He knocked three times on the back door. It was always three times. Cindy knew it was coming, but it still startled her nonetheless. She had been grating mozzarella for the lasagna, glancing up at the clock from time to time. It was 6:30. He always came at 6:30, every Wednesday. Cindy ran a little water over her hands and rubbed them dry on the dish towel. She smoothed the wrinkles on her t-shirt and checked her hair in the reflection of the window above the sink. She smirked a little, then turned to open the door.
He wasn’t a big man. Though he wasn’t a small one either. He was just an average-sized man in a rumpled button-down shirt and slacks. A few spots of blood stood out on his face and neck, splashes of razor burn, matching the color of the numerous veins crowding the whites of his eyes. He stood there in the porch light and its accompanying halo of gnats which whisked their way past his neatly combed strands of greasy hair. For a moment she thought about closing the door as she had imagined herself doing so many times before, but as always, she relented. The man cleared his throat and stared down at his toes in worn-out sneakers. When he spoke, his words were almost a mumble.
“I’m here to hold the baby.”
Cindy moved aside as her answer. The man plodded in with short, tired steps. He smelled of Dial soap, motor oil, and a hint of something else just covered by the other two. He moved to the kitchen table as he always did, selecting the chair to the left of the head of the table. Cindy took one last look outside. The gate to the alley was open, but otherwise it looked as though no one had ever tread the backyard. She closed the door, collected herself, and turned around.
“Would you like a drink of water?”
The man licked his lips. They were chapped. He rubbed one hand inside the other. Both were red from scrubbing. His voice was soft with a slight waver.
“No thank you.”
Cindy rubbed her hands on the back of her pants. For a moment she almost asked him something more, but she didn’t. Instead, she walked out of the kitchen into the living room. Frank was sitting in his easy chair, cocked all the way back, his eyes glued to the television playing some sitcom that was all the rage five years ago. The bassinet was over by the couch. Cindy walked over to it. Frank glanced over, but quickly looked back at the TV when she glanced at him.
Frank grunted, his face a stony mask broken only by the resignation in his eyes. Cindy leaned over and picked up the sleeping bundle, the little form wrapped in a onesie with a giraffe emblazoned across its front. She could feel Frank watching her from the corner of his eye. His gaze followed her as she made her way back across the room.
The man was slouched over when she came back into the kitchen, but he straightened back up as soon as he saw her enter. His sad eyes bore their way into the bundle. As she approached, he raised his arms, only a slight tremor giving away his nervousness. Cindy’s voice was just a whisper.
The man nodded. As Cindy bent over close to make the transfer, she sniffed as she always did. The hints were there, but no more than they always were, allusions emitted from his pores of another world. The man’s rough hands came beneath hers, cradling the neck and back. The moment his hands touched the baby they stopped shaking. They became as sure as stone. For just a moment Cindy paused, but then she let herself pull her hands back, releasing the weight from her arms. The baby floated fully into the man’s grasp, coming to rest light as a cloud into the crook of his arm. The baby kicked in her sleep, but was otherwise still. The man stared at the baby as though she was the only thing in the world. Cindy watched him for a second, then went back to the counter to continue working on the lasagna.
She watched them through the reflection of the window above the sink. They both sat quietly. The man staring at the sleeping baby, softly rocking her back and forth. His visage seemed to melt away. His image wavered, replaced by someone else. The baby stretched and made a self-satisfied little sound. Cindy turned to look directly. It was the man again. He was leaning over and cooing at the waking form. Cindy waited to see if the baby would cry, then turned back to the counter. The baby was making little grunting sounds. She always did when she woke up. The man held out a finger and let the baby grab on. Cindy could barely hear his voice over the hum of the fridge.
“She’s getting stronger.”
Cindy kept her eyes on her pan. She bit her lip before answering.
“Pretty soon she’ll have no trouble holding her own head up.”
She could see the man smiling in the window reflection. A big toothy grin. She finished the prep work and put the lasagna in the oven. When she turned back Frank was leaning against the living room door frame. When he caught her eye, he glanced at the clock and then back at her.
“It’s been fifteen minutes.”
The man holding the baby looked up. He snorted back a little snot. His eyes looked moist. Frank took a step towards him. The man looked up at Cindy, but she wouldn’t meet his gaze. She looked down at her feet, watching through her eyelashes. Frank took the baby carefully, resting her against his shoulder. He took a step and glared at the man fiercely. The man sat there for a moment, seeming unsure what to do, but then rose and started making his way toward the door. His hand was shaking when he turned the knob. He stepped outside, into the gnat filled puddle of the back light. He turned for a moment, and Cindy could see the yearning in his eyes. A stray thought flashed through Cindy’s mind. An offer of staying for dinner, but she said nothing. It was Frank’s voice that crossed the threshold.
“Don’t forget to close the damn gate behind you.”
The man nodded, turned, pulled the door shut behind him, and was gone.
S.W. Campbell was born in Eastern Oregon. He currently resides in Portland where he works as an economist and lives with a house plant named Morton. He has had over forty short stories published in various literary reviews in three countries, including Witness, Tin House, the Bellevue Literary Review, Entropy, and BlazeVOX. If you’d like to read more of his writing, check out his website: www.shawnwcampbell.com.
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