A waitress with spiked hair and silver cross earrings showed Tate to a booth near the back. She handed him a plastic menu as he slipped into his seat. His legs ached, and he felt uncomfortably warm. Across the aisle a man wearing a brown vinyl windbreaker sat turning a cup of coffee around in its saucer. As he turned the cup, the man’s head bobbed this way and that as if he were weighing an important decision.

Looking around the empty diner, Tate figured he could get served some eggs and be in bed by four. His eyes stung when he rubbed them. He felt exhausted and wired.

Three hours earlier, at 12:07 AM, he’d become a father for the second time. He and Judy named the child Edward. He thought about how the doctor had calmly scissored the umbilical cord, smiled at Tate, said in his serene, baritone voice, “Congratulations, Dad,” and handed the baby to him. Even now Tate could feel little Edward’s burning skin as the bloodied child—Victoria’s new brother—squirmed in his hands.

Another life to protect and enjoy and fret about.

The spiky-haired waitress came down the aisle and stopped at Tate’s booth. She smelled like cigarettes. “Need more time, hun?”

Before Tate could answer, the man across the aisle chuckled, “That’s a good one, ain’t it?”

Tate glanced at him and said to the waitress, “A number three, please. With coffee. And can you bring me a glass of water with that?”

“Not a problem,” she said and cracked the gum she was chewing.

He slouched in his seat. The labor had lasted fifteen hours. There had been a few dicey moments, like when Judy’s IV popped out of her arm and her blood wriggled like a thin red snake onto the floor, but it all turned out fine. Everybody was fine.

“Tell you what,” the man in the other booth said, “Should of not listened to him. Should of gotten the kid out.” He shook his head, which was small and oblong, like a deflated football.

Sad, Tate thought, looking at the man and his turning cup.

The waitress placed Tate’s coffee at his elbow. “Careful,” she said. “It’s super hot.”

His hand trembled slightly as he lifted the cup. He watched the black surface ripple and remembered the minutes before Edward was born, Judy’s face a blotchy crimson, all shiny with sweat. She’d gripped his wrist so hard that his hand felt like bees were trapped inside it.

The really amazing part was her power to bring the kid out of her body and into the world. They’d talked so much about how they’d do it together, as a team. They’d practiced their Lamazae, meditated, performed visualization exercises. But when the time came, it was all Judy. Tate had held her hand and watched, overwhelmed by the sense that what he was witnessing was not just amazing but . . . good. He felt gratitude toward everyone who helped orchestrate this wonderful creation: Judy, the doctors, the nurses, even the janitors. He’d wanted to cry when he hugged the doctor and the nurses. And there was something else: all of them made him want to be a better person.

“Hey, Mac?”

It disturbed Tate to see the man’s saggy, miserable face.

“That coffee really hot?”

“Huh? Yeah, it is.” Tate sipped and then rubbed his eyes.

“Hey, Mac?”

Tate tried not to scowl.

“Mind if I join you over there?” He was still turning his cup, but now only in quarter turns.

“Well, see, I’m almost finished…”

The man slid out of his booth, picked up his cup and saucer, and came over and placed them on Tate’s table and sat down. His shoulders were narrow and rounded and his eyes and mouth looked like they’d sunken, little by little, into his skull while his nose kept growing out.

“How you doin’ tonight, Mac?”

“Fine,” Tate said. “Tired.”

“You look like a smart fella. Tell me something. How come he let it happen to the kid? He’s everywhere, right? Right there near the fire, right? Hell, he comes down in fire, don’t he? Don’t it say that in the Bible?”

Tate hadn’t caught the news recently and couldn’t recall any news about a fire. But he had just witnessed God’s best work, hadn’t he? “I don’t know,” he replied. “It’s a mystery, I guess.” He didn’t want to talk or think about kids in fires.

“September the sixth, 1953,” the man said. “The old man comes into the bedroom screaming, ‘Get the hell out, get the hell out.’ I said, ‘JJ? What about JJ?’ ‘Leave him and get the hell out, Dink,’ he says. Momma died in ’57, of course. Died when Agnes was born. It’s her birthday today. Agnes.”

Tate nodded and looked toward the swinging doors that led to the kitchen; his waitress was just shouldering through, silver serving tray in her hands. She came down the aisle and placed Tate’s order in front of him. She left the check too.

The man assessed the food. “You like eggs, huh? I can’t stand eggs. They give me dreams, you know? Sirens; that smell. I can’t eat ’em.”

The waitress looked at the man and then at Tate. “This all right? You okay with him?”

Tate gathered some egg onto his fork. He felt sorry for the guy but wished he’d shut up. “It’s okay,” he told the waitress.

He’d been having strange dreams himself lately. One was of a bird with a bright red crown that came to him and tried to warn him about something, but he couldn’t figure out what the bird was getting at. He wondered if he would have the dream again when he finally got to sleep tonight. He hoped not. It made him feel uneasy, like there was something important that he should know that he didn’t. Anyway he was probably too tired to dream.

“They burned your toast, you know. On the other side.”

Tate turned over the toast; it was nearly black. He shrugged. The real problem was that the waitress forgot the ice water. He looked up but she’d already returned to the kitchen.

“You don’t mind that? Burnt like that?” The man shrugged and wiggled his head a little. “I was flipping burgers for a while,” he said. “Over at Burger King. I like the fries better than Micky D’s, you know what I mean? Crispier. The flame broilers, though—I didn’t like them too good.”

“Yeah, I hear you,” Tate said. He began to eat more quickly.

“They said I was monkeying around too much. I wasn’t monkeying around, mister.” The man rubbed his thighs with his hands. “I was trying to get to the bottom of something.”

Tate took a bite of his toast and tasted ashy carbon. He swallowed some coffee and pictured himself telling Judy tomorrow about the new friend he made at the diner. It would make her laugh and roll her eyes. He took a last forkful of egg, a last sip of coffee. “Hey, nice to meet you,” he said to the man. “I’ve got to get some sleep.”

“Mac, wait a minute. You leaving? Give me a lift, will ya? I’m just over in Stapleton, right near the water.”

“I would but I can hardly keep my eyes open. Besides, I live the other way. Sorry.”

Tate paid at the register. He felt guilty about turning the man down, but he was exhausted and he had things to do tomorrow before bringing Judy and Edward home from the hospital.

Lightheaded, still parched—she never did bring the damn water—Tate held onto the rail as he walked down the concrete stairs toward the parking lot.

“Hey, wait a minute, Mac.”

Tate got into his car and started the engine as the man hurried down the steps. He reached the car and tried to open the passenger door, but it was locked.

“I got to go,” Tate told him.

The man pressed his face against the window. “That bus ain’t gonna come for another hour. Come on, do a good turn for a guy.”

Tate thought of Judy and the doctor and the nurses, and of baby Edward, and of little Victoria, to whom he’d said only yesterday when he’d left her at her grandma’s house, “You have to be extra good, okay?” He swallowed and tasted coffee paste, then leaned over and unlocked the passenger door. “Okay, okay. Where do you live?”

“Edgewater Street in Stapleton. Just up from the ferry terminal. I’ll show you.”

Tate knew of the neighborhood; the Advance had stories about crimes that happened there all the time. It wasn’t an area he had reason to visit much.

“Say, can you turn up the heat, Mac? Nippy, ain’t it?”

Nippy? Tate was perspiring under his sweatshirt and along his hairline. He needed a cold drink and a bed.

“Old man ought to be sound asleep.” The man ran his hands back and forth over his kneecaps. “He was already down when I left. He was tired, you could tell. You asked me my name, didn’t you, Mac? Dink’s what I’m called. Dink.”

Tate drove as fast as he could and soon they were on a narrow street near the harbor where the houses were run down and the front yards were little plots of weeds. In the gutters, bits of broken glass twinkled under the streetlights like fallen stars.

“Right there,” Dink said. “That one.”

The house he pointed at was a shabby, red-shingled two-story. One light shone in a downstairs window near the back. Tate pulled up to the curb. “Okay, Dink. Nice meeting you.”

“Hey, wait. Look up there on the porch; the St. Vincent people left a couple of boxes for us. Help me get ’em inside, will ya? It’ll just take a minute. The old man must’ve not heard them knock.”

“Old man?”

“Oh,” Dink said with a small, crooked smile. “My father. My daddy. Just help me get them boxes in, will ya? Those are heavy.”

Tate exhaled a dry breath and pushed open the car door with his foot. He jogged up onto the porch and picked up a box of vegetable and soup cans. A handwritten note taped to the side said: “Enjoy! —St. Vincent de Paul.”

Dink came up the steps behind Tate, stepped in front of him, opened the front door, which swung loosely away, and went in first. “This way, Mac. But try and be quiet, okay? We don’t want to wake him up.”

An odor—some mix of urine and chicken soup and dust—assaulted Tate’s nostrils. He walked behind Dink down a dim hallway and through a door into the kitchen. It was a kitchen from another time, with yellow wallpaper, a linoleum floor, and cabinets painted a thin, streaky white. On the counter were three Twinkies with candles poked into them, and three or four spent wooden matches. As Tate lowered the box onto the kitchen table, a woman in a shaggy nightgown walked out of the pantry. She picked at her graying hair and looked Tate over. Grinning, she said, “Who’s this now?”

“He asleep?” Dink said.

“He’s been asleep.”

Tate remembered the other box and walked back out to the porch. He lifted it and brought it in. As he placed it on the kitchen table, a door near the refrigerator opened. Turning, Tate saw an old man standing there in faded yellow pajamas. With his small, deep-set eyes and football-shaped head, he was an older, shrunken version of Dink.

“So what the hell’s this all about?” The old man’s hairy nostrils widened and contracted.

His voice had a greater strength than Tate would have guessed. “Who’s this guy here?” he said.

“St. Vincent,” Dink said. “He got in an accident and couldn’t get here till just now. Look all what he brought us.”

The woman, Tate noticed, had slowly shuffled backward until she was leaning against the counter in front of the Twinkies.

“You go out on the bus after I went to bed, Dink?”

“No. Been here the whole while. Watched TV with Agnes. All the Saturday night shows. Right, Ag?”

The old man smiled darkly, revealing two rows of teeth that looked like pieces of gravel glued at odd intervals to his gums. He took a few steps toward Dink. He lifted his arm as if to strike him, held it suspended in the air, and then dropped it. “You’re a lying good-for-nothing,” he said. He turned to Tate. “You ain’t no St. Vincent man. I never seen you before.”

“He’s not,” the woman said. “He’s Dink’s friend from outside.”

“I brought him for you,” Dink said, aiming his finger at the woman. “For a happy birthday present.”

The old man stepped up to his son and jabbed a hard finger into his temple. Dink reeled backward.

“Hey, whoa,” Tate said.

“Stay out of it,” the old man barked.

Dink rubbed his head and began to sob. “He was a birthday present for Agnes.”

“What’s that behind you?” the old man said to Agnes.

“Nothing, daddy. Some Twinkies.”

“What’s sticking up out of them?”

“I didn’t light them. I swear.”

Tate watched as, behind her back, she reached blindly for the spent match sticks.

“She lights them all the time,” Dink said. “She wants us to burn up too.”

The old man wet his lips with his tongue and rolled them over each other. He said to Tate, “You finished here, mister?”

Tate turned to Dink.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Dink said. “I’m just trying to get to the bottom of something. And I wish people like you would leave me alone once and for all.”

“You sound like maybe you’re wising up,” the old man said. “But I’m not betting on it.”

Tate felt a stab near his Adam’s Apple. “Take it easy on your kids,” he said in little more than a whisper.

“Don’t tell me how to run my family. How the hell would you know?”

With a quivering half-smile, Agnes curtsied and said to Tate, “Hope you’ll come see us again when it gets warmer.” She looked anxiously at the old man and dropped her head.

But the old man was staring at Tate. His expression had changed from angry to something else. Something like bewildered and sad.

*   *   *

Tate drove slowly, one tremoring hand on the steering wheel and the other turning the radio dial past a 50’s doo-wop number and some heavy metal guitars. As he turned the dial another notch, some idiot in a red Camaro flew past him, nearly sideswiping him. Tate’s heart hammered against his ribs and he thought, what if I died on the day my son was born?

On the radio, a man’s deep, calm voice was saying something about apocryphal gospels, which Tate was not sure he’d ever heard of. It didn’t matter; the voice was soothing. It reminded him of Judy’s doctor.

“One final, rather aphoristic saying attributed to Jesus that I find intriguing and relevant to our discussion comes from the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas. It’s concise but, I think you’ll agree, thought-provoking. ‘Whosoever is near to me—’ ” he carefully enunciated each word ” ‘—is near to the fire. Whosoever is far from me is far from the Kingdom.’ Now, here we can see a relation to the synoptics as well as to John, in that . . .”

Tate shivered and blinked his eyes. He looked up just in time to see the red light that he was driving through.

*   *   *

A pink haze hovered over the roofs of the houses across the street, and Tate stared at it for several minutes. He thought he might watch the sun come up, but it was still too early.

Inside, he took off his jacket and shoes and walked into the kitchen to fill a glass with tap water. He drank it, filled the glass again, and drank it. He walked into the bathroom and stopped in front of the mirror. His face looked thin and droopy. He wandered into Edward’s room, which he and Judy had painted bright yellow with white trim. On the walls hung pictures of Grandma and Grandpa Hunt and Grandma Remillard. In the corner near the window, Victoria’s brown teddy bear reclined in Edward’s crib, which was made up with a duck-and-seagull-patterned yellow sheet and a fluffy white pillow.

Tate stared absently at the crib. Was he already asleep? The crib burst into flames. The flames twisted up the carved wooden poles and leaped about the small mattress like baby devils.

Shutting his eyes and shaking his head, Tate began to rock back and forth on his heels. Inhale slowly through the nostrils: one, two, three. Release through the mouth: one, two, three. Inhale: one, two three. Release. When he opened his eyes again, the crib was just a crib, all ready for a baby. But he could swear he smelled smoke. It hung in the air like a bird in a warning dream.