by James Bates
English breakfast tea
The two old friends, Becky Johnson and Maggie Jones, were among last ones to stop by Wilbur Smith's estate sale. Dead now for two weeks everyone in the small town of Long Lake had wondered what was to become of the house, or Crazy Old Wilbur's place, as the small stucco home on Lakeview Avenue was referred to.
Wilbur's wife had died twenty years earlier and she'd been sixty-five. Wilbur, everyone guessed, had been around the same age as she was back then, putting him at eighty-five or so now, this year of his own demise. Anyway, he'd been retired when Edith Smith had passed, that was for certain. What he'd been doing in 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 Wilbur's place that bright spring afternoon. The day of the estate sale. The day when everything the old man owned was on display for all to see.
"No children, I guess," Becky said to Maggie, pawing through a table full of old men's and women's clothes.
"I heard that they had kids, but they were all dead," Maggie said, picking up and quickly discarding an old bra of Edith's. "Jesus, this thing has to be fifty years old. Didn't that crazy old coot ever get rid of anything?" She took out a handkerchief and diligently wiped off her hands.
Becky 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 one's lifetime: kitchen ware, old lamps, furniture, magazines, newspapers, etcetera, etcetera. And then there were the tools; boxes and boxes of tools, mostly gardening related. Wilbur had been a gardener, that was for sure, 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, not today, thank you very much. They didn't need any of Crazy Old Wilbur's junk. Not one little bit. 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.
"Lets," 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 and checked her watch, "It's nearly five. They'll be closing soon, anyway."
The two old friends made their way through Wilbur'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 boarder to boarder and meticulously cared for. Right up until his passing, Wilbur 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 on Lakeview Avenue over fifty years earlier, back in the mid sixties. Even though Wilbur and Edith were reticent by nature, 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 that 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 Wilbur continued to nurture and maintain even after Edith's passing, the old man carrying on their floral tradition in spite of the death of his wife.
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. I'm assuming the gardens with go, too. I guess it's supposed make everything easier."
"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 look out of place."
"The price of progress, I guess," Maggie said, "Time marches on."
"Phooey," Becky spit out derisively, "Maybe it marches on, but that doesn't mean that it has to go in the wrong direction."
Just then Jacob Fry, 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 Wilbur's house and garden."
The two friends both made it a point of waving Jacobs cigarette smoke away. Becky said, "Yes, it'll be sad to lose these lovely gardens. They're so pretty."
Jacob looked at her with interest, "Who said anything about losing the gardens?"
"Well, that's the rumor, isn't it?" Maggie said.
Jacob laughed, "It might be the rumor, but it's a rumor that's wrong. Wilbur 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 secret, right?" The two old friends nodded and Jacob 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. "Wilbur left his land to the city for green space."
"What?" Maggie and Becky managed to sputter at the same time. They were both incredulous. "Green space? Crazy Old Wilbur? What the...?"
Jacob held up a hand to interrupt the two friends and their sputtering, "Yeah. Although he didn't call it green space. He said, 'I want the city to have it. I want people to enjoy the gardens just like Edith and I have. 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," Jacob 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 color. Becky and Maggie joined him, all three quietly enjoying the peace and serenity of Wilbur and Edith's gardens. They even saw an early arriving bluebird.
When Jacob was with finished with 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 Jacob's habit. He stood up, looked at the kindly old ladies and said, "He did a good thing, Crazy Old Wilbur 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 color 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 Long Lake Gardens and Green Space. Nobody figured the old couple would mind the name at all. Not on little bit. Not as long as the flowers Wilbur and Edith had planted continued to bloom.
Besides, that's the way the old couple wanted it.
The last words Edith, or Edie, as Wilbur 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, Will. 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. Will, as Edie had affectionately called him all those years, held his dear wife close for one last time. For many minutes, actually. When he finally stood he looked around the room and wondered how he was 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 more empty 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, Will 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 ago. He went ahead and contacted the Long Lake City Counsel and told them of his plan. After a few weeks of back and forth meetings, Wilber'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.
Maggie and Becky and their friends and neighbors walk past Wilbur and Edith's gardens every day. It's mid July, the little stucco house is long gone and the spring flowers have long ago faded Now it is glorious summer 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 or not that statement is true or not, it doesn't matter, because for Crazy Old Wilbur'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 Wilbur has been gone from the world for three months, his and Edith's gardens flourish. The city has provided jobs for kids from the local grade school and middle school and high school, just like Wilbur had requested. Being young, some of the kids (but not many) need proper supervision, and Jacob Fry 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 school aged children are giving them. Everyone agrees, they've never looked better.
Do Wilbur 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 Long Lake Gardens and Green Space every day to sit and relax on one of the teak wood benches scattered 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 Wilbur and Edith are watching over the new green space, and they really don't care. What the two friend do know, however, is this: really, when it came right down to it, maybe Crazy Old Wilbur really wasn't so crazy after all.