Originally published in the ConDFW XIV program book, Feb. 13, 2015.
The supermarket door opened automatically with a rush of cool air and gusts of cigarette smoke. The bag boy had his cigarette tilted at a business-like angle, like the prow of a ship cutting through the sea, as he carried groceries for an old lady.
Ray’s drove into the parking lot and saw the array of the cars that belonged to “the usual suspects” lined up in front of the supermarket – a collection of large sedans: Cadillacs, Lincolns, Buicks, Oldsmobiles and such. Every day, a regular cast of retirees met there to sip coffee, smoke cigarettes, and swap lies.
Ray nudged his compact into a parking space under the shade of a large spreading tree.
There were some teenagers loitering nearby. One boy held a sack of sugar cookies; another was eating from a pack of sugar wafers. One Goth-looking girl was licking off the top of a marshmallow biscuit cookie.
Ray went down an aisle and found the shelves where the cookies were. He was going to get himself some of those big fat double-stuffed Romeo cookies.
Warning signs and posters hung from each shelf:
“You must provide proof of ID that you are over 18 when you purchase sugar cookies.”
“Don’t be an enabler— don’t purchase cookies for the underage.”
One poster depicted a graveyard with especially wide grave plots:
“Waistlines aren’t the only things that are expanding because of America’s deadly love of cookies.”
He walked up to the express checkout register. The cashier tapped her cigarette and set it in down in an ashtray.
“I don’t want to blow smoke in your face,” she said with a smile.
“That’s okay,” the old man said with a chuckle. “If these cookies get any more expensive I’ll probably have to start smoking myself.”
He gestured to all the packs of cigarettes in the aisle leading up to the cash register as the cashier scanned his package.
“That’ll be $15.99,” the cashier said.
He grimaced. “They’re more expensive than ever,” he said.
“It’s almost all tax,” said the cashier. “You could get a dozen packs of cigarettes for the same price.”
Behind them on the wall was a poster that showed a mother holding a plate of cookies for her children. But their shadows silhouetted a scene of drug addicts shooting up.
“Don’t be a cookie pusher!” It said. “Cookies are as bad as narcotics.”
Underneath the grisly scene it said in red letters:
“The Surgeon General has determined that quitting cookies at any time will lead to improved health.”
As Ray walked away he saw two old friends smoking and chatting in the food court. They waved him over.
“I see you’re getting your fix,” said Antonio.
Ray walked over and pulled up an empty chair.
“I will as long as I can,” he said. “They’re not illegal yet.”
“You should start smoking,” said Sol. “It’s cheaper and better for your health.”
“Putting all that smoke in your lungs will eventually give you cancer,” said Ray.
“Bah,” said Antonio. “That’s never been proven.”
Another man walked up. “Mind if I join you fellows?”
They all nodded and he pulled up a chair. He reached across the table to shake hands. “My name Dan, Dan Jackson.”
“You new in town?” asked Sol.
“I’m visiting my son,” he said.
Ray dangled the plastic package of cream-filled chocolate wafer cookies in the air and made a plea for sympathy and support. “They’re telling me I should lay off the cookies and start smoking like everybody else.”
“That sugar is ruining your teeth, clogging your arteries, and softening your brain,” said Antonio
Dan rubbed his chin the back of his hand and looked at Antonio. “You shouldn’t just repeat what the FDA says. It’s all bullshit you know.”
“That cookies are bad for you?” asked Ray.
“Too much of anything is bad for you,” said Dan. “Cigarettes are bad for you, too. The difference is that the government is fighting cookies but not cigarettes.”
Dan looked at them. “I’ve eaten cookies in moderation all my life. How old do you think I am?”
Ray squinted at him. “I’ll guess 68.”
Dan smiled. “You know, I had a wax paper bag of chocolate chip cookies my mom mailed to me when I hit the beach on D-Day,” he said. “I should’ve eaten them earlier. By the time I opened the bag two days later, they were all crushed to crumbs.”
“Holy crap!” said Sol. “You were in the war?”
“Sure was,” said Dan. “I’m not 68, I’m 88. And all the stuff the government says about how bad cookies are for you is bullshit. It’s a scam.”
“What do you mean, a scam?” said Ray. “Who’s pulling the scam?”
The old veteran leaned back in his chair. “I was a lieutenant in the war,” he said. “Afterwards, I went to work for the company owned by my colonel. It was a heavy equipment manufacturing plant in Indiana. I became his right-hand man, and worked for him for 40 years.”
He looked around at the three retirees. “You’ve heard of how President Eisenhower warned in his farewell address about the growing power of the ‘military/industrial complex?’ All the country’s manufacturing had been brought under government control during World War II. What people didn’t know is that a private group took the reins, as it were, after the war, and dictated products and prices afterwards. Big manufacturing companies, like the one I worked for, had to answer to a secret roundtable of powerful businessmen. They call themselves the Consortium. You couldn’t do anything without clearing it with the Consortium.”
He reached over and took a couple of Ray’s cookies. “The Colonel wasn’t even supposed to let anybody know, but we were pretty close, and one night, when we were drinking by ourselves in the office, he started talking about it. He said he hated the whole situation but you couldn’t cross the Consortium, they could make life hell for you.”
“That’s what Eisenhower was talking about in his farewell address,” he continued. “The Consortium was fixing production and prices in all the heavy manufacturing industries by the end of the ‘50s.”
“But what’s this got to do with cigarettes and cookies?” asked Ray.
“The Colonel had a brother who didn’t stay in the family business, but went to work for the American Biscuit Company -- or as everyone knows it, Ambisco. One night late in 1963 I found the Colonel drunk in his office. He was also really weepy.
He said, ‘We shouldn’t have gone along. It’s all our fault. Now they have control of everything.’”
“What did he mean by that?” asked Ray.
“He said his brother told him the Consortium had taken over control of all the other large businesses in the country,” said Dan. “Not just the manufacturers. But Ambisco wouldn’t go along, and a handful of bakeries stuck by them. He said they defied the Consortium and said people weren’t going to kick their cookie habit. The company president - he had been a big Democratic donor - supposedly went and told President Kennedy himself about it.”
“What did President Kennedy say?” asked Sol.
“The Colonel’s brother didn’t know, Kennedy was assassinated within a few days,” said Dan. “It was early the next year that the Surgeon General presented his report on “Snack Cookies and Health” and called for the heavy regulation of the industry. Ambisco’s been fighting it ever since.”
“It has nothing to do with obesity or bad teeth or hyperactivity. Ambisco and a few others have been the only companies to buck the total control and coordination of the American economy by the Consortium,” said the old veteran.
“That’s hard to swallow, pardon the pun,” said Antonio as he took a puff of his menthol cigarette.
“Twenty years ago, just before he died, the Colonel told me that one of the last things his brother said before he passed away was that life is just a crapshoot, and it could’ve been someone else who took the brunt of being taught a lesson by the Consortium,” said Dan. “Apparently, when the Consortium gathered up the leaders of the one hundred largest companies in the country and told him that they would have to clear all the prices, policies and production decisions through them, it was the tobacco companies that pushed back at first. Just like Ambisco, they thought they had too much public support to be threatened. But they changed their minds, which left Ambisco and the other cookie companies out there on a limb by themselves.”
He popped a Romeo cookie in his mouth. “That’s why sugar cookies are taxed so heavily and come with all those health warnings, while cigarettes are ninety cents a pack and everybody smokes,” said Dan. “It’s all a racket. Most of everything on the shelves over there would cost a fraction of what it does if the Consortium didn’t fix prices. The campaign against cookies isn’t about health, it’s about control.”
“Have you ever heard of ‘conspiracy theories’?” asked Sol.
Dan smiled wistfully. “It isn’t a theory if it’s true,” he said. He stood up. “In any case, it really doesn’t make any difference, there’s nothing anyone can do.”
“How long are you going to be in town?” asked Ray.
“I’m heading back up to Philadelphia tomorrow,” said Dan.
“Where does your son live?” asked Antonio.
“He doesn’t,” said Dan. “I came down for his funeral.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” said Ray.
“He was 56, died of lung cancer,” said Dan. “He smoked since he was a teenager.”
As he walked away, Ray got up and took him by the elbow.
“Hey, is what all you said true? About price fixing and the Consortium and all?”
“I’m too old to give a damn any more,” said Dan. “My wife, may she rest in peace, made me vow never to speak a word of what I was told. And my only son is dead now.”
“Have you ever told anyone before?”
“No, I haven’t even thought about it in years,” said Dan. “What you said when I sat down, about how they were picking on you, struck a chord, and it all spilled out.”
They looked at each other, and with a nod, Dan walked away.
Ray returned to his companions. “Do you believe all that happy horseshit?” asked Antonio.
“He was at Normandy, he just buried his own son, at his age, too, why the hell would he lie?” asked Sol.
Ray gave them a look that stopped the conversation, and Antonio and Sol went back to smoking. A few minutes later, they heard what sounded like the gunning of an engine, followed by the screeching of tires – and screams.
All three men rose and walked towards the front of the store. They could see a cluster of people in the street.
Ray went outside and angled for a view.
“The SUV never stopped!” said one bystander.
“It was a hit and run,” explained another.
A police car pulled up. As the people parted, Ray could see Dan’s crumpled body on the pavement.
Ray stared, and took a few steps backwards before turning around and stepping back onto sidewalk.
“You were just talking to him, weren’t you?”
Ray focused and realized a man standing next to him was talking to him. He turned and saw a young man with a square jaw and wrap-around sunglasses.
“Yeah, he was just in town for his son’s funeral, never met him before in my life,” said Ray. “Poor bastard. He was a World War II vet, too.”
The young man turned to him. “What did he talk about?”
Ray froze for a second.
“A crazy conspiracy theory,” he said. “He was very old and he was just rambling. We humored him, I guess he was lonely and needed someone to talk to.”
He ran his fingers through his silver hair. “I’m shaking,” he said to the young man as he looked at the scene. “I need something to settle my nerves. Can I bum a cigarette?”
“Sure,” said the young man, as he reached in a pocket. “Need a light, too?”
“No, I have a lighter in my pocket. Thanks, though,” he said as he took the cigarette and stuck it in his mouth. “I’m going home to get a drink.”
He turned and walked down the sidewalk, cupping his hand and pretending to light a cigarette. After he went around the corner, he tossed the cigarette away and ducked down an alley behind the supermarket to make sure he wasn’t being followed.
When he got home, he sat down at his computer and opened an internet browser. He opened his email.
Very carefully, with two fingers, he began:
“You ever hear the expression, ‘That’s how the cookie crumbles?” I want to tell you a story a man told me 20 minutes ago.
“He’s dead now...”