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!”

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1991: Back Together Again

The glorious summer doesn’t last long. Dad is bored again.

We hop in the old red and white Malibu to pick my mother up from the airport. She’s beaming. I note every detail of her outfit: a white sleeveless button down shirt and navy blue and white polka dot skirt with black pumps.

Dad asks, “Deborah, how was your flight?”

“Oh it was great. I love to fly anyways, always did.”

Jesus, are we really going to put her in this old jalopy? Al Bundy’s Dodge isn’t this bad.

 As we ride down the Northway, mom rolls her window down and sticks her head out into the stiff breeze.

Annoyed, dad says, “Deborah, what’s a matter? Are you sick?”

“No Tommy. I’m fine, I can just smell your exhaust and I don’t want to get a headache.”

Shit. She is too good for us! I give this two weeks tops.

 When we arrive at the apartment, mom surveys the place. This takes roughly a minute.

“Tommy, there’s only one bedroom! And why are all of Jenny Penny’s toys in there?”

Because! That’s my bedroom! My first bedroom in my life!

 “Well, Deborah, I gave the bedroom to Jenny. She’s our daughter and I thought she should have it. I just sleep out here on the couch.”

Yeah, and we’re happy this way too!

 “Well, Tommy, we can’t sleep on the couch. We’re adults, we need the bedroom. Jenny will have to sleep on the couch for now.”

Dad shoots me a glance to say, I’m sorry. My hands are tied.

I immediately retrieve my bubblegum pink Barbie corvette from the bedroom. Malibu Barbie is driving and Ken is in the passenger seat. Ken is so dorky looking. Why do I even let him sit near Barbie?

I sit on the couch. My mother hasn’t stopped talking since she got here, but not one word to me.

Who gives a shit if they steal my bedroom. I’ll just watch HBO all night on the couch, and eat potato chips.

The next day, my mother tilts her head out the car window like a permanent fixture. I can see that Dad is fuming.

“Debbie, is the smell really that bad? I can’t even smell anything. I’m afraid you’ll get hurt with your head out the window like that.”

Her heads pops back in long enough to pronounce, “Tommy, we need a new car. This is ridiculous. I can’t stand these fumes!”

“Well, I don’t know about my credit.”

“What about someone in your family? Could someone cosign for us? What about your brother, George?”

“George?! Ha! My bastard brother is so greedy, he’d sell one of his own children for five dollars.”

“I’m serious, Tommy. Let’s go ask him.”

Uncle George is no pushover. He makes my mother give him a grand for this favor.

As we back out of Uncle George’s country house, Mom proclaims, “I can’t believe your brother, Thomas. Taking my money like that. What kind of family is he? And his wife! She couldn’t give us a cup of coffee. I mean, come on! That’s fucking ridiculous. I was ready to go and buy my own coffee and say ‘here, brew this for me.’”

“That’s my no-good brother for you!”

Later that day, we pick up the keys to our new silver 1989 Oldsmobile. It’s the first car we ever bought from a dealer. Usually we walk everywhere until Dad finds someone that will give us a car they were about to scrap for $100.

The new Olds has plush grey interior and burled wood details. There are silver buttons that make the windows go up and down automatically, and cold air vents for summertime.

Even in the back seat, I’m a princess in this car.