She was working as fast as she could, but the line moved slowly. I was passing the time with the sports page, idly considering whether the 49ers were worth $100 and three points against the Rams, when my attention was drawn to the elderly woman in front of me in line. By her stoop and wrinkles I figured she was in her early 70s, or a hard 65 at least. She was wearing a grey dress, but it was nearly obscured by a heavy black sweater that hung almost to the hemline. She was leaning forward, weight on her cane, her nose to the display case, examining the cookies with the calm, fierce attention of a hawk. Taken by the force of her concentration, I folded the sports page and said pleasantly, “It’s always tough to decide.”
Her gaze didn’t flicker.
I couldn’t blame her for ignoring me. Why should an old woman, in a culture of muggers, rapists, and rip-off artists, encourage the idle conversation of some bearded and obviously half-demented hippie from the hills, where he probably grew tons of marijuana and did Lord-knows-what to the sheep. I felt the little wash of sadness that comes when your good intentions are blanked by cultural circumstances. I didn’t persist.
When it was the old woman’s turn, in a thick Slavic accent she ordered three chocolate chip cookies. “The big ones,” she specified, tapping the glass to indicate her choice.
The harried clerk dutifully plucked out three of the saucer-sized cookies with a confectioner’s tissue. I noticed one of the cookies had a small chunk broken off its side. So did the old woman: “None that are broke!” she commanded.
The clerk gave her a smile on automatic pilot and replaced the defective cookie, slipping them into a white sack and placing it on the counter. “A dollar-seventy-six please,” she told the old woman.
The old woman turned her back to me and began fumbling in her purse, which was the size of a small knitting bag. After much muttering she finally produced two dollar bills rolled together and neatly bound with a yellow rubber band. She addressed the clerk with a staunch formality: “Also I would like some peanut butter cookies. The little ones. Twenty-four cents of them.”
The clerk, with a look that pleaded God, I wish my period would start, scooped out three small peanut butter cookies and, without bothering to weigh them, slipped them in the bag with the others. The old woman rolled the yellow rubber band off the two bills and spread them out on the counter, pausing to smooth them flat before she secured the white sack in her knitting-bag purse, dropped in the yellow rubber band and the receipt, and left at a brisk shuffle. I lost sight of her in the flow of the crowd as I stepped forward to place my order.
About a half hour later, however, while I was sitting on a bench at the other end of the mall, still pondering the money and points as I polished off a last hot dog, the old woman appeared and, after considerable maneuvering, plopped herself down on the far end of the bench.
Without any acknowledgment of my presence, she opened the white bag from the Cookie Jar. At a bite each, with slow and luscious enjoyment, she ate the three small peanut butter cookies. When she’d finished, she peered into the bag to check the other three, the big ones, and then, as if to confirm their existence, their promise of delight, she named them one by one:
Sunday with tea.”