The seventh story from my collection Middle of Nowhere is up. In “Cookies,” a Girl Scout troop leader becomes involved in a bitter cookie selling scandal that rocks her suburban community and makes her an outcast.
THE CHOSEN MOVIE TO BEGIN JANINE ACORN’S ANNUAL SLUMBER PARTY FOR HER SENIOR FLOWER PATCH SCOUT TROOP WAS GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, A PICK FROM JANINE HERSELF, THOUGHT TO BE MOTIVATIONAL REQUIRED VIEWING FOR ANY YOUNG FLOWER PATCHIAN. The girl who sold the most cookies this year was being rewarded (through a major pulling of strings) to be an extra on the tweentastic show JHS McKinley, a huge jump from last year’s Space Camp fiasco, a prize met with yawns, and worse than that, the lowest Flower Patch earnings since the foundation of the troop in 1972. Janine was determined not to let another cookie-selling train-wreck resurface this year.
Mackenzie Phelps, the little snot, was the first to make a face at Janine’s film choice. She had recently lost all her baby fat and gained a holier-than-thou-attitude. Evidently, she had gone to sloppy second with an older boy under the bleachers and astounded the other girls with repeated stories of the way his pierced tongue felt against her nipple. It angered Janine to hear it told in whispers during supposed arts and craft sessions, but if Janine was honest, at twelve years old Mackenzie Phelps already had bigger breasts than she did. Janine couldn’t remember any man in her life who’d been all too excited to go to sloppy second with her, especially her ex-husband Ron, who treated her breasts like doorbells, because in all honesty, there wasn’t much else he could do with them.
The other girls, high on root beer floats, whined along with Mackenzie who stood there with a told you so kind of look. She had pretty, blond hair, styled at some high-priced salon that her mother frequented and wore a tank top, which allowed her bra straps to peek through. Janine didn’t even bother wearing a bra that night.
“Is anyone cute in Glenn Larry?” Jamie Lynn asked, a dim girl who looked all of eight.
“It’s Glengarry. Alec Baldwin is in it.”
That remark made one of Janine’s eyes twitch. She longed for a smooth cigarette, or any oral fixation, but satiated herself for the time being by nibbling on her bottom lip. The girls began complaining as a chorus, but Janine raised one slender finger and prayed it would silence them.
“You girls want to sell those cookies this year, don’t you?”
The girls did not quiet down. Finally, Mackenzie stood, fixed her tank top, and bathed in their adoration.
“Of course we do,” she said. “And we trust that you know what’s best for us, right, Ms. Acorn?”
This twelve year old was setting Janine up to fail. Her pink lips had already curled into a wicked smile. She wouldn’t give in to Glengarry Glen Ross that easily unless she had some other plan in mind.
“Thank you, Mackenzie,” Janine replied, as she imagined wrapping her hands around the girl’s neck. She wondered how it’d feel to watch as the girl begged for release. The thought shocked her so much that she clasped her hands together before she did anything foolish and cleared her throat.
“Anyway, girls, let’s start the film.”
The snapping of popcorn and giggles filled Janine’s living room. She watched each face reflect the blue illumination of the television in the dark. It had been a considerable amount of time since her house felt full, comforting but odd not to have the creaking floors and squeaks of her furniture as her only company. After her parents passed, she moved to Babylon, Long Island, a few miles away from where she grew up in Bethpage. She maintained derisive grins around the mothers of the block when they complained for peace in their lives. “Peace is what I know all too well,” she’d whisper while patting their shoulders with boasts of bubble baths, glasses of Pinot Grigio that ended with a finished bottle, and walking around her house naked. She relished in their momentary envy.
And then they’d ask as if it were obvious: “But don’t you ever want children?” She never knew quite how to respond; it had always been her eggs that were the problem, but she’d never admit that. She’d blank, or pretend to be late for some made up engagement, and then go home and chew on her lip until it bled. Sometimes she dialed Ron’s number and hung up, pleased that, at least, she had a restricted number to rely on.
Now she looked at those girls, yawning, braiding each other’s hair, sharing secrets and simply being happy with life because everything was still easy. She knew she’d never have that feeling again; the feeling that only a child has before they realize what it’s like to learn that no one might really care about them in life, not even themselves.
When her eye began twitching again, she slipped out into her front yard and devoured a Virginia Slim like a lost lover. The color of the sky was a sunken tea bag, too much light shining through the suburban streets to ever be a perfect black. She left the door open and heard an elevated rise in voices, her name darting between lips. What were they saying? They were crucifying her. It was Mackenzie. She had wanted to watch some teenybopper summer camp movie and had started something. It didn’t matter, the cigarette was worth it.
She’d been smoking now for more than half her life, which made her feel ancient and that her lungs were just tar pits waiting to dissolve. When Ron had found a waitress two years ago who was actually good at sex, she’d increased her cigarette intake to the point where certain nights she found herself searching through bedroom drawers in the dark and putting on bunny slippers to welcome the sunrise with a puff. Neighbors power-walking their way to middle age passed by her with waves and she’d cough back at them, her hair in shock mode.
She’d been a freelance copy editor, which didn’t pay great, but the house was hers after the settlement and she didn’t require many other luxuries. The Flower Patches had been something she loved more than anything as a little girl. She craved the innocence of it all again, especially once Ron left and the house became so empty. Adults also always questioned the state of her life, but not children. So one day she found herself at the offices of the Flower Patchians, putting in a bid to volunteer. She was in luck since the former troop leader had gone into an early pregnancy and had to withdraw her services. Janine couldn’t be more excited. She remembered the songs, the way they swore to be bestest of friends, and of course the cookies. As a child, she had such a determined drive to sell the most, knocking on doors in the rain, practicing her speech in the mirror into all hours of the night. It saddened her to see now how much times had changed. Certainly no one back then talked about going to sloppy second and certainly no one at the time had breasts that needed support.
She heard crunches by her side and smelled smoke. Mackenzie puffed next to her, tramping around barefooted and giving the cigarette mock-head. The girls whispered from inside the house, testing and waiting for her to explode.
“Put that out,” Janine said, making a grab for it.
“Put out?” Mackenzie said, loud and proud with an obnoxious wink. “You want me to put out?”
“I’m going to tell your mother.”
Mackenzie took another drag and blew the smoke in Janine’s face. The twitch in her eye only became worse because tears had built up now.
“Go ahead, Ms. Acorn, and I’ll tell her that the movie you showed us had the word fuck in it about five hundred times.”
The girl’s whispers became goading, threatening laughs. Janine shut her eyes.
“There is a point to Glengarry Glen Ross, Mackenzie. Always. Be. Closing. Just like with cookies…”
“Fuck your cookies. We told you what we wanted to watch. I didn’t even know the word fuck before I came here tonight, and I’m sure the same goes for some of the other girls.”
“Put out that cigarette!”
Janine clasped her fingers together, her knuckles burning. Being a little arthritic, they pulsed as she balled her hands up into fists. She snatched Mackenzie’s cigarette and tossed it to the floor. Mackenzie’s pink lips gave her a devilish smile back.
“Have fun with menopause,” Mackenzie spat, before those balled up fists closed in on her and the hoard of girls became silent.
Mackenzie sat on Janine’s Corinthian Leather beige sofa with a bright pink cell phone in one hand and a cold compress in the other, almost deciding which one to use first before a creak in her jaw sent the cold compress flying up to her cheek. After the slap heard round the world, Janine had brought the compress over to her while chewing on her lip, longing to taste a sweet drop of blood.
The lights had been turned on, the television muted, and the Flower Patchians buzzed. Each one had a theory, or said they saw it, or couldn’t believe it, or thought it was funny or scary, or whispered “alcoholic” under their breath. Two of Mackenzie’s best pawns sat adjacent to her rubbing her back soothingly.
“I’m sorry, Mackenzie,” Janine admitted. “But you said some things I don’t think were fair.”
“My father’s not gonna like this.”
She brushed away one of the consolers to the girl’s dismay, but kept the other one, Miranda, close. Miranda, a lanky redhead with hair vertically rising from her headband seemed to relish this new promotion to Head Consoler and punctuated the silence with a soft “it’s all right” every so often. Janine knew her as a terrible tattletale and couldn’t stand her.
“Of course it’s all right, Miranda,” Janine finally said. “It was all just a misunderstanding between Mackenzie and I.”
“You slapped me, Ms. Acorn! And the only reason…ok…the only reason I’m not gonna say anything about it is because it might fuck up the cookie prize.”
The girls were taken aback, all ready for blood and staging in their minds the perfect way to break the dramatic news to their parents. They pictured gossip around town in the Sunset Plaza shopping center, and in school, and at PTA meetings. Mothers always made it their business to rally around causes concerning their children because it gave them a sense of accomplishment. Janine knew it wouldn’t be long before they turned on the barren one.
Lacey spoke up with her halitosis and wet retainer in full force. Each girl inched away. “If she physically harmed you…” she said, wagging a finger in the air.
Francesca agreed: “You have an ice pack on your cheek, come on, Mackenzie!”
“It’s not about that, Francesca, it’s all about JHS McKinley, hello, why are we honestly all here? You come on, Francesca!”
Trying to lighten the mood, Mackenzie threw her ice pack at Francesca who took the blow with a piercing giggle. Mackenzie was fake-laughing through dried-up tears while Francesca threw the ice pack back at her with an even more obnoxious giggle until the room became a big mess of separate conversations. Janine heard Lacey telling a story to an even smellier girl about how her brother kicked a soccer ball in her face after she ate the last donut and that it hurt so much that the ice pack didn’t help. Then that girl, who’s name Janine couldn’t remember, told a completely non-related story about her dog who pees on the carpet. Even Miranda had stopped consoling Mackenzie and the two were talking about purple nail polish. This offended Janine at first, the triviality of their lives. She didn’t just slap Mackenzie. Her hand had been in a fist and she felt it connect with Mackenzie’s cheekbone. Twice. The second hit had been less forceful, but by then she knew what she was doing and could’ve stopped. She knew none of the girls had really seen anything because they called it a slap, which was how Mackenzie clarified it when they got back inside the house. But it had been more than that. Utter shock had radiated from Mackenzie’s face. Janine had found a way to really get at her and relished the pins and needles sensation in her palm afterwards.
The conversations died down and Mackenzie cleared her throat to speak again. She took a moment as if the importance of her words needed full attention. The captivated girls waited, mouths agape. Janine wanted to hit her again. This time with the back of a pan.
“Remember girls, not a word to your parents. We watched a movie. We had a good time. Nobody slapped anyone.”
The Patchians agreed, and Janine tasted blood in her mouth. She had fully chewed through one side of her lip.
A day passed in the bathtub for Janine. She played a Norah Jones CD and drank some Arbor Mist until she felt like a wet sponge and threw up Peach Zinfandel into a garbage pail next to the bathtub. Three Tylenols later, she spread out on the sofa with a cold compress over her eyes and a rumble in her stomach. She heard the doorbell faintly ring, but dismissed it as a hallucination until it became a knock so loud that it made her want to puke again. She opened the door with the bad taste of spoiled peaches in her mouth. Mackenzie stood there with a giant hickie gracing her neck like a tribal tattoo.
“It’s like eight at night, Ms. Acorn, were you sleeping?”
“I don’t feel well. What do you want?”
She let herself in, dancing around the living room and fiddling with Janine’s knock-off knick-knacks with a superior type of disdain. She picked up an empty bowl on the side table that Janine used for candies and fumbled it in her hands like a recess ball. She tossed it repeatedly in the air before it slipped through her fingers. Janine closed her eyes and only saw pans.
“You didn’t just slap me, Ms. Acorn.”
“You heard what I said.”
“I did. Yes. You are right.”
“I know I’m right. You like hit me. Twice.”
“That’s not cool.”
“No. It was wrong. Did you tell your parents?”
“Omigod, no! I said I wouldn’t and told all the other girls to do the same. I know that most will listen.”
“Thank you. It was an error in judgment. I’ve been going through a lot…”
Janine stopped herself and moistened her forehead with the compress. Dabbing and soothing as a beating headache continued its all night dance rave in her head. She could barely keep herself up straight and couldn’t in any way rationalize that this, right here and now, was her life.
“It’s just been difficult for me lately, the divorce from my husband, and I’m–”
“Look, Ms. Acorn, I really don’t care, I’m not like your therapist or anything. The deal is I won’t say what happened and you give me the cookie prize.”
Upon hearing that demand, Janine thought she’d be more offended, but to her surprise she was rather relieved. She remembered the endless drama of the last two years with all the tallying and the certain mothers baking her little bribes that never tasted as good as they looked. The anguish of the girls who didn’t win, and the way that she used to care, but lately, just went through the motions, numb to the whole thing. If the outright dismissal of the obvious undertones of Glengarry Glen Ross were not appreciated by her troop, then none of them held a candle to Janine in her glorious prepubescent days.
“Fine, Mackenzie. It’s yours. But you’re going to come up with a believable way to have won.”
With smiling pink lips, Mackenzie replied: “I already have.”
Apparently Mackenzie Phelps had a visiting uncle from up North with an affinity for Thin Mints and Snickerdoodles. Over in Canada they didn’t sell these delectable treats, and to his delight, his niece had an over abundant supply to bring back home. He loved them so much that Mackenzie was able to move 1,514 units, an amount so astronomically phony because Suzie Woo, whose father owns the Suffolk County Mall-enium off Route 89 only moved a paltry 800 units. Suzie Woo was not pleased.
At the announcing of the winner, the girls sat in a semi-circle in Janine’s living room, each with a different number crumpled in their fists. Hopeful grins were plastered on their faces as each of them pictured all the JHS McKinley hotties, like All-American Scotty, which all the sensible soccer-moms-to-be had a crush on. There was also Mario, the Hip-Hop basketball player that appealed to Kiesha Morgan and the ever-tall Janey Stables, and of course Pete, the leather-jacket wearing, other-side-of-the-tracks-living, cigarette smoking, always-requesting-a-truth-or-dare-session bad boy that the rest of the girls had taped to their walls and had private dreams about.
Suzie Woo liked Scotty. She clicked her tongue and pretended to smile at Mackenzie upon the announcement of the winner. Her nostrils widened in contempt, and in close view, her smile was more of a grimace. She didn’t buy the uncle story.
The girls all gave Mackenzie squeezing hugs until Francesca and Miranda pushed them away to get hugs of their own, jumping up and down like fools. Over in the corner, Halitosis Lacey and Suzie Woo whispered feverishly to one another. They approached Janine with Lacey’s bad breath, but it was Suzie who spoke.
“Can we talk to you, Ms. Acorn, about the tallying?” Suzie asked, forceful but polite, a budding lawyer in the making. She adjusted her funky rectangular glasses as Lacey nodded along.
“What is it, girls?” Janine responded, refusing to catch Suzie’s eye and pretending to oversee the room.
“I’d rather not say it right here.”
“You can say anything, Suzie.”
“No, I’d rather not right now. Can we go in private?”
“Suzie, there is no shame in second place. None at all.”
“I know that.”
“Mackenzie won fair and square. Every year the second place girl has gripes.”
“These aren’t gripes.”
“They sure sound like something close to that,” Janine replied, sweeping Suzie Woo’s little persecution right under her Sears rug. The girls then put on some music and started rocking their bodies. Janine managed to sway her hips back and forth and lose herself in a glass of neat bourbon. Every so often across the living room, Janine saw Suzie Woo’s funky glasses flash over in her direction, but she paid no mind. With the liquor warming her throat, she closed her eyes and magically they all disappeared.
Janine spent the next day jutting from one clothing store to the next until the back of her car became a sea of bags. It pleased her to spend the little money she had left from Ron in the reckless way that she pictured divorcees from the City doing, running down Madison Avenue and flinging their cash into stores. In the car, she played Joni Mitchell loud and sang along with a never-ending Virginia Slim. When she got home, a lone package labeled JHS McKinley stuck out of her mailbox.
“What do they want?” she asked, holding up the package to the sun and soon forgetting about it after going inside and getting lost in her purchases. She noticed it later, making room for a glass of Tom Collins on her coffee table. She took a stinging gulp and tore open the package.
Inside was a DVD, a magazine with the whole gang making peace signs on the cover, and a letter:
Dear Ms. Acorn,
We regret to inform you that your troop winner will not be able to visit a taping of the show on June 16th. We keep a closed set now due to contract negotiations. We also sent a letter to the girl who sold the most cookies and congratulated her on her impressive will and dedication. Again, sorry about the misunderstanding.
Gail S. Kaminer
Producer, JHS McKinley
Even though the letter confused her, and she thought of calling up the producer to question, she realized she ultimately didn’t care. The show had been booked through the Flower Patchian’s home office and there was nothing she could do. Besides, the thought of her Tom Collins seemed to be a much more pleasant diversion anyway.
When the phone rang an hour later, Janine had a sinking feeling about who it was. Now that she was on her fourth Tom Collins, she remembered Mackenzie and the incident. She crept over to her cordless, debating whether to answer, to pack a suitcase and leave town, or to drink a bowl of Drain-O.
“What the fuck!” a voice shouted into her eardrum.
“Ms. Acorn, what is going on? Is this some kind of joke?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Well, why is this happening?”
“Mackenzie, there are some things in life that you just can’t control.”
“Exactly, Ms. Acorn, I couldn’t have said it any better. I’m telling my parents everything!”
“Fine,” Janine replied, hanging up and lunging for her cigarettes. She spent the rest of the night ripping two packs down to the filter.
Mackenzie’s parents, Greer and Bob Phelps, were rather powerful members of the community. The mother, a big-wig with the PTA, apparently baked the best lemon squares in Suffolk County, even though the maid actually made them, and therefore had a devoted following from the Tupperware set. The father did real estate and had his face plastered in signs around town. Both were equally happy to make a big stink about the cookie incident. The mother voiced for Janine’s removal from the Flower Patch Scouts and the father threatened lawsuits for emotional distress. The local papers devoured the story and all the women Janine waved to during her morning smokes responded now with shakes of their heads. She got one death threat call that turned out to be a high school prank and spent a drunken afternoon burning her old Flower Patch clothes, watching with streaking tears as they turned to ashes in her fireplace. On June 16th, the day of the supposed taping of the show, she drove down to Silvercup Studios in Queens and sat outside the JHS McKinley studio with a thousand screaming girls with braces jumping over one another to get a glimpse inside.
“Do they ever let anyone in?” she asked a chatterbox girl with pigtails.
“Omigod, sometimes, like once, my friend Meeghan, she was like standing here and this guy came out and he was all like you can come in if you want and she was all like omigod and then he let her in and she stood next to Scotty who was like eating a granola bar, which is totally unlike what he says he likes.”
Janine listened, her hair pulled back and curling around her ears, a backpack slung over her shoulder and fat black sacks under her eyes. She was nauseously hung over and had no idea why she had come. What was she looking for? An apology? Nothing would change anything. Maybe she wanted to see for herself what the show was all about, why all of these girls screamed until their throats became a dark red and how they actually had something in their lives that they cared so much about. She was jealous of every girl there losing her voice and having a reason to get out of bed. She imagined just hibernating for a couple of seasons. And while the vapid tween she questioned still babbled on, and the sun sliced through her dour clothes and sizzled the sweat on her forehead, when she felt that she couldn’t ever get lower than this, not when Ron left her, not when a neighbor passed by with a scold, she spotted Suzie Woo fixing her glasses in the middle of the crowd and proudly displaying her V.I.P. pass to the mob around her, ready to claw her eyes out for it.
Janine shoved the babbler aside and stalked towards Suzie Woo and her parental escort. Her teeth gnawed at her lip, and she could see nothing but prim, little Suzie with a permanent smile on her face. Suzie had pulled a fast one and beamed at her own perfection.
“Excuse me,” Janine said, grabbing Suzie by the backpack and giving a yank that upset the glasses on the girl’s nose. Suzie gave a yelp.
“Excuse me!” her mother said, stepping in between.
“Did you type that letter?” Janine asked, shaking her by her backpack.
“Let go, Ms. Acorn.”
“How did you get that pass?”
Suzie wiggled out of Janine’s grasp and fixed her glasses. “Duh, Ms. Acorn, I called up the producer, told her I was Mackenzie, and that I couldn’t accept the prize because I’d be out of the country. She didn’t win, and it wasn’t fair. And you know that!”
A circle of tweens formed around them. All Janine saw were braces and faces gnashing at her. They egged her on, and all of sudden JHS McKinley was no longer their prime thought.
“Who are you?” the mother asked, giving Janine the same judgmental glare as her neighbors would.
“I am her Scout Leader, and your daughter deserves this!”
Janine raised her hand high in the air and swung it toward Suzie Woo. Her palm met the girl’s cheek as Suzie’s legs buckled and she fell to the ground. Janine let out a satisfactory exhale, proud at her accomplishment, really wanting to punish Suzie as opposed to just the knee jerk reaction she had when she hit Mackenzie. These girls didn’t behave like she and her friends had at that age, and she was pleased to have lived her life with a moral high ground that hadn’t been demolished. Even more so, she was relieved to be passionate enough about something again. They hadn’t defeated her completely. She took it all in for one shining moment before returning to her car and driving off the lot. Speeding along the highway, she started howling, more elated than ever, turning up the music and driving aimlessly until she was out of gas, and out of breath, and hungry, and confused, and ready to go home.
Like most scandals, Janine found herself pushed aside for an even bigger one a few weeks later. A P.E. teacher at the local high school was having sex with a rather large freshman girl whose dad was a biology professor at Hofstra University, and the neighbors went from shaking their heads at her, to not even glancing, which was perfectly fine to her. She learned yoga, worked hard on the tomatoes in her tiny garden, and took up a life drawing class at the community college nearby where she made a good friend named Linda, who was also recently divorced and eager to be bitter with someone. She found herself on Friday nights caking on make-up, hitting the bars with Linda and getting hit on occasionally by younger men, laughing as she and Linda referred to themselves as Cougars. She learned to screen phone calls and not get caught up in Ron’s life with his new fiancée that he sometimes shared with her answering machine. She stopped drinking by herself, smoked only after big meals, and bought a vibrator. She read New Age books, the Times cover-to-cover, and started power-walking. She never heard from Suzie Woo again, or from Mackenzie, but she missed being a troop leader. She missed badges, camaraderie, movies at her house, the buzz of many voices, and the momentary feeling of being a kid again, when all you had to worry about was yourself and adults were able to explain the world to you.
But whenever Janine pined for that departed sense of innocence, she’d go down to her basement where the thousand boxes of Snickerdoodles and Thin Mints that the judge ordered she buy, await to take her back to that simpler reality. For one pretend moment, everything would be perfect until the cookies were swallowed and she’d emerge upstairs all grown up again.