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.

1989: Death By Scabies

Lots of kids get cut or bruised from playing or falling off a merry-go-round. But I got scabies in the third grade.

“Jenny didn’t I tell you that your goddamn Mother was back from California. You know how Daddy’s nose is…I could smell her from this hotel room. She can’t hide from me. Anyway, she had a fight with her n****r-loving sister, and she’s coming to stay with us for a few days.”

My mom is here? When is she coming over? I hope that she will like me. And maybe she and Daddy will make up and then she can live with us.

 As she enters the doorway, her eyes focus solely on my Father. She moves in a demure but elegant way.

“Thomas…”

Before she can continue, Dad interjects, “Deborah, you are the only one that has ever said my name right in my entire life! Thomas. Perfect.”

She replies, “Thomas, I know. You always told me that.”

“Deborah, you can’t hide your true feelings from me. I see your eyes…you are crying a little bit because you missed me.”

As I wait for them to forgive each other and be reunited for all eternity, she changes the subject.

“You would not believe what my sister did to me? She’s psycho. She had a fit because I left a damp towel on the closet floor. Excuse me, Di, but I just traveled across the country, to see you, my only sister, and you’re worried about a friggen towel. Get a life.”

Get a life. This is a new expression. Apparently one she picked up from living in California.

 “Well Debbie, you know your sister is nuts. It happens with twins. There’s always one that’s fucking nuts. I watched a program about twins on 20/20…” Before he finishes, Dad moves on to more pressing matters, “So, how long are you going to stay? Jenny and I are happy to have you here and we have plenty of room.”

I see her look of disappointment as she glances around the hotel room. Two double beds, a small TV, and a postage-stamp size bathroom. But we are grateful to see her. We don’t care how many goopy towels she leaves lying around.

Forcefully, Mom cuts him short, “Tommy, I’m not going to stay long. I already bought my ticket to go back to California. I’m going to try and work it out with my boyfriend. We have a beautiful apartment out there and I just love San Diego…Don’t try to change my mind either, Tommy boy. It won’t work. Oh and one more thing, I’m going to sleep with Jenny Penny tonight.”

Debbie and Tommy. This is the way things always progress. They always start as Deborah and Thomas. I wonder what occurred between them to cause this. A once lived and now lost perfect world? But my mom wants to have a sleepover in my bed. Finally! She’s noticed me!

 That night is glorious. I dream that my mom, the most beautiful creature I ever laid eyes on, hugs me tight and never lets go; but, by morning, she’s all business and back to the airport.

The next day, still recovering from my mom-high, the phone rings in our hotel room. It is my Aunt Diane. “Tommy, Tommy…”

I can hear her voice through the phone. She sounds irate.

“Di, she left for the airport already.”

“I don’t give a damn about her. That no good whore gave us all a disease.”

“What Diane, slow down. What disease?”

“Bumps, horrible little itchy red bumps on our ankles and legs. It’s fucking bugs, Tommy. I can’t even believe my sister stooped to this level. Fucking bugs! Both Bo and I got them from her, and we gave her ungrateful ass a place to stay.”

Dad manages a reply, “Diane, that’s fucking horrible!”

“Yeah, well we went to the doctor and I’m only calling you now so that you can get checked out. This is serious, Tommy! And the slut knew that she had them too.”

“She slept in Jenny’s bed the other night.”

The next day, Daddy notices the red bumps on his ankles and legs just as Aunt Diane had furiously explained. I got them too. Everywhere. Red, itching, burning, scabs.

These bugs bore under our skin, and lay their eggs there. Highly contagious, too.

“Jenny, this is why I won’t sleep with your Mother, anymore. Once I found out that she was sleeping with everyone, I lost interest. I don’t ever want you to be a whore like that when you grow up. A woman has to learn to respect her body.”

I wince at his calling my mother names. Why does everyone call my mother bad names? Even her own sister…

He shakes his head in disgust “Horrible woman!”

After a dramatic finale, Daddy’s scabies clear up in a week or so. But, I’m not that lucky. So far I’ve missed three weeks of school.

At first, I continue at school. Covered with long sleeve tops and pants. Segregated from my friends, especially during playtime. I hate being isolated, but being sick means that dad feels bad for me

“Jenny it’s horrible that you have a no-good mother, so daddy wants to get you anything you want today.” Reluctantly, I point to a pink Barbie Corvette. I’ve been eyeing it in Kay Bee toys for months. Dad doesn’t hesitate. He counts out a twenty, a ten, and five-dollar bill for the cashier.

Even though I get to play with my new bubble-gummy corvette at school, other things are not going so well. The bumps are getting worse. One day while we are lined up in the cafeteria, I accidentally bump into Chloe, who Daddy said “looks like a horse.” She yelled in a high-pitched tone while leaping out of line, “Ewwww! Get away from me! My mom said you have a disease all over your body. So gross!”

That was my last day at school until things got cleared up.

I know something is wrong when Dad worriedly says, “Come on, Jenny, we have to get you to a doctor. This is bullshit, you are not getting any better.”

We never go to doctors. Only twice when I was four or five. And I giggled uncontrollably when the pediatrician, a man, touched my chest with his cold heart scope.

The doctor warns, “Honey, this is going to hurt a little, but I have to scrape off a sample of your skin.” He takes my left hand in his rubber-gloved hand. The metal knife looks so scary that I blank out.

Cringe. I hate pain. But these bumps are never going to go away, are they?

 The doctor takes a couple samples, then announces, “I’ll be back after running some tests.” When he returns, he asks to speak to my father outside the examining room. The door is open. They are talking softly, but I can still hear their conversation. Super-girl hearing!

“I have bad news for you, Sir. Your daughter has a nasty case of scabies and they have basically taken over her body. Her system is growing weaker and she is unable to fight them on her own. If this continues, she will die, as these bugs are a parasite, and will continue to use her body.”

You can hear a pin drop. Die?

 The doctor continues, “We have one option. Currently, we don’t have a medicine approved here in the United States that can cure your daughter at this stage. What I am about to do—I could lose my medical license for. There is cream that comes from Mexico. I’m almost certain it will cure her. But you have to promise me never to mention this to anyone.”

With tears in his eyes, my father swears that he will never tell a living soul.

After we cover my body with the white cream, and, just as the good doctor promised, I am cured.

1988: Chocolate Cake, Please?

Today is my 7th Birthday. Dad is still head chef at Camp Chingachgook until the end of the summer. He stayed up late last night to prepare a special cake for me. My first birthday cake.

He doesn’t cook his cake like other bakers. They use a cake pan. But Dad fills a deep aluminum soup pot two-thirds filled with batter. The cake cooks for two whole hours. When it comes out of the oven, Dad dumps the pot upside down with his right hand and catches the cake in the left crook of his arm. Last year he missed, and the cake went on the floor. Motherfucking cock sucking son-of-a-bitch, Jenny. Your Father’s beautiful cake is ruined and it’s all my own fault!

Last week, Dad asked me, “Jenny what kind of cake do you want your Father to make for your birthday? My famous dark chocolate with mocha frosting, right? That’s Daddy’s best!”

I ponder Dad’s idea. He’s right. You do love chocolate cake the most. Truth be told, I’d rather eat the densely moist chocolate perfection all by itself, minus the frosting. But I know that other people like frosting so I nod, “ok.”

“What do you want Daddy to put on the top of your cake?”

This is the most important question anyone has asked me in a long time. Maybe ever.

Your favorite shapes…heart, star, and ?

 I animatedly tell him that I want three shapes on the top. “A heart, a star, and a—square!”

Dad looks puzzled, but intrigued. “You want those three shapes only on the top of your cake?! You don’t want it to say ‘Happy Birthday’ on there?”

I nod “yes,” and then “no.”

“Okay, Jenny. You’re a very strange child. You know that, right? But Daddy will do as you wish.”

I hear him mutter incredulously under his breath, “a heart, a star, and a square.”

Yes, exactly. And I’m not strange. This cake is going to be so great. No one has ever seen one like it.

 Proudly, I keep imagining the finished result.

When I wake up Dad informs me that my Godmother, Madeline, and Godfather, Neil, are both coming to take me to the Sagamore for my birthday.

Yipee!! I can’t help but grin at the thought of spending the day with Madeline and Neil. They are the grandparents that I never had.

 But Dad is less enthused. “They better have you back on time for your cake. I don’t know what I’m going to do if they are late. The camp kids will go nuts and devour your cake, and I won’t be able to stop them.”

I lower my head in despair. Of course you can stop them. Just don’t put it out. We won’t be late!

We have a perfect day at the resort. Except when I become anxious about returning to camp and quickly run down a long hill towards the car. Somehow I stumble. Bam!! Both knees skinned. I’m so stunned that I don’t cry. My knees burn. I wonder if they will ever grow back.

By the time we return, Dad shoots me a disappointed look as he glances at my bloody injury.

Sorry. I tried to hurry back.

 After Madeline and Neil tell Dad about my brutal injury, he informs us of the bad news, “Well, that’s too bad that you were late. I told Jenny not to be late. Well I was right. The cake is all gone but two slices, and those are for you and Neil.”

They try to urge with him that I should have a piece instead, but he insists that I’m being punished for not listening.

Dad brings the last two pieces out on a paper plates. I can see one pointed edge of the star, and one corner of the square.”

I hold back my tears by digging my nails into my thighs. Water fills my eyes in such a way that if I were to blink or glance down, it would all run out. Then he would kill you for sure. So I dig my nails a little deeper into my flesh. Happy Birthday to me.

1989: Yabba Dabba Dooooo!

Dad and I stand in my uncle George’s garage. Our car doesn’t have back brakes and my uncle is the best mechanic in town. Jenny your uncle can build a race car from scratch, but he can’t read or write. He can’t even sign his name to a check. My fucking parents fault. I try to imagine him constructing a car but not being able to read the Bernstein Bears.

Also, my uncle never gives out hugs or cookies or milk. I’m not even sure that he knows my name or that we are blood-related. Also, I’m afraid of his wife, Aunt Gerry. Her full name is Geraldine; it fits her precisely.

Dad always says, “Jenny that fat pig of a woman, Gerry, with her goddamn Brillo-pad hair. My brother didn’t want to marry her, you know. Let me tell you, she came from the worst lot of illiterate hicks with no teeth–the kind of people who bathe once a year, if they’re lucky. Anyway, Daddy was only a 9-year-old little boy, and my own brother tried to kill us both! Best I can tell, he got Gerry knocked up. You had to marry a girl back in those days once you got her knocked up. George said to me, ‘Thomas, I’m not marrying that woman! Come on, let’s go for a ride.’ Now let me tell you, Jenny, he had a Desoto, and they built cars like iron tanks back then. Thank God for it too, because we would have both been dead! He rolled the car over twice into a giant snow bank with me in the passenger seat—that bastard! Even when you’re young, you know when you’re going to die. We both got out without a scratch, of course. No seat-belts! These cars today—they’d crush up like a fucking accordion.”

Looking up intently, I think that he is finished with this tirade, but he is not.

“And do you know why? Because everything is made of plastic! Fucking plastic, but your stupid Father wouldn’t listen. Oh no! See, a buddy of mine in the Marine Corps said ‘Thomas I have a deal for you that will make you rich. Plastics are going to be the wave of the future, and everything will be made from it.’ Of course being a stubborn Greek, I said ‘plastic?! What the fuck is plastic?! No one will want that shit.’ This was before most people even heard of it in the 1950s. God, I was a foolish boy. I also thought Gatorade would go bust. The first time I heard of a new lemon-lime flavored drink, I was so happy—couldn’t wait to try it. I went to the grocery and opened a bottle up right there in the aisle and took a big swig. Jenny, Poppa thought I had been poisoned right away, or that the bottle had gone rancid. And those ugly fucking Cabbage Patch Kids. Daddy was glad you never wanted one of those things. I remember when they first came out, and women used to actually beat one another up at the toy stores to get them. Crazy bitches!”

He pauses and I use the opportunity to take a breath.

“Daddy did have some good ideas though. I just had a shit family that never supported me in anything. Back when I was in Lebanon, they had lingerie stores there, like a Victoria’s Secret. Moron-hicks around here in Fort Edward or Hudson Falls never heard of anything like that. So I came back and said to my family, ‘I have an idea that will make us all rich. We can sell women’s underwear—fancy one’s with lace.’ Jenny, they said, ‘Thomas, you’re mother-fucking crazy!! Women’s underwear?!’ But they were always like that. I was born into the wrong family. I should have been head of a mafia clan. It doesn’t matter if your family likes each other, just that their ships are all sailing in the same direction. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, you know. Do you understand what Daddy means by that?”

Of course not. I nod, yes.

Uncle George has our car jacked up. I notice that the car doesn’t rest on his stomach, like Daddy, when he is underneath. I scan the garage noticing all his Craftsman tools, especially the red and chrome tool chest which is twice my height.

Just then Dad says, “Hey, George I like your tool chest, there! Craftsman. They’re the best, right? What was that about two grand?”

Uncle George just grumbles something from under the car.

Holy cow. Two-thousand dollars? Uncle George has a nice house too, and lots of land. I wonder how he can possibly be related to my Father.

I finally sit on the back steps just outside the garage and look out at the large expanse of land. I pull Polly Pocket out of my jacket and try to occupy myself. I can hear them arguing about the brakes. It seems like hours pass. I feel very thirsty and hungry but I don’t dare say anything.

“Hey George, don’t we have to bleed those brakes?”

“Agh, Thomas, not really, but if it makes you happy, we’ll bleed ‘em.”

My father replies, “Ok, I think that’s a good idea. Whatever you say, George. You’re the mechanic. I just remember hearing that it’s always best to get the air out of the brake lines.”

“Brother, sit in the car would ya, and press the brakes when I tell you to—UUUUT hold it!”

They repeat this for another few minutes.

Dad says, “Hey, thanks a million, Brother! Listen, I only have 12 bucks to my name until I get my unemployment check next week.”

Uncle George looks disappointed and lets out a gravelly sigh.

Dad quickly adds, “But I do have Jenny’s piggy bank. I counted it and there’s over 57dollars in change.”

Uncle responds gruffly, “That’s fine then, Thomas. I’ll take the change.”

As we pull out of the driveway, Dad’s temper grows hot, “You see that Jenny! That’s my bastard greedy brother for you—taking money from a starving child. His own niece. That son-of-a-bitch! It’s my parents’ fault too. They raised him. I would like to bring them both back to life and beat them over and over again, but not let them die. My brother deserves to sleep with that ugly cow every night. I remember when he and Gerry came to Gloria’s and my wedding; they gave us 99-cent dishtowels for our wedding gift. Meanwhile, I had thousands of dollars in catered food—prime rib, shrimp, lobster…stuffed mushrooms.

Three weeks later.

We live in South Glens Falls. We drive or walk over the Hudson River bridge every day so I can attend Catholic school in Glens Falls. There’s a mill there called Finch and Pruyn. My father often mentions the mill as we pass by.

“Jenny, we used to fish out of the river. Catch fish with heads this big…before the mill polluted everything!” He holds his chubby digits in a giant dough-ball shape to approximate the size.

Then he proceeds to tell me about the man who retired from the mill years ago. I’ve heard this story several times, so rather than listen to him I repeat it to myself word for word. Poor bastard worked his whole life at that mill and the day he retired a truck driver hit him crossing the bridge. He died instantly. Can you imagine, on his last day of work?

 Just then we hear a loud pop. “Goddamn! Jenny, did you hear that? Did this fucking car just backfire!?”

I think nothing of it. All of our cars backfire.

He yells “No brakes! Motherfucking cocksucker. George! We’re going to die because of you!”

I know that we will die, and I feel too young. My life flashes before my eyes just like the movies. Everything slows down. I can see the down sloping hill that we are approaching. The Joy Store and the Glens Falls National Bank are on my right-hand side. These are the last things that I will ever see. The bank clock reads 12:05. I close my eyes as my heart races faster and faster.

Suddenly I feel the car jerk rapidly to the right. I open my eyes. He must have whipped the car into the Joy Store parking lot.

“Shit how am I going to stop this car? No emergency brake either.”

I see him press for backup to no avail.

Dad whips the door open and sticks his left foot on the pavement. He wears heavy black shoes with a thick rubber bottom. Normally, they make his 5’3” portly frame appear 2” taller. Now, smoke trails from the gummy soles.

“Fucker! My foot’s on fire!”

How’s he going to stop a car with his foot? Wait didn’t Fred Flintstone do that? I repress a laugh. Sicko. Why do you want to laugh at time like this? Still, I can’t help it.

We are nearly the whole length of the parking lot, and the car is still moving. He turns the car sharply, again. To the left this time.

I see palettes of fertilizer stacked high. Oh no we’re going to hit that.

Crash. I’m not wearing my seat belt. Neither is Dad. He doesn’t believe in them. I recall his refrain, “No one can tell me to wear a seat belt. This is America. Communist bastards!”

 I lunge forward. Several of the fertilizer bags topple over. Are we alive?

Yes! He jumps out of the car instantly, and proudly pronounces, “You’re Father’s a genius! Because of my evil Brother, we could have been killed and God knows who we else we would have killed. Not bad for an old man, huh? I knew a sharp right into the parking lot was the only way. Then when I saw those palettes…”

Oh, he ran into those on purpose.

 A Joy Store employee comes running toward us. “Sir—

Dad responds motioning with his hands, “Yes, I lost my brakes. I’m sorry but I had to run into these palettes to avoid killing someone. Listen, my nephew, Ronny is the manager of this store. Just tell him Uncle Tom is here.”

Obligingly but perplexed the cashier makes his way back to the store.

“Boy, thank God my nephew is the manager here, huh Jenny? I bet they’re going to be a little pissed I knocked a fucking ton of fertilizer down. I’d like to kick my brother’s ass right now!”