Cucumbers and Mochaccinos

Submitted for Contest #85 in response to: Write about someone fighting to keep their city neighborhood the same.... view prompt

28 comments

Mar 14, 2021

American Contemporary Crime


“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.”


“That so?”


“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.”


“Sure have.”


“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.”



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28 comments

Zilla Babbitt
20:42 Mar 16, 2021

It's something to do with the way you write, but this story's prose conveys lush growing things. I love it. I like reading descriptions of gardens and green things. It makes me happy. I thought the story was a little boring at first, propped up on the funnier parts of vegetable/fruit banter, and then when he quotes her fascist comment I started grinning. I think to tie it all together it would make more sense if her arson had more to do with her garden and the whole Cucumber Controversy. I get the feeling she loves her town but it would ma...

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David Gottfried
21:43 Mar 16, 2021

Hey, Zilla! Thanks for reading, and I'm glad I was able to bring you around at the end. I was trying to build some tension throughout the story. I wanted the reader to feel like perhaps something was awry, but not to be able to quite put his or her finger on what it was. Midge resents the outsiders, but what pushes her over the edge is the fact that the new condo building casts a shadow on her garden and on her beloved cucumbers. It looks like that didn't come through entirely. I plan to put another couple hours into this one before finalizi...

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David Gottfried
17:57 Mar 14, 2021

Something a little bit lighter this week.

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Heather Mc Quaid
12:11 Mar 15, 2021

Hi David, A lighter story is a nice change of pace (though I suspect one should not mess with Midge, nor drink any of her tea). And some great moments of humour (Ernie's musings) and Olmstead reading out what she shouted at the council meeting made me laugh out loud. One minor punctuation thing. Need quotes for this: I wonder if I could ask you about last night. I enjoyed it a lot. :)

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Cathryn V
19:04 Mar 14, 2021

Hi David, yes, a lovely switch to a much lighter story. And yet, there’s a shadow over the delightful protag that she might also be an arsonist. It feels more like an intro to a larger story than a story in itself. Of course it’s early in the week. I’ll be interested to see what you do with it. Your sensory descriptions are absolutely beautiful!

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David Gottfried
20:00 Mar 14, 2021

Hey, Cathryn. Thanks for reading. Agreed. There’s definitely a dark side to Midge buried under the facade of sweet neighborliness! She likes her town the way it’s always been and is much less accepting of outsiders than she lets on. Even the detective from the town over is viewed with suspicion. He’s an outsider. She reminds me of Patty from Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. There’s an aura of a sweet lady, but she’ll slash your tires in a heartbeat if you cross her.

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Cathryn V
23:09 Mar 14, 2021

heh-heh, maybe you could allude to that. Perhaps she reads of it in the paper or online

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Rachel Loughran
09:37 Mar 26, 2021

I loved this! It reminded me of Shirley Jackson's Dark Tales - that sort of creeping suburbia vibe, insidious ladies pretending everything is fine and dandy, being ridiculously insistent about the topic they want to discuss, even the musings of Ernie - it was great, I really enjoyed it.

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08:20 Mar 25, 2021

Hi David!, This is the first story of yours that I am reading. I must say I was a sucker for it from the very first declarative statement. In fact, the quite, sublte misdirection that hovered all through almost till the end had an endreaing quality to it. I fet like a dog on leash being slowly and happily being led to the inevitable tasy bone at the athe end of the trail. The effortless detailings, short, staccato sentences lulled me into a most welcome stupor. The charcaters, Ernie and Midge and their tete e tete were a delight. Even the...

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David Gottfried
13:30 Mar 25, 2021

Thank you very much for the kind comment, Neel. I'm glad you enjoyed the characters and the bit of misdirection. If you're interested in reading more of my stories, I recommend Vampire Lawncare. It's got a lot of the same stuff going on. https://blog.reedsy.com/creative-writing-prompts/contests/65/submissions/40265/

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Trista Larson
00:43 Mar 25, 2021

I picked to read your story because it was the most interesting title. I love the old lady, she is an OG.

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Nora Ouardi
12:34 Mar 24, 2021

I absolutely fell in with this story! I've never read a piece of your writings before, but I think I might have to start. I don't know what why, but this story gave off old, 1900's vibes. Midge and Ernie have such a cute relationship (oh no, here I go again) and Olmstead was so stiff which actually reminded me of Hotch from Criminal minds. (You should watch it if you haven't) I always had my suspicions, but at least now I'm sure that cucumbers are fruit! "orginally from tropics". Ultimately, you outdid yourself with the story, and you should...

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David Gottfried
14:51 Mar 24, 2021

Thank you so much, Nora. This is a very flattering comment. I had fun with the relationship between Midge and Ernie! I'm glad you enjoyed that. I'll have to check out Criminal Minds, too.

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Jakin Files
22:53 Mar 22, 2021

I really enjoyed this story. This is the first I’ve read of yours and I really like your style. Now a question. Are cucumbers really a fruit? Thank you so much for the story.

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David Gottfried
14:50 Mar 24, 2021

Thank you, Jakin! I'm glad you enjoyed it. And it's a good question. I've seen conflicting information, but I think technically, yes, cucumbers are a fruit.

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Alex Hosh
19:47 Mar 22, 2021

I really loved how the quote "cucumbers are a fruit" is repeated throughout this story. To me, it's almost like it's trying to convey some sort of covert meaning or trying to shy away from something darker (or maybe it's just me trying to overthink stuff haha). Anyway, keep up the good work!

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David Gottfried
14:49 Mar 24, 2021

Thank you, Alex! There's definitely something darker lurking below the surface. The cucumbers represent her way of life, which is threatened by the newcomers. She's willing to do whatever it takes to defend them (and it). I'm glad you enjoyed it!

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Julie Ward
19:18 Mar 20, 2021

A story that centers around gardening! I was just thinking about writing about gardening myself. I love the path you took Midge down. At first, I pictured her as a sweet grandma passing out the fruits of her garden to the neighborhood ..then her activist (eco-terrorist?) side emerged and it was off to the races. I love that in the end, it was all about the cucumbers. It's so frustrating to finally get something to grow perfectly in just the right light...then the neighbor trims a tree and all those plants that were doing so well dappled sh...

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David Gottfried
21:02 Mar 21, 2021

There’s a whole lot of hope and dream inherent in gardening! It’s fertile ground (pun fully intended!). Midge is a complicated character. She’s not a bad person. She just likes things the way they’ve always been. And she’s willing to burn down a condo building or two to maintain her way of life. Thanks for reading, Julie! I’m a fan of yours.

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Julie Ward
15:56 Mar 22, 2021

Thank you David! That's a huge compliment. I love your writing. And I'd love to have Midge as a neighbor. I hate those ugly, boxy condo complexes too!

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Rachel Smith
08:00 Mar 17, 2021

I love your descriptions! She is an interesting character too, feels like the detective better watch his back lol An enjoyable read as always.

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David Gottfried
15:45 Mar 17, 2021

Thanks for reading, Rachel. I'm glad you enjoyed it. And agreed about the Detective needing to tread carefully!

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Courtney C
06:04 Mar 17, 2021

Loved the dramatic turn from do-gooder gardener to do-gooder arsonist. The character was endearing, even with her criminal activity, and the entire thing was well written. Great ending too! I like how it all tied together. My one suggestion: given this was pre-meditated, I'd expect Midge would have an excuse for the gasoline can to do with gardening. Honestly though, it was a fantastic story. As a formatting note, should it be 'jars they pickled' instead of 'pickles they jarred'? Also, for "And then, inhaling deeply, “are ..." I'd capitali...

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David Gottfried
15:49 Mar 17, 2021

Thanks for reading, Courtney! I always appreciate feedback like this. Re: the gasoline container, you're probably right. I wanted the reader to think back and say, "oh yeah, that gasoline container did seem a little bit out of place." On the pickles, I like the parallel between "salads they made" and "pickles they jarred," but let me read it a few more times. Maybe I'll change my mind. Thanks again!

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Courtney C
23:12 Mar 17, 2021

Fair enough, it's just that you don't "jar" pickles. You pickle cucumbers, in jars. For the gasoline container, it might be more impactful if you included it earlier as a bit of foreshadowing? But again, that's your call. Whatever you think works best

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David Gottfried
23:20 Mar 17, 2021

Now I understand. And I learned something new! I changed the pickle reference.

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K. Antonio
01:59 Mar 17, 2021

The beginning of your piece is so mundane and normal, yet written spectacularly, the details were great and realistic. This story is memorable maybe because of the use of detail and how you captured the character and her persona so well. The dialogue was very strong, the interaction, the flow, I enjoyed it a lot. You made cucumbers sound interesting, I was literally eating up your words! KUDOS!

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David Gottfried
15:52 Mar 17, 2021

I'm so glad you enjoyed it, K.! The story is not really about cucumbers. The cucumbers are vessel for creating the tension between the way things have always been in the town and the changes that the newcomers are bringing. I've become a fan of using this sort of thing as a tool for storytelling. I've had your latest open on my computer for a couple of days and plan to read it today or tomorrow. Stay tuned!

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