When the Girl Scout came in January I was indisposed, sick in bed like I had been all month, so Joe took care of business, ordered two boxes of Tagalongs and two boxes of Thin Mints. He had answered the door in his dogs-in-Christmas-sweaters print pajama pants and confused the little girl when he asked if she needed the money “up front” (“What’s ‘up front’?” “Like, ‘right now’?”) so he was concerned that he had weirded her out somehow and that she would not come back. But she did and I was back in the world by then so we answered the door together.
She was tiny and wearing the teal Junior insignia tab, pinned on crooked in such a way that suggested to me that perhaps her mom, who was in an SUV idling by the curb, had stuck it on her as they rushed out the door, and that she resented it. She gave us our four boxes and we thanked her and that should have been the end of it, but I was seized by the impulse to become her best friend, because even though I have not been a 10-year-old girl for 18 years now, apparently they still hold the same sway over me and cause me to crave their unquestioned social approval.
“DID YOU SELL A LOT OF COOKIES,” I asked her.
“Yeah, I had to get a second order form,” she said, smiling a little. Cautiously. She smiled at me cautiously.
“WOW THAT’S SO MANY COOKIES, I SOLD COOKIES TOO, BUT NEVER THAT MANY COOKIES, BUT MY MOM WAS OUR TROOP LEADER SO LIKE EVERY YEAR WE HAD ALL THE COOKIES IN OUR HOUSE, AND MY DAD WAS ALWAYS EXCITED CAUSE HE LOVED COOKIES, BUT HE COULDN’T EAT THESE COOKIES, CAUSE THEY WEREN’T HIS, SO LIKE HE WAS ACTUALLY REALLY SAD.”
“Oh. Yeah. Ha ha.”
I became suddenly concerned that her mother, still idling in the car by the curb, would have grown impatient or perhaps concerned that we were attempting to awkwardly lure her child into our underage sex dungeon masquerading as shambly Decatur cottage, so I looked up to give her a wave across the yard. She waved back. A wooly white dog poked his head out the rolled-down back window of the car.
“WOW IS THAT YOUR DOG, HE LOOKS LIKE A PRETTY COOL DOG.”
“Yeah, he’s my dog. He’s… pretty cool…”
“WELL OK. I’LL LET YOU LEAVE NOW. GET ON OUT OF HERE.”
I actually don’t remember what exactly I said to her then but it really was something like “get on out of here.”
I did, in fact, sell cookies myself, once upon a time. I was a Girl Scout from Kindergarten until about tenth grade—I don’t remember exactly because it all just kinda petered out there at the end. I had stopped selling cookies years before. It was tedious and kind of scary, for a shy kid like I was. But I felt great pressure to sell a lot, and more and more as time went on because Katie Lewis was in our troop and she routinely was the top seller in our whole council, and my mom was the troop leader and also I wanted always to be The Best at everything and if I couldn’t be The Best Girl Scout then what kind of person was I, really?
Most girls just sent their order forms off with their parents to work, but but my dad would only take my order form to his office if I did my part and went door to door, which I always dreaded. It would have been easier, probably, if someone had just told me, “Look, you’re fucking adorable, you’ve got the little Scout Finch haircut and you say your r’s like w’s, you’ve got the little Brownie vest with no badges on it, you’re selling cookies, you’ve got this in the bag, don’t worry about it.” But of course I took it personally when I would ring a doorbell and no one would answer, or when a cross middle-aged lady a housecoat would tut-tut that when she sold Girl Scout cookies they were only a dollar a box and why is everything so expensive these days, and then invariably place a double order of Trefoils (widely acknowledged among my troop-mates—and, I think, the general public—as being the most boring Girl Scout cookies, hardly even cookies actually, more like cookie-shaped objects milled from butter and cardboard) and then whatever the least-appealing “new cookie” option was that year, usually something involving the words “oatmeal” and “frosted.”
What I did love about selling cookies was something I also loved about trick-or-treating, which was seeing into other peoples’ houses. I had been instructed, of course, to never go inside one of those strange houses, and my mom or dad was always standing back at the curb anyway, but I loved standing on an unfamiliar front porch and getting to see that small front-door-sized view into the foyer or the living room or the mudroom beyond, and all the house-smells that would waft out behind the thrown-open front door—detergent and cigarettes and potpourri and burnt toast and wet dog, and other smells of things I didn’t know the names of yet.
The first year I sold cookies, there was one man whose front hall looked to me like some kind of space-age castle—it was very sparse and clean and there was some kind of metal table with gold candlesticks of some kind set up on it, lots of gleaming surfaces and sharp edges. I lived just around the corner from him but in a house full of round-edged, dog-eared, smudgy kid-stuff, so he seemed to have been beamed down from some other planet. He ordered a couple boxes of Trefoils, which put him at an even further remove from my understanding of how actual human beings lived their lives.
Because of all these deeply strange things, I remembered him and was puzzled when, a month or so later, the cookie orders came in and my parents took me around the neighborhood again to distribute the boxes but we skipped his house. “I think he’s out of town,” my mom told me. He was out of town for a while. And then he just kept on being out of town. His boxes of Trefoils sat sadly in our living room even after my family had decimated our own supply of Thin Mints and Tagalongs and Samoas. At first I felt sad for the man for not being home to get his cookie order, then I felt a guilty about it, like maybe he was actually home by now but we just kept forgetting to make the delivery, and what if he was over around the block feeling so sad without his Trefoils, and he was hating me, and would never order cookies from me again?
That spring we moved to another house in another subdivision and he was no longer our neighbor. We took his boxes of Trefoils with us, packed them up and moved them to our new house and put them in our new pantry. And then eventually we ate them, probably in some moment of after-dinner desperation when no other cookie-type things were available. And then years and years later, maybe when I was in college or even later, my mom said, “Do you remember that guy in the old neighborhood whose Trefoils we never delivered?” Or possibly it was on my mind for some reason and I asked her about it. Either way, the subject came up. And that’s when I found out, from my mother, that sometime between when I took the man’s cookie order and when the order came in, the man’s teenaged or adult son had been playing with some sort of gun in the man’s backyard, the backyard of the house with the foyer with all the shiny sharp edges, and the son had accidentally shot himself, had accidentally shot himself and killed himself, and my mom had heard about it from the neighbors or on the news, and just could not bring herself to go bother the man about his cookies. He had not been out of town. He had been there all along.
I still think about this man, whose name I don’t think my mom even knew, especially around this time of year. There’s a certain expectation, when you order cookies from a little girl standing on your porch with her mom or dad idling back there on the curb, that she will show up again some time later, boxes in hand, and those boxes will be yours, and you will eat the cookies inside in greater quantities and with greater relish than any other cookies you could buy in the store. Our Girl Scout was actually a bit delayed in delivering our cookies this year, and when I realized this a low-level panic set in, not just because we had paid “up front” but just because it seemed such an aberration of the laws of the universe for her to simply not ever show up. So I have to think this man, despite everything horrible in his life at the time, was still waiting for me to show back up on his porch in my little brown vest with the no badges on it, was still waiting for his cookies, would have eaten them by the fistfull sitting at his kitchen table somewhere beyond that sharp shiny foyer if only I had brought them to him. I hate to think my absence made him even sadder, hate to think I deprived him of what might have been one small joy in the darkest, coldest valley of his life. Then again, he ordered Trefoils, so maybe my attempts to understand him could only ever go so far.