AN INTRODUCTION BY HALIMAH MARCUS
Before launching Recommended Reading in 2012, Electric Literature published a quarterly anthology — five stories in each issue, available in print as well as eBooks. We had the privilege of publishing this short story by acclaimed novelist Patrick DeWitt in one of those volumes. “The Bastard,” which is uncollected and previously unavailable online, is reprinted here.
The Bastard is a con man, motivated by money and bragging rights, becoming whoever he needs to be as a means to those ends. Confidence, intuition, and research are a con man’s specialties, and indeed when the Bastard shows up to Farmer Wilson’s door he is armed with all those things, plus information, whiskey, and charm. These are materials of a masterful storyteller, and though you’ll have to bring your own whiskey, DeWitt is equally armed. With his assured, ventriloquist prose, DeWitt is a kind of law-abiding con man, able to convince us, on a basic gut level, of outlandish scenarios and outsized personalities.
The distinctive style of “The Bastard” forecasts DeWitt’s novel The Sisters Brothers, a Western tale about fraternal assassins sent to kill an ingenious prospector. Deservingly, The Sisters Brothers won many prestigious Canadian literary prizes including the Governor General Literary Award, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
In addition to The Sisters Brothers, DeWitt has two more wonderful novels — Ablutions and Undermajordomo Minor, both of which you should run out to buy. Until you do, we’re grateful to Patrick DeWitt for allowing us to make this story available here, for free, for your reading pleasure.
Editor-in-Chief, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading
by Patrick DeWitt, Recommended by Electric Literature
The Bastard approached the farmhouse on foot, a leather satchel in one hand and a long stick of pine in the other. The sun had dropped behind the mountains, and the heavy evening cold came hurrying into the valley. He watched the smoke spinning from the stone chimney and felt a passionate loathing for every living thing; he spit a slug of mucous over his shoulder and muttered the third-rudest word he knew. Shaking this feeling away, or secreting it, he stepped up the walk to the front door where he was met by the farmer, red-nosed Wilson, who spoke before the Bastard could open his mouth: “There’s no work for you here, not even half a day.” This was just the opposite of what the Bastard had hoped to hear, and it took no small effort to conceal his disappointment, but his recovery was swift, and without a moment wasted he launched into his performance.
“You misunderstand me, sir. I am merely passing by and was hopeful for a bed of hay to lie down upon. I have my own food to eat, and shall require nothing from your household other than a splash of water in the morning, but then I will be on my way, and you will hear nothing of me for the rest of your days. Of course, I will be sure and make comments to all those I pass on my way out of town regarding the good farmer Wilson’s hospitality, his generosity, his sympathy for those working to make their way in life. Mark my words, they will learn all about it!”
Wilson was caught off guard by the stranger’s speech, and he shifted back and forth in his boots, scratching his eye — the actual eyeball, which itched devilishly and was forever bloodshot. “How’d you know my name?” he asked.
The Bastard blinked in disbelief. “Your name, sir? But doesn’t everyone in this area know your name? Are you not well-thought-of hereabouts? Is it not understood that you are the most hard-working farmer, the most clever and able?” He threw back his head and laughed. “How did I know his name, he asks me! That’s modesty for you.”
At this, the tension gripping the farmer’s body uncoiled itself, and all his mistrust fell away. Now he stood in his doorway, vulnerable as a calf, and the Bastard knew the bed of hay and jug of water were his for the taking. Only he had no plans to settle for this humble victory, and when the farmer acquiesced, pointing his crooked thumb at the barn, the Bastard did not simply bow and step away, but pretended to stumble, and in doing so gave his satchel a tap with the toe of his boot. This brought forth the clink of a bottle, muffled but unmistakable, and he watched the farmer’s expression with all of his concentration. When Wilson shuddered and twitched, the Bastard knew he had the man in his clutches. Look at him, he thought. He wants a drink so badly his pores are yawning open. He imagined each of Wilson’s pores as a tiny mouth, each with a miniature pink tongue sticking greedily out in hopes of catching a splash of whatever the bottle held. This nearly made him laugh, but he collected himself and returned to the role of deferential outsider:
“Before I make my bed down, it would be an honor if I might offer you a short drink of rye whiskey. I’ve got a full and unopened bottle, a gift from a friend, only I don’t care all that much for spirits. Frankly, I find they upset my constitution. But you, sir, look all the more hearty than I. Perhaps you take the rare drink?”
Wilson could scarcely believe his luck. He looked here and there into the expanse, a frightened expression on his face as though he expected some vindictive God or another to swoop from the sky and steal away the magical passerby, rye whiskey and all. Witnessing this reaction, it was all the Bastard could do not to strike the gluttonous farmer to the ground. How he longed to grind his boot-heel into the man’s sickening face! “Please accept,” he implored, “otherwise you will wound me deeply. And really, isn’t it the least I could do, considering the kindness you’ve extended to me?”
So it was that the Bastard was admitted into the house itself. Wilson rushed to fetch two mugs, and lay these on the kitchen table; his hand trembled as he fell to drinking the precious rye with much slurping and heavy breathing. When there came the uncertain rhythm of dainty footsteps at the top of the stairs, the Bastard made his innocent query: “Is that your wife, sir? I would be honored to meet her. What a lucky lady, to spend her days in this grand home, and with such a gentleman as yourself at her side.”
You’re overdoing it, the Bastard told himself. But Wilson was distracted by his rye-guzzling, and his guard was down. “That’s my daughter,” he said. “Wife died seven months ago.”
“Daughter?” said the Bastard. “Is that so? Hmm, yes.”
But of course he knew about the daughter already. Here was the reason he had come to Wilson’s home in the first place. Here was the reason he had stolen the rye from the general store, and why he plied the farmer so generously while he himself abstained. When the daughter, still hidden, began to hum and sing, the Bastard broke character, and a wicked smile spread across his face. Wilson was already quite drunk, but through the haze he saw this smile, and found himself distantly concerned. Pointing at his guest, he slurred, “You, now. Wait a minute.”
“Drink up,” snapped the Bastard, “that’s all you want anyway, isn’t that right?”
Wilson cast his eyes down, impotent, scolded. Ducking his face to the mug, he snuffled like a hound, inhaling the rye’s burning fumes. He was simultaneously very glad and very sad.
Earlier in the day, the Bastard entered a feed store five miles to the east of Wilson’s farm. The clerk’s face was a broad purple depression with eyes and teeth dropped in, and he looked as though he had no bones in his body whatsoever — a gelatinous mass of blubber and grease-slick flesh. As such, the Bastard despised him on sight, for if there was one thing he had no tolerance for, it was the overweight. He greeted the clerk thusly: “Hello, my good man! Shaping up to be a fine day out there.”
“What’ll it be,” the clerk intoned, staring at the floor and chewing lazily. An unfriendly sort, but the Bastard had gone up against many a more formidable foe than this pellet salesman, and he kept his disgust well-buried.
“I wonder, sir,” he said, “if you might help me locate an acquaintance of mine.”
“A what of yours?”
“A friend,” he explained. “Or not quite a friend, but someone I met that I should like to visit with again. It was just outside your store, in the road there. He was a farmer, if I’m not mistaken.”
“Lotta farmers around here. Fact, that’s all there is. What’s his name, did you say?”
“Here now, we’ve arrived at the root of my problem. I never caught his name. But, I was thinking, perhaps if I were to describe him?”
The clerk said nothing. It seemed he was chewing on his own tongue.
“Hmm,” said the Bastard. “Yes, well, he was a working fellow, much like yourself.”
“You saying he looked like me?”
“Not terribly like you, no. But in the general sense, there was some similarity.”
“Mister, did he look like me or not?”
“He had a daughter with him,” said the Bastard. “A young woman.”
“All right. And what’s she look like?”
The delicate Bastard was prepared for just this question. He held his hand out to exhibit the golden wedding band on his ring finger. Speaking lowly, in confidence, he said, “I myself am already engaged to be married, and I fear that, since meeting my beloved, I have a habit of altogether ignoring the fairer sex.”
A customer entered the store and began walking the aisles with a hand truck. Peering over the Bastard’s shoulder, the clerk said, “You saying you saw the daughter or didn’t you?”
“What if you were to describe her? That is, describe some of the farmers’ daughters?”
The clerk groaned in annoyance, and the Bastard sensed he had used up every ounce of the man’s charity. Wordlessly, then, he laid a single bill onto the countertop. The clerk was unsurprised by this; he retrieved the money and stuffed it away, looking all the more accommodating, or at least not quite so hostile as before. “Okay, let’s see. There’s Lund’s girl. She’s about fifteen, ugly as a hedge fence, dog breath.”
“That doesn’t sound right, no.”
“Well, what about Miller’s girl, Sandy? Twelve years old, maybe. Coke-bottle glasses. Got a brace on her leg.”
The Bastard shook his head. “This was a young woman. And though I only glanced at her in passing, I seem to recall, if I may speak frankly — well, she was somewhat fair.”
“Mister,” said the clerk, “there ain’t no fair young women in these parts.”
The words settled in, and the Bastard wondered if there wasn’t some way he might get his money back. But no, the town was a wash — it had happened before — and he stepped back from the counter, automatically thanking the clerk and moving to the exit. Halfway to the door, however, the customer that had entered a moment earlier spoke to the Bastard from the far side of the store. “Could be Wilson’s girl you’re thinking of.”
The Bastard turned slowly. “Wilson,” he said.
The customer nodded. “My sister does their washing? Told me Wilson’s daughter’s shaping up to be a prize beauty. Blonde and fair, just like you mentioned.”
“Wilson hasn’t hardly set foot in town since his wife died,” the clerk said skeptically.
“A widower,” said the Bastard. “Yes, that sounds familiar.”
The customer said, “Sister says old man Wilson won’t let the girl out of the house. On account of how she looks I mean? Don’t seem right to me, but I’m not surprised, the way that man drinks. Well, what can you say about it?”
“Wilson,” said the Bastard. “Yes, it’s all coming back to me now.” Of the clerk, he asked, “Where can I buy a bottle of whiskey?”
“Three down from here,” the clerk answered, pointing.
“And which way is it to Wilson’s farm?”
In the general store he dropped a lit match into a paper-filled trashcan, and while customers and employees swarmed to bat at the flames he made off handily with the rye. He felt joyful as he left the town, forging ahead into the open spaces, the farmland. All or nothing, he thought, decapitating flowers with his stick of pine. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Wilson lay face down on the table, a void where only minutes earlier there was a man, or half a man. The Bastard wrenched the mug from the drunkard’s claw and returned the rye to the bottle. There was enough left to poison the farmer once more, perhaps twice. And after this, then what? I don’t know, and I can’t care, he thought. He had never been one to fret about the future. He stood and stepped further into the room, taking in his new surroundings with his hands behind his back, like a man luxuriating in a museum or rose garden. Each time this crucial maneuver of entering a home was accomplished, he was struck by the image that a house was, after all, much like a human skull.
The furnishings were unremarkable: candles, lace, quilting, and wicker. It had probably been a comfortable enough space before Wilson’s wife had died, but now it was bleak, dark — a sink full of grime-coated dinner plates greeted the Bastard as he stepped into the kitchen. The sight of it reminded him of something the helpful feed store customer had said, that his sister did Wilson’s washing. But why was this so, with the daughter in the house? Why was everything so dingy? This only made him all the more curious about the girl, and his head began to pound as he imagined her alone in her room. He thought, She’s let everything go to hell, while her father savors a slow death. He walked to the base of the stairs and kicked the tread with his heel. “Girl,” he called. “You up there, girl.” There came a gasp from the darkness above him, and the Bastard thought almost fondly of her paper-drumming mouse-heart. He returned to the kitchen and rolled up his sleeves. He had elected to clean the plates and cutlery himself, not to curry favor with his newest acquaintances, but because the very thought of their laziness filled him with an anger whose insistence was frightening to him.
They pulled Wilson up the stairs and installed him in his vinegary, scooped-out bed. The daughter stood panting and looking sadly down at her father. Her dainty hands rested atop the curve of her hips; the Bastard could not help but stare at the yellowing bruises on her otherwise pale and fine forearms and wrists. She noticed his noticing and pulled down the sleeves of her blouse. She was absolutely beautiful, it was true.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“No one, yet. I struck up a conversation with your father and he invited me in.”
She pondered the words. “My father does not strike up conversations.”
“Anyway, we spoke.”
“What did you give him to drink?”
Her face tightened. “You must never give him any more.”
“Why is that?”
By way of answering, she merely pointed at her father; and it was a thoughtful reply when the Bastard considered the farmer’s sorry state: his inhalations were stilted, his exhalations rasping, a high whine sounding over top of the gurgling lower tones emanating from the back of his throat. It was an unpleasant thing to witness, and the Bastard thought the man could die at any given point. The anger from moments earlier revisited him and he asked the daughter, “But who are you to say what I should and shouldn’t do?”
“Who are you at all?” she asked.
“I’ve just told you I am no one.”
“And yet here you stand, flesh and blood, you’ve kicked my stairs and upset my reading. You’ve poisoned my father and spoiled any chance he’ll lift a finger in the morning. If you are no one, sir, I should never like to meet someone, for what might he bring but utter ruin!”
The Bastard was opening his mouth to call the girl the second-rudest word he knew — it was forming in the basin at the center of his tongue — when suddenly the lone window in the farmer’s room flew open and a gust of cold wind swarmed them, ruffling their clothing and hair. The daughter rushed to close the latch, acting very much put-out, even embarrassed by the wind; the Bastard, on the other hand, was struck with a sudden good humor at the interruption, and by the time the daughter turned back, he was stifling laughter. Just the moment she noticed this, she too began to laugh. It was as though the fresh air and the loud rap of the pane hitting the wall, which had made them both jump, had cleaned away their independent worries, and now they stood together, partnered in a wholesome adventure. She returned to stand over Wilson and asked the Bastard, “Will you help me take his clothes off?”
“No, I won’t!”
They laughed again, and long after the laughter died, a smile clung stubbornly to the daughter’s lips. She found herself stealing glances at the stranger, her blue eyes darting in the candlelight. It is late to mention it, but the Bastard was terrifically, probably unfairly handsome.
“What is your name?” he asked.
“My name is Molly. What is your name?”
“Your name is Molly?”
“Your name is Molly. Molly, Molly.”
“Will you tell me your name or won’t you?”
“Molly,” said the Bastard, dreamily.
Wait now, he did help her disrobe Wilson after all, peeling away the damp socks, the stained pullover, the canvas pants, stiff from dried mud and muck. The farmer’s naked person was bordering on the macabre. It was like an exhibit people might pay a small fee to look over and afterwards feel exhausted by. His penis was tiny and thin, the hood chapped and wrinkled; the Bastard reached out and flicked the tip. Scowling, Molly asked him not to touch her father.
“That, and don’t give him any rye,” he said.
“You think I’m making a joke, but another dose of alcohol might kill him.”
“Here is the most interesting statement I’ve heard in hundreds of hours.”
Molly, cautiously: “Why won’t you tell me your name?”
But the Bastard was distracted by the odors Wilson was now sharing with the room. He hadn’t noticed at first, but all at once it was as though a pair of black-smoke hands had him gripped about the throat. Molly, too, could not ignore the stench. They turned longingly to the window.
“O, fickle wind,” said the Bastard, “will you never push when I wish you to push?”
Molly laughed a third time; the Bastard, not at all. Her gladness dried up at once, and what remained was confusion, also a vague lust — but mainly confusion. Who was this person in her home? What were his plans? And if she found these untoward, what might she do to prevent him from seeing them through? She had not spoken with anyone other than her father in so many days and nights.
“Come away,” she said. “I will see you out.”
Now the Bastard laughed.
They moved downstairs to sit together and drink weak tea. The Bastard said, “I expect your man will be by soon enough, and that he will wish to strike me down for my impertinence and forcefulness.”
“Oh, no,” said Molly.
“He is traveling, is that it?”
“He is not…” She shook her head. “There is no he.”
“He hasn’t died?”
“There is no one,” she answered tiredly. “There is never anyone.”
“Of course,” said the Bastard. “Yes, now I can see that. For if there were a man, you would not have those marks on your wrists and arms. If I were yours, there wouldn’t be.”
Molly watched him. Pointing at the golden band, she asked, “But why do you speak like this, when you are already another woman’s man?”
“What? Oh, this.” He had forgotten he was wearing the ring. He thought back to the man he had stolen it from, how fat he had been, how difficult it had been to remove. He pulled the band from his finger and pushed it across the table. Puzzled, she took it up and studied it politely.
When she pushed it back, he returned it to her.
“Put it on.”
“Because I love you.”
A flush of blood to her cheek and breast, and the Bastard became hugely engorged under the table. Later, after the re-opening of the rye, they fell to the floor before the stove and consummated a mutual admiration, which even for the Bastard was part-way genuine. After she had fallen asleep, he stayed awake a long while, looking out the high window at the stars in the sky. His mind was an illuminated scrim with nothing at all behind it.
The next morning, Wilson staggered down the stairs, a dedicated pain clamping his brain and eyes and teeth. As such, he was in a foul mood before he found his daughter and the Bastard wrapped in a naked embrace on the ground. He paced awhile, then removed his shotgun from the wall. The muzzle was cold against the Bastard’s chest; when he gasped, Molly awoke, speaking calmly, sanely: “But Father, you mustn’t. We’re to be married.” She pointed at the field of wheat behind the farmhouse. “There,” she said. The Bastard and Wilson both squinted to look.
The Bastard was happy all that week, and he fell into the wedding preparations with an atypical enthusiasm. Riding Wilson’s horse into town, he introduced himself to the dressmaker and tailor, the baker, the butcher, the priest, the jeweler, and grocer, explaining to all his predicament, which was this: despite his already being engaged to another, he had fallen quite unexpectedly and hopelessly in love with Molly Wilson, and they were to be married that very Sunday, as per her wishes. Of course, as everyone in town knew, Molly’s father had no money to speak of, and his meager crops could not be harvested for many weeks.
But no matter, the Bastard had sent a letter to his bank in N______, with instructions to empty his account and remit the balance just as soon as they were able. He admitted this was no pittance, and that, truth be told, he might pay for ten weddings one after the other and not lose so much as a moment’s sleep worrying about the expense. But, he explained, the bank could not be expected to return him his funds in so short a time, which was why he was now forced to throw himself upon the township’s mercy and request a line of credit. At the start, this went poorly, and he was rejected by all. When he returned the next day with the lovely Molly at his side, however, the vendors found themselves all the more inclined to assist this charming young couple, so clearly enamored of one another, and at last the Bastard’s every wish for the most lavish celebration was granted, and without a single penny paid out in advance.
The times they were not preparing for the wedding and making plans for their future, Molly and the Bastard were consummating. They consummated in every room in the house, including her father’s. They consummated in the barn, in the loft, in the stalls, and even in the wheat fields, hunched over like animals. Molly was an excellent consummator. The Bastard was surprised. You never can tell, he thought. The wedding drew near and there was virtually no chance she was not pregnant, which pleased him. Wilson, for his part, lay immobile most every day. The Bastard had had several cases of ale delivered to keep the old man quiet, which proved a shrewd and effective measure.
The Bastard inspected the stage that had been erected by town carpenters in the field behind the farmhouse. It was Sunday morning, just after dawn, and as he stepped about in the wheat he was struck by how cold it was on the ground, while at the level of his hip, where the sun poured over the top of the wheat, it was pleasingly warm. He climbed the stage staircase and walked along the sturdy boards. Standing in the very center, where he was to be married, he brought down his heel as hard as he might, but there was not a bow, not so much as a creak from the structure. The carpenters had been unhappy about working on credit, but they hadn’t shirked their work, and the Bastard admired them for it. He dragged his toe back and forth across the lumber, enjoying the sound the sawdust made as he ground it down. A wind came along and spun the dust in dizzy circles, then pulled it clear off the lip of the stage, scattering it over the crop. Looking up, he saw Molly standing in the kitchen window, beaming at him. He smiled and waved. He had a stick of wheat in his mouth. He felt jaunty.
Every inhabitant of the town stood before the stage, mingling and shaking hands, passing time with pleasantries and gossip. The weather was suited perfectly to the event and there was not a woman in the crowd that didn’t feel a twinge of envy, for all was picturesque, and the romance of Molly and the Bastard had become legendary:
“Oh, but his manners are so fine.”
“And did you see how pleased she looks?”
“She is positively glowing.”
“But who can blame her?”
“I understand he’s quite rich.”
Molly watched her guests from behind the curtain in her bedroom. The dressmaker was putting the finishing touches to the hem, but there was no rush or worry, and the bride-to-be felt serene and peaceful. There came a knock on the door and Wilson stepped in, hat in his hand. He wore a suit, and his hair was combed down and parted, his beard was trimmed, and he stood humbly, soberly before his daughter. When he spoke, his throat was choked with emotion.
“I want to tell you how pleased I am today, Molly. I know I’ve been a wretch to live with ever since your mother passed, with my drinking and mourning and carrying on. But I swear to you, from this point forward I am born anew. I will go back to being the man I once was, the man that raised you, a decent man, worthy of your love, and the love and respect of your husband and children.” He broke off, and Molly crossed the room to hold him. They were both in tears, as was the dressmaker. Wilson stood back, nodding, wiping his eyes and cheek. As he made his way to the door, he said the priest had arrived, and the guests were becoming restless. Molly asked after her beloved, and Wilson answered he had taken out the horse, to clear his mind he had said, but would be back any moment. He was wearing his new suit of clothes, Wilson told her, and he looked the picture of pride and prosperity.
Taken out the horse? Molly thought. She found this puzzling, troubling even, but then she often found him so. He was a mystery to her, sure enough. How queerly he watched her when they were consummating, for example. And often times he broke into doubled-over laughter for no reason she could understand. When she asked him what was so funny he would say, “Sooner or later, lovely Molly. Sooner or later you’ll know.” Molly had no use for the cryptic. She would straighten him out on that account, first order of business. Scanning the room, then, with its sparse, cheap furnishings, she wondered how much money the Bastard actually had. According to him, anyway, it was quite a lot. But she would get to the bottom of that also; here was the second order of business.
The dressmaker was nearly through with her adjustment when she stuck Molly’s ankle with a pin. Molly reeled and cursed her. A long silence, and neither woman moved.
“I’m sorry,” said Molly finally. “I’m under a good deal of strain lately.”
“I understand it perfectly,” said the dressmaker. “Let’s forget it ever happened.”
But the dressmaker would not forget, and as she took up the hem she thought, The slut screws her way into a fortune no one’s even seen, and already she’s putting on airs? She decided to pad the bill, which made her feel somewhat but not completely better.
At this same moment, the Bastard stood in the center of the empty town, panting. He had broken into every storefront on the main street and stolen all he might carry with him. Several of the businesses kept safes, which he hadn’t the time nor skill to open, and he was frustrated about this, but his satchel was filled with bills and coins and the most dazzling and exquisite jewelry, so he was not too terribly frustrated. He alley-ooped the heavy bag onto the back of Wilson’s horse and tied this to the saddle. He mounted the horse and walked her in a tight circle. Looking out at the town, at the shards of plate glass glittering along the length of the road, he breathed in as deep as he might, then raised his head skyward and said loudly the very rudest word he knew. Who in the world can know why this is, but God in heaven, it feels so good to say it, he thought. Wilson’s horse was all muscle as she ran. The Bastard ripped the tie from his neck and tossed it to the wind. Looking back, under his arm, he watched the ribbon of black silk spinning and dropping into the dusty wake, and this gave him satisfaction.