1995: Almost Graduation

Dad moseys the old Plymouth down a narrow one-way street to drop me off for school. St. Mary’s Academy. The gothic stone structure always seems out of place standing next to a plastic-cluttered playground and a chain link fenced parking lot across the street.

Dad always says, “The church—with all their money—had this place built over sixty years ago by some famous architect. They even imported the marble all the way from Italy.”

When he made the decision in 1986, Dad pronounced, “Jenny you’re gonna go to the same Catholic school as your Father. In those days, the nuns beat us with thick wooden rulers.” He holds his sausage-link thumb and index finger up to approximate the ruler’s width. “Now it’s illegal for them to do that. But let me tell you, those nuns were as mean as any drill instructor Daddy ever had. Evil—some of them were too. They hated children!”

The car is now idling in front of the main entrance. I hear Dad going on, “You know, Jenny, one time me and my buddy, Gary, got to meet the Pope. We tried to suck the ruby out of the bastards ring, but we couldn’t get it. Can you imagine these so-called men of God wearing jewelry like that? It’s all a farce if you ask your Father.”

I wonder momentarily, why the hell did you send me here then? Ah who gives a shit. You’re in 8th grade. You’re about to graduate, and then you can go off and become the first woman President of the United States.

Basically, I’m a senior around here since the high school shut down in 1989.

Dad snaps me back to reality as he turns to me before letting me exit the cab, “Jenny, why do they have to take you on a senior field trip to goddamn Canada of all places? And to a theme park, no fucking less! You know that you and Daddy hate those kind of places.”

I give him a concealed death glare. I don’t know what I hate because I’ve never been allowed to go to any places!

 He continues, “And besides, you can’t go unless I go. So you better make sure that I am a chaperone for this little trip of yours.”

Defeat. I’m screwed for life. You will never give up. I just want one day without hearing your voice. I want to be cool like other kids, like Jessica, who gets to have boys sleep over. I want a mother. They seem to understand. As usual, I nod, “Okay.”

“Okay what? Make sure I’m on that goddamn bus. I’m not letting anyone take my daughter to Canada without me being there. Did you hear me Jenny?!”

Later that week, all 13 of us pupils, prim and proper, line up outside the stone church. We don’t dare talk in line as we wait to receive our diplomas; we have learned well the consequences long before this point. We are expected to behave perfectly and are shown no mercy should we falter.

Who cares? We don’t require words; we’ve learned to communicate through glances and gestures. We are practically family. No we are family! Brothers and sisters. We grew up together. This is the end; we have finally made it.

Even at the age of 14, we all realize, jokingly, that we will need therapy one day.

I feel proud in this moment and as the organ music begins to sound, I well up with tears for all of our achievements. Don’t lose it now; Get a grip!

Suddenly, Dad comes rushing toward the line with the look of a wild coyote.

“Come on Jenny, let’s get the hell out of here. This goddamn bitch says that you can’t graduate.”

Uh, he said “goddamn” and “bitch” in church. Oh my fucking God. Not graduate? But, I’m an A student.

I see her behind him. The principal, who happens to be a part Catholic nun, part drill instructor. This is not the first time that she and Dad have sparred. This is her revenge.

As I walk out with Dad holding my right arm, she grabs onto my left arm, and says, “Wait, Jenny, don’t leave. Let me explain to you what I told your father. You can graduate today…”

My face is burning red and I spin around to face her. I know in this moment that I will commit a sin that cannot be erased.

“Let me go, you fucking bitch!”

I rip my arm away and watch her face contort in shock. I hear gasps as my father and I make our way out of the church.

The fresh, June air that I breathe tastes surprisingly raw. This moment disappoints me more than any other in my life, so far. Shit. I earned this!

When we get in the car, the maroon vinyl seats stick to my already sweaty silk dress. I roll down my window and ask “What about my class trip tomorrow?”

“Well, that evil cunt ruined that for you too! Naturally, you can’t go now.”

My heads feels like it will permanently hang down at a 45-degree angle. This is his fault. He never wanted you to have fun anyway. He never tries to work anything out; it’s always bullshit drama.

 “Daddy feels bad, but we couldn’t let her push us around. How dare she tell me that you weren’t going to get your diploma, only a shitty piece of blank paper. If we weren’t in church, I would’ve punched that bitch right in the face.”

We drive around town for a while, but I am dazed. After a couple hours, the answering machine blinks red with several messages from my friends.

“Hi, Jenny. We all hope you are okay. Are you coming to the awards ceremony tonight? Will we see you tomorrow? The bus leaves at 7 am.”

How can any of your friends still care about you—the weirdo?

 Later there’s more. “Hi Jenny, this is Sara. I have your awards from tonight. We really missed you. Please call us.”

I want to pick up the phone and say, “No, I’m not okay. Please come and take me away from this prison.

Dad becomes more annoyed with every call, “Don’t these people ever give up? No! We’re not okay. We’re alone again. Just Daddy and Jenny. There’s no mother or sisters or brothers. Nobody really gives a shit about us.”

It’s 8pm. I haven’t eaten anything since breakfast. Dad realizes this and opens the cupboards to reveal the bare ingredients in the apartment: flour, sugar, milk, and a liter of grape soda. Like magic he whips us up some homemade pancakes and “maple” sugar syrup.

Advertisements

2001: Running with a Cordless Phone

“Let me tell you something, Jenny, I don’t give a shit if you’re 20 years old. You’re still my daughter. You’re my fucking property. I will kill you myself first! Do you hear your father? You’re not going to see these two boys at once and have one of them kill you. And don’t tell me it doesn’t happen. You know as well as I do. You see it on the news every day.”

I’m not “seeing” them both at once. I broke up with my boyfriend to see someone else and if you’re so worried about one of them killing me, stop calling my ex and stirring the pot, asshole!

Dad continues as veins bulge from his neck, “Are you listening to me, you no good, cock-sucking whore? Here’s what’s going to happen. Give me your cell phone. Right now. Right fucking now. Good. And from now on you do as I say, when I say.”

I want him to drop dead. You bastard! You got away with talking to me that way my whole life. But the day I turned 18, I swore you would never threaten me again. Never again.

Per protocol, I immediately retreat to my bedroom and lie on my bed. I dig my nails into my arms so I won’t tear up. Waiting. Always waiting. Later that night, he makes his way up the stairs, grunting and snorting all the way. I can hear every breath he takes as though he is standing over me. I pretend to be asleep, but I have one eye open. I am lying on my side because I feel most vulnerable on my back. He uses the bathroom and then goes into his bedroom. It approaches an eternity before I can hear him snore.

You know he is the lightest sleeper ever. Fucking Marine Corps training. And he will make good on his promise to kill you if he hears you. Still, you’ve got to do this, or you’re better off dead.

I pretend I am a samurai wearing a black body suit, moving so quietly no one can hear me. I know where all the spots are in the floor that creak because we have lived in this apartment for seven years. I don’t stand. I crawl. I scoot my behind down one step at a time, skipping over the 8th step entirely. Okay big shot, you made it down stairs, there’s no turning back, and you’d better stop wasting time thinking. He could wake up at any time and then you are DEAD. I think I hear something, so I stay very still for a moment but nothing happens. Maybe you’d better take the cordless phone because you don’t have your cell and you need to call your friend when you make it outside the apartment. I grab the handset with reluctance since it makes a little beep when you pull it from the cradle. I stop to see if he stirs. Nothing. But I can’t be sure since I am shaking so badly, my heart is pounding in my eardrums. Now I am at the front door. I stand there for several seconds. Oh shit. This is the worst part. He’s going to hear it open. He will jump out the second story window, thereby cracking the earth open to its core and you will die drowning in molten lava. Stop it. Just focus. See the door opening slowly. You can do this. You’re a woman now. I grip the door knob and turn it slowly. As I open the door, I hear sirens in my head. They are so loud, and I have to open it faster now. I can’t take the pressure anymore.

I am outside. Pitch black. What time is it anyway? I can’t shut the door. Shaking too badly. Oh God what if someone comes right in and kills him because you left the door open? No. He brought this on himself. You have to run. You have to save your life. And that’s it. I bolt. I don’t just run. I turn into a gazelle. I cut clean through the apartment complex and make it to a street. I look back twice. Maybe three times. By now he could be in the car looking for you. Time to hide. Run faster. No, fly. Now I am two streets over hiding behind other people’s houses. I turn on the cordless phone. No dial tone. Of course! You’re an idiot. You’re “out of range.” Sometimes I wonder why people think I am smart. No time for this. You have to find a way. It’s too late to turn back. I construct a mental map of back roads all the way to my friend’s house. My Father’s voice is in my head now. Jenny, you’re a very foolish little girl. You want to run away from me…fine. But now you are putting yourself at risk. You’re vulnerable. Predators, they always know when someone is weak. They will find you. You know Daddy taught you better than this. Just then, I notice someone’s light is on inside their house. I sneak under the window. It’s their kitchen. A woman is doing dishes. Late to be doing dishes. What time is it anyway? She looks young and nice. A woman won’t hurt me. You just have to take a chance. I begin waving at the kitchen window, mouthing, “help me please and I’m sorry to bother you.”

She motions for me to go to the front door where her husband greets me. He looks nice too. I hope they are not killers. Sick psycho married couple that lures you in then… stop being paranoid like your Father. I am tearing up as I say, “I am so sorry to bother you this late at night.”

Warmly, they both motion me inside, “Come in honey. It’s okay. What happened to you?”

“It’s my Dad, I’m 20 years old but I had to run away because I am afraid he is going to kill me.”

They look at me with odd understanding. They told me their names, but I forgot already. “I won’t need to bother you for long. I just need to call my friend to pick me up, if you have a phone you are willing to let me use to make a local call.” The wife sends her husband to go retrieve the phone. Meanwhile she explains, “Don’t worry honey. You know what? There is nothing to be sorry for. I came from an abusive family too. I understand what you are going through. Really, I left home much younger than you are now, but I’m glad you got away. And I’m glad we had our light on to help you tonight. Really, it’s no imposition.”

Her husband hands me the phone and tells me, “you can go in that back bedroom if you would like some privacy.” Then I realize there is a baby’s basinet in the other bedroom. Oh no, you’re going to wake up their baby. They are so nice. My dad is wrong about people. They are not all evil. Some people can be trusted, and that’s the way you will live my life, trust until someone gives you a good reason not to. I dial my friend. Oh please let him answer and not his parents.

 “Hello?”

Shakily I stammer, “Hi, it’s me. I ran away tonight. He threatened to kill me. I need you to come and get me. I’m at these people’s house around the corner from my dad’s place. They were really nice to let me use their phone but I have to get out of here quick before my Father wakes up.”

Silence.

“Sweetie? Ummm…okay this is a lot to take in. I have to go ask my parents if it’s okay if I bring you here to stay. Be right back.”

Please let it be ok. I’m out of options.

“Sweetie, they said yes. You can sleep in my room. I will sleep in my sister’s old room. Where are you exactly?”

I talk to the couple for a few more minutes, thank them for all their help, apologize one last time, and then stand by the door looking out the front window. My friend’s light blue Chevy is the only car on the road at this time of night. I run as fast as I can and hop in.

He asks me, “What’s going on?”

“Just get out of here. I’m still afraid my Father is going to find us. Also I think it’s best if you take me to the police station so I can tell them I left of my own free will. I know my Father. He will report me missing.” Oddly, he taught you to go to the police so no one could ever hurt you. It’s crazy to be following his directions at a time like this.

 We drive downtown. I’ve been to the police station there before when my Father was the manager of the apartment complex where he lives. We walk inside and there is an officer behind a glass window.

I say into the speaker, “Hi my name is Jenny Kamburelis. I am here because I ran away from home tonight and I don’t want my father to report me missing.” He beeps the door so we can come in. Another police officer asks me several questions and files a report. Name, age, address, reason I ran away…basic information.

The officer asks, “Who is this person with you?”

I reply, “It’s my friend who came to pick me up.”

The officer responds, “Okay, you’re all set. And good luck. I want you to know this is not unusual. We see these types of family disputes all the time. I hope you can work it out with your Father.”

“I’m not sure that I can. He is very violent. You don’t know him. I go back to college in a week. If I need help retrieving my things, could a police officer be there?”

“Sure. Just call us if you have a problem.”

We drive back to my friend’s house. I love his family home—neatly tucked away behind so many trees that you can’t see it from the road. Anonymity. Each minute that passes I become less afraid. I am exhausted emotionally. I fall into bed, but I can’t sleep. Sleep you overtired zombie.

“Sweetie, sweetie wake up!”

“Huh what’s happening?”

“It’s your dad, he’s on the phone right now. He wants me to help him come and find you. He says you are missing.”

“Did you tell him that I am here?”

“No, not yet. But I think I have to tell him the truth at this point. I mean he is a wreck. He is crying, and he’s asked me to come help search for you.”

Holy shit. He’s crying?! He’s never cried over anything. I saw him tear up once when his sister Nellie died in a car accident. But he doesn’t cry. Ever.

Nervously I tell him, “Uhhh, ummm, okay. I guess you have to tell him that I am here.”

My friend retrieves the phone, “Here you go. Your dad wants to talk to you.”

“Hello.”

“Jenny. Honey, you scared Daddy. Come right home now.”

“Well you scared me…and, no, I am not coming home right now. I just got here and I am tired.”

“Well, when are you coming home?”

“In the morning, I guess.”

“What time?”

“I don’t know. Uh, about ten o’clock. I need to go and get some rest now.”

He says in his most charming voice, “Okay, you and Poppa will talk about everything when you get home. Oh, and why ten o’clock? It’s so late.”

“I will see you at ten.” You bastard, pain in the ass. You are lucky I am coming back at all. God, I am such a wimp.

My friend drops me off at the apartment door that I had become so intimately acquainted with less than 10 hours ago. Fuck. You’re back. He’s probably doing that whole Don Corleone thing—luring you in last night with the “I love you and come home” crap. Now he will just kill you. I’m so tired; I won’t even fight him.

 I walk in to find Dad sitting in a white rocking chair. Rocking methodically.

He addresses me, “I’m so glad you’re home. Pretty sneaky you are. Boy, you scared Poppa good. I got up in the middle of the night to check on you, like I always do, and you were gone. I said to myself, boy, she must be pretty pissed.”

Blank stare.

“So tell daddy all about what happened.” Ummm ok…he’s not mad and he thinks this is some kind of great adventure?!

“Well I just ran out after you went to sleep. Then Gary came to pick me up, and I told him to take me to the police station so I wouldn’t be reported missing.”

All the while he continues the rocking motion while snorting. Then he grins and says, “That’s my girl. Just like Daddy taught you. This is the proudest Daddy’s ever been of you, and you’ve got some balls like your old man too. So tell me more. What happened at the police station?”

Wow. I thought I was going to never see him again. Now he’s proud? No matter how much you think you know him, you don’t.

 Oddly, I am happy that he is proud of me. Finally! “Well, Dad they just took a report, and wrote down all my information. I figured you would have called them first thing when you found me missing.”

He nods, shaking his head “no,” but wants to know more. “Dad, I’m pretty beat. I can tell you more about it later.” This is sick. Just sick.

“Okay, Daddy will let you rest. I just can’t believe you went to the police like I taught you to do. He’s actually proud of himself, and, by extension, you. “All right. You and Daddy, we’re gonna work this out. I told you I will always have your back. Whoever you like for a boyfriend, Pops will support you on that.” Utterly confused, I climb the stairs that I just crawled down the previous night and lie on my bed with an odd sense of relief and a feeling that, maybe, I am loved.

1988: Chocolate Cake, Please?

Today is my 7th Birthday. Dad is still head chef at Camp Chingachgook until the end of the summer. He stayed up late last night to prepare a special cake for me. My first birthday cake.

He doesn’t cook his cake like other bakers. They use a cake pan. But Dad fills a deep aluminum soup pot two-thirds filled with batter. The cake cooks for two whole hours. When it comes out of the oven, Dad dumps the pot upside down with his right hand and catches the cake in the left crook of his arm. Last year he missed, and the cake went on the floor. Motherfucking cock sucking son-of-a-bitch, Jenny. Your Father’s beautiful cake is ruined and it’s all my own fault!

Last week, Dad asked me, “Jenny what kind of cake do you want your Father to make for your birthday? My famous dark chocolate with mocha frosting, right? That’s Daddy’s best!”

I ponder Dad’s idea. He’s right. You do love chocolate cake the most. Truth be told, I’d rather eat the densely moist chocolate perfection all by itself, minus the frosting. But I know that other people like frosting so I nod, “ok.”

“What do you want Daddy to put on the top of your cake?”

This is the most important question anyone has asked me in a long time. Maybe ever.

Your favorite shapes…heart, star, and ?

 I animatedly tell him that I want three shapes on the top. “A heart, a star, and a—square!”

Dad looks puzzled, but intrigued. “You want those three shapes only on the top of your cake?! You don’t want it to say ‘Happy Birthday’ on there?”

I nod “yes,” and then “no.”

“Okay, Jenny. You’re a very strange child. You know that, right? But Daddy will do as you wish.”

I hear him mutter incredulously under his breath, “a heart, a star, and a square.”

Yes, exactly. And I’m not strange. This cake is going to be so great. No one has ever seen one like it.

 Proudly, I keep imagining the finished result.

When I wake up Dad informs me that my Godmother, Madeline, and Godfather, Neil, are both coming to take me to the Sagamore for my birthday.

Yipee!! I can’t help but grin at the thought of spending the day with Madeline and Neil. They are the grandparents that I never had.

 But Dad is less enthused. “They better have you back on time for your cake. I don’t know what I’m going to do if they are late. The camp kids will go nuts and devour your cake, and I won’t be able to stop them.”

I lower my head in despair. Of course you can stop them. Just don’t put it out. We won’t be late!

We have a perfect day at the resort. Except when I become anxious about returning to camp and quickly run down a long hill towards the car. Somehow I stumble. Bam!! Both knees skinned. I’m so stunned that I don’t cry. My knees burn. I wonder if they will ever grow back.

By the time we return, Dad shoots me a disappointed look as he glances at my bloody injury.

Sorry. I tried to hurry back.

 After Madeline and Neil tell Dad about my brutal injury, he informs us of the bad news, “Well, that’s too bad that you were late. I told Jenny not to be late. Well I was right. The cake is all gone but two slices, and those are for you and Neil.”

They try to urge with him that I should have a piece instead, but he insists that I’m being punished for not listening.

Dad brings the last two pieces out on a paper plates. I can see one pointed edge of the star, and one corner of the square.”

I hold back my tears by digging my nails into my thighs. Water fills my eyes in such a way that if I were to blink or glance down, it would all run out. Then he would kill you for sure. So I dig my nails a little deeper into my flesh. Happy Birthday to me.

1991: A Glorious Summer

Dad and I rumble up to the First National bank in the red and white Chevy Malibu.

“Jenny, the bastards owed you and Daddy this ten-thousand. It’s retroactive, you know. Poppa will never forget the look on the judge’s face when I took my shirt off right in court to show him these bumps all over my body.”

Glad that I was in school that day.

 “That judge said to your Father, ‘Mr. K, I’m granting you your social security disability because I can see that you’re not fit to work.’”

Not because of the bumps, though!

“And that’s what Daddy’s trying to teach you. Never say you can’t. And never ever give up!”

After we open a checking account and get a wad of cash, Dad heads to the apartment complex where we were supposed to live with my mom.

Dad phones the rental office, “Hi, this is Tom. I called about moving to a two-bedroom apartment with my wife. Well, she left, so I’ll only need the one-bedroom now.”

We pick up the apartment keys at the construction office near the airport. Dad enjoys flipping off some crisp hundred-dollar bills for the apartment manager. $700.

“Well, Poppa’s little girl. Looks like we’re going to need some furniture. Better go blow some of this cash. Then, maybe Daddy will still have time to bet the late double.”

Furniture? Oh yeah! We’ve never owned that before.

When Dad pulls into the most expensive furniture store in town, I know he feels like celebrating.

We stay for an hour, and spend a couple grand.

“Well Jenny, Pops thinks you did good for your first time picking out furniture. That Broyhill set we bought for your bedroom is excellent quality. You’ll have it for your whole life.”

I have my own bedroom furniture! It even has a matching desk and chair set. This is my favorite part.

Dad, realizing the time, blurts out, “Shit. We haven’t eaten all day. Let’s get our asses to Wendy’s and get four of those 99-cent junior bacon cheeseburgers. Maybe even a milkshake, if you want it. No cheapening ourselves today, Jenny Leigh!”

I pinch myself to see if I’m still alive. It can’t be happening. We’ve never had more than two 99-cent cheeseburgers and a Coke to share.

 I wonder what else is going to change now that we are rich?

 The next week instead of stocking the fridge with frozen mystery meat, dad buys real fruit, and chicken breasts, and lettuce.

We get cable, but not just any cable. HBO. The first night the new couch and entertainment center arrives, we stay up until 2 am watching Pet Cemetery. That night, I’m too scared to sleep.

 Okay, so some things never change.

 The following month, I turn 10. Dad throws me my first birthday party. It’s at East Field, the park across from our new apartment. The theme is Barbie. My friends from school are invited. Even the girls that I don’t like. But that’s only because they’re snobby.

“Jenny, you have to invite everyone because that’s the way Daddy’s raising you. You’re no better than anybody else. You might be raised better than them, and have more respect for yourself. But, I always want you to do what’s right.”

The next day he takes me to a marching band concert in the park. When we get to the gate, they say, “That will be $30 each.”

I see Dad’s eye flicker a bit, but he hands over the $60.

This time I don’t pinch myself. You’re living in a fairy tale. I fully expect Cinderella’s mice to appear and break out in song at any moment.

This is the most fun thing you’ve ever done in your life. And this is the best summer ever.

 I feel like the puppet, Pinocchio, except I was just turned into a real little girl.

1998: Gabazarians

My first period of the day is English. We’re reading Thoreau. Kind of a weirdo. But I’m intrigued. I walk to my usual seat in the second row.

Matt and Casey are huddled right behind me, whispering. One of them pokes my shoulder.

I’ve had a crush on both of them at some point in the last few years. God, I hope neither of them noticed.

Matt leans in and whispers, “Dude, what’s a Gabazarian?”

I feel my face burn. I can’t help it. Fuck, fuck, shit! I need to disappear from the universe immediately. Or at least to Walden Pond.

 I play dumb. Still red-faced, “Dude, what are you talking about?”

“Umm I called your house this weekend, and your answering machine said, ‘You’ve reached the home of the Gabazarians, God’s new chosen people!’”

Holy Christ! I’ve been verbally bludgeoned to death. It’s over. Give yourself up, freak!

 Shaking, “Umm, I don’t know what you’re talking about, Matt.”

“What religion are you? Don’t you go to St. Mary’s?”

“Yeah, we’re Catholic.” Pheww! Stop glowing asshole, you almost have this smoothed over.

 Matt doesn’t give in. “Hmm, well it sounded just like your voice on the answering machine, and I called it twice and it was the number listed in the school directory for you.”

Because my life is over and our English teacher tells us to stop talking, I just shrug and turn around. But I can still hear them snickering.

Why didn’t you just tell them that your Father is nuts. And this whole Gabazar thing that you hoped would be a phase is all his idea. And you need help. Whatever. It’ll never happen. You’re too embarrassed to even admit it to your best friend.

1988: The Ponies

I brush my little pony’s rainbow colored mane as Dad drives. I trace the plush velvety maroon interior of our white Oldsmobile with my index finger.

I love this car but dad said, “That son of a bitch who sold us this goddamn car ripped me off. I oughtta go and give him a piece of my mind. Motherfucking diesel engine. Nobody makes a fool of Thomas.”

Suddenly, as I peer over the dash, we are headed toward South Street. There’s only two things on South Street. Dirty John’s Hot Dog Restaurant, and Off Track Betting.

“Dad! No! We’re going to OTB today?” I let this slip out almost forgetting the spanking he will give me.

“No, no. Don’t get all excited my child. Daddy’s just got to go see a man about a horse.”

I sigh, relieved, I keep brushing my pony’s pink mane.

When I look up, Dad backs into his usual spot at the OTB parking lot.

He shoots me a crooked grin. “See Daddy never lies. I told you, we’re going to see a man about a horse.”

I leave my toys in the car. I don’t want them smelling like cigarette smoke too.

Dad runs over to the Belmont track sheets. His favorite. He looks at the Daily Double. I hate the Double. It means we will be here for hours.

“Jenny I think Daddy’s gonna bet 4-2 for the late double. What do you think? You know my favorite numbers are Deborah Brown, 4 and 2.”

Utterly bored, I stare at the design in the plush rug. A series of overlapping octagons. Immediately I begin to count the patterned shapes. 4, 8, 12, 16, 20, 24…

When I turn around, I see Dad at the counter placing the bet. Finally!

“Yeah, Hi Joanne, I’d like to bet $20 on 4 and 2 for the late double at Belmont.”

$20?! Just bet the $5 ones.

 While we wait for the race, I sit on a tangerine orange wooden bench. I turn over a racing sheet and begin to draw what I see. A wall socket, and large screen TV. Boring. Wait maybe you can design you dream house? The one you are going to live in someday!

I grab a track sheet and flip it over. Which room first? The Bedroom. I draw a heart-shaped bed in the middle of the room. I admire my design. You know no one else will ever have a heart shaped bed. You’re special. It suits you.

I overhear Dad talking to old Joe. He asks my Father, “Hey, Tom, got any good bets in today?”

Dad replies reluctantly, “Just a late double.”

Joe nods his head, “Nice. You box ‘em?”

“Fuck no, Joe. I’m not like you idiots. I don’t spend $40 boxing every horse in the race with the favorite so I can win $5, or lose $35.”

Joe doesn’t ask any more questions after this. He just glances down at his heavily marked race sheets.

I don’t really understand the odds. I know that low numbers are bad because they don’t pay a lot.

As I glance to my right, Tony the Greek stands right beside me. He and my Father greet each other warmly. Tony is Dad’s favorite of all the OTB guys.

Tony pulls a dollar bill out of his wallet and hands it to me. I take it very shyly.

“Thank you.”

Dad boasts, “Tony, you’re a good man. A real Greek just like me. You always give my daughter a dollar every time you see her.”

“Well, yes Tom. No need to thank me. She’s a good girl, your Jenny. She’s a good Greek too. She’s fair but Greek through and through.”

What do they mean? How can they tell I’m Greek? How do you know what anybody is?

When the race starts the guys gather round the largest screen in the place. Their smoke clouds seem to linger in their former positions.

All the betters yell in unison “Come on Winning Colors, come on!!!” They chant this over and over again until I become dizzy with the deafening sound and the fumes fill my lungs.

Fuck these crazy bastards! I wish this whole damn place would blow up.

1997: Good Samaritans

“Jenny, I’m going to rest for a few minutes.”

Finally. Now you can get some homework done.

I call back, “Okay, Dad. I’m just going to work on my math assignment.”

I settle down at the kitchen table and open my notebook. Honestly, Course III started off as my least favorite class this year. I like math, but my teacher is really stern.

She’s stricter than the nuns at Catholic school. And you’re such a pussy. You were afraid she wouldn’t give you an A and he would kill you.

 But so far, I got it wrong. This is my best math course since 6th grade.

Just as I start setting up the word problem, I hear “knock, knock.” I jump at the sound and my heart is pounding. Jenny, you don’t ever answer the fucking door unless you know who it is. Do you understand Daddy? Ask your brother and sisters what happened to them when I tricked them and they answered the door when they shouldn’t have! You just can’t trust anybody. Too many psychos out there. You see the news everyday just like Daddy.

 I wince at the memory of Dad’s “secret knock.”

Just go to the door and look through the peephole.

 But I don’t see anyone. Wait! A little girl is standing there. I forget about Dad and open the door softly.

She gazes down, her blonde hair falling softly across her cheeks. I see myself in her at that age. Maybe 9 or 10. Shy. Who is she?

 “Can I help you honey?”

She stammers reluctantly, “Ummm, I heard there is a man who lives here who helps people.” She corrects herself, “That the people who live here help people.”

My eyes widen. My mouth drops open. Of course we’ll help.

 I assure her, “Okay, come in and wait here. Let me get my dad.” You’re so overwhelmed you forgot to ask her name.

I bolt up the stairs so Dad doesn’t startle when I call out. I try not to let him see my eyes well up as I tell him, “A little girl is downstairs. She told me that she heard from someone that ‘the people who live here help people.’”

“You have to come right a–” He hinges automatically upright before I can finish.

I observe Dad in his element. He has a purpose again. A mission. He introduces himself and quizzes the girl. “Hi, I’m Tom. Everyone calls me Uncle Tom, though.” He points to me, “And this is my daughter, Jenny. Tell me what happened honey, and I’ll see if I can help.”

She looks relieved. “My daddy lost his job last month and we don’t have any food.”

Dad doesn’t question her further, except to find out where she lives. She points out the window, “The apartments across the street. Unit 12F.” Excitedly, he responds, “Be careful walking back home and tell your parents that we will be there within the hour.”

As soon as she leaves, Dad says, “Jenny get me that huge box out of the water heater closet.” I work my way past the enormous roll of herbed contact paper, and fetch the corrugated container. I stand at attention waiting to receive further instructions.

But Dad has already crawled onto the counter so he can reach the highest cabinets above the stove and fridge. In a flash he hands me the paltry contents of our cupboards to load into the box. Two cans of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup, four packs of dehydrated Ramen noodles, a box of Bisquick, a jar of peanut butter, and a package Little Debbie choc-o-rounds. Our food for the next two weeks until Dad gets his disability check.

“Aghh, Jenny. We don’t need this food. You and Daddy, we’ll be fine. Did you see the look on that little girl’s face?”

Now we have no food. I crumble inside as I see him hand me the last item. But I’m not surprised. I want to help her too. But I’m scared for us. Well at least you can mope in peace for five minutes while he delivers this box across the road.

 Instead he orders, “Come on! Get your shoes on,” while hoisting the large box up on one shoulder. “We have to go fill this baby to the top.”

Dad makes his way over to our neighbors units. One by one, we knock on doors. He tells people that a neighborhood family is in trouble. They are starving. I’m amazed. Can by can, package by package, the box overflows with generosity.