The Zucchini Bandits, 2018 Judge’s Choice
By Khaliela Wright
Delfred Long stood in the gravel driveway of his 1950’s rancher, glaring at his granddaughter. A heart attack had forced him into early retirement. Now, he was supposed to take it easy while recovering. So here he was, in the height of the growing season, in poor health, out of work, and stuck babysitting Ronnie.
At seven, Ronnie was gangly and awkward. Beneath short hair and cut-off jeans she was petulantly dragging her toe through the grit in the driveway. “So, what’re we gunna do today?”
“Hell if I know,” Del said, patting his pocket, searching for an absent pack of Marlboros. Shit, can’t even have a smoke, he thought. “What do you like to do?”
“I used Dad’s hammer to build a fort,” Ronnie announced.
“Well, if you can swing a hammer, you can work a hoe,” Del said. “We’ll get started in the garden.”
Ronnie rolled her eyes.
Del was a Master Gardener, but two weeks in the hospital had reduced his pride and joy to a tangle that more closely resembled a jungle than a vegetable patch. He taught Ronnie the difference between carrots, onions, and weeds, handed her a hoe, and set her to work. Working the row beside her, he carefully avoided pulling the snow peas away from the fence. By the time he reached the row’s end, he was exhausted.
Straightening up, Del dug in his pocket for a handkerchief and wiped sweat from his balding head. “I reckon that’s enough for now. We’ll do another row after lunch.”
Ronnie pointed at a massive-leaved tangle of vines before her. Trumpeting yellow blossoms and sleek dark green masses protruded at all angles. “Those are some damn big zucchinis, Gramps.”
“Watch yer mouth girl,” Del snapped. “They were ripe for pickin’ just before my ticker gave out. No one’s let me near the garden since. Run inside and fetch me a knife. We’ll pick ‘em now.”
Del was drinking from the hose when Ronnie reemerged. She took a drink, then he showed her how to cut zucchini off the vine. “Once you get all these cut off, put ‘em in the garage.”
Leaving her to the task, Del ambled over to the garden shed, searching for a rusty old coffee can. He removed the lid and rifled through partially used seed packets until he found the pack of Marlboros. There were only four cigarettes left. He’d buy more and keep them hidden out here since no one found these.
Del slipped the pack into his pocket, lit a cigarette, and took a long drag. He sat in one of the lawn chairs under the apple tree smoking, and watched Ronnie trudge across the lawn packing zucchini as if they were spoils of war.
Once the zucchini were in the garage, Ronnie flopped down in the chair beside him. “You’re not supposed to be smokin’.”
“Yer not supposed to be sassin’,” Del snapped.
“Mom says I’m supposed call 911 if you collapse or somethin’. She says cigarettes is what caused your heart attack,” Ronnie said. “I’m supposed to baby-sit you instead of having fun this summer.”
“Well, ain’t that a laugh,” Del replied. “Looks like we both got the short end of the stick.”
As they sat in the shade, a baby blue sedan pulled into the drive. “Oh shit!” Del exclaimed, as he crushed out the cigarette. It was Louise Murphy, the biggest busybody in the congregation. “Don’t you tell her I was smokin’.”
Ronnie gave him a steely gaze. “Then I get ice cream.”
He wasn’t about to be blackmailed by a seven-year-old. “Now, Ronnie—“ Her eyes were cold and piercing. Christ, Ronnie’d probably tell Beth, then he’d never hear the end of it. “Fine, you can have ice cream. But, you can’t tell and no sassin’. Agreed?”
“Agreed,” Ronnie said, and shook his hand.
Together they headed for the house to face the enemy.
Louise Murphy had brought reinforcements with her, two other old birds from his daughter’s bible study. They wore their hair like helmets and were garbed in ridiculous floral frocks.
Del opened the door and greeted them. “Louise, what a surprise. What’re you ladies doing out here?”
Louise and her entourage pushed past him, sniffing the air for traces of nicotine. Just like a damned pack of blood hounds, Del thought.
“Beth wanted us to stop by and see how you were getting on.” Louise said. “We’ve brought fried chicken and potato salad so you won’t have to fix lunch.”
“That’s very kind, but Ronnie and I can manage on our own,” Del replied as he accepted the dishes. “We were just working in the garden. I’ve got a whole mess of zucchini. Each of you ladies should take one. Hell, take two. You can make zucchini bread for the bible study next week.”
“Oh, no,” Louise said, waiving her hands in a dismissive gesture. “I couldn’t possibly take your zucchini. I’m sure you’ll want it for fried zucchini, zucchini scrambled eggs, zucchini lasagna—surely, you’ll put it to good use.”
“Nonsense,” Del said. He wasn’t about to let this old bird get away without taking a zucchini. “House rules: one complimentary zucchini with every visit. It’d be un-neighborly of me to send you home empty handed.”
“Oh, look at the time,” Louise said, glancing at an imaginary watch. “We really must be going.” Then she herded her entourage out the door, sans zucchini.
Watching from the picture window as Louise drove away, Ronnie asked, “Doesn’t she like zucchini?”
“Kiddo, no one likes zucchini,” Del replied.
“Then why plant it?” Ronnie asked.
“Habit,” Del said.
Ronnie turned from the window and looked up at him. “What’ll we do now?”
“It’s too damn hot to be working in the garden,” Del said. “Let’s go fishing.”
Del loaded his fishing gear into the truck. Then he packed the fried chicken and potato salad in the cooler with a six-pack of soda. When they reached the slough, Del saw Swede Olson’s truck parked in the turnout and pulled in alongside it. Del grabbed the cooler and the poles. Ronnie followed him loaded down with the bucket, tackle box, and lawn chairs. Spotting Swede, Del strode down the bank to join him.
As they were setting up their lawn chairs, Swede said, “I see retirement’s treating you well enough. You’ve got time for fishing. Too bad you’re stuck with the girl; it’s a shame you ain’t got any grandsons.”
Ronnie shot Swede a spiteful glance.
Del settled into his chair and baited his hook. “I’m here to avoid being ministered to by the ladies of the women’s bible study, Louise Murphy in particular.” Del placed the worms atop the cooler and reached for a cigarette while Ronnie baited her hook, casting dirty looks at Swede all the while.
Swede laughed. “Good ol’ Louise Murphy. If there’s any gossip in town, she’ll hear it first, and repeat all of it. Typical woman, brays like a mule and is half as useful.”
Ronnie glared at Swede, seemingly disgusted with the conversation. Oh well. She went farther down the bank to fish by herself while he and Swede set to jawin’. She returned with a fat perch and deposited it in the bucket. “I’m hungry.”
Del handed her a soda, a drumstick, the bowl of potato salad, and the bag of chips. Ronnie set everything on the cooler as soon as Del shut the lid.
“How am I supposed to eat potato salad without a spoon?” she asked.
“That’s what the chips are for,” Del said. “Use a chip, then there’s no dishes to wash.”
Ronnie’s meal was interrupted by a tug at her pole, and she caught another perch. Del added two fish to the bucket as well. Sensing that Ronnie liked Swede about as much as he liked Louise Murphy, Del decided to call it quits as soon as Ronnie finished eating.
When they were back in the truck, Ronnie said, “I think Swede deserves a zucchini.”
“Why’s that?” Del asked.
“Because, apparently, you give zucchini to people you don’t like,” Ronnie said. “I think he deserves a great big one. We should dump one on his porch while he’s fishin’.”
Del smiled. “Ya know, I think yer right.” He turned the key in the ignition and the truck rumbled to life. Flicking ashes out the window as he drove, Del couldn’t help but think Ronnie was brilliant.
When they got home, Del rifled through a stack of papers on the hi-fi until he found what he was looking for. Then he flipped to the necessary pages, quickly making his mark, and headed for the backyard. He met Ronnie armed with information.
Holding the papers out to her, Del asked, “Do you know what this is?”
Ronnie squinted at the papers in the sun. “It’s the church directory an’ the weekly bulletin.”
“It’s our plan of action,” Del said. “The bulletin gives the dates and times of all the church doings. The directory lists the addresses of every member of the congregation. There’s a rummage sale committee meeting this afternoon. Louise Murphy will be there and her doorstep unguarded. I circled the addresses of the other busy bodies, too. Let’s load up.”
Ronnie smiled. She picked out a behemoth of a zucchini for Swede. Del laid the monster on the seat between them and headed off to make deliveries.
When they reached Maple Street, Del cruised by Swede’s place real slow. “Good, his ol’ lady ain’t home.”
At the end of the street he turned around and headed back. Del let the truck idle while Ronnie slid out of the passenger door and dumped the zucchini on the porch. As he drove away, Del hoped they hadn’t been seen.
Louise Murphy’s house was Pepto-Bismol pink. A long-haired tabby sat in the window flicking its tail. A persnickety-looking Siamese was sunning itself on the steps.
Del pulled up in front and looked at Ronnie. “You know what to do?”
Ronnie nodded and jumped out. Del handed her two big zucchini and she raced for the door, causing the cat to jump and hiss. Ronnie haphazardly deposited her burden, turned and ran back. As soon as she slammed the door, Del sped away, chortling as he went.
Two blocks down, Del turned onto another street, pulled over, and caught his breath. “Damn, that was fun. Now we’ve got two more houses to do, just like we done this one.”
On the way home, Del pulled into the gas station, bought a pack of cigarettes, and an ice-cream sandwich for Ronnie. It had been a good day.
Back at home, Ronnie slid out of the passenger door and kicked a rock. “It’s too bad we can’t watch ‘em find the zucchini.”
Del opened the front door. “We’ll know when they find ‘em, though. I’ve got surprise for you.”
He listened to the buzz of static, and then he heard the crackle of a voice. “You hear that?”
“Yeah,” said Ronnie. “Did you leave the radio on?”
“Sort of,” Del replied and walked across the living room to show Ronnie where the noise was coming from. “That’s a scanner. It’ll tell us everything the police do all day.” They listened as an officer relayed information on a person he’d pulled over for speeding.
“Cool,” said Ronnie.
“Louise Murphy’s the type to make a fuss, and when she does, we’ll know,” Del said. “Come on, kid. We’ve got fish to gut.”
Del hid his cigarettes, and then he and Ronnie started gutting fish in the kitchen. They had finished the fish and were settling down to snack on some kohlrabi when the dispatcher’s voice crackled with the news they’d been waiting for.
“I need an officer to 312 Chestnut Street. Caller says her house was vandalized.”
“Roger that, in route.”
Anticipation crackled along with the static on the channel.
“I’m at the location and don’t see any damage. Leaving the patrol car to talk with our respondent.”
Del and Ronnie leaned forward, eagerly awaiting the outcome.
“No vandalization to property. I advised respondent not to call the police unless there’s been a crime.”
“Was this a prank?”
“No prank. Respondent claims someone left zucchini on her steps. I advised her that delivering fresh produce isn’t a crime.”
“She called dispatch because someone left her a zucchini?”
“Roger that. I’m going back on patrol.”
Del roared with laughter. Ronnie fell to the floor, clutching her sides, consumed with fits of giggles. “Can we do it again tomorrow?”
“Nope,” Del said. “There aren’t any church doings tomorrow. We’ll hoe another row in the morning. Then we can go fishing.”
* * *
Just as they were sitting down to supper, Louise Murphy’s car pulled into the drive.
Del answered the door and greeted Louise with false enthusiasm. “Come on in. The fried chicken and potato salad were wonderful. Ronnie and I shared them with Swede Olson while we were fishing down at the slough. I put the leftovers in Tupperware. Come in to the kitchen so I can give yer dishes back.”
Louise ignored him and looked out the kitchen window. “I came to see your garden. Do you still have zucchini?”
“Overflowing with zucchini,” Del announced. “You ready to take me up on my offer: one complimentary zucchini with every visit?”
“Oh, heavens no,” said Louise. “It’s just that I’ve heard some very disturbing things.” Louise let herself out the backdoor and headed for the garden.
“What kind of things?” Del asked.
“Someone vandal is dumping zucchini on the front steps of honest, hard working folk,” Louise replied. “Mrs. Olson says someone dropped a twenty-pounder on her porch and others have been vandalized, too. It’s a plague on our poor village. Imagine the humiliation of coming home and seeing a zucchini on your steps? When the police asked if I knew of anyone with an excess of zucchini, why, I could only think of you. Naturally, they’re interested in apprehending the culprit.”
Louise slipped through the garden gate, heading toward the zucchini.
“Ha, I knew it!” Louise shouted. “There isn’t a single zucchini on those plants. You’re the vandal!”
“Ronnie and I picked those zucchini this morning,” Del said. “They’re in the garage where it’s cooler. I was fishing with Swede today, so he can vouch for me. There wasn’t time to go ‘round making home deliveries and the police aren’t tracking someone down over some damn zucchini.”
“Well, I never . . .” Louise huffed. She stormed out of the garden and slammed the gate. “I’m leaving and you aren’t deserving of my cooking.”
“Don’t forget to take a zucchini with you,” Del called after her.
Del returned to the table grinning from ear to ear.
“So?” Ronnie asked.
“Someone’s been delivering zucchini.” Del laughed so hard he had to wipe his eyes, and then he winked at Ronnie. “I have a sneaking suspicion that this town will be plagued with zucchini bandits all summer.”