Chapter 1 from The Community Garden … more than tomatoes are dying

by Christie Walker Bos, contributor –

A THANKSGIVING FEAST

The unseasonably warm weather for November has melted all the snow from the last storm except for a few small patches hidden under the sage and rabbit brush. A lone coyote trots through an open field, following a game trail that connects the lake to the forest and passes between the chain-link fence of the Mountain High Community Garden and the edge of a ravine. 

The coyote’s thick winter coat is sandy brown with black highlights, which helps him blend into his surroundings as he moves between the shrubs. The whitish fur of his throat, chest, and underbelly catches the morning light as his long, thin legs move him silently up the path. His bushy tail with the black tip hangs limp as he moves while his tawny brown eyes, ever alert, scan ahead.

The coyote stops as if he’s run into a physical barrier. His entire body is as still as a statue except for his twitching black nose. His nostrils do a little dance taking in the intriguing scent. His head drops and his body follows his nose as it leads him to the garden fence.

He takes inventory of the smells emanating from the four-foot-high mound of discarded plants that are piled up on the opposite side of the fence—rotting heirloom tomatoes on shriveled stems, discarded imperfect cobs of corn, bird pecked apples, shriveled green beans on twisty brown vines, and … something else. 

The coyote tentatively paws the soft dirt at the base of the fence. The smell grows stronger. He paws again, this time with more intention, and is rewarded with more of the alluring smell. Now he starts digging in earnest.

***

The smell of onions sizzling in butter invades Frank Mueller’s dream. It takes him a minute to shake the cobwebs of sleep and come fully awake. In that one glorious moment, he’s forgotten his situation, isn’t aware of the pain, and is oblivious to the challenges of the day ahead. But the moment passes, and it all comes rushing back like a wave crashing on a rocky shore. Sitting up requires movement and movement brings pain. The ache where he broke his clavicle is dull but persistent. He pulls back the covers gently with his right hand, making sure not to bump his broken left arm, also in a cast. He swings his legs carefully—first his good leg, then the leg with the cast—over the side of the bed. He sits there, staring straight ahead at nothing. His casts should have been off by now but the bones hadn’t healed completely, something to be expected when you are sixty-eight the doctor had said.

The aromas coming from the kitchen remind him of what day it is. Sylvia is up early, making the stuffing for the turkey. On a normal Thanksgiving Day, he would have been up early as well to participate in the annual Turkey Trot, a 5K run/walk where the participants dress as turkeys, pilgrims, and Native Americans. One year, a group of runners dressed as various selections from the traditional holiday meal. One guy was a fluffy mass of mashed potatoes complete with brown gravy while two girls were dressed as turkey legs. His favorite had been the guy dressed as stuffing. He’d spray-painted cubes of foam rubber brown and attached them to his upper body, arms, and head. Everyone knew what he was supposed to be, especially when he stood between the two turkey legs. Frank never dressed up but enjoyed the costumes on the other runners. Now he can barely walk, let alone run.

Naked from the waist up, he reaches down and picks up his sweatshirt off the floor and carefully pulls it on. Sylvia had cut off the left arm of the sweatshirt at the elbow to make it easier to slide his arm in with the cast. His sweatpants had been similarly altered with the left leg cut off at the knee.

He picks up his crutches off the floor before pushing himself into a one-legged stand. Crutches in position under his armpits, he leaves the bedroom and makes his way to the kitchen.

“Good morning. Ready for some coffee?” Sylvia asks cheerfully as she pulls a coffee mug out of the cupboard.

Frank grunts an affirmative and jockey’s his uncooperative body to a bar stool at the kitchen island. Sylvia places the mug in front of him and then heads to the refrigerator for the creamer.

For the last seven weeks, Sylvia has been catering to Frank’s every need, and it’s been driving him crazy. As a Navy corpsman and then an ER nurse in a hospital, Frank has always been in the position of caregiver, not cared for. It makes him feel like less of himself to always be asking Sylvia to do things for him. 

“Can I get you anything else?” Sylvia asks as she sets the creamer and a spoon next to Frank’s mug.

Frank wants to scream, Get me out of these casts, but he manages to say, “Thanks.”

“I have the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade on in the living room. I’m going to finish up the stuffing and then stuff the turkey and get that in the oven before starting on everything else. Stacy called and …”

Sylvia continues talking but Frank is lost in thought. He needs to get out of the house. He has things to do. Sitting around watching a stupid parade wasn’t one of them. People have been appearing like worms after a rain to offer help. They’ve stacked his firewood, shoveled his driveway, and brought dishes of food. Sylvia loves all the help and attention, but it makes Frank feel as useless as a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.

***

Small pebbles fly and twigs snap as a young boy wearing a blue baseball cap and blue windbreaker races through the open field on his BMX bike. He twists and turns to avoid patches of snow as he heads straight towards the fence covered in withered brown vines that encloses the community garden. He doesn’t give the one-acre garden a second look as he cuts to the left to find a narrow trail that weaves through the brush between the garden’s fence and the edge of a cliff that drops down to a creek twenty feet below.

Keeping his eyes on the trail, the boy is just past the start of the fence when movement up ahead catches his attention. A coyote is standing next to the fence, head down, tearing at something. While coyotes are common in Pine City, they usually retreat into the surrounding mountains by mid-morning. The boy isn’t afraid because coyotes usually run away at the first sign of people. But this one isn’t running. The boy stops pedaling and lets his bike coast to a stop before putting his feet down.

“Hey,” he shouts, now twelve feet away from the animal.

The coyote looks up but doesn’t take off. It’s holding something in its mouth.

The boy leans over, picks up a rock, and throws it. The rock hits the coyote. The animal lets out a yelp, dropping whatever was in its mouth, and taking off down the trail. The boy puts his feet on the pedals and slowly rides closer. Damp dark dirt is scattered around where the coyote was digging. Something long is protruding from under the fence but then sticks up at a right angle reaching to the sky. Still straddling his bike, the boy leans in for a closer look.

“Gross,” the boy says in an awed whisper, as he pulls out his cell phone.

***

Just another day in paradise, thinks Officer Carmen Mendoza with a smile, as she looks out over the lake from the comfort of her police vehicle. She’s called her mother who lives off the mountain in Redmond as she watches a blue heron at the water’s edge while she finishes up her late breakfast, a foil-wrapped homemade egg and chorizo burrito.

“Carmen. I’m so glad you called. How are you? Is everything okay?” Carmen’s mother says before Carmen can say hello. 

“Hi, Mama. I’m fine,” Carmen can say before her mother continues. 

“I can’t believe you moved to the top of that mountain. It’s practically the wilderness. You haven’t been attacked by a mountain lion or a bear yet, have you?”

“I’ve had a few close calls. A mountain lion is sitting on the hood of my patrol car as we speak,” Carmen says, shaking her head. 

“You’re terrible. I’m your mother. I worry. How are those badge-wearing macho jerks? Still giving you a hard time? You’re a detective and you earned that. They are just jealous.”

Carmen wishes she’d never told her mother about the challenges of being one of two female officers in the department and the only detective. At least down the hill, there had been several female officers, so the crap had been spread thinner. Her mom was right, though. There was a fair bit of jealousy when she first started. But there also hasn’t been much detective work either, so her detective and patrol officer duties have blurred. With nothing happening except the more common crimes, her job has been no different from the other officers, which has gone a long way towards appeasing their bruised male egos.

 “Of course, they’re jealous. I think giving me a hard time is what they live for. But I’m like a M&M, hard candy shell outside, soft and creamy on the inside. I can take it.”

“I know you can, but you shouldn’t have to,” her mother huffs.

Her mother is right again but what can she do. It’s like working in a boys’ locker room with a lot of towel-snapping and wiseass comments, only it smells slightly better, but not much.

Changing the subject Carmen asks about the progress in the kitchen where her mother is attempting to cook her father’s favorite meal for his birthday, enchiladas with salsa verde, instead of the traditional Thanksgiving fare.

“I’ve had to restart a couple of times. I burned the sauce once, but I thought ahead this time and bought twice as much as I thought I’d need, just in case.”

Carmen had inherited her mother’s deep blue eyes and the reddish-brown highlights in her dark brown hair plus her stubborn determination, which had come in handy at the police academy. 

“I wish your father liked my Irish stew. I’m a whiz at that dish.”

A “whiz” was being overly generous, but she’d let her mom slide on that one.

It was true that her father didn’t like her mother’s stew or much of anything else that wasn’t traditional Mexican fare. Growing up on the mean streets of East L.A., his mother’s food was all he ate for the first twenty years of his life, and he hasn’t ventured, culinary-wise, much further afield. Her father had joined the force instead of a street gang and Carmen suspected it was her grandmother’s cooking that had kept her father out of trouble. Her grandmother told her that she had to threaten her father at a young age saying, “You join a gang, I’m not going to feed you.” Carmen was pretty sure her grandmother wouldn’t have followed through, but it didn’t matter because it had worked.

Carmen’s radio crackles. “Hold on, Mama.”

“We have a 10-54 at the Community Garden on Dover Drive. Officers respond.”

Mendoza picks up the mic. “Mendoza with a two-minute ETA to the scene.” Then to her mom, “Hey, Mama, gotta run. Love you.”

“A 10-54? Isn’t that a dead body? I thought you said it was nice up there in the mountains. All sunshine, fresh air, and pine trees. Now you have a dead body?”

“A possible dead body. Don’t worry. It’s probably nothing. Tell Pops happy birthday and I’ll call him tonight. Bye.”

Carmen pulls into traffic and flicks on her flashing lights. 

Winter can be hard on the local fauna, especially if there’s a heavy snow. The snow melts and dead rabbits, an occasional coyote, or even someone’s lost pet is discovered. 

It’s probably nothing, she thinks, but her heart is beating noticeably faster.

***

Six hours later as the sun creeps closer to the horizon, the area around the community garden looks like a scene out of a movie. Yellow police tape cordons off the entire north side of the garden including the ravine, creek, and almost fifty yards into the sagebrush on the other side of the ravine where a small crowd has gathered. Uniformed officers are searching the area around the creek and a blue tarp covers something on the ground next to the fence. Inside the garden up against the fence, a large canopy has been erected with four white canvas walls so no one on the outside of the garden can see what is happening inside. A generator has been brought in and is hooked up to two sets of floodlights to ward off the approaching darkness—one shining out into the garden and one shining inside the canopy making it glow like a Japanese lantern.

Janet Elder, a reporter for the Pine City Gazette, is one of six people gathered in the field across the ravine trying to figure out what’s going on. Janet is familiar with the garden having interviewed the garden steward, Frank Mueller, on several occasions. In the early evening light, Janet can make out all the raised beds, a small grove of fruit trees, and the red garden shed with a green roof. But what she really wants to see is what’s going on inside that tent and what’s under that tarp. 

A tall man in shabby clothing, most likely one of the homeless who lives in the ravine near the creek, joins the group.

“What’s going on?” he asks no one in particular.

“I wish I knew,” says Janet, lifting her camera to her eye and snapping a couple more pictures of two police officers entering the tent, their shadows dancing on the white canvas walls.

“I know,” says a young male voice.

Everyone turns at once to see a young boy straddling a bike.

“What do you mean?” Janet asks, stepping closer to the boy.

“I was like riding my bike, and there was this coyote eating something, and I threw a rock at it, and it took off, and I got closer, and it was a creepy arm coming out from under the fence, and the arm is probably still connected to a body because when I pulled on it, it didn’t come out of the dirt or nothing.”

The boy finally stops and takes a breath.

“So, you are the one who found a body and called the police?” Janet asks, taking out her notepad and pen. 

The boy nods and stands a bit taller.

“What’s your name?”

“Austin. Austin Alexander. Do you want to see a picture?” he asks, pulling his cell phone out of his back pocket.

Austin finds the photo and shows it to the reporter. Janet grabs the phone out of Austin’s hand faster than a snapping turtle scooping up a minnow.

“Hey! That’s mine,” Austin protests.

“Have you shown this to anyone else yet? Posted it on social media?”

Austin shakes his head and stretches out his hand for the return of his phone.

Janet takes Austin by the elbow and leads him away from the crowd. “How would you like to make some money?”

Austin goes from upset to interested. “How much?”

“A lot.”

***

Across the ravine, inside the tent, Carmen listens as her boss, Chief Hammond gives instructions to the assembled team. The two-member forensics team from a neighboring city has been collecting evidence and taking pictures. That team is now ready for the next step, exhuming the body. The coroner from down the hill is due at any moment.

The pile of plant material has been moved to the side exposing bare earth. The arm that extends outside and perpendicular to the fence most likely means the body is lying parallel and up against the fence. 

“Let’s get the body out of the ground,” Hammond says before turning to Carmen. “Detective. Looks like you have a case.”

Photojournalist, freelance writer and author of nonfiction and fiction books, Christie Walker Bos lives high in the San Bernardino Mountains in Big Bear in a home her husband and she designed to be environmentally friendly. Along with husband Robbie, Bernadoodle Rae, a troop of girlfriends, close family, including seven grandchildren, and wonderful friends, Christie is enjoying life at 7,000 feet.

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