The Folklore Project


Memphis, Tennessee

The Swap

By Sylvia Akin

Lily and her husband, Mr. Potter, an alleged chicken thief, grew vegetables and sold them from the back of their mule-drawn wagon. In summer, while it was still cool in the morning shade and the dew still clung to the grass, they would make their way slowly up the hill to our house. The mule, guided by Mr. Potter, plodded along so slowly that the little puffs of dust made by its hooves barely disturbed the air. Mr. Potter and the mule wore identical straw hats, two holes having been cut in the mule’s to allow its ears to poke through.

Perched beside Mr. Potter on the hard wooden seat is Lily, her legs crossed primly at the ankles, her chin tilted high, a vivid contrast to Mr. Potter’s slumped, silent self. Later in the day, when the sun burns hot, Lily will open an old, faded, blue umbrella, which she refers to as a parasol, and hold it over her head as protection against the sun’s heat.
The wagon stops on the road in front of our house, where I am watching from the front porch with my aunts, Mary and Boots. In one single, nimble, motion, Lily swings her corseted body from the high perch, landing gracefully on three-inch stilettos without a wobble.

“Now, Mr. Potter, wait for me,” she commands in her nasal twang. Mr. Potter never answers, but just sits there in his long-sleeved shirt and straw hat, looking at something in the distance that only he can see.

This day Lily’s tightly permed hair is dyed jet black. Two brown bobby pins pull it away from her weathered, sharp-featured face and hold it in place. Last trip, her hair had been a vibrant auburn. The warmth from the sun has caused perspiration to dot her forehead and stain the underarms of her black dress. She pauses a moment. Both hands smooth the wrinkles from the fabric over her stomach and hips. Satisfied, she inhales deeply and, thrusting her ample bosom forward, sails toward the house.

Lily’s voice is loud enough to hear over the sound of her high heels clicking on the concrete walk as she announces, “Peas! I’ve got lovely peas, picked fresh just this morning.”

Looking toward my aunt, she continues, “Now, Mary, we have a visiting minister coming, and I need a new dress for church tomorrow. Let me see what you’ve got in your closet that I can trade you some peas for.”

Lily struts up the steps to the front porch, talking, never pausing. She is across the porch and through the door and into Aunt Mary’s bedroom while we still sit smiling, enjoying the entertainment. Aunt Mary moves first; after all, it is her closet. Aunt Boots and I quickly follow, not wanting to miss the theatrics about to take place.

Inside the room, Lily stands for a moment, silent. Her shrewd brown eyes dart to every corner and pause briefly as she spies the bottle of Shalimar on Aunt Mary’s dresser. Lily remarks that as soon as she can get to Holly Springs she is going to buy some Evening in Paris perfume.
Lily moves towards Aunt Mary’s closet; reaching in, she pulls out a soft blue cotton sundress and holds it at arm's length, considering.

“Not that one,” Aunt Mary wails, “It’s new! I’ve never worn it.”

“No, it would never do for church. A shame — I would fill out the top nicely.”

Aunt Mary, who is young, pretty, and slender, is amused. She understands. Lily has long since passed middle age, and only in Lily’s imagination will Lily ever again be young, pretty and slender. 

A yellow cotton dress with a huge white pique collar is examined and rejected.

We all know the dress Lily wants. She had coveted it last trip. It is hanging at the very back of the closet. Lily knows it’s there, too. This is all just foreplay. She continues looking and rejecting – biding her time.

Lily and Aunt Mary banter back and forth.

Outside in the wagon, Mr. Potter is waiting.

Lily disappears into the back of the closet. A moment later, she emerges, holding the prize: a navy taffeta dress with a full circle skirt, and a scoop-neck bodice made of rose-colored velvet. There is a matching bolero-style, taffeta jacket adorned with a pin fashioned from glass stones set in pewter. The stones are rose in color and are a perfect match to the velvet. The dress rustles seductively as it is handled.

Lily presses the dress against her, swaying slightly; she admires her image in the mirror.
“I’ll trade you a bushel of peas for this one,” 

“One bushel of peas! That dress cost over $30 at Levy’s in Memphis.” 

“Well, it’s not new anymore. It’s ripped here at the sleeve. I’ll have to sew it.” Lily points towards a tiny, loose thread where the sleeve joins the bodice.

Aunt Mary looks in the closet, searches, and pulls out a pale pink dress with white polka dots and a lace collar.

“What about this one?” she asks.

Without glancing at Mary or the dress, Lily replies, “The color doesn’t suit me.”

“Have you got any butter beans?” Aunt Mary asks.

“Yes, but they’re for Mrs. Holiday.”

Aunt Mary looks stubborn. Lily notices and says, “All right. You can have a mess of butter beans and the bushel of peas.”

Satisfied, Aunt Mary agrees and the swap is made.

Lily looks wistfully at Aunt Mary’s collection of shoes. “I wish I could wear your shoes, but your foot is so big and mine so tiny there’s no way I could keep them on my feet.”

Lily carefully rolls her new dress into a bundle, and cradling it like a baby, walks outside. From the front porch she calls to Mr. Potter, instructing him to bring up a bushel of peas and a mess of butter beans. Continuing to cradle the dress, Lily once more resumes her spot on the wagon seat alongside Mr. Potter. With a flick of the reins from Mr. Potter, the mule moves forward and Lily’s voice calls out, “Peas, peas, I’ve got fresh peas,” as the wagon slowly makes its way to Mrs. Holiday’s.