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The Salvation of Bastard X
Short Story by Marc Phillips

Mother had her stroke while I was at Auburn, reluctantly finishing an education that had suffered from the lures of the oil-rich Gulf waters. Or boredom, pick one. I hated school the first go round, when it was billed as the time of my life. So when my brother called with the news late one Wednesday night, I stared at a pile of books on the kitchen bar for almost two minutes, contemplating calling professors, the dean, somebody. Then I stuffed what clothes would fit into my backpack, abandoned my furniture at the duplex along with the ’76 Fleetwood Brougham d’Elegance (nineteen and a half feet of awesomely garish roadboat) and boarded a plane, connecting in Denver and then on to McCarran International Airport, Las Vegas. I made no calls. I never returned.

Both flights lasted much longer than advertised. We circled interminably, waiting our turn to land. Given time, all thoughts veer toward the bizarre. From above, Sin City looked like the scat of a colossal, radioactive, bête noire. Rising from the enormous man-made desert lake, this abomination had lumbered two wavering steps, taken a dump, and fled. It’s since been spotted squatting in Utah. I had a smoke on the sidewalk before flagging down a cab. I breathed the pungent essence of homeless people, sloe and juniper berries. Undead dreams of the hopelessly-busted lingered about. This place has serious B-horror flick karma.

“The unfaithful always believe theirs is the unique conundrum outside the jurisdiction of faith.” The chaplain at University Medical Center, Las Vegas told us that. My brother, my sister, and me. All of us falling into that unfaithful category, as though we were philandering on the Lord with a younger, better looking lord who would do things in the sack that Jehovah wouldn’t. He smelled of hairspray. The chaplain.

We three deliberated and checked “yes” give Mother pain medication to make her comfortable, “no” don’t feed her with a tube, “no” don’t breathe for her, “no” don’t restart her heart. “Yes” give her anti-coagulants? “No” on dialysis? I don’t know. We said goddamnit, we thought this would be a single question, possibly we could scrape by with a teary-eyed nod and a signature owning up to it. It should be required of each man, I judged, that he reap this rite of passage, that he grind his assumptions upon this wheel. I will henceforth adamantly recommend this experience for a more perfect sense of uncertainty in everything.

There was plenty of time to think in the Cardiac Care Unit, and an abundance of uncomfortable furniture in which to do it.

At eighteen, college was simply a mistake for me—a possibility never mentioned to the teens of my generation. My second run at it was largely in way of a concession to Mother, as incredible as that seems. She was a teacher, and a part-time professor. More absurd still, I had a copy of my grades sent to her, and this served as my method of communication. I flatly refused to call or write. We didn’t get along. We bickered when we spoke. So, I dealt with it like an adult, as one can no doubt see. She had the last word in this twisted correspondence of mine from behind her desk, grading papers. Her eyes closed, her chin touched her chest, she seized and vomited. Conversation over.

I sat with polished eyes and threadbare convictions for hours on end, drinking coffee, hypnotized by the monotone beeping, watching Mother spasm. Interludes of discussion about blood-filled ventricles and dismal survival rates that could not be lower and could never be zero (the infuriating “miracle factor”) marked the time like rollers deceptively mark the vast ocean terrain. We, the children, insisted we needed more information, simpler layman’s terminology to comprehend what was happening. That was foolish and naïve. We only needed her to die without our help.

I don’t know much about the adult version of my siblings. We all flew the nest punctually and only congregated briefly over holidays every third year or so. We did a bit of catching up over Mother’s life support machines.

Turns out, Brother’s married. Seems like I knew that once upon a time. Sister’s engaged. This was news. Mother died on Monday. You have a life or you have your death, either way it’s a destination. I found myself stumbling into limbo, and I have never liked that term. A friend gave me “walkabout,” but only after I was firmly in the middle of it.

During the short funeral service, we each said some things, the three of us, addressing our remarks to the empty chairs in the back, because we felt ignorant orating to one another in such a formal setting. We hugged briefly and caught our respective trade winds bound for different, more sufferable tomorrows. Sister would circle back for the ashes. I didn’t even take time to have a drink.

The most amazing thing about Vegas is the impressive array of vehicles available, from Ferraris to Blue Bird motor homes, all customized. I wandered through lots filled with one-of-a-kinds wagered on inside straights. Forsaking my return ticket, for reasons understood only to small children and unmedicated bipolars, I used a sizable piece of my savings on a vintage 1953 Indian Chief, two-toned burgundy with chrome running boards and a smooth, rhythmic bass prattle. I divided my few clothes between the saddle bags and rode in the hot evening breeze across Hoover Dam humming Roll Me Away.

It’s a difficult thing tacking your way over two mountain ranges and twenty hours of desert with an antique motorcycle that only holds a hundred and fifty miles worth of gasoline. The rapid counterclockwise arc of the fuel gauge was giving me a peptic ulcer. In Wickieup, Arizona, I ditched my clothes in favor of gas cans and outran the fumes across two more states.

I once had friends in Texas, and they might still be holding something of a younger, less cynical me that I’d forgotten I abandoned with them. In truth, I’d been away, far away, from my hometown for long enough that it seemed comforting in the distance. When I rode into Longview that Saturday night, I noticed The Kozy Hut had folded in the years since I’d been down the main drag, and Baby Dolls out on a serpentine stretch of 59 we called Whiskey Bend had succumbed to towering tree-like weeds and spray-painted gang insignia, plywood nailed over the upholstered crimson doors. However, the Executive Club, new in town, was lit up and thriving.

What I needed was a locale absent any questions, where I might even misplace my own, and lacking any judgment whatsoever. And that, in a C cup, is a tit bar. Chicken soup for the conundrum.

At five minutes after midnight she said, “Would you like to buy me a drink?”

Standing there at my table was a woman I figured to be in her late twenties, five foot seven or so, reddish brown hair, and so smooth and so tight she might have been manufactured. I was lost in admiration for no telling the time. I caught a look from her like she thought I was stoned or deranged.

Drink. The drink.

“Sure,” I said.

“I like Long Island Tea.”

The drink hustle is par.

“They’re twelve dollars.”

From a pile of bills under the ashtray, I handed her a ten and a five. She came back with her drink and sat down to button her shirt, a white oxford she wore over a plaid schoolgirlish miniskirt. No change. I didn’t expect any.

“So, where you from?” she shouted over the music.

“No questions,” I told her.

“Never heard of it.”

She smiled and we talked and shared the Long Island Teas and the cloud of her perfume until last call, two hours into morning. Her real name was Tessa. She wasn’t supposed to give that out, she said. She paused, so I nodded in gratitude. We spoke in open-ended declarative sentences, so it was impossible to participate on a meaningful level in one another’s lies. Occasionally she got up to dance, gone for three songs, one at each of the little stages, progressively shedding clothes. Then she buttoned up and came right back. She said the owner was bitching at her for not circulating to other tables. She said she couldn’t care less. She guessed she looked good enough she could do what she pleased. Not short on confidence, this one.

Truthfully, she stood out like a this among those. She said she used to model for Coppertone. Maybe I’ve seen some of her ads.

“You must get discounts, then.” I said.

“Used to. Never would have guessed you for a sunbather.”

“I might take it up if I were offered significant savings on the products.”

The barman closed the place down, and I waited on my bike while she dressed. She told another dancer that she’d gotten a ride. I took her home and we drank more on her couch. We had sex until we were nearly raw and never really went to sleep. In round figures, I was up to twenty hours of sleep in a week and a half, eight of those on highway rest area picnic tables. I could no longer recall ever being tired.

She said to me, “I don’t drink hard liquor in the morning.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ve got no hang-ups about drinking alone.” Nor right out of the bottle. She washed the road scum and gas smell from my clothes. I stayed with Tessa in that little white clapboard house three days before she asked if I had my own place in town. I lied and went to find one.

Over the next several months, I grudgingly bought accoutrements for my apartment as she commented, “What happened to all your furniture?” “You don’t ever want to watch TV?” And, my favorite, “The only closet I’ve ever seen without one fucking hanger.” I spent a lot of time at her place. This was a wrong thing, but, on a scale of relative wrongness, not a significant thing. I thought.

It’s possible that I sought in Tessa a sort of female gap-filler to shore up the void. You might come away from two semesters of psychology with that postulation. It’s also possible that lizard urine could eradicate Alzheimer’s. More likely, Tessa represented a near enough substitute to an addictive, hazardous liberty that I had found only in deep water. I derived an undeniable high from risky behavior. The art of my life was a series of compositions in peril, each having its tangible reward. There was money out there under the sea, and respect; whereas with Tessa there was fine, youthful passion and incredibly creative sex. I found them reason enough to tarry.

I never did, however, find anyone or anything else in my hometown worth revisiting. Sometime later, I found that old buddy in Dallas, 120 miles west, working for the city. He’s a drafter, a drinker, and a wise man. I stumbled into him over in Deep Ellum, exactly where I last saw him thirteen years ago, though the establishment had taken a new name and become trendy. Supernaturally unperturbed by the changes around him, he sat reticently listening to hip-hop and said he had been waiting for me. Didn’t specify how long. He would become my walkabout guru—having named the condition for me, after all—with cryptic guidance and round-the-bend, done-that revelations over long distance telephone lines. The advice, if it could even be called that, was secondary like small talk. Most of it started with, “Boy, I hope you don’t do like I did. . . .”

When things got intolerably weird with Tessa, I rode away.

The guru said, “Watch your top knot in Louisiana, still Napoleonic over there.” He said, “Don’t waste your time in New England, I never did.”

I burned gas and bridges and my share of weed in the Carolinas, the Dakotas, the Keys, Honduras one time. I was a touch disheartened that I had broken the pattern—every other place was a “the” something—until I discovered The Bay Islands off the Honduran coast. I always came back to Longview. And so did the weirdness, somehow fortified, as if nourished by my absence. Tessa began writing multi-page letters to me while I was gone.

“I never know where to mail them, so I keep them for you. They just keep getting longer.” Yes they did. “I want to talk to you about these things, but there never seems to be enough time before you’re gone again.”

Consequently, I had to study these badly punctuated Vaudevillian monologues with appalling spelling errors and submit to a verbal exam on the material. I found poetry in some of them. Recurrent themes, troubling ones. Hell, I thought, don’t come back next time. Nearly every place I went was at least as comfortable as here, but it takes a bushel of contentment to diminish an image like Tessa without her clothes on. She was inordinately seductive.

The guru met her once, when he came to visit. He agreed. “She’s hot.”

“I know.”

“Seems clingy though.”

“Really?” Without a doubt she was. “Doesn’t matter. I’m thinking of heading to Panama when it cools off. Find a place down there.”

It wasn’t until Veracruz, where a Dina bus backed over my Indian, that I decided this had to end. Next chapter. When I flew back to Dallas, I bought another car, a used blue Cutlass with a peeling vinyl top. It would get me where I was going next. I called Tessa from Dallas, said I was coming in. She asked that I pick her up as soon as I could that evening, she’d take off early.

First, I drove to my apartment and pondered whether to abandon all the domestic junk she’d cajoled me into purchasing or, no, I’d donate it. Loose ends were leaving me with a frayed psyche. I picked up Tessa at the club around ten, got her in my new ride and, for the first time ever, I said those words.

“We’ve got to talk.”

She was high, but she came back with remarkable quickness, “Yes. We do.”

“I need a drink.”

“I do too. Take me home.”

She handed me a beer, sat down on the couch beside me with a vodka rocks. She lit a cigarette, curled her bare legs under her.

“I’m pregnant.”

I didn’t start out here, thinking of her, and the situation, like I do now. I would want any kid of mine to know that. Surprisingly enough, flight was not my first instinct. In fact, after the heat drained from my face down through my neck and eventually dissipated in my extremities, I fastidiously applied every mental faculty to moving the pieces around on the game board called my future, making them fit. Discarding some, setting aside others in prioritized piles. Growing piles. That Baby piece takes up half the frigging board.

The only verbal response immediately forthcoming was, “How do you know?”

She went to the bathroom and came back with a flat stick that had a + on it. She said women know, but she bought the kit for me. She told me, you know, it’s rare but not unheard-of for women on the pill to conceive. No, I didn’t know that. I know it’s not unheard-of for women to forget to take the mother-fu—never mind. Next item.

“How much of this beer do you have?”

She made some sort of response, I’m sure—a shrug, a wholly insufficient number.

“I’m running up to the Stop & Go. You need anything?”

“You’re coming back, right?”

“I believe there’s enough man in me to tell you when I’m leaving you.”

“I didn’t mean anything. Don’t be long.”

I was out the door. Fresh air is overrated. I didn’t mean anything either, not even what I said. This was a new conundrum. A conundrum downgrade. It means more, but somehow it’s worth less. The market’s flooded with them.

I was largely okay the next day. A little headachy, a touch of gastrointestinal discomfort, otherwise sound. Oddly enough, I slept that night, six or seven hours. The sun came in, diced and shifty through vertical blinds, and I didn’t eat Tessa’s scrambled eggs. She was still half-stepping gingerly around, keeping the floorboards from interjecting any sentiment, but acceptance had achieved a foothold and the conversation was gaining fluidity.

We sat at the kitchen table and talked of names. She smiled patiently when I suggested Jedediah, Shamus, and an admittedly indefensible Roland. She retorted with Britney, Ashley, and a surprisingly acceptable Samantha. The gender split didn’t escape me. We’ll take one at a time. I tendered Lourdes. She stared at me.

“The Basilica of Lourdes. It’s beautiful. Saint Bernadette of Lourdes?”

“Bernadette is a black name.”

“All right, I was never especially religious anyway.” I ventured, “Estelle. You know, Stella.”

At that, she crinkled up her little button nose and shook her head back and forth, grinning impishly, her morning hair balled-up in a scrunchy, some of it shaking out. She had on a huge white T-shirt of mine and nothing else. Her nipples aimlessly pointed out things around the kitchen when she did this. With one hand she tucked the tail of the T-shirt into her crotch and with the other she brushed strands of hair from her eyes and sighed and blinked at me.

Morning sex, done properly, will blanket you. You’re lying there in the phosphorescent fog, warm together, a little wet, sticky, not caring. It will superimpose hope and optimism over festering doubts, and drop a fistful of pleasant what-ifs in the musty sheets around you. Just some things to consider, a few harp-like distractions from Cassandra’s ominous prophesies. That’s the way, breathe young man, it’ll work out. You know, some mothers name their daughters Cassandra. Especially white trash. Trailer parks. Strippers! It doesn’t matter anyway, she’ll probably be going by Rain, or Trystie, or Diamond on stage. . . .

Crap. I went to shave away the itching at my neck. Most assuredly, Tessa had to stop dancing immediately. We must educate the living shit out of the kid. That will be key. Not too many tit dancers with doctorates. Let it be a boy! We’ll both have to be baptized in lye. Still though, I’m gone everyday treading debt water—a suit and desk are forgone conclusions—all the while, molding the young mind of my offspring is the same woman who made a living grinding and stroking welder cocks through Carhartt coveralls. Crap. I sliced the mole off my jaw.

The following Tuesday, a local ob-gyn had a cancellation and penciled us in. I insisted that we go, and further insisted that I pay. I would be paying for most everything for—ever? Yes, that’s the word.

I waited in the lobby, but I’m unsure whose decision that was. By that, I mean, I didn’t necessarily want to go back there, but it’s unclear as to whether I had the option to do so. I held a magazine with pictures, and turned the pages from time to time. Lots of glossy pages. I was shocked away from a blear-eyed downward stare by the realization that sometime, in the past forty-eight hours, all my dreams that I had tentative plans to dream had preemptively assumed an unwelcome antecedent: pipe. When my neck snapped straight, I noticed a proper young woman in a short sleeve dress patterned after a French country window valance sitting in a chair across from me. She was thin, but shapely, just starting to show, and pretty. A conservative haircut that still showed a modicum of style. Respectable, but not standoffish. She smiled at me.

In different clothes, another place, excepting the current state of affairs, I could’ve met this woman on level ground. I probably would have courted her. We might have lain together in a more thoughtful, reverent passion, but passion nonetheless. Not quite as raucous, consciously pacing ourselves. She’s kind of hot. Afterwards, we would talk, in ways that wouldn’t embarrass me. Then I’d watch her sleep, often. I might be sitting over there beside her. Excellent calves.

Tessa came out grinning. That was fast. Oh, everything’s fine. According to schedule. Nothing to worry about. She was holding a three-page nutritional plan. I took her straight to Kroger and filled a buggy with everything on the list. We arrived at her house, and she called and quit her job.

After sex that afternoon, out of breath, I asked, “When did she say we should come back?”

“Huh?”

“The doctor?”

“Um. Once a trimester, I guess. It’s pretty standard.”

“Do we have an appointment?”

“I have to call back.”

“How many months are you, anyway?”

“Still the first trimester.”

“Yeah, but exactly?”

She stared at me and went to pee. I caught a case of the heebie-jeebies that turned chronic. Over nearly two decades of unprotected sex, through high school, college (both stints), and those times I scarcely remember in beachside hotels from Beaumont to Port Isabel, this never happened before. I always assumed I was gifted with the inability. I had to know.

I visited a Dallas specialist two weeks later. The guru set it up. A little room, a comfortable chair, a clear plastic cup with a twist-on lid. An impressive selection of pornography. Forty-five minutes later, the guy saunters in, split tails of a tailored white lab coat in a whorl behind him.

“Nope, sorry, you got very little movement in there,” he tells me. “Your chances of fatherhood are transparently thin. Did you say you were a commercial diver? Sperm don’t like pressure. Not at all.”

Me and my squigglies would have gotten along. I wish I had taken the time to get to know them better. I started resenting fellatio—my wasted seed and missed opportunities when once I was potent. This must be the onset of insanity. I do not admire babies, nor people who have them. Oh yes, and I’m waiting around on a stripper’s baby—whose father, by a preponderance of the evidence, was most likely never a diver. I’ve either won Murphy’s lottery with a transparent ticket, or I’m the moron I thought Tessa was.

He’s still talking, “Though, other factors may have already been present . . . possible reduced expression of post-meiotic genes . . .” something, something, “Androgens are known to act in the testis . . .” something, “. . . males lacking the Trf-2 gene are normal and healthy, except for small testes. So, in short, there is some hope of successful treatment, albeit slim.”

Androgynous and small-balled.

I had to escape this discussion. On top of the baggage I came with, I was now overcome with shameful inadequacy, suffering his stare of feigned scientific detachment, and circling the conclusion that the only way to save face would be to demand he let me scope his ejaculate for comparison.

“How much is this costing me?”

“Pay the receptionist on your way out.”

I told the guru.

He shook his head. “Jeez. What’re you gonna do?”

“I need some guidance, man!”

“Hey, now. I use a condom, pill or no pill. This shit’s way past me. You’re in uncharted territory. I can get you drunk though.”

“You think your nuts are bigger than mine.”

“You’re all sidetracked now, my friend. Misdirected with MD jargon. You don’t want kids and never did. Now it’s been pointed out to you, ‘that’s dandy, ’cause you can’t have them anyway,’ and human nature kicks in. Look, break it down: Two lots of news you got here, one good, the other up for grabs. You’ll never have to worry about this again. Plausible deniability out the ass. But right now, you’re in the middle of it.”

“I’m not raising somebody else’s kid.” I had to convince myself to want my own, through internal debate so closely fought it was even odds and pick-em right to the end. I recalled how I smelled, how I must have looked that first night in Longview. She slept with me. So . . . whose spawn could we be talking about here?

“Nothing says you should. But you drag her and the baby down for the old litmus test and, man—sucks to be you right now. Huh?”

So there it was. Cut up and laid out for me. The conundrum’s gone. This was no more mystifying than a tic-tac-toe grid. I will not stay without loving the kid. I will not claim a love that requires authentication. I will not lie to my child. Stalemate. How noble of me.

“I’m gone.”

He nods, “Gonna tell her?”

“What happened to that drink?”

~

There isn’t a solitary thing in Panama worth the mileage. I still don’t sleep much. Not looking to start anytime soon, either. I never realized how unnecessary so much sleep was. I have no problem with the outside chance of being a delinquent father, but I’d be lying to say I don’t think about it. I know if she has any child of mine, she has her hands full. And it probably has a stupid name. I occasionally wonder what it might look like.

Neither do I have any qualms failing whatever trial was imposed on me, if that’s how it’s ultimately to be judged. A man’s naturally going to fail at some things. I’m still a little gun-shy when it comes to long-standing relationships (in excess of two consecutive weeks). I may be burned on the notion altogether, probably a good thing for everyone concerned; especially considering, as rare episodes of early-morning introspection have me wont to do, that it was a simple paradigm illustration—me hitting the bricks. This talk of considered decisions and deliberation grounded in logic and evidence could be horseshit. When our prolonged fiery romp veered toward the stability of marriage and parenthood, my truer nature motivated me. It had little or nothing to do with the kid. What a thing, if it’s true. I generally leave that thought with a damp hotel towel on some peeling linoleum floor around 10 AM.

I send postcards and trinkets to the guru. I tell him stories of discovery and jokes that don’t translate so well from Spanish. Last time I called him up there, told him to come down and check out Cabo San Lucas before the money ran out. He said he would, then he paused. The line crackled and I thought my Telmex card had run out.

“Tessa tracked me down. Month or so ago.”

“Really.” I didn’t know she knew his last name. Can’t be that many guys with his first name in city hall though, even in Dallas. Still, she gets a point for effort.

“She wants you to call her, has something to tell you. I told her not to hold her breath. She gave me a message.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Says she’s straightened up and moved to Houston. Working some direct marketing gig. She gave me her number.”

“Throw it away.”

“Already did, bud.”

“If she calls again . . .”

“Caller ID. No worries. Let it go. You bought a boat yet?”

“I’m working on it.”

That and some other things. I’ll spend a day here, a day there, investigating different modes of topside employment. I’m too old to go back to the rigs. Early arthritis is setting in, a consequence of the profession. Funny he should mention a boat. The charter fishing trade is going great guns down here. Seasonal, but a good living. Last night, before I could put much thought into it, I called my brother, woke him up.

Noticing the sleep in his voice, I immediately wanted out of my decision to call. “Sorry, man. Forgot about the time difference. You want me to let you go?”

“Who is this?”

“Your brother.”

“Oh. You okay? Where are you? Sounds like you’re in a fishbowl.”

“Mexico. Cabo. No, I’m all right. How’s it with you?”

“Good, I guess. Everything’s fine. You need something?”

“Just talking. Don’t see you much these days. You should come down. Take a vacation, on me.”

“These days,” he scoffed. “You mean these fifteen odd years? I was glad to see you in Vegas, though. It’s good you could make it before Mother passed. She would’ve liked that.”

“You think? She’s crossed my mind a couple times lately. Had some dreams. You know.”

“I do. I wanted to tell you something, but we all left so quick. You were always her favorite. Did you know that? You’re all she ever wanted to talk about, like she was always standing up for you.”

“That’s not helpful.”

“Maybe not.”

I told him I met a girl in Longview, a very pretty one. No name, not a word about any baby. I told him I up and left her, out of the blue. He wasn’t surprised in the least and had no questions about it. I asked after his wife and kid. He told me their names, slowly (I thought he would spell them), one more time. I said I’d have a house of some sort pretty soon. Again, I threw out the idea. They should come down and see me. He yawned and said he honestly couldn’t see that happening, but he’d think on it.

I forgot to ask about our sister. I wanted to. If she wasn’t all right I’m assuming he’d have told me. He said something about regrets, consistency as a sole virtue; something about not slowing down this late in the race. It wouldn’t look right, perhaps pitiful. Whatever the words, it came out sounding like a sarcastic cheer from the opponent’s bleachers. As he talked, I was wondering whether the guru really threw away that phone number. And, how hard would it be to find Tessa if I looked? A palmetto bug (euphemism for enormous Mexican cockroach) climbed the wall by the bed, unafraid. Would there be anybody worth the trouble to speak with down at Carlos ’n Charlie’s, or over at the Giggling Marlin tonight? The conversation ended some way or other in those moments. The line was dead and I still had the phone to my ear.



§ § §


Marc Phillips writes fiction, essays, and poetry.
He lives in Galveston, Texas.


Reprinted from Ink Pot #5 available now
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