1987: The Curse

At the counter, I take a piece of paper and fold the bottom half into the middle. I bend the two top sides inward to meet the lower flap, sliding my thumb across the triangular edge. The last downward fold forms my paper envelope.

I inspect my work to make sure the edges line up. Envelopes are for grown ups. Because they have envelopes at the post office. And the post office is special because people have P.O. boxes there.

I make up a P.O Box address for the front of my envelope. While I draw on the scalloped edges of my stamp, 25 cents, I hear Dad yelling behind me. “Christ! Don’t fall out you son of bitch!”

A quick swivel of my stool reveals Dad gripping his giant two-handled saucepan while flipping it upside down. I hold my breath to see where the cake will land. Last time it was on the floor. And Sister Nancy ran in to see why Dad was screaming.

“Fuck! Ah! Good, you little bastard. Ol’ Tommy is smarter than you. You can’t beat a Greek.”

The chocolate cake lands safely on the silver tray. Steam roars out—fogging Dad’s glasses. The cake stands tall. Like the hat—the striped one from Cat in the Hat.

Dad walks around the butcher-block island to examine his masterpiece. “Look at this dark chocolate cake, Jenny Leigh.” It’s Daddy’s best one yet. Pillsbury dark chocolate cake mix. It’s the only one to use—as good as your Father could make it homemade. Just wait ‘til the nuns see this! They never had a cake like this for a picnic.”

Freshly baked cake smell drifts in my direction. My stomach growls. I hold my belly and turn back to my stamp artwork to distract myself. Behind me, Dad changes the paddle on the mixer so he can make chocolate frosting.

How come he can’t make you a cake? How come there’s always frosting on cakes? It tastes too sweet. He should let me have a piece before he ruins it.

I carefully place my envelope in my backpack. Don’t wrinkle, perfect little envelope.

At the counter, I stare at Dad hoping he will read my mind.

“Oh you came to watch Daddy? That’s good. I like it when you watch me. That way you learn and someday you will be a first class chef—just like your old man.”

My eyes meet his and then I glance back at the cake.

“Smells good doesn’t it?” Nod. Yes!

“Wait ‘til Daddy gets that dark chocolate drizzled over the top!” I shake my head. No!

“What you don’t like Daddy’s frosting? I know you do. You must. It’s the best in the world.”

“No Daddy. I don’t like it. I hate it. I like the cake plain.”

“Oh. Well, so what you’re telling me is that you want a piece right now?”

My stomach growls again. “Yes, please!”

“Well, there’s no way. No way, I can just cut a piece for you before everyone else eats it later? The cake is too thick. I could never fill in the hole.”

“Please, Dad? I’m so hungry.”

“No, honey. I’m sorry. But you have to learn patience.”

No it’s not fair. You’re always patient. And squeeze Daddy’s feet and back for him. No one ever does anything nice for you.

I glare at him. “I hate you, Dad. I hate you! And I wish you would die.”

“Oh my Christ. Did you just put a curse on your Father?”

What’s a curse?

“You did! You little shit. I know that look. My mother was a witch, you know, and she was cursed by a witch.”

Dad’s speech makes me forget about the cake.

“Fine. Will you remove the curse if Daddy cuts you a sliver?”

I don’t know if I should nod. But I do, so Dad will give me what I want.

“Fine, but it has to be just a sliver. My God, I’ll have to slave over it to fill that in.”

The thickness of the cake consumes the paper plate even though white bits peak through the thinnest parts.

I inhale deeply. Ahhh. A lovely chocolate cake, just for you.

Dad loads the nuns’ faux-wood station wagon. Cake goes in next to last. Followed by me, Sisters’ Nancy, Joan, Patricia, Mary and Dad.

No one will ever know about the missing piece of cake.

Dad soaks up rave compliments, especially for his famous potato salad and of course the chocolate cake.

On the way home, the motion of the car makes me drift into a deep sleep. What? What’s going on?

When I open my eyes, we are on the side of the road. I hear Dad saying, “The tire’s completely flat. Of course—my bad luck!”

Sister Nancy tells Dad there’s no such thing as bad luck. She says, “God knows what’s best for us all Chef, Tom.”

“Ack. No disrespect, Sister. But you don’t know my family. My daughter did this. Jenny put a curse on me.”

No I didn’t. I swear Daddy. I don’t even know what a curse is. You made that up, Daddy.

As Dad continues despite Sister Nancy’s protests, I hunker down in the seat. He’s going to be very angry with you later. When they’re all gone. No one will be able to protect you.

“Listen. Jenny said she was cursing me if I didn’t give her a sliver of that chocolate cake I made. She said I was going to die. I know of her powers more than she does, so I cut her the cake, even though it was the wrong thing to do as a parent. But she wouldn’t quit. Because the piece was too small for her, she said I would get a flat tire for my punishment instead of dying.”

No. No! Those are lies. I didn’t say that! I never said anything about a tire. I just wanted a piece of cake. I swear. I’m not a witch. I don’t have powers.

Sister Joan reaches for my hand and gives it a squeeze while Sister Nancy frowns through the rear window.

After Dad changes puts the spare tire on—no one says a word as Dad drives back to the convent. Except for me. I say a prayer. Dear God, I’m not a bad girl. I don’t know what a curse is, but I probably shouldn’t have told Dad I wanted him to die. Please don’t let him hurt me.

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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.

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.

1986: Lab Rats

Knock. Knock. Knock…on the steel motel door. Mom?

Dad springs from his nap and squints through the glass door hole. When will I be tall enough to see through there?

He cautiously opens it after a moment of consideration. A man and a woman dressed in white coats confirm Dad’s identity.

Sir, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Dr. Vasquez and this is my colleague, Dr. Mirabelle from Duke University. We have been studying genetic causes of the disease, Neurofibromatosis. Our studies led us to your family. Normally the disease skips several generations but we found your family to be an anomaly in that sense.”

Dad shakes his head. “Oh good, Doctor. I’m glad you people found us. Duke University, you said? That’s a good college. I’ll gladly help if it means getting these things cut off me one day.”

They’re here to cut Dad’s body up?

When Dad waves his digits in my direction, I flinch. “This is my daughter, Jenny. She doesn’t have the bumps. Thank God.”

Dr. Mirabelle lays a leather case on the edge of the bed. This causes the bumpy orange and brown coverlet to drag on the carpet. “Thank you for the information. What we would like to do, with your permission is perform a preliminary test on you today. Perhaps we could perform the same test on your daughter as well?”

No! I don’t have bumps! Dad just told you that. No cutting, please.

“Okay, doctor. Where do we have to go for the test?”

“It’s a simple test which involves us inserting a few eye drops to determine if you carry the disease within your genetic structure. We would be doing the same test on your daughter, right here.”

“Let’s do it. Hey, I have a question for you? How long did it take you to become a doctor?”

Dr. Mirabelle ignores Dad while proceeding to snap open the leather case while Dr. Vasquez examines him quizzically.

Dad clarifies. “I know it must be at least 12 years right?” He points at me, again. “Because I told my daughter, Jenny, here that she has to become a doctor one day and cut these things off of me.”

I imagine blood squirting from bumps covering Dad’s body. No. I’ll never become a doctor. It’s too scary.

With a smile, but no answer, Dr. Mirabelle approaches Dad with a small plastic bottle in her right hand. Dad tilts his head back. Drip. Drop. Both doctors examine his eyes, holding the top and bottom lid open with their thumb and first finger.

They don’t talk while they inspect him. They just nod and make small gestures.

I consider bolting out the steel door. Run before they get you.

But I don’t know where I’d go if I run. I imagine an angry family of cockroaches waiting for me in the dank hallway to avenge the one Dad killed yesterday. A shiver runs down my spine. I back against the wall between the kitchen and the bed, waiting my turn.

Dr. Mirabelle extends my eyelid. She assures me, just a single drop and a look. Ouch. It burns. It burns. Once they are finished, I stay pressed up against the wall like a dried out piece of gum stuck to the bottom of a shoe.

They ask Dad a few more questions, and shake his hand. “Thank you for participating in our research. It will help us immensely in finding the genetic basis for this disease. Also, you should be aware that you don’t have the markers, what we refer to as lisch nodules, for Neurofibromatosis in your irises. Neither does your daughter. Our finding should confirm that none of your children have this disease.”

Dad nods and smiles generously at their response. “See, Jenny, Daddy knew I wasn’t supposed to get these fucking things on my body. It’s part of the curse that no good gypsy woman put on my goddamn mother for being cheap. She cursed our whole family. Even you. That’s why your Father had to have you. God wanted that curse broken, and you’re the only child who can do it.”

I imagine my grandmother and the gypsy woman. What’s a curse? Is that why Daddy rode that dragon? How can I break the curse?

1988: Knickers

When the recess bell rings, we all charge out the front doors and race across the playground toward the brick wall. Sure enough, Dad waits for us by the secret archway with a fresh shipment of popsicles. My classmates shout “Mr. K, I want orange…I want cherry…grape, please…” over one another.

Dad grins. “Yes, Yes, children! Don’t worry. Mr. K brought plenty for all of you.”

Why does he do this for my friends? Some of them aren’t even my friends. Is this his orphanage?

I wait until the herd clears to grab the last grape flavor. Dad slaps my hand—knocking the Popsicle back in the box. “Jenny. You know better! Come back to the convent for a minute while Daddy washes it for you first. Who wants to eat all that nasty glue they put on there.” I salivate as the dribbles of water re-freeze along the sides on the Popsicle. “Thanks, Dad. Got to get back to the playground now so I don’t get in trouble.”

“Okay, I’ll see you at 2:15 sharp. Just come back to the kitchen. Daddy won’t walk over to pick you up today. I have too much cooking to do, here. We’re getting ready for this big dinner, tonight. A hundred nuns.”

For the remainder of recess, we play red rover. You’re fast. They’ll never catch you. You’re home free. I tag the brick wall so hard that pieces of mortar cling to my hands. Ouch!

At 2:15 we line up as instructed. Dismissed. I bolt once again toward the brick archway, tagging the chain link gate as I cross the finish line.

I pass the gravel parking lot—sights set on the back kitchen door—when I notice Sister Jean outside gardening. Dust flies up as I halt suddenly. “Hi Sister, Jean.”

“Oh, Hi Jenny. How was school today?”

“It was good. We got to play red rover, and we’re learning multiplication. I like multiplication much better than subtraction.”

“That’s wonderful news, Jenny. I know your Father will be looking for you so you best run along to the kitchen. I’m sorry we haven’t had a talk this week, yet. I’ve been very busy getting the grounds cleaned up for fall. I hope you will stop by my room, tomorrow. I love it when we pray together.”

I nod and smile. I love you Sister Jean.

Dad stops chopping onions and looks up at the clock. “You’re late, Jenny.”

“Sorry, Dad. I saw Sister Jean outside on my way in. I just stopped to be polite.”

“Okay good. You don’t want to make your Father worry about you. Not with crazy people out there abducting babies. You remember everything I taught you right?”

“Uh-huh.” Run, scream bloody murder, never go with them, they’ll kill you anyways.

“Good, now do Daddy a favor. I want you to get the ketchup out and squeeze some into the bowl slowly as Daddy mixes the meatloaf.” I hold my breath to block out the smell of the onions and raw ground beef. “Hold it! That’s perfect. Dad scoops a bunch of raw meatloaf in his palm and molds it. See, Jenny. It’s perfect. Daddy’s teaching you to be a first class chef one day.” Someday I’ll never touch food again. I’ll hire a chef to cook for me.

Pleased with his work, Dad declares a five-minute break, outside. “Hey, how did your friends like the popsicles?”

“They really liked them, Dad.”

“Good. I don’t know what it is, but your father always had a thing for being good to kids. I think it’s because we grew up poor with nothing. Your Father starved, you know. Many times, I would get nothing but lettuce with salt on it for dinner. This was back in the 1940s. You know my Father would only give my poor Mother a dollar a week to feed sixteen kids. He was one of the foolish Greeks. While every other family was buying up land cheap and owning restaurants, he was gambling like a fool.”

Dad shakes his head at the memory and continues, “God has a plan for you and your Father, Jenny. I know he brought me to this convent for a reason. One day, your Father is going to take this place and turn it into an orphanage—like I told you—so poor kids will never go without again.” I look at Dad sheepishly, not sure how to respond.

Godmother Madeline breaks the silence by pulling up in her frosted blue Plymouth. She unloads two large black garbage bags from the trunk. “Thomas, I was at the Salvation Army today and picked up some clothes for Jenny.” Madeline hands me a brown wool coat—suggesting that I try it on. I cringe. Is it dirty?

While I lean on the hood of our new white Oldsmobile, she pulls out several pairs of checkered wool pants, too.

Impatiently, Dad interrupts, “Madeline, Jesus Christ! They’re knickers! That’s what kids who were dying-dead-poor during the depression wore. I’m not putting my daughter in that garbage.”

“Now Thomas, you shouldn’t judge an honest gift that came from the heart. Just take the clothes. They will be good for Jenny.”

The regional dinner for the sisters goes off without a hitch. Dad seems to have forgotten about his earlier annoyance with Madeline, but on our way home, He really opens up on the Northway. We’ve only owned the new car for two weeks. Dad says, I wouldn’t have bought this piece of shit if I realized it was a Diesel engine!” I stroke the fuzzy burgundy interior. I hope we have this car forever. It’s so nice.

Dad glares at me intently at me, now. “Jenny, I want you to open the back windows. And when I say, so that there’s no other cars around us, throw those goddamn garbage bags full of rag-clothes out the window.”

I look at him as if to resist. I hate the clothes. They’re itchy. But Godmother was just trying to be nice.

But Dad persists. “Now! Well, don’t just stare. Hurry up and throw those bags—both of them—out the goddamn window before someone sees us.”

Obedient, I watch as the bags bounce on the inky pavement behind us. What will Madeline say when I never wear the clothes?

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?

1989: The Return

Mom’s navy blue pump catches on the doorjamb as enters our hotel room. Once inside, she peeks from left to right. Kitchenette, television, bathroom, tweed couch, and bedroom. What if she’s sad because we live in a stupid hotel instead of a real house like the McCarthy’s or the Thompson’s? What if she leaves again like last time?

Instead Mom arranges her luggage on the bed and faces Dad with a beaming smile. He returns the smile. “Deborah, I’m so happy you’re home from California. This is going to be the best thing for our daughter, you know. She needs a woman. She needs a mother.”

Pretending not to hear him, Mom squeals, “Tommy, come here! I want to show you some of the gifts I brought back for you. They’re all from the Casual Male shop in Cali where I worked as assistant manager. I’m going to miss it out there, but I got a fabulous deal on all these clothes for you.”

Dad soaks up the attention as Mom pulls out new silk shirts for him. “If we’re going to be together, Thomas, I want you to look good. More like when I met you.”

“Oh yeah, I used to dress good back then.” Dad turns toward me. “Your mother always liked my khaki suits, Jenny. Of course those were the days when you were just a figment of our imagination.”

Dad winks at Mom. She grins back and rolls her eyes. “Oh, Thomas! You were a bad boy.” Why do they get along now? They fought so much when Daddy would call her on the payphone every week last year.

Mom holds shirts and pants up against Dad’s frame while he talks with his hands. This is kind of boring.

I zone off toward the large mirror that hangs opposite my bed. Where you stuffed your nightgown last week after watching the Huxtables. Dad almost caught you admiring your chest when he woke up after his four-hour nap. I shudder at the memory while Mom feels around the bottom of her suitcase and pulls out two silk ties. “Tommy, I know you don’t like ties, but these were each a hundred and fifty dollars.”

Dad grabs one tie from Mom’s hand. He inspects it carefully. “You know me so well, Deborah. I don’t usually wear ties, but I love this one. The colors are perfect. That, and the fact that you bought it for me.” When he lays it on the bed, I see the chocolate brown and blue swirly design.

He’s so happy. Wonder what Mom brought back for you?

Patiently, I await Mom’s gifts. I’m here, Mom. I missed you.

“Tommy. Hold up! I’m not done, yet.” Dad turns back toward me. He looks sorry somehow.

Mom continues, “Here’s the best one!” She pulls out a buttery-yellow leather backpack. It’s perfect. I love purses and bags!

My eyes grow wide. Dad eyes grow wide. “Yes it’s real leather, Tommy. Go ahead. Feel it.” Wait? It’s for him?

“Jesus. Deborah. You must have paid four hundred for this.” Mom doesn’t seem to care about money today. “It was a lot, but I wanted you to have it.” She unsnaps the two outer pockets, but the moment has passed.

I hang my head. She forgot about you. But that’s okay. She’s back. Hope they won’t act like this all the time.

“Jenny Penny! Mom brought a little something back for you too.” I knew it. She didn’t forget you! Maybe your bag is pink or purple?

She pulls out a small stuffed bear with a red ribbon tied around his neck. I don’t immediately walk toward her. So she brings the fuzzy animal to me.

I look up at her. Not exactly what you wished for. “Thank you, Mom.”

“Of course, honey. Mom wouldn’t forget about you.” Her copper ringlets graze my cheek as she leans forward to kiss my forehead.

Dad motions to her. “Hey Deb, we better hang these shirts and things up. I don’t want any of this stuff you paid a fortune for getting wrinkled to shit.”

“Good point, Tommy.” Mom turns on her heel and heads back toward Dad’s pile of gifts.

While she attends to the chore, Dad leans over and whispers in my ear. “Don’t worry. That backpack will be yours one day, Jenny.”

I glance toward one buttery yellow strap that hangs off the edge of the bed. You can wait.