At first, she slouched in the waiting room chair with hunched shoulders, then sat up straight trying to look assertive. Look like she was any other claimant on any other day and her claim was as valid as the man who had thrown his lit cigarette down on the pavement in front of the security guard, just ten minutes before.
Her purse had been checked for weapons. After five minutes in the waiting room, her name was called. Going through another security check, she was told to sit down in Booth #2. It was open on two sides and contained two blue plastic chairs. The man across from her was slouched too, and very short. He had kind protruding brown eyes and "Joe" tattooed on his right thumb. She thought the amateur tattoo probably dated to his teens. Now in his thirties, he had a secure job with the government regardless of his past.
(The man sits and shuffles his papers then lays them out side by side.)
Joe: I am Joe. I am going to ask you some questions and afterwards you will be asked to swear on the record under penalty of perjury that everything you say is true. Are you willing to proceed?
Joe: Do you understand the penalties for perjury can and may include a fine and imprisonment?
Joe: You were never married to your daughter's father?
Her: No. (God, No.)
Joe: How much money did you make last year?
Her: Just over $32,000.
Joe: $32,000. Good. (He nods. He knew that already).
Joe: And you were working part-time?
Her: Yes. (He nods. He knew that already.)
Joe: Where do you work?
Her: I work at the local hospital 24-30 hours a week and I go to school part-time. (He knew that, too.)
Joe: How old is your daughter?
Her: She is 12.
Joe: You wish to apply for a lump sum death benefit and monthly payments on behalf of your daughter? (His eyes protrude more as he stares.)
(Her palms feel sweaty and her throat is dry. The declining moment of truth is about to arrive.)
Joe: May I see her birth certificate, please?
Her: Yes. Here it is and here is the paternity affidavit that I have signed.
(Joe looks quietly at the documents; eyes pop out and jaw drops.)
Joe: (voice raised) This has only your signature on it.
Joe: This does not have the father's signature on it.
Joe: This is very bad; a very, very bad mistake.
Her: I know. I got bad advice two years ago when I started to file an affidavit then.
Joe: Oh Yes! Very bad advice! This is terrible. Terrible. He cannot sign now since he is deceased.
Her: I know.
(Long pause. Joe looks pained and is shrinking in his seat. Barely peaking over the desk are his brown protruding eyes, now misty.)
Joe: Do you have any other documents to prove he is the father?
Her: No. None that I can think of.
Joe: Never put his name on school records?
Her: I don't think so.
Joe: Any letters from him mentioning her? Did you put his name on school records?
Her: No. No.
Joe: This is terrible. They will deny this claim if we turn it in. The father's name has to be on the birth certificate.
Her: Yes. I know that. That's why I signed the affidavit.
Joe: I'm so sorry. We can't...process this claim with just your name on the birth certificate. Are you sure you don't have his name on records...school records perhaps?
Her: No. (Godammit, NO.)
(Joe is flummoxed. She can see he feels bad about this.)
Joe: I need to ask someone else a question about this form.
(Hope flares up. Maybe her sworn statement will be enough, after all. Behind Joe she sees other workers using the photocopy machine and carrying cups of coffee.)
Joe: Sheryl? Take a look at this.
(Sheryl has frizzy permed hair and red-veined skin.)
Sheryl: (barking voice) Only with a court order can a deceased father be added to the birth certificate! Only then can we process this claim! COURT ORDER.
Joe: (shrugs) I'm very sorry; very sorry. There is nothing we can do.
Her: Okay. (Feeling weepy now.)
Joe: I'm very sorry. If only on the school records... (hands the papers back) not even one of the school records?
Her: I did not put him on the school records (and I will kill you first and me second if you ask again).
Joe: Do you know how much money your daughter is entitled to?
Her: No. (Two hundred a month?)
Joe: Nearly a thousand dollars a month. Plus the lump sum.
Joe: Yes. It would help your daughter out a lot. She is entitled to this money, you know.
Her: Yes. That is the point.
Joe: (shaking head) This is very bad.
Her: What do I need to do?
Joe: After death it is very difficult to prove paternity.
Her: I will see my attorney. Her grandfather can attest to paternity on behalf of her father.
Joe: (looks doubtful) I'm very sorry. If only... (his eyes ask again, Did you put his name on school records and aren't telling me for some reason?)
Her: (NO DAMMIT.)
Completely overwhelmed with the enormity of the problem, she hurriedly grabs her bag, stuffs the papers into it, and glances at Joe with a weak smile before bolting out the security door. It is very heavy when she opens it wide enough to squeeze through. Passing through the waiting room, she is breaking up; feels her composure dissolving and there is a woman staring at her averted face.
In the car, she drives to the middle of town, directionless.
Later she feels calmer, but defeated and lacking courage. At the bookstore in a leather chair by a window, she glances through Eric Maisel's latest book on creativity; an MLA for Research Papers Guide; Write Away by Elizabeth George, and the Borders Original Voices newspaper.
At the Cliffs Notes display she sees "The Red Badge of Courage." The sound of it rolls over and over in her mind. Courage. Red Badge. Courage. Dead Badge. Courage. Does she have courage? Half of her mind accuses her: Why didn't you put his name on the BC? Why? Why? The other half lists the reasons; important reasons she could never explain to Joe. BUT. He had claimed his daughter later. Don't give up yet. Put on the Red Badge of Courage.