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I never knew his name although he was my neighbor. I saw him every afternoon around four o’clock when I went by his condo, walking my Golden Retrievers, Melody and Rhythm. He would be standing by the plastic pot that held his rose bush, smoking a cigarette, and tending the rose. Usually he was tweaking the black irrigation tube that had been jerry-rigged from the main irrigation system to the pot. In the California desert, nothing grows that isn’t watered. So, he had to really love that rose because he had gone to so much trouble for it.

He looked like the Santa Claus figure that adorned his Christmas display every year. He and Santa were short, round, and bald. Fiftyish or sixtyish. He always wore a plaid shirt, and khaki pants that wrinkled over the tops of his tennys because they were too long. Even in the dead of winter, he never spoiled his rumpled look with a jacket.

As I came along the street with my dogs, he would look up from fussing with the rose and waive and smile. Sometimes he said, “Beautiful dogs.” I never said, “Beautiful rose.” Now I wish I had.

Every winter I wondered where he had grown up because at Christmas he covered the handkerchief-sized patch of ground in front of his condo with sheets of cotton, stretched out to mimic snow. Although up close they looked like the forgery they were, from a distance I was always struck by the oddity of snow on the ground on a 75 degree December day in San Diego. Clearly the rose and the snow were important to him. I told him once how much I liked the snow, and he smiled.

I never saw his wife, but I’m sure he had one. He looked like the sort of man who’d have a wife. I expect she was inside cooking dinner in the afternoons while he smoked and tended his rose. I bet she was, after all, the reason he couldn’t smoke in the house.

And I think he had grown children, too, although I never saw them, either. A boy and a girl. And I guessed several grandchildren who called him, “Grandpa.”

The garage sales began innocuously in the fall two years ago. On Saturday mornings, as Melody and Rhythm and I passed by, his drive would be filled with odd pots and pans, stacks of dishes, mismatched chairs and tables, a basket of used clothing, and, once, a sewing machine cabinet.

He averaged about one sale a month that winter. Bit by bit his life went up for sale to the bargain hunters in minivans and SUV’s. But the saddest one – the one when I should have realized something was up – was in January. One Saturday morning, not long after all the “cotton snow” had been rolled up and put away for another year, plastic five-foot Santa sat in the midst of the garage sale offerings with a $5.00 tag around his neck. Despite all his tackyness, I should have bought him for old time’s sake.

Then came the saddest day of all. In late May the dogs and I passed by one day to find the little old man tending his rose as ususal, but the pot was nearly invisible because moving boxes were stacked everywhere on the sidewalk. The man waved and smiled but didn’t invite further conversation. Where was he going? He had abandoned Santa. Would he abandon his rose?

Two days later, I saw he had left it behind. No more boxes on the walk. Empty house. And the rose still blooming in its pot, but without the old man beside it. Would it survive and thrive without him?

It did. I suppose he left it as tiny legacy of beauty for the rest of us. That corner of the world had no other ornament, and he knew his irrigation lifeline would keep it thriving, even without his gentle touch every afternoon.

I’ll never know his story, but my dogs and I still pass his rose every day, and I think of him. He didn’t look like an artist, but he created something beautiful and gave it away. So, I think, he was.

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