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.

 

 

2003: It’s Daddy!

I flip open my cell phone. Jesus. Just the thought of hearing his voice makes me cringe.

 “Jenny. Good, I’m glad you answered right away because it’s important.”

What is it this time? Your brother stole your hot dog sauce recipe again?

 I hold my hand over the speaker as I mouth to my fiancé, “It’s my father.” Of course it’s him. It was him at noon, and three o’ clock, and now at seven sharp.

 I muster an “uh huh.” Pretending to listen. All bullshit.

 “Jenny, Daddy’s had another premonition. God told me more about the people and your Mother…”

I cut him off. “Dad, I told you that I don’t believe in any of that.”

Silence. “So you mean to tell me that you don’t believe in all the things your Father has predicted? Kennedy, the shuttle, your first boyfriend, your fiancé, your mother, AIDS, and all the others you’ve witnessed with your own eyes!”

Actually, I haven’t witnessed shit. “Dad, I told you before. I just don’t want to talk about this stuff anymore.”

He snaps back, “Go ahead. Be a coward. But that game isn’t gonna work when they come for your Father one day. I’ve protected you for as long as I can by being quiet. But I told you after you graduated from college that God gave me a job to do. Soon I will have to get Gabazar’s message out to all the people.”

“Well Dad, I can’t be involved in that!”

“You’re not going to have a choice. None of you are. Not your Mother or my ex or my other kids.”

“I’ve had enough of this conversation.”

“Don’t you dare hang up on me Jenny. I’m your Father. You’re my daughter—my property. And I’ll come down there and knock the sense into you if I have to. Do you hear me?! I’ll fucking kill you.”

I hang up. Fucccckkkkkk Youuuuu!

 I exit the bedroom beat red to find my fiancé sitting on the couch reading a book. I hurl myself to the ground and begin to scream.

I crawl on my belly toward our sliding glass door, which leads to our small balcony. “I can’t take it anymore. If I even have to talk to him one more day…he’s going to kill me. I know that now. I’m going to die before he does because he’s sucking every drop of life from me! I should just kill myself now.”

Shit, I’m only on the second story.

 No one will ever know what you go through with him. You are his property. Chained to him for life. One of us has to end it. Preferably before your next monthly visit with the bastard.

1987: Nail-Biter

“Jenny! Jenny! Jenny! Look at your gorgeous, beautiful nails. Bit to fucking shit. What did Daddy tell you about being a young lady? You need long nails in case you ever have to hurt someone. They are your only protection. You can gouge someone’s eyes right out with long nails. Just look at yours now. Shaking his head in disgust he says, “Never, ever again.”

Why can’t my nails to grow back instantly? Why do I bite them so much? Why am I so nervous? Why can’t I stop?

 “You leave Daddy no choice. Come on. I’m going to buy that poison they put on bad children’s hands. That will stop your ass. Let me tell you, if you bite your nails with that shit on, you’ll know it. Teach you a lesson.”

I beg, “No, please. I promise never to bite them again. Just give me one more chance.”

His eyes grow cold. “You’ve had more goddamn chances than you deserve. Too late! We’re getting the poison. And I better not see any fucking tears!”

I wish I still had my nails to dig in my skin.

We arrive at the pharmacy downtown. He approaches the clerk.

“Ma’am I’m looking for a bitter poison to put on my daughter’s hands.”

The clerk looks back at him, startled. “S—ir, I’m sorry we don’t sell anything like that.”

He shoots me a glare. Now we have to look for the poison somewhere else?

But Dad distracts himself by browsing for a few minutes. I wonder what it would be like if the cashier was your mom? She seems nice.

He grabs some candy bars. Again, bothering the cashier, “You know when I was a kid, these candy bars were only a nickel and they were three times the size.” He holds up his hands to approximate the size of the former candy bars. “You wouldn’t believe how good they were too. They used real chocolate back then.”

As we walk out, the little bell jingles above the door. Oh I hope we don’t keep looking for the poison. I hope he won’t be even angrier that he couldn’t find it. Maybe he will just cut my fingers off.

I smell the mint as Dad chunks into a peppermint patty. Between chews, he tells me, “Looks like you got lucky this time. But it better never happen again. Don’t forget the lessons Daddy is teaching you. Daddy has a reason for everything that I do. I know. I’m a bastard, but someday it will save your life.”

1988: “Takin’ What They’re Givin’”

I wait in line at 2:15 pm near the double doors. Dad always arrives early to pick me up. His car will be first in line, behind the last school bus.

When we get back to the apartment, I will do my homework and then practice riding my wooden scooter. My mother gave it to me. A hand-me-down from my older sister. I’m not afraid of going fast anymore, either.

Instead, Dad says, “Good, you’re out right on time today. Poppa got us a job, starting right now. Remember that rich woman and her husband who own the antique store downtown?”

I nod.

“Yes, well, you know your Father. I always find work somehow. Anyway, her daughter, Jan, owns a giant house, and I guess they need someone to clean for them. The place is probably filthy so Daddy’s going to need your help. I’ll teach you to clean like the drill instructors taught me in the military.”

But, but, wait, I have homework to do. And I’m scared to clean a stranger’s house. What if I do it wrong? Will you hit me like last week when I didn’t know how to fight with a samurai sword?

 After Dad drives a few blocks, I’m lost. “Daddy, where are we?”

He chuckles a little, “Oh, this is where the rich live, my child!”

Jan’s house stands in the middle of a cul-de-sac. How many mansions are there on this one circle-shaped street?

But Jan’s sticks out because it’s pink. A pink castle. If Barbie were real, then she would live here.

 No one is home, but dad already knows how to open the door through the garage. I scan the concrete ground with apprehension and wonder. So this is what a garage looks like inside? It’s bigger than our apartment.

 Once we’re inside, Dad surveys the task. Why are we here by ourselves? Why would these people let strangers in their house? Everything is so pretty. I scan the room noticing, couches, chairs, curtains, rugs, and beds with flowery pillows. How did they get all this stuff? I want to be rich when I am grown up too.

 I hear Dad cursing, “Goddamn, mother fucker. It’s going to be a real bitch to clean this one bathroom alone. This is what the filthy rich do. They don’t appreciate what they have. They let everything go to pot.”

He finishes his tirade with a brag, “Well, I guess that’s why they hired me—because your father is the best! Nothing beats me ever! I can’t wait to see their faces when they see this grime turned to sparkle. Now I just have to find an old toothbrush under the sink.”

Now he turns to me, “Daddy will start on the tiles while you clean the sink.” He shows me how to scrub the sink with the Bon Ami and a cloth. “And don’t forget, you remember where everything is. And put it back exactly as you found it—just like Dad taught you to do at home.”

I shudder while burning the contents of the vanity into my brain. Toothbrush holder on right side, soap dish on left side. After I get the hang of things, I mostly forget about my homework due tomorrow.

Just as we are finishing the kitchen, the owner comes home. She’s very tall. Not like a Barbie, but she has pretty blonde hair and pink skin. Jan and Dad talk while he shows her around. I hear her squeals as he reveals his accomplishments.

I glance at the clock on the stove. 6:00 pm. Oh no! It’s late. I really need to go home and work on my school assignments for tomorrow. Please let them finish talking soon.

But when Dad and Jan return to the kitchen, he has a grin from ear to ear. I know this look means something is happening. “Jenny, Jan just invited Daddy and you to cater dinner here for her and her fiancé tonight. Isn’t that great news?” No. No. We did our job. He said cleaning. Why are we cooking now? He offered! You know he offered!

 Through blood-filled eardrums, I hear Dad mutter something about how, “Jenny is really great in the kitchen helping her pops. I used to own my own catering business before Jenny was born, you know. Just getting started back up. It’s been difficult raising her on my own.”

Jan responds with the usual, “Oh we’re so happy to have found you. This is perfect for us. Someone we can trust to clean our house and cook delicious meals for us. And Jenny is just darling. We would love to keep her here, my fiancé and I.”

While Jan is upstairs, Dad cracks open a beer from the their fridge. “You did good work today, poppa’s little girl. Daddy is teaching you an important lesson. You never turn down work. And I’m glad you helped me today because all of this money that we earn—it’s all to keep you alive. It’s not for Poppa.”

I stare at him blankly. None of my other classmates work. We’re only seven years old.

 He pours a bit of the beer into a small paper cup, and slides it toward me. “Go ahead. Try some.”

Now I look more confused. Isn’t that for adults?

 He nudges me, “Oh don’t worry. That little bit won’t hurt you. Daddy would never do anything to hurt you.”

The first sip is sour. Ugh gross. Why would people drink this? But the second one is better. I secretly wish he would pour just a little more in the cup.

On cue, he does. “Jesus, Dad just realized that you haven’t eaten anything all day! That’s my girl. You never complain.”

We snack on a few things as Dad whips up a gourmet dinner. He gives me my usual task of chopping lettuce with the big butcher knife.

Later, while Jan and Rob enjoy dinner, and dad enjoys their compliments, I’m permitted to watch T.V. on their couch.

I flip through the channels until a catchy tune takes my breath away. “There’s something strange in the neighborhood…Who you gonna call—Ghostbusters!” I glue myself to the screen until Dad says it’s time to go home. I’m thankful Jan takes an extra five minutes to write Dad’s check so that I don’t miss the last scene.

I love the Ghostbusters. And I love this house. And I love Jan. I want to live here with her and Rob. She said I could!

1998: A Missing Report

“Jenny, shouldn’t I have gotten your report card in the mail by now?”

I give him a worried look. Shit! What are you going to do? I play dumb, shrugging my shoulders, “I don’t know?”

He walks to the calendar, “Yeah, I always get one in the mail by now. Maybe I better call the school first thing tomorrow morning.”

Jesus, keep it together now. I stammer nervously, “That’s okay, Dad. I will ask them tomorrow about our report cards. They haven’t mentioned anything to us.”

He shoots me the skeptical look of a special ops agent, but doesn’t say a word. Phewww. He’s going to buy it. For now!

 “Alright, then. You just let me know tomorrow when you come home.”

Holy crap! That was close. So tomorrow is Friday. That buys you the weekend. And then you can come up with something.

 I compose myself long enough to excuse myself for homework time. I shut my bedroom door quietly, and proceed to unzip my backpack.

I look over my shoulder one last time to make sure Dad didn’t let himself in while I was pondering my last 48 hours on earth. All clear.

I remove my physics book, and two notebooks. There it is!

After several days hiding at the bottom of my bag, it’s all crumpled. I look over my shoulder again. You can’t be too safe. Life or death.

I breathe in with an audible gasp at the apparition in my doorway. Instantly, my face grows hot red. Oh. No. There he is. Please don’t let him come any closer.

“Jenny, Daddy just came up to see if you wanted a snack. You didn’t eat anything after you came home tonight. You’re thin enough. Like Daddy always tells everyone, ‘Gandhi ate more than you.’”

Motherfucker. That was close. Out of sorts, I say, “uh, no. I’m okay. I just need to do some physics homework for tomorrow.”

I point toward the book on the floor. Please let him be convinced.

“Oh okay, well Daddy was just checking on you. Don’t forget to ask about your report card tomorrow. So strange that it didn’t come this week!”

After he leaves. I sit in a heap on the floor. I look behind me at the window and consider jumping. It’s only two stories, you idiot!

 After several minutes, I reach in the bag for my report card and open it up. This time I shield it behind my notebook incase Dad walks in again.

A, A, A-, C, A. You’re fucked. I look back at the window again, wistfully.

 

 

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