It’s the baker’s smile that draws Jack in.
He’s walked by the café dozens of times, always more focused on Nora in the stroller than his surroundings. He doesn’t know what was different this morning; maybe he looked up at just the right time. But when he did, he found himself looking directly into warm brown eyes. They pulled Jack out of his own thoughts enough for him to connect the eyes to a face, and that’s when the man had smiled. It was a genuine smile, kind, aimed right at Jack. It’s probably not the first time in the past eight weeks that somebody has smiled at Jack, but it’s the first time he’s noticed.
Jack’s been clinging to that smile like a lifeline all day.
In his darkest moments, when Nora is going on her third straight hour of crying, Jack wonders what he was thinking, deciding to raise an infant on his own even after Jen had made it clear she was done. The thought never gets much traction because even in those darkest moments, Jack knows it was no contest: If he had to choose between his daughter and his ex-fiancée, his daughter would win, every time.
His parents say it’s colic. “You had the worst colic,” his mother says with a fond smile, like it’s a pleasant memory. “You grew out of it.”
“Like father, like daughter,” his father chirps.
His parents had the luxury of going back to Montreal after three weeks, before the colic really set in. They were sympathetic, of course, but insistent that Jack would never find his footing if they were there to hold his hand. “It’s like skating,” Papa said. “You have to let go of the boards eventually.”
Apparently, in this analogy his parents are the boards and Jack is Jack. He isn’t sure what Nora is supposed to be. The puck? The goal? He’s too tired to try to make sense of it.
Time doesn’t exist the way it did before Nora. It’s measured out in three-hour increments — the length of time it takes to feed her, change her diaper, play, read a story, nap, and feed her again. Sometimes this schedule is broken up by the excitement of a bath or a diaper blowout. Time simultaneously accelerates and stands still. There’s never enough of it when Jack is trying to catch a few hours of uninterrupted sleep, always too much of it from five to eight p.m. when Nora does nothing but cry.
When the crying gets bad and the walls feel like they’re beginning to close in around Jack, he puts her in the stroller and heads outside. Like so much of his life these days, he operates on autopilot, but he isn’t really surprised when he ends up outside the little café — the Bakehaus, according to the sign — he passes on their morning walks. This time, remembering the kind man who smiled at him this morning, he decides to go inside.
He struggles a little to hold the door open and maneuver the stroller through the doorway at the same time. He’s still getting used to this. Nora’s still wailing and Jack would apologize if there were any other customers inside to apologize to, but it looks like they’re the only ones here. He wheels the stroller up to the register and looks at the menu behind the counter without really seeing it.
“What can I get for you? I hope you haven’t been waiting too long.”
The voice somehow shakes Jack out of his own thoughts. The man from this morning is standing behind the counter, that same kind smile from this morning directed at him. “Oh. I … A black coffee, please.”
“Will you have a scone or muffin with that? Maybe a piece of coffee cake?”
“Just coffee,” Jack says. “Thank you.”
“Refills are on the house.” The man grabs a paper cup from beside the register. By the time he hands Jack his coffee, something miraculous has happened: Nora’s wails have died down into exhausted whimpers and her eyelids are beginning to get heavy.
Jack thanks the man again and takes a seat in a corner, hopeful Nora will sleep long enough for him sit for a few minutes and drink his coffee. He’s vaguely aware of the baker bustling about the café, wiping down tables and boxing up the few leftover pastries in the display case. But mostly he just allows himself to relax and enjoy the hot coffee and the soothing music playing in the café, the first thing he’s done for himself all day.
At ten-to-six, Jack gets up, throws his cup away, and carefully wheels the stroller back outside. He thanks the baker on his way out the door.
“Feel free to come back tomorrow,” he calls after Jack.
Jack thinks he probably will.
For the past month, the man with the baby and the sad blue eyes has been stopping in for a cup of coffee an hour before closing. He always sits in an overstuffed chair in the corner and drinks his coffee while his baby sleeps next to him in the stroller. Sometimes he pulls a book out from the diaper bag he carries with him; other times he just stares straight ahead as if in a daze. He never asks for a refill, always respectfully gathers his things and leaves ten minutes before the shop officially closes. Eric desperately wants to ask him what his story is.
His curiosity gets the best of him one evening in July. Eric finishes all of his closing tasks early and takes a seat across from the man he thinks of as Sad Dad. “You don’t have to tell me anything,” he says, sliding a leftover slice of pie across the table. “But if you ever want to talk, I’m a good listener.”
Sad Dad startles at the sound of his voice. “Er, thanks.” He picks up the fork and turns it around in his hands like he doesn’t know what to do with it. Eric notices he’s not wearing a wedding ring.
“I can box it up for you, if you’d rather,” Eric says. “It’s on the house.”
“This is the only place she’ll sleep,” Sad Dad blurts out.
In the stroller, the baby stirs but doesn’t wake.
“I think it might be the music,” he adds. “But maybe not. I tried playing this music for her at home and she just screams.”
Eric gives Sad Dad his warmest smile. “Maybe it’s just the change of scenery.” He peers into the stroller and gets his first real look at the baby. She’s swaddled in a blue and yellow striped blanket. A bit of dark hair peeks out from under a matching blue hat. Every once in a while her lips twitch or her eyelids flutter. “Must be dreaming,” Eric says.
“She does that sometimes. I didn’t know babies did that.”
“When I was little my MooMaw used to have a dog that did that,” Eric says. “She always used to say he was dreaming about chasin’ squirrels. He was this lazy old basset hound who drooled and smelled something awful. I don’t know that I ever saw him chase his tail, let alone a squirrel.” As soon as the words are out of his mouth, he wants to take it all back. “Not that I’m comparing your baby to a dog. Oh, lord.” He buries his face in his hands, mortified, but he thinks he hears … laughter?
He risks a glance up at Sad Dad and yes, he’s actually laughing. When he laughs, Eric notices, his eyes crinkle at the corners. “Well,” he finally says, “she does drool and can get kind of smelly. Do you think my baby might be part basset hound? That would explain a lot.”
Eric risks a smile back and feels his heart rate start to return to normal. “She’s much cuter than that old basset hound. What’s her name?”
“Nora. Short for Eleanor.”
“She’s named after my maternal grandmother.”
“And you are?” It’s been a month; Eric would really like to stop thinking of him as Sad Dad.
Jack just nods thoughtfully. Eric isn’t sure if he’s always been a man of few words, or if he’s just too tired to hold a conversation. He tries to draw him out anyway. “Are you and Nora new to the neighborhood?”
“Ah, kind of? I lived in Providence when I was younger. Work took me away, but I always planned to come back, when I retired. I still have friends here and it seemed as good a place as any to raise Nora. We’re living in my old apartment right now; it’s a few blocks away.”
That explains … Well, it actually doesn’t explain very much at all. Eric’s about to ask how a man his age — because Jack can’t be much older than his mid-thirties — is retired when Jack answers the unasked question. “I used to play hockey professionally. Retired this past season.”
Something about that trips a switch in Eric’s head. “Wait. Are you …”
“Jack Zimmermann.” His smile is more of a grimace.
Eric tries to reconcile the haggard man in front of him with the vibrant young athlete he remembers watching win the Stanley Cup ten years ago. Jack Zimmermann had been a media darling that summer, for both carrying on his family legacy of winning the Stanley Cup and coming out as bisexual in a post-Cup interview later that week. Eric may or may not still have a Zimmermann jersey hanging up in his closet — he’d been a casual hockey fan at the time, but he wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to support the first out player in the NHL. Jack was traded to San Jose before Eric moved here, but now he remembers hearing something about his retirement. Eric hadn’t realized he’d be returning to Providence, though.
Anyway, Jack’s former profession does explain the stroller. Eric doesn’t know a lot about baby gear, but he knows from overhearing the conversations of stay-at-home moms that the fancy model Nora’s currently sleeping in carries a hefty price tag of well over a thousand dollars.
“Well, welcome back to the neighborhood, Jack. You and Nora are welcome here any time. Maybe next time you’ll actually eat the pie.”
Jack looks down at his untouched pie. “Maybe a to-go box?”
“I can do that.” Eric takes the plate and boxes the slice of pie up at the counter. “Don’t let it spoil your dinner,” he teases when he hands it to Jack.
“This will probably be dinner,” Jack confesses. “I haven’t been cooking very much.” He gestures at the baby.
“There’s a good deli a little ways down the block,” Eric says. “Best pastrami sandwich in Providence. Martha makes a great potato salad, too.”
“Thanks,” Jack says, and this time, Eric thinks, the smile is real. “For the pie and the conversation. I can’t remember the last time I sat down and talked to an adult.”
“Come back tomorrow,” Eric promises, “and there’ll be more of both.”
At first, Jack thought it was a fluke.
Within minutes of stepping inside the bakery, Nora’s little body relaxes and her gasping wails recede into breathy little cries until she eventually falls asleep. It’s enough to afford Jack 30 minutes or so of peace before she starts back up again. His order is simple enough that the baker — Eric — starts preparing it as soon as Jack walks in.
Jack remembers, vaguely, the dimly lit hipster coffee bar that used to operate in this space when he was playing with the Falconers. He stopped in once, after a morning run, and received a scornful look from the barista when he ordered a plain black coffee. The difference is night and day. The walls are now a bright shade of yellow and the metal stools and tall tables have been replaced with overstuffed couches and mismatched tables and chairs. The scuffed wood floor has been restored to a shiny finish. A bookshelf in the corner is a catchall for donated books, board games, and a small assortment of toddler toys. The music playing is always just the right mix of calm indie rock, oldies, and standards. It’s so homey and comfortable. No wonder Nora’s at peace here.
“Don’t fall asleep on me.”
Jack jerks awake. Eric gives him the smallest of smirks.
“She’s still up a few times a night,” Jack explains.
“Forgive me for sticking my nose where it doesn’t belong,” Eric says as he wipes down a nearby table, “but do you have any help?”
“Ah. That’s a long story.”
“I’ve got time,” Eric says. “I’m just closing up, and your girl is out like a light. You sure you want to risk waking her?”
He has a point. “Yeah. Okay.”
“You can come on back here with me while I box up the leftovers.” Jack gets up and glances uncertainly at the stroller. “Oh, come on,” Eric says. “Nobody’s gonna come in and kidnap her. Here, I’ll lock the door.”
“Can you do that?”
Eric winks. “I don’t get too many customers in here at this hour, and if I do I can just say we closed early today. Perk of owning the place.”
“Have you been here long?” Jack asks.
“Long enough,” he says, setting a large white pasty box on the counter and beginning to fill it with unsold cookies and muffins. “Almost four years, to be exact.”
“You must do well.” Jack remembers reading some statistic about how the majority of small businesses fail within a year.
“Well enough,” Eric agrees. “I’d like to do a little better, get a few more big orders a month so I can afford to hire more help, someone to take the earliest shift so I can get a little extra sleep, but I don’t mind being here. I knew I’d be spending most of my time here, so I tried to make it as comfortable as possible.”
“I can tell,” Jack says. “I think that’s why Nora and I like it so much.”
Eric beams. “But you were going to tell me about yourself. Do you have anybody helping you out at home? A partner? Nanny? Babysitter?”
“None of the above,” Jack admits, and he almost feels embarrassed. He can afford help, he knows it, but something keeps stopping him from making a call or two. Maybe it’s his determination to prove to everyone that he can do this on his own.
“Have you considered it?”
“Considering it is one thing,” Jack says. “Finding the energy to actually find someone is kind of overwhelming.”
Eric nods. “That sounds about right. Not that I’d know, but that’s what my friends with kids all say. You know, Jack, you’re a good dad. Part of being a good parent is putting yourself first sometimes. If you want to leave her here for a bit to take some time for yourself — even if it’s just to take the time to find a sitter — I don’t mind.
Eric is a virtual stranger, but there’s something so warm and caring about his demeanor that Jack can’t help but tell him everything. It’s months of conversations he hasn’t been able to have, or even really process, spilling out all at once. He tells him how Nora wasn’t planned, but very much wanted. By Jack, anyway. He’d thought Jen was on the same page — she seemed to be — but she’d confessed to having second thoughts a month before the due date. Not just about their engagement, but about the baby.
“I think,” Jack says, articulating a thought he hasn’t even shared with his parents, “I started to panic when I realized retiring would actually mean not playing hockey. I was 35 and up until then it had been my life. All of the guys I came up with had families. I always wanted what my parents have; it just never happened for me. And then Jen found out she was pregnant and it seemed perfect. The next logical step, you know?”
Eric nods but lets Jack continue.
“We’d been together long enough to know we didn’t know what we were going to do when I retired. I wanted to come back to Providence, she wanted to stay in California. The baby kind of accelerated those conversations. When I found out I was over the moon. I let my excitement blind me to her utter indifference. She finally told me she didn’t want to be married and she didn’t want a baby. So …” Jack gestures at the stroller. “Here we are. Sometimes I think I’m crazy for trying to do this.”
Eric stops his work and looks Jack in the eye. “I don’t think you’re crazy at all, Jack,” he says. “You made a difficult choice, but it was the right one for you. Anyone can see that little girl is your world.”
Jack thinks, again, about how these have been the hardest months of his life. The hardest, for sure, but also the best.
“Anyway,” Eric continues, “I’m really glad you’re here.”
“How’s my little girl?” Bob asks over Skype. “Still a meatloaf?”
“A meatloaf, Papa?” Jack laughs in spite of himself. Nora is sitting on his lap, happily gnawing on a small plush bird. Life with an infant isn’t all bad, not when Nora’s happy and snuggly and content to sit with Jack and Skype with her grandparents.
“Well, she’s not mobile yet, is she? The only difference between a baby and a meatloaf is —”
“You can eat a meatloaf,” Alicia groans. She punches his arm affectionately. “He’s been telling that joke for years, to every one of our friends who has grandkids.”
“Well, uh, not mobile yet, so I guess still in the meatloaf stage,” Jack smiles. “Though she did attempt to roll over yesterday, so I think she may be working her way up to turtle.”
Bob and Alicia laugh and spend a few minutes talking baby talk at Nora, who stares back at them with wide blue eyes and drools a little.
“You look thin, honey,” Alicia chastises, turning her attention back toward Jack. “Are you eating?”
“Uh …” Jack actually can’t remember the last time he ate anything that could be properly described as a “meal.” For somebody who has spent his entire adult life intensely focused on his diet and nutrition, he’s done a poor job of paying attention to either these past two months. The thought of preparing a meal is a little overwhelming right now. Since running out of the stash of frozen meals his parents prepped for him, he’s been surviving on protein bars and shakes. They get delivered with his weekly diaper order. “I still haven’t figured out cooking with a baby,” he admits.
“Are you wearing her?” Bob asks. “Your mother used to wear you around the house in a sling. You loved it. Might give you a little more freedom to get things done when she doesn’t want to be left alone.”
“I think I have one in a box somewhere,” Jack says. “Baby gift. I’ll look for it.”
Bob nods his approval. “And are you seeing anybody?”
“Papa, I just ended an engagement and —” he gestures at Nora. “Dating isn’t at the top of my list right now.” The toy bird falls from Nora’s grasp and Jack shifts a bit to catch it before it hits the floor.
“I think he’s talking about a therapist, baby,” Alicia says.
“Oh.” Of course that’s what they’d be talking about. “I probably should be talking to somebody.”
“Jack.” Alicia doesn’t look disappointed, just concerned.
“I think,” Bob says carefully, “that it would be good for you to make some calls about that.”
“I will,” Jack promises. Maybe it’s because he’s a parent now, but his parents’ concern, which once would have seemed cloying, leaves him with a lump in his throat.
“We love you both,” Alicia says. “I’m going to be in New York next week doing some press for a guest spot I just filmed, but I’m going to start looking at flights to come see you soon. That all right?”
Jack nods because he’s too choked up to say much else.
“Give my meatloaf a kiss for me!” Bob says. Alicia elbows him again and Jack huffs out a little laugh. He plants an exaggerated kiss on Nora’s cheek and takes her little hand in his so she can “wave” goodbye.
“Eat something!” Alicia orders out before they sever the connection.
Things aren’t perfect, he thinks after he turns off the computer and sets Nora on her play mat. But they’re getting better. He makes a note in his phone to dig out the baby carrier and call the therapist he used to see when he was playing for the Falcs. It’s a start.
Eric knows falling for Jack Zimmermann is a bad idea.
If they had met under different circumstances, maybe. Maybe Eric would have been bold enough to flirt with him when he ordered his (boring, predictable) black coffee and eventually work his way up to asking him out. If they had met under different circumstances, they might go home together after Eric gets off work and eat takeout on the couch while an old TV show plays at low volume on the TV. If they had met under different circumstances, Eric might have somebody to go home to after delivering wedding cakes to happy couples. He might have a plus-one for his friends’ dinner parties. He might have someone to laugh with him when the smoke alarm batteries go out in the middle of the night.
But they didn’t meet under different circumstances and Jack is, objectively, a mess. He might have been a star on the ice and an expert at handling the media’s interest in his personal life, but right now the only thing he’s good at is taking care of his daughter. The boy can barely feed or dress himself. Eric is positive he must own a shirt that isn’t covered in hockey logos and unidentifiable baby-related stains, but he has yet to see it. The ever-present dark circles under his eyes aren’t doing him any favors, either.
It only makes Eric want to take care of him more, a fact his friend Larissa has definitely picked up on.
“You like him,” she says with a sly grin. Since meeting Jack last week, when she was in the shop to hang some of her original art, she’s been relentless in her insistence that Jack is the one.
“Of course I like him” Eric agrees. “He’s one of my best customers. I like all my regulars.”
Well, not all of his regulars. He could do without angry Mrs. Morrison, who always complains that the coffee is too hot or too cold, or that he doesn’t put quite as many blueberries in the muffins as the chain coffee house down the street. She keeps coming back, though, so Eric just bites his tongue when she complains about his muffins and smiles through it.
“Yeah, but you like him. Like, take-him-home-and-cook-him-his-favorite-meal-and-snuggle-on-the-couch-with-him like him.”
“Well, that’s just ridiculous because his favorite meal is chicken tenders,” Eric protests. Which, okay, the fact that he knows Jack’s favorite food is maybe a little revealing. He’s used to knowing his regular customers’ favorite type of pie and regular coffee order, but in addition to Jack’s favorite food, Eric can tell you his favorite book, favorite movie, and the name of his childhood dog.
“That’s perfect,” Larissa laughs, “you won’t even have to cook something different for his kid.”
“It’s not an option,” he repeats. He’s not sure who he’s trying to convince. “He’s just a friend.”
So he does what a friend would do. He always greets Jack and Nora with a smile when they stop in, provides a listening ear when he feels like talking. When Jack falls asleep with his book in his hands and Nora in the stroller beside him, he lets him rest. And when Nora starts to whimper one evening and Jack doesn’t immediately tend to her because he’s asleep on the couch, Eric doesn’t think anything of picking her up before her fussing wakes her father.
He balances her on one hip and takes her into the kitchen, where he points out all of the different appliances and ingredients and lets her hold a cylindrical container full of colored sugar crystals. “See, honey, this is the oven,” he says, and he only feels a little silly. “It gets hot and cooks all the pies and cookies.”
Nora babbles and shakes the sugar crystals.
“And this,” he says, “is the industrial mixer.”
After their fascinating kitchen tour, Eric quietly looks through the basket under Nora’s stroller until he finds the front carrier Jack occasionally wears. He has to adjust it to fit him, but Nora goes in easily enough and seems happy so he holds off on waking Jack. Instead, he sets to work prepping the batter for a cupcake order that’s going out first thing in the morning. When the cupcakes go in the oven, he grabs a towel and begins wiping down his workspace. There’s a Beatles song playing over the sound system, the one his MooMaw used to sing to him when he was little, and he sings along with it as he works.
“Why didn’t you wake me?”
Eric startles at Jack’s query, more embarrassed at being caught singing than about wearing his child. “You were sleeping like a baby. I didn’t have the heart to wake you.”
“How long have I been out?” Jack asks. He still has that sleep-drunk look, eyes a little glassy and hair a little mussed.
Eric glances at the clock. “Maybe three hours? I hope you don’t mind —” he gestures to Nora “— she got fussy. We played for a bit and she’s been helping me bake ever since.”
“But you ... it’s ... You closed three hours ago.”
“And you were sound asleep, snoring away in that chair over there. I didn’t have the heart to wake you, Jack. When is the last time you slept like that?”
Jack doesn’t reply.
“I thought so. It’s fine,” Eric reassures him. “I’m doing cupcakes for a three-year-old’s birthday tomorrow. I was able to get a head start so I don’t have to come in so early tomorrow morning. Nora’s been real good; I think she’ll be a good little baker someday.”
“But didn’t you have plans tonight?” Jack tries again.
Eric laughs. “Not unless you consider eating leftover pizza in front of Hell’s Kitchen ‘plans.’”
Jack frowns a little at that. “I could at least buy you dinner. Or pay you for babysitting? You shouldn’t have to —”
“Jack. It’s all good. This is what friends do for each other. If you want to thank me, take these leftover cookies home. There’s not enough to take to the shelter and I’ll just end up throwing them out.” Eric gestures toward the bag on the counter.
There’s a little bit of maneuvering as Jack gently lifts Nora out of the carrier and and situates her in the stroller while Eric takes the carrier off and folds it back up. He holds the bag of cookies out to Jack. “Don’t forget these. Nora’s treat for helping me tonight.”
One side of Jack’s mouth quirks up. “Nora’s not eating solids yet.”
“Then I guess she’ll just have to share with you, won’t she?”
“Well, if she’s planning to share …” Jack finally accepts the bag.
“I’ll get the door for you.” Eric unlocks the door and holds it open so Jack can steer the stroller through.
Jack doesn’t make a move to leave, just rolls the stroller back and forth a little. “We’re going to story hour at the library tomorrow morning,” he tells Eric. “Maybe we can stop in for breakfast.”
It’s been a long time since Eric has done this, but if he’s reading this correctly, Jack Zimmermann is lingering.
Or, he could just be exhausted and not quite sure how to exit with a stroller and a bag of cookies.
Either way, his poor heart really can’t take this right now. He takes the bag from Jack and places it in the basket under the stroller. “There. Now you can use both hands to steer. Have a good evening.”
“You, too,” Jack says. The smiles he and Nora both give him as they walk out will be the end of him, Eric thinks.
“Jack, you can’t just skip her first Halloween.” Jack has never seen Eric look as disappointed in him as he does right now, having heard Jack doesn’t have plans to buy Nora a Halloween costume.
“She’s a baby. Do babies celebrate Halloween? She can’t even walk.”
“Honey, this is the best time to celebrate Halloween. Haven’t you seen all the cute costumes? Anything you can think of.” Eric takes the seat across from Jack and pulls out his phone. “Look,” he says, setting the phone on the table, “she can be a chicken. Or a pea pod. Captain America, Jack; she can be Captain America.”
“You.” Eric gives him a light kick under the table. “On Halloween, all the businesses on the street have a little block party and hand out treats to the kids. The Mexican restaurant has half price margaritas and appetizer specials all evening, and the ice cream shop gives out free scoops to the kids. Not that Nora can have ice cream, obviously, but it’s a good time to come out and meet some other parents. I’ll be giving out my special pumpkin cookies.”
It’s not something an introvert like Jack is usually drawn to, but it does sound like it could be fun. He’s been making an effort to be more social for Nora’s benefit. They’ve made some new friends at the library’s story hour, but it would probably be good to come out and meet some of their neighbors.
And anyway, Eric will be there.
With his father’s help, Jack devises a costume and keeps it under wraps until Halloween, expertly deflecting whenever Eric asks him about it. “But you do have something planned,” he says a few days before Halloween, “right? You’re not just going to dress her up in her Falconers onesie and call her a hockey player.”
“It’s a surprise,” Jack says, “but I promise it’s not hockey-related.”
On Halloween, Jack gets the two of them ready an hour before the block party is scheduled to begin. He’s learned, by now, that getting out of the house takes at least twice as long as it should. When Nora is finally dressed in the costume Bob lovingly made and shipped from Montreal, he puts her in the front carrier and heads out.
Eric’s closed the bakery early but is stationed outside, handing frosted pumpkin-shaped sugar cookies out to the costumed kids. His eyes widen when Jack and Nora approach. “Jack Zimmermann, you did not dress your baby as a burrito!”
Jack shrugs and accepts the cookie Eric’s handed to him. “My dad has this weird thing about giving her food nicknames,” he explains. “Meatloaf, burrito. He was pretty excited about getting to make this for her.”
Eric steps closer and gives Nora a little kiss on the forehead. “Sounds like your grandpa and I would get along just fine, wouldn’t we, Sugar Pie?”
“Ha ha. Yeah, I think you and my parents would get along really well, actually.” Jack is suddenly aware he’s standing very close to Eric, and that a line of children has formed behind him. He takes a step backward, bumping into a tiny Darth Vader. “Er, sorry,” he apologizes to the kid’s parents, a couple dressed in impressively realistic Han Solo and Princess Leia costumes. Eric smirks and reaches around Jack to give the family cookies.
“I’m just gonna check the rest of this out,” Jack says, feeling a bit silly for thinking Eric would be available to hang out with them when he’s working.
“I’ll be here when you get back,” Eric says with a smile.
Jack and Nora wander the street, which has been closed off to traffic. Some of the businesses have set up carnival games in the street, and the patio of the Mexican restaurant is full of parents taking advantage of the margarita and appetizer specials. Jack plays a ring toss game and wins a giant chocolate bar, which he gives to a couple of kids in Harry Potter costumes. He gets stopped several times by neighbors who want to take pictures with the “burrito baby,” only a few of whom recognize him as a former Falconer. By the time he’s made it up and down both sides of the block and collected treats he is absolutely not giving to a 6-month-old, Eric has just handed out his last cookie.
“Every year, I make more cookies,” he laments, “and every year, I run out before the night is over.”
“Maybe it has something to do with the fact that you’re giving them out to the parents, too,” Jack teases.
“Could be,” Eric replies. “I just can’t help it. All these parents got off work early to come out here with their kids, they deserve a little treat, too.”
“What about you?” Jack asks. “Can I buy you a drink?” He glances toward the Mexican restaurant, which is not quite as busy as it was earlier. From here, he can hear Halloween-themed music coming from the patio.
“Oh, I —”
“You’re the reason we came out here tonight,” Jack says, “and I’d feel really weird sitting there by myself with just a baby for company.”
“Well then, I’d love that.” They slowly make their way down the street, stopping to point out costumed dogs and Halloween-themed window displays to Nora, who takes it all in with wide eyes.
“I’m kind of a lightweight these days,” Jack admits when their margaritas arrive. The three of them are settled around the last available table on the patio, a small table for two that barely accommodates the high chair, where Nora is happily gumming a saltine their waiter brought. Jack figures it will buy him enough time to have one drink and something to eat.
“Well, I won’t judge you,” Eric says. “One of these is usually my limit too. I still have to drive home.”
“Do you live far?” Jack asks, because in all these months he’s never thought to ask Eric if he lives in the neighborhood.
“Not too far,” he says, “but far enough that I don’t want to walk to work at 4:30 in the morning.”
“That’s fair,” Jack says. Next to him, Nora bangs a spoon on her tray.
“She’s changing,” Eric observes. “She’s, like, a real baby now.”
Jack chuckles, because he's obviously very aware that Nora's a baby, but he knows what he means. His parents made the same observation just a few days ago. Her dark hair is still thin, but it doesn’t stick straight up anymore, and her cheeks have filled out. Her eyes, a deep blue at birth, have lightened to the same shade as Jack’s. What’s most surprising to Jack, though, is the way she’s able to focus on everything around her, like she’s trying to make sense of her world. He would swear that she prefers her caterpillar book over her bear book, and she definitely recognizes people or animals she knows. Jack, obviously, but she always brightens considerably when she sees their mail woman or the neighbor’s cat or, well, Eric.
Eric, who has picked up his own spoon and clinking it against Nora’s in some sort of miniature sword fight. It’s too cute for words, and before Jack realizes what he’s doing, he’s got his phone out.
“Oh, lord,” Eric says, when he turns his attention back toward Jack. “Tell me you didn’t get that on video.”
Jack just smiles and scoops some salsa up with a chip.
By the end of the night, having downed his margarita and consumed half an order of nachos — without any interruptions from Nora — Jack is feeling relaxed and content. He’d be happy to sit here all night listening to Eric tell stories about his customers and growing up in Georgia and some sort of long-running family jam feud. But when Nora finally begins to get restless — long after their plates have been cleared — Eric glances at the time on his phone and Jack remembers he has to be at work early.
“We should go,” Jack says, even though it’s the last thing he wants to do right now. Holiday festivities aside, this has been the most normal night he’s had in a while and he’s suddenly not eager to go back to his apartment alone. Well, not alone, but once he puts the baby to bed he’ll be alone.
“I should go too,” Eric says, and Jack thinks he might sound a little regretful too. “It’s getting close to my bedtime, and I’m betting it’s definitely past this one’s bedtime.”
“Pretty close, yeah. It’s been a big night for her. She got to see seven dogs.” Eric giggles a little at that, and Jack decides he likes the sound of it.
“I’d offer you a ride home,” Eric says as they say their goodbyes outside the restaurant, “but no car seat.”
“Ah, it’s probably good for us to walk,” Jack says. “It’s only a few blocks.”
“Well, thanks for having dinner with me, anyway,” Eric says. He reaches out and gives Nora’s hand a little squeeze before they part.
“We could do this again next week,” Jack says before he can stop himself.
It takes Eric a second to respond. “Yeah,” he says, giving Jack a funny little smile. “Let’s do that.”