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Harley Hahn

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Her Last Cookie


I recently received a package from an old college friend of mine, Albert Gendeau. I hadn't seen Gendeau for 25 years, not since I was an undergraduate, studying math and computer science at the University of Waterloo in Canada.

Gendeau — a graduate student — was assigned to be my roommate, so I got to know him well. He was a thin, wispy, almost insignificant looking follow, with a brilliant, strangely creative mind. Although he was somewhat lacking in social graces, Gendeau became well-known around the dormitory, as he loved to invent new ways to startle and amuse his fellows.

I remember, one time, watching him construct a UFO. He took some ordinary plastic drinking straws and, using a soldering gun, melted the ends of the straws, joining them to create a framework in the shape of a rectangle with cross pieces. He then melted small holes in the framework and inserted a series of birthday candles along the length of the straws. Finally, he took a very large thin, plastic bag (leftover from someone's dry cleaning) and fastened the bottom edge around the plastic frame.

By the time he had finished, it was evening, and a group of curious onlookers had gathered to see what strange new madness Gendeau had invented. Once his contraption was finished, he led the group outside, to the middle of the courtyard.

By now, it was completely dark. Gendeau lit the candles and, within seconds, they created enough heat that the air above them began to expand and fill the large plastic bag. In a short time, the bag had fully inflated. Gendeau let go of it and we watched in awe as the contraption began to rise, undulating slowly into the recesses of the dark, summer sky.

As the large glowing bag drifted away, we could only imagine the reactions of people in the neighborhood as they watched the object drift slowly past their windows: a mysterious UFO on its way to who-knows-where.

Gendeau was fond of making such contraptions and, as you might imagine, living with him was an unusual experience. However, as I mentioned, it had been 25 years since I had heard from him, and it was with great surprise that I opened the package that had appeared so unexpectedly in my mailbox.

At first, I thought that, after so long a time, I might be the recipient of another one of Gendeau's elaborate practical jokes. However, as when I opened into the package, I could see that it contained nothing more than paper. Upon closer inspection, I found a long letter and an assemblage of photocopied pages.

The pages were copies of a handwritten document and were difficult to read. Evidently, they had been copied from some type of journal or diary. Along with the package was a note saying that Gendeau had come across something unusual. He had been following my career as a writer, and he knew I had a popular Web site. Would I, he wondered, be willing to put this material on my site, and share it with the world?

As I read the letter and the photocopied pages, I found that what Gendeau had sent me was, indeed, quite unusual. It was, in fact, interesting enough that I went to the trouble of deciphering and transcribing all the hand-written pages.

I must confess that it was not an easy task. The handwriting was particularly bad, and there were many times when I found myself using a magnifying glass in order to discern some word or another. In the end, however, I persevered and, eventually, I was able to piece together the text of the document.

Here then is what I found, starting with Gendeau's letter. It is a bit long-winded — Gendeau did tend to be somewhat wordy at times — but, in the interests of accuracy, I feel it is best to present the material exactly as he wrote it.


"Dear Harley:

"Not long ago, I traveled with a friend to San Luis Obispo, where I stayed overnight at the Garden Street Inn, a Bed & Breakfast hostelry, not far from the downtown area.

"San Luis Obispo — or SLO as it is known — is a moderate-sized California town, not far from the coast, about 4 hours north of Los Angeles. This visit was my first experience at a B&B and I had no idea what to expect.

"What I found is that B&Bs play a game: You pretend you are visiting the home of a large and loving family, one whose fondest wish is for you to visit as often and as long as possible. In return, the staff of the B&B pretend this is true.

"Thus, a visit to a B&B exposes you to smarmy exhortations of affection ('Oh, how nice to see you. Welcome to our home. If there is anything at all you want, you just let us know.'), as well as excessively grandiloquent decor that would strain the visual patience of Liberace. (Just imagine what a grandma in a Norman Rockwell painting would do with an unlimited budget, and you get the idea.)

"I suppose that such comments serve to place me among the top 10 curmudgeons in the country, so for the record, let me redeem myself by saying that there is a large host of people who simply love the social ambiance and decorative excesses of B&Bs, among them my friend who arranged the visit.

"In this particular B&B, each room has a name. Ours was the 'Ah Louis' room, named after an old Chinese man who, at one time, did something or other of marginal importance within the history of the central coast of California. In pursuit of this theme, the room is adorned with a very old picture of Mr. Louis himself, a picture of a young Chinese woman whose importance is unclear, as well as a number of framed receipts and business papers dating from that time period. Around the pictures, there is a strange, awe-inspiring wallpaper pattern that seems to shout at the dark wooden antiquey furniture, 'Paint me, please, paint me.'

"As it happened, my companion was an artist with exquisite taste, and the first thing she did upon entering the room was to take down all the works of art and place them carefully under the bed. There they stayed for our entire visit, and I do have to say that this one small action improved the aesthetics of the room beyond measure.

"However, the mood of a B&B is set, not by the furniture or the wall hangings, or even the cloying Stepford Wives' service-with-a-smile. As in all carefully arranged environments, it is the little things that make the difference.

"When you walk into this particular B&B, you are greeted, not only by the cheery, homey voice of the apple-cheeked hostess — the one with snapping black eyes and a motherly disposition — but also by the smell of freshly baked cookies. (The very same smell that real estate agents use to distract you from the bad plumbing in the master bathroom and the telltale signs of mold on the walls of the family room.)

"In this B&B, the smell of the freshly baked is no mere promise. Check in during the afternoon and, later in the day, you will find a plate of two very large, homemade cookies outside your door, the cookies sitting gracefully on a ornamental plate, covered with cellophane and tied with a tasteful colored ribbon.

"What intrigued me the most about this B&B, however, was the journal by the side of the bed. This was, I found out later, a custom that runs rampant in B&Bs. Evidently, the instant emotional bond that forms between the guests and hosts is not enough. There must also be a connection between the various guests themselves, even if they are not visiting at the same time. This bonding is accomplished by providing each room with a journal in which the guests are encouraged to write down any thoughts or feelings they might have. The idea is that future guests will be able to read the ruminations of previous visitors to the same room.

"Have you ever had the chance to read someone else's journal? It's like having the opportunity to eavesdrop on someone else's conversation. At the time, it's almost impossible to resist. However, when you do it, you inevitably find yourself seriously bored. There is nothing, it seems, more mundane than other peoples' private thoughts.

"In this case, I must admit, I truly expected to be bored: after all, the entries in this particular journal were written by people who knew that other people — strangers, in fact — would be reading the journal at a later date.

"The first journal entry, for example, was as follows:

The best cookies ever!!!

Thank you for a most enjoyable stay.We'll be back :-)

Edward & Ruth - Pasadena, California

"The next one, while a bit longer, was barely more entertaining:

Like a couple of kids, we have frolicked in the garden tub, danced in the streets (Thursday night street party), and slept the evening in a most comfortable bed.

Breakfast is awesome, as is our stay here. We will now depart with fond memories, a few pictures, and a warm place to return.

Future B&B dwellers enjoy!

Mark & Karen - Bal Harbour, Florida

"The third journal entry was more of the same. This whole exercise was getting boring even faster than I had anticipated:

Enjoyed our second stay here. Our son has been in grad school here, and he's almost finished! He rarely gets home to Woodland (north of Davis), so we've come to see him.

SLO is a nice town in a beautiful area. We've done lots of eating, shopping and beachcombing.

The chocolate cookies are the best ever... the bed isn't bad either. Thanks!

Joan & Paul - Woodland, California

"But then I turned the page and everything changed. I came upon a lengthy journal entry that caught me unaware. I started to read, and found that I could not stop reading. In fact, this entry was no less than a story, a true story written by a young woman who, evidently, was the last occupant of the room. What she wrote took me by surprise, and I can only conclude that the people running the B&B had no idea this story was in one of their journals. If they had, they would scarcely have allowed the book to remain in the room, where innocent guests would happen upon it.

"Still, there it was, and I was so intrigued that I read the story twice. I then smuggled the book out of the room and took it to a nearby copy shop, where I made a photocopy of the entire story. Before I left, I replaced the book, but I kept my copy of the story, which I now present to you.

"Your old friend,
Albert Gendeau"


This, Gentle Reader, is where Gendeau's letter ends. After reading it, I turned my attention to the sheaf of photocopied pages.

I found that they had been copied from a small book, about 8 inches by 6 inches. I have been as faithful as I could to the original text. However, as I mentioned earlier, there are places were the handwriting was all but unreadable, and I have had to guess as best I could as to what the anonymous author meant to say.

Still, I can assure you that what you are about to read here is — to the best of my ability as a scribe — exactly what Gendeau read as he sat on the bed of the Ah Louis room, in the Garden Street Inn Bed & Breakfast, in San Luis Obispo, California.

Believe me — this is not easy to write — and yet I, somehow, feel compelled to write it — as if, by relating all that has happened, I can purge myself of the evil that has enveloped my life, and move onto whatever fate has in store for those in my position.

A day ago — a simple day — or to be more precise — 22 hours and 17 minutes ago — my life was totally different. I had just graduated from the last class I needed to get my AA diploma — and it was my birthday — my 23rd birthday.

To make the day perfect, my boyfriend since the 11th grade had proposed to me. He hadn't yet bought a ring — he works at WalMart and hasn't yet been able to save up enough money, even with an employee discount — but he pledged his life to me. as I pledged mine to him. This was no small deal, as I have been reading bridal magazines and planning my wedding since I was 13 years old. What a day!

So, because we didn't have a ring, he suggested we go to Baskin and Robbins to celebrate with ice cream.

/1

I love ice cream, so it took but a minute to agree, and but another minute to fall into his arms. A short time later, I found myself sitting in front of the largest bowl of ice cream I had ever seen in my life (Rocky Road and French Vanilla, my favorite), sharing the delicious, sensuous flavor with my true love.

And then, out of nowhere, a strange feeling began to creep over me. It was as if all the lights in the room started to flicker at once. I heard a buzzing in my ears: soft at first, like the drone of bees on a lazy summer day; but then, within a second, the buzzing increased and captured my consciousness. The room started to fade from view, and I found myself under the table. My last memory was looking up and seeing my boyfriend — that is, my fianc — with a look of horror & confusion on his face, and then he faded from view.

As I fought my way back to the land of the living, I found myself lying on a simple white cot. I had a head full of ideas that were driving me crazy, and a mouth filed with dry dust.

/2

I tried to focus and, at first, all I could see was a large white blob. I tried harder, and a face swam in and out of view. A moment passed, and I could see the face more clearly: it was a smiling and kind, with pastel blue eyes, freckles, and a wholesome countenance.

I looked around and discovered that I was in a hospital and the smiling person looking down at me was a resident in the emergency room. He was talking to me, but I had trouble understanding his words. I heard him say "diabetic" and then something about blood sugar. "You are lucky," he was saying, "you might have died if someone hadn't brought you to the hospital so quickly. You should be okay for now." He went on and on, and, to my amazement, and then consternation, I realized that I was diabetic; that eating such a sweet dessert (the ice cream) had caused me to black out; and that if I hadn't have been taken to the emergency room right away, I might have died. He said I would be okay if I saw my doctor as soon as possible, to get started on insulin and a new diet. In the meantime, I must, at all costs, stay away from sweets.

/3

I nodded obediently, as if acquiescing would make everything all right. The cute, gentle, blue-eyed doctor left me, and I began to stare into space. Gradually, the distant world came into focus, and I searched fruitlessly for my boyfriend. And then I saw him — he was at the far side of the room, his back to me, talking furtively to one of the nurses. She was tall, slim, with long wavy red hair and big breasts (your basic nightmare!). I watched in disbelief as she wrote something down on a piece of paper and, with a large smile, put the paper in his hand. She kissed him quickly on the cheek and bounced away. I watched the boyfriend look around guiltily and then slip the paper into his back pocket. He then turned, caught sight of me and walked over. "Boy, you sure gave us a scare. How are you feeling?"

It was all I could to do to nod. He barely noticed. He kept talking on and on, completely self- absorbed. Finally, I caught the gist: "...so you see why it is better if we don't get married. Diabetes is a very serious condition, and it's just not fair to me that I should..." I must have fainted again, because when I came to, he was gone.

/4

So there I was, alone in a strange hospital. Alone. No boyfriend, no engagement, and — evidently — severely diabetic. I gathered my things the best I could, stopped at the desk to complete the paperwork, and walked outside.

It was raining, a cold, gray, cloudy afternoon, and the sky was growing dark and gloomy. I stood on the curb wondering: What was I to do? Where was I to go? I was fishing around in my purse, looking for taxi money — or even bus fare — when I heard someone call my name. I looked up and there, sitting in a small red sports car, I saw the doctor, the resident who had treated me, who had, in fact, saved my life. Did I need a lift somewhere? he asked. I sighed gratefully. Yes, I told him. To anywhere. To everywhere. Who knows? Who cares? I had nowhere to go and nobody to go with. I sat down beside him. I looked so sad (I must have been pathetic) that he asked my what was the problem. He was so sympathetic. When I had finished my story, he said, "You need something special. Tomorrow's my day off so, right now, I am taking you to a very special place — the Garden Street Inn — in San Luis Obispo." Which is why, dear reader, I am here, right now, sitting on this bed and writing in this room.

/5

Do I have the words to tell you how wonderful it was? After a four-hour drive north along the coast, we checked into a lovely bed & breakfast and, by 10 PM, we found ourselves alone in a room. In fact, it was this room, the very one you are sitting in right now, the one named "Ah Louis". You can see, as I did, how harmoniously the appointments of the room blend with the perfectly flat wallpaper, so you can imagine how calm and peaceful I felt. I heard my companion lock the door and watched as he approached the bed. In his hand he held a glass and a small pill.

"What is it?" I asked. He looked at me gently, with his comforting blue eyes. "You've been through a lot in the last day. It's just some medicine to help you relax."

I must have seem puzzled, because he sat down beside me. "Don't worry," he cooed. "You can trust me. After all —" he extended the glass and the pill — "if you can't trust your doctor..."

I swallowed the pill obediently and, 10 minutes later, for the third time that day, I blacked out.

/6

When I woke up, it was morning. I could hear the gray droning of the cars in the parking lot outside the window, and the hum of Garden Street in front of the building. I tried to get up and discovered that I was tied to the bed. I was alone. I struggled to free myself but it was no use — I was held tightly by the wrists and ankles — tied to the very bed on which you, dear reader, are sitting right now.

I noticed bruises and cuts all over my body, and when I looked up, I could see brownish-red blotches on the carpet and walls. (No doubt they have cleaned up the mess by now.)

Slowly, patiently, one millimeter at a time, I pulled and pulled, and pushed, and then pulled again at my right wrist and, after what seemed an eternity, I was able to free it. I was then able to loosen all the bonds, after which I began to crawl slowly towards the door. I opened it, ready to call for help, when I saw a tasteful plate with two large cookies on it. Perhaps you too, dear reader, found a plate of cookies outside your door.

My life was at a crossroad. I summoned up my courage. I know what I had to do.

/7

I took the cookies into the room and locked the door. I reflected upon my life. I realized that it was hopeless, and the realization filled me with a nameless dread. In that moment, I knew that I needed to end it all — all the suffering, the disappointments, the hopelessness, the betrayal — and I had to do it now, while I had the courage.

As you look at your plate of cookies, you see nothing more than a harmless confection: a treat to shake you off your diet for a day. But to me, a newly diagnosed diabetic with no insulin, I saw the sugar-laden cookies for what they were: a blessed messenger to transport me beyond this earthly veil.

I knew that if I ate two such large cookies quickly, on an empty stomach, the sugar would soon overwhelm my poor imperfect body. I would, once again, lose consciousness and with the door locked and no one to help me, I would soon be beyond suffering, knowing only the gentle, comforting touch of the all-embracing hereafter.

/8

An so, dear reader, I have eaten my cookies and, now, I take pen in hand to write in this journal, waiting for the sugar to creep into my bloodstream, waiting for the first signs of weakness that signal a final journey into the night. With my last breath, I ask you to judge me kindly and

 

/9

Take a look at the actual last page.

Stories by Harley Hahn