THE UNWANTED CHILD
by Terence Hughes
Joyce Evans counted herself among the blessed breed of woman who was still madly, deeply in love with her doting husband after 18 years and with three handsome, extraordinary sons as the crowning glory of their just about perfect union. She met Phil when she was 17, in her freshman year at a rather sequestered women’s college. He cut a dashing figure as the lead saxophonist of the big band that played in the nearby town one night in early October.
Joyce hung around after the show and heard them jam. Phil was wilder than during the show, masterfully making love to his sax. He was everything the movies had taught her to desire. She was tempted to give herself to him that night, but sense prevailed. Phil told her the band was laying over for the night before they went to another college not too far away. They made a date to meet for lunch at a diner near campus. She allowed him a brief, hot kiss.
Joyce was caught up in these recollections when Clark came home from high school, starving as always and declaring that he had a ton of homework. “Can you make me some coffee, Mom? I have to write a paper on one of the stories in Dubliners. Out of the blue, just like that! And I have a trig exam tomorrow too.”
Joyce went about making his sandwich and coffee. “You know you’ll do well. You’ll ace it. Everything.” She ruffled his hair and kissed his head. “Just relax a few minutes, it will do you good.”
Clark was her oldest. He was a strapping boy, modestly athletic and highly intelligent. He was the image of his father, and her favorite. He was in his senior year and applying to colleges like Brown and Dartmouth. His safe schools were the likes of Colby and Trinity, and they were all in New England, where his father hailed from. His father kept urging him, rather peremptorily, Joyce thought, to go to a state college: low cost and “you get just as a good an education as at some Ivy.” Joyce approved when Clark responded, “You don’t meet the right kind of people at a state school, Dad.”
Clark went upstairs with a thermos of coffee, and she busied herself with dinner preparations. She glanced outside to check on the younger boys. They were playing touch football with the neighborhood kids. The Indian summer light fell on them like joy.
She smiled and let her thoughts steal back to the momentous day she and Phil met for hamburgers at the diner, and then they walked along the lake, hand in hand. They found a sunny spot away from the path, enchanted with the beauty of the falling leaves of gold and red. “Shh!” she whispered. It was so quiet they could hear the leaves hit the leaves that had already fallen. Soon the gentle falling was replaced by the sounds of their passion. It was Joyce’s first time; she reflected that it wasn’t Phil’s, and for that she was glad. He was masterful. She gasped, “I love you.” Just before climax Phil whispered, “I love you, Joycie.”
Joyce realized that it had been a generic love scene, even a cliché. Still, to her it was the beginning of life. She held that knowledge close in the anxious months of secrecy that followed. On New Year’s Day 1940 Phil, who had been playing all night in Rochester, made it to her house for the last of the big holiday dinners. He was to meet Dr. and Mrs. Worthington.
“Mother, Dad, this is Phil Evans, the young man I was telling you about.” Her parents assessed him, and she could guess their responses, starting with her father, who thought nothing and no one was good enough for his only child: Kind of raffish, this young fella, hair’s too long, clothes kind of loud. Musician! Drug addict. Bum.
Her mother was probably thinking: Very attractive but not for us. And not for our Joyce.
Their dinner consisted of roast beef, stiff conversation, and lengthy silences. They gathered in the parlor for coffee afterwards. Joyce’s mother remarked, “You’re not drinking your coffee, dear. And you barely ate a bite. Aren’t you feeling well?”
Joyce and Phil grew very still and cast a furtive eye in each other’s direction. Her parents caught the look and gaped at each other in growing horror. Then all four of them stared at the rug as if the pattern would provide an answer to the dilemma.
The doctor thundered, “Do you mean to say -- ?”
Phil sat up straight and said, “We are going to be married. We need your permission. Sir.”
Mrs. Worthington looked like she was going to faint. “How far…?”
“Almost three months.” Joyce couldn’t look at her mother. “You see, I love Phil. Love him.”
“You certainly do not,” shouted the doctor. “You fell, like a silly little girl, for some bum – a musician! – who fed you a line. No, I will not give you permission to marry. Joycie, hear me. I can get this taken care of for you. There’s a doctor in Buffalo…”
She flared up. “No!”
Phil spoke up and declared, “This is going to be my child, Dr. Worthington. I will support it and Joyce forever. I love your daughter. And I will not have her violated by some butcher in Buffalo.”
A deep silence fell on the group. Helen Worthington broke down. “Oh George, how could you suggest such a thing to our girl? This boy has pledged to do the right thing.” She raised her head from the rug-studying position. “I give you permission to marry.”
“Well, I don’t!”
“I gave birth to her. I carried her in my womb for nine months. She’s more my daughter than yours, George. Your work was done in three minutes.” The doctor blushed red and murmured, “Helen!”
Joyce laughed. She had always been told that she was a premature baby, born six and a half months after her parents’ marriage. She never believed it, but now it was public knowledge that Helen Whitehead had had to get married too. Joyce reached over to Phil and grabbed his hand. Her pride and adoration of him made her eyes shine. “Since they haven’t got a leg to stand on, darling, I consider us permitted to get married.”
And they were two days later.
She relived the scene constantly, smiling warmly at Phil’s heartfelt defense of her and his declaration before the awful might of her indulgent, needy parents. In a second they seemed like husks to her. Phil was the solid one, the tower of her strength, the only one whose word meant anything. She was ironing Phil’s shirts when he came in caroling, “Hiya, baby, love ya.” He nuzzled her neck and she cried, “Oh, Phil! What if the boys come in.”
“I think they know their father and mother love each other, sugar bun.” He stood behind her and gently squeezed her nipples. She nearly dropped the iron. He bent down as she craned her neck to kiss him on the lips.
“The important question,” he said, laughing, “is what’s for supper.”
“Beef stew, and no cracks.”
Phil made a face. They had beef stew at least once a week. It was one of the few ways they could get meat in their diet.
Joyce’s heart swelled with happiness. She hummed “There’s a Small Hotel” as she finished the ironing. While she was setting the table, Phil came in and started laying out the silverware, and lightly she said, “Well, darling,” – which she always pronounced like Bette Davis – “I have some news for you.”
“Don’t tell me. Eggs were on sale?” he joked.
She stopped what she doing and faced him squarely. “Phil, honey -- .“ She was beaming with joy.
His face went white.
The golden Indian summer had turned into a foretaste of winter over night. Sleet fell on Syracuse. It had worked its way down his back, turning his dark mood to pure black. He tramped in and out of his customers, the delis and grocery stores and restaurants that bought the beef and pork that his company sold. His ’54 Ford, which he which he had bought second hand a year ago, was behaving in a troubling way, and he spent time peering under the hood making sure wires were connected and levels were acceptable. The state of the tires worried him every day.
By three o’clock he was done with his rounds. He went and entered the orders, then sat in his office with the door locked. It was snowing, and the wintry light reflected into the dark room.
Phil believed he was a good husband and father – a damn sight better than his own had been – but no great provider. He didn’t throw himself into his job the way the up-and-comers, like Frank Molloy, did. Frank was on point every goddamn day. Phil was 40, stuck in the same job for seven years, and it was drudgery. As always his eyes were on the irretrievably lost prize of saxophone fame. The sacrifice he made, oh he was so noble when Joyce got pregnant, he regretted it every day from the time he got up in the dark and went to the warehouse to the time he went to bed, exhausted from another day on the treadmill. Some days he felt like he was drowning in darkness.
Joyce and the boys were all that made it tolerable. And now Joyce threatened his sole consolation by getting pregnant again, at this age, when he was worried sick over how to pay for Clark’s college and avoid a third mortgage on the house; Joyce didn’t even know that he had taken out a second mortgage three years ago to cover the down payment on the Ford and braces for Glenn, as well as the exorbitant heating oil bills in a particularly frigid winter and some support for his widowed mother-in-law, who was living downstate with her widowed sister, doctor money gone.
On the way home Phil stopped at a tavern near the office. He could count on one hand the number of times he had done this over the years. He nursed a double Scotch and soda for over an hour, thinking dark thoughts and trying to cheer himself up so Joyce wouldn’t be seized by panic. Sometimes he wished her devotion wasn’t quite so complete. She gave him no room to breathe, did she, and now this. Another fucking mouth to feed.
The snow had stopped. The roads weren’t dangerous, just slushy. When he got home he was a bit slushy himself. “Joycie, I’m home!”
She appeared from the laundry room carrying neatly folded sheets and planted a big kiss on him. She leaned back. “Philip J. Evans, did you stop for a drink? Either it’s been a really good day or a really bad one.”
He smiled and shrugged. “It’s a day.” She took his coat and hat. “What’s for supper?”
“Chicken cutlets.” Another staple. He kept smiling. Joyce enlisted Glenn, number two son, to set the table and fill the water glasses.
Phil stood there for a few minutes watching them and listening to their chatter about the day. Joyce was glowing with her happy secret. He resented this happiness. It seemed selfish – willfully blind – some disastrous way to hold on to her youth.
He said he was going to wash up. The only bathroom was at the top of the stairs. Clark occupied it. Phil knocked on the door. “Come on, Clark, it never took me that long when I was your age.” Clark emerged, red-faced, a magazine tucked under his sweater.
“Dad…” The boy was angry.
“Don’t you have a load of homework?”
“I needed to release tension,” Clark said loftily. “It’s very bad for your health to hold it in.”
“I wish I’d held it in more often.” He glared at Clark, who glared back.
Inside the locked bathroom, Phil sat on the toilet lid and buried his face in his hands. Worry about money was nothing his resentment of his wife, the boys, and all their demands. The youngest, Duggie, knocked. “Hurry up, Clark. Don’t hog the bathroom. I really gotta go.”
“Just a minute, sporto.” No time for himself, never five minutes at a time. Phil washed up, avoiding his face in the mirror. Duggie whined, “Dad, I gotta really go.”
“Shut up, Douglas.”
Joyce saw a change in Phil over the length of the meal. At first he had a phony smile planted on his face, then he seemed to grow preoccupied and didn’t follow the boys’ conversation. As she was cleaning up he didn’t say, as usual, Swell supper, babe. He went to the den and sat in the dim light of a little desk lamp, which they had inherited from her father. Everything in the room had been the doctor’s. When her mother became ill and had to give up the big house, they got the second-best collection of pieces.
Joyce went in to him and sat in his lap. He held onto her as if she’d fly away. “What’s wrong, honey? Is it something at work?” She relaxed when he nodded. “Well, you’re a smart man. You’ll figure it out.” She kissed him and squeezed his hand. She got up. “I have to run herd on those boys.”
“Joyce – “
“What is it?” His tone disturbed her. He sounded like he was in trouble. “Tell me, Phil. I know something’s wrong.”
He shook his head. “Nothing, nothing.” He didn’t look at her.
“Oh.” She knew what the nothing was. “Oh.”
They retired early. Clark was still up studying and writing his paper while Glenn fidgeted around in bed. Every once in a while he groused, “Clark, turn off the damn light.”
Phil poked his head into the hallway. “That’s enough, Glenn. Let your brother work in peace.” He got into bed, where Joyce was reading a women’s magazine. “Nobody gets any peace around here.”
“You’ve got something to tell me.” Her voice was taut. She saw her happiness falling like the last leaves of a maple. Phil sat up and looked at the ceiling. He really should do something about that water damage.
He stalled a few moments, pretending to be lost in thought. “We’re having a hard time getting by. I’m a washout. A crummy provider. I’m sorry, Joycie but …”
She stared at an ad for a bra you could wear to a fancy dress ball. “You mean we can’t afford another child to love. That’s what you mean.”
Phil looked at the scarred dresser across the room. “We can’t afford the ones we have. We’re in debt. And will be as far as the eye can see.”
She was aggrieved. “I stretch the budget as far as I can. Food, for example. I – “
He raised his hand. “I know you do, Joyce. For Chrissakes.”
Joyce took her time, too. She lost herself in her own resentments. She had been a fool, a woman living in an illusion, and she said, “Look at me. Look at me, Phil. I know exactly what the problem with you is. I’ve always known it. You resented giving up your music, and the dreams that went with it. You resent me and the boys every day. Your life isn’t what you thought it would be. Neither is mine.” Then for the first time in eighteen years, she spoke bitterly. “I had hopes for a better life, too, Phil. One where we had some fun, where we went out to nice places and had a lot of good friends. Maybe go on a vacation – not a weekend at the lake every two years. Not stuck here in this drafty old house where you can’t get warm in winter.”
Her tone made him angry. “If you’re so unhappy, leave. Take the boys with you. Move in with your mother. That’d serve you right.” He assumed the voice of martyrdom. “I’ve done everything I could for you and the boys. I don’t think you realize how hard it’s been all these years.”
Joyce glared at him. “Say it.”
“What you’ve wanted to say all evening. Go ahead, say it, you goddamn coward.”
He collected himself. Staring at the magazine he said, “Get it taken care of.”
She threw the magazine on the floor and turned out her light.
He was the world’s dotingest father. He held Elizabeth, who was named after his mother, who died when he was ten. He held the baby at every opportunity. He dandled her and cooed to her and sang nonsense songs from the Forties. Joyce said, “Happy?” His eyes shone and he nodded, kissing the baby on the head.
He looked in Joyce’s direction. “Why don’t you get some rest? You’ve been exhausted ever since Elizabeth was born. I’ll take care of her. I’ve changed enough diapers over the years.”
She got up and made for the kitchen. She paused at the doorway, not turning around. “Do you want any tea?”
Phil was gazing at Elizabeth, enraptured. He tickled her and she burbled. “What?”