1992: Nine Cop Cars and An Ax in a Pear Tree

My mother locks herself in my parent’s bedroom.

Annoyed, Dad asks, “Jenny, is your mother still up there?”

I nod, “yes.”

“Well, go and see if you can get her to stop this silly nonsense!”

I knock on the hollow wood-composite door. No answer. I jiggle the brass knob. Locked. What is she doing in there? I would never get away with this.

 Innocently, I plead through the door, “Mom, it’s me. Are you going to come out soon? Dad wants to talk to you. Please.”

Still, no answer. But I hear her talking in a low voice. She’s on the phone?

When I come down the stairs empty-handed, Dad barrels his way right up. He pounds on the door. How is it that his fist doesn’t plow right through?

 His face glows a dark crimson while he yells, “Debbie! Get your goddamn ass out of the bedroom this instant! Or I am going to get my ax and hack you the fuck up.”

Recognizing his tone, my organs quiver inside as if he’s said this to me.

 Still she says nothing. I wish for a magic fairy to sweep her away so she doesn’t have to confront my father. I can’t bear to watch this.

 Disgusted, he turns to me, “I don’t know what the fuck her problem is! Come on and help Daddy with the dishes, would ya?”

He washes. I dry. I hate drying because the kitchen towel smells of twenty spices that Dad uses to make his famous dirt-dog sauce. Like cumin. Yuck.

With his hands submerged in soapy water, dad looks back toward the living room windows.

“Jenny, do you see lights flashing right outside our apartment?”

I shrug. Since you always keep the blinds shut, I’d need x-ray vision to see out there.

 It’s nagging him so he walks to the window and lifts one plastic panel from the venetian blinds in order to peer out. He looks up startled and motions for me to come over.

Whispering audibly, “Jenny! Son-of-a-bitch! There’s about nine cop cars outside our apartment. What the hell is going on?”

Dad opens the door reflexively. As complex manager, he’s usually aware of what’s going on.

As he unbolts the door, two officers approach.

They ask, “Is there a Deborah living here?”

Dad replies confidently, “Well, yes. She’s my wife.”

“Yes, sir. We’ve come because your wife’s sister called us about a domestic violence dispute. She said that you threatened to chop Deborah up with an ax.”

I peer from just behind Dad as they say all this. Holy shit. Are they going to arrest him?

Dad doesn’t panic. Instead, he bursts out laughing.

Suddenly composed, he continues, “Oh Lordy, Officers. She tricked you too! I’ve never touched that woman in my life. This is what she does.”

Pointing to his temple, Dad remarks, “She’s got a few screws loose, if you know what I mean?”

“Well, nevertheless, Mr. K, when someone calls us with this type of threat, we have to come and safely escort that person off the premises.”

“Sure thing Officer. If Debbie wants to leave, she could have just left.” Directing his gaze toward me, Dad proclaims, “This is our daughter, Jenny. I’ve raised her since she was four days old because Deborah ran off then too.”

The officers look stunned, but still skeptical.

Dad directs them with an arm wave, “My wife is upstairs. My daughter and I were just here wondering why she wouldn’t come out of her bedroom. You don’t know Deborah. She always has a plan up her sleeve. Don’t be surprised if she’s back here in week.”

Just then, Aunt Diane and her fiancé Bo walk through the door. This is actually messed up. Diane rescues her sister when she usually spends hours talking shit about my mother over lunch with Dad.

 Dad chuckles as he directs his gaze toward Diane with a smug grin. “Di you know as well as I do that she’s making this up because she wants an excuse to leave.”

Aunt Diane replies, “I don’t know this time, Tommy.”

Now Dad smirks in Bo’s direction, “Well Bo, it looks like you’re stuck with both these crazy bitches. I don’t envy you, brother.”

After the cops escort my mother away, I expect Dad to be livid. Instead he acts as though nothing has transpired.

“Ahhh, your Father’s glad she’s gone. Now I can do what I want without all the bullshit nagging. Tommy-this and Tommy-that.”

He continues, “Jenny, don’t ever nag a man that way someday. Your mother is lucky she never got herself killed because of her mouth. You hear me? If you don’t like something or don’t want to do something, just say no. Don’t give a man a hundred reasons why and keep repeating yourself.”

I file his advice away in my mind even though I detest it.

A week later, I walk out from school right at 2:15pm on the dot. If I don’t, Dad worries. As I approach the light grey Oldsmobile, I nearly faint.

My mother is in the passenger seat. She rolls down the window. “Jenny Penny. Get in the back, my love.”

Holy fuck. They don’t teach us how to cope with this is catechism class.

As we drive down Cooper Street, the same police officer that came to escort my mother the week before, passes us on the opposite side. Even from my back-seat view, the officer’s mouth drops to the floor as he recognizes my parents.

Without missing a beat, Dad turns to Mom and says, “Boy, Deb, did you see the look on his face!?”

They both laugh in unison. It’s one of the sweetest moments they’ve ever had together.

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1994: Magically Appearing Cars

 

Dad’s on a mission today. “Jenny, come on, I want you to get dressed nice like you’re going to church. Daddy’s got an idea to get us a car.”

We have a car now, but it needs a new engine mount and it has no reverse. So Daddy says, “it’s cheaper to just get a ‘new’ one.”

“There’s an old woman that lives in that little house around the corner from us. I’m pretty sure her husband kicked the bucket because the car hasn’t moved all winter. She probably can’t drive anymore. So let’s see if she wants to sell her car to someone in need. Don’t forget what Daddy always taught you. Our business is our business.”

No your business is your business. I don’t want any part of it. Such a good Samaritan! Always there at precisely the right moment to help an old lady in need. God this is how we got our last four cars. Why can’t we just go to the dealership like a normal family. Oh yeah, we tried that once. Only because my Mother made you do it! And they repossessed the car four months after she moved out—“couldn’t afford it without your mother’s help”—Bullshit! Always someone to blame! Always someone to manipulate!

 We arrive at the door. I have never met the woman who lives here. He knocks. It takes a few minutes for her to answer. She looks alarmed, but then she catches my eye. She asks, “Can I help you?” behind her screen door.

“Hi my name is Tom. I’m your neighbor…live right across the street from you. This is my daughter Jenny. I work for the church and help a lot of the needy people in our area. I would like to talk to you about your car.”

She half smiles in a perplexed way, but invites us to come in.

He makes small talk with her and tells her more about his “credentials.”

The he says, “Well, Mrs. Smith, I came here today because I noticed you haven’t moved your car all winter.”

Mrs. Smith hesitantly replies, “Ye-e-s, well, I have a bad hip and I can’t drive anymore. My husband passed away last year. So my son is going to come and take the car out of my driveway anytime now.”

This is ridiculous. I can’t even believe he figured this out. I can’t believe I am just standing here and listening to this. I am willing myself to magically disappear, but they continue to talk despite me.

My father explains to the elderly woman, “Well, as I was telling you, my daughter Jenny and I work with the needy. And as it happens, there is a woman in the complex where I live. She’s a single mother. Husband left her alone with a newborn. He was abusive. Bad situation. Anyway, she’s in dire straits and really needs a car. I am hoping you’ll consider selling yours to help that poor woman out.”

No! That did not just happen. I guess that’s why you told me about “our business”—the thing you say when you want to tell a lie and have me keep my mouth shut. I knew you were going to come over here and manipulate her, but I figured you would tell her that we needed the car. And not on the first visit! At least that’s how you’ve done it the past. Not taking any chances this time apparently. Son-of-a-bitch!

Mrs. Smith remains uncertain, but says, “W-e-l-l, okay. But I should call my son about that—–

He interrupts her, “Oh of course, of course, it’s just that she needs something as quickly as possible. She just got a job. And she can’t manage the baby and the job with no car. That poor woman. I was hoping to be able to help her out here.”

Not going so well is it? There’s always a pesky son or friend. Don’t do it Mrs. Smith! Don’t fall for it. Or just hurry up and give him the car. Another car I will be teased about. Oh well, at least it’s not an old cab this time.

 Mrs. Smith wants to return to her afternoon tea. “Uh, how much would I sell it to her for? I’m not even sure if the car is running. My husband always took care of that.”

Dad assures her, “Don’t even worry about that. I know a great mechanic that will do the work for very little. The best thing is to sign the car over to me today for $100—that way motor vehicle doesn’t tax it as a gift—and I then I will repair the car and have it to her in no time. God bless you. You are a good woman to help out in this way. I can be back in an hour with the paperwork from the DMV”

She looks stunned. I’m stunned. This story doesn’t even add up. Why would she sign the car over to him? Why wouldn’t she get to meet the woman? What if she sees us driving the car later… because she can see our driveway from her living room window!

 But despite Mrs. Smith’s, and my, confusion, Dad makes good on his promise to get us a new used-car that day.

The old cement-grey Plymouth starts right up. As usual, I brace myself for the dust cloud that will inevitably blow out of the vents. After it idles for a minute, Dad wastes no time moving the car from its former driveway into our gravelly parking space at the complex.

1993: Rabbit Ears

It’s October. My favorite time of year to rustle through the leaves as I walk.

Dad turns on the news before school as usual. He watches Katie Couric discuss the day on a grainy screen. The rabbit ears fail Dad today because I see him adjust them several times. A quarter-turn clockwise. An inch to the left. How does it help to fiddle with them constantly?

 We had cable last year, but Dad didn’t pay the bill for a few months so they shut us off. “It’s better this way, Jenny. We don’t need to be watching so much television anyways. Your Father never really liked T.V. I miss the days of radio—the Lone Ranger and The Shadow!”

Then why are you always the one watching it and who cares about the stupid Lone Ranger! We’re the only family this century that has rabbit ears!

 As I choke down my scrambled egg and orange juice, ugh too much pulp, why does Dad buy this kind, I realize that it’s going to be a worse than usual day.

Another child kidnapping case! There was already one over the summer and then one from a couple years ago that Dad still obsesses over. Now I’ll never have any freedom!

 Right on cue, Dad flips out, “Goddamn motherfuckers! Another baby kidnapped. Do you see this bullshit, Jenny?”

I nod in his direction.

“You see now why Daddy can’t let you just go out and ride your bike alone. It’s a different world than it was twenty years ago. Plus your Father is a single parent. A single Father…no less! I have to be even more careful. If anything happens to you, they’ll blame me.”

He continues, “I’d like to catch every one of these sons a bitches, and torture them slowly for hurting these innocent babies. They taught us how to torture people in the military, you know. Burn their skin slowly with hot oil, rip off every finger nail, gouge out their eyes…”

He goes on for a while. My stomach turns. I hope he doesn’t see me throw the last bit of egg in the garbage.

1988: An Act of God

In a few months the white Oldsmobile that we bought from a private sale turns out to be what Dad calls a “lemon!”

“I’d like to go over there and beat that son-of-bitch to a bloody pulp while his wife watches. Selling me a no good car, that bastard!”

Last week when it broke down, Dad tried to fix it. I had no idea what he was doing. I just sat inside playing with my Dream Glow Barbie while he swore wildly with his head buried under the hood.

Dad pops his head in the window, interrupting my Barbie’s daily hair brushing, “Jenny, I need you to do Daddy a big favor. I need you to start the car when I say so.”

Start the car? What? I’m not even 7 years old. I’m barely okay with riding in the car.

 “You’ll be fine. Just put the key in the ignition like this. Then you turn it. But not until I say so! That part is very important or I could get killed under there!”

When he says this, it sounds like I’m underwater. I can hear him. But I don’t believe what is about to happen.

Then I hear the signal. You can do this? He said it was easy. Just turn this key until….

“Motherfucking, cock-sucking whore!!! Stop!!!”

I hear squealing. Huh? What’s happening? Then I see his face. It’s red. No purple-ish.

“Jenny. What were you thinking? Were you trying to kill your Father? You’re lucky I don’t kill you myself right now for that. Well, what do you have to say?”

I stammer, “Umm, I heard the signal, Daddy…”

“No! Jesus Christ. I never said go. Maybe I said goddamn! You’re a fucking moron. A useless piece of shit. Life’s not easy for your Father. You’re my last daughter. It’s just us now. And you aren’t doing jack shit to make it any better!”

I cringe, waiting for him to hit me. This is the angriest he’s ever been. You’re going to get beat twice as hard. I’m so scared that I’m not sure if he hits me or not.

But it’s useless. The car won’t run. And we’re between places to live right now, so all of our belongings are in the trunk, too. Dad says we can only take one small suitcase that has our clothes inside. The other two boxes stuffed full of my Barbie dolls and My Little Pony’s have to stay behind in the lemon.

As we walk away Dad grumbles, “Well, Jenny, you’ll probably never see all your beautiful dolls again. We have no place to put them now. Too bad those fucking things would have been worth a fortune someday.” I want to run, screaming for help. But we’re on a deserted country road. I hate you. I don’t care if I’m your last daughter. Those are my toys. And they are worth a fortune now, to me!

The next day I can barely concentrate in school. We are learning subtraction.

But Dad has good news when he picks me up.

Dad informed my Godmother, Madeline. She said, simply, “Thomas the Lord is good. I’ve planned to buy a new car, anyways. You can have my old one.”

It’s an antique light blue, push-button and Dad can’t stop marveling. “Jenny, just look at this car. They don’t make them like this anymore.”

Once we take Madeline to pick up her new car, she will sign the deed over the Dad. On our way, she notices something.

“Thomas, would you pull over, please?”

Worried, he asks, “Why? What are you sick?”

“No. I saw the most beautiful rainbow.”

“Madeline, for God-sake, I’m going 65 miles an hour on the Northway. I can’t pull over for every cloud and rainbow.”

But he pulls over just the same. This makes Madeline very happy. How does she work her magic with him?

My Godmother’s new car is hideous. Oh please don’t ask if I like it. I’m not a good liar. It’s puke brown with a slanted back. I’ve never seen a car like this. Strangely, it suits her. The ugly loner that no one else would ever want.

Two weeks later, Dad informs me that a tree crushed Madeline’s new car outside the Goldshade Restaurant on Warren Street.

No one was hurt. But the insurance won’t cover the car because they deemed the accident an “act of God.”

Unruffled, Madeline tells Dad, “God must have wanted my car crushed by a tree. He must have had a reason for it. I have faith, Thomas.”

I can see Dad’s veins swell and his nose flare, “Madeline, excuse my language, but you’re fucking nuts. Oh yeah. God wanted a tree to crush a saintly woman’s car. No this is just another bullshit greedy insurance company taking advantage of you. And the restaurant should be sued too. They knew that tree was dead. Jesus Christ!”

Despite Dad’s tirade, Madeline doesn’t ask for her old car back from us. She and Dad work out a system for us to drive her around to all her appointments. And stopping for all the rainbows and pretty clouds.

1989: An Engagement Ring

Today at the mall, instead of walking past the toy store so I can visit Malibu Barbie, we immediately walk into Littman’s jewelry store.

Dad says to the clerk, “Hi. My wife wants a marquise diamond. Could you show me something nice?”

While we’re waiting, I notice that Littman’s is special because you don’t have to walk in a door. The store carpet and mall tiles join together. Separated only by several large rectangular marble pillars. I lean against one of the cool pillars and notice how the white grey marble swirls together with the darker grey parts. One day you will build your whole house out of marble. It will be a castle. And daddy can live there too because he loves marble so much.

The salesman pipes up, “Okay sir. This is a one of our most popular one carat settings in 14 karat gold.”

Dad nods his head, “Beautiful. How much does that one run?”

“It’s $8,188.”

Oh my gosh. I’ve never seen $8,000. How could we ever get that? Is that what my mom needs to be happy? Will this make her love my dad and want to live with us?

Dad assures the man, “That’s not bad. I could buy it today.” Patting his pocket, dad says, “ I have the cash on me now, but I want to make sure this is the one my wife really wants.”

Later that night, Dad calls California from our motel efficiency room. It’s another temporary place to live while Dad waits for an unemployment check. We’ve been here for a month now after the owner of a motel a few miles up the road kicked us out for not paying rent.

I lay belly down on the bed beside Dad while I color on the back of a hotel brochure so he won’t realize how much I want to listen to their adult conversation.

Dad pulls the beige rotary motel phone from the nightstand to the bed, “Deborah? It’s Thomas.”

Mom’s high pitched voice is easy to make out. “Tommy? Where are you calling me from? Where’s Jenny Penny?”

“We’re here in Lake George. I got us a nice efficiency.”

After doodling all over the brochure, I pull out a picture taken 2 years earlier, when I was 6. It’s the only picture I have of my mom; she’s holding me and beaming. We are seating around the convent kitchen behind 3 enormous lemon meringue pies that my dad baked.

“Oh ok. Well I hope you are not feeding Jenny Penny candy and soda.”

I glance back at our small table where dinner awaits: two Slim Jims, a pack of Twizzlers and a Crunch bar. We don’t drink anything but soda. Usually grape, cream, or root beer. 

Dad assures her, “Nah. Don’t worry about that. I called to tell you that I found the diamond ring that you want today…the marquise.”

“Thomas, get real. You don’t even have the money to buy a decent car. You’re not going to buy me a diamond ring.”

“No Deborah, listen to me. I know that you still love me. I can always tell by your voice. I took Jenny today and we saw the ring. I already spoke to the man about it. It’s $8,188. But don’t worry, I will have the money.”

I turn the picture over. I take a black felt tip pen from the nightstand and write 8188 on the back of the photo. This is our new goal.

Silence.

“Come on Deb. Come home and I promise to make everything right! See you’re crying. I knew that you still loved me.”

1989: Death By Scabies

Lots of kids get cut or bruised from playing or falling off a merry-go-round. But I got scabies in the third grade.

“Jenny didn’t I tell you that your goddamn Mother was back from California. You know how Daddy’s nose is…I could smell her from this hotel room. She can’t hide from me. Anyway, she had a fight with her n****r-loving sister, and she’s coming to stay with us for a few days.”

My mom is here? When is she coming over? I hope that she will like me. And maybe she and Daddy will make up and then she can live with us.

 As she enters the doorway, her eyes focus solely on my Father. She moves in a demure but elegant way.

“Thomas…”

Before she can continue, Dad interjects, “Deborah, you are the only one that has ever said my name right in my entire life! Thomas. Perfect.”

She replies, “Thomas, I know. You always told me that.”

“Deborah, you can’t hide your true feelings from me. I see your eyes…you are crying a little bit because you missed me.”

As I wait for them to forgive each other and be reunited for all eternity, she changes the subject.

“You would not believe what my sister did to me? She’s psycho. She had a fit because I left a damp towel on the closet floor. Excuse me, Di, but I just traveled across the country, to see you, my only sister, and you’re worried about a friggen towel. Get a life.”

Get a life. This is a new expression. Apparently one she picked up from living in California.

 “Well Debbie, you know your sister is nuts. It happens with twins. There’s always one that’s fucking nuts. I watched a program about twins on 20/20…” Before he finishes, Dad moves on to more pressing matters, “So, how long are you going to stay? Jenny and I are happy to have you here and we have plenty of room.”

I see her look of disappointment as she glances around the hotel room. Two double beds, a small TV, and a postage-stamp size bathroom. But we are grateful to see her. We don’t care how many goopy towels she leaves lying around.

Forcefully, Mom cuts him short, “Tommy, I’m not going to stay long. I already bought my ticket to go back to California. I’m going to try and work it out with my boyfriend. We have a beautiful apartment out there and I just love San Diego…Don’t try to change my mind either, Tommy boy. It won’t work. Oh and one more thing, I’m going to sleep with Jenny Penny tonight.”

Debbie and Tommy. This is the way things always progress. They always start as Deborah and Thomas. I wonder what occurred between them to cause this. A once lived and now lost perfect world? But my mom wants to have a sleepover in my bed. Finally! She’s noticed me!

 That night is glorious. I dream that my mom, the most beautiful creature I ever laid eyes on, hugs me tight and never lets go; but, by morning, she’s all business and back to the airport.

The next day, still recovering from my mom-high, the phone rings in our hotel room. It is my Aunt Diane. “Tommy, Tommy…”

I can hear her voice through the phone. She sounds irate.

“Di, she left for the airport already.”

“I don’t give a damn about her. That no good whore gave us all a disease.”

“What Diane, slow down. What disease?”

“Bumps, horrible little itchy red bumps on our ankles and legs. It’s fucking bugs, Tommy. I can’t even believe my sister stooped to this level. Fucking bugs! Both Bo and I got them from her, and we gave her ungrateful ass a place to stay.”

Dad manages a reply, “Diane, that’s fucking horrible!”

“Yeah, well we went to the doctor and I’m only calling you now so that you can get checked out. This is serious, Tommy! And the slut knew that she had them too.”

“She slept in Jenny’s bed the other night.”

The next day, Daddy notices the red bumps on his ankles and legs just as Aunt Diane had furiously explained. I got them too. Everywhere. Red, itching, burning, scabs.

These bugs bore under our skin, and lay their eggs there. Highly contagious, too.

“Jenny, this is why I won’t sleep with your Mother, anymore. Once I found out that she was sleeping with everyone, I lost interest. I don’t ever want you to be a whore like that when you grow up. A woman has to learn to respect her body.”

I wince at his calling my mother names. Why does everyone call my mother bad names? Even her own sister…

He shakes his head in disgust “Horrible woman!”

After a dramatic finale, Daddy’s scabies clear up in a week or so. But, I’m not that lucky. So far I’ve missed three weeks of school.

At first, I continue at school. Covered with long sleeve tops and pants. Segregated from my friends, especially during playtime. I hate being isolated, but being sick means that dad feels bad for me

“Jenny it’s horrible that you have a no-good mother, so daddy wants to get you anything you want today.” Reluctantly, I point to a pink Barbie Corvette. I’ve been eyeing it in Kay Bee toys for months. Dad doesn’t hesitate. He counts out a twenty, a ten, and five-dollar bill for the cashier.

Even though I get to play with my new bubble-gummy corvette at school, other things are not going so well. The bumps are getting worse. One day while we are lined up in the cafeteria, I accidentally bump into Chloe, who Daddy said “looks like a horse.” She yelled in a high-pitched tone while leaping out of line, “Ewwww! Get away from me! My mom said you have a disease all over your body. So gross!”

That was my last day at school until things got cleared up.

I know something is wrong when Dad worriedly says, “Come on, Jenny, we have to get you to a doctor. This is bullshit, you are not getting any better.”

We never go to doctors. Only twice when I was four or five. And I giggled uncontrollably when the pediatrician, a man, touched my chest with his cold heart scope.

The doctor warns, “Honey, this is going to hurt a little, but I have to scrape off a sample of your skin.” He takes my left hand in his rubber-gloved hand. The metal knife looks so scary that I blank out.

Cringe. I hate pain. But these bumps are never going to go away, are they?

 The doctor takes a couple samples, then announces, “I’ll be back after running some tests.” When he returns, he asks to speak to my father outside the examining room. The door is open. They are talking softly, but I can still hear their conversation. Super-girl hearing!

“I have bad news for you, Sir. Your daughter has a nasty case of scabies and they have basically taken over her body. Her system is growing weaker and she is unable to fight them on her own. If this continues, she will die, as these bugs are a parasite, and will continue to use her body.”

You can hear a pin drop. Die?

 The doctor continues, “We have one option. Currently, we don’t have a medicine approved here in the United States that can cure your daughter at this stage. What I am about to do—I could lose my medical license for. There is cream that comes from Mexico. I’m almost certain it will cure her. But you have to promise me never to mention this to anyone.”

With tears in his eyes, my father swears that he will never tell a living soul.

After we cover my body with the white cream, and, just as the good doctor promised, I am cured.