I was suspended in eighth grade for bringing my semen to science class. We were supposed to inspect living things under the microscope. Mrs. Wheeler had used the example of pond water. My friend Paul Dills’s sample was a minnow that had eaten itself to death. Other kids brought leaves, feathers, dirt, hair. The morning of the assignment I whacked off into a Tupperware Popsicle mold. On the way to school, I revealed the contents of my plain brown paper sack to Paul as we hacked on his aunt’s menthol cigarettes under the bridge. First, Paul expressed amazement that I had experienced an orgasm. Second, that I’d thought to bring attention to this fact in science class. Third, that I expected to ace the assignment with it.
There were three students at each work station. My partners were Paul and Rachel Hilden, one of the kids who’d brought a jar of murky pond water. Rachel had accumulated a tragic assortment of nicknames, among the most recent, Toilet Paper Stuck to Shoe Bitch.
Her mouth, reengineered with scaffolding and rubber bands, had allegedly been the subject of a research paper in an orthodontia journal. Though she would grow up to become vengefully gorgeous and anchor an Idaho news show, in eighth grade she was prone to postlunch fishing trips in the Dumpsters to recover missing retainers. I doubted Rachel knew that semen existed.
We inspected Rachel’s pond water first, taking turns peering at the boring blobs. Then we looked at Paul’s minnow bacteria and saw a few crawly things. I used a Q-tip to dab a slide with my substance.
“What did you bring, Cedar?” Rachel said.
By the way, I was named after a tree.
“I brought baby tadpoles,” I said.
“That’s not tadpoles. That’s spit.”
I loaded the slide and turned the dial to 200x magnification. I’d often examined the photos of sperm cells in my dog-eared masturbation material, Our Bodies, Ourselves, and watched footage of wriggling sperm on PBS, but these sperm were special: they had originated in my testes, each one trafficking my genetic material in its top-heavy little head. They had been designed to withstand the arduous trip into a uterus, but few had survived my two-mile bike ride to school. Even dead they were fascinating to look at, each a tiny exclamation point carrying my half of what could have been a human being.
“Let me see!” Paul said. When I moved away he squinted into the instrument and his jaw slowly sagged. “They have tails and everything! Holy crap!”
Paul’s excitement quickly attracted the attention of nearby work stations. He was bad at keeping secrets, and was probably the last guy in class I should have told about my semen sample. Everyone wanted to take a look. Kat Daniels stepped up and brushed a few strands of hair from her face as she bent to peer into the battered middle school microscope. By our rudimentary, junior high standards, Kat wasn’t counted among the prettiest girls at our school. She had a slightly upturned nose that would have looked awkward if it weren’t for the sleepy eyes hanging over it. She wore chipped, sparkly fingernail polish. Her beauty was slowly unfolding, refracted through my growing capability to notice her. As she squinted into the microscope, there passed an interminably nervous moment occupied by her, me, and millions of reproductive cells. She was quiet a moment. I watched her understand. Then she looked up and said, “Cool.”
After that I didn’t care how grody I was in the eyes of my classmates. Kat slithered back to her station to study a daisy. In an instant, everyone was crouching over my sample, the guys exclaiming and the girls making retching noises. Mrs. Wheeler peeled her face from an Agatha Christie novel and slammed down her coffee cup. Everyone scattered. Our teacher peered into the microscope long enough to determine the nature of my sample, then pointed in the direction of the door. “Mr. Warner’s office. Now.”
As I walked stiffly from the room, Rachel Hilden pressed her eye against the microscope. “Whoa,” she said. “These tadpoles really are miniature.”
Mr. Warner, tapping a ruler against his knee, sat on the corner of his wood-grain, Formica-topped desk in a way that must have stimulated his anus. Individual fibers of polyester in his tan Sansabelt pants audibly creaked when he shifted from one buttock to the other.
“Human sexuality is what we’re talking about here,” he said. “Poets? Yeah sure they wrote about it, scientists have performed serious research into it, heck, some of the world’s greatest paintings depict figures of the nudes and what have you.” He leaned closer and leveled his ruler at me. “But based on the undistinguished year you’ve had at this institution of learning I can only conclude that these kinds of fancy thoughts were not what you had in mind when you pulled your grotesque little stunt.”
Mrs. Wheeler sat in the other visitor’s chair, the paper bag with the offending specimen on the desk before her. A dark brown patch grew larger as my semen leaked through a corner of the bag.
I hoped Mr. Warner wouldn’t make me call my mom. He leaned closer. “Everyone’s sexual maturity has to start somewhere, Cedar. Do you really want yours to start like this? The mistakes you make now, when it comes to sex, will shape the rest of your experiences. Do you want to become a pervert? A homosexual? Cedar, are your parents exposing you to pornography?” he said quietly.
“Right,” I said. “I wish.”
The principal sighed, displaying a theatrical sort of disappointment. “It looks like in light of some of your recent unexcused absences, your role as ring leader in February’s biscuits-and-gravy lunch-room walkout, and this sperm business, you’ve left me no other choice but to issue a week’s suspension.” As if to add a little ceremony to his decision, Mr. Warner picked up the bag and dropped it into his waste can. A string of semen dangling from the bag fell across his left knee.
My father was Wade Rivers, a name as dumb as mine. That afternoon he arrived home early, took two steps into the kitchen, and threw his briefcase against the refrigerator. The magnetic letters spelling profanities limited by five lousy vowels skittered to the floor in clumps. A picture of me taken with my mom’s fish-eye lens floated to the linoleum as the freezer door swung open, releasing a carton of Neapolitan, a tray of ice cubes, and an inadequately-sealed bag of frozen peas. My dad’s briefcase popped open and scattered his hectic legal scribblings. He swore. He kicked cabinetry. Apparently he’d lost another case. Helping him pick up the mess seemed the most sensible course of action. I had seen my father this angry before, many times, and knew that the best thing to do was to eradicate the stunned silence by being productive. I began gathering his papers and re-adhering magnets to the fridge. My dad sighed, bent down, said, “Shit, no, no, I’ll get that,” then saw that the cardboard flap of the ice-cream carton had been left open.
“Have I or have I not explained the concept of freezer burn to you?” my dad said.
“I’ll eat it.”
“Not helpful, Cedar. Now nobody else can enjoy it, and you’ll only eat it to make a point.”
“I’m sorry you lost your case.” This is what I thought I was supposed to say, so I said it. My dad shrugged. “Also, I got suspended.”
“We had an experiment where we had to bring something from nature to look at under a microscope.”
“And you brought—”
My father sat down at the kitchen table and considered the pig-shaped salt and pepper shakers. Finally he said, “Please at least tell me it was your own sperm.”
“It was,” I said. Then my mom came home.
My mother, her name was Janet, was a medical photographer who documented abrasions, growths, and autopsy oddities for the university hospital. In my house, Frank Netter’s classic text Atlas of Human Anatomy was coffee-table material. We had a model skull named Barbara on our mantle. My mother and I had a standing arrangement that whenever I had an abrasion or ingrown toenail I’d be sure to show her. Most families kept photo albums of birthday snapshots. Ours contained a few vacation shots and photographic proof of bicycle accidents, blisters, pustulant sties.
My parents met when my dad was starting out as a public defender and my mom worked for the county coroner. Their courtship revolved around a spectacular triple homicide that rocked our county in the early seventies. My mom recorded the crime scene and subsequent autopsies. My dad admitted years later that her grisly pictures were what had swayed the jury. She often told me that if the murderer had gotten off, she would have never forgiven my father. I was lucky: the guy was sentenced to death; I was conceived.
My mother, striding through the front door with her swaying camera bag, praising a particularly photogenic teratoma: “From the outside it looked like any other tumor, but in dissection we found hair and teeth and I think even a fingernail or two.”
“Go ahead, tell her,” my dad said, confronting the refrigerator for a beer.
“I got suspended for looking at sperm under a microscope.”
“Clarification. His own sperm.”
“Cedar,” my mom said, then turned to my dad, “Did you remember to make ice cubes?”
“Yeah, you want an iced tea?”
“I’ll make it,” my mom said. “I mean really, Cedar. Sperm?”
“I wanted to know what they looked like.”
My mother opened the freezer and twisted the ice cube tray until it yielded its cubes. “Who left the ice cream open?”
“You were expressing curiosity in human physiology,” my dad said, leading the witness.
“Human physiology, huh?” my mom said. “If that was the case, why didn’t you just use the microscope we bought you last Christmas?”
“It was me who left the ice cream open,” I said.
“Don’t try to change the subject,” my mom said. “We’re talking about sperm, not ice cream. Jesus, did we miss the deadline for the masturbation conversation, is that what this is about?”
“I’ve told him a hundred times about freezer burn!” my dad shouted.
“My microscope doesn’t have good enough magnification,” I said.
My mom said, “Cedar, we’re not mad at you for wanting to understand the workings of your own body. But what were you thinking? It was Mrs. Wheeler’s class, right? Christ, she drives a VW Rabbit with a Mamas and the Papas bumper sticker. She teaches a bread-making class at the community college! How did you expect her to react? My point is that if you want to look at your own sperm under a microscope, I can introduce you to some lab techs at the fertility clinic who’ll leave you alone in a closet with a Juggs magazine and water-based lubricant and you can look at your own sperm under a microscope until the cows come home.”
“Really?” my dad said, “They only had Playboy when I was there.”
In truth, I had observed my sperm under my own microscope many times. I had witnessed their mass extinction suspended above the heat of the bulb, hunted for the oddball spermatozoa with two heads or tails, gazed myopically into the mystery of my chromosomal output. The secret reason for my act of scientific inquiry unraveled before me like the paper vortex of a Chinese yo-yo. I had taken the sperm to class to perform an experiment, certainly, but not the one that had been assigned. My experiment had proceeded from the hypothesis that if I were bold enough to offer forth my sperm as proof of my virility, I would win Kat’s heart. After all, she was the girl who had approached me at my locker after my oral report on the state of Rhode Island and breathed two fantastic, incandescent words into my ear, “I’m ovulating.”
My parents drafted a list of chores for me to complete during my one-week suspension, but I still had time to read, shoot hoops, and masturbate in every room of the house while they were at work. Every day around three o’clock Paul would stop by on his way home and brief me on the shifting alliances and petty grudges of our classmates while we shared his cigarettes behind the garage. On the last day of my suspension Paul crashed his bike into our hedge and declared, “Kat has the slide. She took it from the science lab and keeps it in her jewelry box!”
I demanded that he reveal his sources. Kat’s friend Margot had told him, making him promise not to tell me, knowing that he would.
I said, “I’m going to need one of your cigarettes.”
“You’re in luck. I’ve got menthols.”
We went around back behind the garage and conducted our adolescent tobacco ceremony.
“You think this means she wants me to call her?” I wondered.
“Call her? Cedar! Come to your senses. She wants you to bang her!”
That night I tried willing my mind into clairvoyance, desperate to know what Kat was doing that very moment, twenty blocks away. She was tucking my sperm into a little velvet-lined jewelry box among her rings and friendship pins. She was sneaking peeks at the slide as she did her homework, holding it up to the light of her bedside lamp. I conducted conversations with her in my head while I scraped moss off the deck, alphabetized the LPs, pulled rocks and weeds from the garden. I created a twenty-item list of conversation starters in case she called, but she remained as silent as me.
After a long and boring weekend I returned to school. Before I made it to my locker I learned that I’d been tagged with a number of nicknames that Paul hadn’t had the heart to reveal. Post-it notes had been inserted into my locker through those slots the manufacturer must have included to avoid the liabilities of suffocated nerds. Wanker, Jizzmaster, Spermy. I wadded the notes into a ball and stuffed it deep behind a month-old lunch bag.
The final week of junior high school washes the blood from the most culpable of children’s hands. My science class transgression was relegated to lore by other scandals—the Kevin Johnson pot bust, a girls’ locker room raid, petty theft from Mrs. Wheeler’s purse. Just over the hump of the academic calendar were neighborhood lawns to mow, each a counter-clockwise mandala generating the most beautiful aroma of summer. Emboldened by the freedom of the year’s end, I called Kat the night after the last day of school, prepared with my list of topics and subtopics should our dialogue come to any awkward pauses. I didn’t refer to the list once. We were like this diagram of bacteria entering a nostril I’d seen in one of my mom’s medical books, nodes glomming onto receptors, spreading something virulent. I plundered Kat’s opinions about our classmates, our teachers, the media products that had located us through TV, radio, and the multiplex. But I hesitated broaching the subject of the sperm that had brought us together. Now that we had entered the codified process of courtship—fake insults, overwrought pronouncements, long stretches of breathy silence between phone receivers deep into the night—now that we were falling for each other, it felt like a transgression to mention testosterone, ovulation, or spermatozoa sandwiched between layers of glass.
I slowly shoved breakfast at my face as my parents orbited the kitchen table, inserting themselves into my periphery with gentle threats of punishment for undone tasks and admonitions about how I chose to spend my lawn-mowing money. How pathetic their domestic regulations, how trivial were their to-do lists, when one could sup from the pond of the infinite in the sound of a sigh transmitted over a phone line. My dad apparently won an important case and I observed myself talking to him about it, prompting the man with questions at periodic silences. My mother showed me some photos she had taken of a diseased pancreas and I reacted as I suspected she wanted me to, with feigned sick fascination.
I mowed Mr. Dickman’s yard, chopping up bits of cedar shingles ripped from his roof during a remodel, splattering piles of Saint Bernard shit. Mr. Dickman, shirtless, drinking a wine cooler, watched me from the window of his living room, which he had converted into his bedroom, as was the prerogative of a bachelor. I think he was some kind of public accountant but I’d never thought to ask. He occasionally entertained his busty Italian girlfriend, nuzzling her on the weather-beaten lawn furniture of his patio, slurping cocktails inappropriate to consume when enjoying a view consisting of the back of a bowling alley. When my lawn-care duties brought me in contact with the couple, they were usually feeding on Ritz crackers turded yellow with EZ Cheez and planting hickeys on each other’s leathery necks. I went out of my way to chop up a lot of slugs with the weed whacker, spraying their guts on Mr. Dickman’s deteriorating siding. When Mr. Dickman wasn’t distracting me by using his rowing machine in the driveway, the drone of the mower lulled me into a meditative state in which I enumerated the obstacles between my and Kat’s naked bodies.
When Kat and I finally managed to see each other at the mall a week after school got out, we held hands and walked a sober lap past the food court and jewelry stores like players in an ultraserious form of Japanese theater. Later, we made out in the back row during a matinee, after which our parents picked us up in their respective vehicles. We both had strict curfews and expectations about our physical locations, both answering to the strategies of animals regulating the fertility of their young.
Kat’s parents were divorced. Her mother worked for a company that made yarn for craft stores, and her father repaired septic systems on the other side of the state. Kat also complained about her mother’s boyfriend of two or three years, an older man who sounded like he had a lot of money.
Kat’s mother forbade her from meeting me in any place that was not public. One night I arranged to stay at Paul’s while she arranged to stay a block away at Margot’s house. Paul had a detached garage with an upstairs where his pack-rat family stored beaten-up furniture they meant to eventually reupholster and resell, including a couch large enough for two people to stretch out on if one was on top of the other.
At one o’clock in the morning Kat emerged from a rhodedendron hedge, and in the bluish indirect light of a street lamp I helped pick sticky flower petals from her hair. I didn’t know if I was supposed to kiss her at this point, so I offered her a piece of Big Red.
“Not that I think your breath is gross or anything,” I said.
Paul motioned for us to be quiet, then showed us up the exterior steps of the garage to the loft, the kind of place we envisioned Fonzie living in. He left us alone.
I remember Kat putting me in her mouth. I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to be feeling. There were a lot of teeth involved and then nothing happened. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings so I made some pleasure-related noises. And then in the half-dark she let me look upon the origin of the universe between her legs. Years later I would occasionally think of this moment when fucking my girlfriends.
Kat had preserved my sperm in a secret compartment beneath her bracelets and necklaces, but it wasn’t released that night, or any of the subsequent moments we managed to steal from our unsuspecting parents. Maybe my body didn’t yet understand what an orgasm with another person was supposed to mean. For whatever reason, I couldn’t come. On the couch that night we were just tongues, patches of warmed denim, a cold nipple pressed into the intersection of the life line and love line of a boy’s hand. We arrived at a pause. My balls ached.
“Is it okay I didn’t, you know, come?” I said.
“I think so.”
“Did you come?”
“It started feeling lots better but then, I don’t know.”
I pulled my sweatshirt down over her shoulders. She seemed disappointed.
“I can try again.” I said.
“It’s not that. It’s not you. I just can’t stop thinking about my mom and George. They want me to go with them on this idiotic boat trip to Alaska.”
“How long will you be gone?”
“The whole month of July.”
“I don’t think I’ll make it,” she said. “Just think of me in that stupid boat with George the perv and me puking over the side. Maybe I can get a doctor’s note that I’ll get too seasick. Maybe I can stay at Margot’s and be with you every night.”
“I want to sleep next to you,” I said. “I want to wake up with you.”
“Promise me,” she said.
In the weeks before the trip, Kat used some babysitting money to buy a microscope of her own. While other couples our age traded notes and broken-heart lockets, we furtively exchanged slides, my sperm for her vaginal mucosa. In the parking lot behind theater nine two weeks before she set sail, she presented me with a little box wrapped in an exchange student’s origami paper.
“Swear you won’t open it until you get home,” Kat said. A stream of blinking people exited a matinee. “That’s my mom’s car. I gotta go.”
I waited until she was out of sight before I peeled open the package. In the box I found a slide imprinted with a single droplet of blood. It burned a dark mystery in my pocket as I hurried home. That night, in my room, I peered into my microscope, hoping to discover the one thing on the mind of every one of my sperm: Kat’s egg.
One night after playing Nintendo at Paul’s I came home to find my parents sitting quietly at the kitchen table. Before I could make it to the fridge, my mom said, “I was looking for my scissors in your room and found these instead.”
My dad pulled from his pocket a half-consumed pack of Camel Lights and set them on the table.
“Are you smoking?” my mother said.
“They’re Paul’s. He told me to hang on to them for him.”
“So what did I smell in your room the other night?”
“I already told you. I lit a stick of deodorant on fire.”
“Fair enough,” my father said. “Let’s see what burning deodorant smells like.” He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out my stick of Brut. “Was this the kind of deodorant you did your experiment on?”
My dad unscrewed the deodorant cap then struck a kitchen match and held it to the green dome in which a single armpit hair was embedded. The surface ignited easily, sending up a blue flame. The hair flared and turned to soot. My dad sniffed the air and turned to my mom. “Is this what you smelled the other night in Cedar’s room?”
“According to Cedar, your sense of smell must have deceived you. Is that what you’re telling us, Cedar?”
“I dunno,” I said, picking at the rubber sole of one of my Chuck Taylor’s with a ballpoint.
“On to exhibit B.” From the laundry room my father fetched one of my sweatshirts, which he held to my mother’s nose. “What does this smell like to you?”
“Cigarette smoke,” my mom said flatly. “Jesus! Paul and I went to Denny’s and sat in the smoking section. Big deal.”
“Cedar. Quit bullshitting us,” my mom said. “We know you started smoking. And it’s going to stop tonight. Do you understand?”
“You know what smoking does to your body. But in case you forgot, let me show you.”
My mother emptied a manila folder, spreading pictures of blackened lungs across the table. “These are real people’s bodies, Cedar. This is what the inside of a smoker’s body looks like. This is supposed to be pink.”
As they delivered their lecture, I focused my attention on the glossies. I wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction of thinking I’d been swayed. I’d heard this kind of patronizing shit before, at a school assembly, delivered by hospital volunteers who dressed as lungs and sang a song about emphysema. My parents didn’t need to show me pictures to convince me that the inside of a human body was a sacred, incredible place. I had seen blood cells, I had watched sperm die. I had touched the mollusk protuberance of a cervix.
Then I saw the picture of a girl, her body cavity opened from neck to navel, her organs scooped out, an empty canyon between her young breasts. Her slack-jawed head lolled to one side.
“She was your age,” my mom said. The floor underneath me appeared to tilt a little. I held onto the table and for a moment lost my sense of vision. A little vomit climbed up my throat then burned its way back down. When I opened my eyes again my mom was dabbing my forehead with a cold dish cloth. “I forget how upsetting those sorts of pictures can be,” she said.
“Let me see it again,” I said. She showed me. Looking at it made me wonder the same sorts of things I wondered when viewing pornography, like where did this person live, what were they doing hours before this revealing photograph was taken, what did their house look like, did their families know. I filled my lungs with air and let it out slowly. “What happened to her?”
“She killed herself drinking industrial solvent.”
“Fuck,” I said. “Why do you show me these things?”
“So you won’t forget you’re mortal.”
In Kat’s neighborhood the elms had lived long enough to entwine their branches above the street like praying hands. I parked my bike against a tree and considered not ringing the doorbell of their split-level. I could still blow off their invitation to dinner. Kat answered the door, quickly kissed me, and led me by the hand up the stairs into the kitchen where her mother was preparing the meal. Veronica looked older than my mom, which startled me. She wore lots of beads, a head wrap, a loose yellow sweater that hung from her body in a manner that suggested she advocated women’s lib.
“Welcome to our madness,” Veronica said, stirring pasta in a metal bowl, then laughed when I didn’t respond. “Oh, grab a soda. There’s Sprite and Tab. I hope you like pasta ’cause that’s what we’re having. I grew the tomatoes for the sauce myself.”
“Her sauce is awesome,” Kat said.
“You have a nice house,” I said.
“This dump? Please. We’ve got dry rot, wet rot, the pipes freeze every winter and this summer it looks like we have ourselves a ladybug infestation.”
Kat exhaled and slumped against the refrigerator. “Gol, Mom, he’s only trying to give you a compliment.”
“Come to think of it, it is kind of a dump,” I said.
We laughed. Veronica’s boyfriend George clomped stiffly up the stairs. He was an angular format of a human being with tiny eyes in the kind of bald head that seems to automatically come with a mustache. He wore a necktie tucked under a cardigan sweater vest. I couldn’t tell whether this was his standard at-home attire or if he had just returned from somewhere more formal. Kat had told me George worked with computers at a bank. He shook my hand and some featureless words got lost between us among clanging dishes. Veronica set the table with the pasta, bread, salad, and a bowl of steamed broccoli and we took our seats under a dimmed fixture.
“Let us say grace,” George said, grasping my hand, squeezing my fingers against a gigantic class ring. He bowed his head, closed his eyes, then arched his eyebrows upward. “Oh Heavenly Father we ask that you bless this food with the blood of thy son Christ Jesus. We offer our everlasting praise as you nourish and nurture us in body, mind, and soul. And Heavenly Father we welcome our guest with the fruit of thy bounty the Lord our Savior. May you guide these young people in their budding relationship and bar them from temptation. For as their lust is strong so shall you give them the strength to not go past first base. Ah-men.”
“So,” Veronica said, passing the broccoli to me, “I understand you’re the reason Kat has become so interested in science.”
I said my own little silent prayer that they hadn’t seen my slides in her jewelry box. “It’s my best subject,” I explained. “I like thinking about how living things work.”
“Like biology?” George said.
“Sure. I’m most interested in what happens at the cellular level.”
“So you believe in evolution,” George said.
I looked at Kat to see how I should respond. She speared her broccoli.
“Hmm. Well I do, too, to an extent. But how come the seas don’t have more salt if they’re so old? No one’s been able to answer that one.”
“So I guess you’re going on a big trip,” I said.
“That’s correct,” said George, “Can’t wait to get out on the water with the orcas and the sunshine and the foam splashing across the bowsprit. I guess you could say I’ve always been a seaman at heart.”
“A what at heart?” Kat said.
Veronica interrupted, “Cedar, do you like music by the band Black Sabbath?”
George wiped his face and leaned back in his chair. “Oh, honey, you’re not going to pollute this young man’s mind with that trash.”
“It’s not trash, it’s part of my life. Maybe I’ve grown up and moved on to Ashford and Simpson and Peter Cetera but at one time I was what they called a go-go dancer and dang proud of it.”
“You danced for Black Sabbath?” I said.
“Ozzy Osbourne autographed her butt,” Kat said.
“That’s enough,” George said.
“What music did you listen to when you were . . .” I asked George.
“When I was what, young? You calling me a dinosaur? Hey, I personally own Sports by Huey Lewis and the News. And you might be surprised to know that on weekends I wear Jordache jeans. But since you asked, there were a whole slew of groups I enjoyed back when I was a greaser. The Platters, Four Tops, Paul Revere and the Raiders, you name it. I grooved down to it all.”
“‘Ozzy’ on one cheek, ‘Osbourne’ on the other,” Kat whispered.
Veronica frowned. “What does your family usually talk about at the dinner table, Cedar?”
“Cedar’s parents—” Kat started.
“I know what Cedar’s parents do,” George said. “I understand your old man is a public defender. Must be difficult. How come he didn’t go into prosecution? All those sleazeballs he has to represent.”
“He wanted to make sure everyone got fair representation in our system. Not just people who can afford it. And he wanted to defend the innocent.”
“Can someone please pass the margarine?” Kat said.
“What about the ones he knows aren’t innocent? What do you do when you’ve got a guy you know deserves to get locked up but you help put him back out on the street? Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t see how a guy could live with himself defending some of those creeps.”
Veronica leveled a knife at her boyfriend. “If you have any other questions about Cedar’s father, you might consider asking him instead.”
George shrugged. “It’s a philosophical question.”
“So what route are you taking on your trip?” I said.
“We’ll be going up around Vancouver Island, to Ketchikan, Skagway, a bunch of other Indian names I can’t remember. We’ll make a stop in Port Hardy, which, I just found this out today, was founded by a survivor of the Titanic.”
“You think it’s a good idea to talk about the Titanic before you go on a boat trip?” Kat said.
I twirled linguine around my fork and kept misjudging how much I could eat in one bite. The whorl of pasta kept growing larger than bite-size, and I kept having to unroll it and start over again.
“What subjects are you taking in school next year, Cedar?” Veronica asked me.
“I think the basics. Geometry. State history,” I said.
“Going out for any sports?” George said.
“Maybe golf or tennis.”
“Of course. Doctor and lawyer sports. So you can play with your father.”
“My dad doesn’t play either. He swims.”
“What about your mother? What does she do?” George said.
“I mean for a job.”
“She’s a medical photographer.”
“Now that’s something I just couldn’t do,” Veronica said. “I can’t even stand it when I see a run-over cat in the street.”
“She says the trick is to not think of them as people anymore. They’re just bodies. They’re just systems and organs,” I said.
Kat scrunched up her face.
“Yes, but what of the soul?” George said.
“I don’t believe in a soul.”
“And God? You don’t believe in Him, either?”
“I guess, no, not really.”
George shrugged. “That’s odd, I could have sworn I heard you say amen a short bit ago.”
Veronica pointed her knife again. “George, I’m serious. Stop with the inquisition. You’re making our guest uncomfortable.”
“Inquisition?” George said. “Cedar, am I making you uncomfortable?”
“No,” I said.
“What else is he going to say? God!” Kat said.
“I don’t believe in God at all,” I said.
George said, “And yet you believe in justice.”
Veronica tried to interrupt, asking, “Who wants more bread?”
George continued, “Let’s get down to brass tacks. You come over to dinner, pray with us without believing a word of it, then claim to believe in giving everyone a fair shake, yet have nothing to base it on, no eternal consequences for our earthly deeds. No God, no reason for being, just people trying to be just in a godless void. Not the kind of world I want to live in.”
“What’s wrong with being just?” I said.
“Nothing at all, friend,” George said, “but justice without the power and grace of God backing it up is arbitrary. Makes no difference if you’re just or not if you don’t have to answer to your deeds in the next life, if you believe in a next life at all. I feel sorry for you if that’s the kind of world you think you live in.”
“Who’s up for watching my videotape?” Veronica said.
Kat stared at her food. A sharp glance passed from Veronica to George. I tried to fill the silence by digging the hole deeper. “I believe in things that can be proved. Or tested, like with the scientific method.”
George laughed a loud “Ha!” and dabbed his chin with a napkin. “You have much to learn, son.”
“I’d like it if you didn’t call me son.”
“Don’t insult my father, then call me son.”
George slowly set down his knife and said, “I don’t appreciate you coming to my house expecting to date my—Veronica’s—daughter and telling me what I can or can’t say, son.”
Kat slapped her palm on the table. “Shut up, George. This is so not your house and you have no place making my boyfriend uncomfortable.”
George threw his hands up and laughed. “What is this? Can’t a guy have a conversation? Maybe at the Rivers household they talk about open-heart surgery and how to spring dope dealers out of jail, but here I’ll talk about whatever I damn well please.”
“George, you’re being an asshole,” Veronica said. After that the man did some grumbling and we consumed the rest of the meal amid the excruciating noises of silverware striking porcelain. When George left to work on his boat Veronica put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Cedar, I am so sorry. I don’t know what his problem was tonight, he’s usually not like this. Will you stick around for pie?”
We went into the living room with our apple pie á la mode. Veronica inserted a Betamax tape into the player.
“Kat thinks it’s soooo embarrassing when I show this but I bet you’ll get a kick out of it. This was when I lived in California.”
What appeared on the TV was an early Black Sabbath music video, with lots of zooming camera action and swirly psychedelic colors. Over Ozzy Osbourne’s right shoulder stood a platform on which a younger version of Veronica danced in a mini skirt and white go-go boots. As we watched the grainy tape, Kat occasionally buried her face in a throw pillow in mortification. During the slow-tempo bridge, the camera zoomed in on Veronica’s young face. Years later, in a suburban living room, as Ozzy sang of children of the grave. She shook her head in wonderment.