1993: Chips in Our Heads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She shakes her head no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1991: Lilacs and Fire Hydrants

Dad taught me the fire hydrant game when I was six. Red ones count for double points today.

Summer foliage hides some of them, even though I already know where each one pokes out. Of course, it’s considered cheating if you call out ahead of time.

Another block, and you can call the splotchy yellow one on the corner of Bay Street and…

Before I am able to point exaggeratedly, Dad pulls off the side of the road in a hurry.

I look at him quizzically as my arm dangles toward an abandoned brick building instead of my secret fire hydrant.

Dad laughs, “Oh you thought you were gonna beat Daddy, huh? Well, don’t worry my child. You’ll have your chance. But first, your Father wants to get some of these beautiful lilacs. If I’m quick, no one will notice.”

Dad sneaks behind the car as traffic whizzes by. I watch as he slices his boot knife through each branch. I can smell the lilac aroma before he lumbers back in the driver’s seat.

Dad hands the lilacs over to me, “Here. Hold these we get home to put them in water. God! What a beautiful deep purple this year. Your Father’s favorite flower, you know.”

I know, Dad. You stopped for them last year too. But did we really have to interrupt our favorite—our only—game we play together?

 Despite my annoyance, I stick my nose down and take a deep breath. I admire each clover-shaped petal. Purple is my new favorite color.

 But then I see them. No! I’m dead!! It like that movie, Invasion of the…

I must be screaming, though I don’t realize it, because Dad’s voice exceeds my own, “Jenny! Jenny! Jenny! Stop the screaming. What is it?”

I hold up my arms to reveal thousands of ants covering me.

“Oh, Jesus! It’s just a couple of little sugar ants. Stop being a pussy, would ya?” Dad tries to brush them off, but there are too many.

Dad pulls to the side of the road just long enough to take the bouquet from my hands and toss them into the road.

“Fucking, shit. I hope you’re happy, Jenny. They’re gone.” Fine. It wasn’t my idea to get them. Maybe you should have checked for bugs first!

 We ride back to the apartment in silence. Even though the fire hydrant game is over, I continue to count them all as we pass by.

1995: Almost Graduation

Dad moseys the old Plymouth down a narrow one-way street to drop me off for school. St. Mary’s Academy. The gothic stone structure always seems out of place standing next to a plastic-cluttered playground and a chain link fenced parking lot across the street.

Dad always says, “The church—with all their money—had this place built over sixty years ago by some famous architect. They even imported the marble all the way from Italy.”

When he made the decision in 1986, Dad pronounced, “Jenny you’re gonna go to the same Catholic school as your Father. In those days, the nuns beat us with thick wooden rulers.” He holds his sausage-link thumb and index finger up to approximate the ruler’s width. “Now it’s illegal for them to do that. But let me tell you, those nuns were as mean as any drill instructor Daddy ever had. Evil—some of them were too. They hated children!”

The car is now idling in front of the main entrance. I hear Dad going on, “You know, Jenny, one time me and my buddy, Gary, got to meet the Pope. We tried to suck the ruby out of the bastards ring, but we couldn’t get it. Can you imagine these so-called men of God wearing jewelry like that? It’s all a farce if you ask your Father.”

I wonder momentarily, why the hell did you send me here then? Ah who gives a shit. You’re in 8th grade. You’re about to graduate, and then you can go off and become the first woman President of the United States.

Basically, I’m a senior around here since the high school shut down in 1989.

Dad snaps me back to reality as he turns to me before letting me exit the cab, “Jenny, why do they have to take you on a senior field trip to goddamn Canada of all places? And to a theme park, no fucking less! You know that you and Daddy hate those kind of places.”

I give him a concealed death glare. I don’t know what I hate because I’ve never been allowed to go to any places!

 He continues, “And besides, you can’t go unless I go. So you better make sure that I am a chaperone for this little trip of yours.”

Defeat. I’m screwed for life. You will never give up. I just want one day without hearing your voice. I want to be cool like other kids, like Jessica, who gets to have boys sleep over. I want a mother. They seem to understand. As usual, I nod, “Okay.”

“Okay what? Make sure I’m on that goddamn bus. I’m not letting anyone take my daughter to Canada without me being there. Did you hear me Jenny?!”

Later that week, all 13 of us pupils, prim and proper, line up outside the stone church. We don’t dare talk in line as we wait to receive our diplomas; we have learned well the consequences long before this point. We are expected to behave perfectly and are shown no mercy should we falter.

Who cares? We don’t require words; we’ve learned to communicate through glances and gestures. We are practically family. No we are family! Brothers and sisters. We grew up together. This is the end; we have finally made it.

Even at the age of 14, we all realize, jokingly, that we will need therapy one day.

I feel proud in this moment and as the organ music begins to sound, I well up with tears for all of our achievements. Don’t lose it now; Get a grip!

Suddenly, Dad comes rushing toward the line with the look of a wild coyote.

“Come on Jenny, let’s get the hell out of here. This goddamn bitch says that you can’t graduate.”

Uh, he said “goddamn” and “bitch” in church. Oh my fucking God. Not graduate? But, I’m an A student.

I see her behind him. The principal, who happens to be a part Catholic nun, part drill instructor. This is not the first time that she and Dad have sparred. This is her revenge.

As I walk out with Dad holding my right arm, she grabs onto my left arm, and says, “Wait, Jenny, don’t leave. Let me explain to you what I told your father. You can graduate today…”

My face is burning red and I spin around to face her. I know in this moment that I will commit a sin that cannot be erased.

“Let me go, you fucking bitch!”

I rip my arm away and watch her face contort in shock. I hear gasps as my father and I make our way out of the church.

The fresh, June air that I breathe tastes surprisingly raw. This moment disappoints me more than any other in my life, so far. Shit. I earned this!

When we get in the car, the maroon vinyl seats stick to my already sweaty silk dress. I roll down my window and ask “What about my class trip tomorrow?”

“Well, that evil cunt ruined that for you too! Naturally, you can’t go now.”

My heads feels like it will permanently hang down at a 45-degree angle. This is his fault. He never wanted you to have fun anyway. He never tries to work anything out; it’s always bullshit drama.

 “Daddy feels bad, but we couldn’t let her push us around. How dare she tell me that you weren’t going to get your diploma, only a shitty piece of blank paper. If we weren’t in church, I would’ve punched that bitch right in the face.”

We drive around town for a while, but I am dazed. After a couple hours, the answering machine blinks red with several messages from my friends.

“Hi, Jenny. We all hope you are okay. Are you coming to the awards ceremony tonight? Will we see you tomorrow? The bus leaves at 7 am.”

How can any of your friends still care about you—the weirdo?

 Later there’s more. “Hi Jenny, this is Sara. I have your awards from tonight. We really missed you. Please call us.”

I want to pick up the phone and say, “No, I’m not okay. Please come and take me away from this prison.

Dad becomes more annoyed with every call, “Don’t these people ever give up? No! We’re not okay. We’re alone again. Just Daddy and Jenny. There’s no mother or sisters or brothers. Nobody really gives a shit about us.”

It’s 8pm. I haven’t eaten anything since breakfast. Dad realizes this and opens the cupboards to reveal the bare ingredients in the apartment: flour, sugar, milk, and a liter of grape soda. Like magic he whips us up some homemade pancakes and “maple” sugar syrup.

1991: A Glorious Summer

Dad and I rumble up to the First National bank in the red and white Chevy Malibu.

“Jenny, the bastards owed you and Daddy this ten-thousand. It’s retroactive, you know. Poppa will never forget the look on the judge’s face when I took my shirt off right in court to show him these bumps all over my body.”

Glad that I was in school that day.

 “That judge said to your Father, ‘Mr. K, I’m granting you your social security disability because I can see that you’re not fit to work.’”

Not because of the bumps, though!

“And that’s what Daddy’s trying to teach you. Never say you can’t. And never ever give up!”

After we open a checking account and get a wad of cash, Dad heads to the apartment complex where we were supposed to live with my mom.

Dad phones the rental office, “Hi, this is Tom. I called about moving to a two-bedroom apartment with my wife. Well, she left, so I’ll only need the one-bedroom now.”

We pick up the apartment keys at the construction office near the airport. Dad enjoys flipping off some crisp hundred-dollar bills for the apartment manager. $700.

“Well, Poppa’s little girl. Looks like we’re going to need some furniture. Better go blow some of this cash. Then, maybe Daddy will still have time to bet the late double.”

Furniture? Oh yeah! We’ve never owned that before.

When Dad pulls into the most expensive furniture store in town, I know he feels like celebrating.

We stay for an hour, and spend a couple grand.

“Well Jenny, Pops thinks you did good for your first time picking out furniture. That Broyhill set we bought for your bedroom is excellent quality. You’ll have it for your whole life.”

I have my own bedroom furniture! It even has a matching desk and chair set. This is my favorite part.

Dad, realizing the time, blurts out, “Shit. We haven’t eaten all day. Let’s get our asses to Wendy’s and get four of those 99-cent junior bacon cheeseburgers. Maybe even a milkshake, if you want it. No cheapening ourselves today, Jenny Leigh!”

I pinch myself to see if I’m still alive. It can’t be happening. We’ve never had more than two 99-cent cheeseburgers and a Coke to share.

 I wonder what else is going to change now that we are rich?

 The next week instead of stocking the fridge with frozen mystery meat, dad buys real fruit, and chicken breasts, and lettuce.

We get cable, but not just any cable. HBO. The first night the new couch and entertainment center arrives, we stay up until 2 am watching Pet Cemetery. That night, I’m too scared to sleep.

 Okay, so some things never change.

 The following month, I turn 10. Dad throws me my first birthday party. It’s at East Field, the park across from our new apartment. The theme is Barbie. My friends from school are invited. Even the girls that I don’t like. But that’s only because they’re snobby.

“Jenny, you have to invite everyone because that’s the way Daddy’s raising you. You’re no better than anybody else. You might be raised better than them, and have more respect for yourself. But, I always want you to do what’s right.”

The next day he takes me to a marching band concert in the park. When we get to the gate, they say, “That will be $30 each.”

I see Dad’s eye flicker a bit, but he hands over the $60.

This time I don’t pinch myself. You’re living in a fairy tale. I fully expect Cinderella’s mice to appear and break out in song at any moment.

This is the most fun thing you’ve ever done in your life. And this is the best summer ever.

 I feel like the puppet, Pinocchio, except I was just turned into a real little girl.