1997: Training to Win

“Jenny if you want to do this cross country shit, it isn’t gonna be like last spring when you ran track. Daddy’s going to be your coach. No more galloping like you’re a motherfucking horse. That’s not running.” Dad shakes his head in disgust.

“Dad I had shin splints.”

“No wonder! The way you ran.” Well maybe if I could have done a sport before sixteen years old…maybe then I wouldn’t be the 7th grader afraid of playground slides, and the 8th grader who couldn’t stand up on roller skates, and now the girl who can’t run.

“Don’t worry, if you really want to do this thing, Daddy’s going to train you my way. The Marine Corps way.”

I glare at him and avert my gaze. I’ll just do it according to my real coach.

“You’re going to have to make Daddy a promise though: You can’t tell anyone that you’re training. If one of your friends asks, you tell them that you haven’t been practicing. Loose lips sink ships, you know.”

Jesus. I’m not that competitive. I just want to run. I want to be with my friends. And not totally suck.

I nod to satisfy Dad’s terms.

“B—but you can’t run with me, Dad.”

“Of course not. Daddy’s too old and fat now. But back in my younger years—you can ask your mother or any of your sisters—Daddy was fast. Man could I run.”

I stare at him confused. You’ll have a heart attack if you run with me now.

Dad winks and grins. “I’m going to ride my bike alongside you. That way I can time you. And make sure some fucking psychopath doesn’t try to kidnap you.”

I try to envision Dad riding his bike slow enough to keep pace.

“Don’t worry about your Father. I’ll manage the bike.”

I walk past Dad and head for my room.

“Where are you going, Jenny?”

“To my room.”

“Training starts now.”

“Umm-okay—well.”

“Nope. And Daddy’s no easy trainer. But better than my drill instructors. The bastards used to throw a 50-pound foot locker on Daddy’s chest.”

“For today, because I don’t have weights for your ankles and wrists, you’re going to run with a backpack on.”

“But—coach said…”

“Fuck the coach. Daddy knows how to make you a winner. You need the extra weight. That’s how they train champions.”

Dad loads up my knapsack and we go for a jog. Four loops around the block. One mile.

When I turn the corner toward the complex, my face begins to burn. My stomach turns.

“Don’t slow down now. Harder. You have to push really hard for the last bit. Come on! Daddy knows you can do it!”

Shut up, you bastard. I’ll push harder. Pretending I’m running to the ends of the earth. Faster. Anything to escape you.

My feet don’t stop when I reach the front door. I push into the brass letter “C” with my right hand.

Holy shit. You’re going to die. Or throw up.

I bend over. Grip my abdomen. Wheeze unevenly.

“Jenny, what the fuck are you doing? This is the most important part. Stand up and breathe normally! When you feel like it’s going to kill you, you have to breathe normally.”

One day, I’ll kill you. Lay off!

I attempt to stand and take breaths. Shit. It’s actually helping.

“See. What did Daddy tell you? And your time was great for our first run together. Just wait until you start school next month!”

God this is going to suck. But you know how this has to go. You have to do it his way. And then you can have something. You can fit in. At least a little bit.

I turn the faucet on cold and fill my glass with water. Gulp. Gulp. Guzzle.

“Hey. Watch how fast you’re drinking that water! You’re stomach is going to blow up huge!”

You’ll never do anything right. Get used to it.

The phone rings. Dad picks up before the third ring.

“Oh hi, Nancy. Yeah Jenny’s here. How are you doing? That’s good. And how are your parents?”

Poor Nancy. Just give me the phone already.

Dad, sweet as a peach says, here’s Jenny!” to Nancy. He glares at me during the exchange to remind me of our deal.

“Hi Nancy.”

“Hey what’s up? I just got my cross-country letter in the mail from coach today. It’s early this year.”

“Oh really? I didn’t get mine yet.”

“Probably because you’re new to the team. I haven’t started practicing yet. I’m lazy this summer and I like it that way.”

“Haha!”

Dad glares at me through the divider slats as he rocks back and forth.

“So have you starting running yet, Kambie?”

“Oh, um—well—no.”

“Oh thank God. Yeah. I’m not going to start more than a couple days before we start practice. I just want to make sure you’re not going to practice. Or else we could practice together.”

Fuck. Lying is the worst. And you’re bad at it. Thank God this is over the phone.

“Hey. No. That’s a good idea, but I’m lazy too. Maybe in a few weeks.”

Dad motions for me to get off.

“Okay, Nancy. It was good to chat. Listen, I gotta go. But I’ll call you soon.”

“Good, Jenny. I know you don’t understand me now. But one day you will. You’ll understand everything.”

Yeah. Yeah. This better not be like that middle-school class-president shit. The shit that made all of my friends hate me.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

1993: Ante Up

A crisp fall breeze quivers up my spine as we exit Price Chopper supermarket.

Dad waves to someone in the parking lot. Who is that? I squint harder into the blinding afternoon sun. Nothing. Maybe you need glasses?

The mystery man yells, “Hey, Tom!”

Dad bellows back, “Ozzy! Hey-a buddy.”

Oh fuck. It’s Ozzy. What day is it? Wednesday! How much worse could your luck get?

Ozzy leans against his silver Oldsmobile waiting cheerfully for Dad and me to approach. I don’t smile as the grocery bag digs into my scrawny hand. You know what’s coming next. Glare.

“Jeez, Tom we haven’t seen you in forever. The boys ask me about you every week.”

“Ah, sorry Oz. It’s been very busy getting Jenny back to school. Tough being a single father, you know?” Yes we’re very busy. No time for games.

“Well, there’s going to be a good game at my house tonight, if you want to come. I was just picking up the cold cuts and hoagie rolls for later.”

Dad hesitates. Please let him say ‘no.’

“Yeah, I’ll think about it Ozzy. Hey, is the Greek gonna be there?”

“Yes, the Greek, Porky, Jonesey. Everybody. Full house.” So what do they need him for then?

 “Yeah, well, I guess I’ll be there then. Still Eight-o’clock?”

Ozzy shoots back, “Like always!”

I shrivel inside. It’s a school night. A fucking school night!

 As we speed toward home, Dad asks, “Hope you don’t mind if I go to Ozzy’s tonight? You know Daddy hasn’t been in over two months.” Why ask? It’s not a real question. You’re going no matter what I say.

“You’ll just have to do your homework fast when we get home. I won’t have to feed you. Ozzy always has plenty of good food there.” I look out the window to roll my eyes. Yeah. Gross sandwiches.

Defeated, I nod. Yes, yes, yes…to all the bullshit until the day I turn 18.

When we pull into Ozzy’s driveway, a familiar feeling of apprehension encases my body. I wonder how many times you’ve been here in your life?

We walk in the middle of the first game as Ozzy yells, “I’ll take that and raise you a dollar.” The Greek glances up from his hand and announces, “Tommy! Hey guys! The Big Kahuna is here!” Why do they call him that? I guess ‘the Greek’ was already taken.

Dad smiles and nods making his way toward the trays of food. He whispers, “Take a lot. Ozzy won’t mind. He buys way more than we ever eat.” I grab two slices of ham, a piece of provolone cheese and slap them on a hoagie roll. Pass on the crusty yellow mustard.

“Jenny. You’re going to eat it dry like that? God. I don’t know how you do that.” You can’t control everything, can you jerkball?

After all these years, Ozzy doesn’t escort me into the back living room. Instead he calls over, “You know your way, right kiddo?”

Dad answers on my behalf. “Yeah, I’ll just get her settled in. Be right back for the next one guys.”

I fumble for the TV remote in the pitch-dark. “Alright, Jenny. If you need anything, just come and get Daddy.” Don’t worry. I won’t need anything except a new Father.

The light from the TV illuminates the room just enough for me to make out Ozzy’s bumpy tweed sofa. You’ve never actually seen this room in daylight. Weird.

I sit rigid on the sofa at first, waiting for Ozzy’s cat, Muffin to appear. Damn cat gives you the creeps.

After a few minutes, I turn to the guide channel. Ooh! Reruns of Bewitched followed by your favorite, Quantum Leap.

My eyes flutter a bit after two episodes. No. You can’t fall asleep before Quantum. At least Ozzy has cable. I look at the soiled pillow. It’s not like you’ve never laid on it before. Why do you hesitate every time?

Finally, I surrender and lower my head back.

In my right ear…Purrr Purrrr. I jump up. Oh Jesus, Muffins. You almost gave me a heart attack. Now please don’t come near me, sweet little kitty. Muffins and I come to a truce. She brushes past my leg twice and then she retreats to Ozzy’s bedroom once again. Good cat.

I hum the theme in my head as Quantum Leap begins. But Dad roars louder than the music. “Goddamit, I have a fucking full house. Right here. Jesus Christ. Slippery Tony—you son-of-a-bitch! That’s what they ought to call you.”

Shivering, I pull the crochet throw over my legs. Measured, Ozzy tries to calm Dad. “Tom. It’s okay. No need for that. We’re all friends here. Just enjoying a good game of cards.”

“Ahhh, fuck all of you is what I say. I’m the best card player here and you’re all just jealous.”

Shut up. All of you. I just want to watch one show. That’s all I get out of this. Do any of you pigs realize there’s a 12-year-old girl back here who has a history test tomorrow?

I groan as I wake to Dad rocking my shoulder. “Jenny. Jenny. Wake up. It’s time to go. These motherfucking bastards cheat like crazy. I got to get outta here before I punch one of them out cold.”

Eyes still bleary, I fumble for the TV off button. The time stamp reads 2:37 am. He’s leaving early, tonight. Must have been bad.

The boys groan faintly as we exit Ozzy’s. They’d probably kill him if you weren’t here.

The cool afternoon air, now piercingly frigid, slaps me in the face first. Then proceeds to paralyze my muscles one by one. Fuck this. As we get in the car, Dad scrapes some frost off the inside of the window. He peels out of the driveway, and races for home.

“Bastards think your Father is dumb, Jenny. But I do that on purpose. I won about fifty-seven dollars tonight, but they don’t know that. They are all so dumb. Your Father cheats like crazy, but they will never catch on to my system.”

Yeah pretty sure that all the ‘fucks’ and the ‘get the fuck outs’ confirmed that they’re on to your system. Fifty-seven dollars isn’t bad, though. Does this mean we will eat this week, or will you find some other way to blow it?