1988: “Takin’ What They’re Givin’”

I wait in line at 2:15 pm near the double doors. Dad always arrives early to pick me up. His car will be first in line, behind the last school bus.

When we get back to the apartment, I will do my homework and then practice riding my wooden scooter. My mother gave it to me. A hand-me-down from my older sister. I’m not afraid of going fast anymore, either.

Instead, Dad says, “Good, you’re out right on time today. Poppa got us a job, starting right now. Remember that rich woman and her husband who own the antique store downtown?”

I nod.

“Yes, well, you know your Father. I always find work somehow. Anyway, her daughter, Jan, owns a giant house, and I guess they need someone to clean for them. The place is probably filthy so Daddy’s going to need your help. I’ll teach you to clean like the drill instructors taught me in the military.”

But, but, wait, I have homework to do. And I’m scared to clean a stranger’s house. What if I do it wrong? Will you hit me like last week when I didn’t know how to fight with a samurai sword?

 After Dad drives a few blocks, I’m lost. “Daddy, where are we?”

He chuckles a little, “Oh, this is where the rich live, my child!”

Jan’s house stands in the middle of a cul-de-sac. How many mansions are there on this one circle-shaped street?

But Jan’s sticks out because it’s pink. A pink castle. If Barbie were real, then she would live here.

 No one is home, but dad already knows how to open the door through the garage. I scan the concrete ground with apprehension and wonder. So this is what a garage looks like inside? It’s bigger than our apartment.

 Once we’re inside, Dad surveys the task. Why are we here by ourselves? Why would these people let strangers in their house? Everything is so pretty. I scan the room noticing, couches, chairs, curtains, rugs, and beds with flowery pillows. How did they get all this stuff? I want to be rich when I am grown up too.

 I hear Dad cursing, “Goddamn, mother fucker. It’s going to be a real bitch to clean this one bathroom alone. This is what the filthy rich do. They don’t appreciate what they have. They let everything go to pot.”

He finishes his tirade with a brag, “Well, I guess that’s why they hired me—because your father is the best! Nothing beats me ever! I can’t wait to see their faces when they see this grime turned to sparkle. Now I just have to find an old toothbrush under the sink.”

Now he turns to me, “Daddy will start on the tiles while you clean the sink.” He shows me how to scrub the sink with the Bon Ami and a cloth. “And don’t forget, you remember where everything is. And put it back exactly as you found it—just like Dad taught you to do at home.”

I shudder while burning the contents of the vanity into my brain. Toothbrush holder on right side, soap dish on left side. After I get the hang of things, I mostly forget about my homework due tomorrow.

Just as we are finishing the kitchen, the owner comes home. She’s very tall. Not like a Barbie, but she has pretty blonde hair and pink skin. Jan and Dad talk while he shows her around. I hear her squeals as he reveals his accomplishments.

I glance at the clock on the stove. 6:00 pm. Oh no! It’s late. I really need to go home and work on my school assignments for tomorrow. Please let them finish talking soon.

But when Dad and Jan return to the kitchen, he has a grin from ear to ear. I know this look means something is happening. “Jenny, Jan just invited Daddy and you to cater dinner here for her and her fiancé tonight. Isn’t that great news?” No. No. We did our job. He said cleaning. Why are we cooking now? He offered! You know he offered!

 Through blood-filled eardrums, I hear Dad mutter something about how, “Jenny is really great in the kitchen helping her pops. I used to own my own catering business before Jenny was born, you know. Just getting started back up. It’s been difficult raising her on my own.”

Jan responds with the usual, “Oh we’re so happy to have found you. This is perfect for us. Someone we can trust to clean our house and cook delicious meals for us. And Jenny is just darling. We would love to keep her here, my fiancé and I.”

While Jan is upstairs, Dad cracks open a beer from the their fridge. “You did good work today, poppa’s little girl. Daddy is teaching you an important lesson. You never turn down work. And I’m glad you helped me today because all of this money that we earn—it’s all to keep you alive. It’s not for Poppa.”

I stare at him blankly. None of my other classmates work. We’re only seven years old.

 He pours a bit of the beer into a small paper cup, and slides it toward me. “Go ahead. Try some.”

Now I look more confused. Isn’t that for adults?

 He nudges me, “Oh don’t worry. That little bit won’t hurt you. Daddy would never do anything to hurt you.”

The first sip is sour. Ugh gross. Why would people drink this? But the second one is better. I secretly wish he would pour just a little more in the cup.

On cue, he does. “Jesus, Dad just realized that you haven’t eaten anything all day! That’s my girl. You never complain.”

We snack on a few things as Dad whips up a gourmet dinner. He gives me my usual task of chopping lettuce with the big butcher knife.

Later, while Jan and Rob enjoy dinner, and dad enjoys their compliments, I’m permitted to watch T.V. on their couch.

I flip through the channels until a catchy tune takes my breath away. “There’s something strange in the neighborhood…Who you gonna call—Ghostbusters!” I glue myself to the screen until Dad says it’s time to go home. I’m thankful Jan takes an extra five minutes to write Dad’s check so that I don’t miss the last scene.

I love the Ghostbusters. And I love this house. And I love Jan. I want to live here with her and Rob. She said I could!

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1998: A Missing Report

“Jenny, shouldn’t I have gotten your report card in the mail by now?”

I give him a worried look. Shit! What are you going to do? I play dumb, shrugging my shoulders, “I don’t know?”

He walks to the calendar, “Yeah, I always get one in the mail by now. Maybe I better call the school first thing tomorrow morning.”

Jesus, keep it together now. I stammer nervously, “That’s okay, Dad. I will ask them tomorrow about our report cards. They haven’t mentioned anything to us.”

He shoots me the skeptical look of a special ops agent, but doesn’t say a word. Phewww. He’s going to buy it. For now!

 “Alright, then. You just let me know tomorrow when you come home.”

Holy crap! That was close. So tomorrow is Friday. That buys you the weekend. And then you can come up with something.

 I compose myself long enough to excuse myself for homework time. I shut my bedroom door quietly, and proceed to unzip my backpack.

I look over my shoulder one last time to make sure Dad didn’t let himself in while I was pondering my last 48 hours on earth. All clear.

I remove my physics book, and two notebooks. There it is!

After several days hiding at the bottom of my bag, it’s all crumpled. I look over my shoulder again. You can’t be too safe. Life or death.

I breathe in with an audible gasp at the apparition in my doorway. Instantly, my face grows hot red. Oh. No. There he is. Please don’t let him come any closer.

“Jenny, Daddy just came up to see if you wanted a snack. You didn’t eat anything after you came home tonight. You’re thin enough. Like Daddy always tells everyone, ‘Gandhi ate more than you.’”

Motherfucker. That was close. Out of sorts, I say, “uh, no. I’m okay. I just need to do some physics homework for tomorrow.”

I point toward the book on the floor. Please let him be convinced.

“Oh okay, well Daddy was just checking on you. Don’t forget to ask about your report card tomorrow. So strange that it didn’t come this week!”

After he leaves. I sit in a heap on the floor. I look behind me at the window and consider jumping. It’s only two stories, you idiot!

 After several minutes, I reach in the bag for my report card and open it up. This time I shield it behind my notebook incase Dad walks in again.

A, A, A-, C, A. You’re fucked. I look back at the window again, wistfully.

 

 

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1991: Lilacs and Fire Hydrants

Dad taught me the fire hydrant game when I was six. Red ones count for double points today.

Summer foliage hides some of them, even though I already know where each one pokes out. Of course, it’s considered cheating if you call out ahead of time.

Another block, and you can call the splotchy yellow one on the corner of Bay Street and…

Before I am able to point exaggeratedly, Dad pulls off the side of the road in a hurry.

I look at him quizzically as my arm dangles toward an abandoned brick building instead of my secret fire hydrant.

Dad laughs, “Oh you thought you were gonna beat Daddy, huh? Well, don’t worry my child. You’ll have your chance. But first, your Father wants to get some of these beautiful lilacs. If I’m quick, no one will notice.”

Dad sneaks behind the car as traffic whizzes by. I watch as he slices his boot knife through each branch. I can smell the lilac aroma before he lumbers back in the driver’s seat.

Dad hands the lilacs over to me, “Here. Hold these we get home to put them in water. God! What a beautiful deep purple this year. Your Father’s favorite flower, you know.”

I know, Dad. You stopped for them last year too. But did we really have to interrupt our favorite—our only—game we play together?

 Despite my annoyance, I stick my nose down and take a deep breath. I admire each clover-shaped petal. Purple is my new favorite color.

 But then I see them. No! I’m dead!! It like that movie, Invasion of the…

I must be screaming, though I don’t realize it, because Dad’s voice exceeds my own, “Jenny! Jenny! Jenny! Stop the screaming. What is it?”

I hold up my arms to reveal thousands of ants covering me.

“Oh, Jesus! It’s just a couple of little sugar ants. Stop being a pussy, would ya?” Dad tries to brush them off, but there are too many.

Dad pulls to the side of the road just long enough to take the bouquet from my hands and toss them into the road.

“Fucking, shit. I hope you’re happy, Jenny. They’re gone.” Fine. It wasn’t my idea to get them. Maybe you should have checked for bugs first!

 We ride back to the apartment in silence. Even though the fire hydrant game is over, I continue to count them all as we pass by.

1996: Ripped

 Proudly, I scan over the last paragraph of my English report. You’re writing is really improving. And it’s so much easier when you can do your own work and not have him dictate everything…

Dad interrupts my inner voice as he glances over my shoulder. “Jenny, what are you working on there?”

Nervously, I stammer, “It’s just my English paper due for tomorrow.”

“Huh. Well you better let your Father read over that.” He grabs the loose-leaf sheets from the table before I can hand them to him.

I resent the anticipation. What’s he reading it over for? I’m a better writer than him. Now he will see that for sure and leave me alone…

 But as I glance up, Dad arms move in a mechanical flurry as he rips my report to shreds. The crisp, lined-sheets fall at my feet like confetti from a freshly bashed-in piñata.

You bastard! What are you doing? That took me hours! It’s my best work ever!!!

 “Jenny, I’m sorry, but this is shit work. It just won’t do. I mean, moreover? What the fuck kind of word is moreover! It’s no word that you should be using. Daddy is trying to teach you a lesson the hard way. I know I’m a bastard but you’ll understand one day.”

Fuck you asshole. Hmmm, let’s see. You’re a seventh grade dropout and I’m already in high school. And I’m an A student. And for your information, MOREOVER is a sophisticated word to use. And I’m going to use it all the time. Every day. When I finally get out of this shit hole and far away from you. 

 “Now, Poppa wants you to get out some new paper, and I’ll dictate to you. You can correct the punctuation shit—like you always do.” You mean like how you don’t know the difference between a comma and a period. Motherfucker.

 I see myself punching his face, where an emerging bulging purple veins meets his jaw. Boom.

But instead I try to control my visibly quivering hand as I retrieve more loose-leaf paper from my three-ring binder. As I struggle to copy his diction, the word MOREOVER echoes in my head, repeatedly.

When we are finished, Dad asks coolly, “Hey, do you want to watch Temple of Doom?”

Sure. Why do you bother asking, anyway? Do I ever have a choice? At least we can turn the lights out so I can tear up in peace.

1988: Wads of Dough

“Jenny, you know that money that Daddy’s been having you hide from me since last year?

My eyes grow wide. “Well I need it now. You must have a couple hundred saved up!”

Excited, I reply “Yes Daddy! It’s all in my closet on the shelf.”

Impatiently, I wait for Dad to retrieve the money but he returns empty handed.

“Jenny, I thought you said you hid the money on your top shelf.”

“I did, Daddy. I put it all in tissues.” Dad looks bewildered.

“I wrapped the money in tiny tissue envelopes so you wouldn’t find it. Just like you wanted me to.”

“Wait a minute! Jenny, you put the money in tissues? How? You’re scaring Poppa.”

“Well each time you gave me five or ten dollars I wrapped each one in a tissue.”

Dad puts his hands up to his face and shakes his head. “Motherfucker!”

Why is Daddy mad? Is he mad at me?

 Shaking his head in disgust, Dad boils over, “Jenny, I threw the fucking money in the garbage! All of it! Why the fuck would you put real money in tissues? You know Daddy doesn’t trust the goddamn banks. That’s why I gave it to you.”

I gaze down, blankly. Why did he throw the money away? Isn’t this what I was supposed to do? Wasn’t he saving it?

 Blaring, he explains, “Jesus Christ! I was cleaning last month and I found all those tissues in your closet. I thought you were nuts saving used tissues. So I threw them all in the trash. My fucking luck!”

My heart sinks. Oh no!

 I run to the closet. Way in the back, I find two tissues that Dad has overlooked.

“See Dad, just like this.” I unwrap two five-dollar bills, and hand them to him.

“Yes those were it! Fucking shit. Not even enough to bet the late double. But what can Daddy do except laugh, right? I guess we’re going to starve again this month, baby girl.”

1993: Bad Checks

 “Come on Jenny, let’s go see if there’s anything good in the garbage this week.” Dad finds an old Hoover. There’s no way he’s taking a used vacuum. Is he?

 Dad flips the vacuum over on the pavement near the dumpster. “Look at this, Jenny. It’s just as Daddy suspected. Some asshole never cleaned all the hair out of the brush.” I feel my stomach turning as he shows me the wiry wound strands covered with goop.

Dad pulls out his trusty boot knife and begins to slice through the matted mane. Between cuts he pulls with all his might. I can tell he feels prouder every time a new chunk gives way.

While he concentrates intently on rescuing our new vacuum cleaner, I see a police officer walking toward us.

Dad, crouched over the broken Hoover, doesn’t realize the officer is now standing over him, “Mr. K?”

Dad, a bit startled, replies, “Yes. I’m Tom. I’m the manager of this complex. How can I help you officer?”

“Actually, I’m here to speak to you sir. We’ve been looking for you for a long time. It seems you wrote some bad checks several years ago.”

Dad doesn’t miss a beat. “There must be some mistake.”

But the officer persists. “I’m afraid not, sir. In fact, I’m going to need you to come with me down to the station.”

“Officer, what about my daughter? I’ve raised her since she was four days old. She has no mother and we have no family.”

“Well, I guess she will have to come down to the station with us, for now.”

For now? I feel myself quiver all over. Tiny goose bumps appear on my legs and arms. Are they arresting me too? Are they going to take me away? Where would I go?

 Reluctantly, Dad takes my hand and squeezes it. It feels like we will never arrive at the police station, but we’ll be stuck in this police car purgatory for the rest of our lives.

When we arrive, the officer seats us in his office. My stomach begins to grumble while turning over. I realize that I haven’t eaten all day.

Officer Jones pulls out a book of checks and shows them to my father. “Tom, do you recognize your signature on these checks?”

Dad points to two authorizations and apologizes, “I’m sorry officer. I never knew these checks were bad. I think what happened here is that I closed out my account at First National Bank and these companies never informed me that I owed them anything.”

I lean forward slightly. I recognize Dad’s handwriting. One is made out to Sears for $37.12.

But then Dad points to another two checks, and says, “Officer these are not mine. This must be my crooked nephew. I never had an account like that. Only the one at First National. You can check that information out.”

Officer Jones doesn’t respond but he informs us that he will be back in a few minutes.

As we wait, Dad appears to be calm, but I see beads of sweat forming on his face. Why is it taking so long? They’re going to arrest him. Put him in prison. I’ll be sent off to a foster home and they’ll hurt me like they hurt my mom.

 When the officer returns, he informs my father, “Listen, Mr. K., this is a very serious offense. And since these bad checks have been out for years, we could arrest you for this. But I talked to Sears and the other company on your behalf. They said that when you pay them the money you owe, they would drop the charges. We also verified that the other bank account does not belong to you.”

Dad is ecstatic. “Yes of course. Thank you officer Jones. I always pay my bills. I don’t want to owe anyone anything. And if you need any help contacting my cheating nephew, I’d be happy to supply you with his contact information.”

I breathe for the first time in 2 hours. When officer Jones brings us back to the complex, I’ve never been so happy to see the fly-infested dumpster. God, I’ll never complain again. About anything.

The used Hoover is right where dad left it. Relieved of his newfound freedom, he carries the vacuum cleaner to our apartment.