Randall McDarren turned from the television to Steve, his eldest son, annoyance already twisting his face. Steve knew better than to interrupt a Browns game. Even if the Browns were losing.
“This had better be important.”
Steve met his glare. “It is. You need to hear this.”
Randall took a swig of his beer and considered his son. Maybe he had reconsidered his decision about college and football. Randall’s eyes drifted to the trophies on the mantel. Randall had a couple for being on championship teams, but Steve, a champion himself, had trophies for individual accomplishment. Still, he had decided to not even try for a football scholarship. He had every excuse. His grades weren’t good enough for a scholarship. He wasn’t good enough for the pros. He needed to think about his future, be practical about it.
However, as Randall’s gaze returned to his son, he saw a hesitancy in Steve’s posture which told him that he was going to disappoint him again.
Randall pictured Steve’s girlfriend, in that damn cheerleader uniform she always seemed to be wearing, disguising her manipulations in bouncy support. Randall was certain Christine had talked Steve out of trying for a scholarship. She claimed she only wanted to ensure they had a secure future, but Randall knew differently. She was afraid she’d lose him. Which she probably would, if he became the college star Randall expected. Definitely if he went pro.
“Pregnant? How?” Even as he spoke, Randall realized how stupid that question was. Steve didn’t bother to answer it.
“We’re not ready to have children,” he said instead.
“I should say not!” Randall couldn’t see this as anything other than more of Christine’s manipulations. Now she had Steve trapped for sure.
“How...?” He wanted to chastise his son for not being careful. Not that they had ever discussed such concepts. “How could you let this happen?”
“We were using... protection. I guess it didn’t work.”
Randall’s anger grabbed at that violation of his upbringing. “You... were...” he started to scream. But the words wouldn’t come out. He couldn’t yell at his son for trying to prevent the pregnancy and for letting it happen. That contradiction only made him madder; his anger burned within him, without release, searching for the right target.
Steve seemed to sense the coming explosion, and waited for it. When Randall remained silent, he went on. “This is not a good time for us to have kids. I mean, of course we want a family eventually, but if I’m going to... go to college... to play ball...”
Wait a minute! What was he saying? “I thought you decided against...”
“It was never a final decision.”
It had sure sounded final when Steve announced it to him a few months back. Randall remained silent in his raging confusion.
As if he could hear Randall’s thoughts, Steve went on. “I mean, this is making me think... about what I really want to do...”
“It’s a little late for that, isn’t it?”
“No. We can... we can still take care of it.”
It took Randall a few moments to comprehend that statement. His voice rose. “What are you talking about?”
Steve straightened his shoulders and spoke the words. “An abortion, dad. It’s the only way.”
Now the explosion came. “What!? You think you can come in here and... and... tell me that...” Randall could barely put his thoughts together. “Are you trying to... to negotiate for my permission? Do you think that if you tell me you’ll play college ball after all, then I’ll say you can... you can...” Randall couldn’t even say the words. “You think you can trade your child’s life away like that?”
Steve said nothing. Randall turned and stalked away from him, trying to bring the room back into focus. This den was his shelter, and he struggled to see the items which usually brought him comfort -- his guns, the football trophies, the painted wildfowl on the walls. But it had all turned against him now.
He whirled back at Steve. “Haven’t I taught you anything?” he demanded. A phrase came to him, and he grabbed it fiercely. “The sanctity of human life. What does that mean to you? Anything? What did we send you to church for anyway?”
“I haven’t been to church in years, Dad.”
“Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe if you had kept going you would have learned something. Like right from wrong! Maybe--”
“You haven’t been there either.”
Anger now flooded Randall completely, blinding him, blocking his thoughts, and his words.
“Out!” he finally screamed. “Out of my house! You’re not my son! Not anymore! Get out!”
Randall sat uncomfortably on his living room sofa. He would have much preferred to hold this meeting in his den, his sanctuary. But his wife, Mona, had insisted on the living room, had insisted on, in her words, “a formal setting.”
Not that the living room took any prizes in decor. The mismatched furniture around him was unified only by caring wear. An unused fireplace radiated a minor chill. Younger, smiling versions of the three children looked down from the walls, along with a large wooden crucifix, its body tortured but its face serene. Whatever formality it had was merely because the family rarely used it.
And why did he have to meet Christine in a “formal setting” anyway? Mona insisted it was a question of respect, but Randall couldn’t help wondering if she wanted him uncomfortable. Wanted him to give in to Christine. Mona had arranged this meeting, hoping to effect a reconciliation. Randall had no such illusions.
Christine entered, dressed in a plain teal sweater and matching skirt, which reached demurely to her knees. Randall barely recognized the bouncy cheerleader he was familiar with, all leg and energy. A simple gold cross lapped over the neck of her sweater.
Although they had met many times, they greeted each other as strangers, almost enemies. Randall was prepared to hate her; he felt the whole situation was surely her fault. She had tried to trap Steve by getting pregnant. Leaving his son no choice but to... He still couldn’t pronounce, even in his mind, just what Steve had done.
However, the softness of her appearance damped his anger. He found in her smile a sincere desire for him to like her. Still, he eyed her critically.
She sat timidly before him. She looked at him briefly, then averted her eyes from his heavy stare. They darted around the room before settling on the bare coffee table, where they remained while she gave her speech. She had obviously rehearsed it.
“Steve and I have found a place to live. A nice little apartment on Patterson Way. The rent is cheap, we’re doing okay. So it’s not like we’re begging for a place to stay. Don’t think that.
“But Steve misses his family. He wants to be able to visit his mother. To see Tim and Monica at home.
“To see you.”
Now she lifted her eyes to him. Her stare attempted to be resolute, but wavered, her eyes shifting and blinking. But her voice remained strong. “Mr. McDarren, I don’t know if you realize this, but your son loves you. He truly does, and he wants-”
“If he loves me, why did he do what he did? Why did he disobey me like that? Answer me that!” Randall snapped, unable to hold back any longer.
“This had nothing to do with you.” Now her stare steadied on him. “This was between Steve and me. I don’t see how it concerns you at all.”
“It concerns me because I tried to teach him right from wrong. And now, by doing... this... he’s gone against everything I taught him. Everything!”
“Don’t you see that we had to?” She looked away again, her gaze angling across the room at nothing. “It wouldn’t be right to have a child now. We can’t afford to raise it properly. We want a family, but only when... when we can make it happy.”
“Right? Right? It’s never right to take another life! What about the child, dammit!”
“It was my kid! Mine!” She snapped her gaze back to him. Her eyes were wet with emotion, but whether pain or anger, he could not tell. “If I can accept it, why can’t you?”
“I can never accept something that’s not right!”
“You’re cold, Mr. McDarren. Don’t you love Steve? How can you let concern for someone who... who never existed! How can you let that overpower your love for your own son?”
“It doesn’t work like that. I can’t love someone who doesn’t do right... I can’t trade...”
“Life’s not that simple, Mr.McDarren. Do you think... I didn’t want this child? I did. We both did. But the time wasn’t right. It wasn’t right for me. It wasn’t right for Steve.... It wasn’t right for the baby.”
“It’s still wrong. Wrong is wrong.”
“It would have been wrong to try to raise a baby we’re not ready for. Steve and I both agree on that.”
Randall glared at her. She and Steve were in conspiracy together against him. They had actually discussed disobeying him, had actually agreed to do it.
“You’re telling me that you and Steve discussed this. And decided ... logically!” He spat out the word. “... to go against me. And now you’re here, using that same ... logic... to ask me to forgive you!”
Randall leapt out his chair, stomped around the room as he shouted his lecture. “This isn’t a question of logic, it’s a question of what’s right and wrong. You can’t compromise on that. You... two... have done something so wrong... Wrong! It’s just wrong, and that’s all there is to it!”
He no longer saw Christine, no longer even thought about her, he ranted his righteousness to the air. When he finally stopped and looked at her, she was crying. He paused, at first certain the tears were just another trick. She had probably used them on Steve, but they weren’t going to work here. If she had been Mona, he certainly would have told her to stop with the games.
“Do you think this was easy, Mr. McDarren?” Christine finally choked out. She tried to wipe away her tears. “This was the most painful thing I have ever done. It wasn’t easy at all.”
Something in the room shifted for Randall. He saw that the tears were genuine, but still felt manipulated by them. His resolution wavered.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered, trying to wipe away her tears. “I thought I could do this... I thought I could get through it.”
Now Randall waited for Christine, waited for her to say something which would ease his growing confusion, or give him something to be angry about again.
“Oh. Mr. McDarren, I wanted that child. It was my own, and I wanted it. ” Christine was crying freely now. She wiped her eyes furiously, held her fists against them as if she could block the tears. They came anyway. She spoke slowly, in a halting voice, almost stuttering. “I mean, I didn’t want to get pregnant. That ... just happened. But, once I was... it was my little baby in there, and I wanted to love it, to mother it... to raise it.” She paused uncertainly. Randall found himself hushed, his anger vanished.
“It hurt,” she finally went on. “It hurt so much. And all I could think was that this way my punishment. I deserved this pain. I ... I almost wanted it to hurt more.” Christine paused, drawing a deep breath. The tears hovered on her lashes, waiting. “Then, for days after, there was an aching pain. Here.” She gingerly touched her belly. “And that was my baby... saying goodbye.”
Randall sat back down, and instinctively, almost unconsciously, patted the sofa beside him. Christine stared blankly at his hand on the fabric, as if unable to comprehend it. Then she studied his face, and, apparently finding something there, moved over beside him. He put his arm around her, and held her sobbing body to him. He was surprised at the firmness and strength he felt there.
He was also surprised by the jumble of emotions he felt inside himself. It had started as simple concern for Christine, almost a reflexive attempt to soothe her wounds. But there was also a sense of apologizing for his son, for what he had done to her. Almost as if it was his fault, as if this was atonement for his own actions, compensation for some error he had made years ago. An error he no longer remembered.
Christine’s sobs ebbed. Randall gave her a final hug, then released her. She stood up wobbly, but quickly composed herself. They looked at each other warmly, though with a slight embarrassment and confusion. Finally, Christine whispered, “Thank you.” Then there seemed to be no more to be said, and she quietly departed.
Randall remained sitting on the sofa, unsure of what had just happened. He felt Christine had validated his position, but that notion gave him no joy. He had still, somehow, lost the argument, had forgiven them, welcomed them back into his family.
He headed downstairs to his den, to the comfort of his bourbon and television, and the simple certainty of his trophies.