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?

Advertisements

1989: Catholic Charity

My white patent leather Mary Jane’s clip clop as I dash down the marble steps. Each dazzling granite speck stirs me to sing a Christmas jingle. I’m dreaming of a White Christmas…just like the ones I used to know…well you’ve never actually known any, but it’s still a good song.

Christmas vacation. Let’s hope the landlord doesn’t kick us out for not paying rent, again.

Last week, I pretended to play with my Barbie dolls while Mr. Loomis, the motel owner, yelled at Dad. “Sir, you need to pay your rent, or I am going to call the police.” Dad pleaded, “Please, Mr. Loomis, I have a daughter. It’s winter. I’ll have that money to you next week—I promise—just as soon as my next unemployment check comes. I’m waiting for a big settlement from the government, too.” Mr. Loomis’s grumble rings in my ears.

Dad told a lie because the unemployment checks dried up two months ago. Mr. Loomis will be back, just like the Terminator.

I spy Dad standing at the main door, right under the saintly carved archway. He beams with pride. “You ready, Daddy’s little girl? No school for ten whole days!” I smile but I’ll miss the place. I glance back at the Great Hall one last time. Ten days is a long time not to see your teachers. What if Dad just sleeps the whole time?

Before I turn back around to face him, Mrs. Henshack runs towards us with a box. Struggling for breath, she bellows, “Mr. K…so glad to have caught you!” Dad grips my hand tighter. Ouch. What’s did I do?

Mrs. Henshack lowers her voice to a whisper, “Mr. K. some folks in the church community put a few gifts together for you and Jenny.”

Dad’s grip tightens. I squirm my fingers loose. “Thank you, Mrs. Henshack, but Jenny and I don’t need the charity.” She gives him a confused wide-eyed look. I scream, yes, we do need the charity! We’ve never had a Christmas before.

 Mrs. Henshack extends the box toward Dad. “Don’t worry, Mr. K. there’s no shame in taking a gift from the Lord.” Dad takes the box sheepishly and says thank you while making a run for it.

He clomps hastily without making eye contact with anyone. Hey, Joe and Moira’s mom just waved to us. I wave back, timidly, hoping he won’t clobber me when we make it to the red and white Malibu.

Will we have to throw this box out on the Northway like we did with Madeline’s knickers?

“See, Jenny, your Father hates this shit! I’m not raising you to take charity. It’s not because we’re better than anyone else. I just want you to have respect for yourself and I don’t want anyone feeling sorry for us, either.” But I feel sorry for us. Please let us be able to keep the gifts.

As he shuts the back door Dad says, “I’ll probably just throw all this shit in the dumpster when we get back to the motel.” My eyes well up. They were so kind to us. Why can’t we just have one thing?

 We pull in the lot in front of our door, 12B. The brass numbers shimmer against the orange door in the late afternoon sun. 12B. Your prison cell for 10 whole days. And we could have had gifts this time.

 I turn my head away as Dad opens the back door. I can’t bear to watch him carry the box to the trash. “Ahhh, shit, Jenny! I guess they got us all this crap. You and Daddy can at least see what it is. And if there’s any good stuff. But Daddy decides what stays and goes. You hear me?”

I nod profusely while fighting back tears. Will you ever understand him?

Sitting cross-legged on the brown and orange shag rug, I wait while Dad slices the box open.

A winter sweater for Dad. “You know your Father doesn’t wear sweaters, so that’s going bye-bye. Would have been okay when I was skinny and young…”

A decorative tin of butter cookies. “Now that’s what Daddy’s talking about. He rips through the plastic seal and grabs a round wreath shaped cookie. “Yummy. Here, take one.” I pick the brown and white tic-tac-toe square.

A squishy wrapped gift with a red bow. Oh can I open it, please? I’ve never opened a wrapped present before. Dad hands the package to me. I carefully peel all the tape off. “Jesus, Jenny! Open that, today. The cookies are getting stale.”

I tear through the last bit to reveal a bear. A Snuggle bear. No wait he’s a puppet! I wait for Dad’s approval before inserting my hand through the slot. He looks it over to make sure the bear is new. He has his tags. No odor. My very own fuzzy puppet. This is the best Christmas ever.

“Alright, I guess you can keep the puppet, and we can eat these cookies. The rest of this shit is garbage. You know when Daddy was growing up; we never had Christmas, either. It’s kind of hard when there are sixteen kids. We were lucky to get a coloring book and crayons some years. Cold lettuce and salt for dinner most of the time…”

Snuggles and I hear Dad, but we don’t care.

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.

1995: OJ

Calm down! Stop shaking! He would kill you for this display of weakness…but he’s not here.

 I involuntarily continue to tap my feet up and down under my desk. The vibration radiates through my thumb and forefinger causing me to drop my pencil. It’s no use. You can’t concentrate. I glance at the clock. Still only 1:52 pm. Hurry up final bell. It’s the 3rd of the month. Shopping day!

Why do you get so excited when you know you’re going to starve for 28 days after he blows the whole disability check? And he’ll blame you like last month. Just concentrate on this math assignment, for God’s sake!

Yeah, but it’s our day together. Our only thing we do together…because he worries about the bumps…

I recall his words, “Jenny, I’d rather see you have nice clothes than food to eat. Besides, food makes you fat like your old man. You don’t ever want to get fat and look bad in your clothes. Trust Poppa! And you know Daddy doesn’t believe you can spoil kids by buying them things. It’s how they take care of those things and how thankful they are to have them.”

Instead of solving equations, I nervously pick at a checked up edge of my desk while my mind continues to wander toward one of Dad’s routine rants.

“Jenny, you and Daddy have a special relationship. Shopping is our special daddy-daughter thing. It all started with your Father’s family curse—neurofibromatosis—when I was 16. My face was clean and handsome, too. Then the first one appeared on my chin while I was in the Marines. I tried to shave it off twice, but it grew right back. Came from my fucking mother’s side. My father never should have married that woman, but that’s another story. Anyways, your Father never had trouble getting a woman because of these things. But in the 1970s, I went to the beach and a little boy screamed bloody murder when he saw me. The kid thought I was some kind of monster with these things. So after that, Daddy figured, fuck it. Truth be told, I don’t like being around lots of people anyways. That’s why we never go to parks or dirty fucking fairs. Who knows what animals pissed there or what disgusting people do in those public places?”

Could that one event have embarrassed him so long—to last for all these years? Will I get the bumps when I turn sixteen, too? I examine my body each week to make sure none have grown. Just a few ugly brown birthmarks so far.

RINGGGGGGG. At last! I quickly fumble for tonight’s assignments among the rumpled papers stuffed into the bottom of my locker. You really got to clean this mess up, jerk.

Leaping toward the double doors, I spy Dad’s car parked right in front. Please don’t let anyone see you get in the contact-paper car. You’re having enough trouble at this new school. I toss my backpack onto the seat first, and hop in with a giant grin on my face.

Dad wonders aloud, “What the fuck are you so happy about?”

Oh no! He forgot about shopping day. He said we might even go to the good mall this time.

My head hangs while my smile quickly dissolves into despair.

He catches on. “Oh! You think we’re going to the mall today, don’t you?”

I nod. Phew. He remembers! But why does he seem so angry?

“Well you can forget about that today. Your Father is all riled up. Do you know what the fuck happened today? They let that n****r, OJ Simpson—fucking wife killer—off today. Acquittal my ass! He held his hand taut when he tried the glove on. And the fucking thing has his blood on it.”

Dad holds his hand up with all of his fingers spread open like a turkey.

“For fuck’s sake if I held my hand like this, I couldn’t get my hand in a glove either. This is why your Father hates sports players. We give these people way too much power. I want to kill that n****r myself. If Nichole Brown were my daughter, he would have never got away with this shit. Mark my words, Jenny, if you ever try to date one of them, I’ll kill you myself.”

I wince at Dad’s suggestion of violence. I hate you! If you only knew what we learned in school. That people like you are called racists. You should be sent to jail!

He shifts the car out of park, but jabbers on. “Don’t get Daddy wrong. I don’t believe in hurting black people. A lot of them were cleaner and better behaved than white people when I was a little boy living in the city. It was them who didn’t want to mix with the whites because we were too dirty. And I agree with them. The races don’t belong mixing, for Christ sakes.”

How do you know? People can do whatever the hell they want to!

 “Really. Believe me. Daddy almost got killed when I was in service because I was on my leave and I gave my seat to a black woman on the bus in South Carolina. People wanted to beat me up. But I didn’t care. And my first friend when I joined the military was black. He showed me how to defend myself because I was one of the shortest guys there. But he liked me because I was tough.”

Yeah. Yeah. Heard these stories a million times. You say one thing and do another all the time.

When we get home, Dad fixes my usual snack of Ramen noodles. I devour them, and excuse myself for homework. “That’s fine, Jenny. Go to your room, and do that useless shit they assign you in school.” Exactly what I intend to do, jerk.

 “…What you really ought to be doing is staying down here and watching the news with Daddy to learn some real life lessons here. This goddamn commie country we live in, where our white women are no longer safe.”

But I have homework! And I have to be a straight-A student, right? Besides I’ve heard enough of your racism for one day.

 As I trudge upstairs, the cream and tan pattern in the rug makes creates a hypnotic mood to drown out Dad’s curses at the T.V. What if the whole world knew what a bastard he is? What if they really, did? Would everyone think you were just his evil daughter?

1994: Hail Mary!

You should be in bed. It’s a fucking school night. How are you supposed to get A’s and be his personal slave?

Instead I kneel on the edge of Dad’s bed while squeezing his back and feet, vigorously. I know what he likes by now; he taught me since I was six years old. “Jenny, you have to squeeze Daddy’s feet good because I’m Greek. And the Greek’s are the smartest people in the world. They know that the feet control the whole body.”

Whatever! Just drop off already. Before my fingers fall off.

I detect the faintest snore. Good. Almost worn out.

 But Dad snorts, jolting himself awake. “Jenny, go get a pen and paper. Then come back and sit on the edge of my bed.”

When I return, he reminds me of his pain. “You know your Father doesn’t like to complain about pain, but when that bastard Doctor took my Darvon away last week, that was real pain. I asked God, why? Why would he put your Father through that? Why did he charge me with raising you alone?” Apparently you won’t be sleeping tonight.

 “But God told your Father not to worry and that he wants me to send the pope the right version of the Hail Mary prayer. The one we say in church, it’s all wrong.” Oh Dear God. Why have you forsaken me?

You can send random stuff to the Pope? Hi Your Eminence, I’m a lunatic. Also, here’s my superior version of the prayer that Jesus Christ probably recited to the disciples. See, I knew you would like mine better.

 He dictates while I write quickly. “Your Eminence, Your Holy Grace, my name is Jenny and I attend St. Mary’s Catholic School. I wrote another version of the Hail Mary prayer…”

He pauses, “You got all that so far, Jenny?” No! No! No! This is your shit. Why is my name on it?

“Yes.”

“Good. Now…Holy Mother of God…who gave us…” My hands continue to write but I block out his words.

The next day, Dad drops the letter off at the post office. Nothing will ever come of that.

A few weeks later, a letter from the Vatican arrives in the mail. “Dear Jenny, thank you for your thoughtful submission. His Eminence appreciates your devotion and consideration.”

What? They must be nuts there too!

 The next morning Dad marches into school with me. He shows the letter to the principal’s assistant.

“Oh, this is lovely. You must be so proud of Jenny, Mr. K.” What a load of crap. He’s so proud of himself.

“Yes, she a good kid. I thought you would want to see it. I mean it must be pretty rare to receive a letter signed by the Pope, right?”

“Yes, of course. In fact, if you don’t mind, we should hang it just outside the Great Hall.”

Thank God no one ever looks in that case. But this isn’t the end. You know he’ll be gloating for a long time to come.

1989: Superhero Crush

I nestle into the prickly orangey-brown tweed couch to watch Superman. Too itchy.

 Dad’s snores drift from the bedroom, so I plop down on the floor, instead. Legs crossed into a pretzel. You can hear better this way.

 This next part, I know by heart. Lois sits on her balcony. Superman soars in. Love.

Mesmerized, my eyes follow the sweeping motion of Lois’s sheer white gown in the night breeze. She’s an angel. A smart one. Will you be a pretty reporter when you grow up?

 Except for the smoking part. Because that’s bad for you.

 Superman checks her lungs with his x-ray vision. Pheww she’s okay. He cares about her the way someone is supposed to care about you. When you grow up, you’re going to marry Superman.

 I blink and blush at the love scenes. Hurry. Uncomfortable.

After Superman flies off, I can tell Lois misses him. She’s stuck with Clark, now. No, Lois! Can’t you see that Clark’s the one who really loves you? They’re the same person!

 I love you, Clark, and I promise that I’ll be nice to you someday. If I ever find you.

 The bed creaks as Dad jolts awake. I wipe a single tear that has fallen onto my cheek before he can see it. Close call.

 When the theme song plays at the end, Dad picks me up and holds me high over his head. He flies me around our hotel room. I sweep my arms out wide. Just like Lois Lane.

1997: The Opera

Rap at the door. Don’t open it. Peek through the blinds. As if the Crypt Keeper’s out there. Nope. Just our neighbor, Jim.

 I call upstairs, “Dad! Jim’s knocking. Do you want me to let him in?”

His voice reverberates downstairs. “Yes. Tell him that I’ll be right there.”

After Dad gives me permission, I open the door and greet Jim. He’s a tall man. Dark brown hair and scraggly beard. The densely flecked pockmarks on his cheeks trigger me me to touch my own face. Dad said you get those from having pimples. Does that mean you’ll have them too?

 I inform Jim, “Dad will be right down.”

He laughs mischievously, “Okay.”

“Jim! Hey-a buddy. You want a cup of coffee?”

“Always!” Mischievous grin again.

 “I’ve got some Swedish meatballs, too!”

Amused, Jim says, “Sounds great.” You never get offered Swedish meatballs. Not that you’d want them, but shit.

 While I watch dad load a plate full of sweaty mystery-meatballs, I grab a mug and pour myself a cup of coffee. I don’t have to ask permission anymore, though I see Dad glance in my direction. He nods a little, as if to say, Getting bold are you, now? Okay for today, kid. But don’t let it go to your head.

 “Tom. These meatballs are fantastic!”

“Thanks. The secret is in the spices. And of course not letting them dry out. I always buy a ground 80/20. Just the right amount of fat.”

After Jim finishes sucking another one down, he offers Dad a gig. “Hey Tom, I’ve got a fantastic opportunity for you.” Oh Lord. What now?

 Dad interrupts Jim as he notices his empty mug. “Jim you want a some more coffee?”

“That’d be great.”

“Jenny, go get Jim some fresh coffee, would you honey?” How about you go and get it for him yourself? I thought you didn’t want me retrieving ‘no man’s beer’ someday! Jerk.

I listen carefully to Jim’s scheme as I serve his coffee with a polite smile.

“Well, Tom. They need a baker for the opera festival. The other guy pulled out at the last minute.”

“Oh Jeez, Jim. I don’t know. That’s quite an undertaking. How many days? How many people are we talking here?”

Jim shakes his head, “Nah. There’s plenty of time. It’s this weekend. About five-hundred people.”

Fifteen hundred cookies! For fuck sakes. Jim better be the one staying here and helping him bake.

 Dad glances at his wrist where his watch left a toasted outline, “Jesus. That’s a lot of people. So I’ve got three days to get all the shit and bake fifteen hundred cookies.”

Please say no. For once in your life, please.

 “Ah shit, Jim. Looks like Jenny and I are going to be busy motherfuckers for the next few days.”

Contort hand into gun shape. Point at temple and shoot.

 Jim leaves on a full belly and Dad’s promise.

Meanwhile Dad plots the menu. “Jenny, I’ve got to make my brownies, and my famous chocolate chips. I think I better make the nut and date bars, too. And of course my Greek butter cookies.”

I shrink at the mention of Dad’s butter cookies. The worst. Well no, the baklava is the worst. Because the ‘fucking phyllo dough.’ But four different colored glazes, plus a dark chocolate glaze, plus shredded coconut, plus ground nuts….

 “Hey, Goddamn! What’s wrong with your Father? I almost forgot my award-winning baklava.”

Reeling with rage, I abandon my usual guarded post and stare at him through beady eyes.

“Oh, and I think we’ll make whoopee pies. And snicker doodles too.”

What the fuck is a snicker doodle?

 For the next three days, we mix, we fold, we spread, we layer, we brush, we dip, we cut, and we rinse. Repeat.

During tasks, Dad swears. Sometimes at inanimate objects. Sometimes at me. They blur together.

Can the neighbors hear him through the walls? “Jenny, Jenny, Jenny. Open your fucking eyes. You have to dip those cookies faster. You’re not making out with your boyfriend!” I blush at Dad’s allusion. I don’t have a boyfriend.

 “Jesus, Mother Fucker. I knew this brand of flour wasn’t going to be any good.”

Or maybe you’re no good? Do all bakers swear like this?

Despite Dad’s tantrums, everything turns out perfect.

“Jenny, come here. I want to show you your Father’s secret.”

You know that I know this already, right? Since about 1988. But please, continue on…

“See, most people, when they make baklava, they water the honey way down. No! Cheap bastards. The real secret is half honey to water. That way it’s thick.”

Dad demonstrates the magic as he brushes the honey mixture on top of the painfully constructed baklava.

“Daddy’s got all this in his special recipe book. You know, the grey one that was my father’s. And you’re going to get all that after Daddy’s dead. It will make you rich one day.”

While he brushes another layer on for good measure, I try to imagine not hearing Dad’s voice one day. Yeah, right.

 Even though we’re done baking, loading the car and setting up prove to be just as daunting.

At intermission, our first customer approaches.

He points, “What are those cookies, there?”

Before I can answer, Dad interjects, “They’re snicker doodles. Excellent choice. Very delicious.”

Instead of ordering the man stands quizzically for a moment. “I’m sorry, but those aren’t snicker doodles.”

“What do you mean, they’re not snicker doodles? I’m a world-class chef and baker. I ought to know what a snicker doodle is!”

“Well, sir, I’m sorry, but my grandmother and I used to make snicker doodles when I was growing up. And these are most certainly not those.”

One day, when you’re gone, you’ll never be weird again. Snicker doodles will always be snicker doodles.

 But Dad pushes back. “Sir, I’ll make you a deal: if you buy one of my snicker doodles and don’t tell me that their the best you’ve ever had in your life, then I’ll refund your money myself.”

The man buys two. I watch his eyes as the first bite melts in his mouth. He grins oddly at my father. “Well, they’re still not snicker doodles, but they are the best cookies I’ve ever eaten in my life.”

Dad grins from ear to ear, nearly forgetting his absent top teeth.

As the customer walks away, I stand motionless with an odd sense of confusion. So should I be something other than a common snicker doodle?

 Stay Weird.