One thing I loved about owning a dog, and Juniper in particular, was the way she always knew just when to perch herself on the back of the big chair by the window. So that after I’d parked my car and walked past the building and up the verandah steps what I saw first was her goofy little head with its curly ears that look more like accessories. She was waiting for me. And I loved it. I loved the feeling of being welcomed home. That’s a dog for you. That’s why people have dogs. They are the welcome to your own home.
But this afternoon, Juniper was watching the dark-haired man who stood in front of my garden, as if pondering its growth. He was Eddie Dowling, the church member who wanted Professor S. to dig his garden elsewhere. Snatches of the resume Veronica and Phoebe had released adjusted themselves in my mind: 40-something, lawyer, state representative, father (deceased) a former Monnish Court resident.
When I was close enough I saw he was rolling a bit of rosemary between his thumb and forefinger.
“Pot roast, right?” I said, indicating the rosemary.
“Pot roast and Sunday afternoons,” he smiled. Behind him Juniper set off what sounded like another round of barking. There was impatience and interrogation in her voice.
“Excuse me,” I said. “I have to let her out.”
Eddie Dowling was a dog lover. I could tell and so could Juniper. She was fairly cat-like in her ways, tending to pursue people who’d rather have nothing to do with her, rolling on her back on the sidewalk at the touch of a practiced hand, but with Eddie she sat to doggy attention, alert and ready to carry a newspaper or fetch a toy. When he tucked her under one arm, she rested her chin on his wrist as if she knew him well. That was her special charm.
When he tickled her chin, I saw that in his left hand he held the blue bead I had dug up that first day. I’d taken the bracelet for my own and wore it most days. I was wearing it then, camouflaged by my own charms. The bead was another matter. After placing it in various spots around my apartment, I concluded that it would only get lost in the effluvia of my own stuff. And the fact was, charms and fetishes have jobs to do.
Turkish donkey beads are supposed to be worn for good luck, but this bead had its own luck. Or fate. The hole that should have been drilled all the way through it had not been. Instead it carried a kind of belly button, a tiny concave. It wanted to be carried in a pocket, or even a purse. Just not mine. For some reason I knew this, and for some other reason I decided to put it back in the garden and let it find its own way. Or let the forces of nature, God and man, decide its fate.
“I’d forgotten all about this,” he said. “My father brought it back from Turkey with a lot of other stuff. The beads are strung and looped around animals to keep them safe.”
“It was one of the things I excavated when I dug the patch,” I said.
He rolled it around in the palm of his large hand. The last time he’d held it, that palm had been much smaller. I wondered if he was thinking that. Had the bead kept him safe? Had losing the bead coincided with the death of his father?
“It was easy to lose,” he said. “I used to keep it in a pocket of my chinos. Sometimes it would disappear for a few days, get lost in the wash or I’d find it in my underwear drawer or my dad would toss it to me or mail it to me.” He laughed.
“I didn’t live with him.” He pointed across the street to the houses on University Circle. “I lived with my grandparents over there,” he said. “But I was over here all the time. I just loved it when he’d mail me stuff.”
“He had a sense of humor,” I said. I was starting to build up a picture of this mysterious man, who might not have been, but whose picture and activities were gaining a hold in my imagination.
Robert Dowling. Gardener. Friend. Traveler. Bringer of lucky charms. Restorer of lost objects. Bachelor father. An attractive man surrounded by single women. I had an image of the people in Phoebe’s photograph superimposed over a similar photo, not taken, of me and Peter; Billie and Allen; Kate and Jacob, and I wondered if that old crowed had played croquet. And which of the women had loved which of the men. Surely there had been other men?
“I haven’t seen this since he passed. I guess I must have lost it the day he died.”
“How? How old were you?”
“I was twelve. He had a heart attack.”
“I’ve seen his grave,” I said, nodding towards Evergreen.
“The man who died on his birthday.” He grimaced. “That was the headline. But I don’t think it’s so odd. They’d had a big party, everyone was drinking and dancing. Someone had brought a bottle of moonshine and they’d been into it. That night he died.”
He held the bead lightly, rolling it around on his open palm, as if undecided whether to let it drop again into the garden. Juniper’s nose, which seemed to have a life of its own, hovered over it. She licked it. The movement seemed to please him; he brought his cheek down and cuddled her.
“When I was little, I had a little necklace I used to let drop from a hole in my coat in the back yard and then look for,” I said.
“Why did you do that?”
“I was playing detective.”
“Do you still have it?”
“No. One afternoon I played the game, I don’t know, about ten times. Then I couldn’t find it. I dropped it too good, I guess. After that, I’d go out in the yard periodically and poke around, but I never found it. That summer my parents put up a swimming pool right where I’d been playing.”
“It’s long gone now.”
“Maybe. Who knows? Here’s your bead after all these years.”
“It’s yours now,” he said, offering it to me on the palm of his well-tended hand. I wouldn’t take it; in fact, I backed away.
“You keep it,” I said. I’d put out a hand as if warning him and his blue bead away. I shook my wrist. “Do you recognize this bracelet?”
He shook his head. I pointed to the baby’s head charm. “Does this look familiar to you?”
“I’ve seen charms like that, I think.” He looked at me, puzzled. “Why?”
“I found the bracelet when I dug the garden. When I found the bead. This charm was the only one on it. The rest are mine.”
He shook his head.
“If you see Veronica, would you tell I stopped by? Tell her I’ll call her with the closing date.”
“That’s right. Will you do that?”
“Yes, if I see her. Is she buying a house?”
He inhaled the rosemary, tapping his lip with the sharp sprig. I couldn’t tell if he was avoiding my question or just meditating. All of his movements seemed slow and detached as if the scent of the herb, which can be strong and very lulling, had distracted him fully.
“It was nice talking to you,” he said. “Thank you for returning my bead.” He looked at me in a way I want to say was kind, but which had a kind of force behind it that I found myself willingly responding to, as a good lieutenant might to a captain, “I like what you’ve done to the garden. But don’t try to dig up everything.”
People who know what they want from a situation are always at an advantage. He did not answer my question but by the time I realized it, he was long gone.