When I was nine, my first paying job was checking for bad guys in Mrs. Meyers’s house. Mrs. Meyers, a widow in her early sixties, lived beside us. Each Wednesday evening, after my family drove Mrs. Meyers home from church, my year-and-a-half older sister, Heather, and I ran inside to open closets and lift dust ruffles. I didn’t know why Mrs. Meyers was still scared of being alone; it had been years since she’d lost her husband, Johnny, whose portrait hung above a model ship and a pair of dutch wooden clogs on the mantel.
She tended her jungle-like back yard, fearless against snakes and bugs, fighting the battle of weeds and leaves under a thick canopy of trees and vines. So why was she scared of the dark? And what did she expect us—two little girls— to do against whatever she feared might be hiding in that house after dark?
Still, when she unlocked the door, we bolted in ahead of her like two bobby-socked body guards while Mrs. Meyers screeched, “If there’s anyone in here, you’d better git.”
“If there’s anyone in here, you’d better git.”
There were many rooms for someone to hide in, each room opening into the next like a labyrinth. In each room, I tensed a bit, afraid that I might actually find someone hiding, that arms would grab me before I could jump back from the closet door, that eyes would stare back when I peeked beneath the bed. The back room was the scariest, the room where Mama Kitty, Mrs. Meyers’s cat, perpetually produced kittens like some kind of back-room business. Her kitten production room was an added-on bedroom with furniture against every inch of wall. My surveillance consisted of poking my head in then running out, barely making enough movement to disturb Mama Kitty where she nursed a new litter in a corner box.
After inspecting each room, Heather and I rendezvoused in the kitchen where Mrs. Meyers distributed our payment of two Oreo-ish looking cookies that did not fool me: they were off-brand chocolate sandwich cookies.
Years of attending Vacation Bible School snack times had turned me into a cheap-cookie connoisseur. VBS programs operate under a simple mantra: “Jesus loves you kids, but by golly, you’re getting Rose Art crayons and the cheapest cookies money can buy.” I knew the difference between store-brand, grainy chocolate chip cookies that scattered crumbs on my lap and the Soft Bake cookies that melted in my mouth and came in the red resealable bag. I scoffed at the flower shaped cookies (the ones I could wear like rings on my fingers) with brown smudges as the so-called chocolate chips. I could detect nuanced differences between real Nilla Wafers and the cardboard tasting off-brand discs. Animal crackers were the one cookie I could count on to always be the same, except for the pink-iced animal crackers, a level of decadence that I never once remember receiving in all my years of VBS-ing.
The Oreo knock-offs were the easiest to detect. Oreos had a proper ratio of chocolate wafer to creamy center, blending into the perfect pasty pair on my tongue. The off-brand sandwich cookies crumbled with too much dry cookie to the less-sweet sticky cream. The cookie and cream clashed, each vying for attention in my mouth, strangers rather than partner.
My childish self-importance was insulted that Mrs. Meyers thought it okay to place those off-brand tokens of thanks into the same hands that she placed her safety. One night, done with the cheap payment, I blurted, “Next time you go to the store, will you get those soft chocolate chip cookies in the red bag?” Another elderly lady we knew, Mrs. Burdette, served us Soft Bake cookies when we visited her. Since my mom never bought them for us, I assumed they were expensive, the pièce de résistance of cookies. If I were going to ask for a raise, I might as well ask for the best.
Mrs. Meyers chuckled and held out the fake Oreos. The next Wednesday, she hobbled up her concrete walk alone, turning to wave after she’d flipped on the light. She never employed us again. Looking back now, I wonder if she didn’t need me at all. I wonder if, in addition to cheap cookies, she was simply giving me the chance to enjoy a sense of purpose and adventure every Wednesday night by putting aside my fear to give someone else peace of mind. Once she realized I was only in it for the cookies, maybe it wasn’t fun for her anymore.
That night, after Heather’s report of my ingratitude, my parents convinced me to curb my cookie snobbery. Today there’s hardly a cookie I’d turn away, brand name or not.
But, in an appropriate twist of punishment fitting the crime, sometimes Mrs. Meyers’s house is the setting of my most frightening dreams.