1989: Catholic Charity

My white patent leather Mary Jane’s clip clop as I dash down the marble steps. Each dazzling granite speck stirs me to sing a Christmas jingle. I’m dreaming of a White Christmas…just like the ones I used to know…well you’ve never actually known any, but it’s still a good song.

Christmas vacation. Let’s hope the landlord doesn’t kick us out for not paying rent, again.

Last week, I pretended to play with my Barbie dolls while Mr. Loomis, the motel owner, yelled at Dad. “Sir, you need to pay your rent, or I am going to call the police.” Dad pleaded, “Please, Mr. Loomis, I have a daughter. It’s winter. I’ll have that money to you next week—I promise—just as soon as my next unemployment check comes. I’m waiting for a big settlement from the government, too.” Mr. Loomis’s grumble rings in my ears.

Dad told a lie because the unemployment checks dried up two months ago. Mr. Loomis will be back, just like the Terminator.

I spy Dad standing at the main door, right under the saintly carved archway. He beams with pride. “You ready, Daddy’s little girl? No school for ten whole days!” I smile but I’ll miss the place. I glance back at the Great Hall one last time. Ten days is a long time not to see your teachers. What if Dad just sleeps the whole time?

Before I turn back around to face him, Mrs. Henshack runs towards us with a box. Struggling for breath, she bellows, “Mr. K…so glad to have caught you!” Dad grips my hand tighter. Ouch. What’s did I do?

Mrs. Henshack lowers her voice to a whisper, “Mr. K. some folks in the church community put a few gifts together for you and Jenny.”

Dad’s grip tightens. I squirm my fingers loose. “Thank you, Mrs. Henshack, but Jenny and I don’t need the charity.” She gives him a confused wide-eyed look. I scream, yes, we do need the charity! We’ve never had a Christmas before.

 Mrs. Henshack extends the box toward Dad. “Don’t worry, Mr. K. there’s no shame in taking a gift from the Lord.” Dad takes the box sheepishly and says thank you while making a run for it.

He clomps hastily without making eye contact with anyone. Hey, Joe and Moira’s mom just waved to us. I wave back, timidly, hoping he won’t clobber me when we make it to the red and white Malibu.

Will we have to throw this box out on the Northway like we did with Madeline’s knickers?

“See, Jenny, your Father hates this shit! I’m not raising you to take charity. It’s not because we’re better than anyone else. I just want you to have respect for yourself and I don’t want anyone feeling sorry for us, either.” But I feel sorry for us. Please let us be able to keep the gifts.

As he shuts the back door Dad says, “I’ll probably just throw all this shit in the dumpster when we get back to the motel.” My eyes well up. They were so kind to us. Why can’t we just have one thing?

 We pull in the lot in front of our door, 12B. The brass numbers shimmer against the orange door in the late afternoon sun. 12B. Your prison cell for 10 whole days. And we could have had gifts this time.

 I turn my head away as Dad opens the back door. I can’t bear to watch him carry the box to the trash. “Ahhh, shit, Jenny! I guess they got us all this crap. You and Daddy can at least see what it is. And if there’s any good stuff. But Daddy decides what stays and goes. You hear me?”

I nod profusely while fighting back tears. Will you ever understand him?

Sitting cross-legged on the brown and orange shag rug, I wait while Dad slices the box open.

A winter sweater for Dad. “You know your Father doesn’t wear sweaters, so that’s going bye-bye. Would have been okay when I was skinny and young…”

A decorative tin of butter cookies. “Now that’s what Daddy’s talking about. He rips through the plastic seal and grabs a round wreath shaped cookie. “Yummy. Here, take one.” I pick the brown and white tic-tac-toe square.

A squishy wrapped gift with a red bow. Oh can I open it, please? I’ve never opened a wrapped present before. Dad hands the package to me. I carefully peel all the tape off. “Jesus, Jenny! Open that, today. The cookies are getting stale.”

I tear through the last bit to reveal a bear. A Snuggle bear. No wait he’s a puppet! I wait for Dad’s approval before inserting my hand through the slot. He looks it over to make sure the bear is new. He has his tags. No odor. My very own fuzzy puppet. This is the best Christmas ever.

“Alright, I guess you can keep the puppet, and we can eat these cookies. The rest of this shit is garbage. You know when Daddy was growing up; we never had Christmas, either. It’s kind of hard when there are sixteen kids. We were lucky to get a coloring book and crayons some years. Cold lettuce and salt for dinner most of the time…”

Snuggles and I hear Dad, but we don’t care.

1993: The First Noel

Thursday, December 2. Today Dad turns 53. He always picks me up precisely when the bell rings at 2:15 pm. No dilly-dallying. No talking in the hall. Today’s no different.

I hop in Mrs. Smith’s old Plymouth Reliant. At least this car has reverse and two working brakes.

“Well, what do ya’ say, child of mine…it’s December 2…your old Man’s birthday! I look pretty good for a 53-year-old man, don’t I?” Dad uses both hands to jiggle his stomach already resting against the steering wheel. “All’s Poppas gotta do is lose this friggen giant gut!”

I grin, “Happy Birthday, Dad.”

“By the way, Daddy’s got a big surprise for you when we get home.”

“What is it?” Shit! No more surprises. It better not be another dumpster find.

 Coyly he says, “You’ll see soon enough impatient child.”

The last snowstorm makes it impossible to avoid every pothole in the apartment complex’s gravel driveway. The stones don’t pop beneath the tires this time of year. The car just makes lots of thuds. “Goddamn landlord. They gotta fix this driveway!”

Dad unlocks the brown steel door to our apartment. Like he’s now unlocked a gateway to a new universe. What the–? A tree? A Christmas tree stands in the corner of our living room. Right in front of the water-heater closet.

My mouth hangs open. We never had a Christmas tree. We’ve never had Christmas. No family. No gifts. No Santa Claus. No chocolate chip cookies and milk. No caroling. Nothing, except for a 99-cent canned ham.

“Well what do you think, Jenny? Do you like it?”

“Wait, I’m so confused. Where did it come from?” You’re no expert in these matters but something’s off. No lights? Why is it so high? I spy a clay pot. Dad propped our tree up in an old planter?

“Scott and Mary bought it for us. They knew it was my birthday, and that you never had a tree so they took me earlier. I didn’t want a tree, but they wouldn’t take no for an answer. They spent good money—they really treat you and Daddy like gold.”

Come on, why aren’t you more excited about this? First Christmas tree! Woohoo! Nope. Nothing there. Sigh. What now?

“Jenny, the tree needs ornaments. Poppas broke until tomorrow, but I know you have that fifty dollars that I gave you last month.”

My face and ears grow hot with fury. You just gave me that money so we would have a savings plan. I’m the bank and I say no withdrawals! No more starving and searching in our coat pockets and couch cushions for pennies to buy expired pot roast.

“No, Dad. We need to save that money!”

“Jenny, Jesus-mother-fucking-Christ! We are not going to have a tree with nothing on it. Don’t you dare tell your Father, ‘no!’ Now come on, let’s get in the car and go down to Fay’s and see what they’ve got there.”

Fuck you, pig-headed bastard! And I’m not going to starve because someone wanted to be nice and buy us a tree. I’ve gone this long without Christmas. Who the fuck cares anymore! I really wish that child-services took me away when I was seven—when some mystery person turned you in for being a total asshole!

Resigned, I hunker into the car. At Fay’s we pick up a few packs of gold and red ornaments, twinkly lights and a tree topper for twenty-five dollars. Half the savings dwindled.

After we decorate the tree, Dad exclaims, “See! Now isn’t that better? You know when Daddy is right. Oh, and I think the tree looks okay in this planter that Daddy put it in, don’t you? We don’t need a stupid tree stand. That’s what everyone has and you know how Daddy hates to be like everyone else.”

Fucking planter looks stupid, but a tree stand would have eaten up the rest of the savings. So I nod in agreement.

As I step back to admire our trimmings, I tear up. Is this a sign? Like a defining moment when our luck might change forever? Don’t hold your breath, idiot.

The glossy reflection that has formed on my eyeballs has to stay in place. Don’t let a single drop fall unless you want this decorating party to turn into a scene from Psycho. I clench my corneas to prevent the tears from draining down my cheeks.

I wish for Dad to hug me, but instead he jabbers on…

“Jenny, do you remember when you were eight and we lived at that scuzzy motel in Lake George?” I roll my eyes up to meet his. “Well, I always knew that you were a very strange child when I found you singing Christmas carols by yourself in the corner of our bedroom. We only had one can of soup to last us for 3 days. No presents. No mother. But you stood there singing goddamn Silent Night! I said to myself, this is one fucked up kid you had, Thomas!”

2004: No Calls Please

I draft a letter to Dad for my next weekly session with Dr. Vee while repeating my silent mantra: you can do this…you can face your fear.

The plastic casing surrounding my BIC pen cracks as I squiggle my signature with defiance. Done. Wonder what Dr. Vee will think when I show up with this totally unexpected letter today?

He greets me in the waiting room. “All set for you now, Jenny.”

Trembling, I remove the loose-leaf sheet from my purse, and hand him the trifold. “I want to show you something. A letter that I intend to send to my Father, today.”

Dr. Vee reads the note intently as I take my usual place on the sofa and mentally recite every painstaking word.

Dear Dad,

 I am writing to let you know that I can no longer talk to you every day on the phone. This is not because I don’t love you, but it’s become too difficult for me. Other people don’t talk to their parents several times a day. This is not normal behavior. So I’m proposing a schedule to talk on the phone twice per week. I will not answer my phone if it is not one of those days. Again, I know this will be difficult for you, but I hope you can understand in time.

Love, Your Daughter,

Jenny Leigh

Stunned, Dr. Vee says, “Once again, I’m blown away that you had the courage to write this letter to your father already. This is only your first month of therapy. You really are a resilient person.”

I blush a little while welling up at his accolade. You always have a hard time with compliments, dummy. You’re supposed to say, ‘Thank you.’ But you don’t deserve any credit.

He asks, “Are you really going to send him this letter?”

“I think I have to after our last couple of conversations confirming his severe mental illness. If I don’t start setting some boundaries, he’s going to kill me. I can’t take it anymore. I have to stop letting him control my life like this.”

“Are you afraid of his reaction?”

“Yes. I’m so frightened that I’ve devised a plan with my fiancé. We’re taking off on a trip for a few days when Dad will receive the letter. I feel safer that way. In case he shows up at our apartment with an ax.”

I realize our session is up as Dr. Vee glances at his watch. “Good luck and safe travels, Jenny.”

“Thank you, Doctor. I’m sure I’ll have news next time…you know, if I’m still alive.” He shoots me a concerned look followed by a reassuring smile.

Exiting the office, I drop the letter in the nearest outgoing mailbox. Swish. All gone. Too late. 

On our second morning at the bed and breakfast, my cell phone rings. Dad.

My hands tremble so profusely; I nearly shut my blue Motorola before answering.

“Hello?” Let’s get this the fuck over with.

“Jenny. It’s your Father. Or have you forgotten about me?”

“No, Dad.”

“I received you letter in the mail yesterday. Threw Daddy for quite a surprise.”

God if he stays this calm, you’ll end up feeling guilty.

“Listen, don’t do your Father any favors. No one ever has. Not one person in my family. Not one motherfucker has ever been there for me in 60 years. After all I’ve done for you, and you can’t talk to me on the phone! Well don’t fucking worry about it! You’re a no good WHORE just like your mother and all the rest of them!”

Pheww…you didn’t send the letter in vain. Stay strong…like he trained you, but for YOU this time.

My heart pounds to a nearly audible beat. Dad’s tone grows fiercer with every syllable. “Dad—Dad—are you going to let me—get a word—in…” “NO!!!” Click. The bastard hung up. Couldn’t take the heat.

I glimpse over at my fiancé as he sits patiently on the edge of an elaborately carved mahogany four-poster bed. Jesus…Surely he’s never witnessed anything like that before.

For the next hour I pace the room and rehearse the events while clenching my fists and breaking out in cold sweats. Fuck, you can’t go through with this. You tried to do too much too soon.

But as my toe catches the corner of the substantial bedpost…Ouch!!!…I remember Dad’s cruel words to me. “You’re a no good whore like all the rest.”

 Twenty years of brutality. Haven’t you sacrificed yourself enough for him? God’s plan…Last daughter…Prisoner. Enough!

While rubbing my injured limb, I reach for my cell phone on the hotel nightstand, and shut it off for three whole days.

2004: Shrink Session

After my carpet-burned belly incident, I browse online for the name of a good psychologist. One that specializes in childhood trauma.

My first fifty-minute session with Dr. Vee flies by as I hurriedly recount the past 20 years.

My parents had an affair in 1980.

My Father lied to my Mother about having a vasectomy.

Then he brutally forced my Mother to carry me once she became pregnant.

While they were both married with children.

My Father moved my mother in with his family. Not pretty.

She abandoned me after he threatened her life multiple times.

Everyone considers me to be his property. Even she does.

I don’t.

I’m afraid of him.

He’s threatened my life countless times.

I know my fear is not irrational.

I can’t go on like this anymore. What now?

I watch Dr. Vee scribble furiously on a legal pad propped against his knee. Offer him some proof. “Next time, I could bring you some of the letters he’s written to me…if that would help?”

“Sure. That would be very useful. It was a pleasure to meet you, Jenny. I’ll see you in a week.”

During our second appointment, Dr. Vee reads Dad’s letters while I sit across from him on a velvety mushroom hued sofa. I fidget with the pillows to distract myself from the anticipation. Please, please let him recognize that Dad is crazy. Don’t let him be fooled like every teacher, friend, and warm body who thought he was god’s gift as a single father. Just let one person understand

“Well, Jenny, after reading these letters, my diagnosis of your Father is that he’s a psychotic-schizophrenic-paranoid-narcissist.”

Yes! He understands! Wait, he’s what? That’s even worse than you thought…

Dr. Vee stares at me intently. “People, like your Father, with this particular combination of mental illnesses, they are usually very dangerous. I want you to be very careful—particularly in confronting him.”

I take my first breath since Dr. Vee’s diagnosis. “Yes. I’m glad someone finally understands what I’ve been coping with for twenty years. Believe me, I have always been cautious around him. A few weeks ago he let himself into our apartment without knocking. The next day, my fiancé changed the lock. Before that, we got into a fight over the phone—which by the way, I’m sick of talking to him five times a day—and he threatened to kill me because I don’t believe in his predictions or whatever. This has to end!”

“Jenny, I understand your frustration here. I want you to know that I don’t see any qualities in you that are like your Father. You understand what happened to you very deeply, and you’re far more normal than you might realize. Next time we will discuss the possibility of limiting contact, or cutting ties completely. Though I caution you, that can be a very difficult thing to do, psychologically.”

After wringing my hands the whole session, I rise from the couch and sling my purse over my right shoulder. “Thank you, Doctor. This is going to help me. I’m so glad I came to see you.”

As I make my way across the narrow hall, and down two flights of stairs, I feel lighter somehow. Progress! You can do this…you can face your fear. Just you wait until next week, Doctor Vee.

 

1993: ATM

Dad grins ear to ear as he waves a letter in my face. “Jenny! Oh boy! Just wait ‘til your Father tells you what I have here.”

Please let it be about us getting a new car. Fully working transmission and brakes.

I stare at him blankly while the corners of my mouth turn up slightly. He’s never this happy about receiving a letter. Only bills and threats come in the mail.

“This, my child, is your Mother’s new bank card and pin number!”

My eyes narrow into a squint. Huh?

“Jenny, don’t you get it?” No, not yet. “The bank sent your Mother’s new card to the house. They don’t know that the bitch moved out, yet. We’re gonna eat like kings this month. Daddy might even buy us a steak for tonight. Now hurry up and get your shoes on.”

Think. Oh my…no! He can’t be thinking of…because that’s illegal.

I catch myself shaking my head no as Dad replies to my silent protest. “Come on, Jenny. You’re not going to wimp out on your Father now are you?”

Flinching, “Dad! Won’t you get in big trouble?”

“No! You know your Father is a genius. I have a plan. I probably could have been mafia or a perfect thief. But God had other plans for your Father, I guess. Damn shame, too. I would have loved to be real mafia…just like the Godfather. Make my whole family bow at my feet!”

Yes, thank you God for allowing him to be violent and insane…but not mafia too.

Dad hurries me into the car. “Come on, Jenny. I want to do this in the middle of the day. Nothing suspicious. Here’s the plan. We walk up to the ATM together at Price Chopper. You’ll stand off to the side. Daddy will stand in front of the camera, but I’m going to keep wiping my face. They won’t be able to get a clear image that way. They’ll never prove a thing. Just like Uncle Fester.”

What more can you say? He’s made up his mind. If he goes to jail…you’ll end up with her. What if she doesn’t want you? Used goods…

 “Now, Poppa doesn’t want you feeling bad over this or anything. This is between your Mother and me. Daddy’s glad you’re a good girl and that I raised you right, but this is not the same as stealing. Do you hear Daddy?”

I shoot Dad a side glare. Thud. Ugh. The car’s rear end bottoms out at every road bump. “Goddamn, Jenny. We got to get the back shocks fixed!”

Dad resumes his tirade. “Let your Father tell you why this is not stealing. I want you to understand the difference between right and wrong. Your Mother has never given us a single dime. All the times I called her in California…when you and Dad were homeless…starving…she didn’t give a shit…she said ‘Tommy what I don’t see, doesn’t bother me.’ What kind of a fucking Mother says that about her own child? So this, Jenny, is just money that’s rightfully ours. She owes us this. And I know Deborah too. She never has less than a thousand or so in the bank. She’s better with money than a goddamn Jew.”

She never gave us money. That’s true. Probably wrong. But you lied to her about getting pregnant, and then you made her give birth to me. Stealing is stealing. It’s still wrong. But I can’t stop you.

Dad confidently strolls into Price Chopper and makes a beeline for the ATM. I scan the place with only slight turns of my head. Don’t look suspicious. If you blow his cover, he’ll kill you.

My heart pounds rapidly as I see Dad punch in the pin #1224.

Withdrawal Amount?

He enters $300.00.

Three hundred dollars!!! Is he out of his mind? She’ll have him hung for this.

A man walks up behind Dad. Oh no, it’s a cop. They know. We’re done for. I’m innocent!

 Jesus. Calm down, Jenny. It’s just a man waiting to use the ATM.

The machine spits out twenty-dollar bills in rapid succession. 5 make 100, 10 make 200, 15 make 300.

Dad grabs the bills without hesitation. He folds them in half and sticks the bulging wad in his right pants pocket. The man behinds us takes his turn at the ATM as if we’re all here conducting the same business.

“Hey, let’s go see if they have any of that bottom round that’s expired for half price. You know Daddy can cut the steaks so they taste almost as good as filet mignon.”

Yeah. Better than chicken livers, anyways.

1992: The Walk

I stand in the driveway as the tow truck repossesses our silver Oldsmobile. No! Bring it back! Why did they have to take away the best car we ever owned? How can he let them do this? Why didn’t he find a way to pay the bill?

“Well, Jenny…no time to feel sorry for ourselves. I knew they would take our car away after your mother left us! Again! What was she here, 2 months?” Maybe longer if you hadn’t threatened to hack her up with an axe?

“My brother George won’t care either. He filed for bankruptcy last month so they can’t come after him for being cosigner anyways.” Yeah but he still has a new truck. And we have nothing.

“Don’t worry. Pops will find a way to get us a car. Like I always do. Come on. Let’s go for a walk.”

Rusty leaves crunch beneath my feet along the curb. Let’s just keep walking forever.

As we make our way around the neighborhood, Dad says, “Jenny, you know that Daddy has always been honest with you. There’s a reason for that. I don’t want anyone else to tell you tall tales one day about your Father.”

Can’t we just have one walk in peace? Crunch, crunch, I can’t hear you.

“Jenny. You know that God told me to go to your mother and that you had to be born because he has a purpose for you and your Father. I was supposed to have one last daughter. You know Daddy tricked your mother. Told her I could never have any more kids…”

I hate you for tricking her. Why did she have to be part of your plan?

“…of course, Daddy didn’t know if I could have kids because of the fucking rheumatic fever. You know the doctors thought I might never walk again. Lost all my teeth…”

I still hate you.

“But none of that matters because I knew you were going to be born. I even knew what you were going to look like before you were born. Right down to the birthmark on your chest. Just like your Father.” Dad pounds on the left side of his chest.

“My first wife, my other kids, none of them matter. I had a job to do. To raise you. God told me, go to Debbie. And I did. What did it matter that I was married? That we all lived together while your mother was pregnant for you. That life was over. And I guess God wanted us to be alone, you and Poppa. Riding the dragon’s breath…like I always told you.”

As Dad drags on, my fists clench beneath my sleeves leaving marks on my palms. Fuck your dragon. I’m not riding on his breath or going along with your plan anymore.

“Dad. What you did was wrong. You had a wife and children. I never should have been born!”

“Don’t you dare judge your Father! After everything we’ve been through. You don’t even know. Your mother wanted to abort you…”

“Good. I wish she had. I don’t want to be alive if I caused all that pain for people.”

“Bullshit. Your Father wasn’t going to let some needle kill my baby. I told your mother I’d hack her the fuck up, and her goddamn sister too.”

I hang my head. You’re an asshole. You’re a bully. I can judge you. And I will live a different life than you.

Dad grunts a bit as we make our way back to the apartment complex in silence.

Jesus…did you just challenge him out loud? Yes, and it felt really good.

1988: Knickers

When the recess bell rings, we all charge out the front doors and race across the playground toward the brick wall. Sure enough, Dad waits for us by the secret archway with a fresh shipment of popsicles. My classmates shout “Mr. K, I want orange…I want cherry…grape, please…” over one another.

Dad grins. “Yes, Yes, children! Don’t worry. Mr. K brought plenty for all of you.”

Why does he do this for my friends? Some of them aren’t even my friends. Is this his orphanage?

I wait until the herd clears to grab the last grape flavor. Dad slaps my hand—knocking the Popsicle back in the box. “Jenny. You know better! Come back to the convent for a minute while Daddy washes it for you first. Who wants to eat all that nasty glue they put on there.” I salivate as the dribbles of water re-freeze along the sides on the Popsicle. “Thanks, Dad. Got to get back to the playground now so I don’t get in trouble.”

“Okay, I’ll see you at 2:15 sharp. Just come back to the kitchen. Daddy won’t walk over to pick you up today. I have too much cooking to do, here. We’re getting ready for this big dinner, tonight. A hundred nuns.”

For the remainder of recess, we play red rover. You’re fast. They’ll never catch you. You’re home free. I tag the brick wall so hard that pieces of mortar cling to my hands. Ouch!

At 2:15 we line up as instructed. Dismissed. I bolt once again toward the brick archway, tagging the chain link gate as I cross the finish line.

I pass the gravel parking lot—sights set on the back kitchen door—when I notice Sister Jean outside gardening. Dust flies up as I halt suddenly. “Hi Sister, Jean.”

“Oh, Hi Jenny. How was school today?”

“It was good. We got to play red rover, and we’re learning multiplication. I like multiplication much better than subtraction.”

“That’s wonderful news, Jenny. I know your Father will be looking for you so you best run along to the kitchen. I’m sorry we haven’t had a talk this week, yet. I’ve been very busy getting the grounds cleaned up for fall. I hope you will stop by my room, tomorrow. I love it when we pray together.”

I nod and smile. I love you Sister Jean.

Dad stops chopping onions and looks up at the clock. “You’re late, Jenny.”

“Sorry, Dad. I saw Sister Jean outside on my way in. I just stopped to be polite.”

“Okay good. You don’t want to make your Father worry about you. Not with crazy people out there abducting babies. You remember everything I taught you right?”

“Uh-huh.” Run, scream bloody murder, never go with them, they’ll kill you anyways.

“Good, now do Daddy a favor. I want you to get the ketchup out and squeeze some into the bowl slowly as Daddy mixes the meatloaf.” I hold my breath to block out the smell of the onions and raw ground beef. “Hold it! That’s perfect. Dad scoops a bunch of raw meatloaf in his palm and molds it. See, Jenny. It’s perfect. Daddy’s teaching you to be a first class chef one day.” Someday I’ll never touch food again. I’ll hire a chef to cook for me.

Pleased with his work, Dad declares a five-minute break, outside. “Hey, how did your friends like the popsicles?”

“They really liked them, Dad.”

“Good. I don’t know what it is, but your father always had a thing for being good to kids. I think it’s because we grew up poor with nothing. Your Father starved, you know. Many times, I would get nothing but lettuce with salt on it for dinner. This was back in the 1940s. You know my Father would only give my poor Mother a dollar a week to feed sixteen kids. He was one of the foolish Greeks. While every other family was buying up land cheap and owning restaurants, he was gambling like a fool.”

Dad shakes his head at the memory and continues, “God has a plan for you and your Father, Jenny. I know he brought me to this convent for a reason. One day, your Father is going to take this place and turn it into an orphanage—like I told you—so poor kids will never go without again.” I look at Dad sheepishly, not sure how to respond.

Godmother Madeline breaks the silence by pulling up in her frosted blue Plymouth. She unloads two large black garbage bags from the trunk. “Thomas, I was at the Salvation Army today and picked up some clothes for Jenny.” Madeline hands me a brown wool coat—suggesting that I try it on. I cringe. Is it dirty?

While I lean on the hood of our new white Oldsmobile, she pulls out several pairs of checkered wool pants, too.

Impatiently, Dad interrupts, “Madeline, Jesus Christ! They’re knickers! That’s what kids who were dying-dead-poor during the depression wore. I’m not putting my daughter in that garbage.”

“Now Thomas, you shouldn’t judge an honest gift that came from the heart. Just take the clothes. They will be good for Jenny.”

The regional dinner for the sisters goes off without a hitch. Dad seems to have forgotten about his earlier annoyance with Madeline, but on our way home, He really opens up on the Northway. We’ve only owned the new car for two weeks. Dad says, I wouldn’t have bought this piece of shit if I realized it was a Diesel engine!” I stroke the fuzzy burgundy interior. I hope we have this car forever. It’s so nice.

Dad glares at me intently at me, now. “Jenny, I want you to open the back windows. And when I say, so that there’s no other cars around us, throw those goddamn garbage bags full of rag-clothes out the window.”

I look at him as if to resist. I hate the clothes. They’re itchy. But Godmother was just trying to be nice.

But Dad persists. “Now! Well, don’t just stare. Hurry up and throw those bags—both of them—out the goddamn window before someone sees us.”

Obedient, I watch as the bags bounce on the inky pavement behind us. What will Madeline say when I never wear the clothes?

2000: Stalker

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

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

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

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

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

What assignment?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Dear Mrs. Morrison,

My Father raised me since I was four days old…

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

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

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

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

1987: The Babysitter

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

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

A little more flour, then some water.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 “No Dad, it’s not really bad.”

“So what happened, then?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nod to promise, but I know better.

1995: OJ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My head hangs while my smile quickly dissolves into despair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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