There were crows perched along the roof ridge. Rain rolled off the roof in long, silver strings and spattered the mud next to the house. Underneath the maple tree just off the crooked porch, a scrawny figure stood and smoked. He was shivering and crossed and uncrossed his arms and brought the cigarette to his teeth and blew out the smoke in thin gray lines. After a long time, the front door squealed open and the figure under the tree froze. The doctor was on the porch. He took out a cigarette and lit it and threw the match away into the mud.
“You want to come up here or you want me to come out there?” the doctor said.
“You come out here.”
The doctor stepped into the rain.
When he was under the tree with the man, he said, “Your Katie didn’t make it through. I’m sorry, John.”
“What about the baby?”
“A boy. Healthy. A little scrawny. Like you. But healthy.”
They finished their cigarettes and stood shoulder to shoulder.
“The boy needs a name,” the doctor said.
“I don’t want to give him one.”
“I’ve got to have something to write down.”
“I don’t give a damn. One way or the other.”
“You could call him John. A junior.”
“What do you think that’ll set him up for? Loading coal like a slave every day just like his daddy? No sir, I won’t call him John.”
“What about Bobby?”
“You ever know any Bobbys that turned into men worth a damn?”
“No. No, I guess not.”
“Ain’t no name in this whole wide world worth a damn.”
When the doctor went back inside he scribbled something on his paper and watched the baby. It was wrapped in a wool blanket in the cradle on the floor. The baby’s aunt, a bug-eyed woman with red hair said, “He’s asleep.”
“Quietest one I ever brought into the light of day.”
“Ain’t cried yet.” The aunt seemed proud.
The doctor packed his things and stepped back out onto the porch. He pulled the brim of his hat lower. The baby’s father wasn’t under the maple tree anymore. There he was by the side of the house with a rusty spade, shoveling up the mud, slinging it into a heap, slashing at buried tree roots, stabbing at the ground, the black-red earth, turning it over and over and over.
Paul Luikart‘s work has appeared in Barrelhouse, Curbside Splendor, Hobart, New World Writing, and Word Riot among others. His MFA is from Seattle Pacific University. He used to live in Chicago and misses it all the time.