Mom suggested we try Dr. Silvany. The doctor had money to burn, she figured, even though a faded gray Toyota sat baking like a stone in his stained driveway. Dr. Silvany’s daughters used to babysit me, but then they went to college and now I watch myself. Back in those babysitting days, Dr. Silvany used to stop and drink beers with my mom on the front porch, but then one night Mom yelled at him and threw a bottle at his head that missed and smashed in the street. Dr. Silvany, I knew, was not a real doctor. He’d be helpless if you choked on a chicken nugget, if Mom’s coughing in the garage got so hard she popped a lung. If Mom stumbled from the garage red eyed and dizzy like she did some nights and tripped on my backpack and smacked her head on the cracked tile floor, for example, Dr. Silvany could do nothing. He just taught philosophy at the local community college.
We knocked, and he appeared immediately, swinging open the door so only a rusty screen separated us from his coffee breath. He wore a red bathrobe that draped to his bare, purple-veined ankles. He cleared his throat into his fist, then stroked his thin black hair with the same hand. His jaw speckled in ashy whiskers clenched.
“We’re selling cookies.” Mom patted the sash on my shoulder.
Dr. Silvany scratched his chin loudly.
“Thin Mints. Do-si-dos. Samoas. That sort of thing.”
Dr. Silvany opened his mouth and revealed a row of yellow teeth. “She’s grown a lot.”
“You should buy some,” Mom said, “to support the troops. The Girl Scout troops, that is. Though, you know, we do have a program where you can order boxes to be shipped to the real troop troops in Afghanistan.”
“Where are these cookies?” His robe was loosening around his chest, and a bramble of gray hair puffed from the crimson fabric.
“You order them. We’ll deliver later,” Mom said, just like she’d said to me.
“Two weeks. Three at the most.”
“Too bad. I could go for a cookie now.”
“But soon. Scout’s honor, right honey?” She hooked a finger under my badge-scabbed sash, which was underwhelming. We’d only stitched on four badges: First Aid, Help a Native Species, Hygiene, and Campfire Safety. Though we’d never really been camping, Mom let me start a fire in a big empty tin of Maxwell House coffee using her favorite lighter and a pocket Bible. Seemed wrong burning Bible pages, but Mom said God wanted me to have another badge, and that made me like God a little more.
If I didn’t say anything, I wouldn’t have to lie. But Mom was promising, and a good Girl Scout trusts her mom. If it’s trust, it’s not lying. That should’ve been a badge, trusting mothers.
Dr. Silvany and Mom stared each other down. She rubbed my back in small circles. Dr. Silvany’s cat showed up and wove between his naked, veiny ankles. Nobody said anything. It was like when the teacher asked my stubbornly silent class what MLK’s dream meant or for one interesting fact about the 45th president and the answers were so obvious it made the muscles in my arms twitch, but I’d already answered the last three questions in a row. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I risked my honor to ask, “What’s your favorite cookie, Dr. Silvany?”
He turned his long nose pockedin red blotches toward me. Silver hairs sparked in his cavernous nostrils. “Thin Mints, of course. To choose another is foolish.”
“Good choice, sir. Those are my favorite too,” I said. And that wasn’t a lie. I loved every cookie. A Girl Scout needs to believe in her product. “So how many boxes?”
He stared at me now, and I had that feeling I got around the principal that one time—when the other girls had shared a cigarette in the parking lot while I watched. I’d supplied one from Mom’s pack, only because they’d been so curious. I could feel how stupid he thought me. I’d grown used to old men underestimating me. I’d grown to count on it.
“She’s quick,” he finally said to my mother. “But clever only gets a girl so far in this world.”
“I’ll achieve my next goal if you buy seven boxes,” I said, before my mom could find something to throw at him and walk away and start digging through the couch cushions for coins she’d already excavated weeks ago. “I get a notebook, with a sparkly tiger on it. The tiger’s name is Tenacity, and I’m going to write in it every day. Plus, you’ll be contributing to an organization that fosters leadership and self-worth in young women across the nation.”
“What can I say to that?” he said, his cat coiling those naked ankles. He left the cat mewling at us through the screen. A minute later, his red robe reappeared holding a brown-leather wallet.
He purchased eight boxes, all Thin Mints, and he counted thirty-two dollars into my hand. Then he counted out three more dollars, setting them cross ways in the stack. “A tip, for you. Buy a nice pen to write in your tiger diary.”
I thanked him, closed my hand around his dollars, and stowed them in my back pocket.
“What will you write about every day?”
“I’m still considering that,” I answered.
“You’ll write whatever comes to mind,” he said, and backed into his dark house, leaving a shadowed screen. “You’ll write with greatness.”
Mom and I headed home then. We didn’t try any other neighbors, and I assumed she had enough money now, enough to do whatever she needed, and I hoped she wouldn’t cough too hard in the garage tonight. By the time we’d walked far enough that our house was in sight and the empty driveway stained in oil, Mom’s hand was scooping my back pocket. She didn’t count it, didn’t separate my three-dollar tip from Dr. Silvany. Which was okay. Which was what I’d figured. Mom needed every dollar, and I’d earned it for her, not for some cheap notebook. I let myself feel proud about that. I’d hold that, like savoring a Samoa on your tongue until it disintegrates to a sweet mush, until darkness fell over the house, and Mom was still missing, and I turned on the TV to PBS where a happy guy was frantically painting trees. Everything else on the antennae was just news. I didn’t need Tenacity the Tiger all that much, really, and I didn’t need a glittery diary when I could use the back of Mom’s note that said she loved me, said that I was a mighty tiger, said that she’d be home soon.
DEPARTMENT OF ENGLISH