Sunday night, a few days later (May 13)
Our gardens are established. Rain last night made weeding easy this morning. When I wandered out early this morning, coffee cup in hand, I found Prof. S.
“The weeds are quick,” he said, showing me a handful of tiny growth.
I bent to my own packed plot.
“I’ve got too much good stuff for weeds to find any room,” I said.
“Don’t you believe it,” he said, pointing at what I thought was the penny royal beginning to spread.
As we stood there arguing about it, watching Juniper follow her nose, Veronica emerged in a cloud of Chanel No. 5, dressed for church. It’s a comforting sight, say what you will, to see an elderly lady dressed up in hydrangea blue on a Sunday morning. Even if she is jangling a silver bracelet with one small charm.
Across the courtyard, Mrs. Moth emerged, slightly less crisp, but in a soft dress and matching bag and shoes.
As they walked off together, the professor and I exchanged glances.
“How long is their service?” I asked.
“Including donuts? Hour and a half.”
“Plenty of time.”
But the key, which Prof. S. had replaced under the hall radiator, was no longer there.
I turned to him. “Didn’t you return it?”
“Of course I did.” He looked frustrated and angry. Sitting next to him on the steps as close as we were I could feel a buzzing energy emanating from him. His heels tapped, his right knee jiggered annoyingly and he was starting to rub his hands together as if conjuring up images of Veronica plotting to kill his beloved dog. But even as the frown deepened across his face, he did not look defeated. He looked grim and determined.
“Do you think she knew we used it?”
“Looks like it,” he snapped.
“She might have used it and left it in a pocket.”
Or she might have lent it out or had the locks changed. She might have switched hiding places. I had a shrink once tell me there were a hundred reasons for anyone to do something. The one we’re so sure about is rarely it.
But the professor was sure Veronica had killed his little dog.
“Why are you so sure about this?”
But he just shook his head. “I can’t get it out of my head that she brought Dowling and Reverend Garland over the day I buried Astible and made such a fuss about our planting gardens. About my garden.”
“Well, it did throw the whole look of the place out of whack. But when she told me about the sale, she said that was why the gardens didn’t matter.”
“No body’s cared what this place has looked like for thirty years.”
In a way this was true. The church has kept up with maintenance and very very basic lawn care, but no investment has been made. I’d found my apartment through a referral, subletting it from a graduating design major in a hurry to get to New York. When I went for the key, walking down 12th street from the university strip, I almost missed it. Yet, the property is quite sizable.
“There’s something almost invisible about this place,” I said.
“It’s the institutional brick,” he said. “It looks like part of Bryce or the U.”
We sat on the steps like a couple of ten year olds at the end of a dull summer. Church- goers parked along 12th Street seemed to look at us askance. Prof. S. didn’t seem to notice, but I always feel a childish guilt. I do not go to church anymore. I don’t know why. I might have pondered this for the rest of the afternoon, but another thought intruded.
“So, why do you think that bracelet is so important?” I asked, when at exactly the same time, Prof. S said,
“Let’s check the back door.”
And we rose in unity, refreshed by the thoughtful interlude. You gotta let yourself dither now and again.
Juniper, locked in my apartment and annoyed at being left out, set up a racket at the kitchen door, which Prof. S. quelled with a word. He has the gift.
The common entry to the upstairs apartment was unlocked.
The stairs were clean and free of clutter. Veronica’s neighbor, a law student named Scott Hermosa, kept this back area for his bicycle, but it was not hanging in its usual space high on the landing. Scott usually left for the weekends, driving home to Mobile with his fiancée.
“He’s the perfect neighbor,” I said. “I never hear him.”
Prof. S. just grunted.
“I’ll bet he hears you.”
I wasn’t sure how to take this and did not reply. With an almost choreographed motion we both reached for the mat in front of Veronica’s kitchen door.
Prof. S. tried the door, but Veronica had been careful. Then he ran a hand over the top of the door jamb. Also nothing.
I ran a hand over Scot’s doorjamb. Ah ha! I was beginning to understand how Veronica thought. Though I didn’t know why she made the decisions she did.
When it did not fit Scott’s door, we looked at each other. Prof. S.’s narrow chest moved visibly. As his grin dawned, a kind of veil melted and I saw him 30 years younger. When the key slid into the lock and turned, a chuckle escaped him, its breath on my neck. He practically pushed me into the room.
Searching Veronica’s apartment was turning into an addictive pleasure. Like searching your parents’ room when they’re not around. You do it once to look for a birthday present and find an old photo. You don’t get caught and the thrill of unchartered territory in your own house compels you to return. You go back and uncover a letter, a spent bullet, a bankbook. You start to dream about the creases in the house; the blue and white suitcase in the crawl space behind your closet that one day isn’t there anymore. Had it ever been there?
This morning inside a Junior League of Tuscaloosa cookbook, I found the deed to this property. In the kitchen Prof. S. stared into the open freezer from which he pulled two trays of frozen brownies and cried, “Bonanza!”