TF: Reaching for the cookie sack

TF: Reaching for the cookie sack September 28, 2010

Tribulation Force, pp. 265-268

"We have time for a cookie," Buck says to Chloe as she walks with him on the airplane on the way to his flight to Cincinnati.

Buck doesn't just mean a cookie, he means a cookie-cookie — nudge, nudge, know what I mean? Say no more … know what I mean? He's thinking of the Cookie Incident, which he is desperate to re-enact and relive. And he wants to know if Chloe is eager to relive it too.

The day they had met, Chloe had eaten a cookie and he had dabbed a tiny piece of chocolate from the corner of her mouth with his thumb. Not knowing what to do with it, he had licked it off.

The Cookie Incident was a milestone for Buck and Chloe because it was the first time they made physical contact. I'm not totally sure of this, but it may actually be the only time they've made physical contact. At all. These are people, remember, who have to work their way up to a "hand-holding stage. " For our protagonists and readers who come from this no-touching-during-courtship subculture, Buck's actions during the Cookie Incident were bold, shocking, even risqué.  Thumb to lip contact — that's third base! His thumb touched her mouth and then his own — that's almost like kissing, the sort of thing proper courtship says ought to be saved for the wedding night.

If you're unfamiliar with this subculture, you probably think I'm exaggerating. See for yourself. Google around the term "courtship" or look up Bill Gothard or the student handbook for Pensacola Christian College. Read about how a couple's first kiss should be saved for the day of their wedding and get a sense of how fraught with meaning, tension and terror any physical contact is for these folks. Reading that stuff illustrates how thin and porous the line is between constant vigilance and obsession. Their never-ending quest for sexual purity makes them seem dirty-minded. Things that most people would not regard as even remotely sexual are, for them, completely eroticized.

For a reminder of how that plays out here in these pages, just go back to that hilariously repressed first paragraph of the first book:

Rayford Steele's mind was on a woman he had never touched. With his fully loaded 747 on autopilot, tumescent and throbbing …

OK, yeah, I added those last three words, but I hardly needed to. The inexplicable thing about this perspective here is how Buck and Chloe came to such a place. They didn't grow up inside this bubble. Chloe wasn't at Pensacola or Bob Jones, she went to Stanford. And Buck is supposedly a world-traveling sophisticate. This kind of deep-seated repression and eroticizing of the world isn't something you can convert to in your 20s or 30s. You have to be born into it without access to or knowledge of the alternatives.

A bit too over-eagerly, Buck steers Chloe to an airport cookie vendor, where they attempt to recapture the spark of their earlier airport flirtation by repeating the same joke they told the first time:

"You feel like a cookie?" he said, setting her up the way she had him in New York that first day.

"Why, do I look like one?"

Buck laughed, not because the joke was any funnier that the first time, he decided, but because it was theirs and it was stupid.

That phrase isn't bad — "because it was theirs." It's a rare instance of Jerry Jenkins doing his job — identifying something true in the particular and in the universal and describing it for his human readers in a way that might spark the insight that comes from recognition.

That recognizably human phrase fills me with an unfamiliarly pleasant inclination toward Jenkins.

This lasts until the following sentence, which destroys it entirely:

"I'm really not hungry," she said as they peered through the glass as a bored teenager waited for their order.

Yes, it's the bored teenager in food service. That's a recognizable stereotype — one we're all familiar with. But like, say, a crying baby, or a mother pushing a stroller, it would no longer be a part of the post-Event landscape Buck and Chloe are strolling through here. Six weeks after the Event, "bored teenagers" will not be working at the cookie stand at the airport.

I think, maybe, we can imagine a way to get this kid to this job in this place, but I can't figure out a way to make him bored. Boredom requires dull, workaday routine, and that doesn't seem like a possibility here.

Sheila would have been furious to hear Buck describe Donny as looking "bored." Hadn't the man ever seen grief before?

The child — and in this new world, Donny was just a baby, about as young anyone still left here could be — was only just beginning to emerge from the shell-shocked state she had found him in weeks ago. In some other context, in some other world, she could understand how someone could confuse his grief for boredom. The two things look a bit alike from afar, with the grief-stricken appearing numb or catatonic, patiently, quietly waiting for … something, biding the time dazed and depressed.

That's how Donny looked when Sheila first spotted him about two weeks after it happened. She was just re-opening her cookie stand and, like everyone else at the airport, was tackling the impossible task of trying to make everything seem normal again. She watched this heavy-set white boy with greasy hair and a dirty black T-shirt wandering the airport for days, aimlessly shuffling past or sitting in a chair by the window, staring out at the tarmac.

She'd watched him for several days until finally she brought him a cookie, fresh from the oven, and sat down next to him. "Fresh batch of dough and I need a taste-tester," she said, handing him one of the gooey, oversized chocolate chip cookies she sold for $3 a piece. "I need your honest and impartial opinion."

It took him a moment to realize she was talking to him, looking down at the cookie in his hand, confused until, like someone just waking up, he said "Thank you." He was polite, but seemed numb and lifeless. A "flat affect," her psychiatrist son would have said, pronouncing it AFF-ect they way he did.

They sat there, wordlessly, eating their cookies. "It was very good," he said. "Thank you." But that was all.

The next time she brought him a peanut butter cookie, and a few days later it was oatmeal raisin. But still all she knew about this big, sad child was that his name was Donny, he lived out near Naperville somewhere, and he was not allergic to nuts.

"He hardly even talks," Sheila said to her son on the phone. "And he should be in school."

"The schools are overwhelmed," her son had said. "We're still weeks away from anything like resuming normal classes, even though these kids are desperate for some kind of normal routine."

A week later, two bites into a white-chocolate and macadamia cookie, the dam broke and it all came pouring out. The crazy, horrifying morning Donny's family awoke to find his sister missing. Seven years old and just gone, same as everywhere. He told her about his mother screaming, the calls to the police, his mother running outside when the dispatcher told her it was everywhere and everyone and there was nothing they could do. His father turning on the TV and trying to make sense of it all. Two days like that in the house, unable to understand or to accept. His father angry and pacing. His mother, broken and inconsolable, accusing him with questions. His bedroom was next door to his sister's. Why hadn't he heard anything? Why hadn't he done something?

Then the phone call came from the medical examiner at the
airport. "Yes, that's my brother," he heard his father say. "But he lives in — … I see."

Uncle Donny, his namesake, had been flying in for a surprise visit. His plane had been among those littering the runways the morning after.

So at last they had something to do. Once the roads were clear enough, they drove to the airport and were taken in a van to a cluster of huge white tents on a back runway. Inside the tent labeled "H-M" they were steered through a maze of curtained areas. Donny had been expecting they would wind up in a room like on the cop shows on TV. Some kindly doctor would be standing beside a sheet-covered body. He would pull back a corner of the sheet and his father would look down at his brother and nod.

But there was no body on a table, no body at all. His uncle, like his sister, was just gone.

So when he couldn't bear another moment in that house with his broken mother and his enraged father, Donny would get in his mother's car and just drive, wandering for hours until always, somehow, arriving back here at the airport. He couldn't say why here, but Sheila understood.

Eventually, she put him to work. She'd never had an assistant before and she didn't really need one — especially now, with so few travelers since the Event — but she thought it would help him to have somewhere to be and something to do until he was done waiting for the grief to become something he could survive facing.

She thought it was working, a little bit at least. She had gently encouraged him to start taking better care of himself, and he'd begun showing up cleaner, in fresh clothes, ready to work. The grief still had him, but he spoke a little bit more and sometimes even smiled at her little jokes about the customers. He still spent most of most days in that quiet funk, with the same lifeless stare Sheila still saw on so many of the travelers who shuffled past every day.

"These are for later," Buck says of the cookies he intends to buy, suggesting that they eat them at the same time, thinking of one another, so that even though they are hundreds of miles apart they can imagine that they are together.

It's actually even more treacly the way Buck and Jenkins describe it. I'll spare you a full recitation, only mentioning that Buck's attempt to employ the phrase "synchronize our watches" romantically works about as well as you might expect.

Having devised this cookie-communion scheme, Buck decides it's time to demonstrate his manliness by being a total jerk to the cookie-shop kid:

Buck ordered two cookies in two bags.

"Can't do that," the teenager said.

"Then I want one cookie," he said, handing over the money and slipping some to Chloe.

"And I want one cookie," she said, money in hand.

The teenager made a face, bagged the cookies for each of them, and made change.

"More than one way to skin a cat," Buck said.

Let's watch that scene again, this time from Camera Two:

It was late and Donny was tired, tired enough he might actually be able to sleep.

Miss Sheila had given him a key and trusted him with locking up. The night-time cleaning was easy and Donny liked the satisfaction of looking over the tidy baking area in the back before shutting off the lights and rolling down the metal grate. The only tricky part about closing was gauging the inventory — making sure there were enough fresh cookies to last until 11, but not so many that he had dozens of left-overs that would go to waste. He'd come out on the short side tonight, finding himself with only three cookies left and fifteen minutes until closing.

A couple approached the stall and Donny walked to the counter. They ignored him, chattering to one another and staring through the glass counter at the last three lonely looking cookies there on the shelf.

Sheila would make up stories about their customers, spinning tales about where they came from and where they were going, trying to make him laugh. He looked at this couple, the guy much older than his girlfriend and wearing a leather bomber jacket. They both seemed awkward and nervous, like they didn't know what to do with their hands.

"They've just started dating," he imagined Sheila whispering. "But he won't know if it's really love until he makes her watch Top Gun. His favorite movie. Just look at that jacket. Probably makes his friends call him 'Maverick.'"

It was almost enough to make Donny smile, but he couldn't get past how strange this couple seemed — how unaffected they were by all that had just happened, how nonchalant they seemed in the face of the reminders all around them of the worst day in the history of aviation, those big white tents still busy, still full out on the back runways. Donny supposed they must not know anybody who worked out here at the airport, and that they must not have families — no little sisters or brothers whose vanishing had left behind a dark and growing hole that threatened to swallow …

But then suddenly Maverick looked up to place his order.

"I need two bags with two cookies," the guy said.

Donny pointed to the last three cookies — the same three cookies the guy had just been staring at — and said, "I can't do that, I've only got thr –"

The guy rolled his eyes, sighing loudly and making a big show out of handing money to the girl, acting like Donny had just told him there was some kind of one-cookie-per-customer rule. He started to say, "You can have as many bags as you want, I just only have three left," but then this time they only asked for two cookies, so he took their money and let it go.

He didn't begrudge them their oblivious happiness. If somehow they had managed to escape the world-shattering events that had crushed his family and turned his world upside-down the he guessed he was glad for them. But he wondered how anyone could giggle their way past the lights of the giant makeshift morgue, still visible through the windows, or how anyone could be so completely unmoved by the looks on the faces of the shell-shocked travelers walking past them on all sides.

What Donny didn't know is that it was worse than that. These rude gravedancers weren't just callously disdainful of recent calamity — they were equally glib and blithely unperturbed about soon-to-come calamity. The four horsemen of tyranny, famine, plague and death were riding forth, but it hasn't yet occurred to them to warn the people they encounter of what they know is about to come.

Instead, Buck and Chloe are preoccupied with making their cookies the totems of their forbidden sexuality.

The word "fetish" has, by analogy, acquired a host of sexual meanings for preferences not necessarily shared by a majority of others, but our young non-touching lovers here fetishize cookies in something closer to the original sense. They turn these cookies into talismans to be shared and devoured symbolically as something like phone-sex for virgins.

"I'll be on a plane to New York at eight tomorrow morning," he said. "I'll have this with coffee and think of you."

"That'll be seven o'clock my time," Chloe said. "I'll still be in bed, anticipating my cookie and dreaming of you."

"I'll wait till you're up then," he said.

Suh-wing and a miss.

This goes on for another page in which we learn that Chloe is into the whole live-dangerously, let's-do-it-in-public thing. "When will you be in your most important, most formal meeting?" she asks him:

"Whenever that is, I'll eat my cookie," Chloe said. "And I dare you to eat yours t
hen, too."

;ll learn not to dare me," Buck smiled, but he was only half kidding. "I know no fear." …

Buck reached for her cookie sack.

He tells her to smell the fresh cookies because:

"Fragrance is such a memory enhancer."

He opened her cookie sack and held it up to his face. "Mmm," he said. "Cookie dough, chocolate, nuts, butter, you name it."

Mmm, enriched flour, soy lecithin, partially hydrogenated palm oil …

He tilted it toward her, and she leaned to sniff it. … Buck reached with his other hand and cupped her cheek in his palm. She didn't pull away but held his look.

Whew! More physical contact. This is getting downright hot and heavy.

"Remember this moment," he said. "I'll be thinking of you while I'm gone."

"Me too," she said. "Now close that bag. That cookie has to say fresh so the smell will remind me."

Take heed of this advice, young people. Keep that bag sealed up tight so your cookies will smell fresh for the one you're saving them for.

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