Takers

Originally published in The Offbeat Spring 2018, Vol. 18

   

     Idiots. He could spot a taker from a block and a half away. The flat twinkle in the eye, the slight quickening of the step. All the same. 
     He didn’t have to move a muscle. Just stand, smile, and let them come to him.
     This latest taker was slimmer than his usual quarry. If he felt the slightest misgiving, it was quickly extinguished. The yokel had an ugly wife – maybe a sister, it wouldn’t surprise him - and two fat kids. He was just like the others, even if he didn’t look like it at first.
     Besides, Gareth was casting a wide net. Didn’t those guys who farmed tuna wind up with a few dolphins every now and then? A small price to pay.
     The yokel trailed his awful brood right up to Gareth. Approachable Gareth, standing and smiling. 
     With practiced amiability, Gareth leaned forward and extended the tray. Just the slightest bit. Just enough to seal the deal. It was almost funny, how easily people would yield to just a hint of solicitation. 
     When it became actuallyfunny was when they took the cookie.
     “Free samples?” The yokel gurgled. 
     Gareth smiled as hard as he could. “Yes, sir!”
     And that was all it took. The yokel palmed a cookie off Gareth’s tray and shoveled it straight into his mouth, without even engaging his fingers. That approach always sickened and elated Gareth in equal measure. 
     “Would your family like one?” Gareth asked.
     “No thank you,” the sisterwife replied. “I’m trying to watch my figure.” 
     Gareth chuckled at that. He trusted she was too dumb to understand why. “And what about these,” the word caught in his throat, “adorable little kiddos?”
     The gremlins bounced and bubbled like farts in a tub. “Ooooh mommy daddy can we can we can we can we?!?” They sounded exactly like alarm clocks.
     Daddy looked to Mommy, who mooned at her spawn.
     To, ha, sweeten the deal, Gareth said “these actually have seventy percent less sugar than any other cookie on the market.” That was almost certainly not true. But what were they gonna do, take it to a lab?
     If they did, they’d find a lot more to fuss about than sugar. 
     Mommy melted like the chocolate bars she undoubtedly had stuffed into her pockets. “Alright. You can each have half a cookie.”
     The children cheered. Gareth knelt down, bringing the tray to their level. He was all too happy to. “And how old are you two?” he asked as the bigger of the two palmed a cookie, just like Daddy. 
     “I’m six,” the little shitsmear announced like it was something to be proud of, “and she’s four.” He broke the cookie in half and handed the smaller piece to his sister. Oh yes, this was a born taker.
     Six and four. Gareth tried to guess height and weight. If his math was right, a half a dose each would still do the job. So he could let a bit of honesty seep into his smile. 
     “Six and four! Do you take good care of your sister?”
     The kid nodded. Unlike Daddy, he used two hands to nibble on his cookie. Half of it was winding up on the sidewalk. 
     Gareth frowned and stood back up. “So what do you think of the cookies?”
     “Real nice,” the yokel boomed. His eyes were locked on the tray. 
     As if he needed a second. One was more than enough to get the job done. Gently as he’d leaned in, Gareth shifted his weight away from the family. The nuclear waste family. Ooh, that was good. He made a mental note of that. 
     “You folks have a great day now,” Gareth smiled.
     The disappointment was splattered on the yokel’s mug. It was probably the closest he’d ever get to beauty. “You too,” was all he said. And then he shuffled off into the punishing mid-day heat.
     Once the heifers – yes, even if they weren’t the average taker, they could be honorarily inducted into their ranks – were out of earshot, Gareth allowed himself to really laugh. This was the best part. Watching them walk away, oblivious.
     It never failed to astonish him. Nobody ever asked him who he worked for, or why he was standing in front of (he turned around) a law office and a boutique hat store, with a tray of unmarked cookies. Every once in a while somebody would ask him what was in them, more often than not because they had a food allergy. He wasn’t even wearing an apron, or a hat, or anything to link him to a real establishment. He used to have a T-shirt onto which he’d silkscreened a fake bakery logo, but one day he forgot it and got just as many takers as any other day. Now it was like a game for him. How disreputable a front could he present, and still get takers?
     So far, he’d never lost. 
     Here’s what the future had in store for that inbred hick family. For a few days, they’ll be fine. Then they’ll get a tummyache. No worries, everybody gets those. They’ll drain some Pepto and be on their way. Then they’ll feel feverish. Chills, sweats, overwhelming fatigue. An agonizing dryness of the throat comes next. It’ll burn to drink water, and any food they try to ingest will come back up, along with a half a cup of blood. If they aren’t already bedridden by then, they’ll be laid out by crippling vertigo. After that, they’ll get a really bad rash. Small onions compared to the rest, but Gareth had worked hard on the compound to get that delayed release dermatological assault. Insult to injury, that sort of thing.
     Then, and only then, does the poison start attacking the central nervous system. Muscle spasms, violent expectorations from every orifice, a shutdown of the digestive system. They languish like that for as long as it takes for them to starve. And Mommy will just have to watch, over days and days, as Daddy and her two little darlings gasped their last.
     That’ll teach ‘em. Idiots.

     He got a whole gaggle of tourists, most takers he’d ever hooked at once. Just four cookies left on the tray. But that was alright; it was tending towards sunset. He’d be heading home himself soon. He might even have time to synthesize more of his Special Sauce before he put on his stupid orange vest and went to work. The work that paid the bills, anyway
     “Oooh,” cooed some idiot woman over his shoulder, “do I see free cookies?”
     Gareth never had to dig too deep to fetch that first grin for a new taker. He turned, proffering the tray in one balletic motion. “Yes, ma’am!”
     The woman was a classic taker; fat, draped in a floral mumu, a fanny pack vanishing into her folds. She extended her hand halfway to the tray, making a little claw with her thumb and forefinger. “May I?”
     “By all means.”
     The woman plucked a cookie from the tray as though she sensed its power. Just as delicately, she took a nibble. Not enough to do anybody any good.
     She swirled the crumbs around her mouth like wine. “Hm,” she pondered. “What’s in this?”
     Gareth caught his brow sliding towards his nose. “Are you concerned about a food allergy?”
     “No, I’m just trying to place the taste.”
     “Oh, now, did you get anytaste from such a small bite?”
     “I did, and I’m trying to place it.” Her nose was curled slightly.
     Absurdly, Gareth’s most overwhelming emotion was offense. How dareshe curl her nose at his baking! “They’re chocolate chip cookies.”
     “What bakery are they from?”
     “I made them,” Gareth snapped.
     The woman blinked hard. “Hey, I’m really sorry if I offended you. I’m an amateur baker. I’m trying to work on my palate.”  
     Gareth had plenty of toothy digs for that level of pretention, but he recognized détente when he saw it. Nobody was gonna eat a cookie if they were agitated. “That’s quite alright. I hope I didn’t come off as overly aggressive. I’m just…trying a new recipe, is all.”
     Good will and fellowship christened her face one again. Gareth wanted to smash it. “So where’s your bakery?” she asked.
     For a moment, Gareth blanked on the name of his fictional establishment. Then it came to him. “Oh! It’s called Leslie’s. That’s my boss’ name, Leslie. It’s his bakery. It’s in, um, SoHo.”
     The woman seemed to be suppressing a laugh. Bitch. “Well, yes, that makes sense. Seeing as we’re in SoHo. I figured he wouldn’t send you here from, like, Queens.”
     Gareth ground his teeth. It was a testament to his superior genetics, that his chompers withstood his constant abuse without going all jagged. “I like to keep my cookie recipe close to the vest, you understand. But it’s really just a, um, superior chocolate chip cookie.”
     “Hm,” said the woman. She flipped the cookie around to investigate every side, like she was looking for the expiration date. “I thought I tasted almond. And then something fruitier, like…citrus, almost.”
     For just a split second, Gareth consider running. His compound was absolutely tasteless. Or so he’d assumed – he’d obviously never tasted it. Were his cookies actually bad? Had the takers just been humoring him this whole time? Impossible. No way that many of them had even a glancing familiarity with good manners. But he’d given them something free; maybe they felt bad…
     “Is it not good?” Gareth detected an unbecoming whine in his voice.
     The woman was still staring at the cookie. Finally she looked back up to Gareth. “Maybe it’s just not for me.” She tossed the cookie into a nearby garbage can.
     She tossed the cookie in the garbage.
     “Woah woah woah woah,” Gareth huffed. “Hang on a second. You barely had a single bite. You couldn’t even taste anything!”
     She shrugged. “I’m just being honest. I’m not saying it was bad, I don’t believe in discouraging anybody from following their passions. I’m just giving you my honest opinion, so you can, I don’t know, have it. Maybe try tweaking the recipe?” 
     “Tweaking the…” Gareth sputtered for a few seconds. “Lady, people love my cookies.”
     “I’m happy to hear that, sweetie,” she mooed with unctuous sincerity. “So I’m gonna be the lone v-“
     “Try another bite. A great big bite, see what you think.”
     “Why’s it matter what one lady thinks of your cookies? Most people like them, why’ve I gotta like them too?”
     “It’s not about liking it, it’s about whether or not you actually ateany!”
     “Mister, stop shouting.”
     “I’m not shouting!” he shouted.
     The woman took a deep breath. Gareth felt like she was doing it on his behalf. She was gonna eat a fucking cookie if he had to shove it down her fat, stupid throat. “I’m not trying to hurt your feelings. I’m just saying, I know baking’s personal, and a lot of people won’t give you honest opinions, because they don’t wanna hurt your feelings. So I’m gi-“
     “Did I ask for your opinion?”
     “Nope,” she shrugged. “I guess not. Sorry to bother you. Thanks for the cookie.”
     “That you didn’t fucking eat.” 
     That cow, that fucking bitch, she just shook her head at him and waddled back to the buffet, or wherever the fuck she was going.
     The cookies on the tray were rattling. Gareth’s arm was shaking. As were his knees. How dare she. How dare she. How dare she?!
     A few people in his immediate vicinity were staring at him. They probably heard him swear. Alright, so he would have to ditch this corner earlier than expected. 
     He hung his head. The tectonic scraping in his jaw struck him like a tuning fork. He was thrumming. How dare she.
     Naturally, his eye went to the cookies.
     He stared at them for quite a while.
     He couldn’t. It would be idiotic.
     But would a nibble hurt him? She’d gotten a taste from the tiniest little sample. 
     He needed to know.
     Maybe a little crumb would make him sick for a day or two. That was worth it in the name of greater understanding, wasn’t it? 
     He picked up a cookie.
     Maybe he could just lick it.
     Chuckled and put it back down.
     It didn’t matter what they tasted like. He baked them to cull the herd, to shuffle the takers of the world off to the great larder in the sky. It was stupid to worry about whether or not one of those takers did or didn’t like his cookie. What did he care?
     He palmed a cookie off his tray and lifted it to his mouth. 
     Tentatively, he caressed it with his tongue.
     All he could taste was the cookie itself. The…what would you call it, the body? None of the notes. 
     He pulled his lips back and brought his markedly jagged teeth down on the tiniest portion of the cookie.
     There was a definite citrus note to it. It was pretty overpowering. He couldn’t really tell how it did or didn’t, uh, pair with the rest of the, the body.
     He took another little nibble. The tiniest nibble.
     No almonds, just citrus and chocolate. It wasn’t bad, really. What had that lady been on about, scrunching her nose like that? The citrus note was really more of an orangenote. The orange note and the chocolate note blended, activating taste buds all up and down the tongue. That’s how you knew it was a rich, complex cookie.
     He took another itty bitty bite. One last one. Yes, there was some almond notes. But it was a beautiful blend with the other notes! The citrus was a little bit overpowering, sure. And there was now a kind of fishy note. Who knew how that one got there. 
     Alright, this was the last bite. He made it slightly bigger. Not too big, on the order of seven crumbs instead of three. There were all the notes at once. The seafood note was stronger now. It wasn’t great. Good heavens, how had so many of the takers told him, to his face, that the cookies were great? Why had nobody been honest with him?
     Gareth sighed and dumped the remaining two and a half cookies into the garbage can. He’d need to go home and work on the recipe. Perhaps a reevaluation of his synthesization techniques was also in order. Ugh. This was a project that would take several days. He was hoping to bang another batch out before work, then hit the streets with them tomorrow. But he couldn’t be slinging a subpar cookie, could he? The idiots wouldn’t care, but he would, damnit. He would.
     Tail between his legs, Gareth drifted home.
     For a few days, he was fine.