the short story project


Shawn Doyal-Simmons


Frank was the first person Jean met when she moved into her house in Des Moines. She pulled her car into the driveway and as she opened the door, Frank pulled up next to her with his lawn mower, practically grazing her sandaled, brightly painted toes. It was an abrupt introduction. He said hello and then, “I hear you’re from Massachusetts.”

“Yes,” she said, “We are, but my husband is from Illinois, so we’re really moving back home.”

Frank didn’t like her response. He learned from the realtor that his new neighbors were from the East Coast, and he liked the idea that the new folks had come from a distant, almost exotic place.      

Jean’s husband Paul pulled up to the house later that evening when he got off work. They began to unpack immediately. While unpacking, they heard a knock. It was Frank and another neighbor named Dick who Frank introduced.   

“Dick lives in the gray house on the corner,” said Frank. “He moved into the neighborhood two years after Dottie and I moved in.”   

“You chose a great place,” Dick said. “The only drawback as I remember is your steep staircase. It used to scare me every time I’d go up.”   

Jean swallowed hard when she realized what he’d said. What else might he know about her house. Before she had time to find out, the two neighbors turned and said goodnight. 

Jean considered herself a somewhat private person. She didn’t even let her husband fold her laundry. And she didn’t even talk to her mother about her medical history and occasional doctor’s appointments. She had decided long ago that most things weren’t worth talking about. How she came to this decision she couldn’t explain. Jean was just simply private.

Jean met Dottie, Frank’s wife, her second day in the new house. Dottie was about 65 and had vivid red hair and a large space between her front teeth. She spent much of her time in her garden, a mature English country garden. She could often be seen in her light blue sweat suit picking weeds and deadheading the phlox and purple cone flowers. When Jean met Dottie she told her that Paul and she had bought their house because of her lovely garden.

Jean and Paul liked Beaverdale’s older established neighborhoods and small Tudor homes. The streets were curved and the trees mature. The homes had charm but needed work; those who moved to the neighborhood often planned to remodel. Jean thought the 1929 Tudor they bought reminded her of an old tattered tuxedo. It had style, but its appearance was a bit frumpy: when she looked at it, she saw a torn hem, missing buttons, stretched legs, and pockets full of holes.

Small young families and elderly folks lived in Beaverdale. Frank and Dottie had moved to the neighborhood 40 years earlier. The Rileys, across the street from Jean and Paul’s, had arrived 42 years ago. The Rodts, who lived behind their new place, both grew up in the neighborhood and remained when they married. These couples gave the neighborhood a source of stability. Changes occurred here but many things remained the same year in and year out. 

Jean and Paul saw changes they wanted to make soon after they purchased their home. They planned to replace the roof, rehang the windows, build new front steps, repair the sagging dining room ceiling, and remove the old crab apple tree in the front yard. Jean planned a number of changes to the back yard as well.    

One morning Jean set out to remove four hostas, hardy perennial plants with great foliage. Dottie was out in her yard at the time and could see what Jean was doing. Dottie moved slowly and casually over to Jean. It was almost as though she were walking on her tippy toes and holding her chest up high. She told Jean that each of the hostas cost $4.00 and mentioned that they were about 6 years old. Jean found it hard to remove the plants when she received this information. She changed her mind and decided to divide the hostas and replant them instead.

Before Dottie went back to her yard, she asked Jean if she would like a coral bell plant since she had a few to spare. Jean said yes and Dottie brought a cutting over. Dottie mentioned that the plant had originally come from Jean’s yard and was given to her by a lady who lived there and was an avid gardener. The plant was coming back to its original home.

One day Jean decided to put in a new perennial bed next to the drive way. Dottie was very interested in all the industry that went into preparing the soil and planting.

“You work like a farmer, turning the soil like you do,” Dottie said.

Dottie brought several neighbors into her back yard so that they could see the project as it was taking place. Dottie truly was the queen bee of the neighborhood. She was a true social light. She interacted with most of the neighbors and seemed to have a way with people. 

Dottie didn’t know what to make of Jean. Jean was a bit of a book worm she thought. Dottie described Jean as “a gal who has straight teeth and a college education.”  Dottie thought it must be difficult for Jean to live so far from her family in Virginia. Virginia was a long way from Iowa. Dottie thought Jean needed guidance and she saw herself as just the person to give it. Dottie never had a daughter and she felt drawn to Jean. 

Paul liked Dottie from the start. She was a saucy gal he thought. He told Jean, “She’s got moxie.” Paul could relate to her wry, humorous tone. When Paul began his first major house project, removing the front stoop and replacing it, Dottie came over to see what was going on. She always had something to say. When she saw Paul swing the sledge hammer, she told him he looked like Paul Bunyan.

Paul was a muscular guy. He walked fast and his movements were quick but a bit crude. He wore overalls and a bandana while working. Frank wasn’t sure about Paul’s style of working. His quick, efficient movements reminded him of his own slow pace. Frank told Jean one morning, “Paul sure walks fast. He doesn’t slow down for anything.” Jean put this comment in the “Frank-complains” category. She was used to his comments because he seemed to have a lot of them.

One evening Jean took her son out to play in the yard. Dottie was out and came over to see young Tyler. Dottie noticed some plants in pots near the doorway.   

“You better get those plants in before it rains,” Dottie said. 

“Yes, I plan to do it soon,” Jean replied. Jean began to see Dottie and Frank as having a much better sense of timing than she had. Dottie would transplant her plants on cool days whereas Jean often did it on hot days. Dottie deadheaded plants in the late summer and fall, whereas Jean did it whenever a plant looked like it was dying back. Dottie made dinner at 5:30 whereas Jean often didn’t have it ready until 6:30. 

Jean confided in Dottie on a lot of different matters. She told her how challenging it was to grocery ship with Tyler. Dottie replied, “Well, in my day we only shopped once a week.” Dottie hinted to Jean several times that she sure did a lot of running around. It was true. Dottie saw it like it was. At times Jean felt bombarded with comments from Dottie and Frank who seemed to always be there. But she held these thoughts in check with the belief that the two neighbors had an obligation to speak out. Not to would be wrong. After all, Dottie and Frank had a lot of life experience and Jean and Paul lived a long ways from Jean’s family. 

Jean and Paul were like so many in their generation. They were a young professional couple who had been transplanted for job related reasons. Paul had a job as a plant molecular biologist at a local seed company in Iowa. He loved the work but was reminded often of what a sacrifice it was for Jean to live so far from her family.  

Dottie became a grandmother figure to Tyler. This was one of many relationships that she had to the residents who lived in Jean and Paul’s house over the years. Frank and Dottie had a long association with the house.  There was something about that house Dottie said to herself often. In 40 years Frank and Dottie had many close friends in that house. They were still in touch with several of its past occupants. They played cards with the Youngs still, 20 years after they had moved. They still had an occasional visit from the Roth’s who moved away when John Roth took a new job. Frank and Dottie had many memories associated with the house.

The next project that Paul took on was the painting of the house trim. He chose a dark green paint that would set off the bricks nicely. He came home from work, ate, and went to work on the house every night for a couple of weeks. Dottie noticed that he was consumed by the job and she noticed that Jean hadn’t been out much. When she finally did see Jean, Dottie tried to encourage her to be there with Paul by the latter. “I would stand there near Frank when he was working and bring him water.” This was too much thought Jean.

One day when Dotie saw Jean out encouraging Paul with his work she asked Jean if she would like to have an astilbe for her garden.    

“Yes, I’ll put it in my new perennial shade garden,” said Jean. Jean had received many plants from Dottie since she moved in and they helped her fill out her garden.  

Once the house was painted, Paul and Jean decided to remove the crab apple tree in the front yard. The tree was messy and it covered the most desirable view of the house. It didn’t add anything to the house or yard. They began the job by removing the largest limb with a chainsaw; it took longer than they expected, but the first limb finally fell to the ground.

While the couple was working, Dottie sauntered over and gazed up at the tree. She looked at Paul smartly as if she had something important to say: “About 25 years ago, when the Giles lived here,” she said, “they received this tree from the highway 235 building project. It was removed from the land used to build the freeway.” With that, she gazed up at the tree, smiled, and then turned back toward her house and walked away. 

Paul came down from the tree and looked up at the bare spot where the limb had been removed. He decided to take a break and resume after lunch. During lunch, he reflected on Dottie’s words. He thought to himself about the tree’s history and the idea that he had a neighbor who remembered that history.

After lunch, Paul and Jean resumed their work on the tree. Paul climbed up the latter and used the chainsaw to cut another limb down. At this point he decided to climb down and handed Jean the tree trimmer to finish the job. As she picked up the tool, Jim and Nancy Staples, who lived across the street, made their way over and asked if they were giving the tree a trim. “No,” Jean said, “We’re giving it more than a trim. We’re cutting it down.”

The couple was visibly uncomfortable with his words. Nancy said the tree was her favorite tree on the street and that it was pretty during the spring when it was full of white blossoms. The Staples then crossed the street to go home.  

Paul and Jean continued to cut branches off the tree. The job proved more difficult than they expected and they took several breaks. They both crossed the street at one point and gazed at the tree. For a moment, they thought, the tree appeared attractive in front of their brick house.   

That evening Jean sat out on a bench in the front yard and watched Paul as he resumed the job of tree removal. Paul used the chain saw again and removed two major limbs. Jean could see Jim across the street sitting on his porch. Jim rose and stood in his yard looking up at Paul in the tree. As Paul worked on another limb, he heard Jim say, “Ouch, Ouch,” several times as if to communicate the tree’s pain. Jean laughed at what she saw as light interference.  

Jean knew neighborly attempts at influence when she saw it. She knew from Paul’s comments that the neighbors did not want to see the tree go. Ever since Paul started the project he had reminders of the tree’s value. Jean was impressed by the way Paul withstood their influence. He seemed impervious to the comments. What they said and what action he took were two different things.   

Paul used the chainsaw again to remove another limb. While he was cutting, the Nelsons, neighbors who had been out walking, stopped by to say something to him. They told him that the power company would sure appreciate him for his work. They assumed that he was just giving the tree a trim. The couple then moved toward home. Paul came down from the tree, put the tools ways, and went into the house.   

The next day Paul began to apply a black tree sealer to the place where the limbs had been removed. He then left the tree for a while and started on another project. Later,  Jim came across the street when he spotted Jean and asked her if Paul was cutting the tree down.   

“Yes,” he is,” said Jean.    

“Well,” he said, “I noticed he applied some sealer to the tree.”   

Jim was correct. Paul had applied the sealer to the tree. He had attempted to save the branches in case he changed his mind and wanted to save the tree.   

Paul was determined to remove the tree, and so Jean believed he would complete the work of cutting it down soon. However, a few days passed and he did not get back to the job. In fact, he sealed up two other tree limbs.   

In time, Paul decided to save the tree. It really wasn’t such an eyesore. And Nancy was right; its blossoms were quite pretty in the spring. The tree looked like it was severely pruned however. In fact, Paul wondered if it would make it. It looked like a vase with two major branches pointing upward and only a few side branches.  

The tree filled out with many new branches its first year. Most significantly, Paul built a tree house in it with steps and a platform. It became a magnet for the neighborhood kids. One day Jean counted seven boys playing on the tree, some swinging and others up on the tree house.   

Dottie asked Paul one day, “Aren’t you glad you saved the tree?”  

“Yes,” he responded.   

As Jean watched Tyler and his friends playing on the treehouse one day, she reflected on all the changes she and Paul had made to their place. They had made many changes soon after they arrived. And they had come up against resistance while making some of the changes. As she watched Tyler swing across the yard she reflected on what a good thing that resistance was. Tyler had gotten a lot of enjoyment out of his tree house and the neighbors seemed to enjoy the sight of boys playing on the tree.




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