When her car pulled to the curb she saw a broken can of Pringles lying in the gutter. For five minutes she ransacked her purse for a check that wasn't there. Going inside the two-story office she straightened her back and tossed her hair, prepared to pay another way.
The receptionist asked her for money and took her credit card while she looked at the Monet print on the right wall. She sat down in a padded chair next to a woman who looked like she would bite. For awhile she read People magazine and in between pages her mind whirled "Red Badge of Courage" around and around. Her heart slammed against her ribs—dead-red-dead-red. She prayed: God, remember my daughter; the Innocent.
A man shaped like a giant tomato with salt and pepper hair thundered down a staircase on padded feet. She remembered him from two years ago; his stray left eye and his cone-shaped head. For an attorney he was nice. She remembered that. And his name was Joe.
Joe: Miss Miller?
Joe: Are you ready to go up?
(They went up two flights of stairs to his office. She'd never been there before, in his office. There was a huge desk in a square room. She put her bag in the left black chair and sat in the right black chair; arms loose at her sides, hands in her lap, hope pasted to the back of her throat.)
Joe: What can I do for you today?
Her: My daughter is 12. I was never married to her father. He is dead and his name is not on her birth certificate.
Joe: Go on.
Her: (strong and clear) I have filed an insurance claim on her behalf. It will be rejected unless a court order can be obtained to place the father's name on the birth certificate.
Joe: (frowning) You didn't do that in the past?
Joe: When did I see you last about this matter? (shuffles papers)
Her: Two years ago.
Joe: Yes. Right. How long has he been dead?
Her: Nearly six months.
Joe: And you didn't do this before? Put his name on the birth certificate while he was still alive?
Joe: This is a very tough situation then.
Her: Yes. Will sworn statements by his father and best friend as witnesses prove paternity?
Joe: (already shaking his head) I don't think so! You can't just go walking into court and have people say he was the father. That doesn't prove anything.
Her: This has to have come up before in paternity cases—a deceased father.
Joe: Hmmm. We need DNA. Or a blood sample. Or a tissue sample.
Her: He is deceased (echo deee-ceasssssed).
Joe: We could have his body exhumed and obtain a DNA sample.
Her: I don't think so.
Joe: What we have to do is locate an item the deceased used and which might have DNA on it. What about his hairbrush?
Joe: A hairbrush with his hair in it—which could be tested for DNA--and a statement from the father that it was his brush.
Her: I doubt there is a hairbrush.
Joe: Sometimes families keep these items.
Her: There is no hairbrush.
Joe: Does your daughter's father have any other children?
Joe: There is the possibility of exhuming the body.
Her: He was cremated. Do ashes contain DNA?
Joe: No, I don't believe so. If this would have been handled six months ago—what did you say he died of?
Her: He was an alcoholic. An obvious alcoholic.
Joe: Ah! Perhaps there was an autopsy? The morgue would keep tissue samples from it.
Her: Why would there be an autopsy? The cause of death was known.
Joe: What about blood or tissue samples at the hospital?
Her: That is very doubtful.
Joe: You work at a hospital. Ask around, see what they suggest.
Her: What about DNA from someone else?
Joe: Someone else?
Her: What about his father, the grandfather? His DNA?
Joe: Hmmmm? What's that?
Her: DNA FROM HIS FATHER.
Joe: Now that's an interesting question, Miss Miller! You have really brought me something interesting today!
Her: Can it be done? Why couldn't it be done?
(Long pause while Joe caresses his mustache and seems torn between doubt and temptation.)
Joe: Why couldn't it be done? Maybe it can be done!
(Joe's gray-haired, plump secretary whisks into the office without knocking and delves into the filing cabinet.)
Joe: Dee! What do you know about DNA and obtaining it?
Her: (Dee! What about client confidentiality?)
Dee: (bent over, turns head to desk) Huh? Hey—what about this?
(She hands Joe a glossy portfolio. It's green and thick and new.)
Joe: Ah! The genetics lab. I have used them before in paternity cases—only the father was living.
Her: Maybe they can tell us if the grandfather's DNA will work.
Joe: (dialing phone) I hope I can talk to the same person.
Her: (relaxing in the chair, smiling in anticipation, praying for divine intervention)
(Short conversation between Joe and Chris. Joe listens, nods and uh-hums; asks her more questions and gives the answers to Chris. He mumbles...$400? It was $600, good, good...no the body was cremated...no his only brother is dead...his mother is dead...no autopsy...yes, six months ago would be nice...tissue samples?...liver damage, alcoholism...what about a hairbrush?...no other children...no, no blood samples...)
Joe: (hangs up) He says it's possible. We would obtain a buccal swab from the grandfather and your daughter and possibly get a definitive match. Possibly.
Her: It's worth a try then?
Joe: (hesitates) First, you should determine whether an autopsy was done. If not, ask his father if he has a hairbrush. After that, ask the hospital where he died if there are any extant blood or tissue samples.
Her: And if not, then what?
Joe: We'll do the DNA on the grandfather and go from there.
Her: This has to have come up before; DNA on other relatives.
Joe: Not in my experience.
Her: Someone somewhere sometime has had this happen.
Joe: (blinking) Could be. Here is the phone number of the genetics lab if you want to call them with more questions.
Her: (feels dismissed) What about court costs?
Joe: I'm expensive--$200 an hour. Total should be under $1,000—if the lab can match the samples from the grandfather and your daughter.
Her: And if they can?
Joe: I will do the paperwork and the court will make the final decision.
(He ushers her out, shakes her hand.)
Joe: (shakes head again, cheeks rosy) You have certainly brightened my day with this interesting question!
She walks out faster than she walked in. She wonders why Joe was more interested in the question than in the answer. She is tired of hearing, "if only" and "when he was alive." Outside the sun has disappeared and the Pringles lie crushed and golden in the gutter next to her blood-red car.
Her hope is fluttering at the edge of the sane world. She remembers what she's heard about blood atonement. Is this it? This quaking realization that for the rest of her life she will condemn herself if this fails? Her decision to keep the father's name secret—for protection and peace thirteen years ago--is roiling in her guts.
Inside her car there is a void that she cannot fill. Her hands are shaking on the steering wheel and the voice in her head is too loud: You will pay for your mistake. Another quieter voice: No, you won't, there is still a chance, keep going. Outside the window, a single Pringle is lying whole in the street and lifts gently in the wind. My badge, my badge of courage. It's not a dead badge. It's still red, my badge of courage.