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Strange Cookie, by Becky McLaughlin


Blanche sat at her kitchen table sipping coffee and thinking dolorous thoughts. It was Sunday morning, and her usual routine had been interrupted by a call from her mother.

“I know it’s not the right season, but I’ve made a fur coat for your Barbie,” her mother had said. “When fall comes, she’ll have a completely new wardrobe.”

Blanche shuddered violently, and a small trickle of sweat inched down her back as she pictured her mother sitting on the front porch rocking the pedal of the sturdy old Singer with a bare foot, sewing miniature clothes for a doll Blanche had not played with in twenty-five years.

“I moved the Singer out onto the porch to escape the heat and gloom of the house,” her mother had explained.

“I know,” Blanche had said. “You do that every summer.”

“Fresh air is good for the spirit. You wouldn’t be so down in the mouth all the time if you got out of the house occasionally.”

“I get out of the house every day.”

“Yes, you leave one building and go directly into another.”

“Sun and wind are hard on the skin,” Blanche had argued.

“Which is more important, girl, the spirit or the flesh?”

With that question hanging unanswered in the air, Blanche had fibbed her way out of the conversation, saying that the bathtub was about to overflow.

“Why sit in a porcelain tub when you can dive into a cold, clear lake and loll about unencumbered?” her mother had asked before abruptly hanging up.

On Sunday mornings Blanche always got up late, brewed a small pot of espresso, and read travel magazines that described faraway places. On this particular Sunday morning, however, Blanche was not thinking of Italy, Switzerland, or Spain as she sipped the thick, black coffee from her demitasse. She was thinking with shame and horror about her mother. The last time Blanche had visited the old house she had found the front porch more cluttered than ever, and hanging above the chaos was a yellow CAUTION sign next to a banner that read “Mom’s Place” like a trashy, plate-lunch diner. Worse still, her mother had been seated on a bright floral sofa, wearing nothing but a nylon slip, which did little to cover the old sagging skin, and sipping tea as if she were in the privacy of her nicely-appointed back parlor.

As Blanche had come up the steps, surveying the scene with mortification, her mother had carefully poured another cup of tea, dropped two sugar cubes into its black depths, stirred the mixture with a small, exquisitely-polished spoon, and offered it to her daughter with a smile.

“You’re in time for tea,” she had said. “There’s cream in the pitcher, if you want it.”

“You know I don’t take sugar.” The statement had been an accusation.

“It might sweeten you up a little if you did,” the old woman had replied.

Ignoring her mother’s outstretched hand, Blanche had spent her shame and horror in a torrent of questions.

“Why did you move the sofa? Won’t the sun fade it? What if it gets bird shit on it? And where did those signs come from? What are you planning to do, Mother? Live out here on the porch? And in nothing but your underpants?”

Since that visit, she had been avoiding the old house, which sat brazenly on the main avenue that ran through the heart of the small town where mother and daughter lived. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the house had been tucked away behind a big drooping tree or stationed on some side street where no one would notice the mounting clutter and the half-naked old woman sitting happily in its midst. But when Blanche had suggested selling the place and moving into something smaller, her mother had shaken her head and said firmly, “I’ve lived in this house for more than forty years, and I plan to die in it, too.”

Just don’t do it on the front porch, Blanche had thought to herself, visualizing her mother’s stiff corpse still seated at the old Singer or perhaps spilling down the porch steps, her slip wrenched above her waist and her ancient genitals exposed for all the world to see.

She poured herself another cup of coffee and opened her travel magazine, trying to dismiss thoughts of her mother and return to her usual activities. But the call, brief as it was, had upset her. The old woman was good at posing questions that caused Blanche equal parts chagrin, guilt, and bemusement.

“The spirit or the flesh?” her mother had asked, opening a door that allowed all of Blanche’s worst fears to intrude. She read a paragraph that discussed Milan’s nightlife, but then she could keep the little niggling thought at bay no longer. I am growing old, she thought. One day I will sag just like my mother, and lines will appear on my face that point like arrows to my age. Blanche had always worried about the ravages of aging, and just this morning she had noticed concrete proof of them in the form of an irritating crowd of wrinkles carving a path out of the fragile skin beneath her right eye. Laugh lines, some people called them, but that made them sound far too innocuous to Blanche. Discovering the wrinkles had caused her more than a moment’s consternation, but, coupled now with her mother’s call, the discovery catapulted her into grim nostalgia.

***

She had few friends growing up, and so her dolls were her playmates. Barbie was her constant companion, and Blanche spent all of her after-school hours cutting beauty tips out of magazines and trying to model herself after her plastic friend. Sometimes she would pose in front of the oval mirror that stood in the corner of her room, holding Barbie up beside her, and she would utter those wickedly potent words from the old fairy tale: “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” Whatever the mirror might have answered, Blanche never failed to interpret it as “Barbie.” After this brief journey into the depths of conceit, Blanche would throw the doll down in a fury and step on her repeatedly, hoping that the small, perfect limbs would break and that the beautiful face would be permanently marred. But Barbie’s plastic good looks were relentless. No matter what brutalities Blanche inflicted on the doll, its voluptuous charm remained intact.

When Blanche was fifteen, she decided it was time to end her friendship with Barbie. And she put all the hatred that could be squeezed from fifteen child-years into their parting moments. Out of a faded red handkerchief, Blanche made a tiny gag for Barbie’s mouth and a blindfold for her eyes. Then, after removing Barbie’s high-heels and sequined evening gown, she raised Barbie’s slender arms above her head and wrapped a piece of yarn around her wrists, suspending the naked doll from the ceiling over her bed. Blanche looked at the doll with malice as it slowly spun in mid-air. She opened a book of matches and paused.

“I’m sentencing you to death,” said Blanche. “Haven’t you anything to say?”

But Barbie said nothing, her smiling pink lips closed forever on plastic words that would never be spoken.

“Speak up!” Blanche commanded, tearing a match from the book and lighting it. Neither the sudden flash of flame nor the acrid smell of sulfur had any effect, however, for her old playmate remained silent, casually beginning to spin in the opposite direction. Blanche tied the miniature gag tightly around Barbie’s mouth and held the match beneath the small, arched feet. When the feet were scorched black and slightly melted, Blanche paused to look at Barbie’s bright, blue eyes and thick, black lashes. Then, after cutting the yarn that held the doll in suspension, she brought the arms forward and bent the legs so that Barbie could be placed on hands and knees. Like an incensed schoolmaster disciplining an unruly pupil, Blanche struck the doll on its hard plastic buttocks with a wooden ruler. She hit the doll until the ruler broke, but even then the doll did not cry out and give Blanche the satisfaction she desired, for the wide, unblinking eyes were still full of flirtatious fun, and the playful lips still curled in a seductive smile.

“Nothing hurts you,” Blanche screamed, falling onto the bed and beginning to sob. “Oh, how I hate you!”

Once she had finished crying out her rage, Blanche calmly cut off the tips of Barbie’s breasts and nose. Then she blackened Barbie’s eyes with a magic marker and removed her head, tearing out as much of the long, silky hair as possible. Next, she squeezed several drops of red food coloring onto the doll’s body and swathed it in Saran Wrap. It was now ready for burial.

As Blanche arranged the doll’s head and mutilated body in a shallow grave beneath the white rose bush in the back yard, she did not mourn the loss of her playmate. Instead, she felt triumphant.

“Your death brings me to life,” said the fifteen-year-old Blanche, placing a perfectly manicured hand on her slender waist and tossing a strand of her long, blonde hair over her shoulder in the cavalier way that beautiful girls do.

***

Now, as Blanche sat mummified by memory, the old rage returned. She had suffered and sacrificed in ways that few girls do in order to preserve their good looks, and here she was at 40, finding that half of her face was beginning to erode. She poured herself another cup of the rich, dark coffee, hoping that its exotic flavor would hurtle her out of her present distress and into some brilliant Italian future. As she lifted the small cup to her lips, she noticed for the first time the beginnings of a crack in the cup’s delicate porcelain. She pondered the crack for a moment, wishing with all her might that she could replace her flawed face as easily as she could replace the flawed cup. She ran her fingers over the crack from start to finish and then touched the skin beneath her right eye. Both felt smooth, but Blanche’s skin was no match for the perfect smoothness of the porcelain demitasse. Gently setting the small, cracked cup onto its matching saucer, she picked both up and carried them with her to the bathroom.

Turning on the soft, pink light over the lavatory, Blanche placed herself before the mirror. She lifted the cracked demitasse to her lips and watched herself take a sip. This is how the world sees me, she thought to herself as she set the cup down on the saucer and stood looking at her wide blue eyes and thick dark lashes, her pert nose and her slightly parted lips, occasionally turning to the left and then to the right for a glimpse of her profile. Having carefully examined the surface of her face from brow to chin, she smiled at herself, with teeth showing, and pretended to laugh. A casual glance at her open mouth suggested white perfection, but she pulled her lower lip away from her teeth to get a better look. Sometimes Blanche felt that living teeth were too much of a hazard and that they should be surgically removed and replaced by false teeth before anything serious went wrong. But, then, she had always associated dentures with old age, and it was this association that kept her from making an appointment with the dentist.

Her anxious inspection of teeth and gums was suddenly interrupted by the ringing of the telephone.

“Oh, god!” cried Blanche, hearing in the shrill ring an accusation returning to her after the passage of twenty-five years. “Has she found the doll?”

The telephone continued to ring while Blanche stood observing her indecision in the mirror. Finally, she hurried out of the bathroom and picked up the receiver with an angry jerk. Fight fear with defiance, she said to herself.

“Mother?”

The youthful voice on the other end of the line said, “No,” and identified itself as the daughter of Blanche’s next-door neighbors, the Loves. Marigold Love was calling to sell Blanche a box of Girl Scout cookies, but Blanche told her that she did not care to order any because she did not eat sweets.

“Are you on a diet?” asked Marigold Love.

“Yes,” said Blanche, “I’m always on a diet; so you needn’t ever call me in the hope of selling cookies.”

“I don’t understand,” said Marigold. “You aren’t even fat.”

“I must diet–and that means avoiding Girl Scout cookies–in order to stay this way.”

“Your mom’s cool,” said Marigold. “She bought six boxes and told me to sign her up for thirty-three more.”

“That’s nice,” said Blanche.

“Do you know the significance of the number thirty-three?” asked Marigold.

“No,” said Blanche.

“Me neither, but it’s a cool number.”

“Hmm, yes, cool,” said Blanche, the word tasting bad on her tongue.

“Your mother’s not fat, and she eats cookies,” said Marigold, hoping to appeal to Blanche’s reason. “Thirty-nine boxes’ worth!”

Blanche thought of her mother’s sagging body. What Marigold said was true: her mother was not fat, but her skin had lost its youthful elasticity. Blanche tried to imagine her mother as a 300-pound fat lady in a circus sideshow and wondered whether she could be any more ashamed of the old woman than she already was.

“Perhaps her metabolism is different from mine,” said Blanche, annoyed at the need to justify herself.

“Maybe so,” said Marigold with unconcealed skepticism, “but you must not have much fun if you can’t ever eat cookies.”

“I have lots of fun.” Blanche suddenly felt defensive.

“Skinny people are boring,” said Marigold with newfound conviction.

In an effort to end the conversation before she lost her temper, Blanche told Marigold that she need not try to understand an adult woman’s eating habits right now, but that there would probably come a time when she would begin to view her own relationship to food differently. Marigold said she hoped that time would never come and then, with a cheerful adieu, hung up.

Feeling affronted by her chat with Marigold Love, Blanche fled to her bedroom and, positioning herself in front of the full-length mirror, drew off her bathrobe. Years ago, Blanche had noticed that one breast hung slightly lower than the other. The asymmetry had so irked her that she had opted for cosmetic surgery to right the balance. Now they hung evenly, one globe in perfect alignment with the other. Content with her breasts, Blanche dropped her eyes to her waist and reached for the tape measure that hung just inside her closet door. She couldn’t resist a smirk of self-satisfaction as the tape pulled taut at twenty-four inches. She measured her hips and thighs and then examined them for dimples.

Somewhat mollified by the shape of her figure, she vigorously opened the bedroom curtains and pushed the window up. As she did so, her eyes hit on Marigold Love, who was looking at her from a window directly opposite hers, a window in the Love’s yellow clapboard house. But Marigold was not alone. She and her Barbie, dressed in matching Girl Scout uniforms, occupied the window together.

“Still di-eting, Blanche?” Marigold asked as she twirled her green beret on her index finger. Then, holding the doll out toward her neighbor, she said, “Barbie wants to know. She’s helping me reach my quota.”

“Yes, I am,” Blanche answered shortly. She decided to shut the window quickly so that Marigold would not ask her about the cookies again, but Marigold was not to be deterred.

“Mayn’t we put you down for just one teensy-weensy box?” she wheedled.

“No,” said Blanche, her hands itching to slam the window. “I do not eat sweets!”

“Maybe there will come a time when you’ll view these cookies differently,” said Marigold, mimicking Blanche. And before Blanche could answer, Marigold Love popped the green beret onto her impish head and withdrew from the window. Fearful of another surprise attack, Blanche pressed the window down and jerked the curtains back across it. She turned toward the mirror, looked at her small waist and said, “I hope, Marigold, that that time will never come.”

But it did. In fact, it came that very night. As Blanche prepared for bed, she began to fear that she would have a night of insomnia caused by the anxiety attached to growing old, on top of which lay her mother’s and then Marigold Love’s frightening intrusions.

Resigning herself to a night of tossing and turning, Blanche turned off the light and crawled into bed. A minute later she got up and opened the window to allow the night air to enter the room. The breeze that ruffled the curtains on the window and made the rings jingle softly against the rod was the same breeze that cooled Blanche’s face and lulled her to sleep. And it was into this black, nocturnal realm that Marigold Love crept. As Blanche lay sleeping in the cool darkness of her bedroom, she dreamed that Marigold Love, a headless Barbie cradled in her arms, had entered her room and was perched on the window- sill, eating Girl Scout cookies.

“I know what you’re afraid of,” said Marigold between bites of cookie.

Marigold hopped off the sill and approached Blanche’s bed. Although it was dark in the room, Blanche could tell that Marigold’s face did not look like it had that afternoon. It was much paler, almost white, in fact, and much smoother. And when Marigold spoke, her lips did not seem to move, nor did her eyes blink. Her features were rigid and unchanging, and yet she nevertheless managed to eat cookies and talk, for when she reached Blanche’s bedside, she said, “If you eat Girl Scout cookies, Blanche, you can have a face like mine: white and smooth and cool.”

Blanche reached out and touched Marigold’s face. It was cold and hard like porcelain but flawless in its pale beauty.

“And if it cracks, you can always replace it,” said Marigold as Blanche continued to run her fingers over the girl’s face. “Just think of that.”

When Blanche woke up the next morning, she lay in bed trying to remember her dream. It had been so real, so vivid, that she could not imagine how it was now eluding her. She looked around the room, hoping that something would prick her slovenly memory and force it to bring the dream’s contents back. The curtains at the window drew her attention. Blanche was sure the window had been open before she went to sleep. In fact, she distinctly remembered the breeze and the soft jingling of the curtain rings against the rod. But now the window was closed. The lifeless curtains seemed sinister as Blanche suddenly recalled an image of Marigold Love sitting on the windowsill, eating Girl Scout cookies. Blanche’s eyes continued their nervous roving and then hit on a small object lying on the floor by the window. It was a Girl Scout cookie. Blanche threw back the covers and swung her legs off the bed. She was wide-awake now, her eyes riveted by the cookie. Holding her breath, she walked over to the window on tiptoes and gingerly parted the curtains just an inch or two. There was no sign of Marigold twirling her green beret or playing with her Barbie, and so Blanche crouched down to examine the cookie. It had been years since she had been this close to one. Her mouth began to water as she thought about the sugar and butter and vanilla that had gone into making the badge-shaped confection, but she was afraid to touch it, afraid that it would disappear if she did, and Blanche badly wanted to eat it. She wanted the gleaming, white porcelain skin that she had seen and felt on Marigold’s face during the night.

Overcoming her fear of the cookie’s possible disintegration, Blanche picked it up and carried it into the bathroom as though it were a sacred relic. She turned on the soft, pink light and looked at the irritating little crowd of wrinkles that had caused her such consternation the day before. Then, closing her eyes, she bit into the Girl Scout cookie. Her first bite was pleasurable, for the taste brought back broken memories of family picnics and dinner parties where the enjoyment of food was central. But with her second bite, Blanche felt an uncomfortable tugging sensation beneath the surface of her face. She felt as though her skin, which had previously been the right size for fitting over the bones of her face, had suddenly shrunk three sizes. Blanche opened her eyes with trepidation and saw that her visage had turned a ghostly white and that her features had taken on the same rigid quality she had seen in Marigold’s.

This was the last glimpse Blanche ever had of her face, for as she opened her mouth to eat the last bite of the Girl Scout cookie, she felt the side of her mouth crack. And as she began to chew, her face shattered into a thousand shards of whispering porcelain.

***

As Blanche’s inert body lay faceless on the cool tile floor, Marigold and her Barbie continued to sell cookies. They delivered thirty-three boxes to Blanche’s mother, who offered them tea on the front porch and said that something extraordinary had happened.

“Before it petered out, got sick and died, the rose bush I had in the back yard always put out white blossoms. In fact, I haven’t seen a flower on it in years, but today when I was filling the bird-feeder, I noticed that a single red rose had sprouted out of those dead branches.”

“Did you pick it?” inquired Marigold, dropping two sugar cubes into her tea and helping herself to cream.

“No,” said Blanche’s mother, shaking her gray old head, “I want to let it live in its natural environment, not stuck in a pretty porcelain vase with its aching stem sunk hip-deep in stagnant water.”

“That’s cool,” said Marigold, nestling deeper into the brightly-flowered sofa, her Barbie seated beside her. “Why do you think it turned out red?”

“I don’t know.” Blanche’s mother looked pensive as she opened a box of cookies and arranged them on a plate. “It’s just one of life’s endless mysteries.”

“Mysteries are cool–just like the number thirty-three,” said Marigold.

“Yes,” agreed Blanche’s mother, “indeed they are.”

And the old woman, the young girl, and the beautiful doll sat contentedly drinking tea, munching cookies, and discussing the mysteries of life well into twilight.