Fiction: Cesium

James Bates

- James Bates

The two old friends, Becky Johnson and Maggie Jones, were among last to stop by Cesium Smith's estate sale. Smith had been dead for two weeks and everyone in the small town of Orchard Lake had wondered what was to become of the house, or Crazy Old Cesium's place, as the small stucco home on Peony Lane was referred to.

            Cesium's wife had died twenty years earlier at sixty-five. Cesium, everyone guessed, had been around the same age as she was back then, putting him at eighty-five or so at the time of his demise. What he'd been doing all those years as a widower was anybody's guess.

Becky and Maggie had their opinions, reinforced by what they'd seen wandering through Crazy Old Cesium's place that bright spring afternoon, the day of the estate sale - the day when everything the old man owned was put on display for all to see.

            "No children, I guess," Becky said to Maggie, pawing through a table full of old folks’ clothes.

            "I heard that they had kids, but they’re all dead," Maggie said, mentioning one of the many rumors floating around about the old couple. She picked up and quickly discarded an old bra of Edith's. "Jesus, this thing has to be fifty-five years old. Didn't that crazy old coot ever get rid of anything?" She took out a handkerchief and diligently wiped her hands. “Besides, what kind of name is Cesium, anyway?”

            For nearly forty years Becky had been a high school science teacher until her retirement seven years ago. “It’s a mineral. They mine it up in Canada and use it in vacuum tubes and photoelectric cells and spectrometers and…”

“Okay, okay,” Maggie said, putting up her hand. “Stop. I get it. Some science kind of thing.”

Becky smiled an indulgent smile. “Yes, my dear, some science thing. Why he was named Cesium is anybody’s guess.”

            “I heard he was born in Canada.”
            “Well, there you go,” Becky said, picking up a wooden spoon, giving it a discerning look and then setting it down. “Since he was born up there, maybe that has something to do with it.”

            Next to her, Maggie looked around, hands on hips, surveying the tiny living room jammed with boxes of old clothes and tables full of every kind of piece of junk one could imagine being accumulated over a lifetime: kitchen ware, old lamps, furniture, magazines, newspapers, etcetera. And then there were the tools; boxes and boxes of tools, mostly gardening related. Cesium had been a gardener, and he had the tools to prove it: trowels, hoes, hand held claw shaped things that looked dangerous to the uninformed; all kinds of gardening paraphernalia, hoses, shovels, pitch forks, wheel barrels. Tons of stuff, really.

            The two friends picked through the boxes, more curious than anything, before finally deciding that no, they didn't need any of Crazy Old Cesium's junk. In fact, what they really wanted to do was to spend a solid five minutes with some soap and warm water getting cleaned up.

            "Let's get out of here," Maggie said.

            "Let’s," Becky responded. "Why don't you come over to my place. After we wash up, we can have some tea. Maybe a nice cup of Chamomile?"

            "Sounds wonderful," Maggie said, checking her watch. "It's nearly five. They'll be closing soon, anyway."

            The two old friends made their way through Cesium's lifetime of debris and went out the front door. It was early May and the sun was low behind the back of the house, bathing the front yard in golden late afternoon light. It was a yard planted from border to border and meticulously cared for. Right up until his passing, Cesium had continued to maintain and improve upon the gardens he and Edith had begun planting when they had first moved into the little cottage style home over fifty years earlier, back in the mid-sixties. Cesium and Edith were reticent by nature, and gardening was their passion. Throughout the years they had dug up the lawn and planted flower and vegetable gardens in both the front and back yards. They were gardens the neighbors had not only enjoyed the sights of, but even begun to depend upon, looking forward every year to new displays of gladiolas and hollyhocks and whatever else the quiet couple decided to plant; the same gardens that Cesium continued to nurture and maintain even after Edith's passing.

            On this day, bright tulips of yellow and orange and mauve and red were blooming in profusion. Mixed in were white narcissus, yellow daffodils and even some tiny blue cilia. Maggie and Becky paused on the front steps to take in the colorful scene.

            "What's going to happen with the gardens?" Becky asked.

            "I heard someone bought the house and they're going to tear it down. Bulldozer it to the ground and build one of those big new ones. A McMansion, probably. I'm assuming the gardens will go, too."

            "A brand-new house?" Becky looked up and down the street; a quiet, tree lined block of predominately one-story bungalows built a hundred years earlier. "It'll look stupid here, won't it? A big, huge house. It'll be out of place."

            "The price of progress, I guess," Maggie said, "Time marches on."

            "Phooey," Becky spat out derisively, "Maybe it marches on, but that doesn't mean that it has to go in the wrong direction."

            Just then Kevin Jacobson, the man in charge of the sale, stepped outside for a cigarette. He lit up, blew a stream of smoke away from Maggie and Becky and said, "Say ladies, I couldn't help but over hear you talking about Crazy Old Cesium's house and garden."

            Becky said, "Yes, it'll be sad to lose these lovely gardens. They're so pretty."

            Jacobson looked at her with interest, "Who said anything about losing the gardens?"

            "Well, that's the rumor, isn't it?" Maggie said.

            Jacobson laughed. “It might be the rumor, but it's a rumor that's wrong. Cesium Smith loved these gardens. He'd never let anything happen to them. In fact," he leaned close, an air of the conspirator about him, "I guess I can tell you.” He winked. “You can keep a secret, right?" The two old friends nodded and Jacobson continued, knowing full well that what he was about to say would be all around town by the next day, if not sooner. He didn't care, in fact, he was counting on it. "Cesium left his land to the city for green space."

            "What?" Maggie and Becky managed to sputter at the same time. They were incredulous.

"Green space?” Maggie’s eyes went wide.

“Crazy Old Cesium?” Becky was shocked. “What the...?"

            Jacobson held up a hand to interrupt the two friends and their sputtering, "Yeah. Although he didn't call it green space. He put it this way, 'I want the city to have it. I want people to enjoy the gardens just like Edith and I have all these years. It'd mean a lot to the both of us.' At least that’s the way I heard it from Sam Rickenbacher on the city council."

            "Well, I'll be..." Becky started to say.

            "...damned," Maggie finished her friend's thought.

            "Yeah," Jacobson said. “It was a wonderful gesture on his part. At least I think so, anyway."

            Then he stopped talking while he smoked, taking his time while looking out over the pretty front yard, bursting forth in a profusion of springtime colors. Becky and Maggie joined him, all three quietly enjoying the peace and serenity of Cesium and Edith's gardens. They even saw an early arriving bluebird.

            When Jacobson finished his cigarette, he bent down and ground it out in some soil and stuck the butt in his coat pocket. Maggie and Becky watched and shook their heads, in complete and shared agreement regarding the filthiness of Jacobson’s habit. He stood up, looked at the kindly old ladies and said, "He did a good thing, Crazy Old Cesium did. A real good thing." He smiled and went inside to close down the estate sale.

            Captivated by the magic of the beauty of the front yard, the two friends stayed on the front steps for a while before leaving. It had been a long day and they were both looking forward to that refreshing cup of tea Becky had offered earlier. As they walked past a particularly colorful clump of daffodils, they both remarked how happy they were that the gardens were not going to be destroyed but would remain into the future for all to enjoy.

            A few hours later, the sun had set low in the west casting long shadows over the gardens, gardens that now and forever would be referred to as the Orchard Lake Gardens and Green Space. Nobody figured the old couple would mind the name at all. Not one little bit. Not as long as the flowers Cesium and Edith had planted continued to bloom.

            Besides, that's the way the old couple wanted it.

***

 

The last words Edith, or Edie, as Cesium had affectionately called his wife - his favorite name for her for the fifty-odd years they'd known each other, starting in grade school and continuing on for all of their married years - the last words she ever spoke to him were, "Take care of the gardens, Cee (her pet name for him) my dear husband. Please take care of our flowers." Then she was silent for a long moment before softly adding, "Please..." It was the last word that escaped her lips with the last breath she ever took.

Cesium held his dear wife close for one final time before letting her go. When he stood, he looked around the room and wondered how he was ever going to spend the rest of his life without her. A life he'd be the first to admit, if anyone asked (and no one did), was so much emptier now without the love of his life in it. The love of his beloved Edie.

            So, years later, when the same cancer took over his body that had taken over Edie's, Cesium didn't protest. He didn't seek treatment, and he didn't try to get better. He reasoned it this way: What was the point? He'd lived long enough. It was time to move on. It was time to be with Edie.

            He knew what he needed to do. He'd figured it out long before. He went ahead and contacted the Orchard Lake City Council and told them of his idea. After a few weeks of back-and-forth meetings, Cesium's plan was approved in a closed-door session. When he heard the news, he sighed in relief. Now I can let go, he thought to himself. Now I can join Edie. Now I won't be alone anymore.

Two days later he died at home in his sleep.

***

 

It’s been a few months after the estate sale and Maggie and Becky and their friends and neighbors walk past Cesium and Edith's gardens every day. It's mid-July and the little stucco house is gone, replaced by a newly planted vegetable garden. The spring plants have long ago faded, and the summertime flowers are in bloom: purple and white phlox, terra-cotta coneflower, blue bachelor buttons, yellow sunflowers and a myriad of other plants and colors.

"It's a riot of color," neighbors say proudly to anyone who asks. "It's the best garden in the city, if not the entire county," they are quick to add. Whether that statement is true or not, it doesn't matter, because for Crazy Old Cesium's neighbors, they are as proud of the notoriety of the gardens as if they were their own. Which, in a way, they are.

             Though Cesium has been gone from the world for three months, the gardens he and Edie left behind flourish. The city has provided jobs for kids from the local grade school and middle school, just like Cesium had requested. Being young, some of the kids need proper supervision, and Kevin Jacobson is just the person to do that. He's firm, but kind. The kids like him. So, yes, the gardens are profiting by the meticulous care the schoolchildren are giving them. Everyone agrees they've never looked better.

            Do Cesium and Edith watch over the city's new green space? Does the reclusive couple know how beautiful their flower gardens continue to look? Maggie and Becky often wonder. They've taken to walking to the Orchard Lake Gardens and Green Space every day to sit and relax on one of the teak wood benches placed here and there. Some mornings they even bring along their tea and sip a refreshing cup of chamomile. It's a perfect way to begin the day, nestled among the pretty flowers, twittering song birds and busy bees and butterflies. Of course, they'll never have an answer as to whether or not Cesium and Edith are watching over the new green space, and they really don't care. What the two friends do know, however, is this: when all was said and done, when it came right down to it, maybe Crazy Old Cesium really wasn't so crazy after all.


2 comments :

  1. Another delightful tale filled with colour and promise from the prolific Jim Bates. I enjoy his stories - they keep me in touch with nature and people. Jim has an uncanny knack of seeing inside people's minds and he shares these insights with us, enriching the reader. Thanks Jim.

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