1985: A Surprise Portrait

I lick the chocolate from a frosted cake donut while Dad and I walk around Lake George. He turns to me, exclaiming, “Boy you really love those chocolate covered donuts, huh kiddo? They’re okay. But not great like they used to be when Daddy was a kid. The chocolate was real back then. Not like this chemical shit they make today. And the bear claws! You should have seen them.”

He grips both hands into fists to approximate the size of the donuts. “Those bear claws were Daddy’s favorite for sure.” I stare at him. Is it bad to like the chocolate more than the bear claws? The frosting on those tastes gross.

He nods. “That’s okay. Poppa’s got a clean napkin when you’re done.

I lick each finger before taking Dad’s napkin. Yum. Why can’t we have donuts every day for breakfast?

When we arrive at George’s Restaurant, Dad buttons his chef’s coat over his shirt. I notice a faded ketchup stain on the cuff. Why do Dad’s pants have black and white squares? And why didn’t he put his chef’s hat on today?

“Jenny I want you to stay next to Daddy. He motions for me to come closer. “Right here. Good. Next to the chopping table. Remember when you used to sit on Daddy’s shoulders for hours while I worked?” I glance up at him. “Yes. Well you’re too big for that now. So Daddy’s going to teach you something very special today.”

He removes the long silver blade from its sheath. Dad explained last week that chefs, like him, call it a butcher knife.

Today he takes the sharpening blade out too. I watch mesmerized as he clashes the butcher knife against the spear. Top over bottom. Bottom over top. Over and over. The cadenced metallic clang alarms and soothes me at once.

When he finishes wiping the blade edge on a clean towel, Dad looks at me and asks, “How’d ya like that? Your Pop is one hell of a chef, right?” I shake my head, yes.

From his back pocket, he removes a tattered grey book. “You see this, Jenny? This was my Father’s book, and one day it will be yours. Because no one else in my family is ever going to give a rats ass.”

Dad opens the book to reveal a diagram. He points. “That’s a pig. This one is a cow. Every cut of meat is here in these two illustrations. Every chef has to be a butcher too. We have to know every cut by heart.”

He points to the uneven lines drawn over the outlined animals. “Not many people know what your Father knows and one day I’m going to teach it all to you. You might have been too young to remember, but Daddy took you along when I slaughtered some pigs. You were a good girl. Just stood there and didn’t cry.”

I stop listening to Dad for a moment to see if I can remember the pigs. There was that place with a fence and a barn, and Daddy was with another man. But I can’t recall the ‘slotter’ part. Does Daddy mean he killed the pigs? A chill runs down my back.

By the time I look up, he is waving for me to help carry lettuce from the cooler. Dad lines up twelve heads of iceberg on the chopping block.

“Daddy will teach you how to chop like a real chef today.” I shrink. Today?

He winks but doesn’t grin. “This is very serious business. Daddy doesn’t ever want you to be afraid of a knife. You can’t cut yourself. Did you hear me? You can’t ever cut yourself. Not if you chop like a I’m teaching you.” Daddy, can I just watch today?

He rolls a head of lettuce toward his knife. Dad quickly slices through the middle of the sphere, and places the flat side down. He rests his left knuckles against the rounded outer edge.

“Now look at your Father. This is the right way. You never hold your goddamn hand like this.”

He unfolds his fingers laying them out flat and brings the blade over them.

“See. You’d cut your goddamn finger off in a heartbeat trying to do it this way. And it would slow you down. Cooking is about expedience!”

Dad quickly rolls his fingers back under his palm. He chops briskly. The blade blurs. Dad purposely brings the knife against his hand. I wince. No! Don’t watch. “See. Did you watch? I told you. You can’t get hurt.” I exhale as Dad reveals his unscathed knuckles.

‘Tomorrow, I’m going to show you how to use the peeler. Always pull it toward you. Never away like these amateur morons. That way you have all the control. But for now, come here and put this butcher knife in your right hand.” My hand quivers as he places the blade’s handle in my grip. He pulls up a chair so I can reach the chopping block.

“Now what do you do with your left hand?” I curl my fingers under reluctantly. “Whoa! Hold it!” Dad flicks my thumb. Ow.

“What’s that doing out there? You want your thumb chopped off?” I shake my head, no! Dad shoves my hand closer to the lettuce.

“Uh. Wait a second. Hold the knife straight. Not on an angle! And not so tight. You’re gripping that handle too tight.” I watch as he flicks his wrist back and forth and then straightens it. It’s heavy, Dad.

My eyes gloss over as I begin my first few chops. Don’t cut yourself! He’ll scream and turn purple.

After a few minutes, I feel the blade slicing through lettuce with ease. You did it. Like a chef. Like Dad.

“Good girl. That’s enough for today. Daddy’s so proud of you! You’re my daughter for sure.”

I set the butcher knife down as George, the owner, walks into the kitchen. I pull Strawberry Shortcake toy out of my skirt pocket, and sniff her hair. Ahhh, I love you Strawberry Shortcake. We did it.

Dad’s raises his voice. He faces George head on. “Fuck you, George, you mother fucking bastard. This is my kitchen and I will instruct the waitresses to do as I see fit.”

George snaps, “Tom, this is my restaurant. I’m the owner, and if you want to work here, you’ll have to do things my way.”

“Oh no, you cock-sucker. Chefs run their own kitchen. You think I’m a dumb fucking Greek, huh?”

George shrinks slightly under Dad’s glare.

“See, that’s where you’re wrong. Because chef Tom knows you’ve been fucking some of these waitresses and unless you want me to drive a fucking bus through the front window of this place, you’ll give me control of this kitchen.”

I crouch behind a corner, gripping Strawberry Shortcake until my sweat coats her glossy skin.

“Tom, I think you better go home for the day. Nobody threatens me in my own restaurant.”

With one blow, Dad pops George in the nose. Even with my eyes closed, I feel Dad grip my hand and drag me out of the back door.

Dad keeps swearing as we walk. Mother fucking, cock sucking, no good piece of shit.

After a couple blocks, we reach my favorite shop on the strip, Tom Tom. Dad browses the pocket knives while I examine a pair of beaded pink moccasins. Dad catches me. “You like those?” I shake my head up and down. He smiles and says, “Good. We’ll take these in my her size.”

Outside the shop, a man sits on a metal stool next to a tall wooden frame. Dad walks up to the man. “Hi, my name is Tom and this is my daughter, Jenny.”

“Nice to meet you, Tom. My name is Ron. Ron Peer.”

“You a painter, Ron?”

“Yes. I paint portraits.”

“That’s perfect. I’ve always wanted a portrait done of my daughter. I’ve got the money. We’ll be your first customers today.”

“She’s very young. Can’t be more than four years old. It might be difficult for her to hold still. It takes quite a while for me to paint a portrait.”

“Nah. She’ll be fine. She does what Dad says, right honey?” I stare at Ron while he mixes oil paint on his palette.

“Okay, then. I’ll do my best, then.”

After a few minutes, I begin squirming on the stool. This is so boring. Why did Dad want to do this?

Ron instructs me, “Try to hold still, honey. I know it’s hard. But I’m working on your face and I have to get that right, okay?”

Dad glares at me. I wring my hands, nervously. When will the painter man be done?

Finally, Ron puts his brush down and shows the canvas to Dad.

“Wow. That’s fantastic work. But what about her arms and hands?”

“I’m sorry, sir. She was just fidgeting too much for me to do that part, but it’s a perfect likeness of her face.”

“I can’t argue with that. How much do I owe you?”

“It’ll be two hundred dollars, sir.”

Dad rolls out ten crisp twenty-dollar bills. And shakes Ron’s hand. “Well, I’m still disappointed that you couldn’t paint her hands, but I have to admit, you’re one hell of an artist.”

While we make our way back to the apartment, Dad turns the painting toward me, “You like it, baby girl?”

I nod.

“Daddy always wanted to have this done. You’ll have it forever, you know?”

I stare at the oil strokes that compose my face. So that’s what you really look like?

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!”

1997: Good Samaritans

“Jenny, I’m going to rest for a few minutes.”

Finally. Now you can get some homework done.

I call back, “Okay, Dad. I’m just going to work on my math assignment.”

I settle down at the kitchen table and open my notebook. Honestly, Course III started off as my least favorite class this year. I like math, but my teacher is really stern.

She’s stricter than the nuns at Catholic school. And you’re such a pussy. You were afraid she wouldn’t give you an A and he would kill you.

 But so far, I got it wrong. This is my best math course since 6th grade.

Just as I start setting up the word problem, I hear “knock, knock.” I jump at the sound and my heart is pounding. Jenny, you don’t ever answer the fucking door unless you know who it is. Do you understand Daddy? Ask your brother and sisters what happened to them when I tricked them and they answered the door when they shouldn’t have! You just can’t trust anybody. Too many psychos out there. You see the news everyday just like Daddy.

 I wince at the memory of Dad’s “secret knock.”

Just go to the door and look through the peephole.

 But I don’t see anyone. Wait! A little girl is standing there. I forget about Dad and open the door softly.

She gazes down, her blonde hair falling softly across her cheeks. I see myself in her at that age. Maybe 9 or 10. Shy. Who is she?

 “Can I help you honey?”

She stammers reluctantly, “Ummm, I heard there is a man who lives here who helps people.” She corrects herself, “That the people who live here help people.”

My eyes widen. My mouth drops open. Of course we’ll help.

 I assure her, “Okay, come in and wait here. Let me get my dad.” You’re so overwhelmed you forgot to ask her name.

I bolt up the stairs so Dad doesn’t startle when I call out. I try not to let him see my eyes well up as I tell him, “A little girl is downstairs. She told me that she heard from someone that ‘the people who live here help people.’”

“You have to come right a–” He hinges automatically upright before I can finish.

I observe Dad in his element. He has a purpose again. A mission. He introduces himself and quizzes the girl. “Hi, I’m Tom. Everyone calls me Uncle Tom, though.” He points to me, “And this is my daughter, Jenny. Tell me what happened honey, and I’ll see if I can help.”

She looks relieved. “My daddy lost his job last month and we don’t have any food.”

Dad doesn’t question her further, except to find out where she lives. She points out the window, “The apartments across the street. Unit 12F.” Excitedly, he responds, “Be careful walking back home and tell your parents that we will be there within the hour.”

As soon as she leaves, Dad says, “Jenny get me that huge box out of the water heater closet.” I work my way past the enormous roll of herbed contact paper, and fetch the corrugated container. I stand at attention waiting to receive further instructions.

But Dad has already crawled onto the counter so he can reach the highest cabinets above the stove and fridge. In a flash he hands me the paltry contents of our cupboards to load into the box. Two cans of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup, four packs of dehydrated Ramen noodles, a box of Bisquick, a jar of peanut butter, and a package Little Debbie choc-o-rounds. Our food for the next two weeks until Dad gets his disability check.

“Aghh, Jenny. We don’t need this food. You and Daddy, we’ll be fine. Did you see the look on that little girl’s face?”

Now we have no food. I crumble inside as I see him hand me the last item. But I’m not surprised. I want to help her too. But I’m scared for us. Well at least you can mope in peace for five minutes while he delivers this box across the road.

 Instead he orders, “Come on! Get your shoes on,” while hoisting the large box up on one shoulder. “We have to go fill this baby to the top.”

Dad makes his way over to our neighbors units. One by one, we knock on doors. He tells people that a neighborhood family is in trouble. They are starving. I’m amazed. Can by can, package by package, the box overflows with generosity.