It was late, past 8:30, the time I was supposed to have her home to bed. But it'd been months since I'd had her alone for the night, and there was one more stop I wanted to make.

I lifted her out of the car seat and headed up the stairs, past the oversized ice cream cone in the window. Because of the hour, the other customers were all adults, mostly students.I got a cone for each of us, then headed toward the booths in the back. That's when I saw I had company. There was another little girl back there; about the same age as my own, between 2 and 3. Briefly, I wondered why a mother would allow so small a child to stay out so late. Then I saw. The girl was alone with her dad.

In one sense, he wasn't the likeliest looking dad. There's something about becoming a father that tidies a man up, more so than marriage does. This father was wearing a T-shirt and jeans. But he had father written all over him. Single men can be awkward around children, especially little girls. This guy was utterly at ease. The look on his face said there was nothing he'd rather be doing.

I took the booth in front of him. Right away, our daughters stood up and studied each other across the seatbacks, nose to nose. Then I caught the father's eye.

"My date," he said.

At the counter, more student couples came in, giggling nervously and trying to make a good impression on each other.

"Got one of my own," I said.

"Couldn't ask for a better date," he said.

I told him I agreed.

He nodded. "They love you for who you are."

Then he focused back on his daughter, helping her with a drink of water, wiping off her mouth. Soon, across the seatbacks, the two little girls were touching each other, half-talking to each other, at least as much as kids this age talk.

"We got a lot to learn from them," the man said.

"They do get pretty comfortable around strangers," I said.

"I know," he said. "No walls."

Then I asked if he had any other children.

"Just this one," he said. "Actually, she's not really mine. She lives upstairs with her mother. But the father's not around, so I kind of do that role."

He asked the little girl if she wanted sprinkles, then got up to get some. He told me he was a policeman. I asked where the father was. He made a dismissive gesture with his hand.

"Never see him," he said. "He doesn't come around. Doesn't care."

Any contact with him at all?

He made the same dismissive gesture. "He's got an order, but he's never paid a thing." He pointed to the little girl. "Her mother does it alone."

I asked if having one parent was tough on the child. "Hard to say," he said. "But I'll say this. I told her I'd take her out for ice cream a few days ago. Been working a lot since then and haven't seen her. Saw her tonight and the first thing she said, like instantly: `You promised to take me for ice cream.' So here we are."

"You don't mind?" I asked. "I mean, it's not like she's your own."

When he answered, he looked at her, not me. "Couldn't ask for a better date."

This is not meant to say that most divorced fathers are absent or negligent. Far from it. Many agonize over not having enough time with their children.

But some do run away, neglecting to pay, caring only about being free, about chasing a new, unencumbered life.

They don't understand something this unlikely stand-in father did: There is reward in being encumbered.

I stood up just as a group of good-looking young women walked into the parlor. The policeman glanced up at them but barely noticed. As I headed onto the sidewalk, back toward my car, he was lingering there in the booth, talking to his little girl.