1995: Ants in the Pants

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

Now the retired taxi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I-m—uh—I’ve almost found it…”

Dad keeps yelling while scurrying out from under the car.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1997: Bye, Bye, Engine!

After the couple next to me finishes making out, I quickly plug in my locker combination.

Okay. You have to read for history in homeroom today. Yeah, fuck that! Skim it. Yes, you’re a horrible person, but who wanted to carry that shit home. Oh and study for bio test in lunch. You’ll still get an A.

My art teacher, Mr. G approaches my locker. He wears his usual uniform: a smug grin, a Florida tan, and crisp white shirt with “TFG” embroidered on the collar. Some days he drives a Mercedes, other days he drives a small burgundy pickup truck.

Confidently, he informs me, “Jenny, I think it’s time for your Father to get a new car!”

I swivel around and look up at him quizzically. I mean Dad needed a new car since 1989, so why pick today to tell me that he drives a piece of shit.

Aware of my confusion, he continues, “Jenny, do you realize what’s happened outside?” He says this as he points to the double doors at the end of the hall.

I shrug, “ummm, no?”

His baritone voice registers louder than usual, “I think your Father’s engine just fell out of his car! Right in the school parking lot!”

Jesus. Keep your voice down G! Why don’t we just broadcast it over the loudspeaker?

I nervously laugh it off, and shake my head while fighting back tears.

You should go out there and see if he’s okay. Screw it. What can you do? You’re not an engine repairperson.

I quickly drop into homeroom and hunker down over my notebook pretending to study for my biology quiz.

When the 2:17 school bell rings, I approach the double doors reluctantly. Is he going to be out there? Was he there all day? Could you really get any less popular?

But as the afternoon sunlight streams across my face, I blink twice at Dad standing next to a hot red car. That car is beautiful!

Son of a—he bought a new car? Wait-a-minute. Shit, that’s Mary’s car.

Dad grins like a Cheshire cat, “Hey, Mary let me borrow her car to pick you up. Didn’t your art teacher tell you what happened to Poppa this morning in the parking lot?”

I gaze toward the pavement. Proof of your guilt.

“Goddamn engine mounts gave way. Right after I let you out.”

How was I spared that embarrassment? Well, almost…

“Daddy thought to himself: how am I going to pick Jenny up? So I just went to Mary and said give me your keys. And she did. Just like that.”

I don’t dare ask, “What are we going to do now?”

1995: Crazy Cabbie

 

The school bell rings. Out of habit I glance up at the wall clock. 2:15 on the dot.

It’s the first day that I don’t have to leave fifteen minutes early to catch the city bus back to our apartment; Dad finally bought a new car.

As I load my backpack full of homework stuff, I spot the icky boys huddled by the iron-latticed windows. They point and snicker. Such dumb asses.

The bullies call out in my direction, “Hey Jenny, looks like your Dad drives a taxi now!”

I hesitate, “No he doesn’t.” Why does your face have to glow bright red every time?

“Well, it looks like him waiting outside for you in a yellow car with black checkers and a taxi sign.”

I lash back, “Shut up, you losers. You guys are so ugly, not even your own mothers would screw you.”

They look at me dumbfounded. Yes, Dad taught me to say that to jerks like you!

 I race down two flights of stairs and make a beeline for my father. The checkers that run alongside the yellow exterior blur together as I approach. I barely lift my head to check for oncoming traffic as I run across the street. I hop in our new cab—backpack and all—in one swift motion.

I can tell Dad wants to sit there and talk for a minute. Let’s go for fuck sake! We’re literally Al Bundy in real life.

Dad’s still beaming, though. “Boy! Thank God for my nephew. My family never does me any favors, especially not my brother’s evil fucking kids. But I gotta say, it was good of my nephew to let me know his cab company was unloading their old taxis for $300 a piece.”

When we get home, Dad inspects the car to see if he can remove the taxi sign and the checkers, but he’s afraid of leaving a hole in the roof. And a new paint job is worth more than the car.

“Ahh, fuck it, Jenny. Eventually, Daddy will find a way to get the checks off and that sign down, but for now, it runs! And that’s all I care about.”

Eventually usually means never.

 The following week, Dad starts hauling people around in the taxi. He never charges, though. More of his fake good Samaritan shit.

 Typically, we take Tammy to work at Taco Bell and then back to her apartment at the end of her shift. Tammy’s not exactly blood-related. She’s my Father’s ex-wife’s brother’s daughter. But for her and everyone else in town, Dad still calls himself, uncle.

Pretty soon the freaks in my class aren’t the only ones noticing the cab.

 Dad bursts into my room, “Jenny, the fucking owner of the cab company called and basically threatened me. He tried to accuse me of using this car as a taxi and competing with him. What an asshole! I told him to mind his own goddamn business and that I was only taking my niece to work every day. That cocksucker better not be following me. He messed with the wrong Greek, because I’m crazy.”

I don’t dare ask what he’s going to do, but I have a good idea.

The next time, Tammy rides in the back seat for her doctor’s appointment. Dad said, “She’s six months pregnant.”

How do these people come into our life? I wonder when Tammy will be out of the picture? Dad interrupts my boredom by swerving swiftly off the road.

He instructs us, “Now, I want both of you girls to stay in the car while I deal with this asshole.”

As he whips the door open and bolts out, I turn around to see what looks like a monster truck right behind us.

What the hell is going on? Oh wait…that must be the taxi guy! Shit.

 Dad walks right up to the truck and starts yelling at the guy inside. I can’t hear the taxi guy’s retort, but it can’t be good as I spy Dad’s neck veins throbbing.

Without warning, Dad plows his right arm into the truck.

Like a bolt of lightening, I barely register the event.

As he starts back toward the car, I swivel around in my seat. Thank God Tammy is here. You know how it is being alone with him after he’s all riled up.

 Dad re-enters with a charge, “That goddamn cock-sucking bastard! That’ll teach him for following me. I outta have his ass arrested for harassment!”

Tammy asks, “What happened Uncle Tommy? I hope I’m not causing you trouble.”

Thank God she asked him, because I don’t know what just went down back there. And I wouldn’t dare…

 “Well, Tammy, your Uncle had to teach that—pardon my language—that fucking asshole that it’s against the law to follow people. He’s pissed off because I bought this old cab from his company, but I couldn’t find a way to get the sign off yet. If they wanted it off, they should have done it themselves. But it doesn’t matter because Uncle’s not afraid of anyone or anything. Bet the bastard never thought a little midget like me could pop him a good one.”

Oh Jesus. He actually punched the guy. I remind myself, No matter what, never challenge him. You will lose. But you already knew that.

 After the confrontation, I wait for the police to arrest Dad, but they never come. The taxi guy disappears too.

He got away with it? I guess it’s not as bad as the time he threatened to drive his car through that restaurant’s window.

 Adrenaline makes Dad anxious for the ponies. “Come one Jenny, I want to go bet the last exacta for Belmont, today.” When we arrive, all the OTB guys kid Dad, “Hey Tom, we heard you were gonna try out for the strong man contest!” What’s the strong man contest? Why does everyone keep asking him that and laughing?

 The realization causes my face to burn again. Oh! Duh! They know he punched the guy out in broad daylight.

But Dad plays dumb. Does he know what they are talking about? Of course he does, you idiot. With his head held high, he places his favorite combination for the exacta, 4-3.

“Come on, Jenny. Let’s go home. Daddy can check the race later. I’m sick of these morons, already.”

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!”