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?

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.

1985: Poor Man’s Steak

 

I spy an angry woman behind us in line at the Grand Union. I turn away as her eyes meet mine.

Dad busily chats with the cashier. “Honey, my name is Tom, but you can call me Uncle Tom.”

Dad wraps his arm around my shoulder; “I know you see me in here every week with my daughter.”

The curly-blonde cashier stares at Dad while she holds his change in her outstretched hand.

“Anyway, I’m a psychic. I’ve wanted to tell you this for two weeks, but I didn’t want to scare you.”

Her eyes widen. We both wait impatiently for Dad’s premonition.

He continues, “It’s about your boyfriend. He’s cheating on you.”

The cashier starts to tear up. Dad tries to comfort her. “Don’t ask me how I know these things, but I just do. Don’t worry, honey. You’ll find someone much better. Mark my words. You’ll be married within a few years, and you’ll have two sons.”

I glance back. The customer behind us walks to another clerk. Hurry up, Dad.

While Dad leaves the clerk, sniffling, we walk toward the double set of automatic doors.Today, he asks me, “Jenny. What’s your favorite number?”

“That’s easy Daddy. It’s three and four.”

“Hey that sounds like a great late double.”

“There’s something else I want to tell you Dad.”

“What is it?”

“Someday, I’m going to own one of those fast bikes I saw on T.V.”

“You mean a motorcycle?”

I nod. Yes a motorcycle.

 Dad makes a vroom vroom sound.

“What a strange child you are. What five year old tells their father they want a motorcycle one day?”

I shrug my shoulders as he pulls our hotel room key from his pocket. The oval key tag is made of orange plastic with a braid around the edge. The golden number, 23 catches my eye even in the dark hallway.Dad doesn’t usually cook, because we only have a kitchenette with what he calls, “a piece of shit stove.”

 But today, Grand Union had his favorite meat on sale.

I watch as Dad heats the pan, vigorously swirling the butter in the bottom. “See Jenny, I want you to pay attention to Poppa. This is the mark of a first class chef. I’m the only human being I know that can sauté chicken livers to taste like filet mignon.”

I’ve never had filet mignon but it must be really gross. Why would anyone want to eat that?

 The liver meat expands as Dad slices through the plastic wrap, cutting the price sticker in half, 49 cents. Eeek! The smell. Don’t breathe. Don’t look.

 “You see this, baby girl? The butter has to brown first like this. Gives the meat a nutty flavor. And the heat has to be very high so you can flash this in the pan so quick. Yummy! Pretty soon you and Poppa are going to have this delicious, first class meal.”

As the livers hit the pan, they sizzle. The steam rising from the pan turns my stomach immediately.

I stab the spongy meat and lift it toward my mouth while holding my breath. Spit it out! Posion! No wait, he will kill you.

“This is why Daddy loves you. Because you eat my delicious chicken livers, and you gobble them up! Daddy’s been feeding you these ever since you were a baby, you know.”

I fit as many pieces in my mouth as I can without swallowing. Then I excuse myself to use the bathroom, promptly spitting them into the toilet. And flush!

It’s better to be hungry tonight than eat these. It’s ok. Tomorrow we’ll be back to pepperoni and soda.

1995: Crazy Cabbie

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eventually usually means never.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1987: Night Terrors

It’s 10:00 pm. I put my Barbie’s to bed for the night, and kneel by my bed to say my prayers.

Dear God,

Please help all the little kids in the world who have less than I do, you know the ones who are starving or really sick—the ones I’ve seen on T.V. Thank you, God, for hearing my prayers each night.

After prayer time, I saunter into the living room on my wooden scooter wearing an oversized green “Luck of the Irish, Guinness” t-shirt.

“Jenny, come sit next to Poppa. You’re just in time. A really good movie is about to start.”

I join him on the basket-weave brown and orange sofa.

The movie is called “A Nightmare on Elm Street”

“Jenny, you’re really going to like this movie. It’s Freddy Cougar. Lots of hacked-up killing and good shit in this movie. Daddy knows you have school in the morning, but our deal is still the same. You stay up as late as you want. So long as you never complain about getting up first thing in the morning. I think that’s a good deal, don’t you?”

I nod, as razor sharp claws emerge on the screen.