1995: The Martyr

After school, Dad and I stand in mom’s apartment. I peer out the floor-to-ceiling kitchen window that overlooks Glen Street. Someday you’ll live in a real house like one of the lawyers or doctors on this street.

Mom startles me from behind as she grazes my new mulberry-hued corduroy skirt.

“Look at your cute legs, Jenny Penny! Wow, Tommy! I’m surprised you let Jenny wear a skirt that short to school. The boys must love her cute little body.” My face turns bright red as I tug at the edges of my hem hoping it will magically grow longer. Thank God she can’t see you.

 “No boys better be looking at her. They know better because I’ll show up at that school with my bat. Besides, you know Jenny, Deborah. I’ve been letting her pick out her own clothes since she was seven. She insisted.”

 Mom persists a while and I can feel myself growing angry. Actually she doesn’t know me. She wasn’t around, so it’s none of her business what I wear.

Dad changes the subject. “Debbie, listen, forget about Jenny for a moment. I came to talk to you today about something really important.”

I retreat to Mom’s pastel sofa in the living room to give them privacy. But you’re still within listening distance. As Dad begins to talk, I trace a line around a light blue leaf so that I won’t bite my nails.

“Debbie, they’re going to kill me someday. Very soon. And I need to make sure you’re ready for that day. You and Jenny.” Who is going to kill him? Oh no. Not this again!

 “Tommy what are you talking about? Someone is out to kill you?”

“No Debbie. This is very serious. Once I get Gabazar’s message out to the people, I’ll be killed. You know like President Kennedy. And all my other predictions. I’ve already seen the future. God gave me a job, and I have to finish it soon.”

“Jesus, Thomas! That’s crazy talk. How do you know this Gabazar is God anyways? I mean couldn’t he be the devil trying to trick you?”

Dad explodes and walks out to the living room. Shit you can’t hide any longer.

 He continues making vigorous hand gestures, “Of everyone Debbie, how can you question me when you’ve witnessed so many of my predictions?” Pointing to me, Dad charges, “Jenny, you better tell your mother that I’m not joking around. You and Daddy have talked about this many times already. You tell your mother about the cross and all the other signs.”

Instead, I tear up. My fingers are still tracing the stitching in the couch but the room appears blurry. Don’t let the tear drop fall. Don’t! I clench my fist now, but it’s too late. I bury my head in Mom’s pillow. Crybaby!

Mom comes over and gently places her hand on my back. Why can’t she comfort you like this all the time? Why did she have to leave? She’s the normal one. Why does she hate you so much?

 “Thomas! Look at what you’ve done! You’ve upset our daughter. You can’t talk about being shot or killed or whatever right in front of her like that.”

I let time stop to record this moment in my mind. Has she ever stuck up for you before? Does this mean she loves you?

 “I don’t care, Debbie. She has to get used to it sometime. And so do you. My whole family, too. I’m not lying to protect you people any longer.”

For some reason I feel safe as Mom continues to rub my back so I let go and cry some more. The pillow beneath me soaked with tears. Are you crying because he’s going to get killed or because you want him to get killed?

 After a few minutes I sit up. He’s going to kill you on the ride home before they ever kill him, anyways.

 But Mom offers, “Hey, why don’t you two stay for dinner. I’m making spaghetti. Plenty for everyone. And I know you love my meatballs, Thomas.” She used his full name again. Oh please let us stay.

 Dad shrugs and accepts. He can’t resist the attention. The rest of the night she butters him up with compliments and pays him plenty of attention to take his mind off Gabazar.

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1987: Our Business

After his unemployment check arrives, Dad rents another summer cabin even though it’s November. The landlord man told us there’s no heat for the winter. Dad nods as the owner hands him the keys. Brown key tag. Number 4.

While we make our way down a stone path to the cabin, Dad says, “Jenny, that won’t be a problem for you and Daddy. We’ll just leave our coats on all winter. And besides, what does Daddy always teach you? When you’re cold you don’t think about the cold. When you’re in pain, you don’t think about the pain. Just like they taught us in the military.”

Once we step inside, the air feels the same as outside. Dad asks me to help him unload the trunk. “Here’s a light box for you.” The brown box pulls my arms nearly to the ground. I clench my stomach as we make our way back down the stone path. Don’t drop it. Don’t drop it.

Next week, Dad scatters things around the cabin that I haven’t seen before. A television, a lamp, an old radio, and two wooden tennis rackets. Did he take those from summer camp?

“Goddamn money’s still tight. Daddy’s gonna have a little sale, here and try to get me some pony money. And maybe a little extra so we can have some sharp cheese later.”

A man that I’ve never met walks around the cabin. He eyes the old T.V. set.

The man asks my father, “Does the T.V. work?”

Before Dad can reply, I say proudly, “No. It’s broken.”

The man looks disappointed. Dad tries to sell him the radio instead. “You know sir, that T.V. worked yesterday. Maybe it just needs a new fuse.”

But the man leaves empty-handed. Oh no.

Dad walks up to me and bashes me hard in the nose. The pain shoots up through my nostrils into my brain. I can’t breathe for a long time. It’s cold and stingy. Will it ever stop?

“That’s for goddamn telling someone our business. You better listen up because your Father is only going to say this once; our business is our business. No one needs to know anything! Do you understand me, cunt?”

I stare at him as my organs quiver.

“And I better not see one fucking crocodile tear out of you. It’s your fault if we starve this week!”

Should you be quiet? Or are you supposed to lie?

Only bad people lie. So you just stay quiet forever.

1994: Hail Mary!

You should be in bed. It’s a fucking school night. How are you supposed to get A’s and be his personal slave?

Instead I kneel on the edge of Dad’s bed while squeezing his back and feet, vigorously. I know what he likes by now; he taught me since I was six years old. “Jenny, you have to squeeze Daddy’s feet good because I’m Greek. And the Greek’s are the smartest people in the world. They know that the feet control the whole body.”

Whatever! Just drop off already. Before my fingers fall off.

I detect the faintest snore. Good. Almost worn out.

 But Dad snorts, jolting himself awake. “Jenny, go get a pen and paper. Then come back and sit on the edge of my bed.”

When I return, he reminds me of his pain. “You know your Father doesn’t like to complain about pain, but when that bastard Doctor took my Darvon away last week, that was real pain. I asked God, why? Why would he put your Father through that? Why did he charge me with raising you alone?” Apparently you won’t be sleeping tonight.

 “But God told your Father not to worry and that he wants me to send the pope the right version of the Hail Mary prayer. The one we say in church, it’s all wrong.” Oh Dear God. Why have you forsaken me?

You can send random stuff to the Pope? Hi Your Eminence, I’m a lunatic. Also, here’s my superior version of the prayer that Jesus Christ probably recited to the disciples. See, I knew you would like mine better.

 He dictates while I write quickly. “Your Eminence, Your Holy Grace, my name is Jenny and I attend St. Mary’s Catholic School. I wrote another version of the Hail Mary prayer…”

He pauses, “You got all that so far, Jenny?” No! No! No! This is your shit. Why is my name on it?

“Yes.”

“Good. Now…Holy Mother of God…who gave us…” My hands continue to write but I block out his words.

The next day, Dad drops the letter off at the post office. Nothing will ever come of that.

A few weeks later, a letter from the Vatican arrives in the mail. “Dear Jenny, thank you for your thoughtful submission. His Eminence appreciates your devotion and consideration.”

What? They must be nuts there too!

 The next morning Dad marches into school with me. He shows the letter to the principal’s assistant.

“Oh, this is lovely. You must be so proud of Jenny, Mr. K.” What a load of crap. He’s so proud of himself.

“Yes, she a good kid. I thought you would want to see it. I mean it must be pretty rare to receive a letter signed by the Pope, right?”

“Yes, of course. In fact, if you don’t mind, we should hang it just outside the Great Hall.”

Thank God no one ever looks in that case. But this isn’t the end. You know he’ll be gloating for a long time to come.

1997: Chinese Push-ups

Dad hangs around at my cross-country practice often enough that Coach offered him the assistant’s position. Mostly it provides a legal reason for Dad to ride on the team bus.

Today, we compete against Johnstown. While the team waits for the bus on the side lawn, Dad approaches the guys in their most Gumby-like states.

Please let him become a mute like Steve Martin at the end of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. I chuckle at the thought, but I know humiliation looms.

“Hey boys, I calculated how everyone of you could beat the opposing team by a minute and a half.”

My teammates barely raise their heads. I know what they must be thinking. Old man, go away. And stop standing over me while my groin is exposed, too.

 “Hey, Mark, I know you want to hear Mr. K’s ideas about how you can beat your old time.”

Mark, a former, well actually, current crush, responds politely. “Sure, Mr. K. But, I don’t think I stand a chance against Jim, the best runner at Johnstown.”

“Don’t say that until you hear my genius idea. I actually did the math on this.” Dad pulls out a piece of folded paper from his back pocket. Could my luck be any worse? Nine other girls on this team all have normal families. No wonder cute guys never want to date me.

 “Look here. I calculated all this with a complicated mathematical formula. If each one of you boys lengthens your stride by a tenth of an inch each time, then you’ll win the race easily.” I catch Mark staring back, dumbfounded. Brilliant idea, Dad. I can’t believe our real coach with the Harvard degree missed that one! And who made you an expert mathematician all of a sudden? Just last week, you told me that one plus one doesn’t really equal two. So I had to derive the proof for you.

Zero interest in Dad’s scheme causes him to press the boys even harder.

“Alright, I bet none of you boys can do a Chinese push-up like Mr. K.”

Kevin’s ears perk up. “What is a Chinese push-up?”

Dad grins mischievously because he knows he has them hook line and sinker. “Oh you guys never heard of those?” Yeah because you made them up! “Well Mr. K wasn’t always a fat old man, you know.” Kevin smirks.

“I’m serious. Mr. K won a contest for doing the most Chinese push-ups back when I was in the Marines. And I’ll bet not one of you can do them.”

Mark speaks up. “Show us one Mr. K.” Before Mark can finish, Dad’s already belly down on the grass explaining the rules. “Okay, now you can’t cheat! You have to put your arms and hands stretched out completely in front of you like this. And then push up.”

With the attention of the entire team, Dad pretends to strain a little before pushing his way off the ground.

Kevin and Mark want to prove themselves too. Give it up, boys.

You’re going to die single. Probably squeezing his feet until the last breath.

 Within a minute, they’ve all failed, and probably pulled a muscle, thereby diminishing their chances of winning the actual race. Mentally, I envision Dad marking the checkbox, Winning, suckers!

 Once the drama dies down, Coach makes a few announcements. While we board the bus, I hear Kevin whisper to Mark, “Dude, he got off the ground because he used his fat stomach. No one could do one of those stupid Chinese push-ups.”

Fuck. A new personal low.

1990: Not Workin’ for a Livin’

“Jenny, I’m not going to work anymore. Daddy is applying for social security disability. If I win the case, I will be the first man ever to receive social security for having Neurofibromatosis. I just want you to know that your father is a fighter and a champion.”

We drive to the Social Security office in my aunt’s old Chevy Malibu. The front half of the car is red and the back half is white because my aunt totaled the car last year. Dad insisted that she sell it to him for $100 and buy herself a new ride.

Once inside, we wait our turn to see Dad’s caseworker, Donna. Last week, after our appointment, Dad said, “I like that Donna. I wonder if she’s married. I think she has a band on her left finger, but I can tell that she likes me, anyways.”

Donna greets us and we walk back to her light grey upholstered cubicle. I notice that she has curly red hair and a lovely smile. She’s like normal people, like the teachers at school.

“Hello Mr. K. Hi Jenny. It’s nice to see you both. Let me grab your file. I just have a few questions for you this week.”

After the appointment, Dad and Donna converse. Dad parades his signature sob story, “My wife, Deborah left when Jenny was 4 days old. She never gave me a penny. I’ve raised Jenny all by myself. Just her and Pop. No other family.”

He glances in my direction to make sure I look properly forlorn while Donna stares at me with a familiar I’m so sorry and what a shame that you don’t have a mom, little girl look.

Donna offers, “Well, my husband and I have a 4 year old little girl, Libby. We live in Saratoga in a house with plenty of spare rooms. I know this is forward, but if you ever want Jenny to spend the weekend at our place, we would be delighted to have her.”

Well that is never going to happen. Dad will never let you out of his sight. I mean we don’t even know this woman or her husband.

 “Sure. I don’t let Jenny stay with just anyone, but I can tell that you are a wonderful woman.” What did he just say? What kinds of drugs did Dr. Merryhue give him this time?

“Okay, great! Hey, we are putting up our Christmas tree next weekend. If you want to drop her off, I will write our home address on the back of my business card.”

My eyes remain wide as we exit the social security building.

“Boy that Donna is a good looking woman, huh? She’s your Father’s type. That’s for sure. Too bad she’s married. Of course she doesn’t know about your Father’s charms yet, either.”

Please Donna, run!

1989: Who Can You Trust?

 

Daddy sits on the toilet seat to discuss whatever’s on his mind while I take my nightly bath.

“Jenny, my father always told me of all the people to stay away from, you stay away from the fucking Irish. He used to tell me that at least the goddamn blacks were clean and had manners. But you could never trust an ‘Irishman.’ They’re belligerent, no-good, common drunkards.

Don’t say that about my best friend. I think she’s perfect.

“Daddy would never lie to you; I want you to listen carefully to me now. You can’t trust anyone– not even your own children and your husband, someday.”

No. He is wrong. You can trust people. You have to tell him.

“Daa—d, my best friend is Irish.”

“Bullshit. The Irish are not your friends. I just told you that.”

Defensive, I explain, “Well, she wasn’t my friend at first. She didn’t like me when I started Kindergarten. But then I gave her a Valentine, and we became best friends.”

He shoots me a dismissive look. “Well, I can’t tell you what to do, but just don’t ever trust anyone. You hear me?” I hear you, but I don’t believe you. Why do you have to hate everyone?

After my bath, Dad notices my stubborn red knee bumps peeking out of my tatty white towel.

“Okay, those bumps aren’t going to clear up on their own. You can’t have that shit on your knees. Come here, Poppa knows what to do.”

I approach him hesitantly.

“Come on, I know you trust Daddy, right? This won’t hurt a bit. I’m just going to shave those bastards off with my razor.”

Razor? Cutting? NO! I don’t trust you! We just went over this. You said never trust anyone. I’ll start with you.

“Let me tell you a little secret, Jenny. One of the reasons that men have such smooth faces is because they shave. You won’t see that bumpy shit on a man’s face.”

I don’t breathe as Dad takes the blade to my knees. Blood pours from each bump down my leg. I try to run away from him before he can kill me. How much blood have I lost? Help me, someone!

But I can’t run farther than the hotel bedroom, two feet away. We each have a queen size bed in the same room. I jump on my bed. Don’t touch me.

“Oh come here, you little pansy. You’re a little crybaby just like your wimpy mother. I used to try to rip those little skin tags off her neck and she would have a fit too. One little cut and you would think that you’re being murdered for Christ sake!”

I grip my hands tightly, trying not to cry.

“Those better not be tears. Oh for Christ sake, you little crybaby. If you want to have nasty bumps on your knees, go ahead!”

Dad storms out into the living room and turns on the TV set. I crawl under the covers. I can feel the blood droplets drying onto the sheets beneath me. No dinner tonight. Make yourself a can of chicken noodle soup in the morning while he sleeps.

1989: Superhero Crush

I nestle into the prickly orangey-brown tweed couch to watch Superman. Too itchy.

 Dad’s snores drift from the bedroom, so I plop down on the floor, instead. Legs crossed into a pretzel. You can hear better this way.

 This next part, I know by heart. Lois sits on her balcony. Superman soars in. Love.

Mesmerized, my eyes follow the sweeping motion of Lois’s sheer white gown in the night breeze. She’s an angel. A smart one. Will you be a pretty reporter when you grow up?

 Except for the smoking part. Because that’s bad for you.

 Superman checks her lungs with his x-ray vision. Pheww she’s okay. He cares about her the way someone is supposed to care about you. When you grow up, you’re going to marry Superman.

 I blink and blush at the love scenes. Hurry. Uncomfortable.

After Superman flies off, I can tell Lois misses him. She’s stuck with Clark, now. No, Lois! Can’t you see that Clark’s the one who really loves you? They’re the same person!

 I love you, Clark, and I promise that I’ll be nice to you someday. If I ever find you.

 The bed creaks as Dad jolts awake. I wipe a single tear that has fallen onto my cheek before he can see it. Close call.

 When the theme song plays at the end, Dad picks me up and holds me high over his head. He flies me around our hotel room. I sweep my arms out wide. Just like Lois Lane.