Brian Gresko | Longreads | November 2019 | 19 minutes (4,752 words)
In seventh grade Ms. Applegate tells us what the word bastard means. (I have no idea now why this was relevant to the lesson, I only recall the defining of the word itself.) “A child born out of wedlock,” she says with arch authority from behind her desk. “The church doesn’t approve of such things.”
I startle in my seat, in the center row, about halfway back. She lifts a grey eyebrow and meets my gaze. “If you were born a bastard and baptized in the Catholic Church, it’s a sin. A mortal sin. For you and your parents, too. Of course, I’m sure none of you have to worry about that.”
I swear she’s speaking right to me, with a smirk on her lips. I’m sure she knows — that my reaction gave it away, or else she’d heard about it somehow. Maybe she can read minds.
Ms. Applegate is not like other teachers I’ve had at Visitation Elementary School. She cracks jokes, sometimes ones that go over our heads but which cause her to cackle. Throughout the day a small clique of the more lively teachers on the middle school floor lean in our doorway to chat or trade barbs while we silently complete pages in our workbook. When we’re done with our lessons, Ms. Applegate lines us up on opposite sides of the room for competitive spelling bees or trivia quizzes. She tells me I’m the smartest kid in the class but the worst test taker, words I take with me into high school like a prophecy, and she says I’m book smart but lack common sense. My dad says the same thing. And like him, she doesn’t pull any punches. The next year she won’t return — during the summer she’ll elope with her boyfriend, a practice which the nuns who run our Catholic school don’t approve of, and so they fire her. The church only accepts marriages conducted by the clergy.
This word, “bastard,” enthralls me. I’ve heard my dad use it, and read it in a Stephen King novel or two. I thought it referred to a bad person. But no, that’s me, I think on the bus ride home. That’s a word for what I am: a bastard.
After snack and Ducktales I hit my desk for homework. When Mom stops in to check on me I tell her. “Today the teacher told us this word,” I say. “For kids born out of wedlock.”
Like me, I almost say, but the words run the wrong way in my throat.
In a snap her whole face changes, the flesh falling toward the floor, like she’s taken off a mask and revealed her true self. Her cheeks hollow out, and spots of red blossom in their valleys. She perches on the edge of my bed, hands gripping the quilt for stability. She’s gone frail.
“And what word is that?” she says.
I’m curious about her reaction. Not the way a cat might be with a mouse, more like testing the waters, determining if they’re safe to wade into. She must know the word and why it’s significant to me, but I’m not going to say it if she doesn’t say it.
“I can’t remember. The word starts with…. a B, I think?”
Mom appears to be trying to eat the inside of her cheek. “And what did she say about this word?”
“That kids born like that, when their parents aren’t married, shouldn’t be baptized. And if they are, it’s a sin. Like, a mortal sin.”
She’s got that faraway look in her eyes; she’s on my bed in body only, I don’t know where her mind has gone. It’s clear to me now: these waters are not safe ones. They go deep and teem with monsters. Finally she asks, “Do you believe that?”
I shrug. This is well before I tell her I’m not sure I believe any of the shit they tell us at that school. “It’s what they say, I guess.”
She nods. “Well, if you think of the word, let me know.”
This word, ‘bastard,’ enthralls me. I’ve heard my dad use it, and read it in a Stephen King novel or two. I thought it referred to a bad person.
She heads across the hall to her bedroom and closes the door. I hear her murmuring on the phone with someone, as she does a few times a week. Again I shrug, this time to myself. Who she calls or what she talks about behind that closed door is a mystery to me, another secret.
At this point, I think it’s been three, maybe four years since my parents told me that my mom became pregnant with me when she was young and unmarried, and that her current husband, the man I call Dad, is not my biological dad. Aside from revealing this to me one night before bed, this is the closest we’ve ever come to talking about it.
That’s not to say I haven’t thought about it, though, over the years. And had feelings about it too.