Depression Soup
Chapter 8: The Bastard

Copyright© 2011 by TC Allen

No matter how great I might believe my story to be, John Bathke makes it better when he removes my typos, glitches and blunders.

All through grade school there was one boy who was an outcast. His name was Billy Joe Waters. Billy Joe got in fights and was sent home from school at least once a week. His clothes were a little, but not much shabbier than what many of the other kids wore.

As I remember it, he was no uglier than any of the other tow headed, buck toothed boys with cowlicks of unruly hair sticking up on the back of their heads. He was skinny and average in height. However Billy Joe was a bastard.

I saw his mother a few times around town and remember little about her. She was a short, moon faced, heavy set woman who tried to dress in a stylish fashion and failed. Her efforts made her look like Betty Boop gone wild.

Ruby Waters, Billy's mother, was what was known as a "wild one," among other things. She worked all week as bookkeeper for the broom factory. She was good at her work. Ed Bowes, the owner of the little factory claimed on more than on occasion Ruby's business acumen was the main reason he was still in business.

Every Friday evening, as soon as her work was done and the Bowes Broom Company was locked up for the weekend, she rushed home, bathed in the old washtub she dragged into her kitchen and dressed in her "Sunday finest." She applied a bright red shade lipstick to her generous mouth and drew a round spot of rouge to each cheek. She was the town tramp.

Woodman had a town philosopher, Judge Mack. Whit Spense was the town drunk and Billy was called the town bastard. It seemed somehow fitting the bastard's mother was called the town tramp. In small towns people tended to be labeled and put in slots. There they were stuck for life unless some calamitous event changed things.

With those preparations completed, she hurried out the door with a goodbye wave to her son and drove her old Ford to the Bloody Bucket, a roadhouse two miles outside of town where, like the man said, "Cheap whiskey flowed free and the music was loud enough to wake the dead." I learned all of this as I listened to adults and my other classmates.

Pa's contempt for the people who hung out there showed plain on his face. "Why aren't they home with their families where they belong?" he asked Ma and didn't expect an answer.

Ma wanted the place shut down. "Places of sin and depravity like that awful establishment can only encourage immorality and lawlessness."

As in most southern communities, the greedy and corrupt sheriff permitted Herm Larkin to keep the place open where Ruby "kicked up her heels" on Friday and Saturday nights.

Billy was left home alone as usual. He was accustomed to loneliness. After all he was a bastard so no one ever associated with him. He had no idea who his father was and his mother had a vague idea at best.

No one else in town cared one way or the other except that Billy had been branded from birth with that awful name. All it meant to me was that the other children were not supposed to play with him for some reason or other.

This probably seems strange today when so many children are born to single, never married mothers. It was different back then in the 1930s, especially in the south. A child born without two parents legally married to each other was an outcast.

Very often the mother and her illegitimate child moved to another town where she would quickly assume the role of "widow" or "divorcee." That gave mother and child a tenuous claim to legitimacy in the eyes of the community. As a rule nobody cared enough to check a widow's background.

Billy Joe's mother didn't bother with such a ploy. She seemed not to care and nor to understand the plight of her only child. Billy Joe learned to fight back at his tormentors right from the beginning. He was surly in school, resentful toward the teachers and openly rebellious toward any who would assert authority over him. Finally, one day it all came to a head and Billy Joe was expelled from school for the last time. It started at the Saturday matinee.

Billy Joe paid the dime to be admitted and went inside the darkened interior of the movie house. His hero, Tom Mix starred in "The Lone Star Ranger" that Saturday afternoon. Billy bought his nickel bag of greasy popcorn and sat quiet and alone in the back row of seats.

This was a special treat for Billy. He sold the Woodman Daily Press on a street corner after school all week to earn the precious few coins he now had to spend on himself. As usual no one else sat anywhere close to him.

I sat with the main group of kids down in the front three or four rows. The movie began then stopped when the projector jammed. The house lights went on and the boys and girls looked at each other and began their usual horseplay. Then was when the real trouble began.

Wilmer Edger looked around and saw where Billy Joe sat by himself eating his popcorn. "Hey lookee there. There's that bastard. What you doing here in the movies with white people, bastard?" he yelled back at Billy.

I never liked Wilmer even before that day. He was a loud mouth who tried to cause as much pain and discomfort for others as he could. He was never so happy as when he made another boy or girl cry. He had seen me whip Elmer Davis a few times, so he didn't try to pick on me or anyone else who could defend himself.

He swaggered back and eased up to Billy. Suddenly he slapped the popcorn out of Billy Joe's hand and grinned. The popcorn was scattered it all over the adjoining seats. Wilmer counted on his being two years older and a head taller than Billy to make the difference in whether Billy would defend himself or not.

Billy jumped up on the arms of the theater seats and drew back a bare foot. If he had been wearing shoes it might have ended in Wilmer's death. The expression on Billy's face showed all the pent up anger and resentment he had built up inside him.

"Why you dirty..." Billy Joe screamed and was unable to complete his sentence. He kicked Wilmer in the mouth with the ball of his right foot. I almost felt sorry for Wilmer. As it was, Wilmer spit out two upper front teeth.

Blood trickled out of the corner of his mouth and Wilmer tried to get away from the raging boy. Billy Joe followed close behind him, windmilling punches at the back and head of his antagonist.

As Wilmer broke free of the confining seats, he ran away as fast as he could, screaming at the top of his lungs, "Mamma! Mamma!"

Billy chased after the longer legged Wilmer and fell far behind. No matter, he still tried to catch his tormentor. The two ran out of the theater past the amazed owner of the theater and his wife. Down the street the boys ran until finally, the out of breath Billy Joe could chase his tormentor no further.

"I hate you, Wilmer Edger. I hate your guts!" He screamed over and over again. Slowly, all alone and forlorn, he turned and began the slow walk home. He sobbed to himself as he walked away. I felt sorry for him because I hated to see anyone hurt or unhappy. The thing was though, he was a bastard; everybody said so.

I walked over to the feed store. I had no desire to return to the theater to see the rest of the movie. It seemed that there were so many things in my short life I didn't understand. Pa was ready to leave the feed store as I got there. "Let's go meet your ma and have something to eat, Davy," he said.

I fell in step beside him and his hand rested on my shoulder for a moment. Then he squeezed my shoulder and let go. As his hand came away from my shoulder I asked, "Pa, what's it really mean to be a bastard?"

"What brought that on, Davy?" he asked in a surprised voice.

"In the movies today I heard that Wilmer Edger call Billy Joe Waters a bastard and say he wasn't a white boy. But Billy sure looks white to me."

"Son, let's let your Ma explain it to you. She has a better way with words than I do." We walked across to the Bid A Wee Café and waited for Ma to meet us.

Ma came hurrying in and Pa stood up so she could slip inside the booth. He sat back down beside her and said, "Hon, Davy wants to know what being a bastard is about and I thought you'd do a better job of explaining than I could.

Ma's mouth dropped open as she did a double take, "Why on Earth did you bring that word up, David?"

"Well, Wilmer Edger said Billy Joe Waters was one and that he wasn't a white boy. But like I told Pa, he looks plenty white to me."

"Bastardy has nothing whatsoever to do with skin color. To be called a bastard is to imply that a person's parents were not married to each other. Unfortunately in Billy Joe's case that is sadly true.

"Well then we ought to feel sorry for Billy Joe, not pick on him," I argued with her. "It ain't, er isn't his fault his ma and pa wasn't married."

"They weren't married, Davy," Ma corrected me.

"That's what I said," I answered her and then caught on that I used the wrong word. "Uh yes ma'am," I agreed with her. Ever since Mary had worked for us and married Ad Roman, Ma had taken to correct my speech.

"You are correct about one thing though. David, it definitely is not his fault. To make him an outcast is to punish him for his mother's mistakes and sins."

I thought about it for a moment and then, as the waitress hurried up I forgot all about the subject of Billy Joe and his bastardy. I ordered my hamburger and potatoes and gravy. That took every bit of my attention. I forgot all about Billy Joe Waters until the following Monday.

On Monday morning when he came to school the teacher sent him home. He had been permanently expelled from school. We all watched in silence as he made his way off school property angry eyed.

His chin was thrust forward and he dared anyone to get in his way. His face was filled with black anger. I thought it was unfair that Billy Joe got kicked out of school and Wilmer Edger, the one who started all the trouble, didn't. I learned one truth over the years and never had any reason to question it. There are ever so many unfair things in life especially where schools are involved.

Billy Joe and I ran across each other every now and then after that. He was always busy at something or other to earn money. Whether he shined shoes, ran errands for the hangers on at the pool hall or sold something, he was ever on the run.

He hustled after a nickel, a dime or a dollar, and anything else available to be hustled after. He began to take pride in his appearance and seemed to always be neat and clean and well groomed whenever I saw him. We would nod and say "hi" each time we met. He answered my greeting, but never tried to get very close. There was wariness in his eyes that sent the message out that he didn't trust anyone.

The one exception to that rule of mistrust was Janet Watkins. Wallace Watkins' younger sister was Billy's soft spot. Janet had a cleft palate and she was crippled from polio. It was only with greatest difficulty she moved herself around in the old hard used wheel chair some charitable person gave her.

A few of the other kids teased her with the mindless cruelty some young people seem to acquire almost at birth. Her own brother was one of the worst offenders of course. Even today small towns in the south seem to have more than their share of small-minded cruelty.

Where Billy Joe fought, Janet smiled a timid smile and waited in silence for the teasing and mockery to stop. Then she went slowly on her way, often with tears in her eyes.

One day two boys tipped her wheel chair over and Billy Joe saw it happen. He beat up on both boys. He bloodied their noses and gave her tormentors black eyes. As soon as the two ran off he up righted the wheel chair and placed the girl back in it. "Why don't you fight back at them?" he asked.

"I can't," she answered, huffing the barely understandable words out of her mouth and nose. With tears in her eyes, she reached up and told her new protector, "Thank you." She gripped his arm tightly and stared up at him in total adoration.

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