Susan Ramsay Hoguet: Girl Scout Cookies
Miss Elder lives on our floor in the apartment next to Mrs. Robertson and her son, Matthew. She has a hump on her back and she is bent over, which makes her look even shorter than she really is.
"Jane Elder is a good example why you don't slouch at the table," my grandmother says. "Mark my words, when you grow up, you are going to look just like her if you don't begin to sit up straight."
Miss Elder is retired now but once, she was the head librarian in one of the New York Public Library branches in another section of Queens. She is proud of that, you can tell, because she smiles when she talks about her days hunched over books and card catalogues.
When she talks, she cocks her head like one of the curious and questioning sparrows that sit on our windowsill and peer into our kitchen. Sometimes, when I have nothing else to do, I'll walk alongside her down Austin Street to the A&P supermarket. We talk about books. She agrees that Little Women was a good book and she also agrees that Meg was boring, Amy was selfish and poor, sweet Beth was doomed to die.
"Anyone who is that good has to die young, because you can't go through life being perfect," she says. "Nobody can."
If we had to be one of the March girls, we both would chose to be Jo.
"Jo has heart. Heart is more important than anything else," Miss Elder says.
She never buys a lot of food at the A & P. She buys one brown paper bag full at a time and so, she goes to the market a couple of times a week. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, at 11:30 a.m., she waits for the elevator to come to our floor.
A month or so ago, on a Friday, I had to fulfill my promise to our Scout leader that I would sell 20 boxes of Girl Scout cookies. It seemed like a good idea to put on my uniform, stand by the elevator and wait for Miss Elder. Just like clockwork, she appeared at 11:30. She was carrying a small suitcase, a shopping bag full of books and was wearing her long brown wool coat and a matching hat. It was perched on her head and covered most of her hair except for a few escaping strands that looked like pieces of dry straw from of an abandoned bird's nest. Miss Elder, like most of the women in our building, wears clear, protective plastic boots over her shoes in case it rains or snows but on this day she was wearing newly polished brown oxfords and, when I looked at her shoes, I could tell she had tied the laces into a double knot.
"Each box has 51 cookies." I told her after we were in the elevator and headed down to the ground floor. "You can choose between Peanut Butter, Shortbread or the Thin Mints."
"Well, hmm. Which do you like?" she asked.
"The Thin Mints. I only have to sell one more box."
"Then Thin Mints is what I'll order. But, you'll have to keep them for me until I get back."
Miss Elder was visiting her sister for the rest of the winter. I watched her get into a yellow checkered cab and I waved goodbye with one hand while my other hand jingled her Thin Mint cookie coins in the bottom of my coat pocket.
While she was gone, the cookies arrived at our Thursday afternoon Girl Scout meeting. By Saturday afternoon, I had delivered all of the boxes except for the one I was saving for Miss Elder. I put it on my dresser and waited for her return.
The green box with a picture of the thin mints kept staring at me and I kept staring back at it. I knew I was doing the wrong thing to open the box. I thought I could take just one cookie out and then, close it up again so Miss Elder wouldn't notice. I ate the first cookie quickly as if there was somebody watching me. The second cookie I ate slowly. By the 51st cookie, I had forgotten that they weren't mine to eat and I was disappointed when they were all gone.
Then, one day, I saw a yellow checkered cab pull up to the front of our building and I watched as Miss Elder got out from the back of the taxi. She stood quietly on the sidewalk and surveyed her surroundings as if she was a first time visitor before Louis, the doorman, rushed down to escort her, the shopping bag of books and her suitcase through the front door.
My grandmother is a Lutheran. She is forever talking about the day of reckoning. That day was now here. My head hurt and the feeling of dread ate at me but, I finally came up with a plan. My plan needed seventy five cents.
I shook out half of the dimes, nickels and quarters that I needed from my mother's piggy bank and then went into the bottom of the desk drawer where my grandmother kept her bank and shook again. Since I only took a few coins from each bank, I figured that neither my mother nor my grandmother would notice that any of their money was gone. I now had enough to buy one luscious chocolate éclair with thick, creamy, yellow custard filling from the bakery on Continental Avenue. But, I had also become a thief who would burn in hell.
Miss Elder opened her apartment door a crack, the chain was still across the top.
"Oh, it's you, hello," she said as if she was really happy to see me. "Wait, just a minute." She closed the door and I heard the chain slide and then make a small thump as it hit the door.
"Come in, come in"
I had never been in Miss Elder's apartment before. Dark blue velvet curtains covered the windows so that the only light was from a tulip shaped, metal desk lamp with a stained glass shade and a floor lamp that stood by a small couch with its velvet padded back, shaped like the outside of a shell. Her rug was purple-blue with a pattern of big rose colored flowers. The room was hot, dusty and it smelled like the inside of an old book, a book speckled with brown spots like a sparrow's egg. Her room looked bigger than it was because on one wall stood a huge mirror in a gilt frame that would have been more at home in a ballroom, or in a fancy ballet school.
"It was my mother's," Miss Elder said. "One day, she took her diamond ring and tried to scratch her face out." She shows me the scratches on the mirror. They look like cat scratches.
"Can't you get rid of them?" I asked.
"No, once something is done, it is always done," she said cryptically, as if she already knew I had eaten all of her cookies.
"But you could, if you wanted to, right?" I asked. I was thinking you can always make amends; you can always bring a chocolate éclair.
"Yes, if I wanted to, I could replace the mirror but the memory would still be there so, there isn't any point, is there? Do you drink tea?" When I said yes, she disappeared into her kitchen, and the door swung shut behind her.
I wasn't thinking. I was now alone in her living room staring at my reflection in the scratched glass of the mirror. She will want her cookies with her tea. She is going to want all the cookies that I have eaten and instead, she is going to get the one lone éclair that is in a white cardboard box under my sweater on the chair by the door leading to the hall.
"Do you like milk and sugar?" Her voice is muffled behind the door.
"Please." I say. I stand in front of her mirror to silently practice my apology. It is like looking through a gauzy veil, everything looks muted and lifeless like an old dollhouse in a museum. I touch the mirror and leave a small streak in the dust. I wonder if it would be easier to just tell her while she is in the kitchen and can't see me. I could tell her and then, run away. I don't ever have to see her again. I'll take the stairs from now on and I'll never take the elevator. It is hard to breathe in this room. It is too dark and quiet, there is too much velvet and the smell of musty old books is making me feel sick. I move toward the chair by the door and pick up my sweater.
"Are you chilly?" she asks. I turn around quickly. She is standing in the kitchen doorway, holding a teapot and watching me with her sharp and shining bird like eyes.
"No." I pick up the cardboard box, hold it in both of my hands and quickly blurt out, "I ate your cookies. I ate them all and I am sorry. I can't get any more so, I brought you an éclair. I bought it with my very own money."
"Oh my," Miss Elder tilts her head the way she always does. She looks at me carefully, judging her words before she speaks again. "Oh my," she repeats herself. "I don't eat sweets. I just ordered the cookies so you could sell your quota."
"I have to go," I grab my sweater. "I can't stay." I run out the door and run down the hall. I stop at the incinerator. It's all her fault. She made me a thief and now, I am a liar too. I open the black metal incinerator door and watch as the white cardboard box with the lone chocolate éclair slides down the chute and into the crackling fires of hell below.
Susan Ramsay Hoguet has been a Maine resident for more than 20 years. She is an author/illustrator of children's books and owner/designer of Animal Tile Works.
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