1995: A Pound of Butter

“Come on, Jenny. We have to drive that garage—the one where the guy inspects Daddy’s car—no questions asked. Before I get in trouble with motor vehicle.”

I throw my Camp Chingachook sweatshirt over my head. The sleeves tatter at the edges and the raised letters begin to peel off. “Is that what you’re wearing out of the house, Jenny?”

Nodding, I glance at my black fabric mary janes. Yes. We’re going to a musty old garage. Not church.

“Alright I guess you look good enough for the garage. But maybe you should change into something nicer when we get home.” Fine. Yup I said it in my head. Fine. I flinch wondering if he can read my thoughts.

Periodically, I look up from my book as Dad drives to our destination. Crossing the bridge. Joy store. Where you almost died.

 “Goddamn motherfucker.” Huh? What now?

“The bastard is closed.”

He is? Oh yeah. Duh. “Closed” sign.

Dad investigates the situation further. “Well it looks like you and Daddy are screwed again. This guy was perfect. You drove in—flashed your lights—that was it. No emergency brake check—no nothing. Fucking New York State laws. He probably got caught violating the inspection codes.”

Shit. What are we going to do? Will Dad get in trouble? Will it be like the time he didn’t pay his car insurance and we had to drive all the way to Albany to renew his revoked license?

When we arrive home, Dad skims his address book. I retreat to my room so I can finish The Good Earth. I repeat the author’s name in my head each time I see the cover because it’s pleasing and unusual. Pearl S. Buck.

Dad thunders upstairs, “Hey Jenny. Come on. We gotta drive to my nephew’s house.” Which one?

I blink, confused.

“You’ve never met him. My nephew Ken. You know Daddy has over 400 nieces and nephews.”

I wonder how Dad knows the way as we meander through the back roads to get to Ken’s house. Who is Ken and how come you never met him at one of the many family funerals?

We pull in and find the garage door open. Ken slides out from underneath a truck he’s working on. Dad extends his hand to Ken. “Nephew! It’s been too long. How have you been?”

“Been pretty good uncle Tommy. Keeping busy.”

‘Thanks for helping me out of this bind, Neph. The thing is…the car runs perfect…I just don’t have the back brakes hooked up now and I don’t have any emergency brake. The guy who used to inspect it up in Warrensburg went out of business.”

“It’s no problem Uncle. I can take care of it for you.”

“You’re the best, Ken.” Dad flips a thumbs up and grins in my direction. “My nephew. One of many. They’re all good kids. Uncle Tommy loves every one of my nieces and nephews.” So why did we ever go to Uncle George when we could have just come to Ken?

While Ken finishes up, his wife Cindy enters the garage and gives Dad a big hug. Dad has the weirdest family ever. You’re like the niece in the Munsters show. The one who doesn’t fit in.

“You’re all set, Uncle!”

I feel Dad’s relief. “Ken. Do you like cookies?”

“Of course. Look at me!” Ken shakes his stomach. Dad mirrors him. Twins.

“Well, I’m going to bring you my famous chocolate chip blondie bars. You’ve never had cookies that good in your life. I’ll drop them off tomorrow afternoon if you’ll be around?”

“Sounds great!”

Dad and I make the chocolate chip cookies that night.

My mouth waters, but Dad insists on giving the whole half sheet tray to Ken. “This is what you do for people when they do you a favor, Jenny. Daddy’s trying to teach you how to be a good person someday.”

Two days later, Ken’s wife, Cindy calls Dad.

I wonder if something’s wrong with the car. Did Ken change his mind? Can you take an inspection back? Did he get in trouble or something? Maybe they just called to say thanks for the cookies…

Dad keeps repeating, “My God, Cindy. I’m so sorry. That’s horrible. I had no idea that…”

After he hangs up, Dad emerges from behind the trifold divider shaking his head. Well, what is it?

“Jenny, Ken’s dead!”

But…but…we just saw Ken yesterday. Yesterday we saw Ken in his garage and he was alive!

“Jesus, Jenny. Your Father killed my own nephew.”

You killed him? But when? How?

“The cookies. The motherfucking cookies. I make them with a whole pound of butter. A whole motherfucking pound. You have to make them that way. Christ! I didn’t know he had a heart condition. He was only fifty years old.”

Wait how can a chocolate chip cookie kill someone?

“For fucks sake. I didn’t know he was going to eat the whole sheet tray in one night. He ate a pound of butter. Two cups of sugar. The thing is—Cindy said she wasn’t mad. She said Ken died happy. She said he just couldn’t stop eating them—he said they were the best cookies he ate in his life. She said it was an accident. But still your Father is very upset about this.”

This is very confusing. You said we were making the cookies to repay Ken. And they killed him.

“Well, looks like we have another funeral to attend. You know what Daddy always says, too: People die in threes. So somebody else is gonna kick the bucket before long. All I know is: I’m going to outlive them all—my whole family.”

Hopefully not. And besides, if you’re trying to teach me to be a good person—as you put it—then why do you say these shitty things about people? Poor Ken and Cindy.

I trudge upstairs and open my closet to make sure my black dress is clean.

1997: Training to Win

“Jenny if you want to do this cross country shit, it isn’t gonna be like last spring when you ran track. Daddy’s going to be your coach. No more galloping like you’re a motherfucking horse. That’s not running.” Dad shakes his head in disgust.

“Dad I had shin splints.”

“No wonder! The way you ran.” Well maybe if I could have done a sport before sixteen years old…maybe then I wouldn’t be the 7th grader afraid of playground slides, and the 8th grader who couldn’t stand up on roller skates, and now the girl who can’t run.

“Don’t worry, if you really want to do this thing, Daddy’s going to train you my way. The Marine Corps way.”

I glare at him and avert my gaze. I’ll just do it according to my real coach.

“You’re going to have to make Daddy a promise though: You can’t tell anyone that you’re training. If one of your friends asks, you tell them that you haven’t been practicing. Loose lips sink ships, you know.”

Jesus. I’m not that competitive. I just want to run. I want to be with my friends. And not totally suck.

I nod to satisfy Dad’s terms.

“B—but you can’t run with me, Dad.”

“Of course not. Daddy’s too old and fat now. But back in my younger years—you can ask your mother or any of your sisters—Daddy was fast. Man could I run.”

I stare at him confused. You’ll have a heart attack if you run with me now.

Dad winks and grins. “I’m going to ride my bike alongside you. That way I can time you. And make sure some fucking psychopath doesn’t try to kidnap you.”

I try to envision Dad riding his bike slow enough to keep pace.

“Don’t worry about your Father. I’ll manage the bike.”

I walk past Dad and head for my room.

“Where are you going, Jenny?”

“To my room.”

“Training starts now.”

“Umm-okay—well.”

“Nope. And Daddy’s no easy trainer. But better than my drill instructors. The bastards used to throw a 50-pound foot locker on Daddy’s chest.”

“For today, because I don’t have weights for your ankles and wrists, you’re going to run with a backpack on.”

“But—coach said…”

“Fuck the coach. Daddy knows how to make you a winner. You need the extra weight. That’s how they train champions.”

Dad loads up my knapsack and we go for a jog. Four loops around the block. One mile.

When I turn the corner toward the complex, my face begins to burn. My stomach turns.

“Don’t slow down now. Harder. You have to push really hard for the last bit. Come on! Daddy knows you can do it!”

Shut up, you bastard. I’ll push harder. Pretending I’m running to the ends of the earth. Faster. Anything to escape you.

My feet don’t stop when I reach the front door. I push into the brass letter “C” with my right hand.

Holy shit. You’re going to die. Or throw up.

I bend over. Grip my abdomen. Wheeze unevenly.

“Jenny, what the fuck are you doing? This is the most important part. Stand up and breathe normally! When you feel like it’s going to kill you, you have to breathe normally.”

One day, I’ll kill you. Lay off!

I attempt to stand and take breaths. Shit. It’s actually helping.

“See. What did Daddy tell you? And your time was great for our first run together. Just wait until you start school next month!”

God this is going to suck. But you know how this has to go. You have to do it his way. And then you can have something. You can fit in. At least a little bit.

I turn the faucet on cold and fill my glass with water. Gulp. Gulp. Guzzle.

“Hey. Watch how fast you’re drinking that water! You’re stomach is going to blow up huge!”

You’ll never do anything right. Get used to it.

The phone rings. Dad picks up before the third ring.

“Oh hi, Nancy. Yeah Jenny’s here. How are you doing? That’s good. And how are your parents?”

Poor Nancy. Just give me the phone already.

Dad, sweet as a peach says, here’s Jenny!” to Nancy. He glares at me during the exchange to remind me of our deal.

“Hi Nancy.”

“Hey what’s up? I just got my cross-country letter in the mail from coach today. It’s early this year.”

“Oh really? I didn’t get mine yet.”

“Probably because you’re new to the team. I haven’t started practicing yet. I’m lazy this summer and I like it that way.”

“Haha!”

Dad glares at me through the divider slats as he rocks back and forth.

“So have you starting running yet, Kambie?”

“Oh, um—well—no.”

“Oh thank God. Yeah. I’m not going to start more than a couple days before we start practice. I just want to make sure you’re not going to practice. Or else we could practice together.”

Fuck. Lying is the worst. And you’re bad at it. Thank God this is over the phone.

“Hey. No. That’s a good idea, but I’m lazy too. Maybe in a few weeks.”

Dad motions for me to get off.

“Okay, Nancy. It was good to chat. Listen, I gotta go. But I’ll call you soon.”

“Good, Jenny. I know you don’t understand me now. But one day you will. You’ll understand everything.”

Yeah. Yeah. This better not be like that middle-school class-president shit. The shit that made all of my friends hate me.

1988: Hallmark Angel

Dad yells at the Off Track Betting screen. “Come on you no good cheating motherfucking jockeys. Fuck you, Cordero!”

He grabs my coat at the shoulder and pulls me off the slotted wooden bench. “Come on, Jenny. These no good cocksuckers took our last twenty dollars. Looks like we’re not going to eat again today.”

I stick the tiny orange pencil in my pocket while the odds slip falls on the diamond-patterned carpet. You can draw with this later.

As we make our way outside, the snow crunches beneath my ballerina slippers. “Jesus, Jenny. You’re lucky your toes don’t freeze off in those shoes. Daddy really wishes you would wear some boots and socks.”

I’m never taking these off. You promised I could dance, Daddy. But then I only had two lessons.

“I know you liked that dance class, Jenny. If you’ll remember your Father is the one who wanted you to go. But I couldn’t manage as a single father. If you’re mad at anyone, it should be your mother. I am angry at the bitch too. For what she’s done to us.”

I touch the tip of my nose. Numb.

Dad stops and looks up at the sky. “For once Lord, could you just give me and my daughter a break.”

I wonder if we could ride an elevator to the clouds—the really puffy ones—so we could talk to God. And see his face.

I envision the doors opening. Jesus stands there to greet us. His red sash drags in sea of marshmallow-y foam.

Dad tugs at my coat sleeve again—reality. I scurry a few paces to catch up. My feet glide on a patch of ice.

When we reach the bridge, I see the Finch and Pruyn paper mill sign. Finally! We’re getting close to the apartment.

There’s just enough room for me to march beside dad on the walkway. He insists I walk to the inside. The cars splash slushy goop on Dad. He turns back to swear at one driver, and then he stops.

Dad leaves me standing there as he backtracks. Where is he going? Is he giving up?

Walking over the bridge reminds me of the story Dad told me about the policeman who gave us a ride for a hundred miles of the trip back to New York from New Hampshire. Daddy keeps his card in his wallet—he said forever—in case he ever gets in trouble—in case anyone ever tries to take me away again.

Dad rushes back toward me with his right hand raised in the air. “Jenny. Motherfucker. A twenty-dollar bill—buried in the snow back there! Now you’ll always be my witness—that your Father is a psychic. You heard me ask God for this twenty dollars.”

You talked to the cloud, Dad. But you never asked for money.

He grins ear to ear. Come on. We’re getting a turkey club for lunch.

At the diner, Dad gives explicit instructions to the waiter. “Yes, I’d like my meat sliced very thin. Lettuce and tomato, finely chopped. Not too much mayo. I don’t like it soggy. My daughter will have the same thing.”

Turkey clubs? Why can’t Dad find money in the snow every day? Then we could eat. Even if God didn’t give it to him.

I woof my club down—toasted crumbs scatter.

Dad leaves a good tip. “Best turkey club your Father ate in years. Almost as good as my own!”

After lunch we stop in the Hallmark store. “Well, your old man has ten dollars left. Burning a hole in my pocket. Let’s buy you a gift.” He nudges me. “Go on. Pick out anything.”

I look at a glass shelf covered in porcelain and ceramic figurines. The porcelain girl—hands gently clasped in prayer—reminds me of myself.

I glance up at Dad.

“Oh you like that one? She’s beautiful. Looks like you. You can consider this a gift from Daddy to you. Just in time for your first communion next week.”

While we walk up to the register, I run my fingers along the smooth ripples of her white dress. I stroke her hair. I’ll keep you forever, communion angel.