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.

1994: Another Act of God

For Easter break, Dad allows me spend the night at my friend Lauren’s house. Lauren’s parents buy all the brand-name snacks like Doritos and Fruit Roll Ups. And they don’t nag us while we squeal over Dirty Dancing.

Dad’s hyper after I return home the next day. You’ve been away for more than an hour—eye roll—so you know this is how he’s going to behave.

“Jenny, you’re not going to believe what Daddy found this morning while you were at Lauren’s!”

I never ask what. I just wait for his words to terrorize the air.

He strides over to the front door and points to the spiny green mat outside. This was lying there, perfectly, outside our door.”

In the palm of his hand he holds a small tree branch. Tree branches fall all the time, right?

“Do you see it Jenny?”

I narrow my eyes in confusion. Nope.

“God left this for your Father! It’s a branch shaped exactly like a cross. Right outside our door. Laying there. Just like this! Can you imagine the odds of a tree branch blowing off in the shape of a perfect cross and landing dead center on our door mat!”

No but I can imagine what the authorities would say if they knew I lived here with you. Please let this be one of his 24-hour notions.

 “This time your Father’s not giving up. Seven years ago when you were only a little girl, God came to me in a dream and told me his name. But I forgot it when I woke up. Well, I didn’t tell you but last week God came to your father again. But this time he kept me awake all night so I couldn’t forget. God said to me ‘Thomas, you must tell the people they can have whatever they want and do whatever they want. And my real name is Gabazar.’ He kept your Father awake all night repeating his name, Gabazar. And his message to the people.”

You know God doesn’t do things like that. Not that you have conversations with him. There was that dream about Jesus when you were 8 years old. But you didn’t go around telling everyone that Jesus gave you sparkly pastel fairy dust.

Hurry think of something to escape! 

“Dad I have to finish my math assignment for tomorrow. I’ll be in my room if you need me.”  At least he can’t check over math homework.

Despite my breath of relief for the afternoon, I am wrong.

The branch shaped like a cross doesn’t turn out to be one his 24-hour notions.

“Jenny, Daddy’s worried about just leaving this cross lying around when we leave the house. I mean what if this place burned down. I need a way to protect it and display it. I want to have a giant wooden cross carved, and then I’ll whittle out a special opening for this one to fit in.”

Dad traces the curves of the branch with his index finger as if he’s mentally measuring. Hatching his plan.

“That way, when I walk through the streets bringing God’s message to the people, I can carry this.”

You can divorce your parents, right? He can’t be serious. This is far even for him.

“You know they’re probably going to kill your Father, right?”

Who, the voices in your head?

“They always kill people who tell the truth. Your Father will die a martyr. I can’t help it. God chose me. He chose Moses once and now he chose your Father. We are the first two of God’s new chosen people, the Gabazarians.” Refusing to look at him, I lower my gaze, counting bits of carpet pile—praying that the real God will send my real Father to rescue me.

Convinced of his calling, Dad hand-writes what he calls an official church document for the Gabazarians. He brings the document to the notary, and hangs it with a single blue tack in our kitchen near the cordless phone.

“Jenny. I want you to record a new message on the answering for Daddy because you have a much better voice. Here you go. I wrote it all out for you exactly as I want you to say it.”

I reluctantly accept the loose-leaf sheet he hands me. I shake as I read the words, “Hello, you’ve reached the home of the Gabazarians, God’s new chosen people. We’re not home at the moment. So please leave a message, and we will get back to you shortly.”

Please leave a message with the number of someone who will save me. This man can’t be your Father. He just can’t.

I don’t know how I utter these words with such clarity. But I do. Because I have to.

1995: Ants in the Pants

Each $100 car Dad procures presents us with a particular dilemma. Last year, Mrs. Smith’s car lost reverse. The flowered contact paper that Dad hastily applied to coverer over rusty body holes brushed the lawn each day as we drove over the grassy hump—the barrier between stone parking lot and road.

Now the retired taxi.

Rumors about Dad punching the crazy cabbie wane just as he discovers that the back brake lines leak.

“Goddamnit, Jenny. It’s always something for you and your Father.” He looks up at the pop-corned apartment ceiling as though he can see straight to heaven. Shaking his fists, he proclaims, “God, Lord Gabazar. I’m going to do your work. I’m gonna to get your message to the people, but could you cut my daughter and me a break for Christ-sake?” Jesus. Not Gabazar again. Can’t we just go back to being good Catholics? I swear I won’t complain about Sunday Mass at 7:15am anymore.

“Well, the hell with this, Jenny. You and Daddy will have to fix it ourselves. Like always.”

Let’s get this over with. Let’s pray the jack doesn’t fail this time. Pumping that up last year while he screamed, “get this motherfucking car off my stomach” scared you for life.

Dad grabs his toolkit and pries the triangular orange jack from the trunk. “Now, Jenny, you remember how to pump this up, right? In case this fucker falls on your poor Father, like last year?” Fighting back howling laughter, I nod with a slight snicker.

While Dad inches his way under the car, he yells, “Motherfucker! Who put this goddamn nut on here? A thousand-pound gorilla? Jenny! Hand me the half inch would ya?”

I scan the toolbox. Where is it? Nine-sixteenths…no…hurry up idiot, he’ll be growing impatient.

“Motherfucker!!!” I’m hurrying. Give me a second.

“I-m—uh—I’ve almost found it…”

Dad keeps yelling while scurrying out from under the car.

Jesus. He’s getting crazier by the day. Now he’s gonna kill you for not finding the socket in under thirty seconds.

I brace myself for a backhand across the bridge of my nose. Instead, Dad scampers around the parking lot while shaking his pant legs. “Dad?” I call out softly. Oh well, let it go. At least he’s not after you.

When he loops back toward me, I hold the half-inch cylinder up. Disinterested, He yells, “Didn’t you see what just happened to your Father?” I narrow my eyes in confusion. “Fire ants! Thousands of them all over this shitty fucking driveway ate me alive! I have to go in and change my pants. Watch the car and all this shit!” I look down to see the tiny red villains marching over the jagged stones. Jumping back in surprise, my cheeks begin to quiver. You’re going to lose it. He’ll kill you if you burst out laughing. Suck it in. It’s not that funny. They ate him alive. Yes, it’s fucking hilarious.

After Dad disappears for a moment I squat behind the mailbox and double over. He returns just as I compose myself, again. “Sorry, Dad.”

“Yeah, yeah, you probably loved seeing your old man getting eaten alive. After I move this car, just hand me the tools I need.”

I shoot him my aye-aye-captain look while he jams a screw in the left back brake line—followed by the right one. “Well that oughtta hold us. Now we just have to find some sucker to let us pass inspection. And why should anyone care. You don’t really need back brakes, anyways!”

1998: Open Wounds

I run through the familiar woods, roots passing beneath my feet, imaginary streamers rippling in the breeze alongside. Now the stinging sensation barely present on my bottom lip. You’re free when you’re here. Safe.

Free from his tyranny. The bully’s reign will soon be over. But you gotta play it cool. Just one last year. You have to graduate. And run. Don’t ever let him stop you from running.

 As I emerge from the towering pines to the expanse of gravel track, someone yells, “Jenny. Jenny Penny!”

Mom?

My feet move with their own rhythm despite my protest. I drop my head toward my knees as the runner’s nausea washes over me. Heaving, I hear Mom’s voice again over my shoulder.

“Jenny, man you can run fast. No wonder you’re the best one on the team. You know I could run like that when I was your age. You got that from me.”

Twirling around, I face her. I expect her expression to be happy, but instead her face contorts to a look of horror.

“Jen? Hun what happened to your face?” She takes a step back to examine me further.

The throbbing returns to my lower lip. Damnit. Get your lying face on. No don’t. just tell her the truth and run away with her.

I run my index finger over the dry edges of the wound. “Oh this? It’s nothing, Mom. What happened is that—is that—I fell.”

I avert my gaze from her penetrating eyes. How many more times are you going to have to lie for him?

As I wait for Mom to hug me, she waves her arms in the air. “Bullshit! You think you can lie to me like all these other fools? I know that bastard Tommy did this to you!”

I shake my head no, but her words run their course. “No, Jenny. Don’t even try to lie for him. I’m your Mother. You don’t think I don’t know?”

If your face weren’t red hot from adrenaline, she would see your shame.

As she continues, oblivious, I scan the exposed track for team members, for coach. Please don’t let anyone hear this. You can calm her down.

“This is a mother’s worst fear. He’s doing this to punish me, that bastard. He’s beating you the way he beat me. You know he kicked me in the stomach the day I came home after giving birth to you? He wouldn’t let me feed you. He wouldn’t let me even hold you. Everything I did was wrong!”

An imprint of my Father’s black shoe lodged in Mom’s abdomen sticks in my mind. He’ll pay for it all one day, but for now you have to stop her.

My eyes boar into my mother. I plead, “Mom, please, please don’t say anything to him. You know what he’ll do to me. He’ll kill me.”

“I knew it! So you’re admitting what I said is true?”

“Yes, because you knew. But I’m begging you, if you care about me, leave this alone. I’m almost out. One more year, Mom!”

“I don’t know, Jenny. I don’t know if I can keep letting him get away with this shit!”

Don’t you get it? You were there once! Don’t you care about what will happen to me? It’s not like you’ll be there to save me. It’s not like you ever have been.

“Mom, please. I need you to promise me.” I reach across my cheek to wipe a preemptive tear.

“Okay, Jenny. But just this once.”

“Thank you, Mom. I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

Coach drops the team off in the school parking lot. I run toward Dad’s car. Shit we’re late again.

I hop in swiftly. Dad smiles and waves at Coach, but when we speed off he launches into an attack.

“Can you just answer your Father one fucking question? What do you people do that makes you so late? Every fucking day you’re a half hour to an hour late. And I’m the poor bastard, the Father, who has to wait for this bullshit! Now do you think that’s fair?”

Yeah I think it’s fair! Because everyone else my age has their driver’s license and a car so their mommy and daddy don’t have to wait for them!

“Well do you, Jenny? You better fucking answer me when I talk to you, or I’ll smash you again!”

I stammer, “No, Dad. It was just some people were slower getting out of the woods today. And I’m not really sure what happened. I’m sorry.”

“Sorry is no fucking good. I’m done with this shit and you’re done running for your punishment!”

I grip my jaw to match my balled fists. You’ll have to kill me first. I’ve given my life to you. Not this. This one thing. It’s mine.

“Speaking of bullshit, and I ought to kill you for this…your Mother called me just before I left. Went on some screaming rant about how I hit you! Fuck that whore. I’ll do whatever I want with my own daughter.”

No, actually. Fuck you, and fuck her, too. She betrayed you? She really did? Why?

His grip on the wheel tightens. “Didn’t I motherfucking tell you what to tell everybody? That you fell. Or are you too stupid to follow that one simple instruction?”

“No Dad. I swear. I told everyone. They all believed me. But then…” Do you really want to take his side? No! But she gave you no choice. Survival. Not much longer now.

“But fucking, what?”

“Ummm, well she just showed up at the track. Causing trouble. She didn’t believe me. She was causing a scene. I kept telling her what really happened. She’s the one who…”

“Your mother is a fucking asshole. Now I hope you see why your Father is raising you. Why I had to take you from her. She’s a horrible woman.”

I lick my wound, literally, to soften the chapped parts, and give him a military nod. You’re a wimp. But wimps get to live. Just keep running. That’s where you’re free.

1986: Lab Rats

Knock. Knock. Knock…on the steel motel door. Mom?

Dad springs from his nap and squints through the glass door hole. When will I be tall enough to see through there?

He cautiously opens it after a moment of consideration. A man and a woman dressed in white coats confirm Dad’s identity.

Sir, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Dr. Vasquez and this is my colleague, Dr. Mirabelle from Duke University. We have been studying genetic causes of the disease, Neurofibromatosis. Our studies led us to your family. Normally the disease skips several generations but we found your family to be an anomaly in that sense.”

Dad shakes his head. “Oh good, Doctor. I’m glad you people found us. Duke University, you said? That’s a good college. I’ll gladly help if it means getting these things cut off me one day.”

They’re here to cut Dad’s body up?

When Dad waves his digits in my direction, I flinch. “This is my daughter, Jenny. She doesn’t have the bumps. Thank God.”

Dr. Mirabelle lays a leather case on the edge of the bed. This causes the bumpy orange and brown coverlet to drag on the carpet. “Thank you for the information. What we would like to do, with your permission is perform a preliminary test on you today. Perhaps we could perform the same test on your daughter as well?”

No! I don’t have bumps! Dad just told you that. No cutting, please.

“Okay, doctor. Where do we have to go for the test?”

“It’s a simple test which involves us inserting a few eye drops to determine if you carry the disease within your genetic structure. We would be doing the same test on your daughter, right here.”

“Let’s do it. Hey, I have a question for you? How long did it take you to become a doctor?”

Dr. Mirabelle ignores Dad while proceeding to snap open the leather case while Dr. Vasquez examines him quizzically.

Dad clarifies. “I know it must be at least 12 years right?” He points at me, again. “Because I told my daughter, Jenny, here that she has to become a doctor one day and cut these things off of me.”

I imagine blood squirting from bumps covering Dad’s body. No. I’ll never become a doctor. It’s too scary.

With a smile, but no answer, Dr. Mirabelle approaches Dad with a small plastic bottle in her right hand. Dad tilts his head back. Drip. Drop. Both doctors examine his eyes, holding the top and bottom lid open with their thumb and first finger.

They don’t talk while they inspect him. They just nod and make small gestures.

I consider bolting out the steel door. Run before they get you.

But I don’t know where I’d go if I run. I imagine an angry family of cockroaches waiting for me in the dank hallway to avenge the one Dad killed yesterday. A shiver runs down my spine. I back against the wall between the kitchen and the bed, waiting my turn.

Dr. Mirabelle extends my eyelid. She assures me, just a single drop and a look. Ouch. It burns. It burns. Once they are finished, I stay pressed up against the wall like a dried out piece of gum stuck to the bottom of a shoe.

They ask Dad a few more questions, and shake his hand. “Thank you for participating in our research. It will help us immensely in finding the genetic basis for this disease. Also, you should be aware that you don’t have the markers, what we refer to as lisch nodules, for Neurofibromatosis in your irises. Neither does your daughter. Our finding should confirm that none of your children have this disease.”

Dad nods and smiles generously at their response. “See, Jenny, Daddy knew I wasn’t supposed to get these fucking things on my body. It’s part of the curse that no good gypsy woman put on my goddamn mother for being cheap. She cursed our whole family. Even you. That’s why your Father had to have you. God wanted that curse broken, and you’re the only child who can do it.”

I imagine my grandmother and the gypsy woman. What’s a curse? Is that why Daddy rode that dragon? How can I break the curse?

1995: Forbidden Words

I scan the cupboards for something to eat. Nearly empty. Except for a Hostess box. I rip open a ring ding and shove the whole thing in my mouth. Some of the white filling oozes out the corners. I wipe my cheek with my index finger. Gross. Also, yum!

Dad approaches me as I gulp the last bit. He smiles. “Oh good. You found the last cake. Daddy saved that for you. I ate the other one earlier. Might be another bad Christmas. We could go to my sister’s house, but fuck that! You know I’d rather stay here and starve. And Daddy loves you for staying here and starving with me.”

My stomach growls in the middle of Dad’s tirade.

“Anyways, they’ll probably call and invite us again, but ever since the time we were homeless, and my own family turned us away, so we had to sleep in our car—our fucking car—in the dead of winter, your Father never really wanted to be around those people. That and they make the goddamn turkey so dry.” At least they make a turkey.

I nod, while gazing across the room at the crooked Gabazarian memo hung by the phone. He changed the tack from blue to green. What the fuck is he up to?

“Hey, Jenny. Let’s you and Poppa go rent a movie—like we always do on the first day of your vacation. No cable but we got a VCR.”

I nod. “Okay, Dad.”

“I guess that great hack me up movie—Die Hard with a Vengeance—just came out!”

“Dad, I bet it’s already rented out. Everyone will want to see that one.”

Dad’s hands move in a blur towards my abdomen. Bam. Pow. Ouch! He continues, pushing me into the laundry closet. I shield my face while he jabs my ribs. Even through my coat, his blows are lethal.

“You know what this beating is for? For fucking saying ‘I can’t!’” For doing wha—? Oww…I never said can’t…

“Daddy’s teaching you a valuable lesson here. It’s too bad at your age, I still have to do this, but maybe you’re stubborn like your cunt of a mother.” I’ll kill you one day. If I can ever figure out how.

“What you should have done was to think positive. Maybe they don’t have the movie, but you’re never gonna get anywhere in life with that shitty attitude.” Oh, fuck. You should have known better. Always keep your mouth shut. Say less. Nod more. This is going to hurt later if he lets you live.

When Dad feels satisfied, he retreats from my slumped body. “Come on. Get up. And I better not see any tears, either. Fucking—big—baby is what you are.”

What I’m trying to do is hide my glare, you bastard. You’ll pay for this one day.

On the ride to the video store, winter wind travels through the rusted floorboards, numbing my toes. Fucking Mary Jane shoes.

When we arrive at Hollywood Video, one copy of Die Hard rests against shelf. Of course. He had to get his way. At least this will distract him for the night.

On the way out, Dad grabs two free bags of popcorn. As we drive up Glen Street, I flinch, inching closer to the door. “Lock your door, Jenny, before you fall out.” I glance at him. I wouldn’t get that lucky.

“Daddy’s not gonna hit you again. I made my point. So long as I know you’ll never say that you can’t do something, ever again.”

I nod, while pressing my right shoulder hard against the window.

1993: Santa’s Sleigh

Dad flops an issue of Better Housekeeping on the table. “Daddy stole that from the doctor’s office a couple weeks ago.” I raise my eyebrows, disapprovingly.

He responds, in a way, to my silent protest. “Listen, I only took it because I want to bake a recipe they have in here. Besides they don’t need this anyways. They have fifty magazines laying around that office.”

He fans the pages successively, back to front, until he finds our new quest. He spreads the magazine in front of his chest and points to a gingerbread Santa Claus, complete with eight reindeer, Rudolph, and a sleigh.

I try not to roll my eyes, but it’s too late.

“Daddy’s serious about this. We’re gonna make this today. You know your father loves a challenge…but we’re not gonna use their gingerbread recipe.” Of course not. So why did you need the book?”

“Go get Daddy my father’s book. You know…the grey one.”

Now I know he’s serious. Grandpa’s grey cookbook only comes out when he means business. As I feel for Dad’s box in the cavernous credenza, I wonder about my imaginary grandfather. Dad always says that he was a cheap Greek who only gave Grandma a dollar a week to feed sixteen kids—stern, a chef, a gambler, and dead from smoking unfiltered cigarettes before I was born.

I hand over the tattered book with care. I watch as one of the hand-stitched threads breaks free from the cover—while Dad makes his way through—the individual pages sliding in opposite directions. “Good. This book is eighty years old, you know? My father was lucky he didn’t come over on the Titanic because he came around that same time. Early 1900s.”

Dad shakes his head. “Of course. You might know it’s Daddy’s bad luck. I always find the recipe I want, last.” I scan the lined ledger; marked with a dark blue numeral 55 and the title, Ginger Bread, the recipe contains few ingredients. Let’s hope this is simpler than the baklava.

“So you’re probably wondering why I needed the book if I wasn’t going to use their recipe, right?” I don’t dare give him the satisfaction of a nod.

“Daddy just needed to see how they assembled the sleigh and what they used to make the road and the reins. I’ve been thinking, and I have a great idea for all of it. Come on. Get your coat. We’re going to the mall.”

What’s at the mall for baking?

When we arrive, Dad makes a beeline for the coziest confection shop in town, The Candy Kitchen.

While we wait our turn, Dad scans the cases. “Okay, Jenny, this is what I want. Three pounds of that rocky road candy, and then I’ll get some of that shoestring licorice for the reigns…”

I look at the prices, confused. $10.95/pound? Did he win a horse? The smell of sugar and chocolate wafting into my nostrils makes my mouth water. Well at least we can eat this crazy gingerbread Santa! Merry Christmas!

He nudges my shoulder. “Daddy hasn’t told you the best part yet. We’re not going to eat this, naturally…” I feel my heart sink. Then, I’m out. We better not be giving it away.

“We’re going to mount the whole thing to the coffee table for show.” Someone call a doctor. My father has officially gone off the deep end; he’s not going to eat candy—his favorite food in the world.

“But that doesn’t mean we can’t get a couple chocolate covered marshmallows while we’re here—for ourselves.” I instantly forgive him a little.

After the clerk bags all of Dad’s goodies, she informs him of the $54.07 bill.

What in the fuck? That’s seriously a month’s worth of food!

Dad pull out his rubber-banded money wad and forks over the dough.

At least you’re getting two marshmallows out of the deal. Be thankful.

After getting out all of the ingredients, flour, baking soda, ginger, molasses, butter…and four more hours of labor, Dad is ready to assemble the whole thing on the coffee table.

He approaches the job as if he’s been called in for open-heart surgery. “Goddamn mother fucker. Rudolph’s leg snapped. Quick, Jenny, hand me the confectioner’s glaze. Dad uses the white substance to mend Rudolph and adds his red button nose.” Pheww, that was a close call.

I roll my eyes again, and smile too. Santa’s sleigh and reindeer look even better than they did in Better Housekeeping.

After two weeks pass, school dismisses early for Christmas break.

I see crack marks where the gingerbread has dried out. Gross. What are we going to do with this thing after Christmas?

Dad doesn’t seem to notice. “Come on. Dad got us some cheap candy at the dollar store. Let’s watch some Christmas movies or some shit.” For real? Is this like a trick, and we’re going to end up at OTB? Why is he so happy? It’s Christmas. He hates Christmas.

After Dad powers on the T.V., I wait for him to adjust the rabbit ears. But the picture broadcasts completely clear. Where am I? I pinch my arm. Oww. Not dreaming then?

“Haha. Daddy tricked you for Christmas! The cable company had a special for new customers signing up. No money down. Free HBO. We probably won’t pay the bill and they’ll shut us down in a couple months, but who cares!”

My mouth drops open as Dad changes the channel to reveal Dudley Moore dressed as Patch, the elf. The Santa Claus. Yes! While we watch John Lithgow float into space, the chyron reveals that Home Alone is next! Woohoo!

Dad catches me eyeing the gingerbread sleigh while Kevin sleds down his stairway. One day, you’re going to have a house just like that. “Hey, Jenny. You can eat that if you want to. We had it up long enough.”

I sniff Santa’s reindeer, realizing that they don’t smell like gingerbread anymore, and the once cherry red reigns have turned a cotton-y pink. Gross. Aw, screw it! Probably the best meal you’ve ever had on Christmas. Go for it.

1987: Retirement Home

The bus stop drops us off a short walk from the retirement home.

While Dad surveys the parking lot, December’s wind punctures through my pink ballerina flats. I wriggle my Popsicle toes, hoping they won’t snap off. Ouch. Why can’t we just go inside? I turn toward the door and consider making a run for it, but I know Dad will backhand me.

He eyes my shivering legs. “Jenny. Poppa knows it’s cold out here. But I wanted to take a look around this parking lot. These old ladies have all these beautiful cars.” He stops to peer in the driver’s side window of a light blue sedan. Buick. “And your Father bets ninety percent of these old hags don’t drive them anymore. Why couldn’t I be lucky enough to find me a rich old wife?”

I picture my new mother—a hunched woman with curly silvery hair. I shake my head left to right—right to left. I already have a mom. Except that she lives really far away. And Dad says that she might try to kidnap me someday.

The elevator ride up to the fifth floor partially thaws my limbs. In the long hallway, I notice a woman wheeling a metal cart filled with round silver discs. Flying saucers? Why do old people need those?

After the woman passes, Dad leans over and whispers in my ear, “Meals on Wheels. That’s a good service because a lot of these people can’t cook for themselves, but your Father is sure the food is horrible.” Dad knows because he’s a chef.

Dad uses his secret knock—Dun da dun dun…Dun dun—when we reach 5B.

“Rose. Hello! Just Tom and my daughter, Jenny, again. Madeline’s friends.”

Rose ushers us in. I immediately notice the same musty odor from our first visit. Dad called it, old people smell. Said he’d never live in a place like this. He’d go off into the woods like a real man when it was time for him to go.

As I return from my blank stare, Dad stands in Rose’s kitchen, feverishly chopping ingredients. He calls over his shoulder, “Jenny, why don’t you ask Rose what you can do to help?”

She instructs me to set the table pointing to the silverware drawer with her bony finger. I arrange the forks, knives and spoons on three napkins and set the scalloped plates in the center. The small painted flowers run alongside the golden rim. I trace the pattern over and over in my mind.

Dad requests, “Rose, I’m wondering if you have anything that might help me chop these nuts faster?” She looks at him quizzically. He offers, “If you don’t mind, I could just take a look through your cupboards and see what you might have.”

She nods, “That will be okay, Tom.”

Dad opens all the cabinets on top first. Nothing. He kneels, leaning forward, to reach all the way back into the lower corner cupboard. His eyes grow wide like a leprechaun who struck a pot of gold.

“Rose, this is a first class food processor. Did you know that you had this back in this cupboard?”

I watch as Dad pulls out all the bits. He takes a careful look at the shiny blades and grins.

She narrows her eyes slightly to focus on the bulky contraption. “Yes, Tom. You may use that. I’m afraid of it, actually. My son and daughter-in-law bought that for me one Christmas, but it’s too powerful.”

Dad grins again. “Oh, that’s really too bad, Rose. I mean this is a professional machine. I bet they paid a couple hundred for it. If you’d like, I can show you how to use it.”

Rose takes three steps back from the counter. “No thank you. It’s not something I really need. I don’t know why they bought that for me, come to think of it.”

She pauses, watching while Dad pushes stalks of celery through the plastic chimney. “You know what, Tom… you should take that food processor as a gift from me.”

He looks up at Rose through the top of his eyes. “Oh, I couldn’t take this from you.”

“No. Go ahead. Really. It’s almost Christmas, and besides, I really appreciate you coming over here to help me out. I’m glad Madeline introduced us. Oh, and why don’t you take that electric juicer I saw you use last week, too?”

Dad goes silent for a moment. We wait for his utterance.

“Thank you, Rose. God bless you! I’ll take great care of them both. They won’t go to waste.”

Is he supposed to take gifts? Godmother Madeline told Dad last week you’re not supposed to get thanks for community service…

I stand at the sink, drying what he washes with a strawberry embossed hand towel when I hear Rose shriek from behind.

“No! No! No! This is not how you set a table. The spoons go on the outside like this! Who taught this child how to set a table?”

Dad and I spin around to a tight-lipped Rose, stooped over each place setting, rearranging silverware. She shakes her head. Dad’s face becomes red while speaking out in defense, “Actually, Rose, she’s never—

He stops mid-thought. And gives me a certain look. The one I know means that it’s right to obey Rose—no matter how silly her request—because this is her house. And the food processor. Rules. Order.

“I apologize, Rose. I guess Jenny should know better as the daughter of a chef, but she’s not even seven years old yet, so I guess we should giver her a break.” She doesn’t seem moved. Instead she points at all the silverware while moving her hands back and forth. I wonder why he doesn’t give you a break? Like last week when he lost his keys and he blamed you?

I wait for Rose to deliver each stern gesture. I try to record the specific order in my mind. But it doesn’t make sense. Who cares where they go? Instead I count the petals on each of the tiny hand-painted pink flowers. Seven. Plus seven. Equals fourteen. Pay attention to the knife, stupid. Rose was very upset about the knife. What did she say again? I quiver in fear. Don’t talk back to elders. Except bad people.

When we finish dinner, Rose offers some us some chamomile tea.

Dad says we’d best be off to catch the bus back home. Rose protests, “Oh, I was hoping that you and Jenny could stay and watch my favorite show with me.”

He agrees, reluctantly, observing the bag of kitchen thingamajigs near the door.

Rose sits in a small pink reclining chair while Dad and I sit on the couch. He picks at his thumbs, impatiently, while we wait for the show to begin. Thank you for being a friend. Traveled down the road and back again. Your heart is true…

The Golden Girls. The eldest looks like Rose. I can see why she likes this show so much.

Bored at first, I begin to bite my thumbnail. Stop. You don’t want him to try and get the poison again.

By the end, I secretly grow to like the show. I glance at Dad’s profile in the flickering screen light after the group hug. He winces.

Before the end credits finish, Dad rises from the sofa. “That was—uh—real nice, Rose.”

“Oh isn’t it just the most wonderful show?”

“Well, actually, it’s a little mushy for me. I like more action movies—myself—but I guess it was okay. Everything except that stupid group hug.”

Rose laughs.

She made him do something he didn’t want to. And got away with it. Like Madeline and her rainbows.

2005: Cutting Ties

Bzzt. Bzzzt. Bzzzzt. The phone’s ominous vibration knocks me off balance. I lurch toward the wall scratching our fresh paint job with the hammer’s claw as my left foot slips off the stepladder. Shit.

I regain my balance. Sort of.

Missed call. Dad. Double shit.

Why is he calling today? Oh triple shit. It’s Tuesday. It’s your day to talk. How can it be Tuesday already?

Bzzzt…Bzzzt…Dad, again!

Jesus. Now what are you going to do? You know how you left things with Dr. V. But what if you can’t do it? You didn’t think out the logistics, did you? Last ring…

My index finger, detached, taps the green call button.

“Dad?”

“Jenny. Where were you?”

“Oh. Sorry. I was just in the ummm…bathroom. Couldn’t get to the phone in time.” At least that explains why you’re out of breath.

“Oh. Well, I heard on the news that you guys are getting some really bad storms there.”

“No.” Oh fuck. Yes there. Maybe they are? How would you know because you’re not there, are you? You’re here. But he doesn’t know that. Nice way to blow your cover. Just buy yourself a little more time…

I nervously laugh off my error. “Haha. Oh yeah, we’re getting tons of rain, but it’s no big deal, Dad.”

“You okay, Jenny?”

“Who me? Yes I’m fine…” Christ. Why would you say ‘fine’ when you know that will tip him off more than anything?

“…I mean I’m great. How are you?”

“Huh. You sure you’re ok? You know you can always tell Daddy anything. I can always tell when something is wrong—just like I could with your Mother.”

“Thanks, Dad. No it’s good. I swear.”

“Oh okay. Well did I tell you that I think my neighbor is selling drugs?”

“Umm no.”

“Yeah, I mean who has thirty cars come and go all day long. You know your Father, I watch out for everything like a hawk.”

You’re not going to get away with this. He’ll send a police squad. He’ll find you.

“Uh-huh. That’s good, Dad. Listen, I have to go. I’m sorry to cut our call a little short. I think I ate something bad…” Don’t just leave it like that. He’ll worry. Fake worry.

“Huh. See I knew something was up. Hey you want Daddy to come there? I haven’t seen you in going on two months now!”

“Oh…ummm…uhhh…no, Dad. It’s a bad week at work. But I’m going to call you tomorrow. I promise. First thing. I’ll be better by then.”

“Well, okay. But I hope I’m going to get to see you soon. Everyone here always asks me ‘How’s Jenny doing?’ Nothing about your poor old man. Nothing about my heart. Just Jenny. They all want know how you are…”

“Jeez…that’s really great, Dad. Huh? Strange, too. Well, talk soon. Love you. Bye. Love you.”

I see the plan disintegrating like a bad batch of plaster. You better figure out what you’re going to do? What if he just shows up there and finds you gone? How can you keep this a secret? Mom already knows, anyways.