Green Hills Literary Lantern

For Sale

 

 

 

 

 

Susan tugged at the side of her uniform as she trudged along the sidewalk. Like the rings of a tree stump, two telltale creases, spaced about an inch apart, ran around the circumference of the muted green fabric. Her mother’s diligence—and love, evident in the hours she’d spent ironing, trying to get the material to lay flat—hadn’t been able to keep up with her daughter’s anatomy. Four inches in six months, and all of it in her legs. “If you keep going at this rate, you’ll need a new uniform before the end of the school year.” Susan knew her mother hoped it wouldn’t come to that, that somehow, she’d make it to being a cadet first. All of her sisters had been cadets and their uniform hung, waiting for its next tour of duty, in the storage closet. A new Girl Scout uniform now, with no one behind her to recycle it, was a luxury they couldn’t afford.

Susan normally didn’t mind wearing hand-me-downs. With more older sisters than money to go around, it was something she’d gotten used to, and sometimes even loved. No matter how many times an article of clothing was washed, it still seemed to retain the stamp of its original owner, a constant reminder that she was not alone. But the Girl Scout uniform was something else all together. Susan had come to dread Wednesdays, when she had to don her uniform for her after-school troop meeting. It wasn’t that the uniform was too small, but that it made her feel too big. She hated the expanse between the hem, which hit her mid-thigh, and her knees, gawking so obviously into the open, and how, when the wind blew, she could feel it up to her underwear.

            Susan kicked absentmindedly at a leaf, black and sodden from the recent winter thaw. Her head was bent over a piece of glossy, colorful cardboard balanced carefully on top of her school books.

            Three weeks ago, Mrs. Brunn, her troop leader, had distributed the order forms for the annual Girl Scout cookie sale. After she had done so, Mrs. Brunn sat on a table in the school library where they met and gave the girls circled around her a pep talk. “For the past three years, since I’ve been leader of Troop 1472, we have sold more boxes of Girl Scout cookies than any other troop in the state. Now I know you are all going to do your part to uphold that tradition.

            “This year,” she continued, “there’s an added incentive. My husband’s toy store is going to donate a Malibu Barbie, complete with wardrobe, wardrobe case and camper, which will be awarded to the girl who individually sells the most cookies.”

            Since then, Susan had been completely preoccupied with this sheet. Every day after school, instead of switching into her play clothes, she put on her uniform and the accompanying dark-green sash heavy with badges and peddled Girl Scout cookies until she had to go home to set the table for dinner. She followed the same routine on Saturday afternoons. At night before she fell asleep, she imagined the outfits she would dress Barbie in, and the applause that would crack through the room when Mrs. Brunn announced her name.

            The part of St. Louis where Susan lived was less like a sprawling suburb than a small, densely populated town. She was thus able to knock on more doors for fewer steps and she didn’t have far to go until she reached those tree-lined streets where the homes, the yards and the pocketbooks were more magisterial than in her own neighborhood. These, however, had proved to be more disappointing than Susan expected. Each time she turned off the sidewalk and began the long ascent up the flagstone walkway, she could feel her cheeks grow hot. It wasn’t from the exertion, but from the excitement, from the certainty, which mounted with each step, that this would be the one that would put victory in her hands.

            But it never was. Two boxes, three boxes, five at the absolute most. It was usually the wives who answered the door, revealing an impressive silence of space behind them. They always seemed to frown slightly when she talked, and to look more at the length of her hem than at her face. And she always felt like the doll she’d wanted for Christmas last year—depending on which way you turned the knob, the doll’s hair would get longer or shorter, and shorter, and shorter, the excess disappearing into a hole in the top of her head. As a rule, Susan would decline the milk and cookies they invariably offered—“We’ve got to make room for yours, now don’t we?” they’d say with a smile—and press on to the next door.

            No one knew how many cookies she’d sold except Mrs. Brunn, who, for all her ambition, was somewhat astonished to be handing Susan her fourth order form in the space of three weeks. Not even her best friend, Lucy. She was more interested in playing than in selling Girl Scout cookies and had thought that together they could make it much more fun, rubbing angels in the snow when they got bored, or playing in the creek, or writing another chapter of their current saga. But Susan hadn’t wanted company, and she still hadn’t told Lucy how many cookies she’d sold, even though Lucy pestered her daily, “Come on, just tell me! What’s the big deal?” Susan always scrunched her eyes together and then, after a moment or two, said that she couldn’t remember exactly. “Thirty, maybe?” Both of which were lies, of course. Not only did she know the exact number, but how many each family had bought and of which sort. Her mother, with 25, headed the list. “We’ve got to have cookies of some sort, so they might as well be Girl Scout cookies,” she had said, explaining her extravagance. “It’s just too bad the prize isn’t a new uniform, though.” Their next-door neighbors, the Mullens, were the second highest, with 10 boxes, all of them Thin Mints. The rest, like the orders from the women at the end of the flagstone walks, were in the two- to three-box range.

            The grand total of 143 had come more from Susan’s own doggedness than any one person’s generosity. And from one of her mother’s brainstorms. Several blocks away from their home was the university, its administrative buildings lining one side of the street, the dormitories, filled with homesick and hungry students, the other. It was, her mother had thought, a match made in heaven. Many of the students hadn’t answered the door on the Saturday morning Susan knocked, even though she could often hear the strains of Bob Dylan or Joan Baez—music she knew from her sisters—seeping through the wood. Still, she sold more cookies than on all the other days put together.

            Susan slipped the order form back between her books. There was nothing it could tell her, not where to go or who else to ask, and it seemed, unfortunately, complete. She began to kick at stray leaves again, halfheartedly at first and then more vigorously, her legs swinging out in front of her, goose-step fashion. She didn’t pay much attention to where she was going, simply followed the forward thrust of her legs. Left at one corner. Right at the next, and then left again. Left. Left. Left right left.

            Susan stopped suddenly. Her hips ached, but even more than that, she realized that she had stumbled onto a part of town that she’d never seen before. She was surprised. She had covered a lot of ground on her selling missions and thought that, except for the “bad” parts of town, she’d been everywhere there was to go. The houses here were even bigger than those with the flagstone walks, the yards like rolling green oceans. Susan felt the familiar flush rise in her cheeks. Even though the houses were far apart and it was already getting dark, she thought she could hit at least two or three before it was time to go home for dinner. One of them, she was certain, had to be the one.

            A white wooden fence stood sentry on the property of the first house. Susan followed it to the end of the block and around the corner, where it opened to allow the orange gravel driveway, and those traveling on it, access to the outside world. The driveway snaked its way leisurely through the grounds, past a pond, slate-gray and still in its nest of cattails, a pocket of oak trees, and a trellised summer house. It finally fanned out at the front of the house, where a green, wood-paneled station wagon was parked.

            The house was immense and somewhat reminiscent of a Southern plantation. A roofed veranda, supported by pillars, stretched across the crisp white wooden façade like a smile. With its two wrought iron benches and potted tree, it gave the house a gracious and welcoming feel.

            Susan marched confidently past the station wagon and up the steps of the veranda to the door. Ruby red, it seemed to burst into the bleary January landscape. Susan pushed her shoulders back, pulled her uniform straight and reached forward to press the doorbell. The door was slightly ajar. She paused for a moment, considering the crack. It looked very dark against the white of the doorframe.

            She decided to ring the bell anyway. It tinkled sweetly, yet loudly. Susan waited, straining to hear any stirring of the silence within. She waited a few seconds and then rang again, pushing the button several times in a row. Once the last of the tinkling had faded, the only sound was the slight catch in Susan’s breath as she sucked in, counting “One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi . . .” She counted first to 10 and then to 25. Nobody came to the door.

            Susan kicked at the scuffed toe of her shoe. If she hurried, she could still make it to a couple of other houses before dark. But she couldn’t shake the nagging insistence, which had been swelling like a storm since she first started down the driveway, that this one would be the one. The station wagon in the driveway and the crack in the door fed her stubbornness. I bet they’ve just got the TV turned up really loud, Susan thought.

            She stared at the thin black line between the door and the doorframe. It looked strange, and the longer she looked at it, the stranger it became—as though it were pulsating ever so slightly. She began to wonder if her eyes were playing tricks on her and shoved impulsively against the door, just to check. Despite its solidity, the door swung smoothly and silently open.

            Susan squinted into the mouth of the black cave, trying to make out shapes, trying to summon up the courage to go in. She rubbed her palms on the bottom of her skirt. They were sweating, and the darkness in front of her seemed almost more impenetrable than the door.

            “Hello? Hello?” Susan called out as she entered the house, hoping that her voice would reach whoever was inside before the slap of her shoes. She left the door partially open to let in some light and crossed the foyer, passing an expansive dining room and an equally expansive living room. A wall of athletic trophies shimmered wanly.

            At the far end of what seemed to be a hall, Susan saw a faint, yet inviting wedge of light. Her breath came out in a rush. “I knew somebody was home!”

            The hall, she realized as she approached, didn’t really stop, but continued to the right, into a much narrower passageway running along the back of the house. The passageway was lined with windows—the source of the inviting light. Looking out the nearest window one, she could see, perpendicular to the hall, another wing of the house. Almost the entire façade of the ground floor was glass and light streamed into the courtyard from its jack o’ lantern eyes.

            Susan strained to see inside the house. Her grip tightened on the window sill as she made out the top of a head. The hair was brown, the head itself bent forward, as though working or looking at something on a counter. A woman’s head. Susan wished she could see the face, see if it were friendly and welcoming, or one bitter and closed against the unexpected. There was only one way to find out, but she hesitated, twisting the corner of her skirt around her index finger, wishing she’d thought to polish her shoes, wishing she were already a cadet, wishing there’d been a gate on the fence.

            But there’s a reason why I’m here.

            Susan pulled the order form out from between her books and placed it on top of them, meticulously adjusting the corners so they lined up. Then she set off down the hall, checking in each window she passed to see if the woman had raised her head. She hadn’t. Susan blinked several times as she reached the doorway. The entire kitchen was white and every light blazed, including the one in the oven. The effect was blinding.

            Susan knocked on the frame of the door.

            “Hello?”

            The woman turned slowly from the counter.

            “I thought I’d heard something,” she said.

            She still had not raised her head to address her uninvited guest, but was instead staring intently down at her hands. Susan gasped. In one hand, the woman clutched a finely tuned butcher’s knife. The other was leaking bright red pearls of blood onto the white linoleum. The woman seemed confused, as if she couldn’t quite believe that those were her hands or that it was her blood collecting in a pool at her feet.

            “Oh, my God!”

            The woman lifted her head slowly and looked at Susan. Her eyes were watery.

            “I was just trying to make dinner,” she said. Susan glanced over at the kitchen counter. The surface gleamed, white and empty.

            Although her mother had always told her that it was impolite to stare, Susan couldn’t help it, especially since the woman seemed to have forgotten all about her and was once again transfixed by her bleeding hand. She felt strange standing there, arms limp at her sides, knees knobby and naked, watching the woman watch her hand, like she’d stepped into something intimate. After a while, she realized that unless she did something, the two of them would watch the blood fall until the woman joined it on the floor. She tried to remember what she had learned in Girl Scouts about wounds. She cleared her throat.

            “Um, Mrs . . .?”

            The woman raised her head.

            “It hurts.”

            The woman lurched forward, thrown off balance by the slight movement of her head. Susan jumped, spilling her books in the process, to catch the woman, but she righted herself on her own, like one of those punching bags with the sand in the bottom. Susan wrinkled her nose at the pungent, yet fruity smell that enveloped her. The woman smelled like one of her mother’s Christmas fruitcakes. Saturated.

            She gingerly loosened the woman’s white-clenched knuckles and set the knife on the counter. “I think we’ve got to do something about your hand,” she said as she took the woman by the elbow and led her to the sink. “Now, girls,” she could hear Mrs. Brunn saying, “the first thing you have to do is to clean the wound. This is extremely important. If you don’t clean the wound properly, you run the risk of infection.” Susan turned on the tap and held the woman’s hand under it.

            “Hey, that’s cold,” she said, trying to pull away.

            Susan tightened her grip on the woman’s wrist and let the water run for 30 seconds or so before turning off the tap. She inspected the woman’s fingers. The white fish-gill cuts were fairly deep and blood continued to ooze out of them. She tried to remember what she was supposed to do next.

            The woman squeezed Susan’s wrist. “It’s not serious, is it.”

            Pressure. That was it. Susan grabbed a dishtowel from the rack and carefully wound it around the woman’s fingers. She led her over to the kitchen table and helped her into a chair, placing her elbow on the table so that the wounded hand pointed toward the ceiling. Susan wrapped the fingers of the woman’s other hand around the towel and squeezed them closed.

            “We just learned this in Girl Scouts. You’ve got to elevate the wounded area above the heart so the blood flows away from it. And you’ve got to apply lots of pressure to it, like this.” Susan tightened her fingers around the woman’s, hoping she would understand.

            “Oh, God, isn’t that just my luck. Saved by a Girl Scout.”

            Susan stared at the woman.

            “Yoo-hoo. Anybody home?” she asked, waving her hooded hand in the air.

            Susan swallowed hard. “Oh yeah. Um, okay, now, keep squeezing while I go look for some Band-Aids.”

            The woman watched Susan as she opened several different cupboards.

            “They’re not there.”

            Susan looked at her expectantly.

            “They’re in the hall.”

            Susan couldn’t imagine how many halls there were in the house, but she knew one of them and she was tempted to follow it straight out the front door. But then she thought of the blood, soaking the white towel red. And of what Mrs. Brunn had said, about a Girl Scout’s duty. She was ready to start looking when the woman spoke.

            “I meant in the bathroom in the hall.”

            That didn’t clarify matters much, but then the woman motioned with her bundled hands to the left of the kitchen. Susan found the bathroom at the end of the passageway. The Band-Aids were in the medicine cabinet above the sink.

            Susan pulled up a chair next to the woman. She took the woman’s hand into her own and unwound the towel from her fingers. She was anxious to see if what Mrs. Brunn had taught them really worked. She wasn’t sure what she would do if it didn’t. Susan let out a sigh of relief. The bleeding had all but stopped and the flaps of skin even seemed to have closed a bit. The woman stared intently at her open hand. She gently touched each cut with the tip of her index finger, which she then inspected for blood. She flexed her fingers a couple of times. Finally, she smiled.

            “This,” she said, “is cause for celebration. No one will be able to tell that anything ever happened.” She started to get up from her chair, but Susan caught her arm.

            “I think maybe we should put some Band-Aids on first.”

            The woman sighed and sat back down. She dutifully held up her hand so that Susan could cover each half-mooned slice with a Band-Aid.

            “Now!” The woman rose from her chair and walked with concentrated care over to the sink. She stuck her head underneath it and rooted through the various bottles and boxes of cleaner, dishwasher detergent and soap. Eventually, she found what she was looking for and pulled out a bottle filled with brown liquid.

            “It’s funny,” she said, as she filled her glass. “Gerald is so clever, but he never thinks to look there. It must be his aversion to housecleaning. Or to the house.” She quickly swallowed half of the liquid; her hand shook a little, but it had stopped by the time she filled her glass a second time. She walked back to the kitchen table, with only a hint of unsteadiness in her step.

            “Well, that was certainly a close call, wasn’t it?” The woman sat down and cocked her glass at Susan. “How can I ever repay you?”

            Susan was suddenly aware of her heart in her chest. It had started to beat faster.

            “Um, well, actually, there is something.”

            The woman raised an eyebrow. “Oh, there is, is there?”

            “Remember how I told you I was a Girl Scout?” Susan swallowed. “That’s why I’m even here. I’m selling Girl Scout cookies. My troop, you know, there’s this contest. We’ve sold the most cookies in the state for the last three years. And the girl who sells the most gets a prize. A Malibu Barbie, you know, the new ones, that are bendable and have long blond hair and a tan . . .” She stopped abruptly. She was talking too much.

            The woman swallowed the last of her drink and walked back over to the counter. She made herself a fresh one and settled back against the counter, arms crossed, glass in hand, considering Susan.

            “What are your chances of winning?”

            “I’m not quite sure.” Susan hesitated. “Pretty good . . . maybe. I’m pretty sure I’ve sold more cookies than anyone I know, but . . .” Her voice trailed off.

            The woman smiled at Susan. Her smile was slightly lopsided, and her eyes seemed to swim once again behind a film of water.

            “But you can never be too sure, can you? That’s what I always hated about games. There should be some way of reducing the odds.”

            Susan looked down at the hem of her uniform. “I thought maybe you could, um, you know, help me.” She recognized her voice. It was the one she used to get her mother to let her spend not one, but two nights at Lucy’s. Her face didn’t go red though, like it usually did.

            The woman set her glass down on the counter with a clink. “I probably can. Why don’t you go and get your order form?”

            Susan got up from the kitchen table and retrieved the piece of cardboard from the floor. It had partially landed in the puddle of blood. She brushed the splotches away as best she could before handing it to the woman. The woman smiled bemusedly at Susan and gave her a paper towel for her hands.

            She quickly scanned the few entries on the new order form. “You haven’t sold as many as you let on, have you?” she asked. Susan started to contradict her, to explain about the other, complete order forms at home, but stopped herself. There are lots of ways of reducing the odds, she thought.

            “Do you have a pen?”

            Susan stood at the woman’s elbow at the counter while she considered the options presented on the form. She swayed a little as she filled in the appropriate boxes. She pursed her lips and glanced over the form one last time. When she seemed satisfied, she put the cap back on the pen and gave it and the order form back to Susan.

            “That ought to take care of things between us,” she said. She tipped her glass back until the last of the brown liquid had run down her throat. “And now, you’d better run along home. I’ve got to get back to my dinner and your mother must be worried sick about you. Do you want to call her and tell her that you’re still out selling cookies?”

            Susan shook her head. Then she went over and collected her books from the floor. Without a word, the woman ripped another paper towel off the roll and gave it to Susan so she could wipe the blood off them. The woman held out her hand to take the dirty paper.

            After she’d deposited it in the trash can under the sink, she placed a hand on Susan’s shoulder and escorted her, through the dark, to the front door. When they reached the door, the woman turned on the light for the veranda.

            She held the door open for Susan, leaning against it slightly, and extended her hand. “I hope you win,” she said as she shook Susan’s hand. “And thanks.” She waved and then firmly shut the bright red door.

            Susan stood alone on the veranda, staring at the closed door. There was no crack anymore, to look in or out. She waited until the woman’s footsteps had disappeared down the hall and then, somewhat surreptitiously, pulled out her order form. Her heart stopped. The woman had ordered 150 boxes of Girl Scout cookies. She’s right, Susan thought, this is cause for celebration.

            She slid the order form back in between her school books and shifted them to her hip for the long walk home. She was going to be late for dinner. Susan glanced back at the door, wondering if the woman was really all right. And then, in the light spilling onto the veranda, she noticed something on the side of her uniform. It hadn’t been there in the morning, she knew that, when she’d retrieved her uniform crisp and fresh from the laundry room. She bent down to inspect it more closely. Five splotches of blood, gone brown on the green fabric. Her own fingerprints. She must have wiped them on her uniform when she’d cleaned the order form, or her books. Susan’s heart sank as she thought of her mother, of the permanent furrow between her eyebrows. She always said that blood stains were the hardest to get out of all.

 

 

Margaret Ries currently lives in Edinburgh with her husband and five-year-old daughter. Before that, she lived in Berlin for 13 years, a city she loves and which provided the inspiration and setting for her first novel, Shadow Jumping, as yet unpublished. “For Sale” is her first story to be accepted for publication.