Old Bill Branch picked up the evening paper and sat down on the swing on his front porch. He had been a young man when he had built that swing, shortly after they had bought this house. For some reason he had been thinking of those days all afternoon. He absentmindedly rubbed his right forefinger against the rough thumbnail that needed trimming. He went through his pockets again. Where could that knife be? He had used it maybe half a dozen times that morning. Had it dropped out of his pocket in the garden? Had he laid it on the kitchen counter? He had looked everywhere. “Well, maybe it’ll turn up. Always has.” He settled back, one foot on the porch rail, gently moving the swing, and opened the paper. He began toying with the thumbnail again, then frowned. The wrinkles taking possession of his face did make him look a little fierce.
He took a kind of pride in being “the meanest old man in the neighborhood.” The kids had started that. Kids need a mean old man in the neighborhood. They told stories of him chasing them out of his yard, of what he might do if he caught one of them, and of how he might be hiding behind his hedge waiting to pounce out and catch the first one that was careless. They were children’s stories, but even the parents, watching the lonely old man working in his yard, half believed them.
It hadn’t been that way when his wife and daughter were alive, but none of these children, and few of their parents, had lived there then. Bill Branch had been a good neighbor when the neighborhood was almost as new as his marriage. Because he knew how to do things, was resourceful. He gave advice on gardening, or on painting, or plumbing, a house. He loaned his tools, and himself with them, if necessary, was considered the neighborhood expert on moving a refrigerator or piano. But a careless driver on an icy highway, perhaps more drunk than careless—they didn’t pursue that, since he had killed himself, too had changed all that. Not so old then, Bill had become impatient with people, perhaps at first to protect himself from the sympathy from all of Mary’s friends, and those who had watched Cindy grow up from the baby on the block to a high-school cheerleader. Then it had become a habit—to turn people away, or at least to turn away from them. Maybe he did sometimes chase the boys out of his yard.
He didn’t mind the reputation, if it kept people at a distance. And it didn’t bother him to frighten the boys a little. It was good for them, gave them a kind of game—ring “Old Man Branch’s” doorbell, then run for the bushes before he could get to the door. He smiled as he remembered himself as a boy. “Yeah, it’s good to have a mean old man in the neighborhood.”
But he didn’t like to be an object of fear to a little girl, like that little Becky from across the alley. He’d sit on his porch and watch her ride her tricycle around the block, or play with her dolls, talking to them just like Cindy had when she had been that age. She usually played alone, a quiet little tyke. He had seen her with her new kitten this morning, had seen her father give it to her when he came home for lunch yesterday, a gray puff of fur that brought squealing delight to a five-year-old. It had reminded him of Cindy’s Mr. Chips as a kitten. Mr. Chips had lived almost three years longer than Cindy had—had been company for a while. As he had worked with the tomato plants in his garden that afternoon, he had watched the little girl cradling the struggling animal in her arms. He had wanted to say, “Don’t love it too much. You’ll make it sick,” as he had to Cindy, but would no doubt have been ignored now as then. Or worse, he might have scared the little girl—the mean old man.
Thinking about Cindy as a little girl, he laid the newspaper he had just opened across his knees and stared off into space. That was when Cindy had given him that knife, for Christmas, when she had been just about that little girl’s age. He could still remember the shine in her eyes as he had opened it. And it was a good knife. Her mother had helped her pick it out, of course, but it was just right, just what he had needed. He had carried it ever since, and had always kept it as sharp and bright as the memory of those bright young eyes.
He had whittled whistles and carved little animals for his daughter with that knife, but, looking down at the paper, he particularly remembered one afternoon. He had always read the paper just after he got home from work, sitting here on the porch swing, just like now, when the weather was good. He would yell in that he was home, and, while the table was being set, just relax here with his newspaper. If it was a hot day, Cindy might bring him a glass of lemonade, and sometimes would sit there in his lap and help him read. That was the first reading she had done, reading headlines about presidents and baseball teams. Then she had read everything once she was in school, while he still just read the newspaper.
But that wasn’t what made him remember that one day. She must have been five, kindergarten age, and complaining that she couldn’t make paper dolls the way her teacher did, all holding hands, with their feet touching. He had told her that he could show her how. She said she’d get the scissors, but he had told her, “You don’t need to, Honey. I’ll use the knife you gave me.” He had folded up a page from the classified ads, ten times over, then, putting it on the rest of the paper on the porch rail, had cut out a rough half-doll pattern. It had been a little awkward with the knife, so it was a bizarre-looking set of dolls, but she had been delighted with them. He had found them in her dresser drawer the day after the funeral.
“Mister . . . Branch . . .” The small voice startled him. He looked over at the porch stairs. The little neighbor girl, Becky, was standing there. She had come up the walk so quietly that he hadn’t heard her until she had spoken. Her wide eyes were like those of a frightened animal, as if she might turn and run. But she came up on the porch. She had never been that close to him before. Then her hand came out from behind her and opened in front of him. “Is this your knife?”
Then it was his eyes that brightened, but his voice must still have been a little gruff. “Yes it is. Where did you find it?”
“Out in the alley, when I was emptying wastebaskets for Mommy before the trash men came. She said it must be yours. She told me to bring it.”
That was where he had left it, all right, when he’d been sharpening stakes for his tomato plants out over the trash barrel. He had gone to drive the stakes in the ground and had forgotten the knife. He should have remembered that. He was lucky that it hadn’t gone off with the trash—he had heard the truck about a half an hour ago—or in a trash man’s pocket.
“Well, thank you . . . Honey.” His voice softened. “How’s your new kitty?”
“Fine.” She looked back as she was already starting down the stairs to the sidewalk, her sober mission completed. He watched that bouncing energy skip down the walk. The thought crossed his mind that there would be no grandchildren. He called out, “Cindy . . .” The little girl looked around again, puzzled. “Sorry . . . It’s Becky, isn’t it? Did you ever see anybody make paper dolls out of a newspaper?”
She still looked puzzled. “No . . .”
He smiled at her. “Well I can do it with that knife you brought back to me. Used to do it for my little girl. Would you like to see?”
The child looked hesitant for a moment, then nodded, and smiled at him, for the first time, as she came back up the steps.