When my mother finally gives me permission to go to the neighbor’s house to sell Girl Scout cookies, I grab the illustrated order form and throw on my sash. The fabric loops heavy around my torso, weighted by the pins and badges I’ve earned so far this year. My troopmates and I meet once a week in the basement of the Methodist church. We learn to draw maps and sew. We make first aid kits. At one meeting, when the troop leader isn’t listening, an older Scout uses the word “pussy.” For too long, I think she’s talking about her cat.
Order form in hand, I march across the front yard and through our small trailer park, past discarded toys and soggy sod. Springtime mud sucks at my shoes, but I don’t mind. It’s the dry weather I don’t like. That’s when the garden spiders come out - black and yellow, as big as Easter eggs. They gather in the tall grass by the driveway. They spread their legs wide between the reeds. They spin their webs, white and wispy, like a dead man’s hair.
Sometimes at night, the spiders venture all the way to the door of our trailer. They make their nets and wait for prey. I dream about them, about what they will do if they get inside. I imagine them on the carpet, on the curtains. I feel them crawling on my skin.
One hot summer day, my father slipped on his fishing waders and started the lawn mower. He pushed the mower into the grass and made the spiders disappear. Their webs, destroyed. Their bodies, mulched. I watched from the living room window, horrified and delighted all at once.
I knock on the neighbor’s door. He invites me inside, then asks about each type of cookie. Trefoils are shortbread, I answer. Tagalongs have peanut butter. As he looks over the order form, I peek at his kitchen, at his couch, at his trailer that looks a lot like mine. Aluminum siding, wood-paneled walls, brown carpet. In a trailer park, everything is brown. The houses. The dirt. The dirt we track into the house and sweep under the rugs. Even the cookies are brown.
He says he’ll take two boxes of each, plus some Thin Mints. He buys a lot of cookies, probably because he’s stoned, although I don’t know that yet. I don’t know a lot of things. Like how many beers my dad drinks on his drive home from work, or how many more he has after we all go to bed. Or that he drinks because he is anxious, because he is overwhelmed, because he is sad and misses his mother, who died on Valentine’s Day. I don’t know yet what addiction means. Or depression. These are things I will learn in time, and there will be no badges for any of it.
A few weeks after my father mowed the spiders, more came back. Black and yellow, bigger than ever. They stretched their legs. They built their webs. They came to me in dreams, crawling and crawling.
Cookies are two dollars a box. Let me get my wallet, the neighbor says. Then he disappears down a long, dark hallway. My trailer has a hallway too, with the light switch at the far end. You have to walk all the way down, fumbling through blackness, before you can turn it on, before you can see what’s in front of you, or what’s behind.
I wonder if the neighbor has the same light. I wonder if he’s really getting his wallet. He’s a big man, with dark hair and eyes, and for a moment, I think maybe I should leave. Take my order form and go, back over the soggy yard, to my mother who is waiting at home. To the spiders and the darkness. To my father, asleep in his chair in front of the TV. Instead I stay. I stay because my troop is counting on me. Because there’s a cookie badge on the line. Because there’s nothing here at my neighbor’s house any scarier than the things at my own.
He comes back, a wad of bills in hand. I put tiny pen marks next to his name, next to the things he’s ordered. I take the money and say goodbye, promise to return when the cookies are in. I cross his yard and then my own, straightening my sash, which is about to get a little heavier.
-- Wendy Fontaine is a multi-genre writer whose work has appeared in Full Grown People, Hippocampus Magazine, Mud Season Review, River Teethand elsewhere. She’s been nominated for a Pushcart, awarded the Tiferet Prize for Creative Nonfiction, and featured as a speaker at literary conferences around the country. A New England native, she currently resides in southern California, where she is at work on a novel, a memoir and a collection of flash essays.