NOTE: “Bastard Children” is linked by characters to Andrew Geyer’s “Troubadours.” This story, “Bastard Children,” should be read first.
After a quiet evening with a home-cooked meal, Augie and Lily sat on the couch and played a game of truth or dare that very intentionally led them to nudity.
“Last lover?” Augie said as his last question of the game. “What was his name?”
“Why that?” Lily said and tapped his shoulder with a fist.
“Why not?” He kissed her, just a peck on the lips.
“Okay,” she said. “Jasper. His name was Jasper.”
Augie tilted his back and laughed. “Jasper! What was he, a Kentucky pig farmer?”
She slapped his chest and giggled. “You’re terrible.”
“And you,” he said, “made up that name.” He clutched her hand and stood up. “Come with me, young lady. You owe me a dare.”
“It’s really his name,” she said, but she still stood, giggling, and followed him to the bedroom.
Afterwards, the two of them tangled together in exquisite exhaustion, she placed a finger against his lips and said, “Hey, want to know something true?”
He smiled, eyes closed. “What?”
His eyes popped open. “Pregnant?”
“Yeah. You know, with child. Your child.”
He bolted upright in bed. “Oh, shit!”
She rolled away, her back to him. “I thought you’d be happy,” she said quietly.
Happy? he thought. Why would she think he’d be happy?
“Listen,” he said, “have you thought about—” He stopped himself before saying the word. He should do the right thing. He should say he was happy. He should offer to marry her. “Well, you know, have you thought about alternatives?”
“Alternatives?” She rolled back toward him and glared. “Jesus, Augie, you’re such a bastard.”
And he was. He was a bastard, and she knew it, knew that both his father and his mother had been absent for all of his twenty-four years. And in those years all he’d ascertained about them is that his father had worked construction in Odessa and had sex with a nineteen-year-old girl, a waitress in a greasy spoon called Good Eats, before moving on to some other job in some other town. When Augie was born, the waitress had entrusted him to a friend, another waitress at Good Eats, who had seen to it that he was safely delivered to a Catholic home for infants and children in San Antonio.
Jesus, what did he know about parenting? He’d never known anything but group homes until he’d run away at sixteen. He had managed, at times just barely, to stay within the law as he scrounged a living. Eventually, a man he knew only as Jake taught him some carpentry when they worked together on a house construction, and he had improved those skills until he made a decent living in the home-building business in Fort Worth.
And then he met Lily, a drive-up bank teller with a beautiful smile, a quirky sense of humor, a tender heart, and an appetite for explosive sex.
She had turned her bare back to him again. He glanced at her smooth skin, placed his palm against her spine. “Okay. Just let me think.”
The next morning, overnight bag tossed next to him on the seat, he drove south in a Ford F-150 that had seen better days but that got him where he needed to go. And where he needed to go right now was simply away, some place where he could clear his head, work this fatherhood thing out in a reasonable way. Maybe Galveston, since he was headed south anyway. A little sun, surf, and sand might be just the thing to clarify his muddied thoughts.
Somewhere around Centerville, a woman’s voice, loud and clear and demanding, said, “Jasper!” He flinched, glanced across at the passenger side. Was it Lily’s voice? She had said her last lover’s name was Jasper. But the voice seemed deeper than hers, more seasoned. A subconscious voice of his own, maybe. But why so demanding?
Later, when he saw the sign for Jasper, he felt almost as if someone had moved his hand to the blinker lever, and he exited onto U.S. 190. What the hell?
A kid. Damn, this was not what he expected at twenty-four. The tapes reran themselves time and again in his head, but the result remained the same: terror at the thought of fatherhood and crushing guilt at the thought of deserting fatherhood. What merit was there in foregoing the fatherhood that terrified him? On the other hand, what merit was there in accepting the consequences of his actions and most likely failing miserably at parenthood?
When he hit U.S. 96 to Jasper, he turned north. Before he’d gone two hundred yards, a sign with an arrow pointing west drew his attention: “Mearitt House Bed and Breakfast.”
What merit was there? Well, there was the Mearitt House. The day had been plenty strange already; why not keep it up? He turned left onto the narrow two-lane, pine-lined road and followed signs toward the Mearitt House B&B. Perhaps a mile later, he turned onto a sandy driveway and approached a small white house with blue eaves nestled among the tall pines. A dark-skinned woman answered his knock. “Ms. Mearitt?” he asked.
The woman, who appeared to be in her mid-fifties, laughed. “Lord, no, child. Was I Ms. Mearitt I’d be white and over a hundred and twenty years old.” She swung the screen open and gestured for him to pass through. “Come on in.” Augie nodded and stepped inside. “Mearitt House an old name,” she said. “Story says a girl killed herself in the house. Fell into disrepair long many year ago. Some old crazy man tore it down and used the lumber to build this house here.” She clutched Augie’s elbow and guided him into the den, crowded with old but plush brown chairs and sofa, the walls home to dozens of what appeared to be very old photographs. “Sit, child, sit.” She nodded to the sofa and he sat. “Old man claimed it was haunted and he up and left.” She eased into a wing-back chair across from him. “This old house sat empty for many years till I bought it from the city in nineteen and ninety-four.” She suddenly threw up her hands. “But, good Lord, that’s more than you want to know. You need a room?”
Augie studied her briefly. Dark, smooth skin. Dark hair falling in waves over her shoulders. Dark, somehow deep eyes, and a perfect complexion but for a small scar on the right side of her chin. She smiled warmly.
“Yes, ma’am, I guess I do,” he said.
“Oh, child, don’t call me ma’am. My name Sybil, you call me that.” She leaned forward, reached across, and squeezed his hand. He nodded.
Sybil offered him a dinner of leftovers, and as they ate warmed meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and homemade bread slathered with real butter she asked, “Somebody send you here?”
He coughed, sipped his sweet tea. “Not exactly.”
She paused, a forkful of potatoes near her lips. “Uh-huh.” She took the bite, swallowed. “What your real name?”
“I told you. Augie Winston.”
“No, child, I mean your real name.”
He coughed again. “Are you a witch or something?”
“Witch!” She chuckled. “Aw, hell no. I just know things. Don’t know how I know, I just know.”
Augie set his fork on his plate, sipped some more sweet tea. “I grew up in homes. You know, for unwanted kids. They called me Billy Smith. But when I ran away, I called myself Augie because of that character, you know, Augie March. And I called myself Winston because that’s what I smoked.”
Sybil laughed a big, hearty laugh, but then her smile faded and her face turned serious. “You listen to Sybil. Your parents sorry for what they done.”
“Doubtful,” he said.
His bed was immensely comfortable, and despite his tumbled thoughts he slept soundly until about two a.m., when he awoke disturbed by dream images. In one, Lily stood, hands folded over a hugely swollen belly, and simply stared at him with sad, bloodshot eyes. In the other, four people stood at the foot of his bed and pointed accusing fingers at him. He recognized none of them and yet three looked vaguely familiar: a blonde teenaged girl, a blonde man with stringy, dirty hair, and a blonde girl of five or six whose hair also looked dirty and unkempt. The fourth was the oldest, a dark-headed woman with fiery eyes.
Afterwards, he slept fitfully until a little after eight, when he arose, splashed cold water on his face, and slipped on jeans and a tee-shirt. He considered calling Lily but decided otherwise. What would he say? How could he explain why he was where he was when he didn’t even know the answer himself? He dropped his phone on the bed and followed his nose to the kitchen. Breakfast was huge and hot. He sipped steaming coffee and gorged on sausage links, bacon, fluffy scrambled eggs, biscuits and gravy, then finished with a side of fresh blueberries, strawberries, and sliced bananas. He leaned back in his chair and patted his stomach. “Miss Sybil, you do make a damn fine breakfast.”
She laughed with him. “I do what I can.” She looked down into the steam rising from her coffee and stirred slowly. “So, you sleep okay?”
“Mostly. Had a couple bad dreams.”
“Uh-huh,” she said. “About what?”
Augie cocked his head and studied her. Why was she so interested in his dreams? Still, he saw no harm in explaining. “A dark-haired woman, a blonde girl, a scruffy blonde man, and a little girl, also blonde.”
Sybil paused, a spoonful of blueberries near her lips. She set the spoon back into her bowl. “Good Lord, son, you dreaming history.”
She arose and turned to the wall behind her. “Look here,” she said. He joined her, facing the wall of old photographs. She pointed. “That the woman you saw last night?”
A dark-headed woman stood on the front porch of a house, a lighter haired girl to her left. Augie stepped closer, peered at their faces. “I think so,” he said. “And the girl, too.”
“That woman, Amanda Mearitt, she owned this house back in the late nineteenth century before it was tore down and rebuilt here where we standing. That teenaged girl, she was Ms. Mearitt’s daughter by a preacher man sleeping with Ms. Mearitt out of wedlock. Story says he never knew about that daughter till after she shot herself dead.” Sybil stepped around Augie to another photo. “And that man there is Sandjack Carson, most likely who you saw last night, too.”
Engrossed, Augie studied that photo even more closely than the first. The man stood with two others, all with their hands in their coat pockets, all unsmiling in front of what appeared to be a saloon.
“He was that preacher man’s legitimate son,” Sybil added.
“He looks familiar.”
Sybil placed her hands on his shoulders, turned him toward her. She stared at his face for fifteen seconds or more. “Maybe a little bit like you.”
Stunned, Augie turned to the photo again. The likeness was far from exact, but in the man’s jawline, nose, and eyes he did recognize a shadowy similarity.
Sybil gathered up their plates and carried them to the kitchen. When she returned, she said, “Come walk with me. It’s a fine June morning.”
He followed her out the back door, across a creaky wooden porch, down two steps, and into sunlight just beginning to pierce the pines and warm the mild June morning. Augie stayed several paces behind, his progress slowed by pauses to study the black earth and the underbrush or to look up at the tips of the pines stretching toward sun light. “Sybil,” he finally said, “that little girl I saw, do you know about her?”
“Was I to guess I’d say she was Sandjack Carson’s daughter.” They followed a path of sorts that wound around her property. “Story says he raped a woman down in South Texas, had a daughter he never saw.”
“Amanda Mearitt’s daughter, Sandjack Carson’s daughter, and me.” He kicked at the sandy path. “Damn bastard children everywhere.” They passed into a narrow clearing shin-deep in wild grasses. “Do you have children, Sybil?”
She sucked in her breath. “Oh, look there.” She raised her arm, pointed a long, slender brown finger. “See that flower there, the little purple one peeking through the grass? Called a pine woods lily. Not many around here. Rare. Precious. Not really a lily. Iris, I think. But Lily a fine name.”
Lily a fine name. Rare. Precious. A witch, Augie thought. She’s definitely a witch.
Sybil pulled her attention from the flower and began walking again. They made small talk the rest of the way, mostly about plants and flowers she pointed out, and once about a wolf spider that skittered across the path in front of them. Augie half-listened, his head full of Lily and bastard children and the way he resembled a man named Sandjack Carson.
Back at the house, Sybil began washing dishes. He tried to help, but she urged him out of the kitchen. “This my job,” she said. While she worked, he wandered the room, looking at the many old photographs hanging there.
“You know where I got those?” Sybil said. She stood in the kitchen doorway drying her hands on a dish towel.
Augie smirked. “You were there, right?”
She grinned. “Child, you still on the witch stuff?”
“Maybe a little,” he said, but he, too, grinned. “Where did you get them?”
“Library. They not originals, just copies. Originals in the library.” Augie nodded.
“Yessiree,” Sybil added, “Lots of information in the library.”
And suddenly he knew what he would do the rest of the day.
With Sybil’s precise directions, he easily found Water Street and located the library. The librarian he talked with, a woman in her sixties named Joan, knew only what Sybil knew about Sandjack Carson and knew nothing about his alleged illegitimate daughter. She suggested a genealogy web site, but he found there no references to any Sandjack Carson. He switched to the library’s electronic catalogue, found nothing of use, and began searching for Texas public records, 1880-1910. Eventually, he focused on south Texas, where he found a brief note about someone named Elena Esquivel giving birth to a “girlchild” in Laredo on August 9, 1890. Child’s name: Rosa. Father’s name: unknown. That was the best he had to go on, but it turned up little until he happened across a 1907 San Antonio news bit about a young woman named Rosa Escovido who had jumped to her death from a seedy hotel’s second-story window. A newborn child had been found in her room, father, again, unknown. It was a stretch, but the woman’s first name was right, and her last name was vaguely similar, perhaps a name the bastard child Rosa had assumed. Her abandoned bastard child had been taken in by an otherwise childless couple, Jeremy and Martha Smith, who named the boy William. Smith. The name Augie had until he changed it himself. He kept digging.
At six o’clock, Joan the librarian said they were closing and he would have to go. By then he had managed to piece together what he thought, sketchy as the evidence was, might be his own lineage. If he was right, his lineage began with Sandjack Carson, his great-great-great grandfather, whose own father had a bastard child, the girl who killed herself; Rosa Esquivel/Escovido followed, a bastard child who bore another bastard child, William Smith, who had a family of his own but who had also fathered a child with a whore, a child he never claimed; that child, Gregory Smith, perhaps Augie’s grandfather, had deserted his second cousin when she claimed he impregnated her; she bore a child named Stephen Meyers-Smith, the man Augie suspected might be his own father. Augie felt, in short, that if the genealogy were accurate he was a bastard child resulting from a long line of bastard children.
In his truck outside the library, he slumped, forehead pressed against the steering wheel. If all this were true—and he admitted that the evidence was iffy—he should break the bastard child curse, should marry Lily, should be a father to their child. But what kind of father would he be, given his bloodline, given the genes that possibly predisposed him to desert, to leave children behind, to deny responsibility? Would he end up making matters worse by attempting to own up and failing in the attempt?
He drove aimlessly, not ready to discuss his findings with Sybil, who’d surely ask too many questions. Mostly, he wanted to talk with Lily, tell her what he found, ask her what she thought. But he knew, already, what she would say. She’d say she didn’t care about his family history, she cared about him. She’d say his research was sketchy at best, that he’d made really tenuous connections among the scattered bits of information he’d found. She’d say she wanted him with her, raising their child. He just wasn’t ready to hear that.
He arrived at the Mearitt House B&B about ten-thirty. Sybil, apparently, had gone to bed but left the door unlocked. He locked it, turned out lights, and fell onto his bed fully clothed. He dreamed of Lily and of bastard children and of a witch named Sybil. He awoke just before nine and, lured by the aroma of another big breakfast, headed toward the dining room.
An off-white envelope sitting next to his plate contained a note from Sybil: “Will be gone all day. Coffee in the pot, breakfast in the oven. Bill enclosed.” He slipped the bill from the envelope, unfolded it. Underneath the Mearitt House B&B letterhead, she had written, “Amount owed: Do the right thing.”
What did Sybil know, and how the hell did she know what she knew?
Augie poured a cup of coffee in the kitchen and carried it out onto the rickety porch. He sat on the top step and stared out across Sybil’s property. He wondered how many pine woods lilies bloomed out there. Sybil had said they bloomed only in the morning. He thought about Lily, blooming with pregnancy. Do the right thing. But what, really, was the right thing? Maybe it was letting the child live as happily as possible with its mother, undisturbed by the influence of a man who knew nothing about being a father, a bastard among bastards. But he hated the thought of being a coward, hated even more the thought of never seeing Lily again.
His coffee had cooled beside him on the step. He carried it inside, dumped it, rinsed the cup, and then went to his bedroom to pack. On U.S. 190 a mile or two from I-45, the voice spoke again, the same voice he had heard before. “Right thing,” it said, and again he couldn’t tell whether it was in his head or in the air. He pulled onto the shoulder.
“What is the right thing?” he yelled at the bodiless voice, but it provided no answer. South on I-45 would lead to Galveston; north on I-45, to Fort Worth and Lily and his unborn child. He stared out the window, watched cars whiz past, and thought. Finally, he nodded, pulled back onto pavement, and drove toward the interstate.
NOTE: Next read Andrew Geyer’s “Troubadours”which is linked by characters to the story you just read.