Prime Evil

During the first five years of my life I never did anything wrong. "Wrong" for a small child is defined by a parent's commandment, and I was a good kid. When I was told to stop what I was doing I turned to something that would have been forbidden as well had anyone thought of it.

In my house dessert was two cookies; special occasions took precedence, but for a typical day's lunch or dinner dessert was exactly two of whatever cookies we had in the jar at the time. I don't remember a time before I knew this.

At the age of five I was the youngest child, which meant that each day after kindergarten I was alone with my mother; lunch was the first order of business and that was served at a child-scale square table and rocking chair. My mother prepared one peanut butter and jelly sandwich and set it in front of me on a plastic plate, cut neatly in half, vertically. (When later I saw sandwiches cut diagonally I thought them awfully adventurous and didn't dare to try it myself--though I always nursed a certain jealousy about it.) Then when I was finished she would fetch two cookies from the jar and that was that, every day.

I remember the day she was at work at the laundry, I think, downstairs; she came up when I got home to talk a little and serve me my lunch, and went back downstairs to let me eat it, one sandwich half at a time. When I was done I waited. The way I remember it, I sat there for quite a little while before I realized she was downstairs, she couldn't see me or hear me, and of course she didn't know I was through with my sandwich. So I decided it would be just as easy for me to get my own dessert.

The cookies in the jar that day were Nutter Butters--big waffly brown oblong cookies I could barely hold in my hand, and I can clearly recall staring down through the mouth of the jar at the jumbled wealth of them, with my hand inside groping for the two I'd earned. I stood on tiptoe with a cookie in each hand, still peeking down into the jar, for a long moment before I set a cookie down with my eyes wide and fished out a third.

I capped the jar and goose-stepped back to my table as quickly as I could, three cookies gripped between my hands in front of me. Before I could fully sit down I was gobbling up a cookie, racing to take a little bite out of a second so that if my mother reappeared she wouldn't wonder what I was chewing on. It took forever. Each muffled thump of the laundry machines seemed like it must be her foot at the kitchen door.

I slowed down when I reached my second cookie, feeling safe and smug, and a little awestruck at my own audacity. I was easily in the clear; I finished all the cookies with time to spare. In fact, it was several lazy moments after I'd finished when my mother did bustle back into the kitchen, smiling. I looked at her guardedly, still worried that she might realize what I'd done, but she only scooped up my empty plate and fetched me two cookies for dessert.

And I didn't say a word. I just ate the cookies, about as satisfied as a five-year-old boy can get, and thanked her very much. Twenty years later I still don't think I've ever told her I got five cookies that day.

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