Bastardy

First published in the Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review 

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“For the record, I think this is a terrible idea.” My mother spoke, leaning up against one of the posts that held up our white wraparound porch. My mother was, just as the porch suggests, a self-sufficient woman. Her lessons were fairly direct; stand up straight when you walk, always look another man in the eye. She tried her best to fill the void of things that a boy is “supposed” to learn from his father. Naturally, there were still some holes, even all these years later.

“Yeah, I do what I want now, Ma. I’m a grown man!” I said, jokingly. She put up fisticuffs to my response and pretended to box with me as I walked up the two stairs of the front porch and grabbed my last duffle bag.

“Pay some goddamn bills then, you’re such a grown man.”

“I do everything else around here,” I replied. “You’ve got to do something to hold your weight.” She full on tackled me against the car door before giving me a big mom-hug.

“You be safe,” she said, opening the door to my sun-faded 1998 sedan. “And don’t let that bastard scam you out of any of my money!”

“Hey, I resent that terminology,” I said. I put the car in reverse, and made my way out of the driveway. I could see the flood of tears start streaming down her face as I shifted into drive, changing gears into the sudden realization that one way or another, I was not coming back the same.

*                      *                      *                      *

So, when you get your name changed, you have to write a letter of intent. They ask you what it is that has lead to this change, and if you’re positive that you’d like to permanently alter your identity. You know, heavy stuff.

It wasn’t that I needed his approval, or anything like that. I had done pretty well without it so far. It was just that sharing the same last name (and that stupid middle name) may have actually meant something to him at one time, even if for just a small moment. On the other hand, maybe it never meant anything. But either way, it was worth finding out.

So, on October 17th, the day after my eighteenth birthday, I decided that I would make the incredibly flat, mostly uninteresting drive up the coast of the mid-Atlantic from the suburban haven of northern Florida to the slums of southern New Jersey where, in some overcrowded city hospital I had been born to my unmarried parents and named Samuel Rovert Cash, and tell my father that I would no longer be keeping his namesake.

“Thou, nature, art my goddess,” I recited the speech aloud, memorizing it for my literature class. “To thy law my services are bound.”

Come the Georgia border, I had already resorted to performing Shakespeare for entertainment. I think that I was hoping for some type of spiritual awakening, but instead I found myself very much having to pee without a single sign of civilization on southern country roads.

“Now gods, stand up for bastards.”

The autumn leaves at the apex of falling created a swirling portal through which my front windshield was hurled. I told my mom before I left that I would pull over whenever I was going to call her; once when I got past the Florida state line, and once when I was halfway to my destination. This would likely be somewhere near the border of the southern half of the colonial mid-Atlantic, some place where they maintain polished bronze statues erected to commemorate American Civil War heroes. You know, the “State-Sponsored Racism” belt.

She told me that getting through Georgia would take the longest, that the Carolinas would have the prettiest highways, that Virginia has more cops than it does exit signs, and that the rest was just tolls and skinny states with tall cities that smell like smoke and sweat. She also told me before I left that we had been fine without my father so far, so I should never feel like I owed him anything.

She was right about almost all of it.

I knew from just as early as I could understand anything that it wasn’t my mother’s fault that she couldn’t fill that void. It was something that was impossible, a game set up with no way for her to win. There would always be holes, gaping and hollow, through which the wind would pass and remind me that I was not a traditional child and I had not come from a traditional family. Instances would slip through these holes, like how to change a tire, or how to shoot a basketball, and they would echo around in my brain for as long as they deemed appropriate. At a certain point, you grow numb to all the noise.

            *                      *                      *                      *                      *

“Do you know fast you were going, son?” I had been pulled over for going eight miles-per-hour over the speed limit on the interstate. I was, perhaps, the only person to ever get a speeding ticket while in cruise control.

“Don’t call me son,” I muttered under my breath as I reached to grab my wallet.

“What was that?” the officer asked.

“Oh, I said, yes, sir. I believe I was going about 78. I was in cruise control, I’m not in a rush.” I spoke with some anxiety, having never once been pulled over before.

“Well, I clocked you going a bit more like 80. Now, I don’t know what the laws are down in Florida, but in Virginia anything over 80 gets you a reckless ticket and an additional fine.” The officer spoke with both hands on his belt, presumably to hold his pants up from the weight of extra ego that was left in his pockets.

He wrote me a ticket, and clocked me at 79 miles per hour. Turns out I had to be more worried about the state of Virginia taking my mom’s money that I had to be about my father doing it.

At 10 o clock that night, I reached the underwhelming city of Woodbury, New Jersey. I would stay with my grandfather that night, the father of my mother, and come morning I would take the remaining 25-minute trek to where, at least to our collective knowledge, my father still lived.

“Sam,” my grandpa yelled from behind the rusted screen door. “Park in the road. I’ve got work early.”

My grandfather was not a subtle man, and I expected nothing less out of his welcome. Working his entire life, he had recently reached the ripe old age of 75, a prime age to finally go ahead and retire. Unfortunately, my grandfather lived alone now, and never quite seemed to figure out how not to work. So, after the construction company had given him a forced retirement, he tried (and failed) at a handful of odd jobs to keep himself busy. Most recently, after falling asleep last month behind the wheel of a Philadelphia city transit bus and crashing into a parked Volkswagen, he decided that he would at least take work that didn’t put the lives of civilians directly into his dark and wrinkled hands.

“Unlike some people in this family, grandpa still works,” he mumbled under his breath as he turned away, leaving the screen door unlocked.

The house was very much different than I recalled. After my father left, we were forced to move in with my grandfather. As I walked through the foyers and unused dining rooms, I felt the eerie death of childhood memories. The creaky floorboards that I had once toddled on still sounded. The ceiling of my old bedroom, paint still torn and chipped away, didn’t make any of the same imaginative shapes that I observed as a child, concocting stories from them when I couldn’t sleep.

I walked back down the stairs to see grandpa on the couch watching a basketball game and drinking non-alcoholic beer. He had given up real drinking a long time ago, after his second wife left.

“How are the Sixers looking this year?” I asked as I sat down on the opposite end of the couch.

“Shit.” My grandpa spoke as he finished sipping his beer. “What do you expect when we won’t drop any cash on free agency.”

There was a long pause before my grandpa took another sip of beer. We weren’t close, admittedly, but it was somewhat discomforting that after nearly five years between visits, all that we could manage to talk about was sports. It left me with the thought that meeting with my father could only be even more awkward, and equally as meaningful. Before finishing the next sip, he took a longer drink, finishing off the can before speaking.

“I ain’t seen him in a long time, Sam.” His eyes didn’t turn from the game. “I know I’ve made my mistakes, and I’m not the wisest man, but if you ask me, Trevor was, and will always be, a lowlife and a leech.”

“You’re probably right,” I replied after a moment.

“I remember when you were younger, real young. I’m sure you don’t remember this, but me and your dad took you to the circus. Your ma had begged him and begged him, because she was working and he wasn’t. She gave him the money for the tickets and snacks. She knew how he was, so she asked me to go with you guys.” He sat up, his elbows on his knees, and his head turned down towards the dark wood floors.

“We got there and, man, you would do this thing when you were little, you would say ‘I’m done.’ whenever you were over something. You didn’t know a lot of words, but you knew those two.” He laughed. “You always knew what you wanted. And I mean, it was calm. It was very matter of fact. But your dad took none of that, none whatsoever. He got so angry. It was like he didn’t understand, you were a child, you can’t reason with a little kid. So when you pulled that out there, at the circus, he stood up and he left. He took whatever money was left that your ma had given him and he walked right out. And he used that money and he drove all the way out to where, as far as I know, he’s still at to this very day.”

For the first time since I had arrived, my grandpa put his beer down and looked over at me across the couch.

“Just don’t have no expectations,” he said.

                        *                      *                      *                      *                      *

            I arrived at the address my mother had given me right around noon. I couldn’t help but imagine that my father would probably be out, perhaps for lunch, perhaps with some gorgeous super model, or, more likely, some sugar mama with whom he had been responsible for the release of an entire flock of eclectic younglings which I would soon feel obligated to call “siblings.”

Upon my arrival to the shanty, my stomach began to twist itself in knots. Rope wrapped around my innards, looping itself around twice, thrice, before aptly knotting into a throbbing cluster of “screw it, I should just bail.”

Before I could even attempt to make good on the idea, out walked a man, stocky, and about five foot eight in height. He was wearing khakis, the universal symbol of business-casual, and a blue button down shirt. The man started to put on a pea coat (it was much colder in New Jersey than it had been in Florida) and was walking towards his car.

“Da-,” I stopped myself. “Trevor?” The word fell out my lips like an extra kernel falls out of an overstuffed popcorn bag.

He turned his head to look at me. He squinted his eyes, adjusting his glasses. “Sam?” he said finally, walking over to me.

“Holy sh-,” his hands dropped to his side. We stood there, the both of us, silently for quite some time. This man, I thought, is half of me. This man in front of me is a part of my creation, an equal fraction of my genesis.

He walked up to me, wrapped his arms around me, and squeezed.

“She let you come up here? All by yourself?” My dad spoke as he drank black coffee out of a beige mug. He decided that he would stay home from work today. Work, which was apparently as a security guard at the Philadelphia International Airport. He worked odd shifts, he said. I was lucky that I caught him.

“Yeah, I mean, she wasn’t the happiest about it,” I replied. “Neither was grandpa.”

“Ron and I never did see eye to eye.” My father spoke, a bit of laughter behind his voice. However, his jovial nature didn’t last long.

“Look, Sam, I’m just happy you’re here. I’m sure you’ve got a lot of questions. But I just want to say first that I love your mother, I always did. I’ve been calling Michelle for years, on Christmas, on your birthday. She won’t ever pick up. And when she does, she damn sure won’t let me talk to you.”

I pushed the eggs around my plate with a fork. There’s something about that rare place that serves all-day breakfast that makes you feel obligated to get it, even if it isn’t the appropriate time for it.

“I never knew that,” I said.

“I didn’t expect that she would tell you. It was…” He paused for a moment, putting more salt on his hash browns. “It was hard. Michelle and I, we tried, we really did. I wanted to be there, I wanted to.” He stopped.

“Then why did you leave?” This time, it was less like popcorn and more like Skittles that you can’t open, so you pull, and you pull, and eventually it tears and there are little colorful hard-shell candies scattered everywhere.

“It’s not that simple, Sam.” He spoke now with more resolve, more intention in his voice. “It never has been. I had my reasons. Your mother isn’t the easiest person to deal with. And her parents, they always hated me.” He stopped for a moment, noticing the over-poured syrup that now drenched his single remaining hotcake. He put down his fork and took a deep breath.

“Look, it was just too hard.” He took a moment to clear his throat. “It was too hard not working, and seeing your mom work like that just to raise you, to support you, and knowing that I had nothing to offer. It was too hard to think that you would grow up, and you would see me, a waste, a parasite, and think that was what a man should be. So I left. And I said that I wouldn’t come back until I was able to stand on my own, and to love myself, and to think enough of myself that I was able to raise a child. And here we are now, 15 years later.”

The tears began to run down my father’s cheeks. And for the first time in my life, I felt sorry for him.

“I don’t know what to say,” I replied.

“You don’t have to say anything. I just want to help you understand.” He answered, grabbing my hand with his and offering me the only thing that I wasn’t able to get for over 15 years: a smile.

“Look, dad. There’s something that I have to tell you,” I said as we walked outside of the restaurant and back into our respective cars. I had followed him to the diner, his favorite in an area with no shortage of 24-hour eateries.

“I’m changing my name,” I started, without looking at his face, “I’m changing my last name to Mom’s. I’m eighteen now. I decided a while ago.”

“Is that what you came here to tell me?” he said, grabbing my arm.

“Yeah,” I said. “I think so.”

“Well a name is just a name, Sam. If you want to change, you do it. Don’t let me or anybody else stop you.” He put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed it firmly. “I’ve been trying to change for years. Don’t let anything stop you from being exactly what you want to be.

I stopped by my grandfather’s house to stay the night before I left for home the next morning.

“So how is the bastard?” My grandpa asked as he opened the ragged screen door.

“Hey!” I couldn’t help but laugh as he spoke.

I followed my grandpa into the kitchen where he pulled two non-alcoholic beers out of the fridge and handed one to me. I told him about the trip, and about what my father told me.

“Well, as long as you’re doing okay, Sam.” Grandpa spoke as he took a long drink. I opened the can and tried to copy him, regrettably, and almost choked. It tasted like dirty water and seltzer. “Resentment is a bitch.”

I knew that I needed to call mom, but I decided to wait so that I could be alone with my thoughts for a few hundred miles. As I headed south down I-95, I couldn’t help but notice the technicolor leaves falling all around me. I couldn’t help but feel like autumn had just begun.