Jude is a story told from multiple points of view and timelines that follows the life of an autistic seven-year old boy (Jude) in the south in the late 90s after the tragic loss of his mother as he goes to live with his next of kin-a forlorn, estranged older brother. Through Jude, his brother learns forgiveness—for his dead mother and absent father—and Jude learns how to be himself in a world that isn't quite made for him.
Edna Mae, 1990
I always hated driving. More than that, I always hated the backseat, and I always hated riding shotgun, even. I hated it back when I was a little girl in the backseat of my daddy’s Ford Super Deluxe. I don’t know why, really, maybe it’s because someone always lights up a cigarette and chokes up everyone in the car, or maybe it’s the way I get carsick if the windows ain’t up. I don’t know, I just don’t like it. So it seemed like God was playing a joke on me when I went into labor in the passenger seat of my husband’s black Oldsmobile, carsick-er than all get out, and huffing in big lungfuls of that heady smoke he liked.
Jude came into this world in that car, cause we had no shot at making it down to the county hospital. It was early fall, October, and the earth was still cooling off from baking in the Georgia sun since May. Mason—my husband—despised summer. He said it made it harder for men to get any work done, and his clothes always clung to his skin cause he started sweating just standing in the window. I carried Jude full term and some more, right up to forty-two weeks. I didn’t care much how Mason didn’t like summer after that, cause I was the one who had to be pregnant in it.
Mason had this cool air about him, like nothing really got him fired up, not for nothing really. Not even me going into labor in the passenger seat, but me, I was hysterical. I couldn’t breathe for the smoke of that cigarette, the leather on the Oldsmobile was all ripped up and dirty with God-knows-what, we were twelve miles still from the county hospital, and the contractions were coming faster and harder than I’d had when I gave birth to Micah. I figured Jude had been in there baking so long he was just itching to get out. Mason stayed quiet, but he put that cigarette out. Truth be told, I think he wanted to hold his son. But Mason never said nothing like that. Never.
Mason fed a sweat towel under my bottom as I panted and kept on his way, but six miles before we got there I was already holding Jude up in my arms. I remember thinking, my God, he’s so perfect. He had a little bright pink face and bright pink toes to match, all ten of them. I sure did count. I loved every bit of that boy from the moment I met him, and he didn’t even cry.
I guess that was the first sign, if there were such a thing. Me, I think Jude’s just different, cause God makes all of us with intention, no mistakes. Pastor Tim had been saying that just that Sunday before I had Jude, and I was remembering that sermon today, three years and three months after I had Jude in that old car. I had to remind Mason of what Pastor Tim says, and my sister Eveleyn and even my mama. I had to get smart with the lady running his daycare, too. Miss James. She was a young woman, somewhere in her early twenties, with dark hair she liked to tease up til it looked like a critter had gone to sleep on her head. She had replaced the lady who had been running the daycare since I put Micah through the same program—Mrs. Watson, after she got breast cancer that past fall—and she had been calling the house up every day. Jude doesn’t eat, she’d say. No, he just don’t eat that crap you feed him. Jude doesn’t like to play with the other kids, she’d say. Jude just keeps to himself. Jude has a tantrum every day, she’d tell me. Jude just needs things to be a certain way, I’d tell her.
So Miss James called me up to the daycare, twice. First it was cause she said he had a speech disorder, cause he doesn’t like to talk much. Then Miss James said he had “autism-like tendencies,” and truth be told I had heard the word before, but I didn’t really understand it. My son wasn’t mentally retarded, nothing like that, not at all. Jude was just Jude, and for the life of me I couldn’t get this woman, Miss James, to see it like that. Maybe it’s cause I’m his mama, but Jude wasn’t no more of a mystery to me than the grass growing in the backyard. He was quiet, but so are plenty of people, his daddy included. He didn’t like to be touched, cause he liked things on his terms. You couldn’t make that boy eat mashed potatoes, or make him give you a hug or clean his fingernails for him, just no way. But he ate good, he took his baths, he knew how to ask for what he wanted. Just on his terms. And he was just three years old, a baby still.
Miss James didn’t see it like that. She was working on her degree in Education and I guess they taught them things like that, about speech disorders and autistic tendencies and all. I didn’t need an education to know there wasn’t a thing wrong with my Jude. But I came up there anyway, this time with Mason, which was like pulling teeth cause he didn’t like to go to these type of things no how.
We drove up to the daycare that afternoon, about 3 p.m., a good hour before we was supposed to pick Jude up. Mason still had the black Oldsmobile, and it didn’t have any heat in it. It didn’t faze Mason for nothing, but it was January and the air had that chill that went straight to your bones, and the wind would just near knock the breath out of you. I wrapped my hair up in the passenger seat and caught a look of myself in the little side mirror, thinking it felt like just yesterday we had Jude here, in this car, but by the look of my face it had been a lifetime ago. I didn’t have crow’s feet then, and I didn’t have some twenty-two-year-old Education major harassing me about my son. He was fine, really, at least I thought so. I thought I was.