1987: The Curse

At the counter, I take a piece of paper and fold the bottom half into the middle. I bend the two top sides inward to meet the lower flap, sliding my thumb across the triangular edge. The last downward fold forms my paper envelope.

I inspect my work to make sure the edges line up. Envelopes are for grown ups. Because they have envelopes at the post office. And the post office is special because people have P.O. boxes there.

I make up a P.O Box address for the front of my envelope. While I draw on the scalloped edges of my stamp, 25 cents, I hear Dad yelling behind me. “Christ! Don’t fall out you son of bitch!”

A quick swivel of my stool reveals Dad gripping his giant two-handled saucepan while flipping it upside down. I hold my breath to see where the cake will land. Last time it was on the floor. And Sister Nancy ran in to see why Dad was screaming.

“Fuck! Ah! Good, you little bastard. Ol’ Tommy is smarter than you. You can’t beat a Greek.”

The chocolate cake lands safely on the silver tray. Steam roars out—fogging Dad’s glasses. The cake stands tall. Like the hat—the striped one from Cat in the Hat.

Dad walks around the butcher-block island to examine his masterpiece. “Look at this dark chocolate cake, Jenny Leigh.” It’s Daddy’s best one yet. Pillsbury dark chocolate cake mix. It’s the only one to use—as good as your Father could make it homemade. Just wait ‘til the nuns see this! They never had a cake like this for a picnic.”

Freshly baked cake smell drifts in my direction. My stomach growls. I hold my belly and turn back to my stamp artwork to distract myself. Behind me, Dad changes the paddle on the mixer so he can make chocolate frosting.

How come he can’t make you a cake? How come there’s always frosting on cakes? It tastes too sweet. He should let me have a piece before he ruins it.

I carefully place my envelope in my backpack. Don’t wrinkle, perfect little envelope.

At the counter, I stare at Dad hoping he will read my mind.

“Oh you came to watch Daddy? That’s good. I like it when you watch me. That way you learn and someday you will be a first class chef—just like your old man.”

My eyes meet his and then I glance back at the cake.

“Smells good doesn’t it?” Nod. Yes!

“Wait ‘til Daddy gets that dark chocolate drizzled over the top!” I shake my head. No!

“What you don’t like Daddy’s frosting? I know you do. You must. It’s the best in the world.”

“No Daddy. I don’t like it. I hate it. I like the cake plain.”

“Oh. Well, so what you’re telling me is that you want a piece right now?”

My stomach growls again. “Yes, please!”

“Well, there’s no way. No way, I can just cut a piece for you before everyone else eats it later? The cake is too thick. I could never fill in the hole.”

“Please, Dad? I’m so hungry.”

“No, honey. I’m sorry. But you have to learn patience.”

No it’s not fair. You’re always patient. And squeeze Daddy’s feet and back for him. No one ever does anything nice for you.

I glare at him. “I hate you, Dad. I hate you! And I wish you would die.”

“Oh my Christ. Did you just put a curse on your Father?”

What’s a curse?

“You did! You little shit. I know that look. My mother was a witch, you know, and she was cursed by a witch.”

Dad’s speech makes me forget about the cake.

“Fine. Will you remove the curse if Daddy cuts you a sliver?”

I don’t know if I should nod. But I do, so Dad will give me what I want.

“Fine, but it has to be just a sliver. My God, I’ll have to slave over it to fill that in.”

The thickness of the cake consumes the paper plate even though white bits peak through the thinnest parts.

I inhale deeply. Ahhh. A lovely chocolate cake, just for you.

Dad loads the nuns’ faux-wood station wagon. Cake goes in next to last. Followed by me, Sisters’ Nancy, Joan, Patricia, Mary and Dad.

No one will ever know about the missing piece of cake.

Dad soaks up rave compliments, especially for his famous potato salad and of course the chocolate cake.

On the way home, the motion of the car makes me drift into a deep sleep. What? What’s going on?

When I open my eyes, we are on the side of the road. I hear Dad saying, “The tire’s completely flat. Of course—my bad luck!”

Sister Nancy tells Dad there’s no such thing as bad luck. She says, “God knows what’s best for us all Chef, Tom.”

“Ack. No disrespect, Sister. But you don’t know my family. My daughter did this. Jenny put a curse on me.”

No I didn’t. I swear Daddy. I don’t even know what a curse is. You made that up, Daddy.

As Dad continues despite Sister Nancy’s protests, I hunker down in the seat. He’s going to be very angry with you later. When they’re all gone. No one will be able to protect you.

“Listen. Jenny said she was cursing me if I didn’t give her a sliver of that chocolate cake I made. She said I was going to die. I know of her powers more than she does, so I cut her the cake, even though it was the wrong thing to do as a parent. But she wouldn’t quit. Because the piece was too small for her, she said I would get a flat tire for my punishment instead of dying.”

No. No! Those are lies. I didn’t say that! I never said anything about a tire. I just wanted a piece of cake. I swear. I’m not a witch. I don’t have powers.

Sister Joan reaches for my hand and gives it a squeeze while Sister Nancy frowns through the rear window.

After Dad changes puts the spare tire on—no one says a word as Dad drives back to the convent. Except for me. I say a prayer. Dear God, I’m not a bad girl. I don’t know what a curse is, but I probably shouldn’t have told Dad I wanted him to die. Please don’t let him hurt me.

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1993: Chips in Our Heads

I know what to expect when I hop in the car after school.

Dad turns toward me before pulling away from the curb. He chuckles, “It’s the third of the month! You know what that means. We’re going to the mall to spend every last dime this crummy government gives us!”

An impish grin splashes across my face despite my guilt. Shouldn’t the money go toward paying bills or buying food? Or is Dad right when he says they don’t give us enough to live on, so it doesn’t matter anyways?

“Goddamn eight hundred dollars! You can’t buy much with that. Maybe a few new outfits?”

I blush at Dad’s suggestion. Mostly because I know he won’t buy anything for himself. Are you selfish? Are you making him do this somehow?

Dad finds his usual handicapped parking space at the mall. As we make our way down the wide aisle, I hook my right arm through Dad’s left arm per protocol. “Jesus, Jenny. Stop growing like a weed. Daddy just realized you’re taller than me.”

After asking Dad to chop my long hair into a shoulder-length bob last week, I feel all grown up. “Even though you made Daddy cry—cutting all your gorgeous hair off—I have to admit it looks nice on you. You could pass for sixteen years old now. And I must say I did a fantastic job cutting it!”

I roll my eyes a little. Dad the sides are uneven, and somebody made fun of me for it at school. But I still like it.”

Two teenage boys wearing cargo pants and dingy t-shirts make their way toward us. They point at Dad and me while they snicker. “Wow. That’s a hot young girlfriend you got there, Buddy!” Dad turns on his heel, jerking me around with him. “What did you say to me? This is my daughter, assholes. Haven’t you ever heard of old fashioned respect?”

To avoid the public humiliation, I duck into Lerner New York. The saleswoman asks, “What’s going on out there?”

“Well these guys thought that I was my Dad’s girlfriend, I guess.”

She rolls her eyes. “I am sorry, Hun. That must be a little embarrassing.”

“Yeah.” I finger all the clothes hanging on the racks. I base my selections on the softest garments to touch. And whether or not they are dressy. Dad prefers ladies to wear dresses and skirts.

When Dad locates me, I have four hangers draped over my arms. “Good. They look good. Go try them on. And don’t worry, Daddy told those assholes off. What kind of a world are we living in where a Father can’t hold his daughters arm?”

Ugh Dad. I’m sure it’s just because no one else does it! It’s 1993 not 1903!

Dad instructs me to buy them all as I twirl out of the dressing room. But I decide on 2 items. A maxi flowered skirt. And the matching top.

As we head down the mall aisle, I point to a store we’ve never been in before. GAP.

I glance back at Dad, pleading. “Well let’s go in, then!”

The clothes make my heart skip a beat. They are all neutral shades: denim, khaki, and black. I grab a sandy-hued, knitted maxi tank dress off the rack, and hold it up to my body. This is the best dress in the world. Almost better than the sailor dress from two years ago.

I search for the price tag. $69.99. A flip of the tag reveals an orange sticker marked, $9.99.

Ten bucks! My hands shake as I show Dad the deal. “It’s gorgeous. Now go try it on so we can get the hell out of here.”

Before I try it on, I admire the dress on the hanger and inspect it carefully. I saunter out of the dressing room on my tip-toes. “Very nice. Sometimes your Father wishes your Mother wasn’t such a jerk so she could watch you growing into such a nice young lady. You sure know how to pick out clothes, my baby girl!”

While we stand at the register, Dad makes conversation with the cashier. “Nice store. This is the first time my daughter and I have been in.”

She smiles and nods at me. I blush and turn away.

“That’ll be $10.06 with the tax, Sir.”

“Goddamn government with their tax. You know what kills me—it’s the pennies. Why do we even need pennies? Couldn’t it just be $10.05 or $10.10? It would all work out the same in the end.”

Unsure of a response, the cashier stretches out her hand.

Dad continues, “It doesn’t matter anyways because money is obsolete. Do you know what I mean when I say that?”

She shakes her head no.

“Well—computers! Just look at them. They took over the world. When I was a kid, there were no computers. But one day—mark my words—the government is going to put chips in our heads. Little computer chips.”

The cashier’s eyes grow wide and she steps back with discomfort.

“Well think about it. There won’t be any more theft. You won’t have money and they will know what money we all have and our whereabouts at all times.”

After getting no response, Dad points to me. “Just ask my daughter. I’m a psychic. I know these things. We’ve never made a sci-fi movie that won’t come true in your lifetime. Dick Tracey’s watch—I’ll bet they have one in ten years.”

Come on Dad. Let’s go. Before someone calls the police.

Dad winks at the cashier because he knows she doesn’t understand but he feels better for telling her anyway.

When we step into the mall parking lot, I’m still beaming thinking about my new GAP dress.

But Dad yanks my arm. “Next time Daddy is telling someone about my predictions, you speak up and defend your Father. I do everything for you—you selfish Bitch. The least you can do is back Daddy up once in a while.”

I don’t care what you do to me. I’m never going to back up your stupid predictions. Not ever.

2003: Another Engagement Ring

The familiarity of the Northway comforts me.

But my stomach churns, too. Nostalgic fool! Who are you kidding? You’re filled with dread at the monthly visit. A weekend of walking on eggshells. Like you never left.

We lurch into Dad’s driveway. Confronted once again by—“GABAZAR”—Dad’s vanity license plate. You’ve officially arrived in hell. Just tell him, quickly.

With caution, Dad raises the middle-ish blind slat. His eyes beam though his mouth remains concealed. Look at him. He can’t wait to see you! How in God’s name did you end up being the last one? His final victim?

He opens the door before we’ve finished climbing the three cement steps. I shove my hands in my coat pocket—feigning aversion to the late November air.

Bill allows me to step inside Dad’s apartment first. God I can’t believe this man will endure this with me—for me.

“Good. Daddy’s so glad you’re here. Bill too. Hi Bill. How was the drive? Did you find they started driving like shit as soon as you got off the Northway? These fucking drivers around here don’t know their head from their asshole, I swear.”

Jesus. Just shut up and let me show you something.

“Anyways, your timing is perfect. I don’t know how you do that but Daddy was just about to make the gravy. I want to show Bill how I do it. And you both have to try one of my rolls—new recipe your Father just came up with two weeks ago. I’ve been perfecting it because I’m sick of the shit bread they sell, nowadays.”

“Umm Dad, listen, I umm…” His eyes, impatient, scan my face. Stop stuttering. You used to have some guts. You still do. So what if you didn’t ask permission first. You would never do that.

I jerk my left hand from my pocket and shove it up toward Dad’s face. He takes a moment to adjust his vision. I scrunch my face and squint hard so I don’t have to see his hand coming at me when he strikes. “Holy shit! Jenny Leigh!”

I open my eyes. Was that happiness?

Dad takes my hand to examine the diamond more diligently. “Platinum? What is it a couple carats?”

I nod.

“Wow that must have cost at least ten grand.” I glare at him. Does the narcissism ever relent?

He moves suddenly toward Bill. I pivot on my heel, ready to strike, if necessary. But instead, Dad wraps his arms around my fiancé. Did he just hug your future husband?

I jiggle my head to make sure I’m not hallucinating. By now, Dad’s back in the kitchen demanding our full attention.

The combination of Dad’s relentless chatter and the adrenaline drain produce a constant dull migraine. Damn these headaches! Will you ever be rid of them?

With my right index finger, I twist my engagement ring back and forth. This is what Mom deserved. The love. True love.

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.

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.