1985: The Clearview Motel

I am my father’s last daughter. My name is Jenny. My father was 40 when I was born, and he had my whole life planned before I was conceived in my mother’s womb. “Jenny, you are not going to end up like Poppa did with no education and no family to stick up for you, you are going to be an A-student and get into college. You have to go for 12 years to college so you can be a doctor and maybe find a way to cut these bumps off Daddy’s body someday. Just remember, never trust anyone, not even your husband and children someday. You and Daddy rode the dragon’s breath to get here, and Poppa won’t give up.” I am 4 years old when he says this to me. Then he asks me if I know what the dragon’s breath is? I shake my head “no.” He proclaims, “God told me to go find your mother and God showed me what you were going to look like and everything. Poppa knew your mother wouldn’t stay with us because it wasn’t God’s plan. His plan was just for you to be born and do great things, but it’s not an easy road for you and Pop. That’s what I mean when I say we rode the dragon’s breath.” I give him a blank stare back. He keeps talking but I zone him out somewhat. In my mind I see a large dragon breathing fire, but it doesn’t make sense to me.

He finishes saying this as the automatic door to the Grand Union opens to behold the sticky asphalt parking lot, which is the passageway between the store and our cockroach-infested motel room. The long windowless hallway we walk down to reach our room seems familiar: it’s home. The contents of the room are simple: one steel door, a bathroom, a small telephone desk with chair, two queen beds, and a 19” television set on a brown stand. Dad walks over to the window to shut the blinds. “Daddy’s gonna lay down for a little while. I want you to practice your ABC’s the way Daddy taught you. Remember to stay in the lines and make all the letters the same size.” I sit down at the desk, and open my practice pad. There are two solid horizontal black lines and a dashed line in the middle. Those are the lines I can’t cross, make sure the letters are all the same size and distance apart. It’s going on 3:00 p.m. Dad already taught me how to tell time. I feel hungry. I had a Slim Jim for breakfast. No lunch yet, but it’s better to let Daddy rest for as long as possible. Tiptoe! Let this sleeping giant lie! I need to concentrate on writing my letters so Daddy doesn’t get mad again like he did yesterday when my practice sheets weren’t perfect. His shouting echoes in my ears, “Jenny what do you call this horse shit? You think this is gonna work when you get to school? No! Daddy told you a million times… look; this fucking letter is way bigger than this one… fucking horrible work! It’s a tough, mean world, and you have to be better than the rest of the kids. Don’t you fucking understand that you only have Daddy and no mother!” He proceeds to rip the paper to shreds, but I focus on the veins bulging from his neck, and the ominous tone in his voice. I want to understand why he is so angry; I want to do better next time. I hope he lets me live. I promise Daddy I won’t mess up again.

After I finish my ABCs, Dad is still sound asleep. I’m relieved, but bored too. So I walk into the bathroom, the only room with a door. I look at myself in the mirror and try to imagine myself with a tail. I turn around and press on my tailbone, imagining a grand tail covered in caramel colored fur. The thought makes me laugh hard, but I have to be quiet. The more I try to be quiet, the more I giggle. Jenny, don’t you ever giggle. Girls giggle, but Daddy is raising you to be a lady and real ladies don’t giggle. Suddenly, I’m startled to realize that Dad woke up. “Jenny what are you doing? You must be hungry. You haven’t eaten anything since 10:00 this morning, and its 6:00 at night. Are you hungry?” I barely nod my head and shrug my shoulders. “Well answer Daddy: yes or no. Okay, I am gonna go down to that little gas mart and get us some snacks…maybe some of that good sharp cheese and crackers and a grape soda. But first Daddy’s gotta check the results of the late double.” He flips on the TV set. “Jenny look at this. The goddamn son-of-a-bitches cheat! Fucking jockeys! I can’t believe a 30-to-1 beat out the favorite. Now you know these bastards cheat.” Dad flips off the TV in disgust. “Come on, let’s go see if they’ll let Daddy charge some cheese and crackers for us to share until I get my unemployment check in a couple days.”

The next day my mother visits. My mouth hangs open in awe and I stare at her in wonder because she is so beautiful. Her hair shimmers with copper and her skin is as radiant as rare fresh water pearls. She walks over to the bed and slides off her matte leather cherry red high heel shoes. I study the red gems while she talks to my Father. After a while, I slip one of the heels on my tiny feet, and then the other, and I begin to clomp around until they see me and start to laugh. “Thomas, look at Jenny Penny in my shoes.” Jenny Penny is my mother’s nickname for me. I don’t hate my nickname because I am flattered that she thinks about me enough to give me one. As fast as she appears, she’s gone.

July 2002: Jenny, Jenny Who Can You Turn To?

I speed walk down 34th toward Penn Station to pick Dad up once I’m out of work.

Even though he stands a mere 5’3”, I easily spot his tattered black suit and bloody wooden cross in the crowd.

Dad grins ear to ear once he locks eyes with me. “Jenny, Jenny! Goddamn, this place is busy. Shit you could really get lost in here.” Dad’s remark causes me to roll my eyes. He’s just complimenting you because you’re the small-town girl who navigates the city every day. At least for the summer.

I lead him toward the path trains back to our Wall Street sublet. “Slow down girly. You have to remember your old man has midget legs compared to you.”

Each step now consumes conscious thought, as if I have to walk in slow motion. This is NY, Dad. You gotta hustle.

Once we get on the subway, Dad reaches into his suit jacket pocket. The tone is more of an off-black with a faint pinstripe. “Here! Daddy’s so excited that I made this for you. I couldn’t wait until we got back to your apartment.”

Jesus! I hold the shellacked cross in my palm, and then clench it tight before anyone else catches a glimpse. Dad impatiently asks, “Do you like it?”

My eyes glow, wide. My brain forces my head to bob up and down. Keep it together.

“I knew you would! It’s just like Daddy’s cross. I’ve been making them. Lots of them—down in my basement. You never knew your father could carve wood like that did you?”

“Mmmm, nut uh.”

“No of course not. Because I taught myself. You know a lot of people think that’s blood on my cross, but it’s just shellac. Also, I may or may not have mixed some real blood in.”

A look of horror crosses my face.

“Dad’s kidding! I just let people believe whatever they want to. It’s paint. I mix it in to make them that way on purpose. You know, like Jesus’ blood?”

“Oh wow.”

What the hell would ever happen if you said one true thing to him? I mean would the world implode? At the very least he would pop you in the nose.

Dad continues to reminisce about last summer.

“Jenny, your Father still can’t believe those bastards blew up the Towers—The World Trade Center. Remember when you took Dad there last summer and I predicted the whole thing?”

I clench my fists tight. Resist the urge to knock him out. Dad, I mean no disrespect but have some common decency and shut up for once in your life. And no, you didn’t predict anything.

Naturally, I glare at him, in a pleading sort of way, instead of saying anything.

“Your Father knew when I stepped foot in those towers that they would blow them up. I had that spell in there and almost fell down. You remember right?”

I nod, just hoping it will end before someone overhears his barreling tale.

When I begin to bore him, Dad engages subway passengers. They actually talk back. Why dear God?

He tells me he wants to move to New York City. That he thinks he would fit in.

I grin, but think, stay away from my city.

When we arrive back at the apartment, I realize that it’s criminal to have 4 people in crammed into such a tiny space. Especially when one of them does not respect boundaries.

I try to steal a moment of peace by hiding in the bathroom. But it’s useless. I hear him at the door.

“Jenny, where did you go? Dad’s missed you all summer and I’m only here for the weekend. I hope you’re coming out soon, you know, whatever it is that you’re doing in there.”

My blood boils. I consider my options. How dare he? I mean now I can’t even go to the bathroom? It’s been 5 minutes. Maybe 10.

Before I have time to let the pressure valve release slowly, I hear him knock. I burst open the door and confront him.

“Dad, ever heard of someone going to the bathroom? You really need to back off. I am devoting an entire weekend to you. We are, actually. I think I can have 5 minutes to myself!”

You’re a fool. What did you do? You could get us all killed.

Dad doesn’t miss a beat. “Well I can see you don’t have the respect that your Father raised you with anymore. Brain washed by that fancy college?”

I don’t let him get away with it. “You’re ridiculous. No one wants to hear you go on and on…”

He spares my life and eventually retreats to the living room. 6 steps away. But now he goes into stealth silent mode. The worst.

No one can console him. We bribe him like a child with candy and ask if he wants to go to Ellis Island and find his family. A smile starts to form. Eventually he caves into our pleas.

After the weekend concludes, I call Mom. Who else can you turn to?

“Jenny? Jenny Penny? Wow I didn’t expect a call from you, love.”

“Hi Mom, I know we don’t really talk but I need your help or advice or whatever.”

2004: Nightmares

I wake up in a sweat. Where are you? Is it over? Did you win?

The clock reads, a grainy red, 3:47 am. Oh. It was another nightmare.

I roll over and get out of bed to make sure he didn’t break in. The wind blows against the panes. I shudder.

When I take a sip of water, it tastes like blood. It was a dream, right?

After I crawl back into bed, my mind won’t shut off. I relive the nightmare.

I punch him repeatedly with slayer strength, but he gets up and laughs in my face. “Is that all you got baby girl?”

It’s Dad.

We’re in his apartment. The surroundings seem strangely vivid.

I kick him this time. Hard. In the gut. Again, he laughs. But this time he comes at me.

I run downstairs to the kitchen. I know this place. I used to live here.

Grab a knife. His best butcher knife. He always keeps them sharp.

For a moment, I hesitate. You can’t hesitate. Remember what he taught you.

So, I spin around and plunge it through his chest.

No blood! Again, he gets up. He’s the terminator. You’re Sarah Connor. How does this end?

HELP!  I scream but no words escape my lips. My eyes lock on his. He won’t win. But then, he manages to grasp my neck.

He squeezes slowly enough to watch me squirm. He’s going to enjoy this. You can tell by his eyes.

It wasn’t supposed to end this way. Your story. You’re supposed to win.

You’re awake.

It’s over.

My heart beats hard. I sit up in bed at the memory of it. My throat still throbs. I rub it a bit.

Really, though, is it ever going to be over?

1987: The Curse

At the counter, I take a piece of paper and fold the bottom half into the middle. I bend the two top sides inward to meet the lower flap, sliding my thumb across the triangular edge. The last downward fold forms my paper envelope.

I inspect my work to make sure the edges line up. Envelopes are for grown ups. Because they have envelopes at the post office. And the post office is special because people have P.O. boxes there.

I make up a P.O Box address for the front of my envelope. While I draw on the scalloped edges of my stamp, 25 cents, I hear Dad yelling behind me. “Christ! Don’t fall out you son of bitch!”

A quick swivel of my stool reveals Dad gripping his giant two-handled saucepan while flipping it upside down. I hold my breath to see where the cake will land. Last time it was on the floor. And Sister Nancy ran in to see why Dad was screaming.

“Fuck! Ah! Good, you little bastard. Ol’ Tommy is smarter than you. You can’t beat a Greek.”

The chocolate cake lands safely on the silver tray. Steam roars out—fogging Dad’s glasses. The cake stands tall. Like the hat—the striped one from Cat in the Hat.

Dad walks around the butcher-block island to examine his masterpiece. “Look at this dark chocolate cake, Jenny Leigh.” It’s Daddy’s best one yet. Pillsbury dark chocolate cake mix. It’s the only one to use—as good as your Father could make it homemade. Just wait ‘til the nuns see this! They never had a cake like this for a picnic.”

Freshly baked cake smell drifts in my direction. My stomach growls. I hold my belly and turn back to my stamp artwork to distract myself. Behind me, Dad changes the paddle on the mixer so he can make chocolate frosting.

How come he can’t make you a cake? How come there’s always frosting on cakes? It tastes too sweet. He should let me have a piece before he ruins it.

I carefully place my envelope in my backpack. Don’t wrinkle, perfect little envelope.

At the counter, I stare at Dad hoping he will read my mind.

“Oh you came to watch Daddy? That’s good. I like it when you watch me. That way you learn and someday you will be a first class chef—just like your old man.”

My eyes meet his and then I glance back at the cake.

“Smells good doesn’t it?” Nod. Yes!

“Wait ‘til Daddy gets that dark chocolate drizzled over the top!” I shake my head. No!

“What you don’t like Daddy’s frosting? I know you do. You must. It’s the best in the world.”

“No Daddy. I don’t like it. I hate it. I like the cake plain.”

“Oh. Well, so what you’re telling me is that you want a piece right now?”

My stomach growls again. “Yes, please!”

“Well, there’s no way. No way, I can just cut a piece for you before everyone else eats it later? The cake is too thick. I could never fill in the hole.”

“Please, Dad? I’m so hungry.”

“No, honey. I’m sorry. But you have to learn patience.”

No it’s not fair. You’re always patient. And squeeze Daddy’s feet and back for him. No one ever does anything nice for you.

I glare at him. “I hate you, Dad. I hate you! And I wish you would die.”

“Oh my Christ. Did you just put a curse on your Father?”

What’s a curse?

“You did! You little shit. I know that look. My mother was a witch, you know, and she was cursed by a witch.”

Dad’s speech makes me forget about the cake.

“Fine. Will you remove the curse if Daddy cuts you a sliver?”

I don’t know if I should nod. But I do, so Dad will give me what I want.

“Fine, but it has to be just a sliver. My God, I’ll have to slave over it to fill that in.”

The thickness of the cake consumes the paper plate even though white bits peak through the thinnest parts.

I inhale deeply. Ahhh. A lovely chocolate cake, just for you.

Dad loads the nuns’ faux-wood station wagon. Cake goes in next to last. Followed by me, Sisters’ Nancy, Joan, Patricia, Mary and Dad.

No one will ever know about the missing piece of cake.

Dad soaks up rave compliments, especially for his famous potato salad and of course the chocolate cake.

On the way home, the motion of the car makes me drift into a deep sleep. What? What’s going on?

When I open my eyes, we are on the side of the road. I hear Dad saying, “The tire’s completely flat. Of course—my bad luck!”

Sister Nancy tells Dad there’s no such thing as bad luck. She says, “God knows what’s best for us all Chef, Tom.”

“Ack. No disrespect, Sister. But you don’t know my family. My daughter did this. Jenny put a curse on me.”

No I didn’t. I swear Daddy. I don’t even know what a curse is. You made that up, Daddy.

As Dad continues despite Sister Nancy’s protests, I hunker down in the seat. He’s going to be very angry with you later. When they’re all gone. No one will be able to protect you.

“Listen. Jenny said she was cursing me if I didn’t give her a sliver of that chocolate cake I made. She said I was going to die. I know of her powers more than she does, so I cut her the cake, even though it was the wrong thing to do as a parent. But she wouldn’t quit. Because the piece was too small for her, she said I would get a flat tire for my punishment instead of dying.”

No. No! Those are lies. I didn’t say that! I never said anything about a tire. I just wanted a piece of cake. I swear. I’m not a witch. I don’t have powers.

Sister Joan reaches for my hand and gives it a squeeze while Sister Nancy frowns through the rear window.

After Dad changes puts the spare tire on—no one says a word as Dad drives back to the convent. Except for me. I say a prayer. Dear God, I’m not a bad girl. I don’t know what a curse is, but I probably shouldn’t have told Dad I wanted him to die. Please don’t let him hurt me.

1993: Chips in Our Heads

I know what to expect when I hop in the car after school.

Dad turns toward me before pulling away from the curb. He chuckles, “It’s the third of the month! You know what that means. We’re going to the mall to spend every last dime this crummy government gives us!”

An impish grin splashes across my face despite my guilt. Shouldn’t the money go toward paying bills or buying food? Or is Dad right when he says they don’t give us enough to live on, so it doesn’t matter anyways?

“Goddamn eight hundred dollars! You can’t buy much with that. Maybe a few new outfits?”

I blush at Dad’s suggestion. Mostly because I know he won’t buy anything for himself. Are you selfish? Are you making him do this somehow?

Dad finds his usual handicapped parking space at the mall. As we make our way down the wide aisle, I hook my right arm through Dad’s left arm per protocol. “Jesus, Jenny. Stop growing like a weed. Daddy just realized you’re taller than me.”

After asking Dad to chop my long hair into a shoulder-length bob last week, I feel all grown up. “Even though you made Daddy cry—cutting all your gorgeous hair off—I have to admit it looks nice on you. You could pass for sixteen years old now. And I must say I did a fantastic job cutting it!”

I roll my eyes a little. Dad the sides are uneven, and somebody made fun of me for it at school. But I still like it.”

Two teenage boys wearing cargo pants and dingy t-shirts make their way toward us. They point at Dad and me while they snicker. “Wow. That’s a hot young girlfriend you got there, Buddy!” Dad turns on his heel, jerking me around with him. “What did you say to me? This is my daughter, assholes. Haven’t you ever heard of old fashioned respect?”

To avoid the public humiliation, I duck into Lerner New York. The saleswoman asks, “What’s going on out there?”

“Well these guys thought that I was my Dad’s girlfriend, I guess.”

She rolls her eyes. “I am sorry, Hun. That must be a little embarrassing.”

“Yeah.” I finger all the clothes hanging on the racks. I base my selections on the softest garments to touch. And whether or not they are dressy. Dad prefers ladies to wear dresses and skirts.

When Dad locates me, I have four hangers draped over my arms. “Good. They look good. Go try them on. And don’t worry, Daddy told those assholes off. What kind of a world are we living in where a Father can’t hold his daughters arm?”

Ugh Dad. I’m sure it’s just because no one else does it! It’s 1993 not 1903!

Dad instructs me to buy them all as I twirl out of the dressing room. But I decide on 2 items. A maxi flowered skirt. And the matching top.

As we head down the mall aisle, I point to a store we’ve never been in before. GAP.

I glance back at Dad, pleading. “Well let’s go in, then!”

The clothes make my heart skip a beat. They are all neutral shades: denim, khaki, and black. I grab a sandy-hued, knitted maxi tank dress off the rack, and hold it up to my body. This is the best dress in the world. Almost better than the sailor dress from two years ago.

I search for the price tag. $69.99. A flip of the tag reveals an orange sticker marked, $9.99.

Ten bucks! My hands shake as I show Dad the deal. “It’s gorgeous. Now go try it on so we can get the hell out of here.”

Before I try it on, I admire the dress on the hanger and inspect it carefully. I saunter out of the dressing room on my tip-toes. “Very nice. Sometimes your Father wishes your Mother wasn’t such a jerk so she could watch you growing into such a nice young lady. You sure know how to pick out clothes, my baby girl!”

While we stand at the register, Dad makes conversation with the cashier. “Nice store. This is the first time my daughter and I have been in.”

She smiles and nods at me. I blush and turn away.

“That’ll be $10.06 with the tax, Sir.”

“Goddamn government with their tax. You know what kills me—it’s the pennies. Why do we even need pennies? Couldn’t it just be $10.05 or $10.10? It would all work out the same in the end.”

Unsure of a response, the cashier stretches out her hand.

Dad continues, “It doesn’t matter anyways because money is obsolete. Do you know what I mean when I say that?”

She shakes her head no.

“Well—computers! Just look at them. They took over the world. When I was a kid, there were no computers. But one day—mark my words—the government is going to put chips in our heads. Little computer chips.”

The cashier’s eyes grow wide and she steps back with discomfort.

“Well think about it. There won’t be any more theft. You won’t have money and they will know what money we all have and our whereabouts at all times.”

After getting no response, Dad points to me. “Just ask my daughter. I’m a psychic. I know these things. We’ve never made a sci-fi movie that won’t come true in your lifetime. Dick Tracey’s watch—I’ll bet they have one in ten years.”

Come on Dad. Let’s go. Before someone calls the police.

Dad winks at the cashier because he knows she doesn’t understand but he feels better for telling her anyway.

When we step into the mall parking lot, I’m still beaming thinking about my new GAP dress.

But Dad yanks my arm. “Next time Daddy is telling someone about my predictions, you speak up and defend your Father. I do everything for you—you selfish Bitch. The least you can do is back Daddy up once in a while.”

I don’t care what you do to me. I’m never going to back up your stupid predictions. Not ever.

2003: Another Engagement Ring

The familiarity of the Northway comforts me.

But my stomach churns, too. Nostalgic fool! Who are you kidding? You’re filled with dread at the monthly visit. A weekend of walking on eggshells. Like you never left.

We lurch into Dad’s driveway. Confronted once again by—“GABAZAR”—Dad’s vanity license plate. You’ve officially arrived in hell. Just tell him, quickly.

With caution, Dad raises the middle-ish blind slat. His eyes beam though his mouth remains concealed. Look at him. He can’t wait to see you! How in God’s name did you end up being the last one? His final victim?

He opens the door before we’ve finished climbing the three cement steps. I shove my hands in my coat pocket—feigning aversion to the late November air.

Bill allows me to step inside Dad’s apartment first. God I can’t believe this man will endure this with me—for me.

“Good. Daddy’s so glad you’re here. Bill too. Hi Bill. How was the drive? Did you find they started driving like shit as soon as you got off the Northway? These fucking drivers around here don’t know their head from their asshole, I swear.”

Jesus. Just shut up and let me show you something.

“Anyways, your timing is perfect. I don’t know how you do that but Daddy was just about to make the gravy. I want to show Bill how I do it. And you both have to try one of my rolls—new recipe your Father just came up with two weeks ago. I’ve been perfecting it because I’m sick of the shit bread they sell, nowadays.”

“Umm Dad, listen, I umm…” His eyes, impatient, scan my face. Stop stuttering. You used to have some guts. You still do. So what if you didn’t ask permission first. You would never do that.

I jerk my left hand from my pocket and shove it up toward Dad’s face. He takes a moment to adjust his vision. I scrunch my face and squint hard so I don’t have to see his hand coming at me when he strikes. “Holy shit! Jenny Leigh!”

I open my eyes. Was that happiness?

Dad takes my hand to examine the diamond more diligently. “Platinum? What is it a couple carats?”

I nod.

“Wow that must have cost at least ten grand.” I glare at him. Does the narcissism ever relent?

He moves suddenly toward Bill. I pivot on my heel, ready to strike, if necessary. But instead, Dad wraps his arms around my fiancé. Did he just hug your future husband?

I jiggle my head to make sure I’m not hallucinating. By now, Dad’s back in the kitchen demanding our full attention.

The combination of Dad’s relentless chatter and the adrenaline drain produce a constant dull migraine. Damn these headaches! Will you ever be rid of them?

With my right index finger, I twist my engagement ring back and forth. This is what Mom deserved. The love. True love.

1995: A Pound of Butter

“Come on, Jenny. We have to drive that garage—the one where the guy inspects Daddy’s car—no questions asked. Before I get in trouble with motor vehicle.”

I throw my Camp Chingachook sweatshirt over my head. The sleeves tatter at the edges and the raised letters begin to peel off. “Is that what you’re wearing out of the house, Jenny?”

Nodding, I glance at my black fabric mary janes. Yes. We’re going to a musty old garage. Not church.

“Alright I guess you look good enough for the garage. But maybe you should change into something nicer when we get home.” Fine. Yup I said it in my head. Fine. I flinch wondering if he can read my thoughts.

Periodically, I look up from my book as Dad drives to our destination. Crossing the bridge. Joy store. Where you almost died.

 “Goddamn motherfucker.” Huh? What now?

“The bastard is closed.”

He is? Oh yeah. Duh. “Closed” sign.

Dad investigates the situation further. “Well it looks like you and Daddy are screwed again. This guy was perfect. You drove in—flashed your lights—that was it. No emergency brake check—no nothing. Fucking New York State laws. He probably got caught violating the inspection codes.”

Shit. What are we going to do? Will Dad get in trouble? Will it be like the time he didn’t pay his car insurance and we had to drive all the way to Albany to renew his revoked license?

When we arrive home, Dad skims his address book. I retreat to my room so I can finish The Good Earth. I repeat the author’s name in my head each time I see the cover because it’s pleasing and unusual. Pearl S. Buck.

Dad thunders upstairs, “Hey Jenny. Come on. We gotta drive to my nephew’s house.” Which one?

I blink, confused.

“You’ve never met him. My nephew Ken. You know Daddy has over 400 nieces and nephews.”

I wonder how Dad knows the way as we meander through the back roads to get to Ken’s house. Who is Ken and how come you never met him at one of the many family funerals?

We pull in and find the garage door open. Ken slides out from underneath a truck he’s working on. Dad extends his hand to Ken. “Nephew! It’s been too long. How have you been?”

“Been pretty good uncle Tommy. Keeping busy.”

‘Thanks for helping me out of this bind, Neph. The thing is…the car runs perfect…I just don’t have the back brakes hooked up now and I don’t have any emergency brake. The guy who used to inspect it up in Warrensburg went out of business.”

“It’s no problem Uncle. I can take care of it for you.”

“You’re the best, Ken.” Dad flips a thumbs up and grins in my direction. “My nephew. One of many. They’re all good kids. Uncle Tommy loves every one of my nieces and nephews.” So why did we ever go to Uncle George when we could have just come to Ken?

While Ken finishes up, his wife Cindy enters the garage and gives Dad a big hug. Dad has the weirdest family ever. You’re like the niece in the Munsters show. The one who doesn’t fit in.

“You’re all set, Uncle!”

I feel Dad’s relief. “Ken. Do you like cookies?”

“Of course. Look at me!” Ken shakes his stomach. Dad mirrors him. Twins.

“Well, I’m going to bring you my famous chocolate chip blondie bars. You’ve never had cookies that good in your life. I’ll drop them off tomorrow afternoon if you’ll be around?”

“Sounds great!”

Dad and I make the chocolate chip cookies that night.

My mouth waters, but Dad insists on giving the whole half sheet tray to Ken. “This is what you do for people when they do you a favor, Jenny. Daddy’s trying to teach you how to be a good person someday.”

Two days later, Ken’s wife, Cindy calls Dad.

I wonder if something’s wrong with the car. Did Ken change his mind? Can you take an inspection back? Did he get in trouble or something? Maybe they just called to say thanks for the cookies…

Dad keeps repeating, “My God, Cindy. I’m so sorry. That’s horrible. I had no idea that…”

After he hangs up, Dad emerges from behind the trifold divider shaking his head. Well, what is it?

“Jenny, Ken’s dead!”

But…but…we just saw Ken yesterday. Yesterday we saw Ken in his garage and he was alive!

“Jesus, Jenny. Your Father killed my own nephew.”

You killed him? But when? How?

“The cookies. The motherfucking cookies. I make them with a whole pound of butter. A whole motherfucking pound. You have to make them that way. Christ! I didn’t know he had a heart condition. He was only fifty years old.”

Wait how can a chocolate chip cookie kill someone?

“For fucks sake. I didn’t know he was going to eat the whole sheet tray in one night. He ate a pound of butter. Two cups of sugar. The thing is—Cindy said she wasn’t mad. She said Ken died happy. She said he just couldn’t stop eating them—he said they were the best cookies he ate in his life. She said it was an accident. But still your Father is very upset about this.”

This is very confusing. You said we were making the cookies to repay Ken. And they killed him.

“Well, looks like we have another funeral to attend. You know what Daddy always says, too: People die in threes. So somebody else is gonna kick the bucket before long. All I know is: I’m going to outlive them all—my whole family.”

Hopefully not. And besides, if you’re trying to teach me to be a good person—as you put it—then why do you say these shitty things about people? Poor Ken and Cindy.

I trudge upstairs and open my closet to make sure my black dress is clean.

1997: Training to Win

“Jenny if you want to do this cross country shit, it isn’t gonna be like last spring when you ran track. Daddy’s going to be your coach. No more galloping like you’re a motherfucking horse. That’s not running.” Dad shakes his head in disgust.

“Dad I had shin splints.”

“No wonder! The way you ran.” Well maybe if I could have done a sport before sixteen years old…maybe then I wouldn’t be the 7th grader afraid of playground slides, and the 8th grader who couldn’t stand up on roller skates, and now the girl who can’t run.

“Don’t worry, if you really want to do this thing, Daddy’s going to train you my way. The Marine Corps way.”

I glare at him and avert my gaze. I’ll just do it according to my real coach.

“You’re going to have to make Daddy a promise though: You can’t tell anyone that you’re training. If one of your friends asks, you tell them that you haven’t been practicing. Loose lips sink ships, you know.”

Jesus. I’m not that competitive. I just want to run. I want to be with my friends. And not totally suck.

I nod to satisfy Dad’s terms.

“B—but you can’t run with me, Dad.”

“Of course not. Daddy’s too old and fat now. But back in my younger years—you can ask your mother or any of your sisters—Daddy was fast. Man could I run.”

I stare at him confused. You’ll have a heart attack if you run with me now.

Dad winks and grins. “I’m going to ride my bike alongside you. That way I can time you. And make sure some fucking psychopath doesn’t try to kidnap you.”

I try to envision Dad riding his bike slow enough to keep pace.

“Don’t worry about your Father. I’ll manage the bike.”

I walk past Dad and head for my room.

“Where are you going, Jenny?”

“To my room.”

“Training starts now.”

“Umm-okay—well.”

“Nope. And Daddy’s no easy trainer. But better than my drill instructors. The bastards used to throw a 50-pound foot locker on Daddy’s chest.”

“For today, because I don’t have weights for your ankles and wrists, you’re going to run with a backpack on.”

“But—coach said…”

“Fuck the coach. Daddy knows how to make you a winner. You need the extra weight. That’s how they train champions.”

Dad loads up my knapsack and we go for a jog. Four loops around the block. One mile.

When I turn the corner toward the complex, my face begins to burn. My stomach turns.

“Don’t slow down now. Harder. You have to push really hard for the last bit. Come on! Daddy knows you can do it!”

Shut up, you bastard. I’ll push harder. Pretending I’m running to the ends of the earth. Faster. Anything to escape you.

My feet don’t stop when I reach the front door. I push into the brass letter “C” with my right hand.

Holy shit. You’re going to die. Or throw up.

I bend over. Grip my abdomen. Wheeze unevenly.

“Jenny, what the fuck are you doing? This is the most important part. Stand up and breathe normally! When you feel like it’s going to kill you, you have to breathe normally.”

One day, I’ll kill you. Lay off!

I attempt to stand and take breaths. Shit. It’s actually helping.

“See. What did Daddy tell you? And your time was great for our first run together. Just wait until you start school next month!”

God this is going to suck. But you know how this has to go. You have to do it his way. And then you can have something. You can fit in. At least a little bit.

I turn the faucet on cold and fill my glass with water. Gulp. Gulp. Guzzle.

“Hey. Watch how fast you’re drinking that water! You’re stomach is going to blow up huge!”

You’ll never do anything right. Get used to it.

The phone rings. Dad picks up before the third ring.

“Oh hi, Nancy. Yeah Jenny’s here. How are you doing? That’s good. And how are your parents?”

Poor Nancy. Just give me the phone already.

Dad, sweet as a peach says, here’s Jenny!” to Nancy. He glares at me during the exchange to remind me of our deal.

“Hi Nancy.”

“Hey what’s up? I just got my cross-country letter in the mail from coach today. It’s early this year.”

“Oh really? I didn’t get mine yet.”

“Probably because you’re new to the team. I haven’t started practicing yet. I’m lazy this summer and I like it that way.”

“Haha!”

Dad glares at me through the divider slats as he rocks back and forth.

“So have you starting running yet, Kambie?”

“Oh, um—well—no.”

“Oh thank God. Yeah. I’m not going to start more than a couple days before we start practice. I just want to make sure you’re not going to practice. Or else we could practice together.”

Fuck. Lying is the worst. And you’re bad at it. Thank God this is over the phone.

“Hey. No. That’s a good idea, but I’m lazy too. Maybe in a few weeks.”

Dad motions for me to get off.

“Okay, Nancy. It was good to chat. Listen, I gotta go. But I’ll call you soon.”

“Good, Jenny. I know you don’t understand me now. But one day you will. You’ll understand everything.”

Yeah. Yeah. This better not be like that middle-school class-president shit. The shit that made all of my friends hate me.