late in the eighteenth century. His people, originally from the Scottish Highlands, found themselves in the bluegrass country of what would one day become the state of Kentucky, yet they were not bumpkins—peasants, yes, but canny and shrewd. The progenitor of the family, a man named Sid Pickett, came over as an indentured servant, but he learned horse trading from his contract master, bested him with cunning deals on the side, and bought his way out before the end of his servitude. An astute observer, he noticed that boats, as opposed to horses, didn’t kick, bite, excrete, or eat, and so he became a member of a breed known up and down the Mississippi River as “Kaintucks”: hard, wild frontiersmen who trusted no one, who drank, fought, and built flatboats that they floated down the Mississippi River loaded with goods. They’d sell their commodities at Natchez, sell the boat for lumber, stuff the cash in their pockets, and walk home along the Natchez Trace, four hundred and forty miserable miles of footpath from Natchez, Mississippi, through a little corner of Alabama and on up to Nashville, Tennessee.
Not surprisingly, bandits considered the trace a mother lode of opportunity. They were merciless men who took the hard-earned cash of their victims with impunity and thought no more of plucking a person’s life than plucking a blade of grass.
More than once did Sid Pickett fight his way out of an ambush, but only once was he bested. Two men waylaid him and took his money. They’d gotten the jump, and they’d hurt him, but they hadn’t killed him, and that was their mistake. He managed to escape and flee, however, and instead of continuing home, Sid circled back and tracked them down. One of the robbers had walked deeper into the woods for a little privacy. Pickett waited until the man dropped his leggings and squatted, then he bludgeoned the unsuspecting bastard from behind with a stone the size of a land turtle and damn near tore his head off his neck. He came up behind the other one, too, hammered him with a blow to the back of his neck, and tied the stunned bandit’s hands in front of him before the thief could figure out what was happening. Then Sid grabbed his hatchet, chopped off both his hands, took his money, and left the poor wretch howling in the woods. There was a dark side to Sid Pickett. He conceived of revenge in tragic proportions.
This incident left Sid thinking he’d had enough of that walk, so he used his profit to buy a hundred acres of virgin forest on the river between Natchez and Greenville, and he put up a trading post not too far from where Andrew Jackson engaged in the slave trade. Pickett was a shrewd trader, and he knew the value of lumber. So he did well enough, though he never became a wealthy man. However, except for a brief period after the Civil War when Lincoln ordered “forty acres and a mule” be given to freed slaves, the land remained in the possession of a Pickett. After Lincoln’s assassination, his successor, Andrew Johnson, rescinded this transfer of property, and the land reverted back. Somehow it stayed in the family all the way down to Jubal, though by the time he got it the trading post was a local Piggly Wiggly that leased the land on which it stood, plus the remaining forty acres had so many encumbrances on it you couldn’t put up an outhouse without an edict from God. His parents had farmed it, but that’s not what Jubal wanted for himself and not what he wanted for his son. There was beauty but no profit in that. You ate what you grew and slaughtered, paid your bills, and started the cycle over. You normally had enough, but there was never more. So he sold it, and there was profit in that.
The only thing Jubal truly knew about his great-great-great-grandfather was his name written in the family Bible, but the patriarch was his blood nonetheless, and, though it had been watered down through all the years and all the begats of Picketts, the name still had a good bit of bite to it. The bile had been leached out but not the mischief. Jubal had a heart as big as a Packard’s hubcap, but he wasn’t one to let unkind behavior go unanswered, and God help you if you bullshit him and he caught you at it. His dreams were a whole lot bigger than he was, but he was just the kind of tough, wiry little guy you’d have to hit with a jack handle to put him down. He had manned an antiaircraft gun on a destroyer during the attack on Pearl Harbor and managed to shoot down two kamikazes while under constant cannon fire from their guns. The medics were astonished at the number of wounds it took to finally stop him.
Usually, though, he went through life with a smile for everyone and kept his energy for what was important. He really didn’t believe he’d been tested yet, not like Abraham, anyway. Jubal didn’t count Pearl Harbor because he fought on instinct and barely remembered much about what he had done. He had no option but to fight, and to him a true test demanded that the one being tested make a choice between right and wrong, between good and evil. As far as Jubal was concerned, his had been just the usual ups and downs of a workingman’s life, but he felt that there was so much of something more out there waiting for him. He felt that what set him off from the other fellows was the sure, firm knowledge, deep in his soul, that he would persevere. Once he put his mind to something, his will carried him along like a leaf in the current. Now the red Ford pickup flew over the road like a magic carpet, and his son was sitting on the seat beside him lost in one of his dreams. Nice, thought Jubal Pickett as he looked over and smiled at the boy. Jubal had rid himself of everything that held no importance. What was left sat beside him or was packed inside the small trailer hitched behind the pickup. Damn, Jubal thought to himself, what a ride! It suited him a lot better than holding a lease. It was exhilarating. He felt like a hawk in free fall.
Gideon’s mother (Jubal’s wife) never got used to her son and left home before he reached double digits. Gideon was a blue baby born with a caul over his face. He immediately underwent a complete blood transfusion, and, when that condition had been alleviated, the thin sheet of skin was surgically removed. There was no longer any reason to believe that Gideon was anything but a normal child, yet RuthAnn (for that was her name, RuthAnn Porly of the Tupelo Porlys) couldn’t help it but her skin crawled when she held him, which happened only when she couldn’t avoid it anymore. It wasn’t long before he hated to be held as much as that woman hated to hold him. Way before he walked he used his little legs to try to lurch off her lap, time and time again, lurch, lurch, get off me, lurch … Then she’d hold him out at arm’s length as if he had a bad smell and yell for her husband to come and take the kid, and Jubal would come and take him and hold him and croon popular songs in his ear, like “Stormy Weather,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “Heart and Soul” … The intervals between lurches became longer and longer until they finally stopped altogether, and Gideon would sink into his father’s arms like a pudding. This would drive RuthAnn mad. Right from the beginning she was certain those two were plotting against her. And then there was the rash.
If a woman can be allergic to her own offspring, this one was. She broke out in the rash the day she discovered she was pregnant, and that rash didn’t quit until the day the front door slammed shut behind her a few years later. Gideon was born with the same rash. When his would wax, hers would wane, and they passed that raw, red, prickly thing back and forth so many times that RuthAnn finally felt pushed to within one millimeter of the abyss. It was like having prickly pear cactus in your crotch, but that wasn’t even the worst of it.
As far as RuthAnn was concerned and in her heart truly believed, she bore it all with noble forbearance, except for this, what finally broke her: Gideon did not talk, did not even utter a single sound that could be construed as speech or anything else like it. What was remotely close was a gaglike sound that came from somewhere deep in the bottom of his throat and had not a thing to do with his vocal cords. Even when he cried there was no sound other than that same gagging one; it never changed pitch. Old Doc Barnaby assured Jubal and RuthAnn that their baby was in good health—all his nuts and bolts were in place and holding strong—except for this strange thing, what the doctor called a lazy tongue. As he explained it, every once in a while a tongue turns up that failed out of first grade. It never learned what it was supposed to do. It just kind of flops around on its own and makes sounds nobody can understand. He assured the parents that their baby would probably grow out of it, but that never happened. He would smack, pop, and click with his lips and mouth and tongue, but, except for the gag, these were the only sounds Gideon had. RuthAnn felt herself in league with mothers whose children were afflicted with conditions like hydrocephalus, polio, and hemophilia; however, what finally drove her over the edge was the way Gideon and Jubal seemed to understand each other. As the boy grew older, RuthAnn was certain there was a conspiracy going on, that he and his father colluded against her and shut her out, and the truth was, once she was out the door, they barely noticed she was gone.
Jubal loved being on the road. It calmed him just as it had always done for Gideon, too. When Gideon was agitated or distraught as a little kid, Jubal would climb behind the wheel of whatever truck he had at the time, put Gideon in his lap, his little hands on the wheel inside his father’s hands, and drive them around until they both felt better. Mostly, Gideon’s behavior mortified his mother, but Jubal simply took it in stride. He and RuthAnn had one of their worst fights in the car after the birthday party of one of the neighbor’s children. Gideon did not want to go, and Jubal saw no point in insisting he do so, but RuthAnn decided to do battle over this one (something about the other boy’s mother being a Daughter of the Confederacy), and they all wound up going. When they got there, however, Gideon would not get down from the cab of the truck. He sat back on his knees and refused to budge. RuthAnn came close to assault and battery, so when Jubal said firmly, “Come on, son,” Gideon recognized the wisdom of not taking the hard way out. The boy rocked forward so that he was on his hands and knees and climbed down from the truck, face forward. “What the hell is he doing?” shrieked RuthAnn. “He’s making like he’s a puppy dog,” replied Jubal. “How the hell do you know?” she yelled. “Ask him,” Jubal said. Once on the sidewalk, Gideon licked his paws and, heeling on his father’s left side, headed into the party on all fours. He stayed that way the entire afternoon and even in the truck until they got home. RuthAnn kept excusing herself to go to the bathroom, where she would nip from a vanilla extract bottle she kept in her purse for just such emergencies.
Jubal was thinking about this incident as they crossed over the state line into Texas from Louisiana, and he laughed as he remembered it, but as they skirted the nearby town of Sabine Pass, Jubal began to sense something out of order. A vague disease had sneaked up on him, like a subtle warning before a serious headache, when you can absolutely feel every single follicle on your scalp. Normally it amounted to not much more than a sign that Gideon was getting hungry or that a cold was just starting to manifest or, when he was a baby, that he was teething. This time, however, it came on so suddenly that Jubal snapped a sharp look over to his son. Probably nobody else would notice the difference but Jubal spotted the tightening of the boy’s mouth, a slight compression in the far corner of his right eye, his chin tucked down. He had seen this face before. Anybody else looked at Gideon what they’d probably see was grit, but Jubal knew different. It was the boy’s pain face. It meant that he was hurting but not about to admit it, not about to give in, either. The boy was not immune to pain—he’d move his fingers away from an open flame, no problem—he just wasn’t about to show it. His mother, who shrieked in panic at a hangnail, was sure there was something seriously unreal about the kid. This was one area—probably the only area—in which Jubal believed she had a point. Gideon kept the stuff that hurt in a very small place. It was always there, but sometimes he could put his hands on either side of it, lift it like a medicine ball, and put it aside. His father witnessed the boy’s daily struggle and did his best to take it on, but there was a core in the boy that never melted, and that saddened Jubal because he suspected in his heart that it never would.
Gideon attended school but not class with regular kids. He was in what they called the “opportunity” class: feeble learners, borderline retards, low IQs. Gideon’s world was not the world experienced by his peers. He figured out that his tongue never worked the way he wanted it to. He heard them say “lazy tongue” but for him it wasn’t so much lazy but the opposite. It flapped around in his mouth like a flounder on a hook. It wasn’t just that his tongue was lazy; mostly he also didn’t hear words the way other kids did. Only sometimes he did. What happened inside his head was that words separated and turned into noises, so that bunches of words became bunches of sounds—rusty bolts banging about an empty bucket—and when that happened, the boy had no words anywhere at all. He never played with the regular kids at recess either, never played with them before or after school. His father dropped him off and picked him up, and, during recess, his teachers kept the “opportunity” class kids in a cluster away from the others.
It happened that on a certain day Jubal was about an hour late to pick up Gideon, and, when he got to the school grounds, Gideon wasn’t waiting where he usually did. It was in the fall, not too many days into the new school term. It was also football season. Two pickup teams of neighborhood kids were playing on the field behind the school. Jubal parked his Ford V-8 and went inside to look for his son. Nobody had seen the boy since class let out, but the janitor suggested that Jubal should look out back. Maybe he was watching the game.
There had been a lot of rain that week, and a playground full of boys kicks up a lot of mud. The kids were covered with it, and Jubal wished he could join them; it seemed like so much fun being a kid just then. Right now all he could see was a pile of struggling, muddy bodies. Then one of the players spurted out from under the pile like a loose ball, only this kid had the football tucked into his midriff as he barreled forward, and nobody could stop the guy even though he was at the low end of normal size. He ran with no finesse whatsoever—he only went straight ahead—but he ran with such power and focus that he went right at and over the other boys, and they simply could not stop him. It wasn’t that he aimed for anyone—he was not a vicious player—but if you were in his way you went down and it hurt. Low end of normal size? At that instant, it hit Jubal: he had just witnessed his son, Gideon, score a touchdown, and, he soon found out, it was not the boy’s first. Gideon could not catch the ball at all, but tuck it tight into his midriff and step aside. In the hour since school let out he had scored five times, and everyone else wore a helmet and shoulder pads while all he had was himself and his Keds.
Jubal was to take Gideon to the doctor that afternoon (he was due for a polio shot), and they were already late, but Gideon refused to leave the field. Jubal thought he was going to have to cart him off bodily, which, if he weren’t lying, he wasn’t so sure he could do anymore, not without damage anyway. The boy finally did what his father asked him to, and as Gideon limped beside his father back to the truck, Jubal realized that his son had taken a hell of a beating. The doctor took one look at him and made him get up on the examination table, where it was discovered that he had played with two broken ribs and a broken left foot. But the only thing that stopped that boy from getting out on the field the next day was the bulky plaster cast on his foot. His father knew that once Gideon healed he would be back on that field, so he managed to find the boy a secondhand set of pads and a helmet at a pawnshop in Natchez. Gideon played football every chance he got until he was sixteen and didn’t have to go to school anymore, but then he had to give up the game because only bona fide students were allowed to use the playground. Gideon had been about as upset as he’d ever been, but the timing was right: he and his father slammed the door on Mississippi and hit the road for Edom, Utah.
Now they’d passed into Texas, and something was wrong. Jubal looked over at his boy. He couldn’t see his face because his son’s body was turned away from him. Gideon was leaning against the truck door with his knees pulled up, his back taut. Definitely wrong. “What is it, pup?” asked Jubal. When Gideon turned to his father, Jubal saw the face, the pain face. “What, kiddo?” asked his father. “You want to get out, stretch, walk around a little? Let me pull over.” Jubal left the blacktop and came to a stop on the shoulder of the road, but Gideon didn’t make a move to get out. “You about to tell me where it hurts or what?” asked Jubal, then, alarmed at having no answer, he climbed down from the cab and went around the front of the truck to open his son’s door. When he did, the boy pitched over into his arms, weak and barely conscious. His breathing was shallow, and the heat coming off his body alarmed his father even further.
“Jesus,” he said, “we gotta get you to a doctor.” He tucked his son’s body back onto the seat of the truck, took the wheel, and stepped on the gas. The truck spit gravel from the shoulder and peeled rubber another ten yards down the blacktop. The house trailer thrashed behind them. Jubal damn near stood on the gas as he raced to Sabine Pass. He reached town still running hard and careened onto Main Street at a good fifty miles per hour trying to spot a hospital or a doctor’s office. He took the turn on two wheels. The trailer swung violently back and forth. Just as he fought the wheel and straightened out, Jubal heard a siren and looked in his side-view mirror to see a police cruiser, lights flashing, bearing down on the tail of his trailer. Jubal never questioned what he had to do. He wasn’t stopping any truck ’til he got to a doctor.
The cruiser stayed right on him as he shot by the hardware store, the drugstore, and the doctor’s office on the other side of the street. Jubal caught it and hit the brakes. He hung a U-turn, nearly jackknifed, and screeched to a stop in front of the office. The police cruiser hung its own U-ball and cut off the truck. Both officers jumped out with their guns drawn, but Jubal had already gotten to his son’s door by the time they ordered him to halt. “Don’t move!” Jubal had Gideon in his arms and was heading for the door with the shingle. “Open the goddamn door,” he bellowed. About a second before they pulled their triggers the police got it that this was an emergency. They helped him through the door and stood behind him in the doctor’s vestibule as Jubal, his son cradled in his arms, begged for help. Where was the doctor? “My son needs the doctor!” But the doctor had taken the afternoon off to go quail hunting, and there was no way to reach him. The woman behind the desk was only a receptionist, but it was obvious to her that this was an emergency. She asked had the boy ever had his appendix out, and, when Jubal told her no, she told the policemen to get this child to the emergency room in Port Arthur to the north, fifteen miles away, the only hospital around. Pronto. So, with the police cruiser in the lead this time, Jubal raced to Port Arthur knowing that his beloved son was going to die if he didn’t get help soon, and might die anyway. When he reached the hospital, Jubal was out of his truck and attempting to cradle Gideon in his arms before the policemen could reach him. “Sir! We’ve got help now! Sir! Let us take him.” Orderlies took Gideon from his father and rushed him inside on a gurney, where a nurse said, “Please, sir,” and tried to lead him away, but she might as well not have been there, as Jubal followed the gurney carrying his son into the examination room. By then Gideon’s eyes had rolled back into his head. A nurse drew the curtain around them.
“Where’s it hurt, son?” asked the young resident.
“His stomach,” said Jubal.
“Let him tell me,” said the doctor.
“He don’t talk,” said Jubal.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean he don’t talk, goddamnit!”
“Call the OR. We’re bringing him up.”
“What’re you gonna do?” asked Jubal.
“You can’t come with us, sir,” a woman’s voice said.
“Tell me what you’re gonna do!”
“Everything we can, sir.” Jubal touched his son’s head as they pushed the boy out of the examination room. It felt like the boy’s brain was baking in a clay pot. A woman’s voice suggested he follow her and would he like a cup of coffee? Was he all right? Was who all right? Who were they talking to? Jubal Pickett moved through a fog. He couldn’t see a thing, and everything he heard sounded as if it came from somewhere else.
Gideon’s appendix had ruptured. His insides were infected by the pus discharged into his system. The medical staff was amazed that the boy withstood so much pain. Would he live? They told Jubal everything but that. It could be days. No one knew.
Jubal stood by his son’s bed day and night without knowing what passed or which was which. His job had been to take care of the boy, and look what he let happen. When Gideon was an infant Jubal never once slept on through the whole night. A piece of him was always listening for a sound from his son’s room. His hair would feel as if it were crackling with energy, wired to keep him alert. Now the stricken man lacerated himself without mercy. In his mind he begged to be beaten. If his son died, he would die, too, would take his hunting knife and eviscerate himself in the same room, die with his eyes fastened on his dead boy’s body.
© 2009 Stephen Foreman