Authors: Suzanne Berne
Margaret didn't know. She thought inviting Dr. Watkins to dinner was a nice idea but worried that an invitation so soon after her arrival might be perceived as too friendly, as if they were trying to ingratiate themselves. Also, they had never invited Hedy and Marv Fischman to dinner. Bill found conversations with Hedy in particular to be heavy weather. “Always analyzing everything.” Her field had been trauma therapy. Dr. Doom, he sometimes called her.
The Fischmans would have to be included in any dinner invitation that involved their new tenant. And with Marv's trouble walking, and barely understandable nowâ
“Forget it,” said Bill.
They were having this discussion as they loaded the dishwasher after dinner. As she was pulling out the box of detergent powder from below the sink, Margaret mentioned that Dr. Vogel had sent an e-mail message that afternoon saying that she was going on vacation but would return on October 10, and she could see Margaret and Bill for a counseling session the following Monday at 10:30
“I'll be at work,” said Bill. “Can't she see us in the evening?”
“That's her only free hour all week.” Margaret shook detergent into the wash and prewash compartments of the dishwasher. Dr. Vogel had not been able to find a regular time for their sessions, but offered them cancellation slots. She had been recommended by Naomi Melman, who said they were fortunate to be able to see Dr. Vogel at all. Often couples stayed on her waiting list for months. Sometimes they were already divorced before she could see them.
“For God's sake.” Bill was checking his iPhone calendar. “I've got a meeting with Roche that day at ten thirty.”
“I think this is pretty important.”
“I'm not saying it isn't. I'm just saying it's inconvenient.”
Margaret kept shaking out detergent, which spilled across the door of the dishwasher.
“Fine,” said Bill. “Ten thirty is fine.”
“I'll confirm the appointment, then.”
Bill started the dishwasher and began wiping down the granite counters while Margaret finished rinsing a pot in the sink. Binx lay at her feet, head between his paws, scolded earlier for licking the plates in the dishwasher while it was being loaded. In the bowl on the windowsill, one of the two goldfish was lurking at the base of their crenellated ceramic castle. Its crisp-looking gills opened and closed; otherwise it wasn't moving.
“One of the goldfish looks sick.”
“I don't know. Mike or Ike.”
“Better tell Julia. She can get the grave ready.”
“Oh, stop it.”
stop it,” he said, tossing the dish towel he'd been using onto the counter.
Margaret heard him head for the hallway and then go up the stairs. Well, there it is, she thought, looking at the dish towel.
Lights were on inside the carriage house next door, glowing through gauzy, saffron-colored curtains that had recently been hung. On the carriage house's back porch, visible above the darkening hedge from the kitchen window, sat two peeling white wicker rocking chairs, one with a new orange African-print cushion. The porch overlooked a simple garden: a patch of grass, a grandmotherly bed of white begonias, a few striped hostas, and two leathery laurel bushes in a wash of pachysandra ending in a gray stockade fence.
As Margaret stared out of the window, thinking of Bill's cold, shut face and wondering when she had started to be afraid of himânot of him, exactly, but of his impatience with her, which lately seemed to border on aversionâshe saw something glide behind the laurel bushes. An instant later a white shape flared up against the fence, like the illumination thrown by headlights of a passing car. But when she turned to look at the street it was dark and empty.
Dr. Watkins also had a dog.
Aggie, an old yellow Lab, sleepy and benevolent-looking.
Unusual for the Fischmans to rent the carriage house to someone with a dog. They had a dog themselves, an old gray toy poodle named Kismet, as fragile as a FabergÃ© egg. Kismet had her own chair in their living room and on rainy days wore a pink plastic raincoat; when Hedy encountered someone with a big dog while she was out walking Kismet, she often crossed the street, casting reproachful glances at the other dog. People with big dogs, she said, did not always take into account that little dogs and their people might be afraid of them.
Hedy and Margaret happened to meet on the sidewalk with their dogs a week after Dr. Watkins moved into the carriage house. It was one of those mellow, lingering New England fall evenings, the light turning apricot as it settled onto hedges and into the tops of the trees, while the air held a brisk, sharpened scent, like pencil shavings.
Hedy pulled Kismet away from Binx, but stood close enough to talk to Margaret. Margaret asked after the new tenant.
“Do you know,” said Hedy, “I was supposed to rent to somebody else, but the college called and asked could I please take Dr. Watkins. She was looking maybe three weeks for an apartment. Everyone
it was the dog.”
Her small face was deeply wrinkled, but her eyes were dark and bright beneath a cap of thin, soft-looking gray hair that curled much like Kismet's. Hedy was Israeli, but Polish originally. As usual she wore a black velour tracksuit and black sneakers; she said Marv called it her Geriatric Ninja uniform.
“Do you know what Marv thinks?” she said now. “It was racist.”
A word she pronounced with relish: ray-
“Oh, I don't think so,” said Margaret. “Not around here.”
Hedy screwed up her face.
“In any case, it was nice of you to rent to her.”
“Yes,” said Hedy. She toyed with her reading glasses, which dangled from a chain of jet beads. “Dr. Watkins is very interesting. She likes Littlefield very much, even though no one would rent her an apartment. An enchanting village, she says. So
she says. A turban and she knows German? Do you know what I told her?”
Margaret did not know.
“I said it was a suburban shtetl.”
Hedy often made provocative statements along these linesâto test her listeners, Margaret had decided. If you smiled, you were thoughtless. If you frowned, you were an idiot.
“Well, most of us are pretty assimilated,” sighed Margaret.
Long blue shadows fell across the sidewalk. Up in a tree a mourning dove was calling out its sad wooing call.
By hunkering down onto the sidewalk, Binx had managed to creep close enough to nose Kismet's hindquarters. Kismet growled.
“Hah,” said Hedy. “Look at them. Beauty and the Beast. No, you, Binx. Get away.” Binx sat back, pink tongue hanging from the side of his jaws. “I heard another dog was poisoned. Yesterday at the park. A terrier. It ate something.”
“Oh, please no, not again.”
“Poisoned hamburger, maybe.”
“I can't believe it.”
“I said to Dr. Watkins, don't take that dog to the park. It is too dangerous. Maybe she doesn't listen. Her dog seems well behaved. But
should not take
.” Hedy pointed at Binx sitting on the sidewalk panting at Kismet. “
wants into everything.”
Binx raised his head, panting more widely.
As they stood talking, Dr. Watkins came out of the carriage house with her yellow dog on a leash and made her way down the cobbled driveway, which was littered with acorns. She was wearing red patent-leather pumps, a green silk print dress, and a mustard-colored turban. In the poignant evening air these colors seemed somehow exaggerated, like the supersaturated hues of old Hollywood musicals. Despite the cobbles and the acorns, she walked easily in her red pumps, swaying from side to side, her dog plodding in front, head down like a cart horse.
“Dr. Watkins,” called out Hedy. “Hello. Have you met Margaret?”
Dr. Watkins called back that Margaret and her little girl had brought over cookies. So kind. She didn't know people did such neighborly things anymore.
“But please, you must stop calling me Dr. Watkins,” she said to Hedy as she drew close to them, scowling with mock severity and shaking a finger. “I am not a cardiologist. Please call me Clarice.” Looking up at Margaret, she smiled. “Such a beautiful evening.”
Binx and Aggie sniffed each other.
“It certainly is a beautiful evening,” said Margaret.
“We are talking about dogs being poisoned,” said Hedy.
Dr. Watkins said it was a terrible thing and she had read about it in the
. Then she said to Margaret, “Dr. Fischman here tells me you're the lady who found the dog? That must have been very disturbing.”
“Yes, it really was,” said Margaret. “To be honest, I can't stop thinking about it. I feel like I keep seeing it.”
Dr. Watkins laid a hand across her chest.
“And now it is
dogs,” Hedy went on. “One is an accident. Two is strange. And three, God forbid, would beâ”
“A phenomenon,” supplied Dr. Watkins.
“It is that no-leash business. People let dogs run in the park with no leash and suddenly people who hate dogs think dogs are taking over the town.”
Margaret reached down to scratch Binx between the ears. Pink cloud bergs drifted above them in the still-blue sky.
Dr. Watkins remarked that it was true she had never seen a town with so many dogs. And with so many mixed breeds: golden doodles, schnoodles, cockapoos, puggles. Years ago when she read Dr. Seuss books she'd encountered these same creatures and thought they were imaginary.
“Hah!” Hedy turned to Margaret. “You are right. That is what is happening.”
Dr. Watkins smiled again, showing the gap between her teeth.
“Maybe we could all have dinner sometime,” Margaret said quickly. “I'd love to have everyone to dinner, and, Clarice, maybe you could tell us about your lecture series.”
Dr. Watkins said she would be delighted and then she and Aggie went off down the street on their walk.
Hedy watched them disappear around the corner. “I don't care. I am going to call her Dr. Watkins. I like the way it sounds. Or maybe just Watkins. My dear Watkins.”
“I think you should call people what they want to be called.”
“Oh, yes? What should we call you?”
Margaret said Margaret was fine.
“Yes? Well.” Hedy was shaking her head. “You wait and see. Do you know what I am saying? With all these dogs, these are very strange times.”
he leaves of Littlefield had turned red,
yellow, and deep bronze, drifting across glowing green lawns, onto hedges and doorsteps and the gleaming roofs of parked cars. In the community gardens, purple aster and ragweed bloomed where the gardeners quit weeding and the pumpkins were fat and orange. Soccer season had reached its apex, and in the afternoon squads of girls in yellow jerseys, black shorts, and black kneesocks sprinted back and forth in the park, while coaches blew whistles and soccer balls flew into the bright air. Houses, stop signs, bicycle fenders, all wore a precise, gleaming look, a clarity brought on by the cool, dry weather, and in the evenings the light turned gold as it was gathered into the harlequin trees, caught within nets of branches and leaves.
On Rutherford Road, white cobwebs stretched across the rhododendrons in front of houses where children lived and construction-paper witches and black cats decorated the windows. Houses without children had at least a Hubbard squash on the front steps, or hanging from the door knocker a spray of red and yellow bittersweet.
Three more dogs had been poisoned since Margaret Downing found George Wechsler's dog in the park. A Bellingham terrier, a rescued greyhound, and a malamute named Violet that was a registered therapy dog and visited bedridden residents at Avalon Towers. Photos of each dog had appeared in the
. Last week the police issued a statement that someone who was trying to poison coyotes was accidentally poisoning dogs instead and warned the public against taking coyote control into their own hands. Two letters to the
put forward other theories: one speculated that the poisoner was trying to frighten supporters of the off-leash dog park; the other, written by a local biologist, pointed out that bittersweet was deadly poisonous and suggested that the dogs might have ingested autumn decorations. People should be careful about what they brought into their houses. A public hearing had been scheduled at the town hall to address the off-leash dog park proposal, and it was expected that the poisonings would be addressed as well.
These notes and impressions were recorded into Dr. Clarice Watkins's laptop, along with what she'd overheard at the Forge CafÃ©, where she had taken to sitting at a window table with a view of Brooks Street. The Forge CafÃ© occupied a storefront on the site of what was once a blacksmith's shop; a rusty anvil was displayed in the front window, often topped with a wicker basket of plastic daisies. Today the front window had been painted for the Halloween Window Painting contest. Within a taped rectangle, two white ghosts played soccer with an orange pumpkin, using tombstones as goalposts. She regarded the ghosts closely for a moment before sitting down at her usual table.