2000: Stalker

I bound up the carpeted auditorium steps—making my way to the last row of Chemistry lecture.

My cell phone buzzes against my thigh several times. It better not be him again. He called twelve fucking times yesterday, including our daily 8:00pm talk. To bitch about hot dog sauce! Fucking hate hot dogs…and that smelly dirt sauce. Buzzz…Buzzz…Jesus!

Reaching into my coat pocket, I slide the phone half way out and take a quick peek. Of course. Who else would it be? What were you expecting? A miracle? I consider crushing my phone, but instead hold the power button down. Powering off, asshole. Because I’m a college student. Over the age of eighteen. This bullshit was supposed to end.

 Professor McClellan points to random elements on the periodic table chart. “Can anyone tell me what happens when you combine sulfur with….”Shit. You’re lost. I glance at the clock 1:17. You just wasted 17 minutes in a complete fog. You’re going to fail this course if he doesn’t stop!

 The next 33 minutes zoom by as I alternate between conscious thought and visions of strangling Dad. “Okay, see you next week, class. And don’t forget the assignment that’s due Monday.”

What assignment?

Ambling out of class with the rest of the sophomore herd, I wonder, do any of you people have a secret this big? Or is everyone just thinking about the weekend parties and random hookups?

As I make my way from the science center to Grewen Hall, I consider my options. Run away? Ha! Don’t call him back? He’ll be here in three hours. Just in time for dinner! Call him back later? And obsess all day. Call him back now? Yes, get it over with.

 I flip my steel blue Samsung open and hold down the number 1—Dad’s speed dial. One ring. “Jenny! Jenny, is that you?”

“Yes, it’s me.” Now what the fuck do you want?

 “Where were you? Daddy called four times, already. You know I’d never do that unless it was very important!” I mentally rehearse the childhood lullaby Dad taught me. Lizzy Borden took an axe and gave her father forty whacks.

“I was in Chemistry class. You know I have classes all day every day right, Dad?”

“Oh, well like I said, this is very important. Besides your Father is still so upset that you switched your major from economics to physics. That’s one of the dumbest fucking things you’ve ever done. But it doesn’t matter now. That’s not what Daddy called to talk about. I need a big favor.”

Of course you do! Hint: calling me ‘dumb’ right before asking me for a favor is not a great plan.

“Listen. Remember I told you your Mother was back in town from Connecticut? Well, I was right! You know your Father with my crazy intuition. I could literally smell her.” Luckily Dad can’t see me roll my eyes through the cell phone. Just leave her alone. It’s over.

Dad continues, “Well, your Mother should have known that I would find her—of all people…” Because you’re a violent stalker…

“…Anyways, I put a note on her car. I told her that I would always be in her life because we share a daughter together. I left a few messages on her answering machine to call me back, too.”

I breathe audibly but say nothing. Yeah, so I’m not getting how your creepy shit involves a favor from me. If you think I’m gonna call her…you’re wrong!

“Well, your Mother—that crazy bitch—she called the cops on me.” My jaw drops open as I visualize fireworks! Clearing my throat, “Ah hem…” to hide my elation, “…What!”

“Yes, and that’s not all. The bitch filed a restraining order against me! They delivered it this morning. Said something about how I left 26 messages on her answering machine. That’s bullshit. I might have called her 6 times! You know your Mother always exaggerates so bad.” I think you’ve now called me 17 times in the last 36 hours, so…go, Mom!

 “Okay, Dad. Well, I don’t know what I can do. Maybe…stop calling her. She obviously doesn’t want to talk.” …to you!

 “No, Jenny! You’re missing the point. Your Father has a situation, here. They set a court date. I could be in real trouble.” His voice just trembled. Jesus! What really happened?

 “Anyways, Daddy needs you to write a letter to the district attorney on my behalf—stating what a good Father I am—how I raised you—all my years of community service. Type it up all professional on that computer of yours, and make it look good!”

Hesitating, “Dad, I’m not sure if I can do that. I mean how would a letter from me help? And I wasn’t there, so I just don’t feel comfortable. I don’t want to get involved in the middle of this.”

“Don’t be a fucking asshole, Jenny! Of course, you’re gonna write your Father a letter. How could you ever question me? I saved you! Your Mother wanted to kill you, and you know that. It’s just you and Poppa, and it always will be.” It’s not a favor. It’s a command.

 Filled with rage, I step off the curb without looking. Shit! Car whizzing! The driver slams on his brakes… screechhhhhh…and glares straight into my eyes. I raise my right hand to say, Sorry, dude! If you only knew…

As I enter the main dormitory doors, Dad asks, “Do you have a piece of paper and a pen?”

Curt in my reply, “No, Dad. I’m not back to the room yet.”

“Okay, well Daddy will stay on the phone until you get safely back to your room. I need to give you the district attorney’s info. By the way, you girls keep your doors locked and bolted at night right? And you don’t walk around that campus at late hours, I hope?” Jesus! For the thousandth time…the fucking door is locked. I do what I please, now…at least when I’m not on the phone with you.

 On the elevator ride, I grab my notebook and pencil from my backpack. “Okay, Dad. I’m here. Lie. What’s the info?”

I scrawl District Attorney Morrison’s info down on the back of my chemistry notebook. Bits of recycled cardboard skew my scribbles while the pencil lead snaps under my death grip. “Gotta, go, Dad. Lots of assignments and tests, here.”

“Okay, honey. Poppa loves you very much. Always remember that.” If you loved me, you’d die and leave me alone.

I barely acknowledge my roommate’s “Hello.” Just get this letter over with, and hope they don’t lock you up too.

 Dear Mrs. Morrison,

My Father raised me since I was four days old…

God! Don’t write that shit! You sound like his puppet! I feel to see if my nose has grown.

After signing my name, I fold the letter in three equal parts and stuff it into an envelope. Heading to the basement mailroom, I consider not sending the lie. Oh fuck it. What’s one more thing?

I pause in the hallway as my eyes well up. It’s a lot and you know it! You need to start confronting him again. Play by your rules.

My hands clench into an icy ball as I send the envelope whooshing through the ‘outgoing mail’ slot.

1987: The Babysitter

Dad throws a hundred pound bag of flour over one shoulder. He carries it from the stock room to the gigantic floor mixer in the kitchen.

The mixer is painted steel grey. The silver bowl is large enough for me to fit inside. I watch the paddle spin round over and over. When the dough reaches the perfect consistency, Dad trades the paddle for a giant hook.

A little more flour, then some water.

I fidget with my hands because I have a big secret. Good girls don’t keep secrets. But what if Daddy gets mad at you?

“Daddy I have to tell you a story, but I don’t want you to get mad.”

“What is it, baby girl? You can tell your Father anything.”

I hesitate. Oh no! Now you have to tell him. Be brave.

I stammer at first, “Well, I think someone might have tried to do something bad. Like something you taught me about.”

“What do you mean something bad? Something bad to you?”

He looks straight at me now while the dough spins out of control—gumming up the paddle.

I continue, “Umm do you remember my babysitter at the lake?”

“Yeah of course! I met them through the motel when we lived there that one winter.”

“Umm, well one time when the husband was home, I had to go to the bathroom. But when I walked in, he was already there going pee. I got really scared and said ‘I’m sorry.’ I turned around to leave, but he said ‘wait!’”

Dad’s face grows hot. “That son of a bitch. This better not be the kind of story I think it is. I’ll kill the son of a bitch.”

Oh no. You shouldn’t have told him. What if the cops come again like they did last month at the Laundromat?

 “No Dad, it’s not really bad.”

“So what happened, then?”

I point down with my index finger, “Well, he told me to come and feel his pee pee down there.”

“That’s it! I’ll fucking kill that motherfucker!”

“No, Dad. Wait! Nothing happened. I just ran out of the bathroom with my head down.”

“Jenny, my God, that was almost two years ago! Why didn’t you tell Daddy before now?”

“I’m sorry, Daddy. I was scared. I knew how mad you would be.”

“Well I’m not mad at you. But you’re a very strange child. Telling your Father about this so late. What if he tried to hurt you? No more of these crazy babysitters ever again! Never ever trust anybody—like you Father always tells you. And I fucking disregarded my own rule!”

Dad finishes attending to the dough quietly—adding more water to correct the earlier mistake. Then his voice softens, “I guess in a way, you saved your Father, Jenny. If you told me that story two years ago, he would be dead, and I’d be in jail now. You did the right thing to leave, but I want you to come to Daddy right away from now on. You can always talk to me about anything.”

I nod to promise, but I know better.

1995: OJ

Calm down! Stop shaking! He would kill you for this display of weakness…but he’s not here.

 I involuntarily continue to tap my feet up and down under my desk. The vibration radiates through my thumb and forefinger causing me to drop my pencil. It’s no use. You can’t concentrate. I glance at the clock. Still only 1:52 pm. Hurry up final bell. It’s the 3rd of the month. Shopping day!

Why do you get so excited when you know you’re going to starve for 28 days after he blows the whole disability check? And he’ll blame you like last month. Just concentrate on this math assignment, for God’s sake!

Yeah, but it’s our day together. Our only thing we do together…because he worries about the bumps…

I recall his words, “Jenny, I’d rather see you have nice clothes than food to eat. Besides, food makes you fat like your old man. You don’t ever want to get fat and look bad in your clothes. Trust Poppa! And you know Daddy doesn’t believe you can spoil kids by buying them things. It’s how they take care of those things and how thankful they are to have them.”

Instead of solving equations, I nervously pick at a checked up edge of my desk while my mind continues to wander toward one of Dad’s routine rants.

“Jenny, you and Daddy have a special relationship. Shopping is our special daddy-daughter thing. It all started with your Father’s family curse—neurofibromatosis—when I was 16. My face was clean and handsome, too. Then the first one appeared on my chin while I was in the Marines. I tried to shave it off twice, but it grew right back. Came from my fucking mother’s side. My father never should have married that woman, but that’s another story. Anyways, your Father never had trouble getting a woman because of these things. But in the 1970s, I went to the beach and a little boy screamed bloody murder when he saw me. The kid thought I was some kind of monster with these things. So after that, Daddy figured, fuck it. Truth be told, I don’t like being around lots of people anyways. That’s why we never go to parks or dirty fucking fairs. Who knows what animals pissed there or what disgusting people do in those public places?”

Could that one event have embarrassed him so long—to last for all these years? Will I get the bumps when I turn sixteen, too? I examine my body each week to make sure none have grown. Just a few ugly brown birthmarks so far.

RINGGGGGGG. At last! I quickly fumble for tonight’s assignments among the rumpled papers stuffed into the bottom of my locker. You really got to clean this mess up, jerk.

Leaping toward the double doors, I spy Dad’s car parked right in front. Please don’t let anyone see you get in the contact-paper car. You’re having enough trouble at this new school. I toss my backpack onto the seat first, and hop in with a giant grin on my face.

Dad wonders aloud, “What the fuck are you so happy about?”

Oh no! He forgot about shopping day. He said we might even go to the good mall this time.

My head hangs while my smile quickly dissolves into despair.

He catches on. “Oh! You think we’re going to the mall today, don’t you?”

I nod. Phew. He remembers! But why does he seem so angry?

“Well you can forget about that today. Your Father is all riled up. Do you know what the fuck happened today? They let that n****r, OJ Simpson—fucking wife killer—off today. Acquittal my ass! He held his hand taut when he tried the glove on. And the fucking thing has his blood on it.”

Dad holds his hand up with all of his fingers spread open like a turkey.

“For fuck’s sake if I held my hand like this, I couldn’t get my hand in a glove either. This is why your Father hates sports players. We give these people way too much power. I want to kill that n****r myself. If Nichole Brown were my daughter, he would have never got away with this shit. Mark my words, Jenny, if you ever try to date one of them, I’ll kill you myself.”

I wince at Dad’s suggestion of violence. I hate you! If you only knew what we learned in school. That people like you are called racists. You should be sent to jail!

He shifts the car out of park, but jabbers on. “Don’t get Daddy wrong. I don’t believe in hurting black people. A lot of them were cleaner and better behaved than white people when I was a little boy living in the city. It was them who didn’t want to mix with the whites because we were too dirty. And I agree with them. The races don’t belong mixing, for Christ sakes.”

How do you know? People can do whatever the hell they want to!

 “Really. Believe me. Daddy almost got killed when I was in service because I was on my leave and I gave my seat to a black woman on the bus in South Carolina. People wanted to beat me up. But I didn’t care. And my first friend when I joined the military was black. He showed me how to defend myself because I was one of the shortest guys there. But he liked me because I was tough.”

Yeah. Yeah. Heard these stories a million times. You say one thing and do another all the time.

When we get home, Dad fixes my usual snack of Ramen noodles. I devour them, and excuse myself for homework. “That’s fine, Jenny. Go to your room, and do that useless shit they assign you in school.” Exactly what I intend to do, jerk.

 “…What you really ought to be doing is staying down here and watching the news with Daddy to learn some real life lessons here. This goddamn commie country we live in, where our white women are no longer safe.”

But I have homework! And I have to be a straight-A student, right? Besides I’ve heard enough of your racism for one day.

 As I trudge upstairs, the cream and tan pattern in the rug makes creates a hypnotic mood to drown out Dad’s curses at the T.V. What if the whole world knew what a bastard he is? What if they really, did? Would everyone think you were just his evil daughter?

1993: Ante Up

A crisp fall breeze quivers up my spine as we exit Price Chopper supermarket.

Dad waves to someone in the parking lot. Who is that? I squint harder into the blinding afternoon sun. Nothing. Maybe you need glasses?

The mystery man yells, “Hey, Tom!”

Dad bellows back, “Ozzy! Hey-a buddy.”

Oh fuck. It’s Ozzy. What day is it? Wednesday! How much worse could your luck get?

Ozzy leans against his silver Oldsmobile waiting cheerfully for Dad and me to approach. I don’t smile as the grocery bag digs into my scrawny hand. You know what’s coming next. Glare.

“Jeez, Tom we haven’t seen you in forever. The boys ask me about you every week.”

“Ah, sorry Oz. It’s been very busy getting Jenny back to school. Tough being a single father, you know?” Yes we’re very busy. No time for games.

“Well, there’s going to be a good game at my house tonight, if you want to come. I was just picking up the cold cuts and hoagie rolls for later.”

Dad hesitates. Please let him say ‘no.’

“Yeah, I’ll think about it Ozzy. Hey, is the Greek gonna be there?”

“Yes, the Greek, Porky, Jonesey. Everybody. Full house.” So what do they need him for then?

 “Yeah, well, I guess I’ll be there then. Still Eight-o’clock?”

Ozzy shoots back, “Like always!”

I shrivel inside. It’s a school night. A fucking school night!

 As we speed toward home, Dad asks, “Hope you don’t mind if I go to Ozzy’s tonight? You know Daddy hasn’t been in over two months.” Why ask? It’s not a real question. You’re going no matter what I say.

“You’ll just have to do your homework fast when we get home. I won’t have to feed you. Ozzy always has plenty of good food there.” I look out the window to roll my eyes. Yeah. Gross sandwiches.

Defeated, I nod. Yes, yes, yes…to all the bullshit until the day I turn 18.

When we pull into Ozzy’s driveway, a familiar feeling of apprehension encases my body. I wonder how many times you’ve been here in your life?

We walk in the middle of the first game as Ozzy yells, “I’ll take that and raise you a dollar.” The Greek glances up from his hand and announces, “Tommy! Hey guys! The Big Kahuna is here!” Why do they call him that? I guess ‘the Greek’ was already taken.

Dad smiles and nods making his way toward the trays of food. He whispers, “Take a lot. Ozzy won’t mind. He buys way more than we ever eat.” I grab two slices of ham, a piece of provolone cheese and slap them on a hoagie roll. Pass on the crusty yellow mustard.

“Jenny. You’re going to eat it dry like that? God. I don’t know how you do that.” You can’t control everything, can you jerkball?

After all these years, Ozzy doesn’t escort me into the back living room. Instead he calls over, “You know your way, right kiddo?”

Dad answers on my behalf. “Yeah, I’ll just get her settled in. Be right back for the next one guys.”

I fumble for the TV remote in the pitch-dark. “Alright, Jenny. If you need anything, just come and get Daddy.” Don’t worry. I won’t need anything except a new Father.

The light from the TV illuminates the room just enough for me to make out Ozzy’s bumpy tweed sofa. You’ve never actually seen this room in daylight. Weird.

I sit rigid on the sofa at first, waiting for Ozzy’s cat, Muffin to appear. Damn cat gives you the creeps.

After a few minutes, I turn to the guide channel. Ooh! Reruns of Bewitched followed by your favorite, Quantum Leap.

My eyes flutter a bit after two episodes. No. You can’t fall asleep before Quantum. At least Ozzy has cable. I look at the soiled pillow. It’s not like you’ve never laid on it before. Why do you hesitate every time?

Finally, I surrender and lower my head back.

In my right ear…Purrr Purrrr. I jump up. Oh Jesus, Muffins. You almost gave me a heart attack. Now please don’t come near me, sweet little kitty. Muffins and I come to a truce. She brushes past my leg twice and then she retreats to Ozzy’s bedroom once again. Good cat.

I hum the theme in my head as Quantum Leap begins. But Dad roars louder than the music. “Goddamit, I have a fucking full house. Right here. Jesus Christ. Slippery Tony—you son-of-a-bitch! That’s what they ought to call you.”

Shivering, I pull the crochet throw over my legs. Measured, Ozzy tries to calm Dad. “Tom. It’s okay. No need for that. We’re all friends here. Just enjoying a good game of cards.”

“Ahhh, fuck all of you is what I say. I’m the best card player here and you’re all just jealous.”

Shut up. All of you. I just want to watch one show. That’s all I get out of this. Do any of you pigs realize there’s a 12-year-old girl back here who has a history test tomorrow?

I groan as I wake to Dad rocking my shoulder. “Jenny. Jenny. Wake up. It’s time to go. These motherfucking bastards cheat like crazy. I got to get outta here before I punch one of them out cold.”

Eyes still bleary, I fumble for the TV off button. The time stamp reads 2:37 am. He’s leaving early, tonight. Must have been bad.

The boys groan faintly as we exit Ozzy’s. They’d probably kill him if you weren’t here.

The cool afternoon air, now piercingly frigid, slaps me in the face first. Then proceeds to paralyze my muscles one by one. Fuck this. As we get in the car, Dad scrapes some frost off the inside of the window. He peels out of the driveway, and races for home.

“Bastards think your Father is dumb, Jenny. But I do that on purpose. I won about fifty-seven dollars tonight, but they don’t know that. They are all so dumb. Your Father cheats like crazy, but they will never catch on to my system.”

Yeah pretty sure that all the ‘fucks’ and the ‘get the fuck outs’ confirmed that they’re on to your system. Fifty-seven dollars isn’t bad, though. Does this mean we will eat this week, or will you find some other way to blow it?

1997: Cold Hard Winter

Through tears against the bitter cold, Burger King’s logo flickers in the pitch dark. Thank you, God for this beacon. Never thought we’d reach the end of this frigid desert.

 Inside, I unzip my jacket immediately as the heat vents blast against my face. Can’t breathe! Dad turns and asks, “What do you want tonight?” My usual. “Breaded chicken sandwich. And Dad, can I get fries too?”

“Of course.”

Dad orders his traditional bacon cheeseburger with a large Coke.

Even though the place is empty, we plod toward the tables in the back. Room to spread out. Dad hoists my loaded backpack off his shoulder while I unsling my ski bag and stuffed Adidas gym tote.

I rub my shoulder where the straps dug in. Jesus. This has to end.

 My stomach growls as I gaze at the night sky through the arched glasshouse style windows. I unwrap the silvery paper from my sandwich as soon as the tray comes. Fuck yes! Food never tasted so good.

I don’t look up until Dad startles me. “Jesus, mother-fucking Christ! Jenny! You ate that whole sandwich in under a minute!” Hungry!

 He continues, “You must be starved. And why not? You skied in the freezing cold for two hours. And then we walked here three miles. Your fucking mother really pisses me off…” Don’t blame her. You have to start taking responsibility for your dragon-plan bullshit sometime.

“…You want Daddy to order you another one? I’ve still got five dollars in my wallet.”

I ponder his offer seriously. Get it. You need it to live. Yeah, but that’s the last five dollars for the week. And what about tomorrow night?

 “That’s okay, Dad. I’ll be okay. Thank you.”

I resume rapidly firing fries into my mouth. You’ve been hungry many times, but this must be the worst ever.

The next morning, Dad wakes me at 6:15 sharp. Brushing my teeth makes me gag. Too early. What is wrong with you?

Today is worse. Dad’s voice pierces through the bathroom door. “Goddammit, Debbie. She’s your daughter. If you’re going to say no to giving your own daughter a ride to school so she doesn’t have to walk over three miles to school with three giant packs, then just say, ‘NO!’ Don’t give me a thousand fucking excuses of why you can’t do it. You’ve never done shit for our daughter, anyways.”

I cringe looking at the brass doorknob. I ponder turning the lock and never coming out. Yeah, sure! That’ll last about five minutes. Remember what happened to her when she locked herself in the bedroom. He’ll come with the meat cleaver.

Before my foot grazes the last stair, Dad begins rehearsing his fight with Mom. “Can you believe your fucking mother, Jenny? She’s worried about having to get your brother ready and in the car. Something about getting his fucking shoes and coat on. That’s why she can’t give you a ride to school. I told the bitch to stop making excuses!”

I know. I already heard you the first time. My stomach turns over. I’m thankful Dad’s too angry to offer me any breakfast today.

“Oh, and I told your fucking mother that our neighbors and friends treat us better. Mary has let us borrow her car for weeks. But I know she can’t do that every day.” No she can’t. So how about you get a job and buy a car…like a real Father who wanted another daughter.

 I heave both packs on my sore shoulder and glance back at Dad. Time to go! Let’s go get this over with. And thank God, it’s Thursday already.

“No, Jenny. We’re not walking today.” My eyes widen. What are we doing flying on Zeus’s back?

“While you were in the shower, Daddy called Mrs. Cranshaw.” Judy’s mom? “…You know, your good friend Judy’s mom? Well, she’s going to drive three miles out of their way to pick you up today. Now those are good people, Jenny! That’s how your Father is raising you to be one day, too.”

Mrs. Cranshaw’s headlights pierce the window blinds. My eyes well up. Why the hell are you crying? Why is it so hard when people are kind?

Judy smiles up at me as I climb into the back seat of her forest green Ford. My voice shakes, “Thank you, Mrs. Cranshaw. This is so kind of you.”

“Think nothing of it, Jenny. We were happy to do it.” Shit. More tears. You’ll never know how thankful I really am. And you’ll probably never know what a bastard he really is, either.

Judy and I giggle in the back—plotting our next moves to survive high school—for the remaining ten-minute ride.

1989: The Return

Mom’s navy blue pump catches on the doorjamb as enters our hotel room. Once inside, she peeks from left to right. Kitchenette, television, bathroom, tweed couch, and bedroom. What if she’s sad because we live in a stupid hotel instead of a real house like the McCarthy’s or the Thompson’s? What if she leaves again like last time?

Instead Mom arranges her luggage on the bed and faces Dad with a beaming smile. He returns the smile. “Deborah, I’m so happy you’re home from California. This is going to be the best thing for our daughter, you know. She needs a woman. She needs a mother.”

Pretending not to hear him, Mom squeals, “Tommy, come here! I want to show you some of the gifts I brought back for you. They’re all from the Casual Male shop in Cali where I worked as assistant manager. I’m going to miss it out there, but I got a fabulous deal on all these clothes for you.”

Dad soaks up the attention as Mom pulls out new silk shirts for him. “If we’re going to be together, Thomas, I want you to look good. More like when I met you.”

“Oh yeah, I used to dress good back then.” Dad turns toward me. “Your mother always liked my khaki suits, Jenny. Of course those were the days when you were just a figment of our imagination.”

Dad winks at Mom. She grins back and rolls her eyes. “Oh, Thomas! You were a bad boy.” Why do they get along now? They fought so much when Daddy would call her on the payphone every week last year.

Mom holds shirts and pants up against Dad’s frame while he talks with his hands. This is kind of boring.

I zone off toward the large mirror that hangs opposite my bed. Where you stuffed your nightgown last week after watching the Huxtables. Dad almost caught you admiring your chest when he woke up after his four-hour nap. I shudder at the memory while Mom feels around the bottom of her suitcase and pulls out two silk ties. “Tommy, I know you don’t like ties, but these were each a hundred and fifty dollars.”

Dad grabs one tie from Mom’s hand. He inspects it carefully. “You know me so well, Deborah. I don’t usually wear ties, but I love this one. The colors are perfect. That, and the fact that you bought it for me.” When he lays it on the bed, I see the chocolate brown and blue swirly design.

He’s so happy. Wonder what Mom brought back for you?

Patiently, I await Mom’s gifts. I’m here, Mom. I missed you.

“Tommy. Hold up! I’m not done, yet.” Dad turns back toward me. He looks sorry somehow.

Mom continues, “Here’s the best one!” She pulls out a buttery-yellow leather backpack. It’s perfect. I love purses and bags!

My eyes grow wide. Dad eyes grow wide. “Yes it’s real leather, Tommy. Go ahead. Feel it.” Wait? It’s for him?

“Jesus. Deborah. You must have paid four hundred for this.” Mom doesn’t seem to care about money today. “It was a lot, but I wanted you to have it.” She unsnaps the two outer pockets, but the moment has passed.

I hang my head. She forgot about you. But that’s okay. She’s back. Hope they won’t act like this all the time.

“Jenny Penny! Mom brought a little something back for you too.” I knew it. She didn’t forget you! Maybe your bag is pink or purple?

She pulls out a small stuffed bear with a red ribbon tied around his neck. I don’t immediately walk toward her. So she brings the fuzzy animal to me.

I look up at her. Not exactly what you wished for. “Thank you, Mom.”

“Of course, honey. Mom wouldn’t forget about you.” Her copper ringlets graze my cheek as she leans forward to kiss my forehead.

Dad motions to her. “Hey Deb, we better hang these shirts and things up. I don’t want any of this stuff you paid a fortune for getting wrinkled to shit.”

“Good point, Tommy.” Mom turns on her heel and heads back toward Dad’s pile of gifts.

While she attends to the chore, Dad leans over and whispers in my ear. “Don’t worry. That backpack will be yours one day, Jenny.”

I glance toward one buttery yellow strap that hangs off the edge of the bed. You can wait.

1997: Bye, Bye, Engine!

After the couple next to me finishes making out, I quickly plug in my locker combination.

Okay. You have to read for history in homeroom today. Yeah, fuck that! Skim it. Yes, you’re a horrible person, but who wanted to carry that shit home. Oh and study for bio test in lunch. You’ll still get an A.

My art teacher, Mr. G approaches my locker. He wears his usual uniform: a smug grin, a Florida tan, and crisp white shirt with “TFG” embroidered on the collar. Some days he drives a Mercedes, other days he drives a small burgundy pickup truck.

Confidently, he informs me, “Jenny, I think it’s time for your Father to get a new car!”

I swivel around and look up at him quizzically. I mean Dad needed a new car since 1989, so why pick today to tell me that he drives a piece of shit.

Aware of my confusion, he continues, “Jenny, do you realize what’s happened outside?” He says this as he points to the double doors at the end of the hall.

I shrug, “ummm, no?”

His baritone voice registers louder than usual, “I think your Father’s engine just fell out of his car! Right in the school parking lot!”

Jesus. Keep your voice down G! Why don’t we just broadcast it over the loudspeaker?

I nervously laugh it off, and shake my head while fighting back tears.

You should go out there and see if he’s okay. Screw it. What can you do? You’re not an engine repairperson.

I quickly drop into homeroom and hunker down over my notebook pretending to study for my biology quiz.

When the 2:17 school bell rings, I approach the double doors reluctantly. Is he going to be out there? Was he there all day? Could you really get any less popular?

But as the afternoon sunlight streams across my face, I blink twice at Dad standing next to a hot red car. That car is beautiful!

Son of a—he bought a new car? Wait-a-minute. Shit, that’s Mary’s car.

Dad grins like a Cheshire cat, “Hey, Mary let me borrow her car to pick you up. Didn’t your art teacher tell you what happened to Poppa this morning in the parking lot?”

I gaze toward the pavement. Proof of your guilt.

“Goddamn engine mounts gave way. Right after I let you out.”

How was I spared that embarrassment? Well, almost…

“Daddy thought to himself: how am I going to pick Jenny up? So I just went to Mary and said give me your keys. And she did. Just like that.”

I don’t dare ask, “What are we going to do now?”