Cookies

(1962)

 “Hey, Claudia! Fat Claudia Clodhopper!”

“Please, don’t call her that.”

“Why not? It fits.”

“But it isn’t nice. Think how you’d feel.”

I closed my school locker for the day and walked to the door. I even stopped at the drinking fountain on the way to show how unconcerned I was. Bending over to sip, I noticed a brown scuff mark on the toe of my new saddle shoes. It must have happened when I tried to hide my feet under my desk during homeroom.

“I can’t believe those clodhoppers she’s wearing!”

Outside, my shoulders slumped in my red cardigan as I began my homeward trudge. I had pictured this day so carefully. How could everything have gone so wrong? I thought longingly of Mary-Ann Morris, the one nice girl in the crowd. She was new in our seventh grade, and when she first came I thought maybe she’d be my friend even if she was pretty. I imagined us giggling on the telephone and having sleepovers like the other girls. We’d swap jewelry and share popcorn and Junior Mints at the movies. And in every scene I grew thinner, thinner. But within days of her arrival, Mary-Ann was snapped up by the popular crowd. She still talked to me, but she wasn’t going to be my friend, and we both knew it.

“So, did the children like your new saddle shoes?” my mother demanded when I got home. She attacked a white shirt with her iron, her solid arms swinging vigorously in her Kmart housedress. The heat from the iron reddened her face.

“Yes, Mama.”

“Well, they should. You’ve been nagging me for them since last winter. They certainly cost enough. Well?”

“Yes, Mama. Thank you.”

She smiled, satisfied, then resumed her ironing with a grunt. At least she didn’t notice the scuff.

Upstairs in my room, I loosened my skirt and let my stomach escape from the waistband. Then I took off the shoes. They loomed up at me from the floor, huge, stark, black and white. How was I to know saddle shoes would be “out” this year and penny loafers “in”? Clodhopper! I sat on the bed and stared at the shoes until dinner time, wondering how long it would take to outgrow them.

“Claudia, you aren’t eating your supper.”

Mama eyed me accusingly. Daddy and Curtis looked up from their food. I poked a lump of mashed potatoes with my fork.

“I…I thought maybe I could try to lose a few pounds.”

“Lose a few pounds? What are you talking about? This is your favorite dinner, fried chicken and mashed potatoes with Campbell’s gravy. And there’s chocolate cake for dessert. You won’t get any unless you eat every bite on your plate.”

“I…I thought maybe I’d skip dessert tonight.”

Mama’s exasperation blew out in a huff. “Claudia, I made that cake from a mix myself. You aren’t going to tell me you won’t eat it, are you?”

“No, Mama.”

“That’s better. Children don’t have to worry about their weight. You don’t see your brother skipping his food, do you?”

No, I sure don’t, I retorted silently, fighting back tears. Across the table, Curtis was devouring his third hunk of chicken. His napkin was tucked into his shirt like a bib and a slick of grease glistened on his chin. He was fat, too, but it didn’t seem to bother him. He even bragged that he had to wear “husky” size jeans.

“Did your friends like your new shoes today, Claudia?” my father asked.

“Yes, Daddy. Thank you.”

He smiled at me, his thin mustache twitching. He and Mama were like Jack Sprat and his wife; everything about Daddy was sparse, from the flesh on his bones to the hair on his head. Oh, if only I could have talked to my father! I knew he loved me, but sometimes he didn’t understand anything. He actually thought I had friends.

At school the next morning I tried to stay out of the way, and when the taunts came—“Hey, Clodhopper!”—I ignored them. After a week or so the kids lost interest in my shoes. But the name stuck. “Because it’s not just the shoes,” I heard Brenda Cooper explain to Mary-Ann. “It’s everything about her.” Clumsy Claudia Clodhopper. It was hard to be fat and graceful and twelve.

Then in a burst of inspiration, I had an idea: Girl Scouts. A troop had been formed in our neighborhood the previous year. I didn’t know about it until the other girls started bragging about their badges and wearing their uniforms to school. All the popular girls had joined: Brenda Cooper, Linda Luckner, and now Mary-Ann. Maybe it wasn’t too late. Because they had to let you into Girl Scouts, they couldn’t turn you down, and once they got to know me, the real me, they’d like me. I could see it now: swimming and crafts, singing songs and making s’mores around the campfire. And all the time I was getting thinner, thinner.

“Please, Mama,” I begged, and she arranged it with Mrs. Luckner, the troop leader. The meetings were held in the Luckners’ basement every Wednesday after school. Linda and Brenda said I ruined the whole troop, but Mary-Ann and one or two of the other girls talked to me so I was hopeful. Mrs. Luckner I just tried to obey. She was a brisk, pretty woman, and you could tell she was Linda’s mother, the way you could tell my mother belonged to me. She expected all the girls to do their part to make her troop a success.

In mid-January Mrs. Luckner announced the annual cookie sale. “And remember when you give me your order next week that last year our troop sold the most cookies in the entire district.” She tapped a framed certificate on the basement wall.

Immediately, the other girls began to chatter about how many boxes they would sell. I tried to listen, and afterward, when Mary-Ann was buttoning her coat to leave, I asked her how many boxes she would take.

“Oh, two dozen, I guess.” Then seeing I needed help, she smiled and explained. “Most of the girls take one or two dozen. Your parents and grandparents will always buy some, and then it depends how many neighbors you can sell to. I’m lucky because none of the other girls live on my street. But it’s hard for Patty and Jill and Leona. They’re all on the same block.”

Two dozen. Twenty-four boxes. That didn’t seem like so much. I counted on the way home, and there were thirty-two houses on my street—and no other Scouts. Plus my mom said she’d take three boxes, and my grandparents and two aunts were likely customers. I could even buy a box myself to give Curtis for his birthday. Then my dad offered to sell a dozen at work. And what about the women in my mother’s pinochle club? They met every week and gabbed and ate and ate.

“A hundred boxes of cookies,” I told Mrs. Luckner proudly, and everyone gasped.

Mrs. Luckner, pen poised to enter my order, hesitated. “Are you sure, Claudia?”

“Positive.”

“Well…” Her eye caught the certificate on the wall. “Well, Claudia, I think your spirit for this cookie sale is wonderful!”

Of course, I didn’t tell my mother how many cookies I’d signed up for and six weeks later, when they arrived, I made three separate trips from the Luckners and sneaked them up to my room. To keep her tally by the dozen, Mrs. Luckner had put me down for eight dozen boxes. I couldn’t wait to begin my sales.

The next morning I woke up aching, runny-eyed, and with a fever of a hundred and four.

“No school today,” my mother ordered, shaking down the thermometer and hustling me back to bed.

“But I have to go out this afternoon and start selling Girl Scout cookies!” Tears added to the water in my eyes.

“Go out? Claudia, don’t be ridiculous. We’ll be lucky if you don’t spread this flu to everyone in the house.”

For the next four days I tossed and sweated in bed. From the closet came the smell of the hidden cookies: the sharp scent of mint wafers, the warmth of chocolate-covered peanut butter, the sugary breath of sandwich crèmes. Their fragrances mingled and washed over me in a sweet, sickly wave, and I had nightmares that the cookies were melting into a great chocolate quagmire on the closet floor.

Finally, on Monday, my mother sent me back to school. That afternoon I set out to sell cookies on our street.

“Hello, Mrs. Clifford. I’m selling Girl Scout cookies. They’re a dollar a box. Would you like to buy some?”

“Hello, Claudia. I didn’t know you’d joined Girl Scouts. Come in while I get my purse.”

By the ninth house I had six dollars in my money envelope and confidence in my step. Though I didn’t know the people at the far end of our street by name, I saw no reason my good salesmanship shouldn’t be equally effective on strangers. I climbed the porch steps of a brick house and rang the bell.

“Hello, my name is Claudia Martin and I live down the street. Would you like to buy some Girl Scout cookies?”

“Oh, thank you, dear,” said the elderly woman who had answered the door, “but another Girl Scout came by last week and I bought a box from her.”

Another Girl Scout? But there weren’t any others on my block. Puzzled, I tried the next two houses.

“Sorry, we’ve bought already.”

“Thanks, but we got ours from the girl around the corner.”

My mind began to whirl. The girl around the corner. Brenda Cooper. Of course I knew Brenda lived on the short end of my block, but somehow I had assumed she’d stay on her own street. For her to have turned the corner onto my street was treachery. Reeling, I pressed on.

“No, thanks. We’re all set.”

“You’re too late, dear. Somebody else came.”

“We bought three boxes from that pretty girl, Brenda Cooper. I bet you two are friends!”

Halfway down the other side of the street, my sales resumed. Brenda hadn’t ventured that far. But the dent in my sales plan was alarming. Of the thirty-two houses on our street, Brenda had claimed thirteen. What should I do? Should I say anything to her at school? Did she do it out of spite, or did she just forget I was there? And now another oversight came glaring to mind: The women in my mother’s pinochle club, on whom I’d counted for nearly a dozen sales, had just bought their cookies from me as neighbors. A cold finger began to press at the base of my spine.

That Wednesday at Scouts, four of the girls, including Brenda Cooper, turned in their money. I debated handing in what I’d collected so far. Then a better scene occurred to me: On the last day I would arrive with my money envelope bulging and dump piles of bills before their startled eyes. Oh, the astonishment and congratulations that would follow! And to make it happen, I knew what I had to do. The next afternoon I put on my uniform, took a dozen boxes of cookies, and sneaked out of the house. Then I walked six blocks to a different neighborhood and started knocking on doors.

It was early March, the weather cold and raw. Snow, sleet and rain took turns pelting me while an angry wind whipped at my hair. I trudged from house to house, anxiously awaiting each door’s opening, beaming a smile and delivering my pitch, while my cheeks grew chapped and inside my winter jacket my armpits dripped sweat. Would the face be a friendly one? Or did a kidnapper lurk behind the door? What if my mother or Mrs. Luckner found out I was here? Mrs. Luckner had told us emphatically not to go to strangers’ houses. I prayed no one I knew would drive by and see me. For two weeks I persevered through rain and hail, until I grew numb to the weather and simply plodded along, head down, like a dumb cow. Some days I hit a street another Scout had visited. As soon as two houses in a row said they’d bought, I abandoned that block for new territory. To explain my whereabouts, I told my mother Mary-Ann had invited me to her house to work on Girl Scout badges.

“Well,” said my mother, pleased, “be sure to invite Mary-Ann to our house sometime.”

Then one afternoon, I got lost. Dinner time was approaching, and I was hurrying home. Snow had started to fall. I came around a corner, crossed two short blocks—suddenly I was at a playground I’d never seen before. I plunged back into the neighborhood, thinking to reverse my steps—a street of unfamiliar houses confronted me. All sense of direction gone, I stumbled on in the thickening snow, panic pumping in my heart. Once I slipped on a patch of ice, and the cookies went flying. When I got up, a sharp pain pierced my knee. Finally, near tears, I blundered past a house with a bright red door—I’d seen that before! Then up ahead, a towering pine tree—I’d passed it earlier that afternoon. Gradually, gropingly, I retraced my trail. It was nearly seven o’clock and dark outside when I reached home to face my mother’s wrath.

“Claudia! You’re an hour late and your dinner is cold. The next time you go to Mary-Ann’s house you leave me her last name and phone number. If you’re one minute overdue, I’m going to call!”

The third Wednesday at Scouts, everyone turned in their money but me.

That night when everyone was asleep, I crawled into my closet with my flashlight. Of my ninety-six boxes of cookies, twenty-eight remained, and one week left to sell them. I went to my jewelry box and took out all my cash, four dollars and fifty cents. I put the bills in my money envelope and transferred four boxes to the other side of the closet. I felt a little better. Only twenty-four boxes to go. Or put another way, twenty-four dollars. For now it dawned on me it was the money, not the cookies, that mattered. As long as I came up with the cash, it didn’t matter whether the cookies were actually sold.

The next morning when my mother called “Breakfast!” I watched Curtis bolt down the stairs. Then I ducked into his room and plucked two dollars from his bank. That afternoon two dollars also vanished from my mother’s purse. Friday night, when my father took us to the ice cream parlor, I stole the quarters he left as a tip. Saturday morning my mother sent me to the neighbor’s to borrow milk; when the woman’s back was turned I scooped a handful of change from a candy dish. On Sunday, when my relatives came to visit, I collected a dollar from each unattended handbag. Monday morning I got another dollar by telling my mother I needed a new notebook for school. That night, when my father ran out of tobacco for his pipe, I offered to bike to the drugstore; there I shoplifted the tobacco under my sweater and saved the money for my hoard.

By Wednesday morning I had ten dollars to go. But even though it was the last day, I did not panic. On the contrary, my week of thievery had made me ruthless and bold. Something was bound to come my way, and when it did I would snatch it.

“Ooh, Brenda! Are you really going to get a mohair sweater?”

The girls crowded around Brenda’s locker, and I hung on the fringes, eavesdropping. What was a mohair sweater? Then it dawned on me that for once I was actually hearing about a trend before it was out-of-date.  I wedged in closer.

“I’m going shopping with my mother after Scouts,” Brenda bragged. “I have the money right here.”

She opened a small purse and waved a ten-dollar bill. We weren’t supposed to bring purses to school—our lockers didn’t even have locks—and as the bell rang for class Brenda quickly stuffed everything into one of her boots and banged shut the door. Only an hour later the teacher asked for a volunteer to take a note to the principal’s office. My hand shot up. Then how easy it was in the deserted hallway to lift that beautiful ten-dollar bill and slide it, folded, into my saddle shoe.

I might have turned into a professional thief that day. Hadn’t I just cold-bloodedly stolen twenty-four dollars, in a variety of challenging circumstances, in less than a week? But what happened after school shook me back to reality. Brenda Cooper, pretty, popular, self-confident Brenda Cooper, looked into her purse, broke down, and cried. In consternation, the girls helped search her locker, her pockets, her books. No one remembered my errand to the office. As usual, they forgot I was there. I hovered in the background, stomach sinking, murmuring consolation. When the principal came to investigate the commotion, Brenda not only lost her money and her chance for a mohair sweater, she got a furious lecture and two days’ detention for disobeying school rules. She was led away to the principal’s office, sobbing apologies for her carelessness.

I went dumbly to Girl Scouts and paid Mrs. Luckner my cookie money. The pile of bills on the table looked miserably small.

But Mrs. Luckner was ecstatic. “Ninety-six dollars! Claudia, this is fantastic! Girls, girls!” She clapped her hands for attention. “Let’s all give three cheers for Claudia!” I had to stand, red-faced, while they shouted, “Hip, hip, hooray!” Even Brenda, who’d arrived late, eyes swollen from crying, cheered weakly.

“You’ve been such a good little salesgirl,” Mrs. Luckner teased, “maybe we should nickname you Cookie.”

That night I sat hunched in my sugar-sick closet beside the twenty-eight boxes of cookies. I couldn’t throw them out, not only because my mother might spot them in the trash, but because I knew how wrong it was to waste food. An average of twenty cookies per box made five hundred and sixty cookies. If I ate ten a night, at least in two months they’d be gone. Maybe by that time Brenda would have saved up again for a mohair sweater or maybe I’d find some money somewhere—yes, that was it!—and slip it into a corner of her locker where no one had looked carefully before. Then Mary-Ann and everyone would like me, and they’d call me Cookie instead of Clodhopper, and oh, the fun we’d have! I nestled among my unsold cookies and delved happily into the first box of sandwich crèmes.

(Copyright©Arliss Ryan, 1999)

Emrys Journal, Volume 16, Spring 1999

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