“The thing that almost nobody knows about the cucumber is that it's a fruit."
That's what Midge Johnston liked to tell her neighbors when she dropped off a basket of the dark green and still-spiny foot-long beauties. Her garden produced far too many for her and Henry to eat on their own, no matter how many salads they made or jars they pickled. She would watch her neighbors’ expressions as they processed the new information. “No,” they would say in disbelief, followed by, “I always knew that about tomatoes, because everyone thinks they’re vegetables, but cucumbers?”
She would nod and smile broadly, revealing a mouthful of silver fillings. “It’s because of the seeds.” And then they, meaning the neighbors, would say, “of course, they do have seeds, don’t they?” and everyone would have a good laugh. Then she would tell them she’d be back when the eggplants were ripe and then after that when the squash and kale and winter greens came in, and they would tell her “really, Mrs. Johnston, you’re too kind.” And she would say “don’t be silly,” and wave her hand.
Midge knelt in her garden and plunged a well-loved spade with a worn-smooth wooden handle into the loamy earth. A strong smell of burnt wood and rubber hung incongruously in the air, only partly concealed by the pungent aroma of compost from three barrels she kept rotated in the far corner of her backyard on Banneker Road. The day was cloudless and warm, and the ground was still damp from the spring rain that had fallen the night before. She wore sturdy rubber galoshes and a straw hat to protect the back of her neck as she worked the soil.
Around her she had arranged the tools of her trade: shovels of various sizes and purposes, one with a flat edge, another rounded, and yet another with a point for breaking up clumps and penetrating through clay; a hoe; an empty ten-gallon gasoline cannister; a bow rake; a trowel for digging the little holes into which she would tenderly lay the seeds one at a time, placing them close together, knowing that only one in every three or four would sprout. The sunlight poured through the branches of a lone Northern Red Oak, just beginning to show its spring buds. Robins and sparrows flitted about, chirping loudly, looking for mates.
She had only just begun to work when she was interrupted by a friendly "good morning, Mrs. Johnston.” The voice came from over her back fence, which abutted a gravel alley. Midge looked up from her raised bed and held a knobby hand to her brow to shade her view. She didn’t bother wearing gloves anymore. She had no need for those. Her hands were covered in thick callouses and the dirt under her fingernails was so deeply embedded that it seemed to have become part of her.
“Ernie?” she called out. “Is that you?”
“It’s me,” Ernie replied. “But I’m going to have to ask you to call me Officer Reddington for now.”
“Is that so? Okay, then, Officer Reddington. To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?” It was then that Midge noticed that there was someone else there, a shorter man with a balding head that barely cleared the top of her fence. “And who’s your friend?” Midge’s voice was chipper, as always.
“Detective Olmstead,” said the balding man, standing on his toes now so that Midge could see his horn-rimmed glasses and salt and pepper mustache. He had thin, unsmiling lips. His cheeks were ruddy and his face round.
“Well, it’s an honor, Detective,” Midge said, standing up now and walking toward the two men, hobbling a bit on account of the arthritis that had begun to creep in these last few years. "You’ll have to excuse me for not shaking,” Midge said, holding up her mud-encrusted hands and chuckling. “Unless you don’t mind getting a little bit dirty.”
“Detective Olmstead is on loan from the Rutland Police Department. He’s giving us a hand with some rather nasty business,” Ernie said.
“That so?” Midge asked warmly. “It's not often we get visitors from the big city." She laughed and unlatched the gate and held it open on its spring hinge. It creaked as she did and she made a mental note that she needed to oil it. A warm breeze blew gently, rustling the branches of the big Red Oak and bringing with it a fresh acrid scent of burnt material. The detective flared his nostrils and turned his head in the direction from whence the smoke blew.
“Welcome to my garden, Detective," Midge said cheerily.
“It’s very impressive. I can see that it means a lot to you.”
“Oh, you’re too kind,” she said.
“Mrs. Johnston grows the most delicious cucumbers,” Ernie said, holding his hands up to show how big they grew.
"Just something I do to pass the time," Mrs. Johnson said with a false modesty.
“Not my favorite vegetable, I have to say," said to Detective Olmstead.
“Maybe that’s because you haven’t had mine yet.” Detective Olmstead‘s expression remained steely. “They’re a fruit, actually. Not many people know that.”
“It’s on account of the seeds. They’re from the tropics originally. They need direct sunlight to grow.”
Detective Olmstead shook his head curtly. He removed a small, black leather notebook and a black pen, which he began to click.
Midge and Ernie watched the point of the pen extend and retract.
“I was about to make a cup of tea,” Midge said, filling the gap in conversation. It wasn’t true. She had been planning to work straight through most of the day, but it was the neighborly thing to offer, she figured.
“No, thank you, Mrs. Johnston,” Detective Olmstead said in a business-like tone. "I wonder if I could ask you about the events of last night."
“I suppose you’re referring to the fire,” Midge said, turning now to the neighboring lot, thin trails of smoke still rising from a few smoldering embers. “Quite a scare that was.” She shook her head and clucked her tongue. “It went up so quickly. It must be all that newfangled drywall and plastic sheeting they use now.”
“They sure don’t build ‘em like they used to,” Ernie said.
“You got that right, Ernie!"
“Officer Reddington, Midge, please.” He motioned with his head toward Detective Olmstead and winked subtly.
“Of course! How rude of me, Officer Reddington.” Midge winked back, much less subtly. Detective Olmstead was unentertained.
“We suspect the use of some sort of accelerant,” Detective Olmstead offered by way of explanation for the ferocity of the fire.
“It’s all these new folks coming to town," Midge mused almost as an aside. "That’s what I say. New Yorkers, mostly. They want a bit more space. Can’t say as I can blame them for that. I don’t know how I’d survive in one of those little apartments they all live in down there. No gardens or anything. Have you seen how some of them hang those silly little planters from their windowsills? You can’t grow anything in those things!” Midge guffawed and slapped the muddy knee of her jeans. “What, with all those tall buildings blocking out the sun.”
“Oh, they’re not all bad, Midge,” Ernie offered. “Rose and I went to the new brasserie on Main Street last week. A nice young couple from Brooklyn just opened it up. The seem like good folks. Two daughters. Third and fifth grade. Lucy and Olivia, if memory serves me.”
“I’ll ask again, Mrs. Johnston,” Detective Olmstead said more impatiently, completely ignoring Ernie’s musings. “Did you see anything suspicious last night?”
“Mussels in Vermont,” Ernie said talking to himself with a tone of astonishment and a far off look in his eyes.
“They come up here,” Midge said, “looking for some more space – like I said, can’t blame them one bit for that – but then they want to build a little version of what they were trying to get away from. Sure, there’s the brasserie and the coffee shop with the lattes and the – oh what’s the name of those fancy ones? – the mochaccinos. That’s all well and good. Can’t say I’ve ever had a mochaccino. I much prefer tea. Hard to see myself spending six dollars for a coffee anyway, but to each his own, I suppose.” She rolled her eyes. “But then they want to build these new condo buildings too.”
“Does that bother you, Mrs. Johnston?” Detective Olmstead asked, starting to jot down his observations.
“You’re darn right, it bothers me.” And then, inhaling deeply, “are you sure I can’t get you that tea? I have chamomile and earl grey. It’s really not a bother.” She turned toward the house and called out, “Henry? Henry, could you be a dear and put a kettle on?”
Detective Olmstead shook his head but didn’t say anything. He looked up from his notepad. The sun was beginning to creep lower in the western sky.
“Five stories. Can you believe that? A five-story building in our little town!”
“They serve a very nice steak frite, too,” Ernie offered, still daydreaming about the brasserie.
“You’ve been quite vocal in your opposition, Mrs. Johnston.”
“I understand you got into a shouting match with the Board of Zoning.”
“Oh, I don’t know if that’s a fair description. It was a discussion. But it's possible I may have raised my voice a little bit.”
“Says here you called them, and I'm quoting now, 'a bunch of goose stepping fascists'. Is that right?"
“Oh, dear," she said, embarrassed. "I regret using that sort of language. I got carried away, I'm afraid. It's very unlike me."
Ernie cleared his throat loudly.
Detective Olmstead paged through his notebook. "According to the meeting minutes, you then threatened to slash Commissioner Lohman's tires."
"Oh," she said dismissively, "Jim Lohman knew I was only kidding. I was just trying to make a point, you see. I was really quite concerned about the shadows from the new building. My cucumbers need full sunshine to grow.” She waved a hand toward her raised beds, the little freshly dug holes each containing a seed. “They’re from the tropics, originally."
“You mentioned that.” Detective Olmstead was still busily scribbling, glancing up only briefly to study the position of the shadow of the lone tree. He turned a page in the notebook and continued. “Can you tell me, Mrs. Johnston, what that container of gasoline is for?” He pointed his pen toward the assortment of gardening equipment. “I don’t see any tools that might require it.”
“What? That old thing?”
“Looks brand new to me.”
“You say you’re from Rutland, Detective?”
“That’s right. Rutland PD. Arson investigations." He closed his notebook sharply. "I’m going to have to ask you to come with me and Officer Reddington to the station, Mrs. Johnston."
“Once they ripen, I’ll bring you a basket. Everyone just loves them. It's no trouble. No trouble at all."
“I’m really not interested in your vegetables, Mrs. Johnston."
Midge turned slightly and squinted into the sun, which was then hovering just where the top of the condo building had reached only the day before, casting her garden into darkness. Inside the house, the kettle was whistling.
“Fruit, Detective Olmstead. Cucumbers are a fruit.”