[personal profile] starwatcher_fic
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Title: Zucchini, Tomatoes and Corn, Oh My!
Summary: Blair becomes embroiled in a tasty enthusiasm.
Style: Gen
Size: 7,380 words, about 13 pages in MS Word
Warnings: None
Notes: Special thanks to LKY, who graciously gave me permission to mention her beloved Uncle Buck in my story. Written July & August, 2007.
Feedback: Not necessary, but every one is treasured.
Email: If you prefer not to post a comment that everybody can see, you can reach me at starwatcher -at- dreamwidth.org





Zucchini, Tomatoes and Corn, Oh My!

by StarWatcher






Early March

"Hey, wow, did you see this?" Blair was curled up comfortably, carefully perusing every article in his section of the Sunday paper.

His friend didn't even glance up from mentally composing a scathing letter to the editor as he read of the proposed city ordinance that would limit the age of vehicles allowed to drive in downtown Cascade. "How many times have you insisted that the 'Lifestyles' section is more culturally relevant than the 'pompous arrogance of short-sighted, monkey-brained, alpha-posturing world leaders'? Since you see fit to grab that part first, no I haven't 'seen this'. I'll get to it eventually; today is perfect for staying put," Jim added, glancing at the cold rain beating against the balcony doors.

Blair folded the paper inside out and faced it toward Jim, tapping the relevant headline. "No, look," he insisted, "this is great news.

Jim easily compensated for the distance between his position in the yellow easy chair and Blair's in the far corner of the couch as he read, City to Allow Garden Plots on Vacant Lots. "So the city is conning a lot of would-be farmers into cleaning up vacant lots and planting pretty flowers without paying them a cent for their efforts. Sounds like a royal rip-off to me."

"You're missing the whole point, man! This will be vegetable gardening. Well, maybe a few flowers if someone is so inclined -- did you know that planting marigolds can help keep the bugs away from other plants? But lower-income families can rent a plot -- only three dollars a month -- and grow their own fresh vegetables, healthier and cheaper than what they get in the store. And it'll give kids something to do in the summer, help keep them out of trouble and give them a sense of self-satisfaction when work they've done with their own two hands benefits them and their families. You'd be surprised what a difference just growing things can make in people's lives. I've read studies --"

"Thanks, Chief, you've convinced me; I don't need chapter and verse." With a rustle of paper, Jim prepared to drop the conversation. The silence lasted only a few heartbeats.

"I think I'd like to do it," Blair mused, half to himself. "Just imagine the taste of home-grown tomatoes and corn, carrots and sweet peas; man, your taste-buds will think they've died and gone to heaven."

Jim raised a curious eyebrow. "Why? You already get most of our fruits and vegetables from the farmer's market, and you know which ones grow their stuff organically, or at least pesticide-free. You've demonstrated that food picked when ripe is far superior to the stuff that's picked early and allowed to ripen during shipment; my taste-buds and I thank you. But what difference will it make if they do the work, or you do?"

"Well..." Blair gazed around the room with unfocused eyes; his expression suggested he was seeing confinement instead of a comfortable, open living-space. "You're probably right that I won't notice a difference; but it'll be interesting to see if you do. But mostly I just... kinda miss it," he finished quietly.

"Miss what?"

"That connection with the Earth, man. There's something... elemental... about getting your hands in the dirt and nursing the seedlings to healthy crops, and protecting them from disease and predators, even if the 'predators' are just bugs and birds. Problems in a garden are a lot more straightforward and easier to solve than problems in a classroom -- or the PD."

Jim was mildly interested. "You sound like you're talking from experience, Chief. So, what -- you helped the women in the fields when you went on anthropological expeditions? I would've thought you'd be taking notes from the tribal elders."

Blair straightened, his brow furrowed in a slight frown, and lips pinched in apparent disapproval. He steepled his fingers almost prissily as he proclaimed in a monotonous half-whine, "'Every anthropologist should be a multi-faceted individual with a broadly inquiring mind; equally adept at speaking with, and gaining knowledge from, all members of a tribe, men, women, and children. Do not allow yourselves the preconceived ideas that one group or another has nothing of value to offer. An anthropologist who has neglected one segment of the tribal population has cheated himself as well as the subjects he studies, and leaves gaps in our accrued knowledge of the world and its peoples'."

In the face of Jim's expression -- composed equally of appalled dismay mixed with a sad certainty that his friend had finally slipped a cog -- Blair collapsed backward into the cushions, laughing heartily. "Sorry, Jim; if you could see your face..." He chuckled again, then explained, "That was Professor Gene Cordell, one of the most boring speakers I've ever studied under. But he did have some solid information, and I did pay attention. Surprisingly enough, it's not that difficult to work with the women in the morning, play with the children in the afternoon, and listen to the stories of the hunters or the elders in the evening; I think Professor Cordell would be proud of me, don't you?"

"That depends; were you graded on your obfuscation skills, or is that something you picked up on your own?"

"Hey, don't knock it; there are times when obfuscation is an important anthropological survival tool." Blair winked broadly, amid continuing snickers. "But I really did pay attention to 'women's work' -- it's interesting to see the similarities and differences in customs of cooking or gardening or whatever. That was later, though; I learned most of my gardening skills from Uncle Buck when I was twelve. At first it was discipline, and I hated it. Uncle Buck had a hoe that he named 'Old Guss', and it was the bane of my existence. Later, though, I really got into it, and when I bit into the first tomato that came off 'my' vine -- well, it was pure magic. Working in a garden is as good as meditation -- and you get something for it, besides. And the brothers at Saint Sebastian's have a large garden; I helped out there when I visited. For me, it's like... getting back to my roots." Jim snorted, and Blair shrugged. "No pun intended, man."

"Well, you certainly don't need my permission. If you think you can fit it in between school and the PD and the sentinel stuff, have at it. Just be sure you don't bite off more than you can chew." Jim retired discreetly behind his newspaper.

Blair groaned theatrically. "Oh, man, you've been waiting for that, haven't you? But I guarantee, you'll eat your words before the summer's over." He ducked the tossed pillow, caught it and threw it back, and went back to his own reading.

Ten minutes passed, and then Blair straightened and slapped himself -- gently -- upside the head. "Compost!" he exclaimed.

"Sandburg, you come home smelling like compost, and you're sleeping on the roof," Jim said, without looking up.

"Hey, I'm not that fond of the smell, myself; I'll have to make sure I handle it last, and stop somewhere -- the gym, maybe -- to shower and change afterward. But properly-managed compost only has to be turned every ten days or so, and that's only if you're in a hurry, but of course I am, kind of. If I start now, it'll probably be ready by the middle of May. And there's nothing better to enrich your garden soil than good compost. Do you suppose one of the dairies will deliver some manure? I'll only need a cubic yard or so; a bin bigger than three foot square is just--"

"Tell you what, Sandburg," Jim interrupted. "You refrain from inflicting me with the nitty-gritty details, and I'll refrain from saying 'I told you so' if your garden grows nothing more than a few weeds."

"Ha!" Blair retorted. "More like, I won't hit you with 'I told you so' when you're reaching for your third ear of grilled sweet corn and you bite into it with butter dripping down your chin."

"Loser cooks for the winner for a week -- takeout not allowed?"

"Done!"

Jim turned to the sports section while Blair grabbed paper and pen and started to plan the perfect garden. Tomatoes, of course, and sweet corn. Zucchini; he knew some killer recipes. Carrots and maybe sweet peppers. Squash? Couldn't hurt. Maybe...

"Hey, Jim, green beans or sweet peas?"

"Peas."

Blair scribbled a few more lines, then carried his notes to the computer. Hooray for the Internet; he wouldn't have to wait for seed catalogues to be delivered.

A few moments later, Blair stared at the computer screen. Who knew? Forty varieties of tomatoes? Nineteen of squash, twenty-six of carrots? And this was only from one catalog! How the hell was he supposed to choose?

Obviously, he'd have to visit a few of the local garden centers, and talk to people more knowledgeable than himself. But a little prior research would help him understand the suggestions, and allow him to discuss the pros and cons of different varieties. Blair reached for his pen, and soon had several pages of notes. This was gonna be so cool!



Early April

The day had started out mild, with warm sunlight suggesting that Spring had finally arrived, despite the forecast of storms tomorrow. Blair had left early, face split by an eager smile. "Leave my share of the chores and I'll do them tomorrow. Can't waste a day like this; gotta make hay -- or a garden -- when the sun shines. Besides, we've got a communal planning meeting scheduled; Saturday is the best day to get everyone together at once. Well, most of us, anyway. See ya' later, man." He was out the door like a gusty April breeze, swirling quickly and gone.

Jim finished a leisurely breakfast, then decided to clean all the kitchen cabinets; no reason he couldn't get an early start on Spring cleaning. With that out of the way, he and Sandburg might have time to wax the floors tomorrow. He put on a Santana CD and cranked up the volume; some music was best appreciated when it filled the room, despite sentinel senses.

By three, he was aware that the promised storm wouldn't wait till tomorrow to hit. Dark clouds were hanging low while the wind whistled viciously through the streets, and the temperature had dropped fourteen degrees. Jim built a fire and soon had it burning strongly; by the time Blair got home, his perpetually-cold friend would want all the warmth he could get.

The leading edge of rain was hitting the balcony windows when Blair blew in as precipitously as he had left, laughing and shaking the drops from his hair. "Ooo-WHEE! How changeable can the weather get, anyway? Still, April showers bring May flowers, and I don't suppose it matters whether they're on a rosebush or a tomato vine." He hung up his coat, toed off his wet, muddy sneakers onto the newspaper that Jim had spread under the coathooks, and headed into the kitchen. "After all that, I need a beer. How about you?"

"I'm good," Jim replied, lifting the half-full bottle by his elbow and relaxing into his book now that Blair was home safe.

"Oh, right, right; I didn't notice." Blair carried his beer into the living room, where he sank cross-legged to the floor with his back to the fire, almost close enough to singe his flannel. "Man, you are a prince!" he declared. "The past couple of hours reminded me of the reasons I don't want to be farmer; if gardening is more than a hobby, there's too many times you have to suck it up and keep working in the bad weather, regardless." He scooted a half-inch closer to the delightful heat.

"You're welcome." Jim hid his smirk; Blair was soaking up the warmth like a big cat. But maybe wolves also liked to bask when they weren't hunting. "So, did you have a good -- as in productive -- day?"

"Oh, man, it was stupendous! Everyone was there except for Big Al and Susanna, and they'd already told us what they wanted. So we got everything planned and staked out. It's gonna be so cool -- a real community effort, instead of each family separate." Blair set aside his beer and scrambled to his feet, hurrying toward his bedroom. "In fact, I need to make notes; there'll be a great paper in this by the time we finish."

He returned with a spiral notebook, grabbed his beer, and plopped on the couch. Balancing the notebook on his knee, Blair started sketching as he explained the proposed garden. "Okay, you know that block on Lavaliere, between thirty-eighth and thirty-ninth, with 'Big Ben's Carpet Warehouse' store on one end and the 'Rama-Dama Hardware and Lumberyard' on the other? That's our north boundary; the vacant lot is south of those walls. And the best thing is, all the buildings around the other sides are three stories or less, and except for those two big stores, everything is across the relevant street, which means plenty of sun can reach the ground. It's a great spot, and pretty central in that community; we couldn't ask for better."

"Sandburg, that's not the safest part of town," Jim objected, "and it's over ten miles away."

"That's why Henry Ford invented cars," Blair replied, still drawing on the page. "And people live there permanently, some of them right across the street; I think I can spend a few hours a week without risking life and limb. Okay, look. We've divided the area into four major parts, separated by paths through the middle -- north-south and east-west -- and with a path going around the outside perimeter. Then each big area is divided into eight sections, laid out four wide and two deep. So all of the plots meet a path on the short end -- no traipsing through someone else's plot to reach your own -- and half of them have another path on the long side. Those are for the folks who have mobility difficulties; hopefully, they can go more directly to the plants they need to tend, with less walking."

"'Mobility difficulties'? What, you have grannies with walkers trying to garden?" Jim's voice was challenging in his disbelief.

Blair shook his head in disgust. "Join the real world, man; gardening is highly recommended for the elderly, or someone with arthritis. It gets them out in the fresh air, it's gentle, low-impact exercise, and it gives them other people to socialize with. One of the salespeople at Rama-Dama -- Cindy -- is working a plot, and she's convinced management to donate a couple of those low, wheeled gardening seats, so everyone will be able to maneuver easily. And then there's Susanna and Caleb, who are both wheelchair-bound, so we're building a couple of raised beds right here." He used his finger to indicate the stretch of land next to the carpet and lumber stores. "First we'll put plastic over them to make cold-frames, so we can get an early start with tomatoes and peppers. When they're all transplanted to the garden proper, the plastic comes off and Caleb and Susanna can put in their main crops."

Jim was fascinated in spite of himself; the planning seemed almost as detailed as a military maneuver. "What's this block right in the middle? And that little square between the raised beds?"

"The big one in the middle is compost; we decided to make two bins, back-to-back. With that location, no one has to walk too far to get a load and take it back to their plot. The soil isn't in great shape; we'll all need to use the compost -- which, by the way, is already starting to look composty." Blair's voice was decidedly smug. "The one against the back wall is the tool-shed; we figured it'd be easier to lock them up at night instead of carrying rakes, hoes, and spades back and forth when we want to work. Everybody has a key to the padlock."

Jim snorted his disgust. "I give it two nights before some hopped-up meth-head who needs a fix breaks in to hock your tools for his next score. You'll spend more in replacing tools than you'll save in growing your own vegetables."

"Maybe," Blair acknowledged. "We talked it over and decided we're willing to risk it. We're banking on community feeling; about three-fourths of the adults are bringing their kids into it, getting them involved, and a bunch of those are teenagers. Hopefully, if they have a feeling of 'ownership', they won't let -- or help -- their buds steal anything. And like I said, several of the families live right across the street; they'll be able to keep an unofficial eye on things." He shrugged, and continued putting the finishing touches on his sketch. "If we're wrong, and someone does steal them, then we'll keep the replacements at home. But people generally live up to -- or down to -- what others expect of them, so we're just expecting them to be honorable."

"I think you're heading for a fall, Sandburg, but I admire your principles. I just hope that won't be another 'I told you so'." Jim lifted his neglected book and located the paragraph where he'd stopped reading.

"Jim, I know being a cop affects your world-view, but you could try being a little more open-minded. I'll be the one saying, 'I told you so'." Blair ignored his friend's dismissive grunt, and pulled his laptop out of his backpack. He started a new document, then sipped his beer as he considered a working title. Okay. 'Social Interactions Within the Paradigm of Community Gardening.' Yeah, that sounded suitably intellectual. He started typing.



Late April

"So, how goes the garden, Sandburg?" Jim asked casually. Not that he really cared, of course, but listening to the kid rattle on would help while away the tedium of this stakeout.

Blair's smile flashed brightly, even in the dimness of the cab. "Oh, man, better than I even expected! Next weekend we'll be putting in most of the seeds, and the weekend after we plan to transplant the tomatoes and peppers from the cold frames into the main garden. It's coming together just great!"

Jim snorted. "Most people wouldn't give the accolade 'great' until they started eating what they'd grown, but you don't even have any seeds in the ground. I think your definition needs work."

"That outlook is too narrow," Blair insisted. "If this was an experiment in community social interaction, we'd already have an A-plus. The kids have been staying after school to use the Internet, or going to the library to do research in organic gardening and pest management; they have all sorts of plans for getting the best growth possible from every square foot. And the adults -- everybody knows somebody who knows somebody, you know? Pete has a friend who's a farmer; on Friday he's coming with his tractor to spread the compost around. He'll use the harrow to work it into the soil, so we're spared the backbreaking work of doing it by hand. And Concetta knows one of the grooms at the riding stables out near the country club; after the seeds sprout, he'll bring a couple of pickup loads of used bedding straw so we can have a good mulch."

"I'm impressed, Chief," Jim admitted. "Do I detect your fine hand in persuading everyone to work as a team?"

Blair shrugged a shoulder and shook his head with a half-grin. "Not really. I've made a few suggestions to point them in a couple of directions they might not have thought of, but then they pick up the ball and run with it. I don't want to be the stuffed-shirt professor who just gives orders so everyone will do things his way, you know? I want everyone to be able to look back and know they did it themselves -- and they'll be able to do it again next year, and the next, and the next, no matter who's in the group, or who gets too busy to show up and help." He chuckled and winked. "Of course, that doesn't keep me from telling stories about methods used by the indigenous people in various parts of the world, that can be so easily adapted to our garden."

"Oh, yeah? Like what?"

"Like -- we can plant potatoes along with the corn. The potatoes grow deeper than the roots of the corn, and the top growth chokes out the weeds between the rows of corn. Since potatoes aren't dug up until after the corn has been eaten, we can get two vegetables from one patch of ground.

"Or like -- fish heads and guts make great fertilizer. We'll go to the fresh-fish market down by the docks, and bring back a couple of baskets of their trimmings; just drop in a bit of gooiness before you drop in the seeds."

"This 'we' better not include me, Sandburg," Jim growled. "And don't even think about asking to borrow the truck."

Blair threw him an exasperated look. "Like I wouldn't know what you'd say before I even asked. Not that I want that stuff in my car, either, even though it'll be fresh. I figure I'll set it on the trunk lid, tie it down real good, and just drive slow."

"Sounds like you really have it all planned out," Jim said, more intrigued than he wanted to be. He kept his eyes on the suspect house, trusting Blair to use the comment and keep running with it.

"Oh, yeah! Susanna -- I told you about her, in the wheelchair? -- she knows more about organic gardening than all the rest of us put together. We're planting dill next to all the tomato plants; it'll attract the tomato hornworms, and they'll be easy to pick off and squash. And everyone who drinks beer is donating one can or bottle." He waited expectantly; the question just had to come.

Jim didn't disappoint. "Let me guess. You pour it around the cucumbers and anyone who eats them gets pickled."

Blair chuckled. "That might be an interesting taste experiment. But if you set out beer in shallow bowls, it attracts slugs and they'll drown."

"Sounds like a waste of good beer."

"Not when you consider the damage they do," Blair argued. "A couple of cans of beer is a small price to pay for unchewed-on veggies."

Jim lifted a hand for quiet, head tipped to one side. "Hold on, Chief; I hear a car starting, and I think it's his."

A moment later, the garage door was eased carefully upward, with as little noise as possible. The blue Mustang backed cautiously into the street, then drove off slowly, running without lights. Jim let it get a block ahead, then eased the truck forward to follow.

Blair picked up the mic. "Shall I call it in?"

"Advise them that we're in slow pursuit up Connelly, but to wait until we call for backup. We want this guy to lead us to the source; can't take a chance on him running if he sees something suspicious."

In the subsequent successful capture, the question of beer and vegetable gardens was shelved until later -- or, for all Jim cared, till never.



Early June

Jim dragged himself wearily up the stairs. It was ridiculous how beat he felt, just from spending a day in court. He didn't feel like doing a thing. Maybe he could get Sandburg to order a pizza, then put a slice in his mouth for him. But Jim didn't know if even that was worth it; he'd still have to do his own chewing.

When he opened the door, he was struck by the light scent, kind of spicy but earthy. "Sandburg, what gives?" he demanded.

Blair saved the document on his laptop and pushed back his chair. "Hey, Jim, glad you're home!" He smiled at his partner and hurried into the kitchen. "I've got a treat for us tonight. Some of the early tomatoes and peppers are ripe already, so I've made green tomato soup with ham. Plenty of ham; I won't force you to eat a meatless meal," he added with a wink. "You go wash up, and I'll start grilling the cheese sandwiches to go with it."

Jim was too tired to argue, but once the bowl was in front of him, he stared doubtfully at the contents. "Green tomato soup? I thought you said they were ripe."

"We planted different varieties, so we'd have them ripening all summer long. I picked some ripe and some green; the recipe uses both. And don't give me that face."

"What face?"

"The face that says, 'I do not like green eggs and ham'. After all his fussing, that guy discovered he liked it after all. So save the complaints and give it a try; at least one bite won't kill you."

"Such reassurance," Jim muttered, but he swallowed a spoonful under Blair's watchful eye. Hmmm... interesting. He lifted another spoonful. Different... but not actually bad. He dipped his spoon again. And -- he picked up a golden-brown triangle -- it went real well with the cheese sandwich.

"That was good, Sandburg; thanks," Jim said when there was nothing left but crumbs on the plate and dregs in the bowl. It was amazing how much better he felt after a good meal; still tired, of course, but no longer at the 'rode hard and put up wet' end of the spectrum. "Think you can make it again some time?"

Blair chuckled, and waved a hand toward the large pot on the stove. "It's soup, man! Nobody makes enough for only one meal. We can save some in the fridge for later this week, and freeze the rest for the nights we're too late or tired to cook. But, yes, I can always make more -- one thing we'll have plenty of this summer is tomatoes."

"How?" Jim asked. "I mean, if you have so many varieties of tomatoes that you'll have some all summer, how did you have space to plant anything else?"

"I told you we were making a community garden, instead of each family acting alone." Blair shrugged easily. "You know, the output from just a couple of tomato or squash vines can feed six or eight families. So we planned it all out. Like, six of us are growing early tomatoes, six growing mid-season, and six have planted late-season varieties. Whatever's ripe, we all take home what we want or need, and if anything's left after that, we share it in the neighborhood. We kind of put in our orders -- what everyone wants more of or less of -- and planted accordingly, from corn to zucchini. It's working so well that Caleb and Miriam are already talking about doing the same thing next year, and getting more people involved." Blair rose and started carrying the dishes to the sink.

"Sounds suspiciously like Communism, Chief."

"Big surprise -- it is a form of communism. 'From each according to his ability, to each according to his need'," Blair quoted. "The thing is, communism can work -- if the group is small, and everyone can see who pulls his weight and who doesn't. It's when you get past the 'neighborhood' level that it falls apart. As soon as things are complicated enough that you need supervision and leaders and people who know other people only as names instead of individuals, that's when some of them start working the system to their advantage -- which automatically disadvantages everyone else." He pulled down some freezer-savers from the cupboard, and began to pour the leftover soup into them.

Jim watched thoughtfully. "So, it doesn't matter what you're actually tending; you can have part of anything in the garden?"

"Pretty much," Blair said cheerfully. "Some things I didn't request -- never did cotton to broccoli, and I figure jalapenos would be too hot for you, no matter how little I used."

"Think you could bring home a couple or three good-sized green tomatoes for the weekend?"

"Not a problem," Blair assured him. "Why d'you want 'em?"

"Sally used to make fried green tomatoes; she got the recipe from Mrs. Delaney down the street."

"Raised in the South?" Blair guessed.

"Oh, yeah; her accent was pure cornpone. But fried green tomatoes were a real treat when I was a kid, and it's been a long time since I had any. Might have 'em with pork chops for dinner on Saturday."

"Sounds good, man. I'll pick some up Friday afternoon."



Mid July

Henri studied his cards while he dipped a tortilla chip in the garden salsa spooned onto his plate. "This stuff is damn good, Hairboy," he said, crunching happily. "What all's in it?"

"Oh, some tomatoes, green pepper and onions, mixed with a little bit of olives, basil and parsley -- and all from our garden," Blair boasted, grandly buffing his fingernails on his shirt. "Well, except for the olives." He discarded a card and nodded to Simon -- the dealer for this round -- who passed him another one.

"Nothing fermented or moldy this time?" Joel asked slyly.

Blair chuckled. "Not unless you force me. Fair warning; if I lose, someone else will pay the price."

"I like this pineapple-and-zucchini bread," Rafe said, cutting himself another piece. "Who would've thought they'd go together so well?"

"Nothing surprises me anymore," Jim said. "The kid had me eating carrot pancakes this morning -- and liking them."

"Well, I'm surprised," Simon rumbled. "I thought gardening would leave him too little time to fall into trouble." He stared meaningfully at the butterfly bandaids that closed the two-inch cut on Blair's forehead. "I know you're talented, Sandburg; couldn't you use a little of that talent to stay out of trouble?"

"Hey, it's not my fault the guy couldn't look where he was running!" Blair protested. "I was just walking with Sandra in the park and then boom! At least it slowed him up enough for the uniforms to catch him."

Jim shook his head. "Forget it, Simon. Talking won't help. I'm ordering complete protective gear for him -- shin- and knee-pads, elbow pads, helmet with faceguard, kevlar vest, the works. Maybe then we can cut the injuries down to once a quarter." He pushed two chips into the middle of the table. "I'm in."

"Says the man known to every EMT in the city," Blair retorted. "I hear they have laminated 'Jim Ellison Identification' cards so all the newbies will know who you are." He tossed his own chips onto Jim's. "Yeah, me too."

Gardening and casualties were forgotten as the group settled down to the serious business of poker.



Early September

"Hey, Jim, take a gander; tell me what you think." Blair handed him a sheet of paper, still warm from the printer. Jim closed the case file folder he'd brought from work, and acceded to his partner's request. Blair stood anxiously in front of him as he read:

AUTUMNAL EQUINOX

We're having a big Harvest Picnic
and a Celebration of Life.
We'd like you to join our festivities.
Good food, good friends, and a few games.

Date: Saturday, September 21st, 1996
Time: 11 AM - dusk
Place: The Rama-Ben Community Garden
from Lavaliere to Sunderson, between 38th and 39th

The garden and its members will provide
a variety of hot and cold vegetable dishes.
Bring your own meat and drink.

For more information, call
Caleb Winters @ 555-3709
or
Concetta Garcia @ 555-2693

"So, how's it look? Do we need to put anything else in the invitation? Do you think people will come?"

"Who?" Jim asked. Sandburg usually ran ideas past him first, but this had come out of the blue. What was going on?

Blair was bouncing -- in excitement? In nervousness? "Everyone, of course! Friends and family, but we're going to invite the people in the area who didn't participate. And I want to invite the guys in Major Crime, and some of the other people from the PD. Maybe even pass the flyers around the precinct that covers that area -- the Thirty-Third, isn't it?"

"Why?"

"Well, jeeze, Jim -- citizens and police at the same party; it's bound to improve relations between the groups. Especially since it's kind of a spontaneous idea from the people themselves, instead of an official 'mixer' dictated by any kind of authority."

"No, I mean -- Labor Day was just three days ago. Why didn't you have your party then?" Jim felt as if he had missed a step, somewhere. "Whoever heard of an equinox celebration?"

Blair snorted. "Oh, the Celts, the Romans, the Saxons, the Druids, the Mayans, various Native American tribes... shall I go on? The equinoxes and solstices have been recognized by cultures around the world for thousands of years, and people have celebrated them all in various ways. The Fall Equinox celebrated the successful harvest, with its assurance that life would continue through the cold winter. The cycle of seasons was meaningful, and important. Stonehenge was aligned so that the solstices and equinoxes could be accurately determined. This is big stuff, man."

"Okay, but what makes it better to celebrate this instead of, say, the next full moon? And will you light somewhere? I'm not going to take your toys away."

Blair perched on the arm of the yellow chair, hands flying as he tried to express his enthusiasm. "Not better, just -- it's just a spontaneous upwelling of feeling, probably elicited by some primitive instinctual response. A good harvest is like a sign of good fortune for the coming year, and even the heavens are aligned -- equal light and equal dark -- to show their approval. Since it's common to almost all times and cultures, it must be practically hard-wired into the human psyche." He paused, looking thoughtful. "I should add that to my paper -- or maybe start another one. I could compare and contrast the activities used to celebrate the Autumn Equinox across the different cultures and eras." He bounced up as if to start immediately, but Jim interrupted.

"Hold it, Darwin; let's finish this first. There's going to be a party." Blair nodded. "Hosted by...?"

"Every single person who was part of our gardening project! And we're all bringing a couple of big pans of our best vegetable dish, to share with each other and all our guests."

"And those who bring meat, or something else that needs to be served hot will cook it on...?"

"Everyone who has a grill will bring it around ten, and get the charcoal started. I can take ours, right?"

Jim merely waved a hand in permission. "And plates, cups, ice, utensils?"

"Delegated, man. What, you think I have to do everything? The ladies of the community are taking care of that part of it."

A broad smile crossed Blair's face. "I've got it all planned. I have a killer recipe for a vegetable lasagna, and a tomato-and-zucchini fettuccini. I'm thinking about a ham-and-tomato quiche, too, but I'll have to figure out the logistics. Do you suppose if we cook it here, it can be heated up again on a grill? Maybe I should make it one night, and save it, and try heating it on the grill the next night. What meat should we bring? Pork chops are good, but they can be hard to cut on a paper plate with a plastic knife, but hamburgers are so ordinary. Maybe --"

"Fish," Jim said abruptly. "We'll go down to the docks and get some really fresh fillets. There's nothing like green tomato relish on fried or grilled fish; Mrs. Delaney taught Sally how to make it, and I used to watch. I'll make a big batch."

"Oh, yum!" Blair's enthusiasm was reaching Olympic heights. "And Susanna's bringing scalloped tomatoes, Caleb's bringing summer squash stuffed with pepperoni, and Cindy's talking about a really great zucchini dish she makes. She cuts it down the middle, cooks it, then mixes the insides with onion, tomato, Italian pork sausage, and croutons. She puts everything back in the rind, then puts it back on the grill. Right before it's finished, she sprinkles it with Mozzarella and waits till it melts before serving. I can't wait to wrap my taste buds around that."

Jim smiled tolerantly and reached for the discarded file folder. "Well, it sounds like you have your end planned out, and I don't have to do anything right now. Next time you go to the garden, bring back half a dozen big green tomatoes, and I'll make the relish; it tastes better if it's been allowed to sit for a week or two." He turned his attention back to the case file while Blair booted up his laptop, muttering to himself. "Recipes. Bet I can find a bunch on the net. We still have lots of carrots, and all those potatoes..."



Saturday, September 21

They couldn't have had a better day for an outdoor shindig if they'd ordered it, Blair thought. The sun shone from a cloudless sky, mild breezes kept the temperature moderate, and the former garden looked good as an outdoor community festival center. Several of the girls had asked that the dried cornstalks be saved after all the ears had been picked. Those stalks were now tied in a giant, teepee-like sheaf in the middle of the grounds, with a circle of squash and zucchini around the base; they'd light it at dusk, to form a giant bonfire that would signify the end of the festivities. The officers from the Thirty-Third had showed up with bunches of helium-filled balloons, which were now tied to the assortment of folding chairs and lawn chairs that people had brought; the brightly-colored globes bobbed gaily in the air currents, unable to escape their tethers.

In one empty garden plot, Joel -- Joel? Who would've thought? -- had gathered a group of teens for a game of horseshoes. In another, the group around Big Al was laughing uproariously as they tackled the fine old art of bobbing for apples. A bunch of pre-teens shrieked happily as they played tag, while others kicked around a soccer ball. Over it all floated the occasional strains of music. One of the older girls had brought her boombox, and had become the de facto disc jockey for the day. Fortunately, she kept the volume to reasonable levels -- perhaps to avoid draining the batteries too soon.

More than a dozen folding tables held an assortment of food -- not only vegetable dishes, but also bread, hot rolls, and chips of various kinds, not to mention cookies, pies, and cakes. The adults -- those not playing with the children, or manning one of the many grills -- mingled and chatted easily. Blair could discern no separation between gardeners and non-gardeners, or between neighborhood dwellers and police personnel. He felt ridiculously pleased. Certainly, he had had only minor input into bringing this celebration to life, but somehow it felt like a personal vindication. If met halfway, people could -- and would -- get along, instead of breaking into splinter groups.

Another laughing shriek split the air, and Blair turned again to be sure that Jim wasn't having difficulty with his senses. Far from it; Jim was holding court -- there was no other word for it -- at the grill they'd set up, teasing the women and joking with the men as he tended the fish they'd brought, serving each portion with a generous helping of his green tomato relish. Despite the ever-changing crowd of people, the chaotic activity and the rather high noise levels, Jim seemed to be handling the input with aplomb. Maybe being outside helped, Blair speculated; sounds could escape without bouncing back from enclosing walls, and Jim's senses could anchor themselves with the natural surroundings -- even if the area was limited to only part of a city block.

Blair allocated about twenty percent of his consciousness to 'keep an eye on Jim', another twenty percent to 'observe the interactions for inclusion in my paper', and used the remaining sixty percent to simply enjoy the day. He took a turn at horseshoes, winning that round handily, then dropping out to let others have a chance to shine. On the other hand, he was no more successful at bobbing for apples than anyone else, and wondered what evil genius had invented the game.

Enough playing. The delectable smells had been enticing Blair since he and Jim had arrived; it was time to do something about filling his complaining belly. He grabbed a pair of plates and moved along the tables. The variety of dishes made choosing difficult, but he soon had both plates filled with small helpings of a wide assortment of food, in an attempt to taste everything.

Blair carried the plates to where Jim manned the grill, gave one to his partner, and accepted a perfectly-grilled fillet onto his plate, to which he added a large dollop of the green tomato relish. A raised eyebrow asked if Jim wanted to join him; a half-shrug and a grin told him that his friend planned to stay until he had cooked and served all the fish they'd brought.

Blair looked around and, spying a cluster of his fellow-gardeners, crossed to join them. Susanna and Cindy were playing with Susanna's newest granddaughter, an alert six-month-old, while they traded stories of the trials and tribulations of raising children. He joined the conversation easily, with anecdotes that demonstrated similarities and differences in child-tending practices from cultures and countries around the world.

As dusk approached, the teen disc jockey turned the music louder, and several couples began dancing. The impetus spread, and Blair smiled to see what could only be described as 'mixed couples' as teens demonstrated and taught the current dance steps to younger children, or peers of their grandparents. Jim joined Blair, sitting shoulder to shoulder with him, watching as the dancing reached an instinctive crescendo. The music ended just after the sun sank below the buildings on the west side of the street. There was an almost breathless pause as Big Al moved to a vantage point where he had a view of the horizon between buildings. The gathering waited... and waited... until Big Al shouted triumphantly, "It's down!"

Everyone cheered. Then, by prearrangement, the eldest female -- eighty-eight years old and known to everyone as 'Grandma Perkins' -- and the youngest male -- Cindy's four-year-old nephew -- approached the central display of cornstalks. Grandma Perkins used a prosaic long-barreled lighter and, with little Cory's hand over hers, they lit an outer stalk and stepped back.

The dry stalks caught quickly, and the entire sheaf was soon burning vigorously as the crowd cheered again. Jim leaned down to speak quietly to Blair. "They've taken precautions against the fire spreading, right?"

Blair nodded. "Two hoses," he gestured to them, one to each side of the blaze, "both with the water turned on. All we need to do is twist the nozzle open if we need them."

The crowd grew quiet as they watched the bonfire burn down to ashes, and then several of the teens jumped gleefully on the hoses and doused the embers until they were safely cold.

It was over. With the sun down, the air was growing decidedly chill, and the day of festivities had left all participants pleasantly tired. People chatted haphazardly as they packed up the remains of the feast, and loaded tables and chairs to carry them home. Jim lugged the grill to the truck, while Blair juggled folding chairs, thermos and one last jar of green tomato relish.

Just before they climbed into the truck, Blair look back at the now empty garden. "You know, it was a lot of work -- more than I remembered -- but it was really worth it."

"Making new friends and working with people who share your goals is always worth it, Chief. I'm glad it lived up to your expectations."




Blair dropped his burden on the kitchen island. "Okay, man, you owe me, remember?"

"What are you talking about, Chief?"

"I promised not to say 'I told you so', but you're cooking dinner for the next week -- and no takeout."

"Sandburg, this is a bet I don't mind losing, and with all the goodies you've brought home lately, finding something to cook won't be a problem. What do you say to beef-stuffed zucchini tomorrow?"

"I say, red wine or white with that?"

"We're men, Chief. Beer, of course."

"It's a date, big guy. And maybe we should start making plans for next summer."

"Sandburg!"



The End




My thanks to LKY, who graciously gave me permission
to mention her beloved Uncle Buck in my story.







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