I’m turning into the parking lot of CVS when the first banana hits me. It’s Beth, of course, with her heeheehee that just gets higher and louder. She sets off the rest of them until the whole van is some big nightmare music box and two more bananas clock me. I break rule number four of my contract when I yell. “Will you shut the hell up?!” The girls just laugh harder and I could swear that Jenny just gave me the finger.
It’s my turn to take the girls out for a “life lesson.” We’re going shopping like normal people. This year there are ten of them: the juvenile delinquents their rich adoptive parents can’t cope with. The public schools and then the charter schools and finally the expensive boarding schools all threw them out on their ears. Why the girls act this way is debated in the staff room: benign neglect, bullying, stress. What I land on is that they were adorable until they hit puberty. Now they’re just wild and scary and nobody wants them. And it’s too late to send them back.
Everyone stares when we walk into the drugstore even though the locals know all about the re-programming camp. All of the customers leave at a jog. Right away, Frances makes a beeline for a cashier with the nametag “CVS-Geoff” and an impressive mullet. She comes up to his waist, which she begins passionately hugging. Geoff is either a very cool customer or is stoned like most of the kids in this town because he just slowly untangles Frances. I mouth “sorry” but he only shrugs and smiles as Frances runs to me and grabs my hand, reminding me that the girls feel everything I do, including the desire to be loved.
At first everyone sticks with me, although in their complex groupings based on pecking order and past slights. Sarah and Chrystal hate one another, while Chrystal, Beth, and Mandy are inseparable, as are Cassie and Sandy, who loathe Beth. Frances is always left out, probably due to her dorkiness, as illustrated by her desire to sit in the cart’s child seat. We have 45 minutes until they’re all due at Responsibility Circle Time, so I break the third and most ludicrous rule of my contract, which is to Never Leave Any Girls Unsupervised. And thus set up for failure, I power-shop each aisle for the girls: toothpaste, shower caps, athlete’s foot cream, maxi pads, Tide, fly swatters, star stickers, bananas, sunflower seeds, Gatorade. I’ve lost girls along the way until it’s just me and Frances, who’s now craning around in her seat to look at Geoff’s ass as he bends over to restock the automotive aisle. I’m perspiring but thinking I’m home free when the screeching starts.
The cosmetics aisle is a mess of torn packaging and broken perfume bottles with strawberry, gardenia, vanilla, and sandalwood all fighting one another as much as the girls who are yanking on something while screaming and cuffing one another. Jenny’s khaki smock is ripped down the back and Sandy has what looks like a bite mark on one of her cheeks. Frances grips my arm. Geoff hovers on the other end of the aisle, but I motion him away. In my manual, there’s a whole chapter on deescalating violence. I don’t smile or make eye contact. I slowly slide bananas across the tile to the girls. Most of them snatch up the fruit. But Sarah and Chrystal are having a full-on tug-of-war. I break rule number two when I curse. The girls are fighting over a baby.
An old woman replaces Geoff at the end of the aisle, marching toward the girls on what look like nursing shoes. Her nametag says “CVS-Sadie.” Clapping her hands loudly at the girls, who are stunned into silence, she stops a foot from me and stage whispers, “You get these wild animals out of here now, but first you pay for anything they’ve touched. And I don’t want to see any of you here again.”
I look at the baby doll abandoned on the floor next to its ripped box, its unblinking blue eyes staring back at me. One of its fat cloth legs has been ripped off in the fight. Beth is chewing on it. We never, ever refer to the girls as animals. That’s in the manual and in the contract.
While the girls climb on the van outside, Geoff and I clean up. He rings up everything. It’s $422.63. Geoff hands me a wad of Kleenex from a box next to his register before my mascara runs.
“You were a good counselor,” he says, slipping into past tense.
Together we fit the bags into the back of the van. Frances climbs down and into Geoff’s arms, and he nuzzles the top of her dusty head before saying to both of us, “Bye, little monkey girl.”
We’re nearly back at camp when the girls unload their pockets. I watch through the rearview mirror as they show off lipstick, keychains, fake eyelashes, bronzer, bath bombs, pocket mirrors, a pleather purse on a fake gold chain, star stickers, a back scratcher, peanut M&Ms. Beth is riding shotgun with a shoplifted Cosmopolitan. She is engrossed in the celebrities kissing on the cover, her face full of longing. The girls start heeheeheeing as they scribble on each other’s faces with eyebrow pencils. One of my foster mothers used to say, “In for a penny, in for a pound.”
I pull over on the empty highway and turn off the ignition. I start with Beth. I trace red lipstick over her grinning lips. Put a tiny starfish barrette in her wispy bangs. From behind, Chrystal pats my head, very gently. I sweep coral blush over her cheeks and place a rhinestone beauty mark underneath one of her amber eyes. One by one I paint and spray, dust and draw.
With her dirty hands, Beth signs, “Pretty.”
With my own, I sign back, “Pretty girls.”