How did it ever happen that a wholesome, “Minnesota-nice” girl, cradled in the arms of a strict Midwest Catholic family and raised in the classrooms of holy nuns, a girl whose parents and teachers pounded her with the mandate to conform, comply, and kowtow to the rules, how is it that such a girl succumbed to corporate greed and corruption? At the age of ten.
We were in fourth grade, my best friend Gianeen and I, when, on a dreary November Saturday with no enticing play ideas left in us, a brilliant inspiration took root. We were thumbing through a magazine, each of us choosing which dress or car or advertised product we liked best, a game we played from time to time. And then, right around page 75, a glossy ad called out to us. A greeting card company in Elmira, New York, was soliciting help from children to sell their cards. Best of all, we could get a gilded notepad with a glittery pen just for sending in for the greeting cards.
We had sales experience, if they cared to know. St. Luke’s sent us out each year to fill our orange and black UNICEF banks while we were trick-or-treating, and Gianeen and I had brought back some pretty hefty profits for humanitarian aid to the mothers and children in developing countries, if we did say so ourselves. As it turned out, the greeting card company didn’t care at all about our sales experience; they just sent us the cards.
When my box arrived, I called Gianeen to come over so we could finger our coveted jotters. The holder wasn’t exactly lustrous gold, as it had appeared in the picture, but more like spray-painted plastic, and the paper wasn’t exactly stationery, but more like sticky notes without the sticky. The pen did work, however, and it was sparkly, so we felt proud that we had something worth showing off at school the next week.
An hour went by before we noticed the letter that accompanied the greeting cards. It explained the procedure for returning the profits once we sold all the cards. It also included a list of selling tips. For example, instead of saying, “Would you like to buy some cards?”—an open door for a big, fat “no” from a customer—try saying, “Which do you prefer?” Gianeen and I rolled our eyes at the weirdness of it. We would do it our way. Besides, we already had our scratch pads and pens. We didn’t really care how many cards we sold.
We stuffed the business papers back in the box, and off we went, up and down Goodrich Avenue, knocking on our neighbors’ doors, appealing to their goodwill.
By the end of the week, Gianeen and I grew weary of our new job. We’d sold a few boxes, so we each had $1.20 to send to the New York company. We were in no hurry. By now, we’d wowed all our friends at school with our glitzy notepads and pens; in fact, we started a fad in our class, passing around our little stacks of pages for autographs, which the other girls quickly followed. Our meteoric rise to adulation in Mrs. Powers’ fourth grade class was just plain heady.
I don’t know which one of us instigated the crime.
I do know we didn’t see it that way. It’s funny how gentle the conscience can be sometimes. We were just hungry, okay? Those mini-jawbreakers in the turquoise box at Walter’s Variety Store over there on Grand Avenue were a mere nickel, would last us all day—and we had money. A dollar twenty each. I knew I could easily pay it back on Saturday when I got my five-cents allowance for my weekly chore of scrubbing the bathroom floor.
So down went the jawbreakers, keeping us entertained the rest of the day. The succulent balls of sugar, each a rainbow in layers—crimson turning orange, then green, then blue, then yellow, and finally white—fireworks of sweetness bursting as they rolled around on our tongues one slow jawbreaker at a time.
Best nickel I ever spent.
But that first purchase with the card company’s money turned out to be my doorway to hell, where the fires of preadolescent anxiety would rage and their ashes would bury my innocent soul.
Before I knew it, the entire $1.20 was gone, frittered away at the hands of impulse over several months. I was oblivious to the consequences at first. Sure, letters began to appear in the mailbox, business letters postmarked Elmira, New York. They wanted their money. But I was unruffled: New York and Minnesota were many states apart. They’d never find me. While I knew I should recoup the funds, week after week my allowance went to something more immediate.
And then THE letter arrived. “We have turned your case over to our attorneys. You will be hearing from them.”
Terror filled me. Attorneys. That’s serious. Three houses down Goodrich, Gianeen had received the same letter, only she told her parents, who immediately sent a check for $1.20 to Elmira, New York, allowing their daughter to continue the life of a carefree ten-year-old girl. Not so with me. I couldn’t bear to tell my parents what I had done, not in light of the scruples they had instilled in me. The full burden of crime was on me.
I would have to face this alone.
My life changed after that. I was on the lam. Visions of cops raiding my home and dragging me away in handcuffs taunted me mercilessly, day after day. Every time I saw a squad car drive down the street—looking for me, without a doubt—the panic inside rose. My cheeks got hot, my stomach did flips, my breath raced. More than once, I ducked behind a shrub until my predator passed, leaped into the enclosed front porch and crouched below the screens, absconded to the back yard and buried myself in the overgrown lilac bush we kids used as a fort. They were relentless, those guys in New York.
The hunt that began the summer after fourth grade didn’t stop until the end of seventh grade. Three long years of lost childhood, three long years of self-imposed impoverishment.
And then in a single sentence, liberation: Our family moved. Way across town. Far from Goodrich Avenue and the hounds of heaven that stalked me we moved, leaving my brush with corporate corruption and greed behind.
And eventually, redemption. Once I got my first job as a teenager, I set aside $1.20 and placed it in the collection basket at church.
Alms for the poor.
©2015 Maggie McCann Pike
Maggie McCann Pike
- FIRST CHOICE AWARD FROM SAN DIEGO WRITERS’ CONFERENCE 2015
- HAIR-RAISING, PURE AND SIMPLE