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writer, editor of the anthology WHEN I FIRST HELD YOU, creative writing teacher, and co-host of Pete's Reading Series in Brooklyn

B is for Bastard

Illustration by Joe Waldron

Brian Gresko | Longreads | November 2019 | 19 minutes (4,752 words)

1.

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.
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Wrestling With My Father

CSA-Archive/Getty

Brian Gresko | Longreads | June 2018 | 14 minutes (3,488 words)

 

1.

When I was a child, it seemed my dad only touched to hurt. Hugs were scarce, and cuddles not an option for “big boys.”

My family ate dinner early, and when I was about 8 and my brother 4, we would beg Dad to wrestle after we cleared our plates. Most evenings he said no, choosing instead to do push-ups and sit-ups or, more often than not, watch the news. But occasionally, according to some calendar our childish minds couldn’t fathom, he agreed, and we’d take up position in the living room.

In our corner at the foot of the steps, my brother and I would huddle, ready to rush him. This was our only move. Swarm, then clasp our tiny bodies to his great one, hoping to drag him to the ground with our weight. A kind of violent embrace.

My dad, on his knees in sweats, gigantic mitts at his side, had a variety of assaults, which he would announce with monstrous growls.

The Scissors! Lying on his side with me between his thighs, he squeezed downward, crushing me in the middle. I was sure my insides were going to come out of my mouth or into my pants. My mom, dishes done, passing us on her way up the stairs, would chastise him. “You’re going to give them hernias!”

The Claw! With fingers splayed, he grabbed my chest, digging into the flesh as if he could rip out the heart, still beating. “No, Dad, no!” I screamed while my brother, tenacious as fuck, pummeled him from behind till Dad swatted him onto his ass. Then the claw would rain upon him, and I’d be at Dad’s back, trying futilely to rescue my wailing brother. Later, the bruises formed constellations around our nipples.

The Steamroller! Instead of pinning us, Dad would roll his whole body across ours, back and forth, again and again, the only time I recall touching parts of him like his thighs or his back or his hair. The force of his mass would mash us against the carpet, giving us rug burn, knocking the wind from our lungs.

Forget screaming“uncle”: with us trapped under his knees, Dad commanded we beg our mother for help. As the pressure built, we’d holler at the top of our lungs for her, the game no longer so fun. Sometimes she came to the top of the stairs, crying. “You’re hurting them!”

“Oh, lighten up,” he’d say. “We’re roughhousing.”
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