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Barefoot and Pregnant In Des Moines


ISSUE:  Spring 1984

We’re not poor anymore,” I say, almost shout. “We can afford for you to fly out and join me, any time you want to.”

The French doors are closed, and the air conditioner breathes unobtrusively in the background, like a large, sleeping pet. Gwen is wearing a dress the color of green liqueur. Her nyloned legs are crossed delicately at the ankles; her short, dark hair gleams enticingly. She sits forward on the sofa, her green eyes intent. Her lipstick and nail polish are a matching cardinal red.

When Gwen is like this, intent, sincere, lips slightly parted, eyes focused on my face, waiting for me to say something, I find it almost impossible to believe she doesn’t understand my feelings, doesn’t comprehend how she tears me to pieces with her indifference, her deception. She is so darkly beautiful; my heart feels like a frog held in cupped hands.

“Look,” I go on, digging a Mets schedule from the pocket of my team jacket. “There’s at least a ten-day home stand almost every month. Once, here in July, we’re home for eight days, on the road for three, then back in New York for nine days. We could have almost three weeks together. You don’t have to come to the games, you know that. You can go to plays and concerts. . . .”

“I can hardly drag Charlene to plays, concerts, and ballgames,” Gwen says in her easy, languid New Orleans drawl. Her voice is so naturally pleasant, I have to listen closely for inflections in order to tell when she is cross or perturbed.

“You can hire a baby sitter,” I counter.

“Really, Millard, you know what those New York people are like . . .so . . .irresponsible. I couldn’t leave Charlene with one of them. Besides, she gets so cranky when she’s away from home.”

Millard! Gwen only uses my given name when we’re having a serious discussion. I’ve been known as Dude, ever since Little League. One of the trivia questions TV announcers ask during the seventh inning is, “What is Dude Atchison’s given name?”

For almost three months, since about Christmas, I’ve been pushing Gwen to come right out and let me know how much time we’re gonna have together this coming season. Since Christmas, she’s called me Millard more than she ever has.

Gwen’s granddaddy was an important man in New Orleans society around the turn of the century. He owned an undertaking parlor and lived in a fancy three-story frame house on Prytania Street. Gwen’s mama still has a photograph of that fancy house; along with a photograph of her daddy, a bald-headed man with a vegetable-brush moustache and round glasses, him standing by a table loaded with expensive china and linens. Gwen’s family lost their money during the Depression. Her granddaddy died in the charity ward of a hospital. Her daddy ran off with a cocktail waitress, to California, about the time she was seven years old.

Having money is what’s caused all our trouble. Who’d ever think that? When I was in the minors, barely making enough to live on, Gwen didn’t mind being with me. She didn’t mind the seedy little studio apartment in Butte, Montana, when I played for the Butte Copper Kings in Rookie League, or that basement in Burlington, Iowa, where the black water bugs, big as quarters, clicked across the linoleum at daybreak. Part of the reason she didn’t mind was we didn’t have things any better here in New Orleans. The first off-season after we were married we lived in her mother’s back bedroom. Her mama lived in this tiny frame house where the siding hadn’t been painted for so long it had gone back to the color of a moth, where the yard was overgrown and close enough to downtown to be unsafe for any of us to go walking after dark.

In those days we were glad to get away to training camp, happy to be able to make love with abandon, not having to worry about the springs protesting too loudly, or Gwen’s mother wrinkling up her nose when we came back into the tiny living room; Gwen able to cry out her passion, not having to bite the pillow or my shoulder in order to keep silent.

I’m really surprised that we’re not any happier, living in this glass and brick wonder the way we do. I’m told it’s worth a half-million dollars, The house sits on about five acres bordering Jefferson Parish; the lawn rolls down toward our own bayou, wide as a freeway, where drooping cypresses wade in the tepid water. I have my own pitching machine, and no matter how far I hit the baseballs it flings at me, they land on my own property.

There are a lot of things in our life that aren’t right. The first being Gwen and I had agreed not to have children. It must have been about our second date that the subject came up.

“I never want to have any kids,” I said.

“All boys talk that way,” Gwen replied, and smiled, rather condescendingly.

“No, I’m serious,” I said. I reached across and touched her hand; her fingers were cool and her whole hand so delicate it might have been made of lace. We were sitting in an ice cream shop, at a table with a clear glass top and white wrought-iron insect legs. “I decided long ago that I never want children. People shouldn’t have children unless they truly want them. And I can’t imagine ever wanting one.”

“Oh, well, I guess it isn’t something we have to worry about right away,” Gwen said and smiled that same smile. I would never be sure if it was enigma, admiration, or contempt.

Gwen was wearing a starched white top and a pleated skirt the color of lemons. Her pale-brown hair was razor-cut and every hair knew where it belonged. Her eyes were green with flecks of gold and the freckles across the bridge of her nose left me breathless.

The subject of children came up often over the winter as we got more and more serious about each other.

“Where would you be if your parents hadn’t wanted children,” Gwen’s mother would say and laugh lightly. She is a horse-faced woman with protruding teeth, young enough that she and Gwen are more like girlfriends than mother and daughter. She is good natured but a woman who always gets her way.

Looking back, I think she had more to do with this house than I realized. She occupies a whole suite of rooms and has her own rose garden and a private gardener. Where would I be, indeed? Where would she be if I couldn’t hit a baseball 400 feet. “Dude, you cover the outfield like a condom,” the best sportswriter in America said to me. “I’ll think up some other image to use in my damn family newspaper,” he went on, “but I just want you to know what I’d like to write about you.”

Never trust anyone to change. I guess that’s the lesson I’m learning. It’s a hard lesson. Your spots are painted on by parents, sometimes branded on. They can’t be scraped off, worn off, or loved off.

“Mother says you’ll change after we’re married,” Gwen said to me once.

“I thought I made myself pretty clear,” I said. “Like you I didn’t have a daddy around, but I had a mother who whined to anyone who’d listen, about what a burden I was and how I’d ruined her life. I reckon she’s still in Oklahoma City, in a yellow stucco apartment that don’t even have air conditioning. Still whining. Well I might be just as bad a parent as she is. I’m never gonna have children; if you have any trouble accepting that, break the engagement.”

There is a special organization for couples who have opted not to have children. They even have a newsletter, Optional. Parenthood Today. I joined, and made sure Gwen read the newsletter. I was more fair than anyone could have asked.

I tried to explain to Gwen what I saw on the road. The agony players went through being part-time fathers, scarcely knowing their children, being treated like strangers, like intruders in their own homes during the off-season. Those same men were always delighted to hit the road; they showed up days early for spring training, glad to get away from the strangers who were their family.

Worse still were the ones who really cared and still lost. Buck Wallin, our starting catcher last year, was a veteran of four years in the majors and five in the minors. He was only 27, but he’d married his high school sweetheart and she’d stayed at home in Poston, Alabama, had three kids and a house the size of a country club. Buck flew her and the kids up for a week or so a couple of times a season and he’d fly home over all-star break and any other chance he got. But she left him. Moved in with the owner of the feed mill in his home town, a man Buck’s age who’d inherited the business from his daddy. In mid-September she sent Buck a letter saying not to come home when the season ended, said she’d been “going with” her special friend for two years, that the kids were beginning to call him daddy and that it would be best if he didn’t disrupt their lives anymore.

The lives of a lot of the other players might have been less trying emotionally but equally savage in their own way. Men of 30 or less, divorced, remarried, two, three, four times. Children scattered like pennies across America. Men ravaged financially. Making hundreds of thousands a year but saddled by enormous debts: alimony, child support; their houses long occupied by strangers, though the player paid the mortgage. The ends of their careers looming cold as icebergs on the horizon.

“I got nothing to show for 14 seasons but a tired right arm, three rich ex-wives, and a drinking problem,” one veteran pitcher told me, sitting naked in a clammy-floored locker room, staring into his Budweiser as if it were infinity.

Baseball players have never been good risks to stay married. I’ve always known that, and I’ve always been determined to be different. It doesn’t matter how much you love a woman or how much she loves you, if you’re away from each other for months at a time, the relationship dies.

“I want my wife with me all the time,” I say to Gwen. “You agreed to that. You wanted that.”

“Things are different now; we have another person to consider. . . .”

I’ve taken a lot of guff from the other players about Gwen traveling with me full time, but it’s been good-natured, and most of it has been envy.

I’ve never been unfaithful to Gwen. Other guys can do what they wish with the pretty, butterfly like girls who flutter around the hotels and the players’ gate, waiting to be collected.

“Hell, boy, why you want to drag a wife along?” one of the veterans asked me. He said wife as if he were describing a car that wouldn’t start. “I got an old lady, but I keep her barefoot and pregnant in Des Moines. I see her over all-star break and during the off-season. As it should be. What more could anybody want? She’s a good woman. I don’t interfere with her life. She don’t interfere with mine. When I get released, I ain’t never gonna retire as long as I can lift a bat with two hands, know what I’m gonna miss most? Them ladies in the hotel lobbies, or sittin’ up on a bar stool, cool as salad, with a smile and a hug, all painted up pretty and waitin’ to be tasted. I don’t know how I’ll get along without them.”

I’ve always made it clear to everyone, including Gwen, that I didn’t want to be involved in those kinds of situations. Gwen saw how the other players acted; I can’t understand why she wants to cast me out there into a world full of girls bright as tropical birds, most of them uniform freaks, groupies, looking for excitement, danger, wearing their sexuality like a team pennant. All I want is my wife with me. I don’t want to go home to a stranger at the end of a season or the end of a career.

At first I was even dumb enough to believe that old-timer when he told me his family was in Des Moines. I found out later that was just an expression to cover the way wives and families were regarded in general. “Where’s your old lady?” “Barefoot and pregnant in Des Moines.”

Gwen’s never been barefoot poor. Will never have to be. But two years ago, after I hit 38 home runs in my rookie year with the Mets, after management tore up my contract, without me even asking, and rewrote me a dandy that means I’ll never have to sell insurance, used cars, or beg some sport freak to get me a beer distributorship after I retire, Gwen went and got herself pregnant.

She never asked or begged or argued, or said, “Go to hell, I’m going to have a baby whether you want one or not.” Just quit taking the pill without even discussing it with me. Was three months along before she told me. It was about two years ago now, me getting ready for spring training; the foundations for this house were already in, and we were discussing room sizes and open beam ceilings with the architect. It was right in the middle of making love that she told me. I read in one of them women’s magazines Gwen and her mother keep around that you’re supposed to break bad news to someone when they’re doing something they like, like eating a steak dinner or something. Gwen must have read that article, too.

“Honey,” she said, and she pulled me close to stop my body moving against her. “We probably should think about takin’ it a little easy. We got a baby growin’ inside there now.” Never an apology for deceiving me. Calm as if she just bought a new plant for the living room.

Of course Gwen couldn’t travel out to see me in New York and on the road but a few times that season. The baby was born the first of September. Last season she couldn’t take a new baby on the road at all. Charlene’s about a year-and-a-half old now. Plenty old enough to travel.

But Gwen sits cool as a dewy bush first thing in the morning. She don’t listen to me. Just brushes aside everything I say, the way she’s been brushing me aside ever since she got pregnant. I can’t believe anyone can change so much. We used to have some fine times in bed, we did. But not anymore. Seems like Gwen don’t think its right for rich ladies to enjoy themselves in bed. I don’t know how I could have been so fooled. “Shhh now, or Mama will hear us,” she’ll say. She never said that when we had the back bedroom in that little old house downtown, and then her Mama was only two sheets of wallpaper away. “If we carry on so we’ll wake the baby,” is something else she says. I got no argument for that. Even in this house that’s big as the whole neighborhood I was raised in, Gwen’s got the nursery right next to our room; there is even a connecting door.

I got no argument for anything that’s happening to me. I just turn away, open the French doors, and feel the solid wall of humid air hit me as I walk across the white tiles of the patio and down the rolling lawn to where I keep my pitching machine.

I think my books are just about all full of green stamps.

It was from my dad that I learned about green stamps. What you’d call the symbolic kind, not the ones you get in grocery stores. About twice a year my papa stopped by Oklahoma City to visit me. He tried to explain to me once, when I was about 14, how come he and mother had separated.

“You knew we used to fight, didn’t you?” he said. We were at a baseball game, a couple of semi-pro clubs with garish uniforms and players either very young or very old. We were seated in the sun on an unpainted bleacher behind first base.

“I used to hear Mom fight,” I said. “If you ever said anything, I never heard it.”

“I suppose that’s how it must have sounded to you. Sandra was the only one who raised her voice. I’d almost forgotten that.”

“What did you fight about?” I’d hear Mom’s voice, shrieking, crying, accusing, but the words were always indistinct, filtered by the plaster, the insulation, the carpet, before they got up to my room. When Dad didn’t answer right away, I went on. “I remember how my stomach hurt when I used to hear her yelling. I always thought maybe you were fighting about me. I felt like I was in some way to blame for what was happening.”

“No. Nothing was your fault. I don’t know if we should have tried to explain things to you—but then we didn’t know what we were fighting about. Your mother’s a very jealous woman; do you know what that means?”

“I think so. She wanted you all to herself. . . .”

“That’s partly it. Being jealous actually means you don’t like yourself very much. You don’t think you deserve the love you receive, so you create reasons to believe you’re being betrayed.”

Dad smiled and patted my shoulder when he saw by my expression that I didn’t understand.

“Your mother wanted to believe I was unfaithful to her. She’d sit home while I was at work—on the road making sales calls—and she’d end up convincing herself that I was taking my secretary along on those trips, or a neighbor woman, or one of her friends. Then when I got home she’d attack me with all her imaginings. She’d say the most terrible, bitter, cruel things, things that might have been appropriate if I’d been fooling around. But I wasn’t. People who are jealous try to drive the one who loves them away, because then they’ll be alone and unhappy, and that’s the way they feel they deserve to be. That’s pretty hard to understand isn’t it?”

I nodded.

“It took a lot of years for me to build up enough resentment to do anything, to make a move. I stayed because of you, and I stayed because there were a lot of good times too. There were months at a time when your mother didn’t have them jealous fits. Then one evening when I came home she’d come screaming at me; she’d pound her fists on my chest and call me out, meaner than a sailor with a burned butt.

“I just collected the hurt and the wrongs and the frustration; I filed them away like a person pastes green stamps in a booklet. You know what those are, son; when you get so many booklets full, why you cash them in on a prize.

“First of all, I got to thinking, “If I have the name then I may as well have the game.” You see I knew I wouldn’t suffer anymore if I’d been with one of the women I was accused of being with. It got so I could actually feel a little amused when your mother took on after me. Somewhere deep down she always knew she was being unfair, and I laughed to think I knew more than she did now.

“And then one day, it was just like somebody sent me a letter or called me up on long distance; I just knew that all the books of green stamps were full, and when I looked at your mama I just didn’t care anymore. She’d drained me, whittled me down over the years until I didn’t love her anymore. After that, except for you, leaving was easy.”

Now I know how my father must have felt as he weighed and measured the pros and cons. Charlene, my daughter, is like holding an armful of cherry blossoms. Like me, one corner of her mouth pulls down when she smiles. When I look at her, my heart aches with love. Then I look at Gwen, and I can’t forgive her treachery in ignoring my wishes.

“Gwen, I want you to come to training camp with me.” I am pacing back and forth on the deep white carpet. “We don’t have to skimp anymore. I’ll get us the best room at the best hotel.” I rush on before she has a chance to say anything. “We can hire a full-time baby sitter for Charlene. We’ll have lots of free time for ourselves. We can even rent a house if you want to. Would you like that?”

I stop and look closely at Gwen, waiting for her beautiful features to form into a smile, the way they used to when I told her I’d gone 4—5 and hit two homers. The way they did when I traded the coughing old Plymouth for a Lincoln, the way they did when I scrounged tickets to the Willie Nelson Concert in New York, the way they did when we got invited backstage ‘cause Willie wanted to meet me.

She is silent for a long time. Her silences defeat me. I look at her in her dress cool as a mint drink. She has the false prettiness of a mannequin. Her green eyes, which stare at me, have a blankness about them, as if they’ve been painted on her face. I wonder how she sees me? Does she see the baseball player in sweat pants and a Mets jacket, my baseball cap pushed well back on my head. Or am I just the guy who provided this air-conditioned living room, big as a furniture showroom. She really is comfortable here, all poise, self-assurance, and cool fingers. I wonder what became of the girl in a gray sweatshirt and blue jeans who used to bounce down the bleacher steps and hug my neck as I trotted in from the outfield when a game ended in any of a dozen sun-drenched small-town stadiums during the years when I was in the minors.

“You know I can’t,” she says finally, turning her head toward me, looking at me as if she really loves me; maybe she believes she does. “It’s just too much for Charlene to travel all the time, and Mama’s getting on. . . .”

I stare quietly at her, picturing myself yelling, “You’re in love with this damn glass and brick and carpet, the landscaped gardens, the odor of magnolia, the comfort, the quiet. You’re repeating history, Gwen. Your mama drove off her husband and was left alone with you; now you’re doing the same to me.” I really want to say all that, but instead I turn away, resigned.

“If you’re not coming with me, I may as well report to camp a few days early,” I say. Gwen does not disagree with me.

I can see us at the airport, Gwen immaculate behind the wheel of the Lincoln as she stops next to the departure gate. I kiss Charlene, where she sits between us in her car seat; she coos, reaching her baby fingers in my direction as if I were a bird or a butterfly.

“Where’s your old lady?” one of the players will say to me, when I offer to join them for a drink after our first practice.

“Barefoot and pregnant in Des Moines,” I’ll say, a little too loudly, though every word will hurt like needles passing through my lips.

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