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The Last Page: Meat
By Janet Thornburg
Serving a spinach soufflé was Raymond's first mistake. His father wouldn't even try it, and his mother picked at hers. When Raymond looked pained, his mother said, "Sorry, Ray, guess we're still meat-and-potatoes folks." His father asked for lunchmeat and made himself a sandwich with the Black Forest ham Raymond brought him from the refrigerator, but after one bite he put down the sandwich and asked what the hell was wrong with the bread.
"It's supposed to be sour, Dad. It's a San Francisco tradition."
"Well, what else have you got?"
"Nothing," Raymond said and wished trapdoors would open under his parents and drop them into plastic tubes that would suck them back to their potato farm in Idaho.
"If you don't eat your dinner, you won't get any dessert!" Raymond said.
"Ha, ha," his mother said nervously.
"That's what you used to tell me," Raymond said.
"Did we?" she asked, picking the mint off her carrots.
Raymond had no idea where to go from there, but his father was prepared. "Seems like we saw a steakhouse on the way here, didn't we? Sort of out by the airport? Let's go."
Later, after the steakhouse and after his parents had gone to bed, Raymond fixed himself a plate of cold spinach soufflé and carrots and called Gina.
"Did you pave the way?" she asked.
"Not even close," Raymond said.
"Not to worry," Gina said. "We'll tell them together tomorrow night."
* * *
RAYMOND WORRIED. On the way home from work the next day, he bought Idaho potatoes and ground round. His parents were watching the news on TV when he arrived. "My friend Gina is joining us for dinner," he called to them from the kitchen.
His mother came right in and sat on a stool next to him as he grated Parmesan cheese for the caesar salad dressing. "A new friend?" she asked.
"No, I've known her for a couple of years. She teaches at City College, too."
"Oh, that's nice. You must have a lot in common."
"Well, actually, we do, but Mom, I'm still with Martin. Gina's a friend-friend, not a girlfriend."
"Well, I wouldn't close any doors," his mother said brightly, cocking her head to one side.
* * *
GINA ARRIVED, and to Raymond's relief she wasn't wearing her studded leather jacket. His parents were cordial, Gina was pleasant, the meatloaf looked perfect, and Raymond felt a rosy glow as he sat down at the head of the table.
"You put onions in this?" Raymond's father asked with his mouth full of meatloaf.
"Oh dear, George can't eat onions," Raymond's mother said. "They don't agree with him."
"I like them, but they don't like me," Raymond's father said, pushing his plate away. He leaned back and folded his arms.
Gina watched the flush rising up Raymond's neck. "Barney's!" she said. "The best burgers in San Francisco, and it's only two blocks away. Let's go."
AFTER RAYMOND'S MOTHER had finished her Barney Burger with jack cheese and his dad had finished his Big Barney Burger with cheddar and Gina had finished her Vegi Burger with sautéed mushrooms and Raymond had almost finished his Thai chicken salad, Gina caught Raymond's eye and whispered, "Now!"
"Mom, Dad, uh, Gina and I have something to tell you. She's going to have a baby, and, well, I'm the father."
Raymond's parents looked from Raymond to Gina, then at each other, then back at Raymond.
"So when's the wedding?" Raymond's mother asked cautiously.
"Oh, we're not going to get married. I have a partner," said Gina.
"Oh dear," said Raymond's mother.
"No, it's fine. Marie loves Raymond, too."
"I'm afraid I don't understand," said Raymond's mother.
"Would anybody care for dessert?" the waiter asked, and in unison Raymond and his father said, "Yes!"
* * *
OVER BROWNIE SUNDAES for the parents and cappuccino cheesecake for Raymond and Gina, the four of them exchanged uneasy glances. Finally, Raymond's mother asked, "When is the baby due?"
Gina grinned and said, "August. August tenth is what they said."
Raymond's father put down his fork and said, "That's my birthday."
"Wow," Gina said. "What if it actually comes on that day?"
After they walked home and Gina drove away, Raymond and his parents went inside, and his dad asked, "Is she sure it's your baby? I mean if she's got another partner and still got together with you, how can you be sure that there aren't others?"
Raymond laughed. "She's not sleeping around. We didn't have sex."
"Well, then how did she get pregnant?"
"Artificial insemination. I just gave her some sperm."
Raymond's father snorted and shook his head. "This is too much for me. I'm going to bed," he said, and he did. Reluctantly, Raymond's mom followed him.
Raymond went to his own room and wondered what they were saying about him and Gina and the baby.
* * *
THE NEXT DAY, he didn't stop to buy food after work. It was no use. He'd just take them to Barney's or the steakhouse, and the next morning they'd be gone. He couldn't wait.
When he got home, though, the house was empty, and he couldn't imagine where they might have gone. Then he heard voices in the backyard and smelled meat cooking. He opened the back door and saw his dad turning steaks on the barbeque and his mom slicing tomatoes on a TV tray. "Surprise!" she said. "We cooked dinner for you."
"You still like yours medium-rare?" his father asked, and Raymond nodded.
A chilly wind came up, so they took the food inside. During the meal, they talked about things back home, the crops, the new shed, the people who had left and the people who had stayed on. For dessert, his mother brought out homemade shortcake topped with fresh strawberries and heavy whipped cream.
* * *
NOTHING WAS SAID about the baby, but the next day at the airport, right before they boarded the plane, his mother said, "In August, if you need me, I'll come." She blushed, and she and Raymond's father disappeared into the airplane.
Noe Valley resident Janet Thornburg lives with her partner, Michelle, their two children, Nick and Sarah, and their cats, Aphrodite and Katzanova. Her short stories have been published or are forthcoming in the magazines Carve and In the Family and the literary journals Phantasmagoria, Lumina, The MacGuffin, and The Distillery. She earned her M.F.A. in creative writing from San Francisco State University in 1995, and she teaches English as a Second Language at San Francisco City College. "If I ever strike it rich," says Thornburg, "I'm going to make a sizable donation to the Noe ValleySally Brunn branch of the library."
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