“The Cookie Lady” was first published in Fantasy Fiction in June 1953. Cited page numbers come from We Can Remember It For You Wholesale: The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick (New York: Citadel), 7–13.
On his way to see an old neighbor woman, Bernard Surle (Bubber) is mocked by a classmate completing his paper route. He comes to the house of the old woman, Mrs. Drew, a few moments later. She has prepared milk and cookies for Bernard. He eats them while Mrs. Drew looks on. She urges him to stay and read a book to her. Having only his books from school, he begins reading from a geography textbook. While Bernard reads, Mrs. Drew reflects on how odd her actions have become. It begins to happen yet again. While Bernard is talking, Mrs. Drew momentarily becomes youthful. This brief transformation ends when Bernard stops reading and declares he has to go. Mrs. Drew urges Bernard to visit again.
At home, Bernard’s parents talk about how suspicious it is that Bernard visits an old neighbor woman day after day. His mother and father tell Bernard that he can only visit her one more time. Bernard is fine with that, knowing that Mrs. Drew is a strange woman anyway.
Back at the old woman’s house, Bernard is waiting for Mrs. Drew to finish making the cookies. He informs her that this will be the last visit. This time, while Bernard reads to her, she touches his arm. She feels Bernard’s “youngness” flowing to her. She has again changed into a younger version of herself. On Bernard’s insistence she leaves to finish the cookies. Bernard grabs the finished cookies, puts them in his pocket and leaves. Mrs. Drew enjoys her youthful appearance and begins planning to go out.
On his way home Bernard feels exhausted and weak. With the wind he is forced to begin rest at a lamp-post and struggles onward. Bernard’s parents worry about Bernard. Looking out of the window his father observes a bundle of debris blown by the wind, striking the house.
“The Cookie Lady” must be inspired at some level by the Hansel and Gretel story. Dick points out that Bernard is overweight, due in no small part to the cookies he gets on a daily basis from Mrs. Drew. This is in part why the story is so horrifying at times. Almost all of the relationships we observe in the story are toxic. Bernard’s parents treat him suspiciously and order him around. (I will set aside most of what could be said about this relationship because it is better developed in other Dick tales.) They only take an interest in his life when Bernard starts to become the butt of the community’s jokes about his odd visits to Mrs. Drew. Bernard is teased by his classmate. The central relationship is the worst. Bernard uses Mrs. Drew to satisfy his need for cookies (something we guess he parents do not provide for him). Mrs. Drew, in turn, uses Bernard, literary stealing his youth. Leave it to Philip K. Dick to turn a story about a boy visiting an old neighbor and keeping her company into a fable about the interpersonal network in suburban communities.
Mrs. Drew is remorseless about the damage she is causing Bernard. Even when she apparently kills him by stealing all of his youth, she immediately thinks about how to enjoy life. “What a wonderful body bursting with life. A swelling breast—she touched herself. The flesh was firm. There was so much, so many things to do! She gazed about her, breathing quickly. So many things!” (12–13) This is a terrible thing to think about, but how often do we consider the damage our actions cause others? Consumers—mitigated by the capitalist class—typically steal the youth of children working in sweat shops for temporary pleasures. I doubt something like this was in his mind, but the story does clearly paint a picture of human interactions as fundamentally parasitic. It is hard not to notice the role that age plays in the parasitic relationship. It is not new, of course. Hansel and Gretel has the same narrative of the old consuming the youth, but in late capitalist world—especially due to life-extending technologies—the political and economic power of the older generations is more entrenched than ever. “Forty is the new twenty” may sound beautiful to the middle aged, but it is a horrible thought for the real twenty year olds looking for work in an economy that is already overpopulated with excess workers.
Wikipedia entry for “The Cookie Lady.”
A reading of “The Cookie Lady.”