the short story project


Shawn Doyal-Simmons

The Exchange

“Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent. If we could fly out of that window hand in hand, hover over this great city…and peep in at the…things which are going on, the strange coincidences, the planings, the cross-purposes, the wonderful chain of events, working through generations, and leading to the most outré results, it would make all fiction, with its conventionalities and foreseen nconclusions, most stale and unprofitable.” -A. Conan Doyle


About a week after we moved into our new home on Allen Street I heard a light knocking on my front door. It was our next door neighbor Margaret. She wore a bright pink scarf on her head and a lavender jacket and was carrying a small object. I opened the door and greeted her and as she comfortably stepped over the threshold, she handed me what appeared to be a small cake. It was coffee cake and it was in a petite box. “I had planned to have you folks over with neighbors,” she said, “but I changed my mind.” “Oh,” I said in reply. “How kind of you to bring the cake.” “I’ll be sure to return the box.” “Yes, do,” she replied.

It was later in the afternoon that I spotted my neighbor Regina in her garden and hollered to invite her over for a cup of tea and a piece of the coffee cake.  As I served the cake, I noticed imagery on the bottom of the metal box. At first, it appeared as a carefully cutout piece of wallpaper. Then, a brilliantly colored napkin. I lifted the cake out and concluded it was something altogether different: a small section of a beautiful oil painting.

The small box was one of many objects that she, but usually he, that is her husband, would deliver during our years on Allen Street. Invariably, they came through the back door when my husband was at work.  Nearly all contained a fragment of a beautiful oil painting. As you might guess, I saved them and began working to piece them together early on.

In time an image began to form and I knew I would have to ask her about the fragments. But I realized that perhaps more important than what I might eventually learn about her, was what she had begun to realize about me. She seemed to understand that it was her role to bring me, the writer, the plots and characters, in the form of small boxed objects, so that I might learn to see and carefully listen to the lives around me. She seemed to understand that stories are rarely the invention of the writer’s imagination, that writers do not invent an endless supply of incidents and episodes. And over time, she enabled me to see that once people realize you are a writer, they bring the plots and characters to you.

It was on Mother’s Day our first year on Allen Street that my neighbor Margaret payed me a visit that was as impressionable as any. This time, I heard a light tapping on my front door. There she was. When I arrived at the door and greeted her, she motioned me to her house and took me up to her sewing room. There stood her young grandson holding a small sachet that she had sewed as a gift for his mother.  She handed me a second one.

Like most of the objects that found their way into my hands from Margaret, this one was as diminutive as any.  Its petite nature suggested the humility that characterized her life, or at least the one that was most visible. The sachet contained two items: a perfumed cloth and a small fragment of an oil painted canvas. The sachet held in it the semblance of family; it was a gift she made to be delivered by her youngest grandsons to his mother to celebrate Mother’s Day.

Margaret and her husband Elden lived next door, so we became familiar with the pattern of their lives soon after our arrival. They were a very ordered couple; that is, on the surface. They would rise early, lights on. Eldon going outside, tending to his yard. In Spring he worked the soil of his vegetable garden, a plot on a slight hill in the back. When he finished tending the garden, mowing the lawn or trimming shrubs began. She could be seen in her yellow bathrobe through the kitchen window preparing breakfast and doing dishes. By midmorning, she exited the house and entered their car. She would reappear with groceries in hand less than an hour later and reenter the house.

I believe they rested or read in the afternoon, because I saw less coming and going at that time. Often, however, Eldon could be seen puttering around the yard during the dinner hour, perhaps to work up an appetite. Then, just like clockwork, she appeared at the kitchen window performing her duty and preparing to put a meal on the table. He would reenter the house and one would presume they would sit down for their meal.  On Friday and Saturday evenings and occasionally a weeknight the two would step into their car and back out of their driveway. One would presume it was for a meal.

On Sundays the two attended the Methodist church in our neighborhood. He wore a suit and she a dress with a jacket. They would exit the house and enter their car early in the morning, again like clockwork. So as not to forget to mention, they kept up the appearance of civility by dressing up each month on the second Friday to join their ballroom dance group, he in a tuxedo and she a pretty dress. He once stated he did it for her. It surely wasn’t his idea.

In the afternoon Eldon made frequent deliveries of items to our home, almost always through our backdoor. The first item that Eldon brought me in this fashion was a small bag of turnips. He handed me the specimens and stated, “We don’t like them…Would you like them?” “Sure.”  I then took them inside and brought them out of the bag to wash them. They were different sizes with different root lengths: the largest one with long thick roots, the medium size one with smaller roots, and the two smaller ones with insignificant roots, and of the two, the smallest one was quite dirty.

Under the turnips at the bottom of the bag, wrapped in plastic, lay a fragment of an oil painting. I carefully lifted it out and pealed the plastic off, then set the fragment in the box where I was storing the others. I tried to make sense of the turnip delivery. I imagined the root vegetables as my family and that my family had become a project.  Margaret and Eldon had their own children, but it seemed to me that it would be easier to work on someone else’s offspring. We were the perfect project.

I imagined that the large turnip with the deep roots stood for my husband who grew up in the Midwest, the medium turnip with small roots embodied me, from another place, and the smaller ones with small roots, my sons. The smallest one, extremely dirty, represented my youngest child who played very hard; in fact, so hard that I had grown to realize only occasional baths made sense.

The next item that arrived at my back door came while I was in my kitchen. I heard a knock and before I reached Eldon standing there, I could see him holding a small object. I opened the door and greeted him and he handed me the object while stating, “We thought you might like to try our salsa.” I reached out to take it from him and thanked him. Then I went back into the kitchen to take the salsa out of the box. I discovered the box was made out of a cereal box. The box contained the words, “Back to Nature.”

I read the small print on the box. It said, “It began very simply. In 1960, in the back of a small health food store in Pasadena, we created something people really like: a delicious, naturally low-fat granola. Soon, it was our most popular item, and health food stores across California were asking for it. Our business grew, but our mission never changed: Give people truly flavorful, wholesome foods made with simple ingredients.”

On the bottom of the box, I found another oil painting fragment. I took the fragment out and added it to the others in my collection. I decided I had enough fragments now to begin piecing them. I laid them on a table and moved them around. Each piece contained beautiful color. What emerged was a beautiful garden carefully landscaped. Stone work made its way through one side of the painting and a bench sat on the other. There was a wrought iron table and chairs in the center.

I planned to ask Margaret about the painting. But before I had the chance, she asked me while I was weeding my herb garden if she could have some of my basil. Eldon later came back with a sample of a dish his wife had made with the basil. He handed me a small porcelain dish through the backdoor. I brought it into my kitchen and saw it contained yellow squash, red peppers and basil. It was meant to be eaten while warm, so I did indeed. It was quite good. On the bottom of the container was yet another fragment of the oil painting wrapped in a protective coating. I took it out and added it to my collection.

My herb garden was situated near my kitchen so that I could easily gather what I needed while cooking. It became clear to me over time why Margaret was visibly uncomfortable with the herb garden. For one, it represented a style of cooking that was foreign to her: cooking with lots of fresh vegetables spiced with fresh herbs.

Finally I asked Margaret to join me for a cup of coffee to ask her about the oil painting. I didn’t waste any time. I brought the fragments out and placed them on my dining room table.  A smile spread across her face. I told her it was a beautiful painting. Then she said there were many more and she hoped I would have the chance to see them.

Margaret then began to tell me the story behind the fragments. When she was just thirty years old and the youngest of her children entered school, she began to volunteer at a local art gallery.  It wasn’t long that she began to meet the artists whose works were in the gallery. One day, she told me, the well-known painter Constance Leon visited the gallery and after taking care of some business asked her and another volunteer if they would be interested in taking painting lessons. Delighted at the prospect, both ladies asked what Constance would charge. Margaret explained that he didn’t answer immediately. Then, after a slight hesitation, he told them he would like them to be his subjects. He explained that he had not seriously painted the human figure since studying at the Chicago Institute of Art. When both women balked at the thought of such an arrangement, he qualified his statement by explaining they would be fully covered at all times.

Margaret went on to explain that both she and the other lady continued to volunteer at the art gallery and twice each month would drive to the artist’s studio for a painting lesson. After many lessons, Constance would paint them. Both ladies agreed that he brought the best out in them with his work.

I had many questions for Margaret. Perhaps the most important being, “Did you tell Eldon about this arrangement?”

“Oh of course I did,” she said. “Eventually,” she added. “Well, how did he respond?” I eagerly asked.

“Well, to my great surprise, he knew,” she said. In fact, he had brought about the arrangement. Eldon knew I had always loved art, and knew at the time we couldn’t afford lessons. So, he approached Constance and asked him if he would consider an exchange.”

“You’re kidding,” I said. “Eldon?”

“Yes,” she said.

I went to the kitchen to fetch us the pot of coffee. I couldn’t wait any longer to ask her why the fragments of her paintings had been delivered to me. I didn’t understand. After a long silence, she reminded me that I wasn’t doing well when I first moved to Allen Street.

“Yes, you’re right. I wasn’t sleeping.”

“Well,” she said, “I wanted to help you understand how important it is to make room in your life for art. And not just occasionally making a beautiful cake or gathering a bouquet of flowers from your garden, but creativity that demands concentration. It is especially important when you are raising your children, to just take twenty minutes each day to work on your creation. When Eldon and I delivered the gifts to you we always left a little room for pieces of my paintings.”

“So Eldon knew the fragments of your paintings were in the items he delivered?”

“Yes he did. It was my idea, but he agreed.”






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