Is there any sound as alluring as the siren call of the ice cream truck when you’re a kid?
Has it ever led you to petty fraud?
I think about this day often - probably because it was my first brush with certain doom, and we narrowly escaped. Maybe because it felt like God themself had frowned upon me, but refrained from further damning action. Or maybe I’m still somewhat impressed with the brazen obfuscation that immediately gave way to transparency when pressed. If there is anything I learned from this experience, it was that I am not at all cut out for a life of crime. I fold. Fast.
It was a wet, simmering summer day, thick and slow as a pot of bubbling Cream of Wheat. We sought refuge in the shade of her front yard, beneath the tall trees that lined the edge of her manicured lawn.
(Christine and I were best friends, which, at eight years old, meant that we fought and yelled bitterly when we were together and then clung to each other when threatened with separation. We were aspiring choreographers: Destiny’s Child and Spice Girls and Mariah Carey and Toni Braxton had nothing on our moves, performed with careful, loving precision in her carpeted living room. No fantasy imagining was too big or too banal - let’s pretend we’re pregnant; let’s pretend we speak Chinese; let’s pretend we’re Mary Kate and Ashley in Paris.)
That day, it was too hot to do or be anything. We watched the cars pass with glazed eyes, long, skinny legs jutting out of our shorts. We mindlessly created towers and buttresses with the small, smooth stones that served as an attractive contrast to the green grass surrounding us. So perfectly round, we murmured, turning them over in our hands. Marked with striations of silver and ivory that made them seem somehow precious; valuable. And then we heard it: the bloated, Pepto-Bismol melody reverberating through the damp air, signaling a rush of saliva to our mouths more effectively than Pavlov’s bell ever could. Our lethargy forgotten, we sat bolt upright, scheming. Time was of the essence: with each second the song grew louder, closer.
We confronted reality: there was no reason to expect we’d just be given money to buy ice cream. We knew the boundaries of our small world, and those walls were insulated with the word “no”.
We applied common sense: Even if we somehow, miraculously, found enough money in coins around the house to buy ourselves a treat, the truck will have long passed by the time we could make it back outside.
We side-stepped responsibility: Chances were, no matter how quietly we entered the house, an adult ear would hear and ask us to do something awful, like tidy up or eat lunch. Going inside was out of the question.
The solution was obvious: find a box, put some of the beautiful stones inside, and impersonate Girl Scouts in order to sell them and raise a couple dollars. Despite this plan requiring us to do nearly all of the things we had steadfastly decided we should avoid, the sheer nerve it took to attempt such an impersonation was too delicious to resist. So it would be.
How To Become A Fake Brownie in Eight Easy Steps:
Enter the house quietly. Take four minutes to shut the screen door if you have to. If it bangs, the jig is up.
Tiptoe up the stairs. Deftly avoid the ones that creak. If they whine, the jig is up.
Raid closet and drawers for neutral-colored clothing. A white top is preferable. Hats a bonus, but not totally necessary if you have access to a comb, brush, and Pink lotion to quickly re-arrange hairstyles to make them more uniform. If your mom already put dookie braids in, abort mission: you do not have the time to undo them. Grab a bandanna.
Find a pretty shoe box. Line the bottom with one of your doll’s baby blankets - with her permission, of course. Don’t be rude.
Quietly exit the house. Run full speed across the lawn, laughing breathlessly. You can’t even hear the ice cream truck anymore, but you are having so much fun, that is beside the point.
Select only the prettiest and roundest of stones for your collection. Argue with your best friend over the appropriate number to display. Come to an uneasy agreement. Fight with your best friend over a rock that you both wanted for your own box. Eventually concede that there are, indeed, many, many other rocks to choose from.
Decide on a price per rock. Choose the first house. Walk up to their front door and ring the doorbell.
In the precious few seconds between pressing the doorbell and the door opening, realize three fundamental truths at the exact same time:
You are two clumsily-matched children holding shoeboxes full of rocks; rocks that, upon close inspection, look extremely similar to the ones lining the yard across the street, further down the street, and indeed, the yard you just passed to get to this front door.
Any reasonable adult will see right through your deception and will probably march you back home to get you into the kind of trouble you cannot even begin to imagine.
It’s too late to run away now, because the door is opening.
He was middle aged, white, and had kind eyes. If he was surprised to see us standing there alone, he did not show it. He opened the screen door and smiled.
“Hello,” he offered curiously. We stammered out a greeting and explained our troop’s mission. We were selling beautiful exotic rocks from overseas to raise money for a children’s charity. They were one dollar each. Would he like to contribute? I felt my eye start to twitch. I tried not to visualize the desperate, uneven scrawl of our handwriting across the inside cover of the shoebox, advertising our wares. We should have gotten egg cartons to contain the stones, at least. My legs felt wobbly.
He looked at us for a long moment - too long. My heart sank. I knew that look. It was the look a grown up gives a kid before they mete out dire punishment, pretending it "hurts them more than it hurts you". It was extra scary from an old white stranger.
“Are you really girl scouts?” he asked gently. This only cemented what I already knew: we were done for. He could see right through us. I saw no point in stretching this deception any further. I thought, maybe if we admit this is all a farce he won’t ruin our tiny lives.
“No,” I answered plainly, and received a painful elbow in the ribs for my honesty.
“Carla!” Christine hissed angrily, then turned back to the man. “Yes, we are.”
I tried not to roll my eyes. We were just bumbling characters in a children’s sitcom at this point, but it wasn’t funny, because it was actually real life, and we were going to pay for this. I could feel it. We watched him and waited, bracing, for what would come next.
“Would Jesus be happy with what you’re doing?” he asked gently. I felt totally blindsided and nearly staggered off his front step like I was mortally wounded. I shot a despairing glance at Christine out of the corner of my eye, screaming as loudly I could in my mind, hoping she could somehow hear it: ABORT! ABORT! WE DID NOT PREPARE A CONTINGENCY PLAN FOR THIS! My mind raced through all the possible ramifications: I imagined angry phone calls and loud prayer circles, stern interventions that featured our parents and Sunday School teachers and Sister Caldwell and Sister Rudrow and Brother Cowboy from Children’s Church. I would probably lose all of the Bible Bucks I had earned from perfect recitations of the books of the Bible. I imagined White Jesus himself, shaking his head sternly, golden locks swaying with consternation, blue eyes brimming with disappointed tears.
He reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. “If I give you this to split, you have to promise not to tell lies like this again,” he warned, selecting a five dollar bill and handing it to us. “Go home now.”
The door closed, and there we stood, our rocks unsold, clutching money that we’d somehow earned by committing the worst sin we’d probably ever committed at that point in our lives. We ran back to Christine's house, dumped the stones back where they belonged, and thundered up the stairs to her room, floating too high on dumb shock and breathless relief to care about anyone hearing us. We sat on her bed and examined the money, taking turns turning it over and over in our small hands. I had never felt so independently wealthy. I loved the crispness and boundless possibility of it: five whole dollars! When that ice cream truck came back, we would be ready. Or would we?
Christine, evidently, was following the same train of thought. “How are we supposed to split it?” she wondered. I had a fleeting thought of locating a pair of scissors and separating it neatly down the middle, but felt instinctively that that would not be correct.
“I don’t know,” I shrugged, equally stymied. This would normally be about the time we sought an adult for help, but that was impossible for obvious reasons. We resolved to figure it out at some point in the future, and hid the money where her parents wouldn’t find it. And we did not have any ice cream that day.