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Jul 11, 2013, 06:27AM

They Never Had a Baby

Fiction: And he couldn't figure out why.

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March 2–5, 1957, Los Angeles: They got word the day after moving into the new place, up in Trousdale. How was that for timing? Of course, Joan had decided on seeing the doctor just then because now they could afford the house — a beaut, 10 rooms and a view, a mansion that made him throw his arm around her waist and say, “Kid, I think we’re going to make it.” The odds and ends from their Bunker Hill flat, lugged by the movers, came rolling up the path and dropped into place after half an hour, tops. Almost a joke, those few things standing there in the palace. “We’re going to fill the place,” Joan said that evening. She’d made her doctor’s appointment weeks ago; no sense in hanging fire. The stars were finally right. They’d waited a while, of course, but now things were going to break their way.

If only. After the shock had been absorbed, after he could think of something besides the bare news Joan had brought home, he’d lie awake and his mind would ferret along the trail that had led to his wife sitting in their new living room, lighting cigarettes until she creased the empty pack in two and backhanded it somewhere across the floor. “You wanted them, didn’t you?” she said out of nowhere. “Yeah, I wanted them,” he said, and his mind reeled beneath a series of pictures that until now had never developed. All of a sudden, the colors were so bright they could cut you. Softball games, model airplane kits, a little princess with her tea set, a proud young man holding his diploma, father’s hand on his shoulder.

“Yeah,” he said, because under their influence that was the absolute least he could say. “I wanted —” Then he caught himself.

“Because there won’t be any,” Joan continued, speaking to the floor. “Because Rosen took a look, and he says—says—.” She began crying, the first time in years. “He says it’s too late now. I’m no goddamned good for this. He says that inside —”

Eppinger sat down, his hands trying to find somewhere to land so he could comfort her; he was used to poking and prodding, and her lean body didn’t seem meant for anything else. “That doctor’s no good,” he told her right off. She didn’t hear him, and soon he wasn’t listening either. But he kept talking for a while.

Watching her, though he’d never think of the word, he felt frightened. Joan’s high, narrow shoulders were bunched up by her ears, and her face was gone—nothing to see but white knuckles, and her head pushing forward against her hands, pulling back a little, continuously. “There are agencies,” he said at some point, but she didn't look up.

Joan slept for three days while Eppinger wandered the house. Every now and then he heard her get up and move around, but some instinct ordered him to keep her like the ghost in a Victorian mansion—always off down a corridor, or in the next room. Eppinger ate crackers and mayonnaise from the box of groceries they had bought for the first night. When he got to the front door to buy more supplies, an elastic band pulled him back in and up to the bedroom. He’d peek in at her: Joan slept with eyes screwed shut, an elbow over here, a knee over there, her mouth drawn tight. Then he’d head downstairs to his typewriter on its folding table. (His concentration crapped. The producers of Eagle Squadron would have to wait an extra three days for “The Unlikely Uprising of Augustus Rocannon.”)

At night Eppinger sat by the bed and smoked until his eyes fell shut. He’d seen her cry twice before: when she had found out about the secretary, that prick Darton’s secretary, and again when they got back together. This was four years ago, the Haley & Darton era. The agency. Those… well, old Haley and young Darton had found their niche, their little preserve, and they weren’t going to share.

Really, what made the secretary thing worse was that Joan had been so mad at Darton for holding him back. A few short years and by rights Eppinger had already earned a partnership. He knew it, Joan knew it. But damned if the chiefs would give it to him. This all boiled over at a party. The clients he was bringing in, Joan told Darton, the award last year’s spots had won, even that business trip to Chicago he’d handled… Trip to Chicago? Darton had the pleasure of pulling on a blank look; elaborately, he asked Joan what she meant. Realization rose up in her face like thunder.

Soon enough, of course, young Darton would figure out the non-trip’s other participant, to wit the young lady he liked to ogle while she answered his phones. Yes, the very same. So who, Eppinger asked himself, was the better man? (Apparently Darton wondered the same thing. During Eppinger’s final showdown over a partnership, the puppy mumbled something about “a man’s secretary.” Old Haley looked away, embarrassed. Well, good. A little honesty.)

After the secretary thing, after the battles with Darton and the old fool, after the phone calls and attempted late-night visits to her friends’ boarding house, he’d finally landed Joan behind a table at their favorite steak house. He laid it out. He wanted her, Eppinger said. He needed her. One mistake didn’t mean there’d be more. (A point he handled gently, since he had made so much of it during their fights: “Once. Once!”) She gave him a last earful, almost as good as the ones unleashed during the heat of battle. All right. He picked up again. San Francisco was over, he told her. Haley & Darton had decided its collective thumb wasn’t big enough to hold him down. Nor did he feel like climbing back a few rungs and fooling with the city’s small-timers, the other agencies. He was heading for Los Angeles—time to let the big boys see what he could do. And how about her?

Throwing it all away and starting over. A lot of scared little mice would have run for cover at the thought. But it was what she wanted to hear. “A deal,” she said slowly, extending her hand over the restaurant table. “It's a deal.” He kissed it. (“Oh, galant!”) Hours later, that same night, Joan started crying. She’d been off in the bathroom, getting ready for bed, and she treated the moment like one of those little upsets adults take in stride—stomach gurgles.

“You really are the biggest idiot,” she said, sitting up after a while. “Maybe I’m second.”

“Hasn’t stopped us yet,” he said.

For the next few years he did his work looking at a dent left in the wall by one of their fights. This was in the kitchen at their Bunker Hill apartment, their first home in Los Angeles. Well, God help him if he didn’t feel like tuna casserole for the fifth time in three weeks. Joan let fly with the tray, and for months the crater in the tinwork could make one or both of them break out laughing in mid-argument. Eppinger sat and typed; the works of Allen Kent kept them eating when gaps got too wide between Joan’s radio ads. The kitchen table belonged to him, understood, and he’d be banging away when she got back from a studio date. Joan would ease around his chair, holding the Stouffer’s; he’d finish a page and slap the day’s sheaf against the table for her to admire.

The L.A. ad agencies had trouble recognizing experience in the San Francisco market. He was damned if he was going to be a spear carrier, so instead it was the quickies, nine hours a day, six days a week. All right, that’s what writers did, and maybe he was more a writer than anything else. Sometimes he felt like he’d been set free. College taught him to think; for years he’d been carrying around his old books: Candide in its Modern Library edition; Frederick Jackson Turner’s The Frontier and American Democracy, heavily underlined through page 80; Patterns of Culture by Professor Albert G. Houston of the University of Pennsylvania, his anthropology textbook. Still, in the army and the ad biz, when did you get the chance to follow through? Now he felt his brain getting hot as he waded through research material at the library. He’d go in to find out about a kind of saddle and emerge hours later with one fist smacking his palm as he considered the Oregon border negotiations. But the real work came at the table. “The agony of Prometheus” was what Joan called his labors. With the dinners heating up she might lean back in her chair, drink her Rob Roy—popular that summer—and watch the faces come and go as he knit his brows and batted at the keys. “More gold?” she asked dryly when he pulled a page from the machine. But in fact she sat down to the early manuscripts, made sure he had the touch. “I don’t have to bullshit you,” she said the first time. “This reads.” Eppinger, who wanted to keep his nerves to himself, cocked his head down tight and trained his eyes past his cigarette for a couple of beats. Then he stood up, pulled back elbow and chin in a thoroughgoing stretch. “It works?” he asked. “Like a charm,” she said. “Now write me the rest.” The two of them believed in buckling down to a job.

Eppinger resumed his station and launched into the second half of Ambush Mesa, to be followed over the next 19 months by Two Squaws and Danger, A Winning Hand in Tombstone, Three of Blondes (private eye, and pretty much rote), Saturn Hop and Battle for Callisto (his first space stuff, more fun than he’d expected—he didn’t know where they got the covers, though), and then a return to form: Roan, Appointment in Bony Gulch, St. Cherokee. It was somewhere in the middle of all this when Joan found her little amusement. God knows how long that lasted; Eppinger didn’t want to keep track. A few weeks, two months; it seemed like years. He sat and hammered away while she came home later and later, and once the damn kid even called the house. (This was toward the end, apparently. “Well, why don’t you come over,” Eppinger told him, deadly quiet, “and see if she’s here?”) “It’s over,” Joan told him one evening, and his heart stopped. She saw the look on his face. “Him stupid.” And that had been her one time.

He had his reader back. Joan picked up again with the last two, nodding her head to herself as she lit her Kents, occasionally flipping her terrycloth robe back over her knee. By now he had knocked this work flat on its back, had his agent on the phone telling him that Silver Key was begging for another run of titles, maybe a series with Cherokee Jones (halfbreed gunfighter). Another year and that kitchen table could become a desk in a study, their Bunker Hill apartment could become a two-story house somewhere with lawns. They might have a long Cadillac out front and Joan could say goodbye to ass-backwards Baxter, the damn fool who produced those marina ads. “Radio,” she’d say to herself, tilting her jaw and examining the lines along her lean throat. Then, a little louder: “They couldn’t get the timing right.” She meant that television should have come along a few years before, when her face was younger. “That face is vintage,” Eppinger liked to tell her, a finger prodding her ribs from behind. She’d smile, shove his finger away. “You watch that, genius,” she’d say. “I bruise.” It was one of her lines.

If television couldn’t work for her, it could still work for him. “You’ve got to,” she said, when he was deciding. “Face it, the competition isn’t exactly Clifford Odets.” He grinned in acknowledgment, then let her know things might not be that simple: “A new form, and the New York crowd has things pretty sewed up. You want me to drop a year of the novels just to take the chance?” Besides, Defiance Canyon—that was his serious novel. It had burst out from some blazing research sessions and now sat as an outline and two chapters on his agent’s desk.

“Shut up,” Joan said. “TV is people talking, this time with a camera. You can’t do that? And they’ve got new shows out here every week—look at the paper.” Meaning Variety. “And there’s more time for your novel because we’re getting paid more for less.” All of which was true. “You’re just afraid it’s going to be too easy,” she followed up. “You want to keep making those faces over the typewriter.” She demonstrated, and then said he was practicing for the first kidney stone novel. They were both so far gone he couldn’t stop laughing. “But you’re right,” he said. “Fuck them. It’s time to move up a notch.”

So once again he was dancing over the great wide open. He charged through his first script, cursed and spat when he saw the indenting was all over the place, then parked his butt to type it again that night. Script number five, three months into the process, and he had a sale. Same with scripts number seven, eight, 11, and up. He had the knack of this thing. Some of the best stuff didn’t get through, of course. Between your typewriter and the screen was a whole row of monkeys. You screamed the first dozen times, and there’d be a couple of shows you wouldn’t be hearing from (and they wouldn’t be hearing from you), but you went with it. “A hostage to the gods,” Eppinger would say when a particularly fragrant speech came off his fingertips. Then he’d read it to Joan. “Think it’ll get through?” she’d ask. “Not a chance,” he’d answer.

Joan had quit radio without regret. Old Baxter received a hefty chunk of her mind the day she stacked the pages of her last script, folded her hands (telling the story, she demonstrated how), and told him exactly what she thought of that damned klaxon sound effect he insisted on for her key line. Now she was lady of the house, and ready—. But the main thing… the main thing… and here Eppinger’s thoughts would run down.

He blamed those idiots back at Haley & Darton. “Blamed” was not putting it right. He sat by Joan and his mind put events together. Things had come up and he’d had to wait, and now it couldn’t happen. That was one way of putting it. But work the matter out and you could see. At Haley & Darton they’d just gotten married and, all right, neither of them was itching for family just yet, but they still had some time and he had the salary. Then the problem with Darton’s secretary, that was a few months, and it hadn’t helped the situation with Darton himself and his partner.

But those pricks… that was the nub. “Let’s have this conversation in five years,” Haley said the first time Eppinger marched into his office. Lord. He had come to them ready to work, and he did work. Now time had come to discuss the top floor. “You see yourself as quite the fireball, Ben,” said young Darton, who liked to chime in. All right, a fireball. Three years in and how many clients said they wanted him on their account? A half dozen, from what he heard. The partners could have recognized that, could have rewarded the achievements, or they could hunker down and hope he’d play good Indian. They made their choice.

That was the moment that accounted for the lost years, the point when he got shunted off the track and had to find a new one. They would not listen. His shoulders drew in and his knuckles got white as he thought about it. Haley he didn’t blame so much, the old man… but Darton—. And then the years at the kitchen table.

“Guts,” he said silently, looking at Joan as he had been looking at her off and on for about 18 hours. “You stuck by me, kid. Guts.” The tears washed into his eyes, briefly. He shook his head and after a minute could see again.

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