Tommy raised the glistening oars blades, eased them back into the water, then pulled hard. He wished he were stronger, so he could make the boat move faster. A moderate wind made a shifting pattern of shallow ripples on the water, vague images that merged and separated like fleeting thoughts. Joan unclasped her hands, smoothed her pink skirt. She smiled tentatively, hesitantly.
"St. Paul honestly believed everything he wrote," Tommy said. "It's so obvious when you read his epistles. I'm not so sure about Augustine." He pronounced it "a-GUS-tin," as did Father Clandillion and the other Jesuits.
"Did you study Augustine at St. Cathrine's?"
Joan shook her head. "We just had the Baltimore Catechism."
"Yeah, we did too. 'Who is God?'"
"'God is the Supreme Being who made all things,'" Joan replied.
"I had a full scholarship to the seminary," Tommy said. "First a prep school. But I didn't want to go."
"I shouldn't say."
"Come on, tell me."
"All right. I just knew I could never be a celibate."
Joan blinked. "Celibate?"
"Yes. Do you know what that means?"
"It means never having sex."
Joan's blush rose quickly and covered her neck and cheeks.
No other boats were tied to the dock at Swan Island. Tommy climbed up onto the gray, creaky boards and Joan handed him the picnic basket. He grasped her thin hands and pulled her up. They walked along a path that wound through the trees to an open meadow. They headed across thick, high grass toward a massive oak with spreading branches.
Joan shook out a white tablecloth, and placed the wicker picnic basket at one corner. She unwrapped sandwiches and put them on stiff white paper plates, then from a bag she rustled a small pile of potato chips beside each sandwich.
Tommy was sure Joan would never have yielded to him the week before if she hadn't accepted him fully for who he was. Giving up her virginity to him was, he knew, a major thing. It meant she was totally serious. It also meant she'd never forget him as long as she lived.
He bit hungrily into the ham sandwich. A tang of mayonnaise, a grainy mush of tomato. He chewed rapidly, took another large bite. Joan fumbled with the churchkey and pried off the corrugated cap of a green Coke bottle, and then the cap of another.
A dragon fly hovered a foot and a half above the open picnic basket. Its faint buzz merged with the buzzing of distant cicadas. Tommy waved his hand; the fly darted off.
"What's so funny?" Joan asked.
"Nothing. I was just thinking."
"Do you really want me to?"
Joan smiled. "Sure."
Tommy said that he had recently discovered a fundamental truth at the public library. Which was that the matter of the universe is indestructible. Nothing can be destroyed, only altered. As a match burns it does not slowly disappear, but rather is transformed into heat and gasses and residual carbon.
"Now," he continued, "if matter can't be destroyed it will exist forever, and if it has existed forever, it necessarily has always existed."
"Do you know what that means?"
"It means that a god didn't create it."
Joan's lips parted; she looked confused.
But Tommy nevertheless continued, confident that the clarity of his thinking would give her the same sense of comfort that it brought him. Truth, after all, shall set ye free. He spoke rapidly, earnestly, and for a long time. Joan sat passively, quietly, hands clasped in her lap.
"God didn't create the universe," he said. "These myths are merely clumsly attempts to explain the mysteries of life. In human terms. And that's all right. Except for the truly stupid stuff organized religion comes up with. Like eternal damnation, for instance. Or eternal bliss in heaven."
"But the Church says it's true!"
"Of course it does, but it's wrong."
"How can you say that?"
"Because it doesn't make any sense, that's why. Religion appeals only to the ignorant, those who don't want to think for themselves."
"Oh, please stop," Joan whispered.
"Because all that is blasphemy."
"Oh, come on..."
"Please. I want to go home now."
Joan rose, gathered up the remnants of the meal, put them into the wicker basket. Tommy watched her nervous, clumsy movements. His face burned.
* * *
Tommy rowed. Joan was silent, and this time she sat in the boat with her back to him. The wind had died, making the lake a smooth unrippled mirror. Glittering water droplets fell from the oars. The oarlocks squeaked. Soon his back ached, his hands burned with the beginnings of blisters. Sweat covered his forehead.
What debilitating, tedious labor! One painful oar stroke after another, and to what purpose? A tiresome journey across an endless lake with a timid girl who now wished he didn't exist.
Maybe he ought to stop, he thought. It would be so easy to draw up those dripping oars, nestle them on either side of that silent little mouse. Joan wouldn't turn her head if he stood up carefully, turned toward the bow, and then stepped off into that dark water. He'd sink slowly down into the darkness, and look up at the shimmering mirror of the water's surface, at the dark green pointed shape of the boat's bottom.
Would she cry out? Would she dive in to rescue him?
After a while she'd just clumsily deploy those oars, row to the shore, and go home to resume her quiet, pious life.
* * *