“Household Exchange,”

Fiction by Lynne Heffner Ferrante

She opens the rear door of her car and draws out a shiny baby blue box with tiny white flowers covering it like a galaxy of stars. She looks like any other citizen exercising her right to discard unwanted items at the household exchange. She wears a somber look.

Walking over to me, she asks, “Would you like it?” and I say “Sure,” because that’s what we do, and the others come running over to see what is in the box, check it for treasures, and to see if I will give it up, because that is what we do.    

“No,” I say, pulling it to me. “I want it, for now.” They retreat to wander and search through the remaining detritus, or wait for another car. The unwritten rules are that it is a first-come, first-served kind of thing, but that there is a certain mutual camaraderie that includes some manner of sharing. We go through bags and boxes of stuff, keep our treasures, and offer to our comrades the things we do not want.

I retreat to the side, where someone has left an old plastic wood-grain television stand with one wheel missing, and lean my blue box on it in order to open it more easily and check out just what manner of treasure I may have acquired. The anticipation is almost greater than the actual discovery. A shiver of expectation joins with the omnipresent chill here under the huge steel roof. It presses up through my feet as I stand on the damp concrete of the staging area, which is filled with books and strollers and dishes and clothing and broken toys and just stuff, and I am not very optimistic, not expecting much.

The parking area is full, as usual, and there is perpetual movement around and around, eyes on the ground, quick glances toward newly arriving cars and trucks.

The “household exchange,” so called, has been under fire by the local administration, was closed for a while, and just recently, reluctantly, opened again. In order to show us who is boss, town employees come by frequently with their mini bulldozer to clear away everything, even the good stuff, before anyone can look through it, thrilled to deprive us of possible finds and gleefully transport loads of perfectly useful and valuable household items to the massive Dumpsters for carting away at serious expense to parts unknown. This is not a very green recycling center. It only serves to intensify the frantic searching; what if I miss something good, hidden behind or under that trash over there?

We are only permitted to remain for 15 minutes, says the sign. The area is monitored by an employee-cum-guard who wears a stern expression. An undercurrent of banter hums like a cloud of buzzing flies; scavenging is a social occasion, as well as serious business.

A while back, so the story goes, someone found an original de Kooning painting, and another found a diamond bracelet. One local Bonacker, a regular, claims to have found a crumpled-up hundred-dollar bill in the zipper compartment of an old beaded evening purse.

But lately no one knows just when the exchange will be open or closed; people are bringing fewer and fewer things because of the controversy and the fact that the place is closed more than it’s open, and the regulars have been coming round less and less. The old guard is doing its best to fight, forming a committee, writing letters, holding meetings to discuss and plan strategies. Just this afternoon, we have been picketing in front of the facility with signs saying keep the household exchange open, don’t impede recycling, green is good, open all weekend. . . . Their answer was to shut down in an attempt to scare us away.

They are obviously not acquainted with the power and determination of the ever-regenerating species known as the gray panther. That would be us.

But after a while they opened up again, made nervous no doubt when the press appeared to cover the story of the demonstration. So now we are patting ourselves on our collective ass, rewarding ourselves for our civic action with one last look around for prizes.

My car is filled with today’s treasures, acquired during breaks from picketing. I have found a worthy set of dinner dishes, too fine to smash for mosaics, a huge dragon kite, an iron-and-glass tea cart, picture frames, photo albums, flowerpots, wire baskets, an enamel box, a neat knitted vest and a scarf, both of which I have already given away, and the blue box.

The blue box has the potential to be a real treasure, at least until I open it. Then it may be a disappointment. How many times have I opened such a box to find it filled with trash, or old ratty doilies, or socks? How many times have I kicked an old crappy carton and been stopped by a dull thud, looked inside, and discovered something special? Antique porcelain figurines. Crystal stemware.

So, I am leaning on the old cockeyed TV stand, opening my blue box slowly, expecting nothing. I am cold and a bit numb from a long day out here picketing and scavenging, achy, wishing I were home in front of a fire, practically on my way, and I open the box. As the contents become visible, hands and arms appear over my shoulder, in front of my face, from nowhere, bodies are practically on top of me, voices join in unison, “I’ll take it if you don’t want it.” “I’ll take it.” “Give it to me.”

We are not, I must remind you, raggedy homeless vagabonds seeking lifesaving sustenance — merely expectantly hopeful treasure seekers.

“No.” I pull my arm that holds the box away from the throng, protectively. “It’s mine.” And they disperse. I slowly lift the cover, exposing the tissue-covered contents.

Nestled inside the box is a doll so lifelike that I gasp involuntarily. Rosebud mouth, blond-red curls, long lashes over deep hazel eyes. Shivers run through me. There is something familiar about that face. She wears a pale blue organdy dress with lace and ruffles and a pinafore, and she holds a teddy bear in one arm. She is obviously brand new. Why would anyone throw such a wondrous thing away? I look inquisitively at the woman, petite and well-dressed, getting into her late-model automobile.

Why? I look at her and ask her why she is disposing of this beautiful thing. She pretends not to hear me, doesn’t even shrug; she holds her head high, her tightly closed face chiseled in steel, closes the car door, and drives away. Her mysterious reason disappears with her.

Everyone comes over to examine my treasure, envy so thick that it has become a presence in the cool late November afternoon. Soon I take my leave, putting the blue box carefully in the front seat of my car.

I bring the doll in her container tenderly inside and place the blue box on a table in the dining room. I open the box and look at her again, stunned by the emotions she piques in me. There is something about that face. I remember baby dolls in fluffy dresses and pinafores with rosebud mouths, sitting at a tiny table, being fed. I remember Mom sewing them dresses to match my own, and I remember vowing to fill my life with babies as soon as I got old enough. I remember planning their names, deep into the night when I was supposed to be falling asleep. I look at this doll, and wonder why I have taken her, what I am going to do with her now that there are no longer small girls in our family, wanting to find her a good home but unable to part with her.

I wonder again why she was purchased — obviously fairly expensive — and why she was disposed of without even being taken from her box and tissue paper. A true conundrum. Why? There is no accounting for people’s behavior.

My friend joins us for our Sunday pasta ritual and I show her my treasures: a book on the mountains of America, one on every type of flower known, and one showing different breeds of dogs and how to care for them. My dishes. My flowerpots and flowers.

And I show her my baby doll. She examines the doll as she examines everything, missing no detail. This doll certainly is exquisite, beautifully made, expensive, she says, and I come over for another look. “Wait, look over there,” I exclaim. There is a tear on her cheek. What realism! We look more carefully. There are tears falling from one eye, and one on the cheek. Tiny perfect acrylic tears. There are two tears on the other cheek. This is a sad, sad doll; a doll that is crying. I feel a kinship with this doll; she is family.

Who would buy a crying doll for a little girl? What little girl, besides me, would want or appreciate one? Did the little girl refuse the doll; did a parent decide that the tears were too morbid? Did something happen to the little girl, and the parents couldn’t bear to keep the doll?

I trace my finger over the tears, so real that I expect them to be wet. I touch her pursed lips, imagining a faint puff of breath. I run my hand over her soft hair, tuck the teddy bear into her arms, and slip back into the past.

Mom is handing me a manila envelope, I am ripping it open and taking out a black record, I am hearing my father singing, then knocking the record off the phonograph and breaking it. I am feeling that immense sadness and loss, hugging my baby dolls to me, feeling the tears rolling down my face, vowing to the gods of the future that I will have children to love and to love me, and they will have a father that will always be there for them.

I think I will keep this doll, sit her in my bedroom on the rocking chair, with her bear, and contemplate her tears. She will be my new baby; she will never lose her illusions and dreams, never grow into an ugly, spiteful, malevolent adult, and she will never desert me.

Lynne Heffner Ferrante is the author of “The Untenable Fragrance of Violets,” a trilogy, from which this piece is an excerpted version, and of a sequel, “A Walk in the Woods.” An artist, she lives in East Hampton.