1992: Catechism Lesson

Dad screams at the television while I finish my homework lessons.

“Goddamn motherfuckers. Jenny, let Daddy teach you a lesson here. Because these assholes on the so-called-news, they lie. Columbus did not discover America. That’s why we don’t celebrate Columbus Day in this house. And I hate it when they teach you that bullshit in school. Daddy’s been complaining about this since the seventies when my other kids were in school. Why don’t they teach kids real history—about the Indians that were raped and murdered so we could have their land!”

I briefly nod. Then bury my head in my workbook. This assignment is due tomorrow, Dad. We don’t celebrate any of the holidays.

He approaches the table.

“What are you working on there? What the hell is so important? What could be more important than the lessons your father is trying to teach you?” Duh! My homework! My teachers are smarter than you and they can teach me everything I need to know.

“Oh. Religion. That’s another crock of bullshit, too!” But we’re Catholic, and you sent me to a Catholic school.

“I mean, just look at this horseshit—

Dad snatches the workbook from the table. I clench my hands. Give it back. It’s mine.

“A motherfucking white Jesus. You know Jesus was a Jew, right? Bastard had skin darker than your Father.”

But—it’s my workbook—and I like this Jesus. I look at him with pleading eyes, Please give it back.

“Listen. I know you think your Father is crazy.” Yes. Keep going…

“But someday you will thank me. Because you’ll know things that other people don’t know. It’s not that you’ll be better than other people. It’s just—the lessons I’m teaching you—other parents—they aren’t gonna teach their kids like Daddy’s teaching you.”

I sigh. But I don’t want to be taught other things. I want to live in a house like Mary and Lauren. I want to have Fruity Pebbles and Cocoa Puffs for breakfast. And Fruit Roll-Ups for lunch. And I want a Mom, too.

“So these teachers in school—they think they’re teaching you about God. Well, God has no religion. Do you know what Daddy means by that?” I narrow my eyes, No?

“See people think that if you’re religious, then you’re going to heaven.” Yes. Like if we’re good Catholics and we go to church and take communion every week. Then we go to heaven.

“But your Father is here to tell you they’re all wrong. The priests. Your teachers. God doesn’t care about religion. He cares about whether or not you’re a good person.” Aren’t religious people, good people?

“Let Daddy give you an example so you can understand. We go to church every week. And you see some of those snobby fuckers that sit in the front. They won’t even talk to us.” That’s because we’re weird and they’re better than us.

 “Those fucks think they’re better than us. But how is that Christian? Jesus sat with the criminals.” But—

“It’s even worse than that. Some of those people in that church—they’re drunks—they beat their wives and kids.” You do that, so—

“But some people don’t go to church. Some of them don’t even believe in God. But they volunteer their time. Help people in need. They never hurt anybody on purpose. Now don’t you think God would rather have those decent people in heaven? Rather than those assholes who are too high on their horse to wave hello at church? It’s the same bullshit every Sunday.”

Well—I hadn’t really—thought about it.

“I can see you’re thinking about what you’re Father is telling you. That’s good. You’ll see that I’m right one day.”

Oh shit. He is right. He’s actually figured this out, and you can’t disagree with him even though you want to. You need to. But he’s right. But then why—if he knows this—would he act the way he does? Doesn’t he want to go to heaven too?

“Daddy knows what you’re thinking. That I’m a horrible Father. That might very well be true, but I was raised like shit. My parents—they never educated me. They never cared where I was—if I had a hot meal or went to school. So I’m trying to raise you to be better than your Father. I want you to be smart—but way beyond one and one equals two. Because one plus one doesn’t always equal two. But Daddy will save that for another time.”

Okay. Now he’s lost it again. But, you have to admit, there’s something good within him. If you can remember the good things, reject the bad things, then you might have a chance. A chance to be a good person one day.

The next day in religion class, Kevin raises his hand to talk about our lesson. He says, “People can’t go to heaven unless they believe in Jesus Christ, and accept that he died on the cross for our sins.”

Miss Volemer smiles and nods. No that’s wrong! It’s wrong and you can’t stand for it.

My right hand trembles as I stretch it high above my head. “Yes, Jenny?”

“Well, I don’t agree with Kevin. I mean—I don’t really agree with the book either.” I hear a few gasps from behind my seat in the second row. Miss Volemer stares at me intently as my face grows hotter. You have to say it, wimp. You have to say the truth.

“I—I don’t agree because if a person is a good person, and follows the teachings of Christ, then they should go to heaven even if they don’t believe. That’s what Christ would say. And that’s what I believe.”

My face glows red hot. I scan the classroom through my peripheral vision. Everyone sits silently. Including Miss Volemer. You’re going to get in big trouble. Whipped with the ruler like in the old days that Dad used to tell you about.

RINGGGGGG. Phew. Saved by the bell.

I quietly collect my things, and retreat to my locker. Head down. But feeling smart, just like Dad said I would.

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1985: A Surprise Portrait

I lick the chocolate from a frosted cake donut while Dad and I walk around Lake George. He turns to me, exclaiming, “Boy you really love those chocolate covered donuts, huh kiddo? They’re okay. But not great like they used to be when Daddy was a kid. The chocolate was real back then. Not like this chemical shit they make today. And the bear claws! You should have seen them.”

He grips both hands into fists to approximate the size of the donuts. “Those bear claws were Daddy’s favorite for sure.” I stare at him. Is it bad to like the chocolate more than the bear claws? The frosting on those tastes gross.

He nods. “That’s okay. Poppa’s got a clean napkin when you’re done.

I lick each finger before taking Dad’s napkin. Yum. Why can’t we have donuts every day for breakfast?

When we arrive at George’s Restaurant, Dad buttons his chef’s coat over his shirt. I notice a faded ketchup stain on the cuff. Why do Dad’s pants have black and white squares? And why didn’t he put his chef’s hat on today?

“Jenny I want you to stay next to Daddy. He motions for me to come closer. “Right here. Good. Next to the chopping table. Remember when you used to sit on Daddy’s shoulders for hours while I worked?” I glance up at him. “Yes. Well you’re too big for that now. So Daddy’s going to teach you something very special today.”

He removes the long silver blade from its sheath. Dad explained last week that chefs, like him, call it a butcher knife.

Today he takes the sharpening blade out too. I watch mesmerized as he clashes the butcher knife against the spear. Top over bottom. Bottom over top. Over and over. The cadenced metallic clang alarms and soothes me at once.

When he finishes wiping the blade edge on a clean towel, Dad looks at me and asks, “How’d ya like that? Your Pop is one hell of a chef, right?” I shake my head, yes.

From his back pocket, he removes a tattered grey book. “You see this, Jenny? This was my Father’s book, and one day it will be yours. Because no one else in my family is ever going to give a rats ass.”

Dad opens the book to reveal a diagram. He points. “That’s a pig. This one is a cow. Every cut of meat is here in these two illustrations. Every chef has to be a butcher too. We have to know every cut by heart.”

He points to the uneven lines drawn over the outlined animals. “Not many people know what your Father knows and one day I’m going to teach it all to you. You might have been too young to remember, but Daddy took you along when I slaughtered some pigs. You were a good girl. Just stood there and didn’t cry.”

I stop listening to Dad for a moment to see if I can remember the pigs. There was that place with a fence and a barn, and Daddy was with another man. But I can’t recall the ‘slotter’ part. Does Daddy mean he killed the pigs? A chill runs down my back.

By the time I look up, he is waving for me to help carry lettuce from the cooler. Dad lines up twelve heads of iceberg on the chopping block.

“Daddy will teach you how to chop like a real chef today.” I shrink. Today?

He winks but doesn’t grin. “This is very serious business. Daddy doesn’t ever want you to be afraid of a knife. You can’t cut yourself. Did you hear me? You can’t ever cut yourself. Not if you chop like a I’m teaching you.” Daddy, can I just watch today?

He rolls a head of lettuce toward his knife. Dad quickly slices through the middle of the sphere, and places the flat side down. He rests his left knuckles against the rounded outer edge.

“Now look at your Father. This is the right way. You never hold your goddamn hand like this.”

He unfolds his fingers laying them out flat and brings the blade over them.

“See. You’d cut your goddamn finger off in a heartbeat trying to do it this way. And it would slow you down. Cooking is about expedience!”

Dad quickly rolls his fingers back under his palm. He chops briskly. The blade blurs. Dad purposely brings the knife against his hand. I wince. No! Don’t watch. “See. Did you watch? I told you. You can’t get hurt.” I exhale as Dad reveals his unscathed knuckles.

‘Tomorrow, I’m going to show you how to use the peeler. Always pull it toward you. Never away like these amateur morons. That way you have all the control. But for now, come here and put this butcher knife in your right hand.” My hand quivers as he places the blade’s handle in my grip. He pulls up a chair so I can reach the chopping block.

“Now what do you do with your left hand?” I curl my fingers under reluctantly. “Whoa! Hold it!” Dad flicks my thumb. Ow.

“What’s that doing out there? You want your thumb chopped off?” I shake my head, no! Dad shoves my hand closer to the lettuce.

“Uh. Wait a second. Hold the knife straight. Not on an angle! And not so tight. You’re gripping that handle too tight.” I watch as he flicks his wrist back and forth and then straightens it. It’s heavy, Dad.

My eyes gloss over as I begin my first few chops. Don’t cut yourself! He’ll scream and turn purple.

After a few minutes, I feel the blade slicing through lettuce with ease. You did it. Like a chef. Like Dad.

“Good girl. That’s enough for today. Daddy’s so proud of you! You’re my daughter for sure.”

I set the butcher knife down as George, the owner, walks into the kitchen. I pull Strawberry Shortcake toy out of my skirt pocket, and sniff her hair. Ahhh, I love you Strawberry Shortcake. We did it.

Dad’s raises his voice. He faces George head on. “Fuck you, George, you mother fucking bastard. This is my kitchen and I will instruct the waitresses to do as I see fit.”

George snaps, “Tom, this is my restaurant. I’m the owner, and if you want to work here, you’ll have to do things my way.”

“Oh no, you cock-sucker. Chefs run their own kitchen. You think I’m a dumb fucking Greek, huh?”

George shrinks slightly under Dad’s glare.

“See, that’s where you’re wrong. Because chef Tom knows you’ve been fucking some of these waitresses and unless you want me to drive a fucking bus through the front window of this place, you’ll give me control of this kitchen.”

I crouch behind a corner, gripping Strawberry Shortcake until my sweat coats her glossy skin.

“Tom, I think you better go home for the day. Nobody threatens me in my own restaurant.”

With one blow, Dad pops George in the nose. Even with my eyes closed, I feel Dad grip my hand and drag me out of the back door.

Dad keeps swearing as we walk. Mother fucking, cock sucking, no good piece of shit.

After a couple blocks, we reach my favorite shop on the strip, Tom Tom. Dad browses the pocket knives while I examine a pair of beaded pink moccasins. Dad catches me. “You like those?” I shake my head up and down. He smiles and says, “Good. We’ll take these in my her size.”

Outside the shop, a man sits on a metal stool next to a tall wooden frame. Dad walks up to the man. “Hi, my name is Tom and this is my daughter, Jenny.”

“Nice to meet you, Tom. My name is Ron. Ron Peer.”

“You a painter, Ron?”

“Yes. I paint portraits.”

“That’s perfect. I’ve always wanted a portrait done of my daughter. I’ve got the money. We’ll be your first customers today.”

“She’s very young. Can’t be more than four years old. It might be difficult for her to hold still. It takes quite a while for me to paint a portrait.”

“Nah. She’ll be fine. She does what Dad says, right honey?” I stare at Ron while he mixes oil paint on his palette.

“Okay, then. I’ll do my best, then.”

After a few minutes, I begin squirming on the stool. This is so boring. Why did Dad want to do this?

Ron instructs me, “Try to hold still, honey. I know it’s hard. But I’m working on your face and I have to get that right, okay?”

Dad glares at me. I wring my hands, nervously. When will the painter man be done?

Finally, Ron puts his brush down and shows the canvas to Dad.

“Wow. That’s fantastic work. But what about her arms and hands?”

“I’m sorry, sir. She was just fidgeting too much for me to do that part, but it’s a perfect likeness of her face.”

“I can’t argue with that. How much do I owe you?”

“It’ll be two hundred dollars, sir.”

Dad rolls out ten crisp twenty-dollar bills. And shakes Ron’s hand. “Well, I’m still disappointed that you couldn’t paint her hands, but I have to admit, you’re one hell of an artist.”

While we make our way back to the apartment, Dad turns the painting toward me, “You like it, baby girl?”

I nod.

“Daddy always wanted to have this done. You’ll have it forever, you know?”

I stare at the oil strokes that compose my face. So that’s what you really look like?

1998: Martha’s Vineyard

While straining my eyeballs to force back tears, I crumple the Martha’s Vineyard permission slip into my knapsack. You know that’s not happening. Just like the Spain trip.

Rushing toward the double doors, Mr. G interrupts me. “Jenny. Why don’t you smile? It’s the weekend! And you’re going to Martha’s Vineyard.” He grins from ear to ear revealing a double set of laugh lines. “Just don’t forget to bring your permission slip in by the end of next week.”

I muster a half smile. If only you knew, Mr. G. If only you knew. I might be a straight-A student and in National Honor Society but that doesn’t change anything for me. It only makes him proud. It’s all for him. But one day, I’m going to make something of myself. And I’ll go everywhere. Travel the world!

Dad doesn’t seem to notice the glum look on my face, which gives me time to soften it before he does. “Ah, Jenny. Good. Dad’s got a new idea about how to bring my message to the people. I know more now. It’s got to do with Orville Street! The blessed Mother came to me this time.”

I groan. If you committed suicide, would he notice? Or would he just carry on with his fantasies?

Sunday night, I find the permission slip crushed underneath my Calculus book. “Dad, um, I know I can’t go, but here’s a permission slip for the National Honor Society Trip to Martha’s Vineyard. We’re supposed to return it even if we’re not going.”

Dad stops rocking in his white chair. He slides his hands forward to reveal the black marks along the armrests. “Jesus Christ, Jenny. What is it with that school of yours? I mean these fucking projects they make you kids do. Fifty dollars for supplies. Trips to Spain. That’s another couple grand. They never consider the parents! And it’s okay for everybody else’s parents. They all have two salaries. A mother that helps out. Now I have to feel guilty. I have to be the bad guy.”

I consider what Dad says. In a way he’s right, but he makes such a big deal out of everything. And if he wasn’t such an asshole, I’d have a mother too. He’d actually have a job. This is his responsibility. He wanted to be a Father. He alone wanted you to be born. So stop feeling bad for him!

Instead of turning it in on Monday morning, I decide to leave the slip in my bag for a few more days. This way you won’t have to be embarrassed all week. And deal with the questions. And the sad faces. As if it’s happening to them! Oh Jenny, why can’t you go? Because my Father is pathetic and we’re so poor we don’t eat half the time.

Two days later, I see Mr. G while I’m on duty in the school store. Jesus. Please don’t let him embarrass you in front of everyone here.

“Jenny. Glad you’re joining us for the trip to the Vineyard!”

“Uh-I-uh, what?”

“Well that wasn’t a real show of enthusiasm was it, young lady?”

Shut up. Let it blow over. Ask him later.

“I heard from your Mother earlier. Everything is taken care of. You’re going to love it there.”

My who? My mother? All the cash register keys jumble like I’m on a psychotropic trip. You’re hallucinating. You’re dead. It’s like in Ghost. You’re a gone-r.

Apparently Mr. G regards the rapid flutter of my eyelids as sufficient confirmation.

Mom awaits me on the track before practice. She motions for me with vigorous hand gestures. She’s beaming. What the hell is going on?

“Jenny Penny!”

“Hi Mom. What are you doing here? Have you talked to Mr. G?”

“Oh yes, did he tell you the good news, love?”

“Yes. He-he told me that I’m going to the Vineyard. I’m so confused.”

Mom winks and grins ear to ear. “Mom planned that surprise for you. Your Father called and told me you couldn’t go a couple days ago. Then the strangest thing happened. I got the money together so you could. I’ll tell you one day how I did it, but for now I just want you to enjoy the trip.” My jaw drops with shock. According to him, you’re not allowed to be shocked. Ever. About anything. But this qualifies as an exception.

“Thank you, Mom. I can’t believe you did this for me. Wait—I mean—what did Dad say?”

“I just told him that I wanted to do something nice for you. He’s okay with it.” He’s what?

As I whirl my pack in the rear seat, I expect Dad to protest. But he doesn’t. “So your Mother finally decided to be a real mother for once in her life. I’m glad. It’s the least she could do for you after you and Daddy starved and were homeless all those times while she was living the good life in California.”

I wait for the catch. Nothing.

But Dad tricks me. He calls Mom the day before the trip. “Debbie. I know you paid for the trip for our daughter but she can’t go. I’m sorry but I don’t have any money to give her. She can’t go there without extra money.”

I hear her voice emitting through the phone. But I sneak upstairs and lift the receiver to eavesdrop anyway.

“Tommy. Calm down, Hun. I have the money for Jenny. An extra $75.”

Dad is thrown off his guard. “Oh. Well-uh—why didn’t you bring it over? Why don’t you bring it over now?”

“Oh no, Tommy boy. I knew I couldn’t trust you not to blow this money on a horse. I already gave the money to Mr. G. He’ll have it for her when she gets on the bus.”

“Jesus, Deborah. I’d never do anything to hurt Jenny. I give this kid everything. You don’t even know the shit I’ve had to pay for in school projects—not to mention her clothing every year.”

“I know Thomas, but… She called him Thomas. That was smart. Thanks, Mom. For trying. Even though we’re never going to get away with this. “…This is the way this has to be. Just get Jenny to the bus, and she’ll have everything she needs.”

I lay the receiver down with deft silence. How did she do this? Are you really going?

Dad drops me off at the bus, but he parks the car instead of just pulling up and letting me hop out.

He waves to Mr. G. and begins to excessively shift his weight left to right until he reaches the bus. Well you’re going to be popular after this. Dear God, just sneak on. Get passed them and keep your head down. It’s too late now. He can’t pull you off. Who are you kidding. Of course he can.

While shaking hands with Mr. G, Dad shakes his head. “I’m sorry about my wife’s behavior—Jenny’s mother—I still call her my wife. Anyways, I heard she bothered you about some money.”

“Oh no. It was no bother at all. I have it all right here for Jenny. I’ll give it to her once we get started down the road.”

“Oh of course. No it’s just that Deborah—she has a habit of exaggerating. She knows I’ve raised Jenny since she was four days old. Been involved with her schooling. You know that better than anyone.”

Mr. G simply nods and begins to call names. “Raise your hands if you’re here. Emily, Ryan, Nicole. Good.”

I see Dad slink away to his car. He must be regretting this already. When you get back, get ready to pay the price. But it’s going to be worth it.

When we reach the ferry, I tear up. I’ve never seen the ocean before. You look like a dork.

The ferry ride sweeps every strand of my hair in various directions. Mr. G feeds the seagulls’ oyster crackers from cupped palms. The sun shrouds us in a warm blanket. My skin smells of sweetly buttered toast. Oh Mom, this is the best gift you ever gave to me! Now I understand why you loved California. The water. It’s magnificent. One day, I’ll live near the ocean, Mom. I promise.

1998: Almost Gone

Dad chucks a box of chocolate covered donuts at my head. Whoosh. I duck as the donuts crash-land against the radiator. Scanning the crumbled bits of frosted cake, I shoot him my what now glare. “Fuck it. Your Father is sick of those goddamn boxes. Those fucks who made them must have been morons. They don’t close. No matter what I fucking do.” He slams his hands against the counter. Closing the ephemeral box one last time.

So is this directed at you? Are you in trouble for shitty box construction now?

“And as for you. You fucking cunt. You’re like your no-good mother, and I ought to beat that out of you. I can’t wait until you are gone to college. You ruined Daddy’s life because you are a selfish bitch, and I can’t wait to start doing what I want to do for me. I’ll be glad when you are gone!” I give him my usual blank stare hoping he won’t hit me again like he did last week when he found a rotten apple in my gym bag.

“Oh and another thing, you’re done with the running bullshit until you tell me about the aliens.”

My eyes switch back and forth, searching. The aliens?

“Don’t fucking play dumb with me. I know that aliens came down—motherfucking abducted you—and then sent you back to torture me. You’re not my daughter.”

Hold on a fucking minute. He doesn’t even believe in aliens. Now you were abducted? How do you even answer that? Maybe it was Gabazar, you freak! Leave me alone.

He intimidates me by approaching my chair from behind. I close my hands into tightly balled fists.

“Ah fuck it. I know you’re not going to talk. Look at you. You’re pathetic. Maybe you need to get a boyfriend, if you know what I mean!” I sit motionless.

“Well what are you waiting for? Go brush your motherfucking teeth. It’s almost time to go. I ought to make you walk.” Please! That would be nice. Or how about I drive myself like a normal seventeen-year-old.

I scamper up the stairs and turn the water on. Screw brushing your teeth. You’re going to gag. Maybe you won’t make it to the end? Less than a year, but somehow an eternity. He’s worse than ever. What if you kill yourself?

You’d have to slit your wrists with a knife. One of his knives. I cringe, realizing the water has been running too long. No you can’t. Tell someone. Just run away. Tell someone.

I remember all those zombie movies where no one believes the good guy. The whole town—they’re on his side—he’s conned every single one of them. The teachers. The parents. Your own goddamn friends! You know that’s always been the genius of his plan. And no—you can’t tell anyone.

“Come on! For fuck sakes, Jenny. How long does it take to shit and shower?”

“Coming…asshole.

Grabbing my gym bag at the last second, I fly down the stairs. Don’t come home tonight. Get in coach’s van. Run like the wind. Let him try to stop you.

I smile at him as though I’ve forgotten the last half hour. Dad scans my outfit. I silently wait for his approval. He nods, half winking—half scowling.

When he drops me off at school, I hunker down so other people won’t recognize me. “So, Daddy will be here at the usual time. You tell the bastards they better not keep you late tonight.”

Instead of agreeing, I bolt for the side door. Beeline to my locker. I stuff my bulging gym bag in, while grabbing my Physics book.